I Ran 45 Miles In the African Serengeti Surrounded By Wildlife and Armed Guards
When I told people I was going to Africa to run a 56-mile, multi-day race in the Serengeti accompanied by the natural wildlife like lions, buffalo, and giraffes, the response was mostly, "That's badass." When I added that I had less than two months to train–and the longest I'd ever run was 10 miles–their reactions quickly changed to "You're crazy."
And, to be honest, both of the reactions were correct.
I'm a self-proclaimed ball of energy, and a lot of that comes from the passion I bring to everything in my life. That excitement, though, means I don't always think through the logistics of something before diving in head first.
So when the opportunity came to go glamping in Africa for a week at the five-star Singita Explore camp for the first all-women, multi-day race across the Serengeti plains to raise money for women's empowerment programs in the surrounding villages, my heart said, "Hell yeah!" and my brain said, "We'll figure it out".
What I did know about the adventure solidified that I made the right gut decision. The race was created by India Baird, founder of BRAVE, a non-profit that connects women across Africa to develop leadership skills. Baird is no stranger to running endurance races or putting on multi-day events, either. She's completed more than 20 ultra marathons (races that are 50K or longer). She's also organized runs to raise funds for causes close to her heart, including the BRAVE 34K run from Khayelitsha to Cape Town that raised awareness about safety concerns for local girls, and the seven-day Table Mountain Challenge trail run to support Miles for Smiles. It was after a recent trip to one of the Singita camp properties that she decided to create the Serengeti Girls Run. (Related: This Woman Climbed the Seven Summits and Is Using Her Platform to Empower Young Girls)
The 3-day race would take place in Singita Grumeti, a conservation near the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Runners, including myself, would have the option to run 10k or 30k a day, which would total 30k (18.6 miles) or 90k (56 miles) at the end of the three days. I instantly knew I had to do the 56 miles. I consider myself an athlete and accordingly don't shy away from logging hard work at the gym. I was determined to put my fitness to the ultimate test. To participate, each runner was asked to raise $15,000 toward the Grumeti Fund, which benefits empowerment programs for the women in the local villages as well as supports conservation efforts to keep animals and the surrounding land safe. Luckily, runners would have the chance to stay at the luxurious Singita Explore, which meant I could rest easy after those grueling miles in the African heat.
Training for the Run of a Lifetime
Mentally, I knew I could do it. Physically, I knew I needed guidance from experts to pull this off. I'm a fast-paced training type of girl who opts for HIIT-style workouts or strength training. I love boxing and lifting heavy, but find traditional cardio workouts like spinning or running to be boring and exhausting. I attribute this partly to the fact that I've *never* been good at pacing myself-not in workouts or watching Netflix–it's always go go go. With that in mind, I enlisted an A-list team of professionals at the Hospital for Special Surgery to help me get Serengeti-ready. First, Polly de Mille, C.S.C.S., R.D., the director of sports performance put me through a VO2 max test and gait analysis to evaluate my form and breathing technique. (Related: How to Breathe While Running)
Next Pamela Geisel, M.S., C.S.C.S., certified trainer and exercise physiologist put together a 7.5-week training program based on my test results. It included boxing (non-negotiable for me), cycling (non-negotiable for her to ensure I got sufficient prolonged cardio training in), strength training, and tempo runs. Geisel said the most important thing was getting me on my feet as much as possible. "A typical marathon training program is 16-20 weeks long with a solid running base," she told me. I was acutely aware that I had less than eight weeks to get my body ready for a distance that was more than double of a full marathon. In addition to my rigorous workout schedule, Geisel gave me step goals to reach-first 14,000, then 16,000, and finally 30,000 steps a day. "The key isn't speed, but endurance," she said. (Related: 11 Ways to Sneak In More Steps)
Admittedly, it was really tough to hit them as they got bigger and bigger-30,000 steps is A LOT during a work day. I eventually developed hacks to get more steps in such as "walking meetings" with my co-workers and skipping the subway during my commute. Each week I sent screenshots of my health app to Geisel along with notes on how I was feeling and why I did or didn't hit my step goal. That accountability was great to key to keeping my motivation high when I had a particularly busy week.
