Thunder, lightning and the best laid plans

You probably expected this post to be sent from Banjul, the Gambia.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  Instead, I am writing this from the airport in Montreal, where I am huddled in a quiet corner, utterly exhausted.

I left Ottawa yesterday afternoon, as planned, to connect to my flight to Brussels via Montreal.  But it wasn’t meant to be.

Lightning!

We got on the plane and were told shortly after settling in that we would be departing late, as a lightning storm had led to the closure of Montreal’s Trudeau Airport.  When I asked about my connection to Brussels, the flight attendant advised there should be no issue, as no one was flying out of Montreal during the storm.  Reassured, I settled in and waited.

Once we got permission to depart, the short flight to Montreal was uneventful.  Upon arrival, I got ready to sprint to my gate.  But an announcement told us we had to remain

Air Canada at its best…

seated unless we were travelling on to Paris.  Those passengers were asked to deplane in a hurry to catch their flight.  After the Paris-bound travellers had left, I got back into the starting blocks for my sprint to the gate.  As I made my way down the aisle, another announcement came over the speakers.  “Passengers travelling to Munich, Frankfurt, Brussels, your flights have departed.  Please see the agent at the gate.”  Too bad, I thought, but no problem.  We’ll sort something out.

Airline counter lineup.

I quickly made my way to the ticket counter (well, as quickly as I could given I had received incorrect information and went to two wrong places before arriving where I was really meant to go).  Here, the Air Canada employee informed me that he would be booking me on the same flight tomorrow.  I explained that I had another connection to make in Brussels tomorrow and asked for options to fly out that evening.  I was told that all flights to Europe had departed.  I later learned that this was not really the case – only Air Canada partner flights had departed, but Air France had an 11:00 p.m flight to Paris.  Air Canada, who is not a partner with Air France, just chose not to inform me about that option.

A helpful Air Canada employee.

I asked about my remaining itinerary, but was told that since it had been booked separately, it didn’t concern Air Canada.  My luggage had been checked through to Banjul, but apparently that didn’t mean anything.  Air Canada claimed that their responsibility ended in Brussels and they would get me there a day later.  My explanation of what I planned to do in Banjul and why was of absolutely no concern or interest to the agent, nor to his supervisor, who also showed no compassion for my plight.  When I asked what alternatives I had to get from Brussels to Banjul, I was again told that their contract with me ended in Brussels.  My argument that said contract was also supposed to get me there on June 21, not 22, was coldly dismissed.

Since I had left my cell phone at home, I asked if the agent could check his computer as a courtesy to see if Brussels Airlines had availability on its flight to Banjul the day after my original booking.  This is where the news went from bad to worse.  There was no flight the following day.  What else could go wrong?  Oh yeah, the flights on the three subsequent days were completely booked.

I was already quite tired before my departure, as I had been busy getting ready for the trip and finishing a few things at work.  But now I suddenly felt exhausted.  What’s more, I thought of the commitment I had made to people, of all the people who had supported me, of the months of preparation.  My ticket was non-refundable and spending a few thousand dollars to buy a new one seemed like the only possibility to get to Banjul from Brussels.  I was so disappointed, I started to cry.

The shuttle driver taking me to the airport hotel was a kind man who saw how upset I was and told me about the Air France option.  I needed a phone to talk to someone at Brussels Airlines to see what could be done.  Change my flight there or try to get on the Air France flight to Paris.  I checked into my room and the phone marathon started.  Brussels Airlines had no options for me, but suggested I call Expedia, the company through which I had booked.  At least this woman sounded like a human being, in stark contrast to the two Air Canada employees with whom I had dealt at the counter.

It was now nearly 9:30 p.m.  I explained my dilemma to Dante, the agent at Expedia.  He committed to helping me as best he could and explained he would first call Air Canada to see what could be done.  But calling Air Canada is not as easy as it sounds.  We were on hold for 25 minutes, listening to canned music and occasionally hearing a recorded voice thanking us for our patience.  Once an agent was reached, the Paris option was denied and no other options were offered.  We now started searching for other ways to get from Brussels to Banjul.  After investigating many routes and finding only options that cost more than two times the original ticket cost, I was beginning to lose hope.  But finally, Dante found a flight with Royal Air Maroc.  For an additional cost of approximately $800 over and above the ticket I had already purchased, it will take me via a routing that is anything but direct.  The routing also includes a few destinations I haven’t even heard of, but it will get me there – 1.5 days later than planned.  Ok, no problem – who needs rest and a chance to acclimatize and adjust to the time change before running across an entire country anyway? I’ll also have to leave a day sooner, which throws my well laid out plans to meet up with Marc in Europe after the run over board, but I’ll adjust.

