Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Running Around Town - a Half Marathon Experience in Guinea

So, those of you who know me know that I am a "runner." I'm not a REAL runner.  I mean, I don't subscribe to a running magazine...  I don't run fast enough to qualify for anything special... In fact, some people would say that I (gasp!) JOG!  But since I joined cross-country running at the age of 14, I consider myself I runner not a jogger.

I like the calorie benefits of running.  Did you know, you burn about 100 calories per mile?  So, on a really amazing day, I can burn 100 calories in less than nine minutes?  I like this.  Why?  Because I like to munch and can't help myself to those yummy cinnamon rolls on Tuesday mornings served piping hot on the ship (or the fried plantains Tuesday night...or the blueberry pancakes Wednesday morning or....).  You get the point.  Carbs are my sneaky enemy so running is my combative tool.

For that reason I look for opportunities to run for fun, for a challenge, and for a chance to chat with friends while we work off those extra bites.

When I signed up to live along the west coast of Africa onboard the Africa Mercy I thought maybe my running days were put on hold.  I could think of every reason why I WOULDN'T be running in Africa.   (You know: it's hot, it's gotta be dangerous, we live in a port for crying out loud....) But, then I discovered a highly dedicated group of people who love to run (for all different reasons).  So, pre dawn's morning light we gather on the dock rubbing the sleep from the corners of our eyes and tossling our unkempt bedhead and head out into the town where things are about as quiet as they get in a capital port city.

With the help of an occasional street light we leap over rope barriers and sleeping dogs (of course we let them lie, and they certainly make no effort to do anything but!).  We avoid the spike strips and the rogue goat that is as surprised to see us as we are to see him.  We breathe deeply as we pass the bakery where the fresh croissants are browning and we try to hold our breaths at the fish market and the walls just visited by a random pee-body (um, I think I made this word up).

And so goes the routine in the wee hours of the morn as we watch the city wake up.  I love seeing the children popping a squat on their little plastic potty chairs in their front yards - or watching people brush their teeth with an African toothbrush (a special type of branch from a bush) or a store-bought one.  The whispering swish of a hand-bundled broom sweeping spotless a little area of sand and dirt surrounding each home is my favorite morning ritual to observe.

But it's nice to change things up and Mercy Shippers are usually quick to jump at any opportunity for an EVENT.  This past weekend was no different.  For about six weeks we have been hearing about a SEMI-MARATHON - a half-marathon to be exact: 21 kilometers (1.6km=1mi, therefore 21km=13.1 mi).  It would take place on the 21st of April, the same morning as the London Marathon, and just six days following the Boston Marathon.

There was a 5km, a 12km and the mother of all: the 21km run.  We added a sign-up page in the "Join Us Book," (yes, an actual book that resides in our common area where you can join the happenings that others have discovered and are willing to share) and then the training began.

We had 21 crew mates from TEN different countries that competed in these events.  Most of us ran just for the experience while others worked on a personal best or a new distance they had never attempted.

The sun (unfortunately) didn't hide from us the morning of the race.  With our paper "bibs" pinned on and our sunscreen applied, we caravan-ed to the national stadium for the start of the race.  I was very impressed with the organization of the event - a huge DEPART banner hung suspended across the road where traffic had been blocked for the morning.  A brass band was striking up a tune and over 1,000 people were prancing antsily around as you do before any big race.  No port-a-potties existed so hopefully you  could convince your systems that it was just nerves, or find a little place to pop a squat with relative privacy.

The 21k-ers kicked off the event promptly at 8:00am, followed by the 12k-ers and then the those running the 5 km.  Surprisingly, most of the runners for the two longer distances had proper lace-up tennis shoes, and only those in the 5k were competing in jelly sandals or plastic cleats!  (If you've ever watched people exercising in Africa, you will know what a rarity this is!)

The route appeared to be planned around the several Total gas stations in town and at each one there was a team of people distributing 0.5 liter bottles of Coyah brand water, and a plate of roasted dates or figs for your snacking pleasure.  The traffic was blocked for the first 3km of the race, and then they opened it at one point when the last runners had passed the highway entrance.  Lo and behold, however, the taxis that were anxiously waiting for the blockade to be removed somehow managed to catch up with us!  We still needed to navigate across three lanes of highway, like a pitiful game of Frogger.

At every point where the route turned or required action, there was a military presence directing both the runners and the traffic to prevent a run in.

As we traveled we did not pass mile or kilometer markers, so we were glad that about half of the course overlapped with our normal running route and we knew what to expect and could estimate our progress.

Accompanying me and my kiwi friend, was a race assistant on a pedal bike with some bottles of water for when we needed them.  However, as my kiwi friend informed me, he was holding those bottles of water while he relieved himself halfway through the race. We chose to take water from the other assistants instead. :)

The sun beat down, the pavement droned on and on, but eventually we completed the 21 (or 22 or 23 or 24?) kilometer loop that circled the downtown peninsula and another large portion of town.   The Red Cross of Guinea van inched its way along the course providing water and aid to those needing it.

As we returned to the stadium the crowds cheered (they were catching on that spectator appreciation is approved of!) and pointed the way across the parking lot, through the stadium gates, into the stadium  proper, and down the track to the ARRIVEE arch where officials were recording times, writing down names and declaring the order of finishers.

I was surprised to hear the word "cinquieme" proclaimed over me when I gave it my all as I heard my former cross-country coach's voice echoing in my head, "don't stop before the finish line!  Run through the end!"

It turns out that of the more than 1,000 runners, there were only some 200 that enrolled for the 21km race.  And of those, there were (shall we say) less than a dozen women. (I'll leave the exact number out to protect the honor of the innocent. ;))

So, while our 5km, 12km, and male 21km runners weren't able to rise to the challenge of the local competition, our female 21km runners nearly dominated the field.

Out of the six places that received recognition (and a cash prize!), Mercy Ships represented five of them! Medals were awarded to 1st, 2nd and 3rd, as well as photos taken on the podium.

It was a fun day of people watching, culture spectating, and being a part of a fun combination of traditions.  Thank you, Total Guinee, for putting together this event!

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