After logging hours in the gym, on the road, and on my feet, the time had arrived. I grabbed my backpack and my duffle bag (yep, I packed for a two-week active vacation without checking a bag), and I was off to Africa. (Related: These Books by Badass Women Will Inspire Your Next Adventure)
Landing In Africa
After 20+ hours of plane rides and one sleepless night in Dar Salaam, I finally made it to Africa and met my running buddies. These women collectively have run thousands (!) more races than me. Before this, the only races under my running belt–actually I didn't even have a running belt because I was such a rookie–were a 5K Turkey Trot and a local "graffiti tour" 10K. The runners included a c-suite level executive who ran four Ironmans that year (among other distance races), a world record-breaker in the 5K, 15K, and half marathon, a non-profit owner with an affinity for ultra-trail running with three races in five countries already checked off that year, and a faculty advisor at Dartmouth College's School of Business who also competes in ultras when she's not crushing it in endurance horseback riding events. Oh, and did I mention they had all traveled to Africa at least once before? These women truly embodied what it meant to run the world-in fitness and in life. And then there was me. The rookie of the group. Everyone was sharing stories about safaris and favorite pre-race rituals while I was wondering if my body could really do this.
The day before the race we had a 3K shake-out run with hundreds of women from the nearby villages. I was excited to meet the women who would be directly impacted by the funds we were raising. We sang and danced as we ran through the unpaved roads as goats bleated and children cheered. Even though I didn't speak the local language, I felt connected to the Tanzanian women. We communicated through energy, smiles, and those familiar glances that say, "Want to walk for a bit?" At one point one of the girls turned to me and said "Hawa ni dada zangu," which loosely translates to "We are sisters." [Cut to my ugly cry.] At that moment I realized this wasn't a competition or even a race, but rather a celebration of incredible women coming together to support one another. (Related: Adventure-Travel Destinations Perfect for Your Next Girls' Trip)
Race Day 1
I woke up ready to run and reminded myself that I needed to maintain a steady pace. Due to safety concerns of the wildlife, the whole lady gang ran the first 10k together before we broke out in different pace groups. Just days ago we were nine strangers from all over the world and now we were galloping through the Serengeti as a herd. I ran alongside Rhonda Vetere, the c-suite badass. Vetere has run more than 60 race distances-triathalons, Ironman, marathons, half-marathons (including the SHAPE Half) over a seven-year period. She was an awesome running buddy, who made sure I stuck to my pace, remained hydrated, and above all, enjoyed the run. We had a great time chatting, laughing and taking photos with the armed Special Ops team who kept us safe.
We ran on wet and dry mud, loose rock, tall grass, and lots-and I mean lots-of animal feces. Even though it was important to look down to avoid tripping on the uneven surface I couldn't help but be carried away by the sweeping views. I was always just a few hundred yards away from elephants, buffalo, giraffes, and zebra. It was like nothing I've seen before. The first 10k flew by, and throughout the last 20K all I could remember was trying to hold on to every moment. At the end of the first 30K, I couldn't stop smiling. I just finished the longest distance I'd ever run. (Related: Why Taking Your Meditation Outdoors Might Be the Answer to Total-Body Zen)
Race Day 2
I woke up in a cold sweat. I was pale and couldn't keep anything down. Regardless, I was determined to give the second run a shot. We had to hop in the Jeep a few kilometers into the run because we were too close to a herd of male elephants. Once the coast was clear, I kept pace with Michelle Koen, a lovely South African woman who was getting over an ill-timed injury from a recent trail run. We jogged, chatted, and vowed to listen to our bodies the rest of the race.
Once we hit the water station, Michelle decided to end her journey while I ran 5 more slow-but-steady kilometers. After 15k I decided to save my energy for the last day. The medic on staff said I hadn't shown signs of dehydration, but due to the change in altitude, jet lag, and the fact I had just run 27 miles my body (and mind!) may have been in shock. I spent the rest of the day sipping delicious bone broth to replenish my electrolytes and went to bed early.
