Malawian athlete Edson Kumwamba isn’t scared of big challenges. The ultrarunner has come through a torrid 2020 with enduring hope for the future. He tells us why he’ll always run with a smile on his face, no matter how grueling the race.
Q&A with Edson Kumwamba
Edson – you started trail running at nine years old. Had you done any running before that?
No, I was just happy to stay at home with my mother. Because I didn’t like to go to play soccer, she was thinking: “This boy doesn’t have any friends.” She was trying to find something that could entertain me. When I was nine, she took me to watch the Porters’ Race on nearby Mount Mulanje. The first year, I just watched. But the next year I decided I would follow the runners. My mother let me go. I came back eight or nine hours later. The following year, I did the same thing again. She was happy for me to keep going, because I’d found something that was fun. At that stage, I wasn’t thinking "I can run internationally." It was my father who encouraged me to think that way over the next couple of years.
Did you fall in love with running straight away?
Being up in the mountains was something that inspired me. But then I went to college to study welding and fabrication for three years. After that, I went to Cape Town, South Africa, to look for a job. I was working as somebody’s gardener, and one day he asked: “Can we go for a run?” I thought he meant on the road, but when he said he wanted to run on Table Mountain, it reminded me of running on Mount Mulanje. So we went. He was impressed by how I ran. He offered to introduce me to some races in South Africa. That inspired me to go into competitive running.
Why do you run? What makes you do it?
I love running on the trails. It’s a central part of my life. The thing is, you become addicted.
If I don’t go for a run in the mountains, even for just one day, then my body misses it.
I don’t sleep well. It feels like something is missing in my life.
What does a typical day’s running look like?
If I’m preparing for a race, I don’t worry about the rest of the field. But I’m always thinking about elevation and the kilometers in the race. If it’s a 60 km race, then I’ll go for different lengths of time each day: three hours one day, then two hours, then four hours. It depends on whether the race has got more climbing or more flat running. If I’m not preparing for a race, maybe I’ll just run for an hour and then come back.
How did Covid impact your plans for 2020?
2020 was very, very tough when it came to running events. In Malawi, we didn’t have a lockdown. But we couldn’t do any races. You could still go for a run at any time you wanted, but the race program was lacking. We were running without a goal. We weren’t preparing for anything. That was very difficult. I was meant to be running a challenge from London, UK, to Kigali, Rwanda. We were going to run for 50 days, pass through 24 countries, and cover 100 kilometers a day. It was going to be a nice challenge, and I was very prepared for it. But obviously it disappeared because of Covid, as did the Marathon du Mont Blanc.
Was it difficult to stay motivated?
No, it didn’t demotivate me because running – for me – is not about competition. Being in the mountains is a spiritual thing. It’s only me, trees, birds, animals and beautiful days. That’s what inspires me more than competition.
What are your plans for the next couple of years?
I want to achieve three things. First, I want to become a champion of Mont Blanc. Then I want to run a 150 km race in one day. And finally, I want to run the Ultra X World Championships in Slovenia in June 2021.
How does running benefit your day-to-day life?
The most important thing about running is that it clears your mind. But it also helps you to spiritualize. You learn how to forgive. When things go wrong, you know how to solve problems. And it helps with your body, your heart rate – everything. You’ll always feel fresh.
What do you think about when you’re running?
My late mother. When I’m running to the finish line, I will see my mother smiling like she was on my first race at Mount Mulanje. That vision inspires me most. That’s why when you see me running, even if it’s a 100 km race, you’ll see a smile on my face. That smile comes all the way from my mother on Mount Mulanje.
What would you say to someone new to running?
I urge everyone to start running. You just need to leave the couch and get into the trails. If you do, you’ll see a big difference from sitting in the house all day. Even if it’s just 20 or 30 minutes. It clears your mind. You become you as you really are. Running will change you – but only if you let it challenge you. If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you. Most people want change in their mind, in their body, in every aspect of their life. Running can give you that change. But you have to let it. You have to meet the challenge.
You describe running as a spiritual thing. Can you tell us more about that?
The world is becoming smaller. And when you run, it becomes even smaller still. You get new connections with everyone you meet. And in trail running, nature is everywhere. All the souls you meet on the trails are all beautiful souls. They have the same mindset of being peaceful again. They are friendly people and they become like family. It’s not about aggressive competition. It’s about getting to the finish line together and saying: “we did it." Trail runners will pick you up if you fall. They’ll push you on when you’re facing a climb. I have friends from almost every country now – and it’s all because of trail running.
Finally, how has running helped your local community?
When I started running as a child, I was running barefoot up in the mountains. When I went to South Africa, there were good shoes. But when I returned to Malawi, I found everyone was still running barefoot and climbing the mountain like that. They were good runners. So I wondered if there could be a way to help get some shoes to these running clubs. On sent a huge donation of shoes and every runner here is very, very happy. They’re still running, even though there are no races in Malawi, because they have these great shoes that keep up their enthusiasm. When I say to people in the morning “Let’s go for a run”, they all do it with a smile on their face. They’re all training. It’s amazing.
You’ve shown me the world.
The beauty on my doorstep. The glory of my landscape. And the warmth of runners from every country on the planet.
When I took those first strides, I didn’t know it would be like this.
I didn’t know you’d become so important in my life.
But when I saw my mother waiting for me at the end of my first race, I knew I’d found my shelter.
The place where I could clear my mind.
Let my worries drift away into the fresh mountain air.
My spiritual home. My sanctuary.
You’ve challenged me and changed me in ways I couldn’t imagine.
And we have so much more to achieve.
I look forward with hope.
To the races not yet run, the medals not yet won.
But most of all I look forward to the experience.
This run is dedicated to you.