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Running Sierra Leone

Here’s what REALLY happened when I ran the “World’s Craziest Marathon”

July 29, 2018

WORDS: Hannah Banana
IMAGES: Harry Wood for Street Child

“I’d come here to help these children and all they wanted to do was help me.”

The story I’m about to tell you is not quite the story I thought I would be posting. But then again, no matter how much you plan ahead in life, things go wrong, especially when it comes to marathons…

 

Finish Line Sierra Leone Marathon Street Child

I was one of the very last UK participants to sign up for Street Child’s Sierra Leone marathon (SLM) agreeing to take part just four weeks before the big day. But still, I researched the country, the race and I knew the risks. The three key points I had to remember where:

  • It was going to be exceptionally hot and ridiculously humid
  • I was to carry hand sanitizer everywhere (and pack Imodium) as there is a lot of dirt and disease in Sierra Leone that my wimpy British body wouldn’t be able to handle
  • I wasn’t to go out alone, especially at night

All three of these points I had taken on board and was completely prepared for, or so I thought…

PRE-MARATHON

Every marathon I do is different, and no matter how hard I try for a consistent ‘pre-marathon routine’ every race seems to have some sort of challenge. There was Paris, where my Mum and I got lost on the way to the expo and spent about six hours running around the city, stressed, starving, and exhausted. There was Dublin marathon with it’s poorly organised (and quite stressful) toilet situation, or lack there of. And in Barcelona I was just absolutely shattered and my pre-race routine went out the window.

Well, the run up to this marathon was no different.

SLM was taking place on the Sunday but our huge – might I add super lovely and friendly – Street Child group arrived in West Africa late Wednesday night and had three days of project visits and activities planned (the project visits are worth about ten individual blog posts on their own, so I will save those stories for another day). In those days running up to the marathon seriously I felt like the Universe was truly testing me. It was as if my inner strength was being challenged by something I couldn’t control.

First there was the diarrhea.

Sigh.

Yup, the diarrhea – which began on the Friday evening and was still happening on the morning of the marathon – was downright annoying more than anything (again, a whole story for a whole other post … or perhaps not). Fortunately, I had mentally and emotionally prepared for this, in fact I actually laughed out loud when it happened and was surprised it had taken two whole days to arrive. Luckily I had spent about £40 on dozens of packets of Imodium before I let the UK, so I remained completely positive about the situation and determined to run.

However, this was followed by Ant invasion.

*rolls eyes*

Yup, Ants invaded my hotel room the day before the marathon. My initial thought was ‘Why me?’ After all, I’d already been pained with the diarrhea, why Ants too? But I just accepted it and again, I remained calm, they’re just Ants. So despite the fact they were all over my clothes, my race snacks, my toiletries and even in my bed, I just kept telling myself – They’re only Ants, they’re only Ants, they’re only Ants.

But the Ant invasion was unfortunately followed up by Poop gate!

Erm, yeah, so how to explain … basically at about 11pm the night before the race (bear in mind it was a 4.30am pick-up from our hotel so I should have been in bed hours ago but had been too busy ant-flicking) I flushed my loo which somehow caused a pipe to burst in the hotel (which may have been something to do with my diarrhea, ahem, I’m not taking responsibility, I’m just saying). Out of nowhere, both mine and another girl’s bathrooms quickly began to over flow with brown toilet water, causing a mountains worth of unnecessary drama at the worst time!

Medics had to be called, Street Child staff had to reshuffle the rooms, the hotel had to do a clean of our bathrooms (which basically just involved an angry man removing said brown water and kicking the pipe back in place). Still, I (somehow) remained calm, I remained positive and I remained determined to not let any of this get in the way of running the SLM the next day. No way!

I went to bed that night pushing all the negatives to one side ready to completely fresh in the morning, also known as ‘in three hours time.’ Bad things come in threes right? So I honestly thought I was done with the bad luck.

(Spoiler alert – I was not!)

