As a recent running convert, I have never actually done any sort of “organized running” you might say. You know, 5K, 10K, and marathon races. However, there certainly is a first time for everything and why not raise the stakes when living in East Africa? Thus, I decided early on in my Peace Corps experience that I wanted to participate in the Kigali Peace Marathon.
The marathon itself draws a decent crowd, I would guess around 300ish runners—maybe even more? This year, 20 countries were represented (and shocking, Kenya dominated in all categories) and in the 8th edition of the race, the Ministry of Sports and Culture dubbed the theme as, “Sports as a tool to fight against youth drug use” (why it couldn’t simply have been “anti-drugs for youth” or something is beyond me). The course began and ended at the bright and bold green and yellow Amahoro (meaning ‘peace’) Stadium where football matches of high regard are often held. I have to say, in entering the stadium to get to the starting line, I let my imagination go a little wild, and felt a sliver of what it might feel like to enter the Olympic opening ceremony (that could also be a severe exaggeration). It was hard to not feel like a rock star, and I certainly wasn’t alone. Among me and my Peace Corps friends, we cheered for ourselves, pumped our fists, and did a little dancing. We’re weird. Nobody around barely turned a head (they were busy with the serious business of warming up) but hey, we were having fun. I really had to use the bathroom beforehand and I had to move quickly; the race was starting only 30 minutes after the scheduled start—that’s like being on time in this part of the world. Of course, toilet paper had yet to be provided in the stalls and well, let’s just say I had to improvise, Drastically. I found my way to the mass of adrenaline-induced runners with my small green IPOD shuffle in hand. It’s what I call a “special” IPOD because the part where I can change the song is broken and so though it still functions, I have to listen to whatever comes on the shuffle, whether it be Lady Gaga, the Dave Matthews Band, or a reggae inspired African jam. I wasn’t deterred; I was simply hopeful that I’d get some dynamite-pump up songs like My Time or Warrior as opposed to my inappropriately extensive Celine Dion collection. Celine is great…but not so much when trying to run miles and miles in the roads of Kigali among East African beast runners.
The muffled sound of the race MC was gargled and hard to understand, but as he counted down to 1, I realized that it was just about time to go! I fist-pumped with Nate, another Peace Corps Volunteer and we were off! My job was simple: I was the first runner of our four-man relay team. Our team consisted of me in the first spot, Jon, Sara, and finally, Meredith. I was hoping to set a good pace and a good time for my team to follow.
I started the race right around 7:23 am and came trotting back into the stadium, sleeves rolled up, banana stains on my hot pink shorts, sweat running down my face after close to an hour out on the trail. That brought my pace to about a 9:00 per mile pace—the best ever recorded? Hardly. But, pretty solid for my first official run.
Here’s what really happened out there:
7:23: depart Amahoro stadium in the first wave of runners. Run past the few camera-men. Smile. Grin. Keep good form—don’t appear too inexperienced. Have a couple second freak out: I am only spotting the numbers and colors coordinated with half and full marathoners. Did I leave with the wrong group? I am running with the relay, and I sure as hell am not running 20, 30, or 40 K!! ….have a sigh of relief when realizing that everybody runs the same course. The relayers run the course once. The half-marathoners run it twice, and the big winners of the day, the full-marathoners, run the same course four times. Phew.
7:24: not sure exactly when the second wave of runners was released but, my oh my, did I ever hear those runners coming. I heard the slap of foot and shoes meeting the cement as I simultaneously turned to see about a group of 30 elite Rwandan and Kenyan runners heading my way. I moved to the right side of the road instantly. I did not need (or want) to be trampled by some of the best runners I have ever seen.
7:25: note the time on my watch. Think for a couple minutes about why I continually wear my nice, turquoise watch that I purchased at the Tokyo airport a few years back, as opposed to a more sensible sports watch. Plan to buy sports watch/ask for one to be sent in the near future. Also realize quite instantly, how alone running is. I’ve loved that about the sport during the past few months, but even though I was running on a TEAM today, the actual sport itself comes down to you, and you alone. It’s you, your legs, and your mind.
7:30: feeling pretty good about form and running on the pavement. Was a bit worried about running on asphalt after training for the past few months on the dirt roads in my village…but so far, so good.
7:40: pass the Peace Corps office. The guards in their recognizable bright blue security outfits, are outside the ominous white gate with the Peace Corps insignia, cheering any PCVs they see. They wave at me, shouting “Komera!” (my most favorite Kinyarwanda phrase—meaning be strong) while smiling fully and warmly. Love them.
