Long celebrates after completing the Standard Charted Nairobi Marathon last year. He ran 21kms virtually in 2:01:00 secs. PHOTO/FILE

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Stephen Ilungole: Man who ran everyday of 2021

What you need to know:

  • Although he had achieved his desirable body mass index that required his weight to be no more than 93kg, and was out to run for fun, the former journalist decided to take on the 100-Day Challenge Run, organised by Activate Uganda.

“The hardest part of running is putting on your shoes,” so goes a well-worn saying. And on December 30 last year, Douglas Mazune was determined to lace up his running shoes and take to the road, not for his own good or the usual habit but to pay a tribute to a friend.

“I turned in 10km this morning, which I dedicate to our man, Stephen Ilungole, who has been on the road daily for the entire year. Tomorrow, he will clinch this rare feat. Delighted to dedicate my last run of 2021 to him.

Friends, join me congratulating Ilungole,” Mazune posted about his former colleague in the newsroom.

Most people who know Ilungole would not doubt the journalist turned communication expert at power distributor Umeme had pulled off such a streak. The Umeme he works with might be struggling to be everywhere but where there is a run, there is always Ilungole.

Who is Ilungole?
However, not everyone knows the man fondly called ‘Long’ by his peers. So was such a streak even possible to begin with? How would anyone possibly have pulled up their jogging shoes and attire every single day of such a pandemic-stressful year as 2021 was?

“It was a wild dream when I was first introduced to the idea of running daily for 100 days,” Long says.

Stephen Ilungole, aka Long (left) and Mazune navigate a bend during the Labour Ministry Office and Occupational Safety Marathon in 2019. PHOTOS/COURTESY

“After achieving the 100 days, it became apparent that even 365 days is doable… and here we are,” he added.

The 100-Day and 365-Day Challenge Runs were organised by Activate Uganda, a sport events and adventure management company engaged in organising runs, mountain biking, swimming, multi-sports events and sports tourism groups.

Turns out Long’s crazy streak was not an isolated effort. As he logged in 4,092km, running an average of 11.21km every day of 2021, come rain, shine or Covid, 16 other Ugandans were doing the same.

For such a determination, Long spent 451 hours, 23 minutes and 24 seconds of God’s allocation of his time on earth last year, running. He ranked third among the 17 Ugandans streak makers.

Robert Okudi, who logged in 4,176.39km in 401:08.47sec, topped the charts with Alex Matovu (4,131.24km in 408:02.49sec) in second place.

The others are Enoth Mugabi, Grace Candia, Julius Nkuraija, Japheth Kirumira, Brian Ntare, and Jeff Sega. 
Anthony Natif, Michael Okot, Simon Tendo, Matthew Rubona, Carol Sonko, and Glenda Mugabi completed the group.

Standing at about 1.9m (6.2ft) tall, Long is more like his name. It is difficult to tell whether the nickname came from making a word out of his surname or because of his height, never mind that either motive would still be apt.

Daily, pork washed down with beers and an evening completed with whisky was the lifestyle that defined Long. And his body responded to what he ate with relish. The tummy started distending and soon it became another ‘long’ in the person of Long.

“That’s me before I started working on my weight in August 2017,” admits Long, showing a picture of himself at a run.

By then, he had been taking part in runs with his friend Mazune for a good seven years. Yet he could not achieve his desirable body mass index that required his weight to be no more than 93kg.

“For a long time, alcohol was my limiting factor. It didn’t matter how much weight I would lose, it returned with vengeance once I returned to full drinking and careless eating,” he says.

“The lifestyle was alcohol daily, accompanied with, yes most of the time, pork and any high carbohydrate foods.”

Having already got running into a habit, Long made a conscious decision to achieve his weight needs. He sought guidance of a nutritionist.

A July 29, 2020, nutrition therapy prepared by Regina Nantege of Regis Dietitian reads like what would be prescribed for tycoons Sudhir Ruparelia and Madhvani. 

Boiled or grilled or baked skinless chicken, sauted egg plants, grilled fish… The 14-day therapy looked like a very expensive burden.

“Your health is more expensive… health is wealth, bwana,” Long says defensively. “I didn’t find it expensive because I was focused on losing weight. Also, since I wasn’t spending on beer daily, it was easy to redirect resources.”

But even he did not actually go it all.
“I didn’t follow it to the dot, but it was very effective, especially when I reduced on alcohol,” he admits.
Isn’t it interesting that a guy with a streak of running every day for a whole year still has time for the bitter? If you are going to spend five percent of your day running every day, you have to have it in you to still sketch time for drinking.

“I now regulate but I dropped whiskey (Black Label specifically), which used to be my addiction,” he says. “Whiskey was my biggest undoing because it gives me a big appetite for soupy meaty stuff even late in the night.

