As our food becomes less organic and jobs/ lifestyles become more sedentary, many struggle to maintain a healthy weight, and fend off non-communicable diseases such as cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Indeed somehow, Stephen Illungole managed to flip his life from an unhealthy lifestyle to being that person who runs every day for the sake of his health. When you meet Illungole, in his late forties, and hear his stories about his running regimen, you might assume he is an elite athlete who understands the mechanics and dedication of running.
Surprisingly, he runs for fun with a core goal of staying healthy and keeping in shape. Standing at 6 ft 2, Illungole’s journey began in 2008 when his cousin, who was obese, tragically lost his life due to complications arising from his lifestyle. This tragic event served as a wake-up call for the then 112-kg Illungole, who realized that if he did not change his own lifestyle, he too could end up six feet under, before his God-appointed time.
After a medical check-up revealed high blood pressure, Illungole decided to start working out to shed those extra kilos. He followed the doctor’s advice and began walking for at least 30 minutes each day.
In the course of these events, he also got an opportunity in 2014 to work for Umeme in their communications department, thus his exodus from New Vision where he had worked for the previous 14 years.
However, the battle against weight gain was not easy, especially when he found himself surrounded by processed foods during work assignments upcountry, leading to his weight to bounce back to the higher digits.
In 2017, after his wife gave birth, Illungole made a bold move. One day, he parked his car and started walking to the office daily, covering a considerable distance from Kira to Rwenzori House on Lumumba avenue. This change yielded results, causing him to lose 6kg.
He also realized the need to control his drinking habits; a friend introduced him to a dietitian, and he embarked on a strict diet regimen that cost him Shs 1.3m for three months. His wife joined him in this journey, and together, they paid the total of Shs 2.6m every three months.
The diet regimen was successful, and Illungole lost 11.5kg, stabilizing at 91.5kg – not bad for a man of his age and height. His wife, however, lost just a kilo from 77kg to 76kg. In 2020, a friend at Umeme connected Illungole with another dietitian from AAR. The goal was to lose weight further to 86kg.
Through regular exercise and following the dietitian’s advice, he successfully shed another 15kg. As the Covid-19 pandemic struck, he continued his exercise regimen, which mainly involved walking to the office. However, he felt the need to intensify his efforts; so, he started running for at least a kilometer every day, come rain or shine.
He even carried his running gear when traveling, committed to maintaining his routine. In 2020, he joined the 100-day running challenge of Activate Uganda, a group of runners that his friend had introduced him to. Completing the challenge was a significant achievement, and recently, Illungole celebrated yet another remarkable milestone: completing 1,000 days of running, from January 1, 2021, to September 27, 2023.
He covered an astonishing distance of 12,013.08km and dedicated a total time of 1,367 hours, 5 minutes, and 46 seconds. Among his group of five to seven people, he ran the longest distance.
Illungole acknowledges that there are tough days when he feels like giving up running, but the Activate Uganda community keeps him motivated through their social media posts, where members share their achievements on the road. He shared an example of a friend who, after undergoing an operation, walked 3km around the hospital ward.
This kind of determination from his community inspires him to keep running. His endurance has improved significantly; Illungole can now run 10km in just 52 minutes, and during the recent 21km Rwenzori marathon, he completed the race in 1 hour, 58 minutes. He has even run with the Matooke Crew from Lubowa to Entebbe and is now preparing for the Nairobi marathon.
Illungole has participated in five marathons to date and believes that his workout regimen has transformed him into a healthier, fitter person. He can now enjoy a variety of foods and drinks without worrying about weight gain, thanks to his boosted metabolism. He even tried intermittent fasting to maintain his calorie intake.
However, there was a point when he felt too skinny at 78kg, prompting him to focus on looking good and presentable, rather than on the weight loss; he allowed himself to gradually climb back to 88kg.
Illungole has referred many people to the AAR dietitian and Activate Uganda, helping them embark on their own path to a healthier life.
For anyone fighting weight, nothing is as exciting as having to change one’s wardrobe because the former size has become too big!
Illungole’s transformation has taken his waistline from 58 to a range of 42 to 34, necessitating a change in wardrobe. He credits running for regulating his weight at the current 88kg. When he walks with his three teenage sons, people often mistake him for their brother, a testament to how this exercise routine has made him feel and look younger.
When The Observer reached out to Alex Matovu, the founder and manager of Activate Uganda, regarding Illungole’s fitness journey and the role Activate Uganda played in helping him achieve peak physical fitness, Matovu said Illungole’s commitment to the 100-day initiative in 2021 stood out.
Matovu is testament to Illungole’s daily 10km run, which has resulted in 365 days of consistent running. Matovu was also part of the 1,000-day running challenge with Illungole, successfully completing this monumental journey in the month of September, 2023.
Matovu shared how this initiative’s participation has grown substantially. It started with a small group of six enthusiastic runners, and it has since expanded to 300 participants from around the globe. The sense of community and support among the participants is fostered through social media updates, where each member encourages the other to complete their running and walking regimens.
Matovu emphasized that this program is not solely about running; it also includes walking, and an Activate Uganda member can be so committed to their goals that one of them underwent a surgical procedure and, nonetheless, was able to achieve their walking goal of 3km without exiting the hospital ward.
Participants contribute Shs 70,000 per season, which covers 100 days of the program. This fee helps sustain the initiative and provide logistical support for the participants.
Matovu said daily data is recorded by the participants, capturing the distances they cover during their running and walking regimens. At the end of each season, the cumulative distance achieved by each participant is tallied and reported. This inspires other members to improve their own statistics.
Matovu applauded Illungole’s discipline and commitment to being accountable for his health, bringing his weight down from 112kg when he first decided to do something, to the current 88kg.
Of course, running in Kampala, or anywhere in Uganda for that matter, is no easy task, since the city does not have dedicated running tracks and every day is a competition for space with unruly motorists and boda bodas on our pothole-riddled roads.
But not even that will deter Illungole and dedicated runners like him. In some places, roads do not have proper pedestrian walkways or pavements to keep runners out of vehicular traffic, and people such as Illungole have to make the best of such circumstances. For Illungle, anything is better than the sedentary lifestyle he once led.