7:44: loop back around, passing Bourbon Coffee (really wishing I could have a coffee to go) and the Peace Corps office once again. At this point, tables have been set up full of bananas (and of the crack banana variety—what I call the small, sugary, best bananas in the world that Rwanda has all over the country). A race volunteer scrambles and hands me four bananas. Yummy. I rip each banana open recklessly and without any regard for manners, and chew on these bananas like I am some kind of cave woman. Suddenly, my four bananas are gone and I am empty-handed. Dangit, I think. I might just pay for that later in the race.
7:50: head back in the direction of the stadium along one of the main roads in the city. People are watching as we pass. Some cheer. Some stare. Some laugh. It certainly is Rwanda, isn’t it?
7:53: hit halfway point; 5K finished. Cruising and genuinely enjoying myself.
7:54: run along stations that are in charge of providing squeezy foamy concoctions to each runner so that they stay cool. I would learn this about 2 seconds too late, as I initially tried to squeeze the foam in such a way so that I could actually drink the water. Oops. The men and women at the station gawked and gasped. It was then I realized that this water was for my outer skin to be cool from the raging Rwanda sun…oh well. What can you do?
7:55: continue the run towards the eastern part of the city. This includes passing by the stadium…I suppose I thought I was faster than I really was at this point? Because, I somehow thought the race was ending soon because we had come by the stadium. But no. Oh no. We ran along the stadium gates, continued by UN Kigali offices, and headed toward the part of town known as Remera. I am familiar with this part of town especially, because Remera has the bus station that is my destination anytime I am coming from out East into Kigali.
8:00: consume two more bananas.
8:01: begin to regret all of the banana consumption.
8:02: major stomach cramp takes over. Refuse to stop no matter what. Begin to run at a snail pace. Some European man eggs and cheers me on as he runs with his bright blue camelback; after passing me, he proceeds to do a little crowd pleaser by dancing as he runs on by. I don’t have the kind of energy or strength for that. I can barely breathe with these intense stomach pains!
8:05: begin to wonder when I will see the stadium again and descend upon the end of this rather long run.
8:10: cramps subside; feeling better and stronger. Wanting to finish strong and complete the 10K with a smile on my face.
8:12: arrive on the grounds of the stadium. Miss Independent (my former favorite “African song” from Ghana…until I realized it was a classic hit from the AMERICAN, Ne-Yo…oops) is playing loudly on the speakers. Feeling my own independence and strength, I run faster.
8:15: the trail continues in a complete circle around the stadium. Really, I mean, really?
8:20: enter the stadium for one final lap to the finish line. My team and other Peace Corps participants are there to cheer me on. “You got it Heather! Yay!” They are awesome.
8:22: cross the finish line. (!!!!!) realize that I must slap Jon’s hand for him to get going. Hastily grab his hand for him to get going.
8:22 (cont.): realize just how much my legs hurt. And my stomach. Damn bananas.
We waited around for the next few hours as our relay teams finished and some of our friends even did the full and half marathons. Our relay team, bless their heart, finished last (or maybe it was second to last) among relay teams. However, to be fair, our last runner, Meredith, had to deal with a torrential downpour during her run. She has the best attitude though, and only worried about finishing and bringing our team home. We rocked it.
As we waited for our teams to finish, World Vision (the main sponsor of the event) workers announced alongside with representatives of the Ministry, the main winners of the day. As already mentioned, the Kenyans dominated. Completely. With the exception of one Rwandan woman who finished in the top 3 for the full-marathon women, all winners were Kenyan.
Two of the best moments after my run were this:
- We watched as one man, who only has one leg, and thus uses crutches for support, finished the half-marathon before many other people. He got probably one of the loudest cheers of the day.
- Some of the Peace Corps Volunteers received a grant to take some of their students to the marathon to compete in the relays. One student in particular, was glowing upon reaching the finish line. He’s a short little guy, shorter than me even, but he ran hard and his teammates were so happy for him, and for each other. About 20 PCV Rwandan students ran in the marathon, and for them, was an opportunity to learn about nutrition, about sport, but more than anything, an opportunity to do something pretty awesome. That was a great thing to see, and I’m hoping to get involved with that grant next year so some of my kids can come and run!
After the rain passed and we made it back to the Peace Corps hostel to clean up, a few of us grabbed a heck of a lot of Chinese food. We ate. A lot. I headed back home that evening, exhausted, but also thrilled that I participated in such an event.
Running, as painful, challenging, and difficult as it can be, also opens these doors to clarity, peace, and self-fulfillment. I’m addicted. I want to run another race already (next year, I’m gunning for the half, and have already set my eyes on participating in the Princess Marathon at Disney World upon return from Peace Corps). Running is meditative,..and on top of everything else, great for your health. I’ve lost about 30 pounds—the healthy way—and I think I’ve survived the tougher days when I’ve been out on the trail. I’m not especially good at it, but maybe that’s what makes it so great. You don’t have to be. You do it for your reasons, and support the people around you who are doing the very same thing, even if their reasons are entirely different.