The oldest trail running footprints in the world were discovered about 10 years ago, these 19,000 year old footprints are preserved at the bottom of a sacred Masai volcano called the Mountain of God, near to an alkaline lake that is home to some 2.5 million flamingos. This is our reconnection to those first trail runners.
We stood there in the baking sun, the temperature pushing into the mid-40s, the ground radiated immense heat. It was like standing in an oven. Towering high above us, was Ol Doinyo Lengai – the Mountain of God in the local Maasai, an active volcano soaring out of the Tanzanian Rift Valley to around 3,000m high. Some 19,000 years ago, people were standing in the very same spot we were now. Not just standing but running! Their footprints exquisitely preserved in the mud, now rock. Their toes, even droplets of water which spilled off their feet as they ran marked the very moments they ran through the mud.
For me, trail running is all about reconnecting with the wild. The wild is where we began and deep down it’s who we are. Running is such a simple and beautiful movement and connects us across race, culture, gender and time. It’s something hard wired in all of us, from that moment we are born and the instinctual feeling of fight or flight, to escaping our cluttered lives as adults running out down a trail.
It had taken a 14-hour flight and 7 hours on jeeps of unmade roads to get to this location, Lake Natron, near the border with Kenya, but here we finally were. It felt like we had landed on Mars. Yesterday, we had run through the tiny village of Ngare Sero, the only village on the southern shore of Lake Natron. It felt surreal and exciting to be finally running in this land. This really is the true definition of wild! The local Maasai called out and waved as we ran past. Some even came to run with us. It was an amazing experience and one that I will treasure for a lifetime. In that moment we ran together, we ran because we all loved running, and everyone was laughing. The kids joined us and soon we were all running just because it felt good to run. We couldn’t speak Maasai, but no language was needed to convey that incredible connection made for just an instant.
Life is on the edge here and there is no doubt that survival for most who live here is an everyday experience. I was working with a team of very experienced leaders, facilitating students to help play a part in an international schools’ project, which aimed to provide sustainable access to food and funding for local schools. Nothing is what it seems though in this part of the world and although we were right next to the 6th largest lake in Tanzania, it was highly toxic to humans with its high alkalinity, but because of this, it is also sanctuary to 2.5 million lesser flamingos. The volcano which regularly erupts (last erupting in 2013) and destroys everything in its path was the very reason why these footprints had been preserved and what created the lush pastures in the rainy season for thousands of wildebeest to calf on their migratory route and indeed what gave life to this area.
We sat with those footprints for some time, it was emotional and truly humbling. I thought back to my relationship with running, and how deeply it is part of who I am. My hands gently touched where their feet had landed in the mud. The scene that I now saw, the lake shimmering behind me in the extreme heat, the Mountain of God dominating this land, those runners would have had the same view some 19,000 years ago. For a moment I felt we were somehow connected. The first trail runners and me.