In the Nile Basin, on the Western border of Kenya lies the Republic of Uganda. While traditionally second fiddle on the global running scene behind the East African greats, Uganda has gained prominence in recent years through Stephen Kiprotich - London's Olympic champion in 2012 - Jacob Kiplimo - defending half-marathon world champion - and the current 5,000m and 10,000m world record holder, Joshua Cheptegei. The truly remarkable thing is that all of these greats hale from the same district of Eastern Uganda: Kapchorwa. Located on the slopes of Mount Elgon at just under 1950m altitude, the town of Kapchorwa is home to some of the world's most exciting up-and-coming running talent. We have partnered up with Mark Callaghan to create a community in the Wild Frontier.
Mark Callaghan used to have a full-time project management job in the tech sector in London. On the side, he would do a bit of part-time athletics coaching and got involved in community sports projects here and there. Most importantly, Mark was (and still is) an avid athlete himself. Having run Chicago, New York, Boston (twice), London (four times), Berlin and Comrades, and having represented England's Masters team at the Chester Marathon, it's fair to say the running bug got him pretty good. In fact, you may know him as @markc_run on Instagram, proud owner of the fantastic Adventures in Running blog.
But it was his race at the Uganda Marathon that changed his life. Not because he won it, but because it introduced him to the country that would become his home for years to come. In 2017 he left his job in London and set off to run bucket list races across the world, explore running culture in all its beauty and research that precious link between sport and community development. He partnered with events and organisations across the UK, South America, the US and, of course, Africa.
After a few years and a few chats with people in the know, Mark ended up in the small, historically closed-off community of Kapchorwa. His objective was two-pronged.
First, what Mark found in Uganda was "a nation of hustlers"; people with endless creativity when it came to making ends meet. But when it came to putting on events or taking initiative in developing their communities, everything was reliant on foreign benevolence. Without government support or investment, the generosity of strangers tends to be the alpha and omega. So, Mark asked himself: "how do you create a steady cash flow for athletes and sports organisations where there is no money?" The Uganda Marathon is a great example of how sports tourism can interact with community development through charity, but could it be applied to a more self-reliant model?
Inspiration wasn't far away. Looking at Iten, the Home of Champions, Mark realised that the answer may be found in making Kapchorwa a running destination. Having done his training for Comrades up there, on the slopes of the mountain, he could vouch firsthand for its qualities as a training hub.
So, Mark co-founded a community interest organisation called Run Kapchorwa with Daan Oxener. Its explicit goal is "using sport tourism for employent, capability and community development". Sam Village, founder of KOTWF, said: "Iten is a built-up place, it's established as a real hub for distance running. Thanks to Mark, Kapchorwa is at the start of that very same journey."
More locally, Mark is keen to examine what barriers to entry exist in Kapchorwa itself and how he can remove them so that the community can not only access its full potential as a breeding ground for athletic talent, but improve its very foundations in the process.
The first barrier is material. Believe it or not, but Uganda is much fonder of cycling than running, but there were no bikes in Kapchorwa... until Mark put time and money into fixing up three "old bangers" which belong to Daan's training and coaching enterprise. Not surprisingly, many locals don't know how to ride a bike simply due to scarce access to equipment. For women, there is the added cultural challenge. It was only when Mark started putting on ladies-only riding skills lessons for local women behind closed doors that seven women felt comfortable enough to learn.
Finally, perhaps the most glaringly obvious challenge: the lack of funding. "The problem with trying to make a positive impact in places like Kapchorwa is that you have to be able to maintain a steady, stable level of funding and resources. You cannot set an expectation and then not live up to it, otherwise you would do more harm than good," explains Mark.
In 2019, he started Sport for Africa with the aim of "exploring innovative funding for community sport". He wanted to bring together the spirit of entrepreneurship that runs so deeply in Ugandan society and the dire needs of community sports.
On top of that, through an athlete development fund, Mark and KOTWF will be able to partner with ambitious local athletes to give them access to equipment, competition, expertise and schooling. Those who have the drive and fire to train, compete and learn but find themselves denied the opportunity because of insufficient funding will be able to join Team KOTWF and find the Support they need.
united in the wild frontier
There is no better illustration of the Wild Frontier than Kapchorwa. It is raw talent, pure potential, endless possibility, but it's going to take work to materialise it. Team KOTWF has already found its first four members: Essan, Williams, Benson and Leonard. They were the fastest four in a duathlon trial held ahead of a 10k and Duathlon event Mark had planned to run this summer but which will have to wait as the Covid situation demanded yet another lockdown in Uganda. More on that later.
However, KOTWF has already reached Kapchorwa. Our community has grown larger and stronger. Once things ease, our ambassadors and community can head out to train and compete alongside Mark, Essan, Williams, Benson and Leonard. These are the first steps into a world of opportunity. The journey has begun.
All photo credit goes to the fantastic Juma Chebet (@jumachebet). Give him a follow on Instagram!
Keep up to date with Mark and his Kapchorwa adventures on Instagram
Find out more about the KOTWF brand pillars
Find out more about KOTWF coaching
Meet the KOTWF team