The mango trees’ shade provided the only relief to the blistering sun. It was our first full day in Mulanje and we were lounging in Francis’ front yard beneath two mango trees playing bao and doing our best not to overheat. The heat seemed to be a constant presence in Mulanje, I don’t remember a time that I wasn’t hot while we were there. The night before at the road side hotel I didn’t sleep, I simply rolled in my bed like a $1 hot dog from 7-11, probably feeling about the same as well, as sweat poured out of me until about 2am. The thick concrete walls and non-opening windows trapped the stifling air, plus a variety of creepy, crawly things that all scatter when you flip on the lights, inside the room. But with running water, electricity, and a flushing toilet all for just under $7 per night, the place was a steal.
The next morning I found that it was surprisingly hot already at 7am. Much to my dismay as we arrived at the tea plantation for our run the sun was beating down and my GPS watch told me we were actually at a lower altitude than Lilongwe, no wonder it was so hot. I felt like I’d been sold a false bag of goods. Mount Mulanje at its highest is over 9000ft above sea level and I assumed that around its base it would surely be around 4000-5000ft. But we all know what assuming does. It makes you drive 6 hours to run at a lower elevation than you actually live (2000 vs 3500ft) and bake in the process.
Don’t get me wrong, this place is beautiful. The tea plantation is gorgeous. Green fields of tea plants stretch as far as the eye can see and running between these are nicely groomed grass paths for the workers to walk from field to field, or as in our case bust our tails for a 6.5 mile Tempo run that probably in hindsight should have started about 2 hours earlier.
We measured out a roughly 2km loop on the warm up and then got to work on this deceptively rolling course. It seemed flat, but really its always going slightly up or slightly down, much like the NCAA XC course in Terra Haute, IN, just add a 9000ft mount next to it and you’ve got the idea. The mighty men of Mulanje who we had come all the way to run with were no shows, but two tough women, one a multiple time winner of the Porter’s Race (A 25km race up and back down the mountain), came along and ran the workout as well. Francis, drawing on years of experience of the course, where he did all his training before moving to Lilongwe, was gone before we were hardly a mile in. Drawing on ancestral energy he simply telescoped away from the gun. I did my best to make the most of the run, working hard even once my night in the sauna aka hotel room caught up with me and dehydration won out. As we finished up who should arrive but our local heroes who conveniently couldn’t show up on time and thus didn’t run. The blood bath that took place the next day on the mountain leads me to believe this was a premeditated late arrival, but more on that later. For now we exchanged greetings and chatted about training and Chancy, my other training partner who had not made the trip.
We drove about 20 minutes along dusty roads until we arrived at Francis’s village. We greeted the chief who was kind enough to let us park the car in his yard as there isn’t a road wide enough to actually drive up to Francis’s house. Then we had hot Chia Tea and butter sandwiches (yes, butter sandwich, two parts bread, one part butter) in the home of some relatives of Francis. Quick note, everyone seems to be related to everyone so I didn’t keep very good track of who was who on this trip.
After tea and chatting for about an hour we walked to Francis’s home and I was introduced to his sister and her children who live there currently as Francis and his family live in Lilongwe where he is stationed in the military. The home was small, of the usual Malawian construction, fired mud bricks plastered over and painted white. There was a living room with two attaching bedrooms. A kitchen which I never saw in the day light and a little hall that leads out back to a kind of open air courtyard where there is a room for bucket showers and storage I guess. No electricity and water I believe came from a well. After about an hour we were invited to come inside for lunch, everyone stays outside because it’s too hot in the house. We enjoyed Nsima, the stable of Malawi, peas, and hard boiled eggs in some kind of red tomatoey sauce.
After that we were back outside because we were sweating into our food. We sat in wooden chairs beneath the mango trees all afternoon. From time to time different villagers would come by and greet Francis. Most thought we were there for a race, but Francis said we were just visiting. By 2pm the sun was overhead and even the shade was not much relief. Francis played his 3-5 year old nephew in bao and lost, several times, and I finally laughed and told Francis the kid should start playing for money.
Clouds rolled in around 3, with thunder off in the distance. By 4 we were dressed for our second run and took a long walk down to the river and over to the main road to go for a run. We weaved through dirt roads and river trails before taking a turn up the mountain and climbing to a big white house hidden among the trees that surround the base of the mountain. A ‘zungu’ (foreigner) lives there on and off, currently off, and so we talked with the watchman and I looked around the property and saw the view of the valley below. The green of the trees on the mountain and the surrounding tea plantations gives a false sense of moisture to Mulanje. After the tea plantations stretch miles of dusty fields, still unplanted as they have yet to see rain this year. Francis told me that by this time last year the maize was already a foot high and that many, himself included, are worried that people will face hunger this year because no matter how late the rains start, they always stop in February. Each day that ticks by without rain, is one less day in the growing season for a people who survive on what they grow.
