Sierra Leone Marathon 2014

Plotting the route - Part 1: Mud, motorcycles and lycra

For weeks after my arrival I'd been looking forward to exploring the backstreets of Makeni, Sierra Leone and the surrounding countryside to come up with a 42km course for the Kiln Sierra Leone Marathon 2012. I was the envy of my running club in Durban: "You get to make up your own marathon course?!". That's right.

But even before I arrived in Makeni (my second visit there), I knew that planning and plotting the course was going to be a challenge. All my attempts to obtain a detailed map of the area had failed, and online mapping was very limited. Without a map it's obviously quite difficult to record where you've been on your various explorations and, just as importantly, how far you've travelled. To solve this, I invested in a brilliant Garmin GPS - the everything-proof 62s - which turned out to be a great decision.

I had three days in which to come up with the course. But I wanted to do as much of it as possible at the same time of day as the race would actually be run - starting at dawn. My tattered large-scale tourist map of Sierra Leone had given me a very rough idea of some roads that might be interesting and scenic to use. First up, I needed to measure them, check their suitability for runners and support vehicles, and map the positions of any villages the race would pass through.

My guide and co route-planner, Mohamed Conteh and I set off on his motorbike from HANCI's headquarters in Makeni at 6.30 am. It was dawn, and the temperature was comfortable, probably in the low twenties, and not too humid. The streets of Makeni were still relatively quiet, but still much busier than you'd expect from a European city at that time of day.

We headed down the Kabala highway, past African Minerals' huge camp, and on to Panlap Junction, all good paved roads. At Panlap there are checkpoints if you want to proceed towards Kabala or, as in our case, if you want to turn left towards Kamakwie. The police at the checkpoint looked somewhat bemused by the sight of me in full lycra running gear and Camelbak, but dropped their barrier of string without asking any questions.

Now on a mud road, we cruised (and occasionally bounced) north towards Kamakwie. A few kilometres from Panlap, we crossed the half-built railway that will eventually carry iron ore from African Minerals' huge new mine in Tonkolili, to the east, all the way to Pepel on the coast - a huge terracotta-coloured carpet unrolled through the forest.

We continued north as far as the village of Konsho. Here, there is the ruin of a church and a recently dedicated memorial to various missionaries who died there between 1894 and 1918, perhaps from malaria. Two of the missionaries named on the memorial were aged 3 and 5. The church was the marker for a left turn down another road, now heading west. Having never been down this road before, I decided that it was a good time to get off the bike and test out the terrain on foot.

By that time, now roughly 7.30am, the temperature was starting to rise. But I was looking forward to giving my new trail shoes an outing, and my legs a good stretch (I had spent the whole of the previous week in the back of the a 4x4 exploring various Street Child projects all over the country). Not many people run for fun in Sierra Leone - or even walk for fun. With the rising cost (and often scarcity) of fuel there, people travel on foot just as much as ever. So I was fairly sure that the sight of a foreigner jogging along rural roads would elicit some surprised looks from the locals.


But I couldn't have imagined what I would stumble across on the way.....


Read Part 2 to find out ....


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