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On Second Thought

He’s not running to this safari

By Kevin Paul Dupont
April 17, 2011

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I’ve never run a marathon and I’ve never been on a safari. To be perfectly honest, they’ve never been on my bucket list and I doubt they are going to make it now, not with so many Swiss pastry shops and fine French merlots yet to cross off my list.

Granted, both a marathon and a safari sound extremely romantic and enriching, in the kind of way that running with the bulls in Pamplona would be cool beyond words, provided I could call home after it was over and not use the word “trampled’’ or “impaled’’ when telling my wife how my day out with the boys and the bulls went.

Running a marathon, I imagine, loses some of the romance when foot blisters begin to burn, then bleed. A true safari, in my romanticized version, would mean sleeping in a screened tent, sweating profusely in unbearable heat, with mosquitoes the size of Toyota hubcaps testing every seam. I wonder, would a deluxe safari supply Off in 55-gallon drums or just have it piped through the savanna like a public utility?

The Marathon moves to center stage tomorrow here in the Hub and if it plays to form, a Kenyan man or woman, possibly both, will head home a winner. It has been that way for 20 straight years. We aren’t your grandfather’s marathon anymore, unless gramps is from a tiny corner of East Africa. It really makes me wonder about the supposed torture of taking on Heartbreak Hill. As a group, the Kenyans laugh and sing out, “Love that Dirty Water!’’ as they render our mountain a mole hill.

What’s their secret? How did they get all the marathon goods?

Well, apparently Run with Kenyans can provide a peek into that mystery. Yep. After two decades of seeing Boston turned into a Nairobi field day, a group of entrepreneurs (see: runwithkenyans.org) has put together a running safari in Kenya. Now that’s romance.

For $2,900 (airfare not included), runners of all shapes and abilities — including those of us who only stand and watch marathons and offer up tiny cups of water to runners-by — can head to the epicenter of long-distance running. Makes perfect sense. If you want to know how the Kenyans do it, then go to Kenya and sink your toes deep in all that 26-mile mojo. The first Run with Kenyans safari lasts nine days, June 18-26, and the website includes a detailed list of frequently asked questions that cover most of what you’ll want to know. Maybe even more.

My eye, of course, went directly to the question addressing potential medical concerns.

“Malaria,’’ stated the website, at which point I instantly exhibited initial symptoms of the dreaded disease, “can be a concern in some areas of Kenya, and travelers are encouraged to take an appropriate course of malaria prophylaxis as recommended by their physician.’’

OK then, so it’s not for me, in part because I know the call to the doc just to find out about the “appropriate course of malaria prophylaxis’’ would mean forking out a copay of at least another $25. Copays now rank as America’s No. 1 killer, a notch above coaching indoor youth soccer.

Look, I bet the Run with Kenyans safari is a dandy trip. The website shows some beautiful (dare I say romantic?) pictures of Kenya — lush greenery that I never imagined — and it’s clear from the answers on the FAQ list that they will try to cater to your every whim and comfort. It looks especially intriguing for serious runners who want to observe, even train with, elite Kenyan athletes. For a kid who spent a week at Ted Williams’s Baseball Camp, I get the urge to rub elbows with the big boys.

According to Newburyport-based Marco Peterson, a 55-year-old retired high-tech guy who is helping to direct and promote the safari, one of the Run with Kenyan highlights includes entry into the June 25 marathon at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Dashing through the conservancy is entirely different than our course that has runners surviving only those animals along the sidewalk at Wellesley College.

“Wildebeests make their way right across the path of the Lewa marathon,’’ said Peterson, his voice as animated as one might expect at such a thought. “And it’s the wild, so there are carnivores on the course, too. But no one has yet been eaten.’’

That’s the kind of assurance I want on my romantic safari.

Kenya, noted Peterson, “really is a paradise,’’ and the trip also goes near Mombasa and offers safari-goers the chance to swim with dolphins at the edge of the Indian Ocean.

“Good,’’ I yelped, “at least dolphins aren’t carnivores!’’

“Uh, actually,’’ said a gracious Peterson, “I think they are.’’

Look, I’m sure if you go on the safari you will have a great time, peel seconds off your splits, and return with a keen understanding of and appreciation for what makes Kenyan runners keep on ticking and winning.

None of that, of course, guarantees that you’ll come home an elite, Kenyan-like runner, and I doubt anyone would sign up for a running safari thinking that a trip to the mecca of marathon runners would transform them into the next Paul Tergat or Robert Cheruiyot. Rarely, if ever, is any vacation or experiential tour so transformative.

Following the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino, Italy, I took a sidetrip to Florence and stared deep into the fixed eyes of Michelangelo’s “David’’. I found it moving, majestic, awe-inspiring. But I didn’t return home with an ache to chip away at a 3,000-pound block of marble or slay Goliath with a slingshot. I went. I stared. I got what I think there was to get, then I had a great espresso and beat it back to Rome ahead of the traffic.

I think it would be fascinating to learn why a country of 40 million turns out such superior marathon men and women, the latter group including the incomparable Catherine “The Great’’ Ndereba.

Is it genetic? Is it environmental? Is it socioeconomic? Is it training? Is it simply, you know, some secret we’re not meant to know?

Without downing a pocketful of antimalaria pills, I’m betting it’s a blend of DNA, place, social standing, urgent need to find a better life, and basic know-how developed over decades, if not millennia. Maybe we’ll never know the real answer, and that’s OK, too, because life is supposed to have a little romance and mystery. I’ll just look for mine to include some sumptuous chocolate and a perfect glass of red.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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