This Beast of a Mountain Race Will Test Any Runner

This Beast of a Mountain Race Will Test Any Runner

Tea plantation with the Mulanje Mountains in the background.

SourceObie Oberholzer/laif/Redux

Why you should care

Only 50 international runners take up the challenge each year.

Brighton Mpumila, a 77-year-old from Muthuka Village, has participated in every Mount Mulanje Porters’ Race since 2010. But he’s not running to win: He participates to keep his septuagenarian body in shape and show his support for the conservation of the Malawi mountain. Mpumila takes his time finishing the grueling 22-kilometer event — usually about 10 hours — and “I have contentedly maintained the last position in the race,” he says proudly.

Over 400 people from across the world participate in the race every year. It began as a local competition aimed at raising environmental conservation awareness but gradually became an international sporting event. There are actually five races held annually at the mountain, drawing both professional and casual runners, but Porters’ race attracts competitors from far and wide — 50 participants on average from America and countries in Asia, Europe and the African continent — and close to 1,000 spectators.

Richardson receives her souvenir in the 2016 race photo by sam majamanda

Margaret Richardson, 51, receives her souvenir for participating in the 2016 race.

Source Sam Majamanda

Every year since 2014, Margaret Richardson, a 51-year-old woman from Bradford in England, has made the long trip to run the Porters’ race. She says it’s an exceptionally challenging and risky race that nurtures the joy and passion for running — an experience definitely worth the cost, and one she’d like to see more international runners try out.

Along the intense route, racers are treated to views of spectacular waterfalls, lush vegetation and majestic peaks of other mountains in the valley.

Taking place on the first Saturday of July every year since 1996 (when participation was limited to locals), the two-peak race begins and ends at Likhubula Valley west of the mountain. The first peak is Chambe Plateau, which is about 2,500 meters above sea level, and the second is Lichenya Plateau. Along the intense route, racers are treated to views of spectacular waterfalls, lush vegetation and majestic peaks of other mountains in the valley — even the city of Blantyre to the west. But the course can be brutal, with the scorching sun on one peak and strong winds — sometimes rain — on the other.

But the race is not just about who crosses the finish line first. It’s also about bringing awareness the environmental sensitivity of Mulanje Mountain. Before the race starts, every participant plants a Mulanje cedar tree seedling (a cypress that was declared Malawi’s national tree but has been heavily plundered over the past years). This ritual signifies the ongoing commitment toward replenishment of endangered species. In the lead-up to the competition, there are also messaging efforts that stress the importance of environmental protection.

Runners start off up the mountain photo by sam majamanda

Over 400 people from across the world participate in the race every year, but only 50 are from countries other than Malawi.

Source Sam Majamanda

The race is typically won in two and a half hours on average. Winners are declared in both local and international categories — each taking home a prize of K150,000 ($208) along with a souvenir bundle of Malawian clothing, kitchen utensils and sculptures made especially for the event, says race organizer Kondwani Chamwala, who has been championing the event for several years. In the past five years “the competition has been impressive” with record-breaking wins, he says, reducing the average winning time by five or more minutes each year.

“I’ll definitely go again,” says Drew Billings, the international winner in 2017, via email — for the past two years it’s “become part of me.” The interaction with racers from all over the world, coming together in a small country that is so welcoming, gives him a feeling that he gets nowhere else, he adds.

Go there: The Mount Mulanje Porters’ Race

  • Directions: From Chileka International Airport in Blantyre, drive about 10 km south to Blantyre main city. Then take the M2 road to Mulanje district, 75 km east. Once in Mulanje, near the Chitakale Trading Center, turn left onto an off-road to Likhubula Valley (a 10 km drive).
  • Date: First Saturday of July (next race is July 7, 2018)
  • Entry fee: K1000 for locals and $10 for internationals.

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