But as the agent started to cancel the ticket, he noticed that I had done an on-line check in from Ottawa.  That meant that he couldn’t cancel the ticket.  It was now about midnight and I couldn’t believe we were back to square one.  The agent heard the desperation in my voice when I said “Oh, no!” and promptly committed to helping me.  He asked if he could put me on hold to try and find a way to fix this.  He promised to come back on the line soon and to have this all sorted out.  I hung my hope on these words!  And he came through!

Travelers comfortably resting in an airport.

At around 1:00 a.m., the new flights were booked and charged to my credit card.  After the emotional roller coaster of the past few hours, I fell into bed exhausted.  I have now spent hours hanging out at Montreal airport.  Since the airport’s Wi-Fi system is a bit wonky, having to write this blog twice has helped kill some time (yes, I lost the first draft just after completing it).  Three more hours until my new flight to Brussels is supposed to depart. Here’s hoping take two will be smoother than my first attempt to get to Banjul!

When I arrive at 2:30 a.m. I will get a couple of hours of sleep before we have to make the journey by car to Koina. This drive should take us all day. Then it’ll be time to run. Don’t expect anything quick, as I will be stiff and tired and will have to shake the rust and jet lag off first. But I will run 30 kilometers on Monday, and then again on Tuesday, Wednesday….

Thanks to all of you who sent well wishes before my departure. While Air Canada is clearly no supporter of Love4Gambia, I know I have people all over the globe cheering me on and rooting for me. Thanks to all of you for your support!

Lots of love from Montreal (and hopefully soon from Banjul!)

Andrea

How to be Strong

This week, a friend named Wendy invited me to speak with a group of first-time marathoners that she coaches.  I decided that I would talk about what helped me manage running 25km for 17 days in Africa: how I stayed strong, how I managed the heat and how I dealt with setbacks.  Another friend asked me to do the same with our school’s hockey team in September.  I coach 2 teams myself so figured I should capture my musings for future use. Here goes.

The Heat

It was really hot in The Gambia. Like between 37 and 42 degrees hot.  But the heat never impacted my running performance because I chose not to let it. The heat just was. I needed to run whether or not it was hot so I just didn’t think about it.

Sometimes after I explain this, people will say, “oh, so the heat wasn’t that bad.” I explain that that wasn’t it at all. It was very hot; 42 degrees is very hot.  It’s 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit.  It was so hot that my hair and skin were often dry despite sweating like crazy. The heat would dry the sweat right away. It was so hot that 2 pairs of my sneakers melted because the air temperature was so hot and because the heat made the asphalt so hot.

I couldn’t do anything about the heat. I had a 25km goal each day, regardless of the air temperature. I had no control over the heat. But I did have control over how I responded to and dealt with the heat. I coped with the heat by not even considering the heat.  I never, ever considered that the heat might cause me to stop running because there was so way I was going to stop running. Stopping was never in the realm of options.

Managing 42 degree heat was all about being strong.  The human body will allow you to be strong enough if you will it to be strong enough.

Running in Africa drinks GatoradeI was also doing everything possible to allow my body to run well in the heat. I was super careful with nutrition and had a team of 4 incredibly caring people keeping tabs on how much I was eating and drinking. I was drinking 5 litres of fluid over 25km of running; 3L of it was gatorade.  I weighed myself before and after every run to make sure my hydration plan was sufficient. If you’ve ever tried to push 5 litres into your stomach, you know that it’s a lot!  But it was what was required to survive and run so that’s what I did.

The rest of the day, back at our base camp (where ever that may be) was very very hot. I would shower and put on underwear/pajamas instead of clothes.  My whole team was wearing underwear instead of clothes.  If I wanted to, say, braid my hair and take out my contact lenses, I would have to separate these activities by 5 minutes because it was too hot to do them back-to-back.

