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Destiny, determination and ultradistance: Meet Edson Kumwamba

When he was nine, Edson Kumwamba’s mother predicted he would race in Europe one day. After she passed away, he wondered if her dream would ever come true. How a winning smile and unbreakable spirit took a welder from Malawi to a start line on Mont Blanc.

 

It’s a warm summer’s afternoon in Zurich. As always after a lunch run, there are high fives outside On HQ. This was not just any lunch run, however. Firstly, we need to catch our breath before we can muster the energy to congratulate each other. This was a tough one. Some of us are bent double. That doesn’t always happen. It’s a lunch run, not a race. But second, and what makes this run really special, is that we’re joined by a guest. Elite trail runner Edson Kumwamba is in Zurich for a visit after running the 90 km Marathon du Mont Blanc a few days earlier. Edson isn’t breathing deeply. Edson isn’t even sweating. 

 

Our route was to the top of the Uetliberg, Zurich’s local mountain. It’s 15 km from the office to the top with almost 500 m of elevation. A solid lunch run by any standards. Edson’s verdict? “It was nice. A bit flat.”

 

That such mini-adventures are no challenge for Edson is no surprise when you understand how far he has come to get here – the ups and downs he has endured not only as an ultrarunner, but his entire life. 

 

Edson competing at the 2019 Marathon du Mont Blanc

Chasing Coca-Cola

Edson was born and raised in Nchatu, a village in the shadow of Malawi’s Mount Mulanje. Unlike for many of his contemporaries on the start line in Mont Blanc, organized sport was not a part of his childhood. The early foundation for his fitness came at four years old when he began walking a 16 km round trip to school. 

 

Though he was covering almost half-marathon distance daily, when Edson was 9 his mother decided he wasn’t active enough. There’s added irony to this now we’re sat talking (no longer out of breath) just days after he finished 18th in one of the world’s toughest ultramarathons. 

 

In a bid to spark his enthusiasm for sports Edson’s mother suggested they go watch the Porters’ Race on Mount Mulanje – a 22 km trail run which at the time was open only to the porters who carried tourists’ luggage on Mulanje’s wild hiking routes. At the finish line, Edson saw finishers being given Coca-Cola as a reward. And he wanted it.

 

“At the time it wasn’t easy to get a Coca-Cola in Malawi. I was interested, inspired. I said to myself, one day that must be me.”

 

His mother’s plan had worked. Seeing Edson’s curiosity awakened she said he could run the route the following year but he’d have to do so unofficially – not a porter and also underage, Edson was ineligible twice over.

 

She was true to her word. Cut to 12 months later and Edson is hiding in a bush waiting for the starting gun to fire so he can dash into the pack unnoticed. He made it past the race officials but it was a grueling experience for young Edson. The terrain was unforgiving. He didn’t even have shoes. But quitting never crossed his mind. By the time he reached the finish at the foot of the mountain seven hours later – some four hours after the winner, the prize giving had long since finished. Any chance of a Coca-Cola was long gone. But Edson’s mother was still waiting.

 

“She told me ‘Next year you go again. And one day, you will race in Europe.’ She saw I had potential.”

 

Edson did go again. As a teenager he would sneak into the race year after year, now spurred on more by the challenge and his mother’s prophecy than Coca–Cola. 

 

 

Trails and tribulations

In his mid-teens, Edson moved north to Kalunga where his uncle would pay school fees his mother could not afford. With no annual race to get excited about, Edson started playing football instead of running. Then, aged 17, he received bad news from Mulanje. His mother had passed away. Edson’s father had died when he was young, meaning he was now an orphan. He returned home for the funeral and felt very much alone. Craving familiarity, he didn’t want to return to Kalunga. 

 

Thankfully, an organization in Mulanje that supported orphans helped him continue his education. With the resulting qualification in welding and fabrication, a contact found work for Edson in South Africa. He jumped at the opportunity, with the plan of making enough money that he could start his own workshop in Malawi.

 

But on arrival in South Africa, things did not work out as planned. Unable to get a visa for the welding work, Edson took a job as a gardener to make ends meet. In a strange twist of fate, it would be this role that would reignite Edson’s running career. 

 

From hard times to fast times

Noticing he was wearing running shoes, one of his clients asked if he was a runner. “I told him no, not anymore,” Edson recalled. “The roads in South Africa were too busy and dangerous to run. The man then asked if he would like to go for a run in the mountains with him. He immediately had Edson’s attention. 

 

“When he mentioned the mountain, the memory of my mother taking me to Mount Mulanje came back. I said ‘let’s go’.” 

 

On seeing Edson’s skill at scaling the mountains, his new running buddy offered to take him to a local race – The 22 km Lion’s Head Challenge. They arrived late to the start with the everyone already departed, but the organisers allowed Edson to run anyway. Despite giving the rest of the field a 15-minute head start, he finished sixth. Now Edson didn’t want to stop racing. It wasn’t long before he’d established himself as a force to be reckoned with on the South African trail running scene. 

