From Kerugoya and Kikuyu, especially what passed for a natural running track around his high school — where he did everything possible to avoid cross-country runs every first term and part of second term — to Frankfurt and Amsterdam, where Kenneth Muchina's feet are getting familiar with the marathon routes, it is a true tale of falling in love with running for running's sake.
Born in Kerugoya and raised in Miiri, Karatina, Tumu Tumu and Kerugoya, depending on where his parents were stationed for work, Muchina recalls never wanting to take part in any running competition.
“While I had to do cross-country runs as part of extra-curricular programmes, I did not take to running,” Muchina says.
Muchina is a recreational marathon runner. And no, he is not doing it to earn some big money as elite and semi-elite runners do. He is doing it for the thrill.
“For us recreational runners, the motivation is never about winning,” he says, “It’s often about the challenge and the thrill. I would not, by any stretch of imagination, be classified as a competitive runner.” He laughs, “I have not come close to winning any!”
Running locally is one thing, to travel out of the country for marathons is a whole different running game. There is the support of the family, “a load of money” and investment in time.
“A sense of adventure, guts and excitement is what takes me to these marathons,” he reveals.
“A typical ‘big city’ race will attract more than 10,000 runners, sometimes up to 40,000. The race in some venues is very much a party…. the start, the route, the finish… some or all those parts offer a carnival atmosphere. Some have parties organised by the organisers before and even after the race. Some of these races are actually significant players in some cities’ tourism offerings, and are supported by governments, communities and local businesses. You have to have a sense of adventure to pull yourself up from your seat to whatever destination.”
Not all fun
But according to Muchina, it is not all fun. To start the marathon and sustain the running for the whole length — 42.2km — is a story on its own.
He describes taking part in a marathon as a true test of endurance that requires physical and mental mettle.
“It takes a great deal; more than just fitness to get your body from the start to finish. A great marathoner requires consistent training with minimal to no injuries,” he explains.
"There’s research that shows that for a typical person, by the time they are done running 25-27 kilometres they’ve reached a maximum in terms of what a human body can endure. You’re pushing your body beyond what it is supposed to do, and it takes great physical and running form.
“To prepare for marathons beyond a certain level when you start chasing personal bests, you inevitably need to invest in everything from superior kits, shoes especially, physiotherapy massage, coaching, pacing, running club memberships,” he explains.
He has to pile on his training load in the months before a marathon.
“In two of the three marathons (Frankfurt and Amsterdam) I have taken part in so far, I have had what I can consider structured training. This has called for: an investment of 14 and 13 weeks respectively in training, running at least three days a week, but usually five days a week, and at the peak, logging in up to 100km a week—which translates to up to 16 hours of running,” he explains.
“A good number of pairs of training and racing shoes are bought, used and retired. And about 1,000km of running during the training window.”
"In the past two marathons, I’ve been more structured in how I do it, including fuelling which means taking water, fluids and how I’m eating to make sure I survive a full marathon."
"There’s a lot of research out there that shows structured training delivers," says Muchina who engages a professional coach ahead of his marathons.
Calls for discipline
Indeed, it calls for discipline to follow a programme that can ask for five days of running in a week, from 40 minutes of running to 210 minutes of running per run, with hill repeats and strength training.
This often means juggling between duties as a family man, work related demands, cutting out certain things in your diet, and going easy on the kind of social life we associate with weekends, so as to turn in early for early morning runs.
“It does take discipline to see a training through!” he presses.
“But when I’m not training for a marathon I slow down to roughly about a third of that. Then, I’m just doing enough so that I don’t fall out of shape completely.”
Manage ‘bad days’
Also, he says, knowing how to manage “bad days” and distractions that will try to interfere with your training is a very important skill.
As he explains, getting the training started and going is a challenge “and gets harder when one has to wake up to a 4.30am alarm and you can hear rain beating against your window, and you have not had enough sleep!”
From about week five and six, the adrenaline high kicks on, and it becomes a race against self to hit all the training targets, especially the mileage log. But even then, you will have bad days in the office when things are not just working… knowing how to manage these is important.”
And all the hard work seems to have paid off. For someone who started at about 77kg body weight, he is currently around 71kg. “I’m 5’3’ in height so I was feeling the weight.” That is a better quality of life.
Fundraising for charity
He hopes to some day tie his running to fundraising for charity.
“When I am more established as a runner, with some kind of track record in running marathons, I would like to use this for charitable causes. I have used the concept of promoting a charity run here in Kenya, ''The Alliance Classic Run’, to benefit the Alliance High School Endowment Fund, which assists with bursaries.”