Race Day 3
The next morning I felt great physically; mentally, was another story. I felt like I let myself, my coaches at home, and my new friend and running buddy, Rhonda, all down by not finishing the full 30k yesterday. I remember wanting to cry angry tears in the first leg of the race, but nothing came. Suddenly, we were signaled to get into the vehicles: We were feet away from a pride of 10 lions. *Gulp.* Once a safe distance away, we resumed running. Despite the unanticipated quick break, my legs were suddenly shot. When I got to the water table at the 10k mark, I began desperately rolling out my legs with a recover stick, but also asked a pro for help.
I immediately grabbed Olympian Elana Meyer, 52, who was along for the trip. Meyer has run more than 750 races (from 400-meter sprints to full marathons), was the world champion in the half marathon in 1994, and was absolutely crushing this run, finishing way before everyone else the past two days. (The armed guards who were running alongside her had to swap out several times to keep up with her, and at one point she asked them half-joking, "Are you even looking out for the animals?"). I asked Meyer why my calves were killing me so early on and without hesitation, she said I was leaning too far forward. "Running is a full-body sport," she reminded me. "You need to relax your body, pull your shoulders back, and squeeze your glutes-be a proud runner." (Related: How to Determine Your Running Gait-and Why It Matters)
And with *that* my calf pain was gone. The next 20k were the easiest of the entire three days (or maybe I just finally hit that magic runner's high). The last 500 meters were all uphill (of course). Each step I took I thought of how far I've come and how much my body had endured. I caught up with Rhonda the last day and we finished together just like we started-smiling and laughing and soaking in the moment. I could hear the cheers of my fellow runners, friends from the campsite, and locals cheering us on. Once we got to the top and crossed the finish line in the middle of the Serengeti, we all hugged as one pack of fierce, empowered, sweaty women….and of course, I ugly cried.
That night we gathered by the campfire and instead of getting medals, each runner was awarded a beaded necklace made from one of the local women and a song that spoke to that woman's journey. Katherine Cunliffe and Beverly Burden, who were two of the woman responsible for organizing the logistics of the race gave out the honors. When it was my turn they played Kanye West's "Stronger" for my relentless willpower to finish.
I was so touched to be recognized by these women, but I'd be lying to you if I said I felt as proud of myself as they were of me. Even after finishing the longest distance I've ever done, in a place so foreign to me no less, I was disappointed with my performance. I imagined it going so differently: running the full 30K every day, finding and maintaining my pace, and proving to everyone that although it was a lofty goal, I was a runner and I could do it.
Once I returned home and people asked me how it was-already knowing most of it due to the endless Instagram Stories and pictures I posted-I struggled to find the words. What I saw and did was life-altering for not just me, but for the women this race affected and yet, I still felt that I failed somehow due to my setback on the second day. I hadn't run the race I had planned and trained for.
Back in the office, I confided my feelings to a fellow Shape staffer and avid runner who just completed back-to-back marathons. She admitted that her marathons didn't go as planned either, and she was upset about it, too. She talked about how races never go as planned, and why it's important to just live in the moment. After listening to her, I realized I did exactly that. I remember each step that I took on the path, every animal we encountered, and every sound of the Serengeti. Once I accepted that it was about the memories and not the miles, everything changed.
My passion for making the most out of life is what got me to sign up for this wild run, but the immense amount of support I received not only from the women on this trip but everyone who believed in me enough to help me get there is what pushed me to the finish line. It's because of them that I crushed my first multi-day race. Looking back on this experience the one thing I keep thinking of is how even though I initially felt like the runt of the litter among such accomplished athletes and businesswomen, I proved to myself that I could hang with the pros and that what I accomplished was anything but a failure. These women supported me and we supported the women in the commmunity. As the young girl I met on the shake-out run said to me: "We are sisters."