The Uganda International Marathon, also known as the Uganda Marathon, is, indeed, and like its apt slogan reads, a race like no other. In its information pack, released on its website, ugandamarathon.com, in January, 2016, it is described as an event, a race, and an adventure. That is what it really is.
The Uganda Marathon was created in 2014 by a group of Ugandans and Londoners in order to bring people from all over the world to a beautiful corner of rural Uganda, to spend a week with the local community, to get to know them, their dreams, challenges and really immersing in another way of life.
In its first edition, in 2015, it welcomed international participants from under 20 to over 70 years of age who took part in the event. People came from 6 continents. The fastest time was recorded by a Ugandan National Team runner, and the slowest by a former bartender from Plymouth. Over 50% of 2015’s runners had never run a marathon before, and chose their first to be on the Equator.
The Uganda Marathon is not only a race, but a seven (7) days immersive cultural adventure on the Equator. It brings people from around the world to work with local projects, stage a sports day and a football tournament, take part in celebration of Ugandan culture, a festival, a party, performance, music, art, and, at the end of it all, a 10KM, half or full marathon. Well, as most locals would appreciate, that is savoured by people who give meaning to the word international.
The real winners!
However, it is worth noting, that even when the international runners – at least 150 of them for 2016 – are very important, for their generous contributions, sourced from their families and friends back home, and amounting to “over USD 100,000 or maybe more”, and utilised to support at least 16 different projects in Masaka, the locals are not negligible.
Some of the projects the generous contributions made by the visiting runners have helped revive include some of the following;
Women’s Soroptimist Masaka, which supports vulnerable women in Masaka communities; Bugabira Primary School, which provides quality, affordable education that gives kids a boost in life that would otherwise be completely unreachable; STEP Masaka Project, which supports elderly persons; Youth With A Vision, which supports youth and advocates for rights of disadvantaged young people; Action For Integrated Community Development, which supports communities with disabilities and other vulnerable children; Suubi Centre, which empowers Lubada Community and neighbouring communities with skills for development; Masaka Vocational Rehabilitation Centre, which aims to assist mentally and physically handicapped youths to learn vocation skills for self-support; Knowledge For Children, which operates to invest in quality education for children in rural areas; and Masaka School For Special Needs Education, which supports all kinds of disabled students by, first, teaching them how to communicate.
The joy illustrated by the children the faces of some of the children and locals who made galleries along the route used could be interpreted as testament to the efforts of the Uganda Marathon.
The choice of Masaka.
A Marathon can be organised anywhere. The choice of Masaka is, definitely, meant to keep in touch and/or connect with the projects, and to bring back to life and remind us of a town that seems to have been forgotten.
Masaka is an immensely beautiful town, one that I had, unfortunately, underestimated. It is representative of all the wonderful things that make Uganda the beautiful country that it is. The town is well planned, the people are as warm as we had experienced while discovering the town the evening before the race. Some of them may not have been actively engaged in the participation, but they, by standing on their verandas and along the route, supportive of those who were. The food is affordable and in abundance. The traffic is fluid. The town is organised and clean.
There were steep hills…
…, and captivating views.
Having the above as a good foundation and a plethora of volunteers – from the Uganda Police, Exile Medics, and the Red Cross – at the places that we needed them to be, it was much better for us to participate without much to worry about.
Whether on the tarmac on the town centre, or on the dirt road, or on roads small enough to be footpaths running through schools, people’s homesteads and trading centres or the major roads cutting through the town, Masaka is a wonderful place to run in for all marathon distances. I have, for one, decided to do my first 42KM there.
Running by the Camp Ndegeya roundabout.
Before the race.
When the visitors are not engaged in activities including rafting on the River Nile, trekking gorillas in Bwindi, going on a safari in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, a relaxing afternoon on Lake Nabugabo, or a cultural performance at their athletes village in Camp Ndegeya – like they did on Friday, June 3 – they are connecting with the projects that their money is going to – like they did on Wednesday, June 1 – or taking part in a sports day event with the children from the various communities that they are supporting.
Those are some of the activities that both the visitors and locals engage in before at least 2000 of them – an impressive figure as the 2016 edition is only the second edition – join in from Masaka itself and from as far as Jinja where news of the Marathon has reached. Personally, I had heard of it, and for the very first time, on the day that I did the Kigali International Marathon, just a fortnight ago.
My excitement was intense. I took it upon myself to inform all my fellow marathon tourists and marathon maniacs, some of whom I travelled with for this year’s edition. The runners are led by a chief runner, or rather a patron, the cheerful and likeable Prince Wasajja, a Prince in the mighty Buganda Kingdom, one where Masaka falls. I have been delighted to note his face in Marathons that he most definitely does not know we have taken part in together in Kampala and Nairobi.
Everything about this particular race was impressive. The information, when we stumbled upon it, was detailed and easy to interpret. When we found their functioning contacts, they responded positively and directed us well. When we arrived in Masaka, and found their offices, we were welcomed and well attended to.
The registration process, which we did in the Uganda Marathon office in Masaka town, was not in any way complex, but the attendants made sure that we were catered to. They did more by recommending places of residence and directing us to the starting point which was at the Liberation Square, and introducing us to other equally warm, receptive officers.
The race kit, which includes a head sock made by one of the projects supported by the Uganda Marathon.
Some of the pairs donated by the international runners to enable the locals participate in the Uganda Marathon.
After registration, we were furnished with a race shirt, a race number, and a map of the route. While in the shop, we also bought some of the merchandise as made by the beneficiaries of the projects supported by the Uganda Marathon. Contended, we found residence in a hotel next to the starting point, checked in and went on a discovery of the town, and a grasshopper munching evening, especially for the uninitiated. Our excitement was reciprocated by a deserved expectation of us.
The race was a well organised and coordinated one. Well organised, for emphasis’ sake. As we had been told, that the organisers are Britons who are very English about their time, we started, and just like we should have, at the scheduled time of 7AM, with the 42KM and 21KM races, and at 8AM for our 10KM colleagues.
Liberation Square: The starting and finishing point.
The route started at Liberation Square, in the Kizungu area of Masaka town, took us past Katwe Hospital, through Ssaza, via Camp Ndegeya, Pine Ridge and ended up at the same Square. There were steep hills, some of up to 1327 meters above sea level, plateaus with enviable views, and deep valleys. The views we enjoyed while we ran were incomparable to many anywhere.
By the time that you are done with experiencing a town on the Equator, with investing hours of solid effort – one dusty foot after another, to round the home stretch, to get closer to the finish line, to muster up one last monumental effort, with going through wild, smiling and laughing crowds, crowds that do not get tired of cheering you on, with making new friends, and more, you are satisfied with not only the enriching experience of travelling from across the world to participate in the Uganda International Marathon, but acceptance of the truth in the fact that running in East Africa is like playing football at Wembley, cricket at Lords, or Quidditch at Hogwarts.
The Uganda Marathon was held on the Equator. It was right that we head there thereafter.
The Earth’s Equator.
The finishing smile.