Whenever Eliud Kipchoge runs, the world takes notice, affording the Kenyan athlete similar status to that given to Roger Bannister after the English doctor had broken through the four-minute mile barrier at Oxford in 1954.

The only human to have run the standard marathon in under two hours, Kipchoge commands significant respect in marathon matters, and when the world record holder ran through ‘big five’ country recently, a global buzz of excitement followed his footprints.

Kipchoge joined wildlife rangers and Tusk Lewa Safari Marathon race-director, Sarah Watson, on a run through the Lewa Conservancy in northern Kenya to promote the race which, like many other global events, has gone virtual. Kipchoge’s run on the course has ensured the race, scheduled for June 27, has now also gone viral, with distance runners around the world wanting to be a part of this important conservation project.

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy anti-poaching rangers Kapuna Lepale (left) and Kalaile Kaparo (right) run with marathon record-holder, Eliud Kipchoge in a practice run for the Virtual Lewa Safari Marathon. Photo: Jeff Waweru

The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, based in the foothills of Mount Kenya, is a model conservation project for the conservation of wildlife in Africa. Apart from the protection of endangered species, Lewa supports a strong community outreach programme in education, healthcare, water, micro-enterprise and youth empowerment. British-based registered charity, Tusk, has as its mission “to amplify the impact of progressive conservation initiatives across Africa” and it supports fifty conservation projects in twenty countries to enable it to succeed in doing so. Lewa Safari Marathon is one of their most important fund-raisers.

For over three decades, the strong conservation and community practices at Lewa have created a robust ecosystem for a thriving black rhino population and a multitude of other species, including the endangered Grevy’s zebra, elephant, lion, cheetah and giraffe.
Lewa’s vision is that people across Kenya will value and benefit from wildlife conservation but the current pandemic is threatening that goal.
“We have already seen a spike in poaching for bush-meat,” admitted Tusk CEO Charlie Mayhew.
“The absence of travel into Africa is a blow to conservation. Retrenchments of rangers and other staff linked to the support of visitor
programmes is already taking a toll. So, we are looking at creative ways of raising funds to support Lewa.”

Cue in Eliud Kipchoge, for several years a Lewa Ambassador, and his passionate call for runners around the world to join him in running the virtual Lewa Safari Marathon. Kipchoge and his compatriot and world half-marathon record holder,
Geoffrey Kamworwor, gave the event their stamp of approval last Saturday after enjoying a training spin on the course.

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy anti-poaching rangers Kapuna Lepale (left) and Kalaile Kaparo (right) run with marathon record holder, Eliud Kipchoge past a herd of buffalo in a practice run for the Virtual Lewa Safari Marathon. (Photo: Jeff Waweru)

“It meant a lot to run with (Lewa’s) rangers,” said Kipchoge. “To run with the people who watch over wildlife, taking care of rhino and
elephant when we sleep at night, is actually an honour.

“I’m very pleased to back Lewa and Tusk in their efforts to raise much- needed funds to project Kenya’s wildfile and provide vital support for communities across my country. I urge everybody to participate in the virtual marathon – run in support of Lewa wherever you are!”

Kamworwor echoed his compatriot’s views. “It was very inspiring to run with the rangers today in this beautiful conservancy…I would ask the rangers to continue doing a good job, because they are conserving our wildlife and environment.”

For Watson, who has worked for Tusk in Kenya for twenty years, the opportunity to run with Kipchoge and Kamworwor was a dream come true.

“Although I’d met Eliud several times when he previously came to Lewa to run the half marathon a few years back, running with Eliud has always been on my bucket list.
“It was an incredible experience. He is the most humble, amazing individual and I’ve never seen a more natural runner. He and Geoffrey
had already had a 23km training run that morning before running 17 km with us in Lewa, so they were happy to take it as an easy jog.
“But the pace gradually picked up and towards the end we were pushing to keep up. One of the rangers asked Eliud if he was still jogging. He laughed and promised he was. He was scarcely breathing!

Eliud Kipchoge (front, centre) runs with Lewa Wildlife Conservancy anti-poaching rangers and conservationists during a 16km training run. (Photo: Jeff Waweru)

“Eliud loved the run. We caught sight of elephant, rhino and zebra – in the distance – but his highlight was a dung beetle hard at work pushing dung across the path. He stopped to video the action.
“And the great thing is that Eliud has promised to run a marathon on our race day on 27 June from wherever he is based at the time. So, everyone who participates will do so in the knowledge that they are running with Eliud!”

Unlike other African marathons, such as Cape Town and Lagos, whose virtual races deliberately retain a competitive element, Lewa Safari is all about passion, partnership and participation. “We normally have 1400 participants in our annual event at Lewa, each raising at least £1500,” explained Mayhew.
“This time there isn’t a race, there’s no entry fee and there’s no stopwatch. It’s all about running for a cause. To raise a similar amount, we’re looking for mass participation. We have 500 entries to date and aiming at many more before race day on 27 June this year.
“Although entrants can run 5km, 10km, 21km or the full marathon anywhere at any time,” continued Mayhew, “we expect that many will run on the official race day and we encourage anyone interested in helping to conserve Africa’s heritage to enter now.”

Apart from Kenyan running royalty, the event also has the support of British royalty. Pippa Middleton, sister to Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, ran the race three years ago and there appears a chance her famous brother-in-law will join the virtual race this year.
“I have seen for myself the inspiring and vital work that Tusk and its many partners do throughout Africa,” said Prince William. “By combining the protection of species… with the delivery of real benefits to local communities, Tusk continues to highlight that preserving the natural world is in all our interests.”

Foreground- Lewa Wildlife Conservancy Head of Anti-poaching Edward Ndiritu (left), marathon record holder, Eliud Kipchoge (middle) and Sarah Watson, Tusk Director of Programmes finish a 16km practice run at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. (Photo: Jeff Waweru)

Other celebrities participating in the virtual run include Welsh mezzo- soprano opera singer, Katherine Jenkins and English television
businesswoman, Deborah Meaden.

The last word belongs to Eliud Kipchoge. “As the world comes together to tackle the impact of the corona virus, please join me by participating in the Virtual Lewa Safari Marathon.”

Entries are open for runners wishing to run the virtual Lewa Safari Marathon on the race website on https://www.lewasafarimarathon.com/