MARATHON DAY

It rained overnight, which was perfect.  Temperatures had been in the early 30’s without a single drop of rain. But stepping out of the hotel to board the bus at 4.30am, the air was the coolest it had been since we’d arrived.

I’d eaten my soy porridge, my nuts and my protein bar. I’d drank my coffee, and my 12 million bottles of water … or realistically, two. I had my camelback rucksack filled with gels, nuts, sweets and all the other crap I was stupidly insisting on running with. I’d applied as much sun cream and Vaseline as I could. There was not much else to do except warm up and run the race.

We got dropped off Makeni stadium around 5am and all gathered in the centre under a large tent, trying to stay dry from the rain that was falling from the pitch black sky, the stadium lights being our only guide. The atmosphere was electric; people were nervous, excited, even giddy! Group photos and videos were being taken, music began to play, soon enough people began jumping around, stretching, warming up. If I could go back to that moment and bottle up all that team excitement I would.

Sierra Leone marathon Street Child

I was feeling really excited about the marathon but I also felt super nervous. I didn’t feel prepared enough, both physically and mentally. I opened up to my two new pals Laura and Ali about how anxious and unprepared I felt but they both reminded me that SLM isn’t a normal marathon! In fact it’s known as the craziest mother flippin’ marathon in the world – there would be no PB to beat, no time set, no sprinting. It would be pacing, resting, walking and stopping completely if I needed to. And they were right. This marathon was literally about taking it one step at a time, it was about having fun, so that is what I intended to do!

The start was delayed so our pitch black 6am start was closer to a light 7am and the sun was coming up by then, ready to watch us crazy folk try and run 26.2 miles under his basking hot bad-self! We all huddled together, checking phones were I places, bags were on, water was at hand.

And soon enough, we were running.

In Africa.

It was SURREAL.

I have to admit, considering I’ve never ran in such high temperatures (we’re talking late 20’s at 7am!!) or ran with a rucksack on my back, the first 10k felt absolutely fantastic. And just to point out, I was carrying quite a lot in that rucksack. And I was wearing a Go-pro which was strapped to my chest. But I honestly felt fine.

Well, fine, may be a slight exaggeration, I was dripping in sweat and clammy as hell, but I felt good and I was enjoying it.

I did quickly realize I was carrying too much stuff with me, loads of it I didn’t need, like both of my phones, my passport, my electric fan, wet wipes, a huge bag of nuts – Christ, I could have stopped and set up a camp site if I wanted to. Way too much stuff. But trust me, you learn from your mistakes, and I was about to!

Sierra Leone Marathon Street Child Children Makeni

I passed through little towns and passed so many children who just adored me. You begin to feel like you’re famous. No matter who you are, as soon they see you they smile and cheer and applaud you. Some of them run with you, bare foot with a big smile on their face

One little teeny tiny girl came running upto me and did just this. I looked down and saw the prettiest little face staring up at me. I noticed her bare feet and slowed down to a walk. On the other side of me her brother appeared. He asked if I would be his Sisters friends. “Of course” I smiled back at them both him. She was beaming at me. Her Brother explained that her Dad is no longer here “because of Ebola” so she wanted to say ‘Tenki’ (Thank you) to me for the work I did.

At this point I stopped dead in my tracks. A huge amount of guilt washed over me. I felt like I  hadn’t even done anything, not really, and yet this little girl was Thanking me like I was some sort of Super Hero. Her and her family have been through something that I could never even imagine or understand, and yet I had been complaining about ants in my pants, I felt ashamed.

I gave her a big hug, and we got some photos together on my phone, and using my GoPro I filmed her, her brother and her friends waving for the camera. As we parted ways, I was already looking forward to watching the footage back to see that adorable little face.

When you see how these children live and how little they have, and yet how happy they are, it makes your heart hurt with sadness and burst with joy all at the same time. They may never ever know the childhood I had, or the current childhood my little neice and nephew have – the excitement of the ice cream van pulling up outside the house, going swimming to the local swimming baths, enjoying the first family holiday, getting a Bike for Christmas, then riding it to school, in fact even just being able to go to school. Looking back, my education is something I completely took for granted.

