For matters first and important, I go by the name Alexander Twinokwesiga. First, because I am a Ugandan, born and bred in the blithe paradise that is Mbarara. Important, because in, and by, name, I am firstly the saviour or helper of mankind, and, sir-ly, one meant to have or believe in a ray of hope – however minimal. The two reasons I am noting the following personal and, hopefully, shared reflections, and offering my own recommendations where I do not get carried away. In essence, I am not a disgruntled foreigner, passionately engaged in lamenting about what a poor, third world country like ours has to offer. I am a feminist, working for Mother Uganda. I am one of us. I believe in us. I wish us the best. I know we can do and deserve better.
For my work, I employ myself as a great relaxer, one whose responsibilities are limited to creative visualisation. A thing I do at my address which happens to be global, or, rather wherever makes me happy. In my spare time – which happens to be a lot – I walk approximately 40 to 50 kilometres, run approximately 18kms, every two days, on roads around my Kampala residence, and participate in either elite, diarised and/or impromptu, charity/project inspired marathons both in Uganda and what we know as outside countries. I have some of the certificates and medals to show for my efforts over the last ten years.
The most recent marathon that my fellow marathon tourists and I participated in was the MTN Marathon, 2015. It was a marathon that for various reasons can be comfortably described as one of – if not – the most disorganised run(s) that we have ever done. One for which excuses like; “anyway, it is Uganda” should not be accepted.
Strongly believing that as a country and individuals, there are three major things that can significantly change our way of lives, namely – a little more organisation, a little more openness, and efforts at paying attention to detail, I have taken time to identify a few of the following pointers to help salvage us, and the future.
- Registration for the marathon.
Not only was information about the process of registration relayed late, but when it was, it was rather quite confusing.
A few of my friends whom I met at a Kampala hotel on the eve of the marathon told me that they were not even aware that there was a marathon happening the following day. Apparently, the platforms of, perhaps, newspapers, television, radio and telephones which were utilised were not sufficient in achieving their purpose.
To organise a better marathon than we had, the organising committee – if any – would have to detail literature which addresses preparatory aspects including but not limited to the most convenient ways of registration. They – the organisers – should consider outsourcing or partnering with, for example, a popular chain of supermarkets or cafes or petrol stations in as many locations around the country as possible which would agree to having a simple table, chair and a well resourced aide attending to them while registering whoever approaches them. Also, it would mean that we do not have to travel to the ever packed Lugogo Indoor Stadium or any of the MTN Service Centres to register when they could be entertaining other business. Some of these businesses may include SIM registration, a thing I found to be off and unrelated to the marathon at Lugogo Indoor Stadium- the main point of registration. Not all the runners have got to be making use of the main sponsor’s network.
The options for registration which included early registration by, amongst others, way of Mobile Money as shared by the @mtnugcare and @mtnug twitter handles were, when I tweeted them, indeed several and misleading. They were about five, with each having a different registration fee appended to it. Due to this, there were some of us who ran without timing chips. To any reasonable runner, timing chips are not just collectable items but essential elements of any memorable marathon. Timing chips are not and should never be an option.
The sight that really did it for me was on the very day of the marathon. It was that of intending and eventual runners who looked like starving refugees fighting for food while passing money and receiving kits over each other’s heads before hastening towards the start line to follow the footsteps of those who had already started.
To counter that, the organisers have no option but to agree to having only the distances – 42, 21, 10 kilometres – differing but with a uniform registration fee applying to all. In the future, they will have to ensure that registration ends, at worst, two weeks before the marathon and have no exceptions or extensions whatsoever. The texts we received, on Friday, informing us of an extension of the registration, to Saturday, for a Sunday marathon were unwarranted. Like all things in life, a marathon takes considerable preparation for. It is not a romantic ceremony that we cannot fail to miss.
- Literature about the marathon.
We are in the 21st Century, a time when information is the most valuable commodity. However, the MTN Marathon 2015 did not embrace this indisputable fact. In the kits I got for myself, my guests, and those that I saw fellow marathoners picking up was nothing – preferably in print, like a flyer – with information about a couple of important aspects of a marathon. These include literature about local gyms guides, and their marathon training programmes, route maps, road closures, terms and conditions pertaining to the marathon, and regardless of the various reasons why we went, the mysterious reason why and the people for whom we were told we were running.
