It's called "The World's Wildest Marathon," and it drew more than 1600 athletes from around the world to a Kenyan game reserve last week. This was the third running of the Masai Mara Marathon - and it illustrates Kenya's efforts to position itself as a sports tourism destination.
Long known as a premier destination for animal safaris, Kenya is working to increase its profile as a leader in the niche sports tourism industry.
Due to the global success of Kenyan marathoners, many tourists are interested in training or just running alongside these world-class athletes. The Masai Mara marathon provides just such an experience.
“They’re amazing. It’s just a complete different class. I mean, it’s hard running up here, partly because of the altitude. Uh, I hadn’t really done that much training. They’re just incredible,” said Richard Hawkins, a marathon participant.
The marathon's course takes the runners through the Masai Mara, a large game reserve in southwestern Kenya.
Unlike other marathons, this one requires athletes to run through terrain inhabited by wild animals, and usually only accessible by 4-wheel-drive vehicles.
“It was great. It was everything I wanted it to be. There were tons of animals running around everywhere while we were running, and everyone here seems to be having a great time. So, I love it,” said Chris Liefers, another participant.
Traditionally cattle herders, the Masai people themselves participate in the events, which take place on their lands. Their presence is a highlight for many of the foreign runners.
“It’s great to see the locals are here, the Masai. It’s wonderful to watch their traditional dances and see everybody coming together,” Hawkins said.
Kenyans hope events such as this will encourage even more tourists to come to their country.
Tourism is already Kenya’s second largest industry, after agriculture - bringing in millions of dollars every year.
Recent threats by the Somali terrorist organization al-Shabaab, and kidnappings of Westerners in northern Kenya, have some worried about a chilling effect on tourism. But race organizer John Conchella says terrorist threats are not discouraging participation.
“This marathon, for the first time, has received many people, to run, from the international community. It’s a time when the country is at war. So if it was really affecting international travels, I would have said we would have gotten none this time around. But I don’t think al-Shabaab has anything to do with our marathon,” Conchella said.
The runners seem to agree that the benefits outweigh the risks.
“I think everywhere, there’s danger everywhere. And this al-Shabaab thing, if you decide you’re going to stay in the house, you’re never going to do anything. So for me, it doesn’t make any difference,” participant Carol Magondu said.
So for now, the runners’ biggest concern is simply making it to the finish line.
“But the finishing of course, was my best part ever. And I think, today, I did a bit better than before. Although it was a bit challenging. But, I think I did good,” Magondu said.