I’ve written before on how difficult it has been for me to grasp/accept/embrace the title of “runner.” I’m not fast, I’ve only run a handful of marathons/races compared to other runners, and I could give a myriad of other excuses about my inadequacy. At the same time I recently completed a run streak of over 500 days straight, I’ve raised money for and volunteered extensively for an organization called Girls on the Run, and I usually feel a part of the running community whenever I encounter other runners. It is this last point that I want to stress now as I enter a new realm, the realm of runners who run and race around the world.
During the course of my run streak I ran across the United States, I ran in Canada, I ran in Cusco, Peru and on portions of the Inca Trail. I ran in the Amsterdam airport. And finally I kept up running after getting to Uganda for my four month fellowship, that is until my toes were injured while playing pick-up soccer barefoot and I couldn’t walk for a couple of days, let alone run, and my run streak ended after 502 consecutive days. Before and during my runstreak, running was a way to see cities, encounter parts of the world that are inaccessible in other ways or that are seen too quickly when in a motorized vehicle. But until October 30th I had never run a race in a country other than the United States. Less than one week later I ran another race, a half marathon, and inadvertently joined the “country club” of runners who run marathons and half marathons around the world.
I wrote this in the notes section of my phone on the evening of November 5th, 2016 after participating in the Running the Rift Uganda half marathon outside of Fort Portal, Uganda:
If I had known when I started running that one day I’d find myself having run two spectacular races in one week in Uganda, I would not have believed you. I went to sleep last night, woke up this morning, and ran today in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I ran along the spine of Africa, and I ran with runners from around the world in all stages of life. Tonight I am looking out my lodge/cabin over a crater lake reflecting the sliver of moon that is overhead along with stars that are endless to my eyes. I feel lucky to be here, lucky to be a runner, lucky to be on this continent, this planet, to be alive.
The previous week I actually ended up as the second place female in a 12k race in Mpanga Forest which is less than an hour west of Kampala on October 30th. Other than the incredible and quite different locations of these races, it was the people in the races that made them unique. Mpanga forest had a fair share of Ugandan and expat runners, mostly who live and work in Kampala. The Running the Rift marathon had a couple dozen runners come in internationally to run either the marathon or half marathon and the cast of characters that I met over the course of that weekend are beyond my paltry powers of description!
We had my newly engaged friends James and Denise who I rode in from Kampala with in their wonderful old red land rover. My new inspiring bucket list running German friend Christoph, who is one continent away from running a marathon in all 7 continents in one year before he turns 30 years old (he heads to Antarctica in a few weeks!) An American country club running legend Brent from Wyoming, who has run over 200 marathons in over 100 countries, or something ridiculous like that. Dave, the fun-loving, pony-tailed, Brit who has attempted to tackle a double ironman and will also be attempting five ironmans in five days pretty soon. The final two marathon finishers, the big Swede Gunnar and the German Claus, completing his 3rd marathon in 8 days, not at all concerned that he was DFL. Oh and also an ultra-running Canadian who works in northern Uganda, Jennifer. I had actually met her at the Mpanga forest trail run and we’re keeping in touch for further possible adventures in east Africa. And these are just the ones I spent the most time with or learned the most about!
Above all, this was a charity race, benefiting an organization for children with physical disabilities in Fort Portal, Uganda, and on Sunday I joined the international crew as they put on a children’s field day filled with fun and games for the children from the center and their families. When I talk about being part of the running community, this is what I mean. This is the community I am so happy to be a part of.
If you’re wanting a quick recap of the races themselves, I can indulge.
Mpanga forest was thick with trees, roots and mud, lots and lots of mud. Out of the 12k, about 8k were in the forest but there was a middle section out on the dry red dirt roads where the sun wore me down a bit. Once I was back in the forest headed towards the finish, my toes appreciated the spongy forest floor and my shoulders appreciated the shade. I heard some monkeys but didn’t see any of them. For the final 2 or 3k I had some pacers- local kids running either barefoot or in oversized rubber boots. I was impressed. For a while I was afraid they were leading me astray, because I had stopped seeing the markers in the trees, but sure enough we found the finish. I passed two women in the last 5k and that ended up putting me in second place overall for the women which was exciting, especially after not being able to run until two days before the race!
The Running the Rift half marathon took place completely on dirt roads in the rift valley of the Rwenzori mountains of western Uganda. Being in the mountains offered cooler temperatures and with cloud cover and some sprinkles of rain, the sun wasn’t much of an issue. The cloud cover means that I didn’t get very good pictures but there were actual spots on the course when I was able to look out on the rift valley below me that left me more breathless than the uphill climb and with chills on my arms to match. Half of the roads on the course were the normal red dirt but the other half were black from the volcanic rock that makes up the mountains. There was plenty of mud on this course too so I was more than happy to be running in trail shoes. The locals were out cheering us on in a wonderful way from the farms and village. Occasionally I had a group of kids pacing me, sometimes their fresh legs on the uphill were not what I needed but they did push me! I passed a Ugandan guy with less than 1km to the finish right past a group of spectators who gave him a bunch of flack in Lugandan for getting passed by a girl! The next guy up was another Ugandan who sped up when he heard the laughter so that I wouldn’t pass him too (I ended up talking to him after finishing.) Soon I was back on the road into the crater lake and the finish line festivities with my new friends. I stayed at the finish until the last marathon finisher and since I was staying at one of the lodges there, I took a shower and offered my shower to a couple of other runners (I never know when I’ll need some good karma!) But the festivities lasted well into the evening with lots of local beer and food.
The entire race experience was one that I will never forget and I know that these races and the people I encountered have only spurred me on imagine all the endless possibilities of traveling and racing around the world over the next several decades of my life because many of these runners were well into their 60s and 70s. Though I may never encounter many of these runners again in my life, they have left an indelible mark on my life. Part of me feels as if they accepted me as one of them, that I feel validated in some way, but really I just came to realize that I am a runner and I was already a part of the same very global community as them.