Tanzanian runner and conservationist Simon Mtuy is on a quest to revitalize the mountain environment that birthed his ultrarunning career
Simon Mtuy knows every inch of the popular hiking routes that snake up the sides of Africa’s highest mountain.
A Chagga tribesman who grew up in a small village nestled in the shadows of Mount Kilimanjaro, Mtuy’s first job nearly 35 years ago was to porter equipment for international climbers aspiring to tag the peak’s 19,341-foot summit. Since then, he’s been to the top more times than he can remember.
By 2006, as a trail ultrarunner competing in races around the world, Mtuy set a Guinness World Record for the fastest ascent and descent of the famous peak in 9 hours and 21 minutes.
Given his intimate knowledge of Kilimanjaro, it’s no wonder that famed mountain runner Kilian Jornet came to Mtuy for advice while preparing for his speed record attempt there in 2010.
However, during the course of his career, Mtuy has seen Kilimanjaro’s glaciers shrink, forests burn and crops dry up.
“The environment is so much to us; we cannot live without water and oxygen so it’s very important for us do our part to give back to nature,” says Mtuy, who’s become a leader of his community’s conservation efforts.
From Farm to Trail
While tourism supports the local communities living along the famous mountain’s lower flanks, that prosperity has come with an environmental cost. Deforestation has changed the local microclimate, which is thought to contribute to the melting of Kilimanjaro’s ancient glaciers.
To help with Mtuy’s grassroots conservation efforts, he turned to his friends in the international ultrarunning community.
In 2012, Mtuy began inviting fellow trail runners to take part in an annual event called the Kilimanjaro Stage Run (KSR), an arduous multi-day run circumnavigating Kilimanjaro’s base. The inaugural edition of which was captured in a documentary produced by Andrew King called Mountain of Greatness.
The non-competitive adventure gives the runners an unexpected peek into the Tanzania that few tourists ever see. The 162-mile route, covered on foot over eight days, takes runners through a range of environments, from lush, green rainforests to sun-dried savanna to monkey-inhabited forests. Part of the route even skirts the boundary of Amboseli National Park, where elephant, zebra and giraffe roam.
“Tanzania offers more than a mountain to climb, it’s a great place for trail running,” says Mtuy.
The adventure begins at Mtuy’s 15-acre family farm in Mbahe, where organic coffee plants, maize rows and avocado trees grow. The year-round growing climate, mineral-rich volcanic soil and mountain-stream fed irrigation system makes it an ideal location for sustainable agriculture. The farm’s guests enjoy freshly picked produce and locally processed grains at each meal.
Before embarking on their epic run around the mountain, however, the runners pull on leather work gloves and pick up a spade to join local villagers in digging rows of shallow holes in the soft soil then dropping delicate tree seedlings into each opening. Every tree they plant helps stabilize the soil and will eventually restore the foliage upon which bees and other animals depend.
Once the run begins, however, almost all of the runners’ energy go towards navigating the ever-changing terrain beneath their feet, which involves as much as 6000 feet of vertical gain over the course of an average 20-mile day. The trail changes constantly from rooty, rocky singletrack to well-worn footpaths used by locals to travel from village to village.
The one constant presence is Mount Kilimanjaro’s distinct shape towering overhead.
A Sense of Place
Padding their way along dusty footpaths for six to eight hours a day, KSR runners don’t see a highway, a power line or traffic light. Instead they hear the gurgling of streams that originated from the snowfields on Kilimanjaro’s upper slopes, or the thin snapping of dried pine needles as they trot beneath stands of coniferous trees.
The lack of electrical stimulation and “pedestrian” pace of daily life can be startling, even to laid-back trail runners.
“The goal was not to run the distance as fast we can, but to really absorb everything and really enjoy the whole experience,” says Steve Villiger of Haleiwa, Hawaii, who ran the KSR in 2012.
Whereas most trail running events are races, the relaxed pace of this event, which is as much a cultural immersion and running vacation as it is an organized run, is something some runners find requires several days’ adjustment.
“We would have a crowd of Tanzanian villagers run with us for a several miles, just tagging along,” says KSR runner Jake Zmrhl. “It felt like they were putting in no effort at all as we ran together.”
At the end of each day’s stage, the runners would arrive to a fully pitched camp and hot meals cooking in the outdoor kitchen. After tucking into a nourishing dinner of lentil soup with crepes, tilapia, boiled potatoes and carrots followed by banana fritters for dessert, the runners settle in for the night to recharge their bodies in anticipation of tomorrow’s stage.
Before long, the runners have settled into a routine stripped down to its bare essentials of running, eating and sleeping. Gaining energy with each passing day, it’s not long before the runners return to their starting point of Mbahe.
The 2015 Kilimanjaro Stage Run is taking place October 17-27, 2015. Trail runners may apply for one of just 20 coveted spots in the 2015 KSR by going to www.tanzaniatrailrunning.com. To receive more information or express your interest in participating, fill out the form on the “Contact Us” tab.