A Marathon with a Difference - by Luke Gratton
It had been nine years since I had been on mission,” explains 38-year-old Luke Gratton from Prestatyn in North Wales, “and I felt my world view had become limited; I believe you need to make sure every now and then that this is blown apart and that you are living in a bigger way.”
This is why Luke embraced training for a marathon across the Kenyan desert when his wife, Karen, who leads Alive Church in their home town, signed him up for an ‘adventure’. Karen had completed the Muskathlon Challenge in Rwanda in aid of Christian child development charity Compassion UK herself in 2017 and the family had since sponsored Nphibia.
The Muskathlon is an overseas adventure challenge hosted by 4M UK for Compassion UK, with participants choosing from a half, full or ultra-marathon, 120km cycle or 42km or 63km walk through the communities for which they are fundraising. The event encourages participants to find sponsors for children or raise funds to support local initiatives such as building classrooms and toilets.
“I’ve always played sport but I wasn’t a runner so it was a challenge to get up to marathon distance. However, I’ve developed a love for running.” explains Luke. “I started by running 5ks in my lunch breaks and then gradually moved up to 10k where I plateaued for quite a while. I eventually managed to push myself to do a half-marathon – and went on to do four or five of these but didn’t manage a full 26 miles until I was out in Kenya.”
Luke, who at the time worked as a visual producer for Npower, left behind Karen and his two sons Noah (ten) and Eli (seven) for the week-long trip to Kenya. Travelling with 55 other race-goers from the UK, the team visited Compassion-supported projects in the slums of Nairobi and then out in the region of Marigat in western Kenya to meet some of those being impacted by the charity’s support, before taking on their challenges at the end of the week.
“I love the Muskathlon mantra – to live for a cause bigger than your own,” comments Luke. “I really felt my heart had become hardened to the actual plight of people. You can see adverts and news reports about poverty taking place in the world, but unless you activate all of your senses you don’t really know what that’s really like. You need to get out into the world to see in all rawness the conditions people are living in. I liken mission to taking a defibrillator to your heart to shock it back into sync with God’s.
“The disparity between those who have a degree of wealth and those who have nothing was troubling to see in Kenya. In this country (UK) there is real poverty but a lot of the time it is hidden poverty or at least the majority of people have a brick-built home or a degree of help from the government. The poverty I saw in the slums in Nairobi was a real shock, kids under three years old playing in the dirt next to broken glass, walking through sludge to get to what the family I visited called their home, which was nothing more than a broken shed door leading to a damp, dark, dingy room divided into two parts, one for sitting (living.) in and the other for sleeping, and this space was for eight people. And yet there was still hope found there, in the midst of darkness still a light. The mum asked us to pray not so that all of this existence would magically evaporate away, but that her daughter who was sponsored through Compassion would complete her education, and that her small business selling samosas would succeed so she could continue to provide for her family and gradually bit by bit improve the quality of their lives.“The love, acceptance and community I experienced from those who have very, very little was humbling. I came to realise that I was not there to try to be a superhero or a ‘saviour’ to them, and they were not looking for that, I was there to show dignity, love, acceptance and to champion them and let hope rise.”
To date Luke has raised almost £2,000 to support children living in poverty in Kenya. In addition, his supporters have sponsored two children in Kenya, and Luke and his family have also sponsored six-year-old Boaz. This sponsorship of £25 a month is giving Boaz the chance to have a different future – he’s already been able to start school. Their support will also enable him to be part of his local Compassion project where he will receive nutritious meals, emotional support, medical attention, the chance to get a good quality education and the opportunity to hear about the love of Jesus.
While in Kenya, Luke visited Boaz and his family at home, taking a pack of gifts from his own family and also the Alive Church in Prestatyn – including colouring books, pencils, a teddy bear and even a Welsh flag.
“It was humbling to see that £25 – equivalent to a meal out here in Wales – can make such a huge difference to a child and their entire family each month. Eight of them live in a corrugated iron shack and the dad struggles to bring in money as they don’t have any land. We tried to put a smile on Boaz’s face and give his family hope for the future.”
Compassion has been working in Kenya since 1980, and it currently partners with 392 local churches in the country to provide more than 114,000 children the opportunity to attend school, eat nutritious meals, receive medical check-ups and learn vocational skills. Luke and the other participants have raised over £150,000 through the Muskathlon challenge in 2018, more than doubling the amount raised in 2017. These vital funds raised will provide 1,500 solar lights to Kenyan households, giving a safe, reliable and environmentally sustainable way to light their homes. In addition, they will enable 49 Kenyan students to access further education, by providing scholarships for secondary and post-secondary education.
An additional 300 children in Kenya are also now being sponsored thanks to the support secured by the Muskathlon Challenge participants.
“The whole week had been very emotional, and you knew this painful challenge was coming, but that didn’t stop us all bonding and having some fun. One memorable evening, after a long tough day, we got out a guitar and sang some crazy old school songs,” explains Luke.
On ‘challenge day’, Luke, alongside his teammates, made the 26-mile run in 40 degrees C over “knee-crippling” terrain with rocks, stones, potholes and even a river crossing in an impressive time of five hours and 20 minutes. “I deliberately made sure I didn’t start at too fast a pace. It got up to 44C during the challenge and you could feel the heat radiating off the mud,” said Luke.
“When you run a marathon you need to run your own race because you have trained to a pace that you know you can run at, and therefore to run with others is not always helpful because they are not running at the pace you are used to running at. But as the run went on, I came to realise that with the terrain, heat and other adverse conditions I was facing, that camaraderie and support was essential because you are not only running a physical challenge but also a mental challenge. When I was losing the mental challenge, having someone by the side of me where we could encourage each other was essential.
“I met Ranjit during the first half of the marathon and actually we were running at a similar pace, so that also helped. Early on we decided that we were going to cherish every moment of this incredible adventure we were participating in. So we stopped for the occasional selfie and chatted to kids as they ran out of their schools when they saw ‘mzungus’ (white man in Swahili) running past in heat that not even they would be out in. Ranjit and I then picked up Findlay during the second half of the marathon. We decided that in the words of the three musketeers that it was about ‘all for one and one for all’ and that we would make sure that each one of crossed the finishing line safely, because when the heat got up to 44C that was dangerous heat, and at one point we ended up running between spots of shade to try to keep our body temperatures down. The Bible says: ‘If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble’ (Ecclesiastes 4:10, NLT). We crossed the line together and then shared a big manly hug.”
Now back in the UK, Luke reflects on the challenge and the impact it has had on both himself and his family. “It’s been important for my kids to see Daddy going on an adventure and helping change the lives of others. Noah and Eli have loved seeing the pictures of Boaz and they are proud to be a part of his life. Karen and I want them to live adventurous and outside their comfort zone.”
As for recommending the challenge to others: “Definitely step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself to live for a cause bigger than yourself. Be prepared for your whole world to be rocked, but that’s not a bad thing. I wanted to go somewhere and feel like I had left my sweat in the mud – I didn’t want to go and be passive. Doing a challenge like the Muskathlon, you do just that. This was a statement of my commitment to future generations being released from poverty in Kenya.“Karen and I are also both inspired to get out there more and are looking to go on a joint mission somewhere in 2020.”
The 2019 Muskathlon for Compassion UK is taking place in Rwanda in East Africa in June, with money being raised to help children living in poverty there. You can sign up here to take part: