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Sierra Leone Marathon 2014

Sierra Leone and the Marathon

Sierra Leone is an extremely beautiful, exciting, vibrant and yet largely dysfunctional country. Journeys by road can take anything up to 5 times their intended length and although there is evidence of progress there is little in terms of infrastructure. The countryside itself is stunning, and as it was the beginning of the rainy season, appeared particularly green framed by the deep red soil that seems to stretch across most of the country. In spite of looking particularly fertile there seemed to be relatively little in terms of cultivated land which I assume is a legacy of the civil war and lack of education. Whilst I would suggest that we were largely sheltered from some of the more aggressively poor urban areas the people were very friendly and I was touched by the enthusiasm with which we were greeted, most particularly in Makeni, where the marathon took place. Disorganisation prevailed in most of our interaction with the local people where even the simpler tasks were complicated by the involvement and input of 6 or 7 times the number of people that seemed reasonably necessary. The shops that line the towns sell a strange, seemingly disconnected collection of items, and most of the people you see appear busy, if not especially industrious. In spite of the poverty and the chaos, the overriding atmosphere was positive, optimistic and enthusiastic. There appears to be a generation of youngsters who remain deeply affected by the civil war but do not carry the immediate scars of the conflict. Children are everywhere which may in small part explain the preponderance of "safe sex" adverts which adorn the roads throughout the country.

 

The race itself started at 6.30 in the morning on Saturday 9 th June and standing in the half light of a Sierra Leonean dawn having arrived less than 48 hours earlier felt ominously surreal. British General Richard Dannat spoke encouragingly before the start of the race, ushering us towards the start, before it became apparent that more than half of the runners were standing on the wrong side of the line and facing in the wrong direction. My memories of the start are quite vague but before I had the chance to digest the situation we were off and running. I do recall a handful of locals sprinting out of the starting field at what I would consider Olympic pace. I like to think that they soon tired but given that I do not recall having seen any of them again I can only assume that they finished many minutes ahead of me. The course meandered its way out of tarmacked Makeni and into a far more rural setting. Along the route were many villages, one of which Helen got to know very well for reasons best explained by her, and each was lined by locals whose reactions ranged from the fiercely enthusiastic to the somewhat bemused. In general I felt immense support, so much so that it is with some embarrassment that I recall feeling almost heroic as I strode purposefully through the first 6 or 7 miles. By the time I reached halfway, on an extremely undulating course, I was well under 2 hours, however a nagging feeling had already entered my head that I may have over-cooked it. Within a further 2 miles, the sun had uncompromisingly risen above the trees and my nagging thought had transformed into something so patently obvious that I became genuinely worried that I was not going to complete it. The second half of the race took us further into the countryside down small trails that cut their way through the undergrowth. By this stage I was struggling, however very occasionally was able to take stock and appreciate the beauty of the surroundings. Sadly these reflections were short lived and quickly replaced by a burning desire to stop running in spite of the support of many villagers who appeared distinctly disappointed by my efforts. In truth, for the final third of the race I decided to walk up all of the hills (my definition of a hill became looser as the race went on) reasoning that it took much less effort and in reality I seemed to be moving at roughly the same pace. The second half of the race was quite lonely. By the latter stages the runners were so far separated that I only ran past 2 or 3 and was overtaken by broadly the same number. As we made our way back into Makeni the temperatures had reached 35 degrees Celsius which felt all the more intense as the heat reflected off the concrete and the air became more polluted in the bustling town. With considerable relief I finally rounded the last corner and staggered my way towards the finish, looking nothing like the heroic figure that I had painted of myself in my deluded imagination. Finishing time: a shade over 4 hours 23 which in retrospect feels a touch disappointing but not bad given the conditions which were universally acknowledged to have been incredibly tough. I managed to finish ahead of several seasoned marathon runners including Kiln's Brian "the Heff" Heffernan who has run comfortably under 3 and a half hour marathons. I'm sorry to Brian for taking his name in vain but I am far too proud to leave my time in isolation without providing some sense of relativity!

 

More pleasing than finishing the race was watching the other Kiln participants finish and gathering together in the aftermath of the race. I can honestly say that I have never been so glad to see fellow colleagues and suspect I never will again. Four and a half hours in the gruelling heat invoked a reaction to their smiling/exhausted faces that felt a far cry from the mumbled greetings shared in the coffee area on a Monday morning. Whilst almost everyone ended up going a little slower than they had planned, everyone achieved what they set out to and completed their races, be it the marathon, half marathon or 5km. I felt extremely proud to be part of such a successful group and hugely privileged to share in their successes.

 

Following the race, after a night of exuberant celebration, we had the opportunity to visit some of the Street Child Of Sierra Leone projects. We travelled to a particularly remote part of Sierra Leone called Thambakha where we visited a number of schools, meeting with some of the teachers, and many of the children who were so excited to see us. Street Child have invested considerable effort and resources into the communities within which they have established schools and it was fantastic to see where the money raised is being spent. Whilst the facilities are extremely basic it was incredibly heart-warming to witness how enthusiastic the children were and gain a sense of the difference that these initiatives will make to their lives. The logistics of getting 300 runners safely around a marathon in a remote corner of Western Africa clearly demonstrated to me that Street Child is a charity that is able to get the job done, organise effectively, and spend wisely in extremely difficult conditions. Although considerable praise has been given to the runners, the real praise should be reserved for the volunteers who have devoted such significant time and effort towards transforming a country with such a troubled history and considerable poverty. I believe they are doing a great job and Sierra Leone's future is much brighter for their efforts.

 

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