 

After making the podium at some shorter races, Edson decided to step it up to ultra distance, entering the 2015 Peninsula Ultra Fun Run (Puffer), an 80 km ultra-trail race from the tip of the Cape Peninsula up to Cape Town. This raised a few eyebrows among Edson’s fellow trail runners. 

 

“They said ‘it’s going to kill your body – you will never run again.’ I was like, ‘I ran 24 kilometers when I was 10 years old. I can handle it.’ “

 

Edson could handle it. In fact, it wasn’t his body but his navigation skills that were his undoing on his ultra debut. With less that 10 kilometers to go, Edson was in second place before he took a wrong turn. By the time he found the course again he had to play catch up, eventually finishing fourth. 

 

Missing family and friends, Edson then moved back to Malawi for a while. It was there that he began training more seriously. Edson was invited back to race the 2016 Puffer race, but it was again navigation rather than endurance that would be his nemesis. After driving for three days from Malawi to South Africa for the race, Edson missed the start by 15 minutes and was not allowed to participate. Others would have been infuriated but not Edson. He accepted it. Acceptance is something Edson seems to have a remarkable ability for. It’s difficult to imagine him angry or stressed. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine him in any state other than calm focus. 

 

It was then that a local businessman approached him and said he wanted him to win next year’s Puffer race. He offered him a job at a firm that made shock absorbers to fund his training. Edson accepted. And the following year he won the Puffer. Just five days later he won the 44 km Table Mountain Challenge. Edson had truly arrived. 

 

Dutch runner Suzette Von Broembsen finished second in the women’s event that day on Table Mountain. Before the race she’d read an interview with Edson in a trail magazine and she sought him out at the finish. In the interview, Edson had revealed his dream:  to fulfil his mother’s prophecy and race in Europe. Suzette offered to make it happen. 

 

Edson pushes the pace on a hot day in the Alps

 

Malawi to Mont Blanc

Fast forward to 2018 and, with help from Suzette, Edson is standing on the start line of the 90 km Marathon du Mont Blanc – one of the world’s most prestigious races. While the dust trails of Mount Mulanje vary greatly from the snow-capped Alps, Edson was in his element. On his European ultra debut he finished 20th – a remarkable achievement. 

 

Afterwards Edson did not return to South Africa, instead heading straight back to Malawi. Though his legs were still heavy from his alpine efforts, Edson couldn’t wait. He wanted to make it back to Mulanje in time for the Porter’s Race being held just days later. 

 

“I just wanted to feel the emotion of my mother taking me to Mount Mulanje.” Edson explains. “She never saw me run with a bib number. I had run the race many times before, but I wanted to do it officially for the first time.”

 

Almost 20 years after his mother had first encouraged him to run the Porter’s Race for the first time, Edson ran the Porter’s Race as an official entrant. He finished the race in 14th place, but the ranking didn’t matter.

 

“I wasn't running the race to compete but to feel the spirit of my mother. To feel the happiness she got the first time I finished the race.

 

“Now, whenever I race, I feel that emotion. If you see pictures of me running I always smile. I give that smile to my mother again. That’s why, when I finish a race I always greet other finishers, just like she greeted me when I finished when I was nine years old, even though there was no one else there.”

 

Spiritual fitness

Since then, Edson’s trademark high fives have greeted finishers at trail races in South Africa and far beyond. 

 

He made a nostalgic return to his first ever official trail race, the Lion’s Head Challenge, and won the race. He went back to the Puffer race and won again, setting a new course record in the process. 

 

Emboldened to take on new challenges, Edson moved back to Malawi to continue his development. To be a fearless runner, Edson required an environment without fear to train in.  

 

“Life in South Africa was affecting my running. It’s not always safe to go out and run,” Edson explained. 

 

"Someone pulled a gun on me and took my bag. I returned to Malawi, where there's little money but I live a peaceful life.”

 

“I needed that peace. My strength is a spiritual fitness. Whatever is in your head impacts your body. If you believe in weakness, your body will follow that weakness. If you're running up high and you think of falling, you can fall. It’s all about your heart and your mind. 

 

“The most important thing to me is happiness. Whenever I race, I don't think about being competitive. I think about how happy I will be during this race.” 

 

Alongside positivity, Edson counts simplicity among the keys to his success. After planting crops before the wet winter months, he feels lucky that he can grow enough food on his small farm to feed him all year. Once he has worked on his farm each morning, he’s free to run the Mulanje trails, measuring his training sessions by hours rather than distance. A six-hour session is a regular occurrence. 

 

As well as optimizing his training, Edson has been establishing a network of trail-running contacts that bring him new challenges. Like an invitation to the 2018 edition of the four-day Al Marmoon ultramarathon in Dubai, covering 270 km through desert dunes. 

 

It was like nothing Edson had ever experienced – “Every time you step the ground just disappears underneath you.” 