Flyers with advice on the choice of decent running shoes, training and on which surfaces to train, and with particular regard to nutrition or healthcare are not a luxury, but a necessity for both marathoners and their friends who are merely interested in the ever growing culture of marathons.
Even more important, are the flyers that clearly illustrate a simple, easy to appreciate map of the routes to be taken, where the assembly points or holding areas are, and at what times the respective races will begin. MTN has been known to provide us with such. They have done it before. 2015 was not any different. The future is not.
Without such a flyer, some of us arrived at Kololo Airstrip for the 21 kilometres race, only to end up doing 10 kilometres. On retracing our steps to the starting point, where we thought we would find clear directions for the 21 kilometres race, we were not helped, and had to finish the 10 kilometres race albeit under protest and immense dissatisfaction.
It was left upon us to find such a map a day before the race. The two we picked by following the Twitter hashtag were too blurred and unhelpful. They did not offer much in terms of time, assembly points (or, like they put up small billboards for, holding areas), and starting times. All was left to our defeated imagination. We had to, like most, “go with the flow” of the mass that made up the 10 kilometres race.
- The marathon kit.
Admittedly, there are people in this town of ours who only register for the marathon for the ease with which it avails them with a plastic bottle, a squeeze bottle, a wrist-let and et cetera. I know some who have done it, for years, and never turned up for a single marathon.
Fortunately, this is an illustration of the influence and exuberance which come with the MTN Marathon. To exploit both, the organisers can consider designing a couple of kits that equally illustrates both. This, they can do by designing an all embracing kit for the regular marathoners, and treat partnering organisations, banks, hotels, institutions with the pleasure that is derived from uniquely designing for them.
Notably, there were so many kits that it became troubling. At one point we thought that the folks who had the colour blue on their backs were going for a different race as compared to those with the colour white. We were disappointed on finding out that there were, in fact, more colours than those we saw, and not enough races to match them with.
To iron out such confusion in the future, the organisers can try limiting the sponsors printed on the shirt by choosing one, universal kit sponsor. The variations from 2015 were a display of disorganisation and a possible “print more as more people register” situation. Let the kit be one and the same for all marathoners. Granted exceptions can and should only be made for organisations, institutions, communities and more which are, unexpectedly, capable to pay more for their uniquely designed kits.
- The races.
From our shared experiences, the 10 kilometres race, which is an important, not to be abused race, is treated with all the disrespect that it can certainly do without. Here is how; introduce a 5 kilometres fun race for both the little people who walk the 10 kilometres, and the not so fit parents who run, and poorly so, ahead and behind them while cheering them on and unsuccessfully convincing them that they are having fun.
By having four – 5km, 10km, 21km, 42km and corporate – races and informing marathoners properly about their assembly points before the race and different, successive start times in advance, we will definitely do away with the commotion, congestion, and possible stampedes at the starting line and on these narrow Kampala streets.
A 5 km fun race that starts much later would also embrace all the latecomers with whom we ran past while they tried to make it to the starting line on boda-bodas. It would also be more than good enough for a plethora of first time runners, and those who are not sure about themselves.
- The tracks.
A track is defined, by the English dictionary, as a course over which races are run. Nothing in that definition includes ambulances, vehicles, motorcycles, policemen, golf game-like galleries and other unwarranted creatures.
On a marathon day, a public road turns into a reserved track. A track should, at all times during a race, be cleared and free of any possible obstructions. It should have no hurdles like parked cars, moving cars, boda-bodas, photographers, videophiles, or any other non-marathoners on it.
The 2015 marathon was adequately littered with ambulances which blocked marathoners at the starting line, boda-bodas, cars, cameramen and more who should not have been sharing the same track as us. Personally, I had to spank the passenger seats of boda-bodas I found in my way and ask the riders to excuse us. Somewhere towards the National Museum, I saw policemen encouraging cars to join the track.
