and so, i run.

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I always thought people like Kelly Rappe were somewhat, I don’t know, crazy?

You know, those people who can run 5,6,10, 15 miles…and enjoy it.

Too many times to count—both in high school and college—upon arriving at the field lined by the black cushion stuff known to runners and field hockey players alike as the track, I would scoff and chuckle as track or cross country athletes prepped for their workouts.

Who would actually want to do that?

That looks miserable.

Really, running? That’s the sport you CHOOSE to do?

My teammates and I would continue to suit up in shinguards and socks, grateful that our sport had a purpose (secretly, I admired their dedication and particular skill, but for the life of me could not understand the appeal—once, in high school, I had to run the longest lap of my life as punishment from my coach for saying ‘hi’ to a boy in the middle of a drill. Never again would I break her rules. I would avoid running that dreaded lap around the track at all costs.)

After countless years of soccer, softball, volleyball, basketball, and of course, field hockey, I’ve found myself at the ripe age of 23, perfect for trying something new. Of course, I also find myself in rural Rwanda, with limited resources to work with.

Back home, I have friends that are engaged, married, and pregnant. Some friends are dabbling in the job market, fighting ‘the man’ that is the American economy, and some are off fighting another beast entirely: graduate school. Some are finishing undergrad, figuring out where to go next, and now I even have friends here with me in Rwanda, doing the same thing as me—following some sort of ideal and dream to contribute to the greater good of the world and giving Peace Corps a whirl. Together, we’re figuring out how to teach English and help our communities in a sustainable and realistic manner. Along the way, we’re also working with a little trial and error, trying to find ways to not just survive our assigned African villages, but to thrive in them too. I have friends learning to paint murals, creating things with bamboo, and some that are perfecting the art of baking without an oven! Peace Corps is pretty notorious for turning out volunteers with new hobbies and interests: even with all the integration, teaching, and overall adjustment to living out in the bush, there is still quite a bit of down time. One Rwandan PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer), a year into his service, had read over 250 books. That’s like, nearly a book a day. Last weekend, at a regional meeting, as my friends told me of their developing interests, I laughed to myself and proceeded to tell them that as they created all this cool hipster artsy fartsy stuff, I was in fact learning how to run. Which, by the way, includes developing my own ‘Zumba’ moves for my personal strength sessions I do a few times a week after hitting the trails.

Yes, me.

The girl who loathed running for years and would have rather lifted weights twice a day, everyday, than run a mile. I’m not just running I tell them. I’m loving running.

Today, I just woke up and knew. It was going to be a good run. My body felt good—probably from the loaded veggie stew I concocted last night for dinner. I felt energized. And after a few good pages of reading from Runner’s World (courtesy of Maggie DesPain—thanks girl!) I was certainly motivated. Let’s rock it!

And that, I did.

I did the longest run to date in Rwanda. I ran to the primary school in the sector next to mine and then back. For a visual picture, I ran the main road that leads to the even bigger main road—the one with asphalt and leads on to Kigali. To reach this road from my house is approximately 5K. Granted, the primary school pops up before the main road, but it’s still pretty close. If my estimations are correct, I would say that one way, I ran about 3 miles. Which brings today’s totals to 6 miles. For experienced, regular runners even, that’s a pretty normal run. No big deal. But for me, it was another stepping block in achieving my initial running goal: to be able to run to the black asphalt road and back (10K total). Plus, I did this run today in the rain, with screaming children often by my side on a Rwandan dirt road full of hills and holes and gravel, on a stomach full of chocolate chip pancakes and two cups of caramel via coffee, and on top of it all, I slept only a few hours last night. No, for once it wasn’t the mice. I had leisurely picked up The Hunger Games to read just one more chapter after chatting with my mom when, whoops? I finished the book after four hours of straight reading late into the night (if you haven’t read this book—READ IT NOW! It’s awesome.)

I arrived back home just before the storm got really bad and I was elated. I did it!

