Flying Dutchman keeps hitting the ground running in an eerie sporting world

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KLM Cargo pilot Gert Brienne on a 15-kilometre afternoon run at a deserted Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on April 17, 2020. PHOTO | GERT BRIENNE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Gert Brienne strolls out of his airport hotel room in Nairobi and gingerly shifts gears into a jog.

It’s slightly past 5pm and the Dutchman, donning the iconic red “Team Kenya” running singlet, black Nike tights and the now famous Nike Zoom running shoes, surveys the surroundings as he increases his pace, occasionally stealing glances at his stopwatch.

It’s a normal ritual, only that the traditional noise of aircraft engines roaring at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport has now been replaced by eerie silence, only punctuated by intermittent chirping, and singing, of birds.

And, unlike his previous runs, Brienne is now careful to complete the 15-kilometre ritual well ahead of a 7pm nationwide curfew.

KLM Cargo pilot Gert Brienne on an evening run
KLM Cargo pilot Gert Brienne on an evening run at a deserted Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on April 18, 2020. PHOTO | POOL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The 52-year-old Brienne, a pilot with KLM Cargo, is a passionate amateur runner with an impressive marathon personal best time of two hours, 45 minutes and 45 seconds clocked at the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon.

Kenya’s world half marathon record holder Geoffrey Kamworor won that year’s elite race in 2:10:53 on a wet morning.

KLM Cargo pilot Gert Brienne completes the 2017
KLM Cargo pilot Gert Brienne completes the 2017 New York City Marathon in a personal best time of two hours, 45 minutes and 45 seconds. PHOTO | POOL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Brienne is quite lucky to be one of the few persons in the world, at the moment, who can afford the “luxury” of transcontinental travel and is fortunate he can throw in a morning or evening run across various global cities in lockdown.

With commercial flights suspended almost globally due to the coronavirus pandemic, and only cargo flights allowed to fly for essential service, Brienne and his colleagues at KLM Cargo are experiencing the busiest, and equally most bizarre of times.

Brienne has been flying cargo into and out of Nairobi since 2015, but has been a pilot for the last 29 years.

He’s lost count of the number of countries visited in his flying career.

And with various measures taken by KLM to ensure safety of crew members, it’s just a crew of two – Brienne and his co-pilot Serge Bisenberger – operating the massive, blue Boeing 747 cargo plane, which he fondly calls “Queen of the Sky,” into and out of Nairobi.

“Going across the airports, the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport included, you only hear the sound of birds chirping, rather than that of jet engines,” Brienne explains as he prepares to head to his aircraft for pre-flight checks ahead of his flight back to Amsterdam from Nairobi on Sunday evening.

“There’s absolutely nothing happening at the airport, apart from the cargo side where there’s little activity.

“Even on the transfer from the hotel to the airport, there are no people along the way – just lights on. At the airport itself, the planes’ wheels and engines are covered, an indication that they won’t be flying for a while…”

The situation is replicated across the world where sport has been brought to a screeching halt by the spreading virus.

“It’s the same everywhere, with most countries in lockdown and only repatriation flights allowed along with the cargo flights,” Brienne adds.

And in a follow-up telephone chat upon arrival at an equally eerie Schipol Airport in Amsterdam on Monday morning after his eight-hour flight from Nairobi, Brienne says they encountered hardly any traffic on the way.

KLM Cargo pilot Gert Brienne on the final
KLM Cargo pilot Gert Brienne on the final descent from Nairobi into Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport on April 20, 2020. PHOTO | POOL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

“Usually, flying out of Nairobi, we would talk to the air traffic controller in Nairobi, then the one in Addis Ababa, in Khartoum, Cairo, and so on, until we land in Amsterdam.

“On the radio frequency with all these ATCs, you can easily hear other pilots talking into the radios, and there are usually hundreds of aircraft on the route, but last night, there were hardly 10 planes in the entire of our eight-hour flight!”

