Sierra Leone Marathon 2014

The Makeni Marathon

People who do not know me very well see me as a jaded, cynical, irascible, self-serving and

embittered, grumpy old curmudgeon.     


People who have known me all or most of my life can confirm that this is indeed the case. But in the week leading up to June 9, there was a great deal of peace, love and goodwill sloshing through the dirt tracks that link the settlements surrounding Makeni… and not even I was completely unmoved by it.



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Much struck me during my stay in Sierra Leone. As I was visiting the various schools and projects that have been (and continue to be) funded by Street Child, it occurred to me that many runners who compete in marathons on behalf of a charity do so as a means to an end… and the charity and the work that it does remain something of an abstract. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification and there are many exceptions to this. Many of the people within my immediate running community compete in order to keep alive the memory of a lost relative and honour them. Others run on behalf of a charity or association because they have been a direct beneficiary of the work they do and feel something of an emotional bond with it. But for many, the charity is of secondary importance. Runners tend to be much more focused on running the marathon - training for it, their mental and physical preparations, how competing in it makes them feel, how it changes them personally - than on raising money.


One of the consequences of spending a week in Sierra Leonebeforethe marathon was that each and every one of us ended up embracing the cause wholeheartedly - and completely believing in its legitimacy. So much so that for every single person, providing demonstrations of athletic prowess became completely secondary to raising money, raising awareness... and raising Street Child's profile.


Between 1991 and 2002 the Sierra Leone Civil War devastated the country leaving more than 50,000 people dead, much of the country's infrastructure destroyed, and over two million people displaced into neighbouring countries - mainly to Guinea, which was home to nearly one million Sierra Leonean refugees. Despite being a country of enormous natural wealth, more than 70% of its people live in poverty, the vast majority surviving on considerably less than one US dollar per day. And until very recently, it ranked as the world's poorest - and the most underdeveloped - country. Two generations have more or less been "lost". Sierra Leone's children continue to be the main victims of the country's civil war. They are left to eke out an existence, resorting to begging, stealing, working in hazardous conditions...  and prostitution.  Which is why Tom Dannatt founded Street Child: to take action in order to take children off the streets, and to address the factors that result in children fleeing their homes or being driven away from them.


While I was trying to raise money on behalf of the charity, many of the people I contacted expressed their reluctance to donate money to any organisation that professed to champion the needs of people in Africa. There is still a widespread belief that corruption is endemic inallAfrican countries and that any money donated is ultimately spent on anything but the cause for which funds are supposedly being raised. One can understand this reaction. In the past, money raised by charitable organisations would spend ages - sometimes years - trapped in the slow-moving wheels of the complex mechanisms of the legislation that determined the conditions that needed to be satisfied before it could be released (usually in a trickle) into the projects it was intended to fund. Enough time for it to be diverted, depleted... or just lost.  




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So back to what struck me in Sierra Leone. The idea to hold West Africa's first official marathon is barely a year old, and the first runners registered only seven months ago. The first JustGiving site  was  set  up  in  January  of  this  year.  And yet... I saw so many village schools (extensive, sophisticated structures) that hadonly just been built- thanks to the money that you have helped to raise. The relationship between clicks of a mouse and funds finding their way into the project is so close that you can literally touch the fruits of it. Lean up against it. Stand in its impressive shadow.


The money generated by the JustGiving site is banked almost as soon as it is donated and only a few days later it is being spent on building schools, recruiting and training teachers...  and then paying their salaries. It's difficult to resist the temptation to resort to statistics - but they really do speak for themselves. £15 feeds a child twice a day for a month. £40 pays for a child to attend school for an entire year. £100 pays a monthly salary of a teacher, nurse or social worker. £500 completely transforms the life of a child. I hope this goes some way towards demonstrating that each of you has made a huge difference.


I competed in the marathon after a week spent travelling through Sierra Leone. I was dehydrated, seriously low on glycogen and had a minor kidney problem. I had also had very little sleep (mainly due to my endless battles with mosquitoes). In other words, my pre-race preparation was non-existent. My alarm went off at 3 AM on race day and I managed to eat a cup full of Tesco's organic porridge (that I had brought with me) prepared with cold water. As I walked to the race start in the West African night, I knew that I was not exactly going to shine as an international athlete.


Indeed, almost as soon as the race started, I was struggling to maintain pace. By 7 AM, the sun was ridiculously high in the sky and the air felt as though it had come from a blast furnace and then been wrapped up in damp sheep's wool. The terrain was varied, but for the most part difficult. And at one point, around 30% of all runners had to stop for nearly 10 minutes while a 2.5 km-long unscheduled African Minerals train crossed the course from the diamond mines. But for the first time in what I sometimes humorously refer to as my "running career", I can honestly say that I was not remotely concerned about my time. I got much more of a kick out of high-fiving the kids whose villages we went through, stopping to take pictures of them and considering the fact that there was a very real chance that this hare-brained endeavour was going to have a dramatic and positive effect on their lives.



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One more thing. People who compete in races in the UK and the rest of Europe are very accustomed to having messages of encouragement shouted out to them by members of the crowd. What I am completelyunaccustomedto is having people thank me as I run through their village. Somehow, word had spread among all the settlements around Makeni that 150 white people were going to be running like idiots through their villages under the scorching sunfor their benefit. The children in these villages only know two words in English - "thank you".  And hearing them use those words - with the biggest possible smiles on their faces - as I perspired and wheezed my way among their huts is one of the most moving experiences of my life.


To those who made this possible, by sponsoring runners, or by organising the event, I'd like to say thank you. Thank you for helping me to raise enough money for me to feel able to stand shoulder to shoulder with Sierra Leone athletes and make marathon history in West Africa... and be part of an event that will hopefully go a tiny way towards helping the country a little further along the path towards recovery, development and ultimately fulfilling its potential.


And this year was just the start…




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