The adults cheer you too, they smile, they wave, they shout ‘Tenki’ at you. I passed young lads, older men, groups of mothers with their children, all of them supported and cheered me as I passed and I was beginning to feel like Mo Farah on Marathon day.

The most popular form of contact and support from both the adults and the children is a motion like a high five; they put their hand up and you touch it with yours. You don’t necessarily slap it hard like we do back here in the UK, but just gently high five. I ended up doing this with nearly every child I passed along the way.

But the further I ran, the fewer towns I passed, the sparser the road got and I found less and less runners alongside me. I guess something I hadn’t taken into consideration is just how small this marathon would be. The smallest marathon I’d ran prior to this was Dublin, which had 16,000 participants. However, this race had 400 runners that day, but only around 100 running the full marathon.

100 runners. That’s it.

So before I knew it I’d gone from being part of this huge crowd of runners, all pumped up and excited … to just me, myself and I, on this huge empty road. I didn’t even think about the fact that I had just broken my number one safety rule, advised by Street Child, advised by every blog post and travel forum I’d read and most importantly advised by the person who would kill me if I broke it – my Mother – do not go out alone!

I had been so distracted by the stunning African views all around me and by the huge white birds that were sweeping over my head, that I hadn’t realized, I couldn’t see anyone. Not a single soul. It was official. I was running through Africa completely alone.

I should have felt scared, terrified, potentially even in danger, but I didn’t. In fact, I absolutely loved it.

It was a kind of serenity I have never experienced in my life.

There was a moment where I nearly began crying because I was not only so proud of what I was doing, but I just felt incredibly lucky. Here I was on a random Sunday morning just me and my GoPro, running completely alone through West Africa, surrounded by such a beautiful landscape. I almost felt euphoric. I remember taking out my phone to film and saying “Look! Look where I am, this is so beautiful, how lucky am I right now?” I literally felt like one of the luckiest people, and I was so proud of myself!

And that moment, that paragraph above, that is one part of this blog post I want you to really remember, despite what you may read later on. This was a beautiful, stunning and incredibly peaceful run, and if I could go back to that moment right now, I would. It absolutely makes it into my Top 10 Best Life moments ever (hmmm, now there’s a blog post to write).

But I wasn’t alone for too much longer. At around the 10 mile mark I bumped into my friend Ali (or rather she caught me pulling down my pants on the side of a road for a wee) and we ran together up until the half way point where we were greeted by medics, the Street Child team, and lots of food and water.

Any normal half way point at a marathon and I do a little jump for joy but I continue on. No time is wasted.

But not at SLM.

It’s way too hot to pass up the opportunity for a rest and refreshments. I stopped to chat to a medic, I ate a banana, did some stretches, took a few photos – it was actually really nice.

It was now nearly 10am and the sun was no longer behind the clouds, it was fully exposed, hat off, flashing us and burning down brightly. Ali and I had bumped into another friend at the half way point, H, and those two decided to head back onto the route, but I wanted to spend a little more time at the half way point with the team. I waved them off and joked that I would catch them up. I then packed my GoPro into my rucksack as it had already died, packed some more water, applied some more sun cream and eventually headed off for part two of the marathon. I was hot, I was sore, but I was determined!

THE INCIDENT AT 30K

From the half way point to the 30k point, I was mostly alone. At one point I caught up with a couple and I ran with them for a bit, but not wanting to be a third-wheel on what I’m sure was actually quite a romantic-marathon for them, I trotted on ahead by myself. I was enjoying being on my own, in fact I was loving it.

Until it just became Too. Dam. Hot.

Four hours and 30 minutes into my marathon (so the time I would usually be about to finish) I arrived at the 30k point where there was a medic station. The medic on site was Sam, a lovely chap who I’d spent the past two days in a group with visiting the Street Child projects. We high-fived, he handed me a banana and he asked me to sit down and rest as I looked tired.

But I refused. “No, I want to keep going”.

