Look up at the mountain, I have to climb, oh yeah
Ever since my first trip to Kenya in 2011 I’ve wanted to tackle the infamous Fluorspar training route. It’s called Fluorspar because there is a fluorspar mine at the bottom of the road. The route goes up for 20.4km, climbing from 1367m to 2741m in elevation ending in Nyaru, the smallest of villages.
Fluorspar is about a 2 hour drive from Iten so it’s a bit of trek to go there for a single run. However there are athletes making this trip from Iten quite regularly.
Gilbert Kirwa (2:06 runner and 2nd place at 2015 STWM) and Silas Kipruto (sub 60 half) told me a couple of weeks ago they were making the trip pretty soon. I told them I wanted to come for sure. They would meet at the petrol station at 3:30am the following Saturday. As I confirmed closer to the day they changed the meeting time to 4:20am. 4:20 didn’t sound so bad compared to 3:30.
John Mason and I set out from camp at 4:10am on Saturday. When we got to the Petrol station there were about 40 Kenyans. Gilbert pulled up in his pickup truck and all of a sudden about 30 guys piled in the back. John and I looked at each other and noted “there’s no way we’re fitting in there.” And would we even want to drive for 2 hours in the bed of a pickup truck?
Gilbert came over to me and saw our predicament. He told us to wait for 5 minutes and took off. He ran home and drove back with his wife’s car and pulled up to the pumps.
With a quick little honk an attendant came out and started to fill up the car. It didn’t look like this gas station was open and I asked if it was open 24/7, “only if he recognizes the customer at these hours.” We gave him 2000 shillings ($27 CAD) as it was the least we could do for his troubles. Gilbert had to pick up Richard Mengich (sub 60 half) and two of his protégés on the way so at least the car wasn’t only for us.
We were finally on our way at 4:45am. We bypassed Eldoret by way of a 17km dirt road. Dirt roads in Kenya are really rough, if you can average 30km/h that’s very good. I was sitting shotgun eating granola bars and sucking back an Endurance Tap while guys in the back of the pickup were holding on for dear life. They all just held each other to form one unit instead of 30 individual guys.
We got back onto another paved road that kept climbing up and went past Kaptagat (a village with at least three elite training camps). We finally arrived at the top of Fluorspar hill. We only had one designated driver for 2 cars and one pickup truck. The two cars parked at the top and everyone piled into the pickup. Gilbert insisted I get into the cab. There were 4 guys in the cab and almost 40 in the bed.
We didn’t make it far before the guys were banging on the cab. No surprise, guys were going to fall out. It was decided that 15 guys would start to jog down the hill. The pickup would drive down until 5km from the bottom. Those in the truck would jog to the start and the truck would go back up and shuttle the rest down.
(Check my Instagram for video of the guys piling out of the truck)
The views down this dirt road were nothing but spectacular. It was amazing to see this road cut out of the side of, what looked like, a sheer cliff. There are over 20 switchbacks along the 20km climb. On the drive down we passed a handful of runners, including Mary Keitany (sub 2:20 marathon).
The timing worked out well and we were finally all at the bottom of the run around 7:30am. They usually like to start at 6:30am to avoid the heat in the valley. But the late departure and the speed at which one could drive with 30 guys in the back of a pickup slowed things down.
Gilbert addressed the group and said the pace would start out at 4:25/km and shouldn’t get any faster than 4:10/km.
When the run started I was really curious to see how this was going to feel. The pace doesn’t sound that tough but I had been warned by other Kenyans that 4:10/km was a hard effort and the best guys in the world (who live at altitude and run this occasionally) run around 3:50/km.
We started off with a 4:25 km and then things progressed. The pack of about 40 guys slowly fell apart. I told myself to stay with the pack as long as I could. The same guys had absolutely crushed me the last two weeks during fartlek workouts. If I could make it past 10km with the front pack and not lose too much time in the second half I’d call it a successful run.
Somewhere around 6km we came upon a big dump truck that was struggling up the hill. It was spewing black exhaust and I was hoping it would speed up to give us a clear run. We ended up getting closer and closer. Just before we overtook it we could hardly see and the exhaust was nauseating. Even trucks struggle up Fluorspar.
You can see the detailed run on http://www.Strava.com but we were climbing between 37m and 109m each kilometre. It never let up. My legs were tired and I was breathing pretty hard for the given pace. Hiding in the back of the pack we would pass villagers on the way up and once the kids would see me they would cheer “mzungu.” I could tell by their level of excitement there aren’t many wazungu running up Fluorspar.
I made it past 10km with the leaders. Around 11km the dirt road was under construction. It had been recently grated so the dirt was upturned and really soft. This lasted for about 2km. If the uphill and altitude wasn’t zapping enough energy out of your legs, the soft dirt sure would contribute.
Around 12km the pickup truck pulled up and I went over for my bottle. He handed me the wrong one and I asked for the other one that looked similar. He found it and I grabbed a couple of sips. After my drink I was trailing the pack of about 20 guys by 30 metres. It took a while to catch up but I finally did and felt confident that I could handle a slightly faster pace if they picked it up a bit. At times I felt as though I was on the edge, if these guys picked it up any more I was going to pop.
I told myself, “just get to 15km.”
Then, “just get to 18km.”
At 19.5km I was still with the front pack and the guys at the front (we were running 3 rows of 3) started talking about the Mzungu. I picked it up to the front row. They warned me not to push the pace, I told them not to worry I just wanted to hear what they were saying. They were just surprised I was still around.
I made it to the top in 1:27:01 (20.4km at 4:16/km) with the front group, which consisted of eight other guys. Richard Mengich was the only one I knew. The rest of the guys trickled in over the next 15 minutes or so.
This tells me that my fitness is good (better than I thought) but my leg speed is my weakness right now. Not too surprising seeing that I haven’t done many fartleks or interval sessions since National XC champs. When I was injured I was x-training and only putting in volume, no intensity.
Fluorspar exceeded my expectations, both in terms of crazy travel to get there and the route itself. I pictured a more undulating route. This road climbs consistently the whole way, it never lets up until the very end (the 20th km only rises 15m).
It was a very unorthodox run for me, and I suspect for most runners. However most of the good marathoners in the Rift Valley region do this run at least once in a build-up. Some guys will do it a few times.
If it were closer to Iten I’d probably do it again but as it stands that will probably be it for me. Definitely one of the most memorable runs of my life.