Grisly encounter: How can a life-changing episode like this take less than 10 minutes?
What you need to know:
- The shoe became a friend—my partner—giving the item up meant to throw in the towel and accept defeat
- 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:
The blade struck with force and easily carved through the flesh on my wrist, cutting into the bone.
Concurrently, the taller man, wielding a baseball bat masked by his jacket, swung as if attempting a home run.
Spotting his actions, a fraction too late, his club cracked against the side of my skull bone, and I blacked out, collapsing to the sands.
I could not have been unconscious for long, but when I came to, my lips lay pressed against the salty sand.
The perpetrators, squatting behind, struggled to untie the triple-knotted lace of the one remaining shoe.
Engrossed in their activities, the villains were oblivious I had roused. They chuckled, referring to me as ‘dead meat.’
Should I lay still, wait till they departed?
But what if the man took another swing?
I knew I must fight to defend my life.
Rapidly scrambling up caused Mr. Machete to rise.
Thrashing the blade, he again focused on my head, but this time I was alert.
Eyeing the threatening metal, I frantically brandished a bloodied arm, foisting the limb like I might a sword.
With the uninjured hand, I struggled to snatch his wrist.
Meantime, the pain of all the pains merged and swirled like one vengeful demon prancing inside of my skull.
The lanky man must have clambered up too—his club smacked my flesh.
Diving and darting, by luck, the blow missed my head and fell upon the mid-back.
Flinching, the strikes were a minor distraction, and I knew I needed to concentrate on seizing the machete.
When the lunging blade next thrust forward, I threw my body weight against the skinny villain, knocking him sideways, and managed to grasp hold of his arm.
Some frantic gripping and twisting caused him to drop the blade.
Quickly I plunged and grabbed the deadly weapon.The game changed.
Each time my mother dragged me as a child to any youth activity, she noted that one day, these skills would become of value.
Only now did I appreciate the fencing classes I attended as a preteen at the YMCA.
Emboldened and lurching like a swashbuckling pirate, I yelled, “Okay, fairer odds, huh?” The fight ended, but not to the satisfaction of the robbers.
The baseball man castigated his colleague for releasing the blade, “Mujinga,” he screamed, labelling the man a useless fool, “Fanya kitu,” do something!Defeated, Mr. Machete spat out words in English, “Give me that shoe. That shoe is not doing you good.”
Fleetingly, I thought of the irony of donating footwear, yet here I stood, life on the line, arguing over one solitary shoe. Had I been asked, I would have gladly provided the gear to the men when leaving Zanzibar.
But that Nike symbolised the victory of this fight. The shoe became a friend—my partner—giving the item up meant to throw in the towel and accept defeat.
“The shoe is mine. Do you want to steal it? Well, walk forward and try.” I responded, raising the blade, making all intentions clear.
After conferring in garbled Swahili, the svelte man retaliated with astonishing absurdity, “Alright. But I want that panga (machete) as that panga has a belonging to me.” Hardly believing his words, I wondered, were they serious? I countered, “No way, do you think I am stupid? NO WAY!”
Cursing loudly, the men slowly began a retreat towards the palm trees.
They carried the treasures of my left shoe, a wristwatch, and a pair of plastic sunglasses. With muscles quivering and the machete still raised high, I waited till the outlaws passed from sight before I relaxed my stance.
Standing in solitude, I assessed the injuries. Gore dripped like red treacle from the head and seeped out of the gash on the wrist.
Splatters of blood dyed my singlet and shorts.
A five-inch opening ran along the front of my hand to near the little finger, exposing white bone. How can a life-changing episode like this take less than ten minutes?
An acute sickening ache pulsated through my brain.
Get the heck up
Using the left hand and a fair amount of trepidation, I touched the right cheek and brought my fingers higher up the face.
Realising the head, of all places, was fractured freaked me out.
Nausea, to the pit of the stomach, provoked my knees to buckle. Incongruously I assumed I should lay on the sand and rest for a while.
Sinking to my knees and extending the left arm to support the weight, I lowered the non-injured side to the beach.
With rest, I reasoned, I might recover some strength. Drowsiness, with a magnetic force, pulled me to the sands. Sleep must help, a brief nap, not long.
When my head reached within inches of the sand, a voice vaporised every thought.
As if a bullet had fired, the words rang with urgency.
Get up, Toby. Do not dare to lie down—your purpose is not complete. Get the heck up.
Whoa, what is that? Despite being alone, my head jerked to the right. But, looking for what? I have never undergone an out-of-body experience, seen visions, or incurred hallucinations, yet the words sounded like someone else’s voice.
Quickly, I scrambled up. Who spoke, or did I talk to myself?
Nevertheless, those words presented the bitter truth; time slipped away. Immediately a deluge of depressing thoughts brought shivers.
What if I did go to sleep? Would those men creep back for the shoe and drag a knife across my throat?
Did the felons hunker behind the coconut trees? Why did I contemplate sleeping? After running at full pelt and entangled in a violent brawl, my pulse should be racing instead of slowing down to restful beats.
And if I did go to sleep, was that the end?
Is this it, and have I lost too much blood already and would not wake up?
Seeing the scarlet dribble from my body is under no circumstances a pleasant sight.
A clammy sense of urgency overcame me, cold sweat in a burning heat—I desperately needed help.
Fear flooded my veins, crying for me to act, do something. I removed the stained Irish team singlet, and yes, it was a gift from The Berk.
I tightly fastened the material around my wrist above the gash, hoping to lessen the bleeding. Scared, I had no idea how to halt the globs of blood oozing from the skull.
What to do? Should I walk the approximate distance of three miles (4.8 km) back to the bike?
But I might collapse if I did not receive assistance soon.
On the other hand, if I ran, although significantly slicing time, the blood would pump faster from the wounds as the heart rate will increase.
In a split second, I knew if I wished to survive, I must run to save my life.
I set off on the toughest task I had ever undertaken, wading forward through relentless and agonising hurt.
Shuffling my feet, the notion of whispering yoga Oms, with the mad hope of keeping the pulse at its minimum, came to mind.
Never practicing yoga, I had only read about this method, but let me try any ploy.
The excruciating pain drove me forward, and as I ran, I battled the mind. I cannot run, but I can run. Om. I will not run, but I must run. Om. I cannot run, but please run. Om.
It was both the worst, and I later understood, the most significant run of my life.
Each footfall hit like a sledgehammer striking the bone of the skull, and I begged to know how many more steps before I crumbled woefully to the beach?
A blurring smudged my right eye’s vision, and tiny colored stars, like cartwheeling crystals, confused the view in both eyes.
Despite slogging along the shoreline to hug the most direct route, I barely heard the roars of the breathing ocean as a clamorous droning hum ricocheted off the hardened bone inside my head.
Moping in misery, I limped with the understanding I had one option if I were to survive; keep on running.
Thursday: In a split second, I knew if I wished to survive, I must run to save my life. Running with Destiny — An Odyssey of Mistakes, Machetes and Miracles is available at: amazon.com.
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.