Running The Nairobi City Marathon: A Review

published by Bren

Last updated: December 7, 2023

When I landed in Nairobi, I had been tentatively training for Ironman 70.3 in Vietnam.

However, since I’m indecisive and bad at planning, and also was going through some personal shit, I took my sweet time getting organised and missed the deadline to register.

That opened up my calendar to head to Nairobi, where I was due to catch up with some friends anyway.

Arriving in Nairobi was like returning to a second home, but had changed a little since I left it five years ago.

Traffic still bad, air still smoggy, but they did have a brand new highway, and the city seemed “younger” than it was since I last visited.

Java coffee shops were now full of young Kenyan students, when it once had been mostly Kenyan businessmen.

The malls and restaurants were full of students with iPhones, when they once had been mostly moms and foreigners.

Clearly, Nairobi was growing up.

When I found out the Nairobi City Marathon was in May, it lined up perfectly to be my first race of the season.

I wasn’t in the best running shape, but the plan was to only run the half-marathon. Running a full marathon is a beast, but I was confident to do the half on short notice.

However, when I started training, I quickly learned the first problem I would have in Nairobi – the city is not very runnable.

In contrast to some of the cities in, say, Australia or even Thailand, sidewalks in Nairobi are generally crowded with pedestrians and street stalls, not in great condition, and it’s hard to find a smooth running route that’s not interrupted by traffic jams.

Not to mention, not all areas of the city are safe.

Strategically, I booked myself into an apartment right near the Arboretum – a small natural park near the Westlands area.

The Arboretum turned out to be my nemesis. It is not flat at all – it’s a 1.2km loop that goes up and down rather steeply, and if you want to go running off the main path and into the trails among the trees, the route grows to about 2.4km with even more ups and downs.

However, since there was nowhere else for me to run that became my training spot.

Very quickly the boys at the ticketing office got to know me as the “guy who runs forever” and greeted me warmly each day.

As I landed in Nairobi on 25 April, and race day was 21 May, I didn’t have long to train. It was all systems go.

I knew I had to knock out some solid 10km runs and at least one 20km run before race day.

My first run was 10.3km, in the pouring rain, and while I didn’t push the pace, I felt strong.

With some luck, maybe I could even PB this half marathon.

Then things changed.

The book I was reading at the time was “Never Finished” – the second memoir by David Goggins.

If you know anything about David Goggins, you know he has the ability to make you look in the mirror with brutal honesty.

I was sitting in a cafe, eating tacos and a mocktail, waiting for a friend, as I read this passage:

It hit me in the face like a baseball bat.

Had I gotten I soft? Did I only challenge myself when it fit into my schedule now? A “part time savage”?

I knew deep down I was running the half-marathon, not because I couldn’t run the full marathon, but because it would hurt too much, and I would need to train more.

Marathons require you to suffer, and suffering is never fun.

So why bother?

The soft life is the good life.

But I read that passage three times over, and I knew he was speaking directly to me.

And then:

I wasn’t eating bacon and eggs though.

I was eating tacos and mojitos – even worse!

I remember putting the book down and smiling.

And then saying … “Gat freaking dangit gaaaaah!”

The Nairobi City Marathon is a full marathon event – so why was I signing up for the half?

Be honest.

Right then I was forced to admit it – I’d gone soft.

How can I be the Iron Skin guy – the always push yourself to your limits guy – the get yourself out of your comfort zone guy – and then run the half marathon?

So it was decided. I pulled out my phone and updated my registration to the full.

Then I went home to train.

I felt the mindset shift immediately.

As soon as I got back to my apartment I was full of energy (anxiety) and drew up a training plan.

It had been three years since I’d run a marathon.

The full marathon is a different beast – while most runners can probably show up to a half marathon without training and still finish, the full marathon (at least for me) is straight murder if you’re not prepared for it.

At this point, we were about four weeks out, and the final two weeks is mostly rest and tapering.

So in the next two weeks I would need some serious mileage. At least one 20km run. At least one 25km run. And a bunch of fast 10km runs. Probably cross-training with some long bike rides in between.

Thanks, Goggins. For ruining the next four weeks of my vacation!

About 14 days out, I did my final “long run”.

It was a 24km killer through the Arboretum, on a Saturday.

People watched me going round and round – families, church groups, elderly couples on their afternoon stroll, young couples promenading – all staring at this strange Chinese boy running around in circles for three hours looking like he was about to die.

Every time I passed the ticketing office, the boys grinned and waved at me, shaking their heads.

Even I wasn’t sure if I’d make it.

It had been years since I’d run that distance, but knowing that I still had it in me, and my legs weren’t too beat up by the end of it, filled me with confidence.

Maybe I will survive this one after all, I thought.

And even if you don’t – who cares? You tried. That’s the whole point.

And then, a week out from the race, another twist.

The friend I had been eating tacos with, the one who I started complaining to about all the training I would suddenly need to start doing, texted me one evening.

It was an article in the Kenyan news.

Nairobi City Marathon postponed until 10 July.

Of course, I knew it had to be a prank, or a mistake.

I checked my email – no news.

I checked my phone – no news.

Surely, the race isn’t being postponed one week from race day!

And even if it were, it would be due to some emergency and surely they would be alerting us in all ways possible … but nothing.

Then I finally checked their Instagram page, and it was true. They were postponing the race.

The comments were hilarious. Athletes from all over the world had arranged visas, booked accommodation, many had already landed in the country and were prepping for race day, and with no notice they were cancelling the race, one week out.

I just wanted to tell them all, I’m sorry you’re surprised but, cancelling such a big event and ruining all your plans with no explanation, no refund, not even an email – this is the most Kenyan thing ever that it’s almost funny.