We returned home and the sun quickly set shortly there after. A misunderstanding sent me to bed without dinner, what I took as “go to bed” was actually just Francis showing me where I was to sleep. I had a bucket shower and then scarfed down trail mix and spooned peanut butter out of a jar with my fingers before calling it a night. Much to my shock an hour and half later he came to my doorway and asked if I wanted Nsima. I politely refused, I had a feeling a stomach full of hot corn meal was the last thing I wanted as I was already sweating bullets. I rolled back over and commenced the nightly hot man ritual of turning over and over trying to find the position in which I sweat the least. At some point sleep came, but not nearly as quickly as I would have liked and before I knew it Francis was at my door waking me for our morning run, or as I would call it, the day Mulanje’s finest pulled a fast one on those boys from the central region.
We met at 6 along the dusty road at the foot of the mountain. Along one side were rows of small houses where the tea plantation workers live and on the other fields of tea bushes that go all the way up to the tree line where the mountain begins to get really steep. Five men including me, plus three women, bounded up the hill through the tea fields and into the trees. The trail got steeper and steeper until mercifully we took a right and it leveled out as we ran along perpendicular to the slope. After a bit the trail took another right and we were barreling down the mountain again, sub 6 minute per mile pace and I got my first inclination that something was fishy. They had all agreed to a “normal” run, but it was becoming apparent that talk is cheap and that this was going to be a battle. The trail turned again and back up the mountain we went, the Malawians pulling away as they seem to not be affected by hills. I held on and as we turned down again I let gravity pull me back down the hill in blistering speed, catching them as the trail leveled out again. This became our dance for the next 30-40 minutes, up the mountain they pulled away, down the mountain I caught back up.
The trail flattened out for a bit and we soon came to a stream crossing. The Mulanje men in front followed by Francis and me hopped rocks and climbed back up the other side. As I cleared the trees last I found Francis a few yards ahead and our dear Mulanje friends 50-60 yards away, the jerks had put a surge in while we were crossing the stream. This really set me off as up until now it seemed a friendly bit of pressing the pace and everyone having a good time, but this move seemed cowardly to me. They were no longer testing us, they were trying to drop us and not even by using superior strength or speed but by waiting until our guard was down and our attention on not falling into the steam to launch a surprise attack. I surged and caught Francis and together we rolled the two others back in over the next few minutes. The trail turned back up again and Francis and the stronger of the two Mulanje runners began to pull away. Up, up, up the trail went. I passed the other runner and was trying to maintain some form of contact with the front two. The trail split and I headed straight when suddenly the guy behind me told me it was the other way. I was pretty certain they had gone straight but he was the local and I figured he knew the route. He didn’t.
We continued climbing and came around a large bend. The trail leveled out and the trees cleared as we came into another field of tea plants. We were high at this point and I could see pretty far in all directions and of course I didn’t see Francis or the other guy anywhere. The trail forked again, one way up along a section that seemed to climb forever and the other way down. My guide ensured me that up was the way to go and so I continued to climb, the pace quickly becoming a crawl along this very steep section of trail. It seemed like I climbed for ages and was nearly entering the trees again when suddenly from below I heard the other guy yelling for me to stop. I turned and looking down I saw him turning around. All the way at the bottom of the hill were the other two. They hadn’t come this way at all. He’d taken us the wrong way, and not just the wrong way, but way up the mountain. I came back down as the group slow jogged until we all rejoined a few minutes later. We ran in a group for a while and I was almost convinced we were going run easy together the rest of the way. I was wrong.
The trail started rolling up and down little rollers as we ran along a stream amongst the trees and fields. The pace picked up quickly now and once again we were racing along the trail. Yesterday’s tempo had been about this pace I was thinking as we charged up a short steep hill and out into the open fields once again. The trail dipped again and we shot towards the tarmac road down below. At this point we were about eight miles in and my little excursion up the mountain was taking its toll. I hung on around 5:40 pace for a little longer, but they were pulling away while I was fading. They hit the tarmac about 50 yards ahead and at that point Francis and the other guy were at it again, pulling away from the other Malawian as easily as the three of them had just pulled away from me. I watched them battle as we raced back into town. Francis fought for a while, but eventually even he was dropped and Mulanje won the day, quickly racing away and claiming the victory.
I put it in neutral and finished the last 1.5 miles at a more relaxed 7-7:30 pace. My watch died at 8.5 miles and I had no idea how far we had gone, but as we drew nearer to the place we had started I saw Francis and the slower runner from Mulanje come to a stop and start walking. I continued to jog until I caught them and then we walked together back to the car. Francis was complaining that the “young boy” hadn’t run at all yesterday and was saving himself to take us on when we were tired from the workout the day before. I reminded him that we had just run back to back workouts and we’d now be all the tougher when it came to a race when it really mattered. There are no medals for beating two guys who busted their butts the day before while you stood around and watched. Anyway, the “young boy” is tough, I just hope I get a chance to take him on in a race, preferably one in Lilongwe where the terrain is more to my liking.
The drive home was long and my legs were stiff and sore from sitting for so long after running so hard that morning. We stopped a few times for breaks and snacks and pulled back into Lilongwe around 4pm. It had been an interesting trip. Good and bad. OK workouts, great places to run, but also very warm and not the high altitude I was hoping for. My plan had been to come later next year for a month of altitude training, but I’ll have to scratch that and look elsewhere. Maybe Kenya.