Knowing I only had 12k left, I really didn’t want to stop. The sun was so hot, I was so warm and sweaty and tired. I didn’t want to prolong the race. Sam said he at least had to put suncream on me as I was burning. That I allowed, but there was no way I was stopping.

After about five minutes at that station, I thanked them, waved Goodbye and headed on down the big huge vast road I’d just been running down.

“No, no, no” Sam shouted. “That way”. As I looked back, the whole team were all pointing right, down a small turn off.

“Oh,” I said surprised. “Thanks.” And off I went down a road that was teeny tiny in comparison to the huge one I had spent all morning running on. This one was a completely different terrain, it was rocky and bumpy and had a sheet of that African orange dust that I’d become accustomed to. It was small and narrow and either side of me was bushes and tall grass.

Sierra Leone Marathon Street Child Runners Craziest Marathon in the World

I had my headphones in playing music off my iPhone that was tucked into my rucksack, but something about this area felt a little less safe than the previous roads, so I turned my music down.

About 2k from the last medic station, I realized just how exhausted and tired I was. I stopped running and began a sort of jog-walk, trying to catch my breath. I poured water over my neck, desperately trying to cool down and then drank the last of it.

I can’t go on, I remember thinking, it’s too hot, way too hot. And it was. Despite Sam covering me in suncream, I could already feel my skin burning, my trickles of sweat only making me more uncomfortable. I wanted to stop. I felt my body completely slow down to a walk. But I also knew I had to get out of this sun and the only way to do that was finish the race. I pushed my legs to move faster and went back into my weird walk jog. Just over 10k to go, you can do it Hannah, you can do it!

I was arguing with myself in my head when I noticed a very small hill in front of me of which a man was walking down, straight towards me.

Now, it would be crazy to say I felt 100% safe, because I never feel 100% safe, not even walking in crowds in London do I ever feel 100% safe. But, just as I had on the rest of the route, I felt relatively safe. I’d passed groups of young boys, I’d passed men on their own, in fact I’d passed big trucks full of men, all had waved, cheered or at least smiled at me. I honestly expected the same of this man walking towards me.

As we got closer to each other I could see there was no smile on his face, and yes this did make me nervous. He was staring at me, but he had no emotion in his face, none whatsoever. Wondering if maybe he was just as nervous as I was – I don’t think it’s often they see a sweaty sunburnt white girl running through their community – I think, THINK being the difficult part as it’s all a bit of a blur, but I THINK I put my hand out, or maybe he did first, either way I know I wanted to put mine out, to do the high-five, to assure him we were both fine and I meant well.

But he did not mean well.

Everytime I close my eyes to recall what happened, moving my hand forward to touch his always feels like slow motion, and then it’s like someone hit the fast forward button and suddenly this man’s hands were on me at a super speed I couldn’t control. I can’t quite remember clearly what happened, I just remember immediately saying “No, no, no” and trying to push him away. I didn’t know if he was trying to attack me, if he was trying to drag me into the bushes, I had no clue, all I can recall is the thought NO NO NO going over and over in my head. Clearly some sort of human instinct in me had kicked in, one that I didn’t even know I was capable of, and it was fighting back and saying no. It was like I was someone else for 30 seconds. I’m a wimp. I suffer from anxiety and paranoia, I have a low pain threshold, I cry a lot. So I’ve no idea who this tough bitch was who was fighting back, but I was so glad she was there.

The next five to 10 seconds is literally blank from my mind, I’ve tried and tried and tried, but I have no idea what happened, but suddenly we were both facing the opposite direction to where each other had come from and we had hold of each other, so there must have been some sort of scuffle. He said something like “Give me everything”. As soon as he said that, as soon as I realized that he wanted my stuff, it was as if something in me clicked. I said “okay, okay” and I held up my hand as if to gesture if you stop attacking me, I will give it to you. He put his hands by his side, and I began to unclip my rucksack from my chest and shoulders, my mind panicking – what now? What now? What happens next?