Brienne, nicknamed Rubani Mkimbiaji (running pilot) by his Kenyan fans, has flown to Africa, Europe, USA and South America since the lockdown unfolded.

“In Ecuador, there’s a 7am to 2pm lockdown but I was allowed outside for a jog, the same as USA where I was able to run a marathon north of Miami on March 1 before the complete lockdown.”

Brienne clocked 2:55 in that Miami marathon, his last competitive race in normal times.

The most difficult race in his running career was the 2013 Kass Marathon.

“I was the last finisher and only mzungu to ever finish the full Kass Marathon (run annually from Kapsabet to Eldoret) but I was happy to finish at the ‘Home of Champions.’

“People were very surprised to see a mzungu running at the Kass Marathon and the support was amazing.”

But his toughest was the 90-kilometre Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa, which he completed twice, in 2018 and 2019.

Brienne has also run the Lewa Marathon six times and describes the conservation race as “the most special.”

KLM Cargo pilot Gert Brienne on a 15-kilometre
KLM Cargo pilot Gert Brienne on a 15-kilometre afternoon run at a deserted Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on April 17, 2020. PHOTO | GERT BRIENNE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

“The Antarctica Marathon was also special because I won the race and completed my mission to run on all seven continents… But there were no Kenyans or Ethiopians, and no prize money!’

His biggest regret is that the current pandemic forced the cancellation of Cape Town’s famous Two Oceans ultra-marathon (58.2 kilometres), this year initially scheduled for April 11.

“But I was lucky I managed to run in Miami so all my training has not been in vain,” he comforts himself.

Brienne is happy to be with his family, that lives 45 minutes north of Amsterdam, and will be back to Nairobi mid next week for a week-long shift in which he will throw in a flight to Johannesburg and back to Nairobi via Harare before eventually flying back to Amsterdam.

“As you would imagine, there’s a lot of cargo out of Nairobi now, especially some flowers along with vegetables and fish, with our incoming flights mainly carrying medical supplies and other regular essentials.”

KLM Cargo pilot Gert Brienne disembarks from
KLM Cargo pilot Gert Brienne disembarks from KLM’s Boeing 747 cargo aircraft at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport on April 20, 2020. PHOTO | POOL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Of course, Brienne and the KLM staff take all necessary precautions to steer clear of the coronavirus, living a cautious life of isolation in their hotel rooms in most cities.
“The checks in Nairobi are very strict, but I’m lucky I can squeeze in a run around my hotel as the hotel gyms are now closed to avoid a concentration of people,” he notes.

KLM Cargo pilot Gert Brienne in the cockpit of
KLM Cargo pilot Gert Brienne in the cockpit of KLM’s Boeing 747 cargo aircraft. PHOTO | POOL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

And despite the fact that cargo operations are currently doing brisk business due to huge demand, Brienne just can’t wait for normalcy to return so he can venture into the Rift Valley and train with Kenya’s elite runners which, for the last five years, has been a core part of his programme.

“But I am very fortunate to still travel especially now during the coronavirus crises,” he sums up.

‘RUBANI MKIMBIAJI’ FACT-BOX

Name: Gert Brienne

Occupation: Pilot (KLM Cargo)

Age: 52 years

Base: Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Personal best times:

10 kilometres: 36:00;

Half Marathon: 1:19:00;

Marathon: 2:45:45;

Toughest races: 2013 Kass Marathon (Kapsabet-Eldoret), Comrades 90km Ultra Marathon (South Africa);

Most special race: Lewa Marathon (six times), Anarctica Marathon (won race)

Countries visited: Lost count

In Summary

  • The 52-year-old cargo pilot Brienne says 2013 Kass Marathon is the most difficult race in his running career.
  • The amateur runner has an impressive marathon personal best time of 2:45:45 from 2017 New York City Marathon
  • Gert Brienne one of few people still able to run across continents during coronavirus lockdown