Pounding. Foot strikes earth – again, and again. Red dust stirs from its slumber with each impact. Wind rushes by – howling through the deep cuts in the rock. Step by step, railroad ties fade behind me. Countless more are still ahead as I continue my decent into the Great Rift Valley. Mt Longonot looms in the distance.
Amidst the energy, my breathing rhymes with the pounding of my footfalls. Determined, I run. Focused, I move forward.
In my company are friends. Together we set out to run the twenty kilometers down to Mt. Longonot, a dormant volcano in the Great Rift Valley. I had trained with them for several months before, running together along dusty roads and forest paths. Today shall reveal our preparation.
Don’t let the notion that most of the run is downhill deceive you, it is hard. It’s twice the distance I have ever done before. And all that is gained by the downhill is lost as the grade slopes upward toward the mountain for the final four kilometers. The support of my companions is most welcome.
Sometimes we distract each other. With a joke or story, the monotony of the unending railway is broken. For a moment, laughter brings amnesia to the burning of our legs.
When we feel like stopping, when our bodies beg surrender, we hold one another up. br>
“You can do it.” br>
“Push on, friend.” br>
“You’re more than half-way.” br>
“Hey look, there’s a lion behind you.” br>
The final four kilometers begins. My last strength kicks in, and I fly. Or at least, that’s what it feels like. The reality is that my pace is probably closer to that of the race’s beginning.
The end comes into view.
One hundred meters… br>
Fifty meters… br>
Rarely does the destination feel so sweet. I have defeated myself. The smile that eluded me for much of the prior two hours sneaks to my face.
But as much as I rejoice in reaching the end, that’s not the memory that sticks. I remember the look of those who came after me as they crossed that line. It is in them that I take my happiness. My accomplishment gives me pride, but doing it in and with the company of friends gives me joy.
A host of stars canvas the sky – each a tiny soldier against the blackness. Dodging between scattered clouds, the moon dares cast its reflected glory upon us. Yet again the railway ties fade into the distant past. The pace is slow, relaxed, and steady. Mt Longonot looms in the distance.
Somebody in our dorm had the bright idea of hiking throughout the night and climbing the mountain at morning’s first rays. Not really thinking about it, we all agreed. It turned out to be brilliant.
We walk the star-lit railway – a steady march to the mountain ahead. The stillness breaks only once to the roar of a passing freight train.
The journey is not without incident.
There is laughter and surprise. With eyes adjusted to starlight, a certain joker in our number ambushes us with the flash of a camera. Our dazed faces are to remain frozen in film forever.
There is a chai and coffee break. Over a haphazard fire, someone brews, or attempts to brew, warm beverages to stave off the chilly air. I am saved from the bitterness of that so-called chai by the best orange I have ever tasted. Adversity has a way of making things sweeter.
There is the race up the mountain. Having been made to wait till 6:00 AM to enter the Mt. Longonot National Reserve – apparently the buffalo go away at that time – we take off at full speed. Shoes slip on the loose gravel. Tired legs unleash their last reserves. We race the rising sun.
Victory. As brothers, we stand shoulder to shoulder as the sun’s first rays pierce the clouds. Newly sworn members of the “Sunrise Club”, we bask in the beauty.
As with the run, the destination is sweet. We accomplished what we set out to do. But the journey was even sweeter. Its memory will live for many years to come.
Still, that is not the whole story. It is fellowship of brothers that made it all worthwhile. Doing such a trip alone would have been cause for misery. In the midst of the beauty, in the heart of the fun, in the joy of the achievement, is friendship. That is the reason for everything.
You will always travel. Some journeys will be difficult, and some shall be easy. Some will have a clear ending, and others will seem to last for a lifetime. Some will bring victory, and some will bear defeat. But as you wander, I hope you will remember at least one thing:
It is not about the destination, nor is it even about the journey. It’s about the friends you take with you.
Then again, sometimes the journey is not necessary. Sometimes, you just sit in the silence of friendship and watch the mountain from afar. You smile as it erupts in the sunset’s fire.
Go on up to the mountain. I made this photo of Mt. Longonot from Rift Valley Academy in Kijabe, Kenya.