So yes, as someone who has spent a bit of time in Kenya, I was surprised, but I wasn’t really surprised.

I was just happy my friend had texted me, otherwise I wouldn’t have even known, and probably still would have shown up on May 10 (they never did end up sending out any email or phone notification, we were just expected to see it on the news apparently, LOL. I love Kenya).

So now – what to do?

I had already done my long training runs, had started tapering, and was mentally in the zone to race.

Now that the new race date was eight weeks away, I almost could do a full training camp.

But the thing about the marathon is – it’s a mental exercise as much as a physical one.

My mind had been primed to race on May 10, I’d already begun the battle in my head.

Now that I was being forced to slowly build up my training again, try and peak again two weeks before the race, then taper down all over again – I didn’t have it in me. Even Goggins couldn’t change my mind this time.

I decided I would do this:

I would stay in shape, and I would still race the full marathon, but I wasn’t going to make it my life for the next eight weeks.

Instead, I was going to enjoy my Nairobi holiday!

So for the next eight weeks I logged about 150km on the road, spent several hours down at Psycle Kenya doing spin classes (cool place!), but spent even more time catching up with friends, trying new cafes, playing badminton, reading, eating more tacos, and simply enjoying the soft life I’d sworn off just a few weeks earlier.

When race day arrived, I wasn’t expecting much from myself, other than to finish and to give it my best.

To give them some credit, even though pre-race they were easily the worst organisers of any race I’ve ever been in, they had things pretty dialled in on race-day and things went smoothly.

I showed up at the starting point at Nyayo Stadium about thirty minutes before the gun time, and had no choice but to trust my valuables with the bag-check. If they can’t even run a race properly, can they do they do a bag-check properly? Thankfully – everything was fine there.

I hadn’t thought too much about my race-day nutrition, but I had a belt full of gels and salts, and hoped it would get me through.

Somehow, I was late to the start line after waiting for the toilets, and managed to start the race just before they closed the line off.

The course starts on one of the highway off-ramps, and for almost the entire course you are running on the Expressway.

This means wide and nicely paved (closed) roads, and every kilometre is clearly marked.

I knocked out the first 10km comfortably, and the weather wasn’t too hot or windy.

Since I was one of the last to start, I spent most of the first 10km passing the tail-enders, which is always a confidence boost.

The aid stations were great and had fresh bottles of water (always easier to drink from than cups) with many volunteers.

Every aid station I knocked down salt pills with my water, hoping it would keep any cramps at bay.

From 10km to 20km I probably did my best running of the race.

At least I thought I was running well, until the half marathon leaders boosted past us and OH MY GOODNESS THESE ARE KENYANS FAST. Like a pack of gazelles galloping past you, leaping with perfect form and long legs with impossibly lean calf muscles and bodies with zero fat on them.

I hit the 21km mark at exactly two hours, which was at or maybe slightly better than I expected on the training I had done.

I also felt my legs still had a good amount of gas left in them. My marathon PB is 4:08, and I wasn’t expecting to beat that, but I guessed I might not be far off.

The good thing about the Nairobi City Marathon is the course is mostly flat. There’s some elevation, but nothing for any extended distance or that will make the race miserable. If you’re looking for a course to PB, this isn’t a bad choice.

Then at almost 32km exactly, things got heavy.

I cramped badly in my groin and even after downing every bit of salt and gel I had in my pocket, it didn’t get better.

My pace dropped instantly from about 5:30/km to 7:30/km and I started death marching.

Many people I had passed earlier in the race caught up to me and floated past.

That didn’t matter to me, at least not in the moment.

All I cared about was getting the f*ck off the course so I could sit down and weep in silence.

Running with a cramp is doable for 3km, maybe even 5km, but 10km?

Never been there before. So I guessed we were about to find out.

Answer: Yes it’s possible, but holy crap is it miserable and you will hate your life.

For the last two kilometres, we merged with the “fun run” crowd, which I think was the 5km event. Most people weren’t even running, it was just a huge march of people singing, dancing, listening to music, selfies and groups of friends generally having a good time.

Since I was pretty much at a walking pace, I blended in and got to suffer in disguise while I hobbled to the finish line.

I finished my final kilometre at a pace of 7:35.

The finish line is also in Nyayo Stadium, where we began, and it’s a big party.

I hobbled across, collected my medal and basked in the pain and glory.

While I sat in the stands afterwards, trying to come back to planet Earth, watching the crowds of people singing and dancing in front of the stage, holding my medal, it took me a moment to realise it, but I was damn proud of myself.

I thought back to why I started running – that period of my life where I wasn’t sure if I’d make it out alive, where I was forced to be strong, where I found running, and running was all I had.

Back then a marathon was a distant impossibility, and now I’d just completed my fifth one, far from home, with no coach, no team, no training plan.

Just my spirit and me, taking on the impossible.

Even if the race wasn’t perfect, I realised it was never supposed to be.

Like Goggins said, things like this just remind you who you are, where you came from, and what you’re capable of.

I was grateful to Goggins for reminding me what got me here, and pushing me to keep striving to be better.

They say on the marathon course, you will always find a new part of yourself you never knew existed.

And it was true again. After 42km, I was blessed with a new piece of me I discovered in Nairobi.

Heading to Nairobi and need a place to stay? Check out my city guide.

Loved this? Spread the word

You might also like:

Share your thoughts!

Your email address will not be published. 

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}


My newsletter includes exclusive stories, updates, giveaways and more. 100% free. 

Zero spam. Unsubscribe anytime.