I struggled to get my rucksack off properly as I hadn’t realized how much I was shaking until it came to fiddling with the clips and untangling my headphone wires from around my neck which were hooked up to the bag. As I struggled to take it off, he dragged it off me, I think he was worried about someone else coming along and he wanted this to be over just as much as I did. Once I felt it slip from me and the bag was in both of his hands, he motioned his hand for me to leave.

In that moment, even if only for a millisecond, I was so grateful to him. I was so unbelievably grateful and relieved that he wasn’t going to hurt me and that he was allowing me to go. He said something in Krio, I’ve no no idea what, I’m guessing ‘Go’ but as the relief washed over me I turned and sprinted.

As I took those first steps away from him, I felt dizzy, I felt like I was in a dream. I actually wondered if I was. I wondered if I had passed out from exhaustion and dehydration and maybe this was all in my head and it wasn’t real. Please say it wasn’t real.

But it was.

I could feel my heart beating like a drum in my ears I as I ran over the hill. Considering just seconds before I had been contemplating walking as I felt like I couldn’t carry on, that it was too hot, that it was too much, I have honestly never sprinted like I sprinted right then.

As I passed over the hill and I knew I was out of his sight, the tough bitch who had fought back completely disappeared and the shaken, terrified Hannah arrived on the scene and went into some sort of hysteria. Tears began streaming down my face as a million thoughts began going through my head – Why didn’t I run with Ali and H? Why didn’t I stay with that couple? Why didn’t I sit down and rest when Sam had asked me to? Why was I running alone in the first place?

I began listing in my head all the things I’d just had taken from me – both of my phones, my GoPro, my passport, F***! My F***** my passport!!

I thought about all the footage I had just lost. All the photos. All the memories.

I kept running and kept running, terrified in case he was coming after me. I’ve no idea how I was sprinting as I had zero energy but it’s crazy what adrenaline can do to you.

Eventually I came to a medic station; I couldn’t see any of the Street Child staff but there were local medics and volunteers and that was good enough for me. I ran towards them screaming and collapsed into a man’s arms rather dramatically. He immediately shouted for help and before I knew it I had several locals carrying me into the shade, giving me water, fanning me with a cloth. The police were there within minutes, followed by Ben the race director. I was blown away by the quick response and by the support these people gave me.

Initially I couldn’t stop sobbing as I sat replaying the ordeal in my head over and over, thinking Why me? whilst listening to the voices of a bunch of foreign strangers around me, I’d never felt so home sick in my entire life. Then it was like I went into a silent shock and I thought about my phones, about all the images and footage of the race I had just lost. About my GoPro. About my passport – I was supposed to be travelling to the South of France in a matter of days – how would I do that now? I had a holiday booked, flights paid for. And as for my phone, I needed that phone. All my photos, my contacts – gone. My headphones too! Why me??

As I sat there, feeling lost, alone and well and truly sorry for myself, I allowed my soggy eyes to look up see seven small local children stood in front of me, staring. They looked genuinely worried about me. I looked at their clothes hanging off them, rips in the shoulders, and their little bare feet on the dirty ground. My heart ached.

Someone, I don’t even remember who, when or how, had taken off my shoes and socks – maybe this is shock protocol, I don’t know – but I only noticed this because when I saw one of the children moving my wet sweaty socks into the sun to dry. Again, my heart ached. Then, as the police asked me to describe the man who had mugged me and I couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t remember because my mind was a complete blur, the oldest child stepped forward and began describing the last man he saw walk through the village.

My heart literally melted. I wanted to hug each one of them ( I quite often, even now still, get really upset with myself for not hugging them – why didn’t I hug them?)

There I was crying and upset about things that are completely replaceable, and there helping me were these children who have nothing to replace in the first place. I’d come here to help these children and all they wanted to do was help me.

Everything I’d just spent the past three days learning about came flooding back to me.  Within minutes I began feeling different. I reminded myself I had insurance; everything I’d lost was replaceable. I came here to run a marathon, to raise money, and that’s what I intended to do. My silly little mugging was nothing compared to what the people here have had to go through – a civil war, the ebloa virus, homelessness, hunger, no education – I’d get over this, quickly, it was completely fixable. The problems here? Not as easy to fix!