 

By the final day, sand in Edson’s shoes had blistered his feet so badly he could barely walk, let alone run the final 50 km. He only listened to the organizer’s pleas for him to quit when they promised they’d invite him back the following year. It was the first time Edson has not completed a race he started. 

 

“It was my first time and it'll be my last time.” he says, resolutely. “I am not a guy that quits.” 

 

The warm heart of Malawi

It’s this spirit, his winning smile and relentlessly positive outlook that has made Edson such a popular member of the ultrarunning community. You can’t help but like the guy.  The combination of his effortlessly affable nature, a clear talent for running big distances and a story that deserves to be told has seen Edson win friends the world over. And it’s this network that has unlocked the financial support needed to travel to races and get a bib. 

 

With support from Marcus Smith, a friend of On and the founder of performance company Inner Fight, Edson has been able to race in the Ultra X series of races. In the Sri Lanka event in April 2019 he took second place. He’ll soon race again in the series in the deserts of Jordan and in Chihuahua, Mexico, which will be his first trip to the Americas. 

 

Edson’s gratitude for such opportunities is what makes others want to help him. When he finished the 2018 Marathon du Mont Blanc organizers told him he was the “happiest finisher in the whole event.” Even after running 90km through the mountains, he took extra care to thank supporters at the finish. 

 

“They were there for such a long time, waiting just to show they respect us, that we are not crazy. So I respect them by sharing gratitude, my experience. It’s a spiritual thing. This is the trail running community. This is like my family.”

 

Edson brings home the 2019 Marathon du Mont Blanc with his trademark smile

 

That Edson smiles his way through his grueling races highlights the difference between elite ultrarunning and elite road races. While Edson is one of very few African runners competing in mountain races, road races the world over are dominated by Kenyans and Ethiopians. When asked why he chose to focus on trail running over road running, Edson points to the community environment that is unique to the trail scene. 

 

“In road running all the talk is about time and speed but when it comes to trail running, you are just trying to get to the finish line. There’s competition but it’s friendly. We help each other.”

 

While winning is nice, helping others is Edson’s primary driving goal. He hopes that his experiences and example will inspire young people in his native Malawi. Joining the elite trail-running communities in places like Chamonix, France or Boulder in Colorado USA, is not part of Edson’s dream. 

 

“I’m happy to stay in Malawi. I want to change the lives of the community in Malawi. I cannot inspire people like the children in my own community if I’m far away. They would say to me ‘you are only doing that because you are staying in fancy countries.’ “

 

Edson’s desire to promote exercise and healthy nutrition in the country were given a boost when, while training, he came across runners from the 2018 Orbis Challenge event.  Founded by British husband-and-wife team Dom and Kate Webb, the challenge sees participants combine technical trail runs through Malawi’s varied landscape with opportunities to understand the challenges facing Malawi – in particular the nation’s children. 

 

According to UNICEF,  23% of all child death cases in Malawi are related to under-nutrition while 37% of children in Malawi are affected by stunting (being too short for one’s age). Under the motto “sport with a purpose,” the Orbis Challenge will raise funds to help alleviate child malnutrion in Malawi. Edson will be one of a team of local guides at the event and is excited to show others the trails he has been running since he was a boy. 

 

“When they [Orbis Challenge participants] come, they will not get only a running challenge, but also interesting information about Mount Mulanje, my village and the people of Malawi. They will see the warmth we have. I’m sure they will want to come back again.” 

 

Such is the friendliness of its people, Malawi has been nicknamed “the warm heart of Africa.” And with Edson a voluntary international ambassador, this reputation is sure to grow. 

 

Just like last year, Edson couldn’t hang around in Europe after the Marathon du Mont Blanc. He headed straight from the On office to the airport so he could be back in Mulanje for the 2019 Porter’s Race. He was only with us for a day but we were sad to see him go. 

 

Just days after we’d said our goodbyes, Edson ran the Porter’s Race together with his friend Marcus Smith. Marcus had arranged Edson’s bib for the Marathon du Mont Blanc and Edson was delighted to return the favor in Malawi. 

 

Back on Mulanje, Edson finished eighth overall, but just like when he first ran the route as a nine-year-old, he wasn’t racing to compete. For him, this race, is about much more than winning. It symbolizes the start of a journey he hopes will gift a smile like his to others in Malawi who are less fortunate. 

 

Thankfully, Edson has lots to smile about. His mother’s prophecy has been fulfilled, but his story is just beginning. 

 

Want to run with Edson and hear his story firsthand? There are still limited places remaining for the 2019 Orbis Challenge, taking place 5–12 October. Participants will also be joined by two-time Olympic gold-medal winner and Orbis Challenge Ambassador Dame Kelly Holmes. For more information and to register, visit orbis-challenge.com. For updates and stories, follow right here at on-running.com and on Instagram

 

The Cloudventure
Edson's shoe for the Marathon du Mont Blanc: "I like this shoe because it is very light. And when you run long distances you need this kind of cushioning. They also have hard protection on the front which is great as you knock rocks when your legs get tired."
See the shoe

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