“Because I dropped weight below my normal weight of 93kg, I’m able to occasionally indulge without fear of gaining weight quickly. Same with food. I stopped following that diet guideline as soon as I dropped to 85kg.”

Fun, challenge runs
Long had already achieved his weight loss goals when the running habit found him a new adventure. He was out to run for fun when he landed on the 100-Day Challenge Run, organised by Activate Uganda, who help track and document workouts of participants registered with them.

The sports organisation tabulates the data of individuals against fellow runners and also awards a finisher’s medal. 

Long (left) is served at the NSSF tent after the Nssf 7 Hills Kampala Challenge in 2017. This was before he started on his weight loss programme. 

Long has almost as many medals for his adventures as Joshua Cheptegei has for pro competition – if you will ignore the value differences.

“Running is just part of me now. I find myself running any time I feel idle,” he says. 

“But with the Challenge Run, there is accountability and much more to it too,” he adds.

“The overall goal of the 100 Days of Running Challenge is for each participant to run or walk a minimum distance of 3km for 100 consecutive days without missing a single day, rain or shine,” says Alex Matovu, the founder and managing director of Activate Uganda.

Matovu, who started Activate Uganda in 2006 as a hobby, said the purpose is to get the runners into a healthy habit of daily exercise. 

“Participants can set alternate personal goals within the 100 days but must maintain the minimum daily distance throughout,” says the running freak with several streaks, who placed third overall in the 365 days of running challenge that was led by South African Keith Reynolds.

What Matovu started by organising the Lake Victoria Triathlon from 2006 to 2009 has grown into pushing him onto the international scene where, on May 6, 2016, he participated in the 50km Solomon Hammer Trail in Denmark. He finished 21st out of 682 in six hours and 50 minutes.

“Our aim is to inspire more Ugandans, whether young or old, to actively take up sport as part of their daily lives,” the organisation says.

Challenge Runs reinforce accountability among the participants in a way Long says pushes them to maintain consistency when working towards a goal.

“This is a behavioural change thing, so you need to associate with your new intended lifestyle like-minded group to succeed,” Long says. 

“Members start posting their workout results on the group as early as 6am. That certainly puts you on your toes to work out and share.”

Long participated in all Activate Uganda group running activities during the year mainly virtually due to Covid-19.

And all the activities are captured and shared on the WhatsApp group for accountability. Activate Uganda helps participants registered with them to acquire digital watches that connect to GPS to enable accurate timing and distance mapping.

The journey
“To-date, we have completed six editions of Activate Uganda 100 Days of Running Challenge series, which started on January 1, 2020. With just a few days to the end of the first edition in 2020, participants decided to change the challenge to Activate Uganda 366 Days of Running Challenge since it was a leap year. We never looked back since then and we are still going. 2021 was as 365 of Running.”

For Long, the dedication is such that his running equipment is the first thing he packs when his Umeme duties demand travels.

“I have different routes in Mbarara, Gulu, Mbale or even Jinja where I have spent nights while on field assignments throughout 2021. I never used being out of home as an excuse to miss a run,” he says.

In its first challenge in 2020, Activate Uganda registered 23 starters, 20 of them completing the challenge, Matovu says.

For Season Two of 2020 (July), they received 51 entries, with 47 finishers, and in Season Three in September, the numbers dropped to 15 entries with 14 finishers.

“One can choose to run or walk… wherever they want. The key and most important is being disciplined, honest and truthful to yourself. They are required to submit evidence of their workout to group on the WhatsApp,” Matovu says.

“The device (Garmin watches) they use to record the workout must reflect the date, time spent, and distance covered during the workout. An administrator checks and tracks all records to ensure the required distance is met and no days are missed,” Matovu explains.

Last year, Season One had 33 entries with 23 finishers, 2021 Season Two had 39 entries with 34 finishers, and Season Three had 51 entries with 36 finishers.

Matovu notes, however, that most of the runners prefer the 1,000km or higher races to the 100 days as it does not require consecutive days. The 1,000km challenge caters for a target distance goal over a year.

“The first Activate Uganda 1,000km Run Challenge Series started on March 1, 2018, and we are now in the fifth year having seen five athletes already go past a total of 10,000km over their combined years on the challenge,” he said.

Besides its own activities, Activate Uganda organises runs for groups and organisations and has been at the centre of the popular Source of the Nile trail since 2016. The trail became the first official Ultra-Marathon in East Africa.

The challenge
The 100-Day and 365-Day Challenge Runs were organised by Activate Uganda, a sport events and adventure management company engaged in organising runs, mountain biking, swimming, multi-sports events and sports tourism groups.

Long (left) is served at the NSSF tent after the Nssf 7 Hills Kampala Challenge in 2017. This was before he started on his weight loss programme. 

The sports organisation tabulates the data of individuals against fellow runners and also awards a finisher’s medal.

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