One of the members of the media, a cameraman, who did not have a distinguishing jacket as such, irritated me when he, standing in the middle of the track, and having failed to take a shot of whatever it is he was trying to, ran ahead of us to position himself and do better. There were ambulances which, on more than one occasion approached us, from the back, with wailing sirens, beckoning us to move onto the roadsides even when there was a free lane on the other side. These are just a handful of distractions we can do without next time.
To achieve this, the organisers would have to work with the police and the local authorities – like Kampala City Council Authority – to close, without fail, all the roads meant to be used for a few hours of such a marathon morning and appropriately divert the traffic on the alternative roads. Those not participating will have no option but to prepare accordingly as well.
They can purchase brightly coloured “POLICE LINE. DO NOT CROSS” or yellow MTN or keep specially branded MTN MARATHON tapes to use as barricades between the runners and the undesired distractions. A runner’s state of mind is not one to be distracted by unnecessary obstructions. That is one of the reasons they are given kits, to identify and distinguish them from those not actively involved in the race.
- Toilets, water, first aid, and massage points.
Before the race had even started, a friend of mine who used the toilets at the airstrip told me that they were horrible. Another told me that, during the course of the race, they looked out for a toilet and found only one somewhere near one off the three water points on the 10 kilometres race.
By my count, there were only three water points on the 10 kilometres route. Like they did not expect us, the folks who were giving out water were unpacking it (the bottles, from their polythene wrappings) as and when we arrived, and not much earlier. We, in fact, helped some of them do it. There were no dustbins or disposal units for the water bottles and soaked sponges we used and threw wherever pleased us.
My memory has no recollection of a first aid and paramedic’s tent on the 10 kilometres race. For a race that probably attracts the most, the absence of ready paramedics was shocking. A fainting person would have to wait for the sound of wailing siren in order to get treatment.
Unless the individual company tents after the finishing line had, there were no massage tents or areas designated for the same. The importance of massages after a knackering race cannot be exhaustively detailed. Notice was made of a team of dancers who were seen on stage engaging those who had finished their races as much as the announcer said he had helped them warm up for it.
Improvements can be made by positioning toilets, water, first aid, and paramedics points every after 3 or 5 kilometres. Nothing would help the runners plan well on how to run and when to take breaks if necessary. The races are about the runners. They pay well enough to be sufficiently catered for. It would help the hosts – the organisers – too, to monitor and manage the needs of their guests – the runners.
The 2015 marathon did not make the numbers when it came to volunteers. Volunteers are an integral part of a properly prepared for marathon. There are undoubtedly more than enough people in this town who would, for a simple tip, be motivated to come on board as volunteers.
The importance of volunteers can stretch beyond guiding the geographically poor marathon tourists, to distributing water and other resources, to ensuring that no people join in from the wrong starts, to ensuring that the timing boards – on the track – are used, to keeping unauthorised vehicles, people, pets, motorbikes and bicycles off the track and more.
We need volunteers. We really do.
- The aftermath
I drove back home with a thirty something years old colleague from my neighbourhood who, after doing his very first marathon, returned with a scathing head ache. His reaction to a marathon was not any close to the best. It would have been if there had been a paramedic to attend to him.
Certainly, he was not the only one.
Without a doubt, the organisers do make a lot of money from the registration fees. For a marathon that started and ended without any literature, it is not easy to tell where it all goes. Keeping the whole of it does not hurt, but informing us that at least a part of it goes to a named initiative to, for example, combat an avoidable illness will not make the organisers lose sleep or change their religions.
We are the ones who pay. We need to know what our money does. We want to be accounted to.
- The future.
Before we set out, a bigot of an MC said that the marathon was a wonderful MTN Uganda initiative which had now obtained an international status. He made the announcement in Luganda, a local language which, however popular, is not inclusive on the international stage. As Ugandans, our diversity is our strength. It is incumbent upon us to illustrate that strength by behaving like mindful citizens of the world.