He wishes he had started earlier. “Who knows? Maybe I’d be making a living out of it,” he quips in jest.
“This has made me much more conscious of what I’m eating. I have had a better quality of life since I started.”
He goes on, “The experience is something, with the benefit of hindsight, I should have had from way earlier. The relatively healthier lifestyle, the travelling.”
Most high profile races
He is also looking at participating in prestigious marathons under the World Marathon Majors (WMM) founded on a six-star medal. These marathon races are recognised as the most high profile on the calendar. The series comprises annual races for the cities of Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York.
“I want to travel all the continents of the world and run in each one of them. More than once if I can afford to!”
Any tips for people who would be interested in joining you on the trail?
“Don’t take it too seriously, enjoy yourself while at it, and only push as far as it is safe to do so. Unless of course you’re running to be on the podium or for a living.”
He speaks about several running clubs around Nairobi where he currently lives and works. He belonged to Urban Swaras Running Club.
Other than his 2016 injury and sections of late 2021 and early 2022 when lethargy slowed him down considerably, running has pretty much featured in his weekly programme — as a way to stay fit, healthy both physically and mentally, and keep his weight in check. But he says over the past three years, his running has taken on a more structured, some would say, scientific approach.
He got drawn into running after trying the gym between 2009 and 2o10 but got disenchanted.
“I’d go to the gym and drop out. I did a few cycles of this and then I felt I needed something different,” he recalls. “‘Serious’ running kicked in somewhere in 2013 or 2014 when I did my first ‘major distance’ — half marathons.”
First full marathon
The first full marathon he ever did was the Standard Chartered Nairobi Marathon seven years ago — on October 2, 2015—where he picked up a foot injury that forced him to halt his running through 2016.
“Between then and 2018 I didn’t do much running outside of maintenance training to avoid falling out of form and to keep fit,” he says. “I couldn’t run more than five kilometres.”
Where are the Kenyans?
Kenya, so dominant in marathons in recent years, has surprisingly relatively low numbers of recreational runners compared to say the US, parts of Europe and even Asia.
A friend he inspired to start running talked him into signing up for his first overseas marathon in 2019.
“And so my second marathon was in Frankfurt on October 27, 2019 and my third was in Amsterdam on October 16, 2022. I would probably have done another two to four marathons, had Covid-19 not happened,” he says, and adds, “My intention was that every year I’d run two marathons and outside the country.”
Travelled with friends
In both cases, Muchina travelled to the marathons with a small group of friends from Kenya.
“We were three in the Frankfurt trip, the other two being a couple who are close family friends. As far as I could tell, outside the ‘elite’ (professional athlete) Kenyan runners, we were the only other Kenyans who ran in the Frankfurt marathon in 2019,” he says.
The Amsterdam trip had a much larger group from Kenya.
“I can count at least eight (myself included), of whom five (myself included) had some level of coordination/collaboration happening before and during the trip. But I am aware that there were other Kenyans running the Amsterdam Marathon in 2022.”
But the composition of the groups, so far, has been fluid.
“There’s a fairly active number of recreational runners. Still, I would not characterise the membership of the group as static, nor is it a formal group. The common factor so far has been that we all tend to know each other as recreational runners, we probably hang out together socially, we might be work colleagues or collaborators, we likely belong to the same running clubs and we also likely train together ahead of the marathon.”
He explains that marathons abroad happen in two seasons: In spring between April and early May such as Tokyo, London, Boston, Rotterdam, and in fall between October and November such as New York, Berlin, Chicago, Frankfurt, Amsterdam among others.
Other than the quest for variety, it is also an opportunity to travel and see the world.
But beyond getting your body ready, Muchina says to run such marathons overseas takes investment and one must be willing to spend between Ksh200,000 ($1,649) and Ksh500,000 ($4,122) for the entire occasion. Firstly, the participants are required to pay an entry fee of about €100 ($100). Then there are the visa application fees that could sometimes go up to Ksh50,000 ($412).
"How much you spend will also depend on personal preferences on flights, accommodation and what other things you’ll be doing while travelling," he says, explaining that he also takes these trips as tourism opportunities.
The entire effort to travel has entailed some sort of team effort and division of roles– for example, in identifying races to participate in, work around visa applications, travel and accommodation.
For some marathons demand is very high for slots and the organisers use a ballots system to determine who gets in – he says, "I just this morning got a regret for London Marathon 2023".
Recreational running has many benefits – health, fitness, leisure.
"I would love to share those with more of my countrymen and women," he says.