As the clock winds down to the start of the Bermuda Marathon Weekend, there will be one athlete hiding in plain sight on the start line of the Front Street Mile and Half-Marathon, whose very presence among the island’s best local male runners would have been unfathomable just a few years ago, and to an extent still is, to those closest to him.
“If family and friends back in Kenya saw me running today, they would never believe it,” said Dennis Mbelenzi, whose determination and dedication have led to him go on an almost inconceivable journey to becoming one of the names to look out for over the weekend.
After moving to Bermuda in 2007 from Kenya to work as an auditor, Mbelenzi, who conceded to have never been an active person, began to put on weight at a steady rate — but he never had any concerns.
“My parents were always determined that I focused on academics and there was a general discouragement towards being engaged in sport,” he said. “It was seen as a waste of time and not a serious thing.
“Because of that, I never ran. I played no sports; I was just focused on books. Soon I started to gain weight and, over a six-year period, I put on a lot of weight. I thought I was OK because I didn’t smoke or drink alcohol and I always believed if you didn’t consume those two things, you didn’t need to do anything else.
“I would see people running and would ask why they bothered doing it? People now always remind me that I used to always say I’d let my tummy go to where it wanted.”
However, that was all to change in 2013 when Mbelenzi realised he needed drastic action to change his lifestyle after expanding to 220lbs. That began with tentative steps to a gym at his work.
“The objective was to lose weight and I realised that I had to be active,” he said. “I wanted a six-pack and put on some muscle. I still wasn’t even thinking of running. I started out by cycling and then in 2015, I gave the treadmill a go.”
It was at that point that his personal journey began heading down the right path and, as his weight began to fall, his confidence moved in the opposite direction, so much so that he was convinced to take part in his first competitive race in 2016.
“I used to run on the Railway Trail and a friend of mine convinced me to run in the Ovarian Cancer Zurich 5K at Clearwater.
“I had no strategy what so ever and I just ran really hard from the start and, by the end, I was exhausted. I couldn’t imagine how people ran a 10K when I felt that bad!
“I started to like running; my weight was coming down, but I needed to start learning how to run for positions; people just keep leaving me behind.
“For a year or so, I kept competing, but I was getting beaten heavily and it confused me because I was fresh and getting left behind from the start.”
Ironically, the answer lay in returning to the familiarity of books, but this time to aid him in a sporting capacity, as the hobby runner became a student of the works and methods of coaching greats Alberto Salazar and Renato Canova as well as studying the techniques of his compatriot idols, Eliud Kipchoge and Abraham Kiptum, and also of Ethiopian legend Kenenisa Bekele.
“Coming from Kenya, I can relate to some of the best runners and so I was fascinated to read what they did and how they did it,” he added.
“I knew I couldn’t do anywhere near what they could, however, I could approximate and so started to run in proportion to what the professionals did.
“I started to try and professionalise my training with three quality workouts, a speed session, a long run and what you call a tempo run, which is known as an anaerobic threshold or lactate-threshold run.
“The lactate-threshold is the key thing and the one thing that stops everyone. It relates to your threshold of maintaining a level of speed comfortably before lactic acid builds.”
His interest in improving soon became an obsession as Mbelenzi put the same mindset he had done previously to losing weight, incredibly dropping from 220lbs to 148lbs, to the test once again.
“My goal changed from losing weight to trying to target fast times,” he said. “I no longer trained to lose weight; that happened as part of the process.
“If I commit to something, I always see it through, I hate to abandon anything and that includes my workouts. Some I don’t enjoy; in fact, some I hate, but I never miss them. I don’t quit when I’m tired, I quit when I’m done.”
A strict, clean diet and punishing training regime began to reap rewards as the 37-year-old tasted his first significant success by claiming victory in the Ray Swan Flat 8K in March last year.
With confidence building, further success and promising performances followed, claiming victories in the David Saul Memorial Fidelity 5K Road Race, Axa Man on the Run 5K, Friends of Hospice/Hannover Re Half-Marathon and the Bacardi 8K Road Race, as well as being crowned the 2018 Swan’s Running Club Legends race series winners, having amassed the most points in the four-race series.
While his training methods may seem unusual to some, predominantly based around the treadmill, his natural aptitude and desire cannot be questioned as Mbelenzi strives for improved results, with his focus and preparation now turning to Friday’s Front Street Mile and Sunday’s Half Marathon.
“A lot of runners find the treadmill boring, but I like it because it keeps you honest; you can’t cheat the machine because the distance and pace are set,” added Mbelenzi, who last year also ran his first marathon in Toronto, Canada and gained qualification for the Chicago Marathon this year and the 2020 Boston Marathon.
“The thing about the treadmill is that even when you are tiring, your body has to learn to cope and keep going because you can’t cheat that machine.”
Looking ahead to the Marathon weekend, Mbelenzi, who will be featuring in his first and possibly last Front Street Mile, is not sure what to expect from the two races he is competing in.
“I don’t think I will win the mile because I’ve never done it before and know nothing about the strategy for it,” he conceded.
“I’m just going to run hard from the start and see what happens; just go for it because I’ll probably only ever do it once.
“I will probably go with the leaders and try and keep the pressure up on them. My main target is to break the five-minute mark and hopefully get on the podium.
“For the half-marathon I want to break my personal best of one hour, 18 minutes, and hopefully hit 1:16; if I can get in the top three I’d be delighted.
“I know there are guys better than me such as Sean Trott, Lamont Marshall and Christopher Harris. You have to put everything on the line to chase your passion. For me, this is running.”
So, while the challenge for Mbelenzi is clear, it would not be a huge shock for a man, who has already successfully overcome one personal battle against his weight, do the same against his rivals on the racecourse and write another memorable chapter in his life’s story this weekend.