Toby Tanser

Toby Tanser jogs in New York’s Times Square. Motivated by a life-threatening attack by thugs in Africa that saw him require specialized treatment abroad, Tanser has been using athletics to raise funds for healthcare projects in Africa.

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Cracking the cranium and the message of the millennium

What you need to know:

  • We drove painfully slowly from the Nairobi Airport as the engine squealed and screamed. I rejoiced to be back in Africa
  • On Christmas eve, Toby Tanser, an athlete, humanitarian and founder of the Shoe4Africa charity, organised a relay race from the Equator to Eldoret with elite and legendary runners to break ground for a new children’s cancer hospital. We follow Tanser’s charity through excerpts from his latest book: Running with Destiny – An odyssey of Mistakes, Machetes and Miracles:

During the last quarter of 1999, the Big Apple appeared on my travel agenda as, after some alcohol-induced behaviour, I hooked up with a lady dwelling in Manhattan. Learning of my unique vacation, she decided to tag along.

Explaining the workload of running and documenting stories at the training camp, I strongly warned against her participation—this would not be a holiday. However, to my dismay, she insisted on following me to Africa.

* * * * * *

With the car gearbox locked in first, Peter Nzimbi, the driver, apologised and warned of the bone-rattling vibrations.

We drove painfully slowly from the Nairobi Airport as the engine squealed and screamed.
But I did not care; I rejoiced to be back on African soil.

The New Yorker instantly regretted her decision.

Not understanding a car is a luxury in Kenya, she complained bitterly, shaking her head and mumbling under her breath. In truth, this should be the ultimate adventure if you were a running buff.

I kept silent—wait till she saw the accommodations. The initial intention scheduled a fortnight of research in Ngong, then bussing to Tanzania for a week.

There, run up the mountain before returning to a month of writing in Eldoret. However, sharing the summiting plan with my companion, she expressed no interest in stepping one foot on Kilimanjaro.

She depicted a woman who demanded to be within the arm’s reach of a hairdryer at all times.

She reasoned, since she would ‘tough it out’ in Ngong, I should concede to her wish of a beach holiday for the millennium.

Seriously, what was extraordinary about a beach? Beaches satisfy the people who wish to relax with a paperback, slobber under the sun, and sip sickly cocktails—everything about a beach holiday bored me stiff.

Moreover, compromising was never my style, but, against my better judgment, I somehow agreed to a vacation on an island called Zanzibar, fifteen miles (24 km) off the Tanzanian coast.

Thus, four days before Christmas, after one of us enjoyed a superb experience training with the world’s best athletes as the other person sulked and soured in bed suffering from twenty-four-hour headaches, we boarded the Dar es Salaam bound jitney.

Upon arrival in Tanzania, the bus scheduled an overnight stop in Arusha. With an old telephone number, I tried unsuccessfully contacting the parents of my deceased friend, Simon Robert Naali.

Tragically, in 1994, Simon died of a head injury when struck by a car. I wanted to pay my respects and relate how the cigarette-day story had dramatically changed my life.
Sadly, no one answered the telephone—I felt empty at not connecting, and an overwhelming urge to turn back to Nairobi rushed through my mind.

 At daybreak, the coach motored us to the coastal African tourist resort of Dar.
Although the vehicle limped along—decrepit, cramped, and musty—gazing out of the windows, viewing this jewel of a country proved to be most enjoyable.

In Dar, we went straight to an affordable hostel, eager to ferry to Zanzibar the following morning.

On the tropical island, our accommodations underwent a dynamic upgrade. Stunning describes the location of The Coconut Beach in Jambiani—built just a hop and a skip from the brilliantly blue Indian Ocean.

Yet for a man who longed to run in a lesser humidity, socialize with vibrant souls eager to uplift their lives through sport, and delve into the writing project, this laid-back sanctuary bored me senseless.

The upgrade did little to reduce the grumbles and dissension in the relationship; that partnership had drizzled to a complete dead-end.

It was bad luck she spoiled the millennium dream, and I blamed myself for allowing her to manipulate my plans. After the New Year, I would insist she fly to New York rather than accompany me back to Kenya.

On December 27th, we relocated to Stone Town for the anticipated festivities. Lodging at the Dhow Palace, a quaint, smart boutique hotel formerly owned by the Omani royal family, we settled in the center of town.

I succumbed to the reality of no Kilimanjaro, but although I would never admit it, Zanzibar appeared a suitable runner-up prize.

Stone Town, steeped in history, arched as the ancient entrance to East Africa where explorers gathered supplies in the nineteenth century before embarking upon treks to navigate and map out the continent.

