Susie Chan joined us on 29th May for the Sierra Leone Marathon. This blog was originally featured here.
Sierra Leone is a country that has suffered greatly. A troubled history of a violent civil war, exploitation of its plentiful natural resources and more recently, Ebola have left their legacy. It is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Africa is now beginning to thrive economically and Sierra Leone is poised, optimistic for growth.
Every year the charity Street Child put together a marathon to raise money for some of the most vulnerable people in the country and are providing Sierra Leoneans the ability to improve schools and education for the children of the country. This year their focus has been especially on young women and girls. Knocked back by Ebola last year, the country is now Ebola free and Street Child are welcoming runners to toe the line with local runners to take part in one of the most unique marathons in the world.
I flew out to Sierra Leone with my friends Johnny and Felix to run the marathon.
Street Child offer packages ranging from 3 days to a week. The longer stays offer you the rare chance to see first-hand where raised money goes.
First impressions of the country are how extremely poor a huge number of the population are. Few have electricity, water or much in the way of amenities. Shops are poorly stocked and getting around is not easy. Using this as a yardstick, the hotel in which we were staying in is positively luxurious. Street Child looked after us exceptionally well, providing all transport, accommodation and food for your entry fee.
We were staying in a town called Makeni, roughly 3 hours drive east from the capital Freetown.
This is where Street Child have two bases, and the home to the 5th edition of the marathon.
In the lead up to the race we had the rare opportunity to visit rural and urban projects.
Children gleefully cheered us as we arrived, keen to show off their English skills. We visited schools that Street Child had built. Here we heard that many children walk over 5 miles each way to school. That's over 50 miles a week, Monday to Friday. Many do not attend secondary school as they are so far apart and children simply can not get there or end up working instead. Street Child also provide funding as kickstarters for enterprising families with young children. I met young mothers who opened market stalls selling flips flops and food products. Enabling them to successfully bring regular income in to support their families.
It was very hard not to be humbled by the positivity, eagerness and hope.
Runners were invited to watch an amputee football match, where men maimed by the war played a blistering, agile game of football on crutches. At the finish, their coach gave an empowering rousing speech, talking about the healing and powerful impact of sport.
Race day saw several hundred charity runners, local runners and members of the amputee football team pin on their bibs to run 5 or 10k, and half or a full marathon.
You start at 6am to avoid the heat of the day. With temperatures pushing 34 degrees by midday and humidity over 80% it was worth getting up early for.
The course itself is described as road, however many Sierra Leone roads are in fact dirt trails.
With Felix doing the half, Johnny and I are a similar pace, we decided to run together.
I was expecting humidity and heat, and after a few days in the country, the trail roads also. What I did not expect were the relentless hills!
The plan was to try and get as much done before the sun came up. As it turned out it was quite hazy until we got about 20 miles in. Although hot, it was not insufferable. Pockets of cheering locals and children clap as you go. Then the sun popped out from behind the clouds and it was scorching. My legs were shot by this point and Johnny very generously and cheerfully held back, and kept me going.
Crossing the line you get awarded a brilliant locally carved medal. The beers were in free flow.
I'm not going to pretend this is an easy trip. Tensions were high for the local runners at the prize giving. The race is sponsored by a phone company with money going to top 3 Nationals. This is quite a lot of money to some and it was causing some upset. This did not mar the day in the slightest though. The touching project visits make the purpose of the marathon so vivid. Many had chosen this as their first marathon and there were jubilant, emotional scenes at the finish line.
This race may not be the fastest, or easiest in terms of terrain and conditions. What it does have is a huge amount of heart. Sparse electrical supply mean no chip timing and the course was not accurate. Things that matter normally to runners simply do not matter here. That's because after your time in Sierra Leone you realise it's not about pace, time or placings. That's because it's not about you. You realise that every step of the race is for the people of Sierra Leone. Every step is for the projects and schools you have visited.
Every step is a step towards a better legacy for the country.
The country will leave you valuing what you have. The race will challenge you, and the project visits will burn into your heart and stay with you.
The most worthwhile marathon I've run.