After about 40 minutes spent with Ben and the police and checking I was okay, I decided I wanted to finish the marathon. The next group of runners that came along I ended up joining them and completing the marathon with them. Fortunately, it was some people from my hotel, a guy named Nick and a girl named Kate, plus a few others they had grouped up with.

I’m not sure if it was because she was female, or because she was a friendly face from my hotel, but as Kate walked over to me after asking if she could come and give me a hug (this is a girl who was a stanger to me just days before, and who I still barely knew) I had never felt so relieved to see someone. I burst into tears and she gave me the biggest squeeze and said all the right things and I don’t think she will ever really understand just how much better she made me feel in that moment. So Thanks Kate.

(Lesson learnt folks: hugs always make people feel better)

Sierra Leone Marathon Street Child Hannah Banana

Me, on the right, about to cross the SLM finish line some six or seven hours after setting off!

The last 10k was not what I had expected. I was on edge, I was still shaken up, but it gave me a lot of time to think.

You see, Street Childs main purpose is to give children in West Africa an education. Every child deserves that. Whilst many charities do such great work raising money that can help provide food and water to African communities, that doesn’t fix the problem, only in the short term. Street Child want to fix the root of the problem by building schools, training teachers and providing an education for children, for Africa’s future. They are giving children the opportunity to change their life path.

The man that mugged me did not get that opportunity. I realized, I can’t be mad at someone whose situation I know nothing about. It was only when filling out my Police report later that day when I calculated just how much stuff I (foolishly) had on me and it racked up to nearly £1k. That’s one billion leones. That is so much money. And I pray to the Universe that what he took from me will go to his wife and children, and house them and feed them.

I began to think, maybe if this man had had an education, he wouldn’t have felt the need to do that. Maybe his life would be totally different. And as scary as the incident was, I don’t think he ever intended to hurt me, he just wanted my stuff. Would I have done the same if I was in his shoes?

If the Universe was testing me, I definitely passed! Despite the diarrhea, the hotel drama and eventually being mugged, I didn’t give up.

Yes what happened to me was scary and I really wish it hadn’t, but if you remember in my previous post, I had literally asked the Universe for an eye-opening experience and I most certainly got one. I’m incredibly proud of how I handled everything and this trip taught me a few things about myself, the main thing being that I’m so much stronger than I give myself credit for.

Was it terrifying? Yes!

Was it dangerous? Yes.

Would I do it again? HELL YES!

The only thing I would do differently is run with someone else (and maybe not carry my passport around in my rucksack, idiot)

The 26.2 mile course is absolutely breath-taking. I wish I had those pictures to show you. Part of me really wants to go back and do it again so that I could complete it, sans interruptions.

And the race itself is only one part of the trip with Street Child. The rest of the time is all about project visits, learning about African culture, making friends, and of course drinking beers in the club house with your fellow runners.

What do you think? Would be interested?

Register your interest in the 2019 SLM and if use the code HANNAH50 you’ll get £50 off your package should you decide to go ahead and sign up. Watch the video at the top for some serious inspo (and see if you can spot me dancing like I’m at rave!)

Click here to register your interest in the 2019 SLM

Sierra Leone 2018 Runners

I also want to thank all the people on the trip who helped me through the rather challenging few days after – people were lending me phones, letting me stay with them, giving me lots of hugs, buying me drinks. I was blown away by the generosity and kindness of the locals, the street child team and the friends I made on this trip. I’m honestly so grateful to have been with such nice people and not a bunch of arseholes – can you imagine?

***

Pssst … There is still time to sponsor me for the 2018 Sierra Leone marathon by clicking the image below. It would mean so much to me, to the charity, but more importantly to those children. I was a last minute sign-up so really didn’t get a chance to fundraise as much as I would have liked or hit my target, but your money could make such a difference.

Sierra Leone Marathon Sponsor button

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