The pioneers David Livingstone, H.M. Stanley, and Joseph Thomson all docked here.
The town’s architecture is elaborate, and the sculpted masonry reflects the influence of the Arabs, Persians, Indians, Europeans, and Africans, who have all resided in the heritage settlement.

Breathing in the exotic smells of coconut, a wind tinged with sea salt, and whiffs of cloves and cardamom spices from the local market, I recognized how fortunate I was to holiday in such a dwelling. Yes, location-wise, ending the century here could be described as an incontestable privilege.

* * * * * *

December 29th, 1999. The day’s plan: Tourist meanderings in the morning, followed by a light lunch, and then conclude the afternoon with a fast-paced tempo run. Running brings serenity, fitness, and balance to my body, and a completed session acts as a stamp of validity to the day. My system operates like a dynamo, and if I do not expend energy, I explode.

I have never regretted the time I spent running, and even by the conclusion of this chapter, I am sticking by that statement.

Around 3pm., I was ready to run, and after waiting in the lobby for thirty minutes, my travel companion stomped down the wooden staircase—only today did I notice how heavily she trod with her splayed feet.

Honestly, I could hardly wait to return to Kenya alone and dive into the writing project.

Steering our rented motorbike, I drove, searching for a recreational field away from the congested town center. Full of tumbling handcarts, bell-ringing bikes, arm-grabbing aggressive traders, who cluttered the spider web streets, jogging close to the Dhow was impossible.

Speeding through town, navigating the perplexing traffic, I scouted for a park. Presently I spied a field with people out exercising.

Perfect, I positioned the bike next to a lofty building because it would be a landmark for orientation on the run. The week before in Dar, my cohort insisted on joining me for a pre-breakfast jog.

Disregard the irritation that I could not train at a reasonable pace, she complained from the first step to the last. The heat, the pollution, people, and the smell of the city all annoyed her. Listening to the prattle today would drive me insane—I advised she mingled with the joggers circling the green.

To the left, I caught sight of what looked like the opening of a secluded beachfront. “See you in forty minutes,” I announced, sprinting away before she could answer.

After a quarter-mile along the beach, the urban noise dissolved as the roar of the waves drew me into a hidden paradise.

On the right, the immense turquoise-teal Indian Ocean glistened under the rays of the dipping golden sun, and on the left lay a thickset emerald wallpapering of flowering palm trees. The bleached sands, perfectly leveled by the waters pounding, made for a heaven-sent footing.

The tempo increased effortlessly as my feet danced off the beach—every sinew inside this body synchronised to propel me forward. Two dolphins, thirty meters away, soared from the surf heading north like aqua stallions for my chariot, inspiring me to run farther and faster.

After training in Kenya with the athletes who conquer the world’s premier marathons, I felt I could charge through brick walls.

Nothing in sport beats the sensation of racing at top speed, the glorious adrenaline surge when your legs spin as smoothly as a greased bicycle wheel.

For the last fifteen minutes, there had not been a soul in sight, yet glancing ahead, I noticed two men moving briskly from the shade towards me.

Due to the excessive heat, I would have relaxed near the leafy palm trees. Surprisingly, the slighter man donned a jacket in the scalding weather.

His companion bore a blazer slung over an arm. Although loathing to break the momentum, I cantered to a jog before grinding to a halt.

Taking the initiative, I smiled, “Hello. How may I help you?” Hearing nothing, I shifted to Swahili, “Habari, unataka nini?”

The next couple of seconds occurred in a lightning flash.

Exposing an ugly machete concealed under his jacket, the slender of the two crooks sprang into action. Unleashing hatred and targeting the dead center of my skull with an iron blade—both broader and lengthier than his forearm—I was under attack!

Instinctively, acting in self-defense, my right hand flew up to shield my face.

Wednesday: How can a life-changing episode like this take less than 10 minutes? Running with Destiny — An Odyssey of Mistakes, Machetes and Miracles is available at:

About the author

After living in five countries on three continents, surviving two brain surgeries on either side of the skull, Toby intends on settling down—soon. He is a philanthropist, coach, author/writer, former professional athlete, race director, and founder of Shoe4Africa.

Profiled twice on CNN, featured as a Humanitarian of the Year for Runner’s World, with commendations by the Presidents of the USA and Kenya, he worked—unpaid—for two decades on charity projects. Most memorably to build East and Central Africa’s first public children’s hospital.

During this period, he constructed schools, hosted AIDS awareness, hookworm and peace events, and re-gifted thousands upon thousands of pairs of used running shoes.

Toby has authored the books Train Hard, Win Easy. The Kenyan Way, The Essential Guide to Running The New York City Marathon, More Fire, How to Run the Kenyan Way and now Running with Destiny, An Odyssey of Mistakes, Machetes and Miracles.