The MC went on to recognize a couple of political and other leaders and representatives of companies. Personally, I found that unnecessary. If they were at the start or finish line, then they too, must have come along as fellow marathoners. There was a consistent marathon tourist who happens to be a Prince from a popular Ugandan kingdom in the 21 kilometres race. He did not suffocate from not being introduced to the crowd.
- Change of marathon name
World over, marathons are known by the names of the cities, towns, national parks, forests, charities, that they recognise. Boston. London. Guangzhou. Nairobi. Old Mutual Two Oceans. Comrades. The Red Cross. Big Five. Kilimanjaro. Kakakega Forest.
Renaming ours, from MTN Marathon to Kampala Marathon, would do us more than just good. It would be a source of pride while inviting someone to take part in a marathon organised by a company they are not and will not be customers to when it is done.
- Adopt internationally recognised standards.
Renaming our marathon to have an international appeal will not be enough. We need to partner with the IAAF so that it can help us adopt the most basic international standards. I am neither sure nor do I feel we are approved.
A marathon is a competition. Conducting it under the IAAF jurisdiction would, for example, help combat the international problem of doping by athletes especially amongst those interested in the prize money.
For this, we do not need to borrow a leaf, but the whole damn tree.
- Results and rewards.
Besides the now training vests and, for others, the helpful squeeze bottles, there is not much to keep as a reminder of our involvement in the marathon.
On asking the ladies at Lugogo Indoor Stadium who attended to me when I registered, they reminded me that there would be no certificates for those who took part, no medals for the finishers of the 21 kilometres race, and they could not explain the process of obtaining my results from an online platform if I wanted. They, in simple words, did not encourage me to take the marathon seriously. The Twitter handles too were quick with responses, but not the motivation.
With the input of an individual timing chip number, individual time results have previously been offered online. I have gotten mine from there before. I hope people are still able to get them.
In addition to that, the organisers can generate software whereby an individual can print out their own finisher’s certificates. Other countries are able to do this. Other countries do even more. They offer finisher’s medals to those who complete the 21 and 42 kilometre races. We too can. For some people – marathoners, it is about their rewards.
- Increase the registration fee.
A couple of years back, there were complaints I heard, they were to the effect that the MTN Marathon increases by UGX 5000 every year. Well, be it true or not is not of necessity.
The reason why, for example, concert tickets – Nile Gold Jazz Safari, to pick – are expensive is because people want to purchase them. MTN is blessed already. Every other year, tens of thousands of people want to go for the marathon. They can capitalise on that, and increase and maintain the fee to a standard figure of say UGX 30,000, or 40,000, or 50,000 (depending on which figure they choose, it would still be one of the cheapest in the region) because they are certain that people will still register for it. The marathon has grown its beards.
For the runners, it would be a good figure to guarantee that the organisers organise an event worth their time, and, importantly, that they are contributing towards a more worthy initiative if their money is well accounted for.
- Go national.
MTN can crystallize on its national presence by seriously considering conducting marathons in the major regions of the country. A marathon in the West Nile, Northern, Karamoja, Eastern, Busoga/Source of the Nile, Central, South Western, and Western regions of Uganda that happen at different times before the one in November would be a good opportunity for MTN, the local athletics federations, the local Olympic committee, etcetera to identify impressive athletes from those areas and to start a revolution of turning Uganda into a remarkable running country. It would, also, be an excuse for marathoners, tourists, and the general public to travel – physically or remotely via media channels – to those regions to appreciate the beauty of our beautiful country.
From my experience as a countrywide travelling cricketer, I am certain that there are more than a handful of talented or gifted sportsmen – across the board – in Uganda who have not been provided with an opportunity to shine on both national and international scales. Not everyone has to wait for November to come to Kampala. The Kampala one, held in November, can be the “world cup”, our representative, national marathon.
I believe that maintenance of this “command and control” methodology, whereby the organisers tell and hand us what to expect and expect us not to tell them that they have made mistakes or can do better than their best can be curtailed.
The organisers are only helping us put together an event which would not happen without our money and participation. Without us, it would not happen.
With a little more openness, a little better organisation, an attempt at paying more attention to detail, and getting the mere basics right, we can do a whole lot better than we currently are.