You see, I’m a competitive person, but without the innate need to be the best. Instead, what’s really important, is to be the best I can be. Honestly, I felt like a slacker when reading Runner’s World. Here are women and men, sometimes double my age, qualifying for Olympic trials at these running events around the country and world? But, out on the trail I remember that consistently comparing yourself to others isn’t the recipe for success: to be better, you must focus on your own limits and work to stretch them, defy them, and beat them. This works every time. Even when I was a little girl and my dad was coaching me how to play soccer (he took to calling me ‘the bulldog’ which I still get from him every now and then), I knew I wasn’t the fastest, strongest, or most talented player. First of all, I was freakishly tiny (sometimes half the size of my teammates and opponents) and the other girls could take the ball, have a certain finesse, score, and somehow make it look beautiful. That wasn’t really for me. I was a more scrappy breed, falling on the ground more times than I was actually standing, and pushing my way with all the strength I could muster. Maybe I wasn’t the best, but you could bet that if the ball was in my vicinity (and okay, even across the field, as youth soccer often resembles one moving group of kids as if the ball was a magnet) I was going to do everything I could to get it. That’s just how I played the game.

Maybe running isn’t that different. I don’t think I’ll be cruising through marathons any time soon, but hey, the fact that I love being out there (especially in an entirely different country and culture) is something. I can feel myself pushing hard up the hills, like I said, doing the best I can.

What I love about running is this: you’re alone, but you’re not. You can think, but you don’t have to. You move away, but you always come back. It’s escapism—I’ll admit that. But sometimes, my heart, mind, and soul need a break from Peace Corps. I love my job, but I see, witness, hear, and observe a lot of difficult things, namely poverty. It’s hard to describe really, but I’m living in a world where people pay the equivalent of like 10 cents to get water, and for some, it’s a stretch financially. You can pay the total of 30 USD for a student to go to school the entire year, and for families in my community, this is a heavy investment. Sometimes, it’s beyond overwhelming. A couple of weeks ago, I was walking around greeting people after going to buy some eggs from a family of a student I have, when I greeted an old women with heavy burdens—I could see it all just in her eyes. She started talking slowly but also hastily, and lifted her shirt to show me numerous tumors along her stomach. I only understood that she wanted to go to the hospital but I couldn’t really make out much more of what she was saying. I told her I would pray for her. And I have. I don’t know what is happening to her. But that’s just what life here is like sometimes.

And so, I run (and do dance moves alone in my home, often in the dark). And somehow, I guess I found the secret those track runners had in the first place. They’d probably laugh and scoff at ME now.

HA! We don’t look so silly, do we?

My first test, you could say, will be in May in Kigali at the Peace Marathon.

I was going to do the half marathon, but always one for team efforts, I am instead doing the team relay in which among 4 of us (myself and three of my PCV friends) we split the 26.2 mile marathon. I’ve always done better on teams anyway.

I often wonder where running will take me. No, not metaphorically, but quite literally. Will this new love continue back in the states when Peace Corps is all said and done? I hope so.

Soon, I’ll be starting to help coach my school sports’ teams (or so I am told…I am crossing my fingers). I’ll have a whole new opportunity to explore something new and exciting.  I’ve dabbled in coaching before, but the more I think about it, the more right it feels to have that position and be able to work with my students from a different perspective, a perspective, where I think I’ll feel even more comfortable.

And so, I’ll dabble in coaching, I’ll dabble in running, unsure of where it will all take me, but of course doing the best I can, day in, and day out as a volunteer and community member in this little African village. Like I said, it’s a philosophy that’s been harped a million times before, but, it’s foolproof—works every time.

(Sidenote: Oh, and Kelly Rappe, a good friend of mine, is indeed crazy, but I think that’s another story entirely.)

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About heathermnewell

Hey y'all, I am a twenty-something (okay, I'll be honest, I'm just about 25) and I spent the last 2 years of my life working in the Peace Corps as an English teacher in Rwanda. Before that, I studied American Studies at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. I'm originally from Colorado and somehow I've managed to become a product of all of these environments: loud, weird, adventurous, and a southern-wanna-be. I love writing, eating burritos, being with family and friends, reading Oprah magazine, praying, and country music. I am re-adjusting back to life in America and I hope to carry with me all of the things I learned while in Rwanda. Here's a glimpse into that process as I find the endless blessings that God gives. It doesn't matter where you are: God gives. God is love.

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