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‘I’m Kenyan so you know I’m a marathon runner – even at 65’

By Mona Ombogo | June 26th 2019
By Mona Ombogo | June 26th 2019

Coca-Cola Southern and East Africa Experiential Marketing Manager Sarah Wanasakami, Joyce (Tata) Nduku and Coca Cola Southern and East Africa Experiential Manager Andrew Endovo. [Standard]

“At the age of 56, I ran a 56-kilometre marathon in South Africa as a gift to myself. I had started running at 50 and found it gave me peace,” says Joyce Nduku.

“I did it for fitness at first, but now I run for charity. I wish more Kenyans would understand how much impact can be made through this.”

Tata Joyce, as she’s nicknamed, is now 65 and a social entrepreneur who’s braved distances many elite marathoners wouldn’t dare attempt.

In 2018 and 2019, she ran one of the most gruelling marathons in the world, the 90km Comrades Marathon in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, coming in eighth in the female over-60 age group.

Joyce is a champion for recreational running in Kenya because she believes that not only can it be used as an avenue to transform lives through charity, but it can also be a source of revenue for tourism.

She shares her vision with Hustle.

Why did you take up running get fit, and not going to the gym?

A friend of mine at work suggested we try running when both of us felt our bodies were getting stiff with aches and pains. We worked at Kemri (Kenya Medical Research Institute) and understood the ramifications of poor health.

Running was easy to start. We only needed to invest in workout clothes and shoes. We diligently run together for six months before she dropped out. I got this crazy idea to register for the Standard Chartered Marathon to stay motivated so I wouldn’t give up running.

Everyone thought I was crazy, some told me I would die but the more they discouraged me, the more determined I was to do it.  

I finished 21km in two-and-a-half hours. As I went home, I remember feeling this great sense of peace. I knew then this was my calling.

You now do full 42km marathons. When did you make the switch?

I was part of a recreational running group and some of them were doing full marathons. In 2007, I decided to register for the full Standard Chartered Marathon. I hadn’t trained for it and it was extremely difficult.

When I got to about 39km, the straggler bus came along picking people who hadn’t completed the race because they wanted to open the roads. I refused to get on the bus.

The roads opened so I had to run on the sidewalks, but I made it, finishing at five hours and seven minutes. The stadium was almost empty, officials long gone, but they hadn’t yet removed the timing mat, so I could get my accurate time.

The next year, a friend convinced me to participate in the Chicago Marathon. It’s part of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, a series that includes six of the most prestigious marathons in the world: New York, Berlin, Boston, London and Tokyo.

Were you intimidated?

Very. In fact, when I got to Chicago I almost decided not to run. It was hot and I found out that the year before they’d halted the marathon because several people fell ill due to heat-related issues. One died. I was convinced that would be me if I ran.

But my hosts reminded me that I had bought a ticket and travelled all the way to the States. I couldn’t give up at the last minute.

Did you go through with it?

Yes. And I ran a time of four hours and seven minutes, shaving off an entire hour from my previous run at the Standard Chartered Marathon.

Along the road I kept seeing runners who’d dropped off, holding onto the railings, puking.

I was thinking to myself; I must finish, I will finish, and I did. This is when most of my friends realised that I was serious about running.

Is there any monetary gain to the wins?

As a recreational runner, you don’t run to win money, but you can run for charity. I decided to do this so that the sweat, the injuries would count for something bigger than myself.

When I was convinced to run the Two Oceans marathon for my 56th birthday because it was a 56km marathon, I raised money for charity. Aside from that, it was an amazing experience because of the landscape, Atlantic to Indian oceans.

What’s the most you’ve raised for charity?

That would be from the Comrades marathon, which takes place in KwaZulu-Natal. It’s a 90km race from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, and the largest and oldest ultramarathon in the world. It took me eight years to convince myself I could do it.

The first time I did it was in 2018. The race has two paths you can take: the down- run, which is easier because you’re running from high altitude to the ocean; and the up-run, which is tougher because you’re running in the opposite direction.

In 2018, I did the down-run and finished in 10 hours 27 minutes. This year I did the up-run and finished in 10 hours 57 minutes.

They award a medal to any beginner who does both marathons, back to back.

I raised Sh700,000 for the Shoe4Africa Children’s Hospital. It needs $2 million (Sh200 million) to complete construction for one of only two public children’s hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa.

How easy is it to drum up support for your causes?

Till recently, most of the support has come from fellow runners, which is why I really champion recreational running in Kenya.

I’ve seen stories of mothers in Kibera whose children are born with cerebral palsy and they can’t afford a mobility aid worth Sh10,000. If 10 runners came together and each raised Sh1,000, we’d be able to give these mothers hope, these children a normal life.

When I turned 60, I got an operation on my heel and I remember telling God, ‘if you give me more years to run, I will use my running to help your people’.

That same year, through my friends, I raised Sh360,000 for a child who had been born with an anorectal malformation. He got medial attention and is now healthy.

What’s your ultimate goal for fund-raising?

I’d like to raise Sh2 million for the referral hospital. I recently got sponsorship from Coca-Cola, who through Keringet have kept me hydrated during my marathon trainings.

They also paid for my air ticket and accommodation when I participated in the last Comrades marathon. We’re in discussions right now about a cheque they’ll be writing for my charity.

I have also received help from personalities like Esther Passaris, Anthony Kiai and Patrick Makau, a former world record holder in the marathon.

What other major marathons are you running this year?

I have registered for the New York Marathon in November.

How much longer do you think you’ll run for?

I don’t plan to stop. There were people at the Comrades marathon who’ve run it consistently for 46 years. I’ve only done it twice so far.

This marathon is so tough that this year, 22,000 people started but only 16,000 finished. Of those who didn’t finish, 4,000 didn’t make it past the 43km mark because they timed out.

They have six cut-off points, if you don’t pass a cut-off point by the required time, the straggler bus picks you up because this race is a 12-hour race; gun-to-gun, 5:30am to 5:30pm.

I finished number 9,879. I have more to give, so why would I stop?

You’ve been an inspiration to many. What are some of the changes you’d like to see in the Kenyan running space?

We’re a powerhouse for competitive runners, why can’t we be a powerhouse for recreational runners and races, like South Africa?

The Comrades race brings in 70 million rand (Sh500 million) in household income to KwaZulu-Natal. Why can’t we do similar races here and channel the revenue to charities and the economy? We have the terrain and the expertise.

Generally, I’d like to see more Kenyans moving. About 80 per cent of hospital occupancy is because of lifestyle diseases, some of these can be resolved by people being more active.

We can walk to work. We can run in the mornings. But we also need the Government to improve infrastructure by investing in pavements, parks and running paths.

Let’s be known as a running nation, not just where medals are concerned, but beyond that. You running one kilometre can change a life forever, yours and someone else’s. 

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