If your race is hot, be smart, drink water and be assured that the human body can survive in the heat if you choose to be strong enough to survive.

Familiarity Breeds Comfort

In one of my favorite running blogs, “The Logic of Long Distance,” blogger Jeff writes:

“Familiarity breeds comfort, and though I feel pain, I get better at controlling my reaction to it.”

This was a very true phenomenon on the road to Banjul.

2 female runners in Africa

Erin + Ashley at the start of Day 3

In my assessment, the worst that I felt was beginning the first 20km run on Day 3.  It was my 3rd day of running 25km per day. I had put 50km on my legs in the past 48 hours. When I began to run that day, I was stiff and sore from toes to hips.  And my shoulders ached from being in runner’s stride for so many hours out of the previous 48.  Although that morning, I knew that the stiffness and soreness would fade within 2 or 3km as my forward running motion circulated fresh blood to my objecting muscles.  I did feel better.  By km 3, I was running comfortably.

Insightful blogger Jeff also writes:

“Long distance running requires endurance, by which we mean the ability to suffer.”

Looking back, although I name Day 3 as the worst day for my legs, I think that I actually felt like that every single day.  But from Day 3 on I expected it; I was prepared for it; I knew it would go away; and I knew that I would run through it no matter what.

It was never dangerous pain. I hurt in an acceptable way. My legs were fatigued from hard work. I never had any “oh shit” injured parts. Some mornings, I would still be sore at km 2 so we would run until 15 minutes passed and then we would do a full set of track warm up drills and I would feel better after that.

I also helped my team run through expected discomfort. None of my teammates, Ashley, Pa Modou, Kebba and Spider, had ever run like this before: day after day after day. I helped them accept that there would be pain.  I helped them embrace it, get past it and get on with it.

In fact, I almost had it easier than my teammates did.  I was never going to give up and get into the truck.  But Pa, Ashley, Kebba and Spider always had the option of getting back into the support truck.  They had to be strong against a voice that I never had to deal with.  The voice that whispers “Look at the truck, all nice and run-free. Don’t you want to stop and get into the truck?”  My team stayed very strong next to me for many, many kilometers.

By Day 13, my quads and hip flexors were tired and remained tired until we reached the ocean.  And by Day 13, I was sore at rest pretty much all the time but it was a happy, hard work sore and I just accepted it.

From Day 3 on, I couldn’t sleep in my favorite position because my legs refused to bend in bed. By Day 13, it became impossible to find a comfortable position for my legs in bed and those legs exacted their revenge on their owner by preventing sleep.  I would rely on sleeping pills at night.  Although it’s not fair to blame the sleeping pill reliance purely on leg soreness.  Sleeping pills were also important because it was often 32 degrees at night with no electricity and no fan.

All of the discomfort that I felt on the road to Banjul was both familiar and expected and I knew that I wasn’t putting myself or my muscles in danger so we would continue running each day.  The human body can do it.

During your marathon, be prepared to receive messages from your body and your brain.  These messages will tell you: “We are tired. We hurt. We want to stop.” Be prepared to deal with these messages and push through it. Has this happened to you in training?  Good!  It’ll breed familiarity. Hold onto that experience as evidence that you can get through it.

Managing Setbacks: Figure out what works

Setbacks pop up.  You have no control over them.  I wouldn’t even call them “unexpected setbacks” because setbacks are expected.  I ran 25km for 17 days and honestly, the remarkable days were the ones that were unremarkable. These were the days where all parts of the runner’s body and the team were smooth.

I managed a number of obstacles:

  • A runner and kilometer markers on the South Bank Road, The GambiaOn Day 5, my guts refuse to accept Gatorade and energy gels during the first 20km run
  • On Day 6, kilometer markers appeared on the South Bank Road, announcing that I was 280km fromBanjul, filling me with waves of anxiety about how far I had to run.
  • On Day 7, my setback was emotional, not physical. I was my birthday and I was lonely and missed my family
  • Runner in Africa gets sickOn Day 9, I poisoned myself with water from a tap and had terrible cramping diarrhea and couldn’t take a lot of gatorade or gels.  It was hot and I was getting weak.
  • On Day 13, Ashley was sick in bed and the rest of the team was down. I had an intense and persistent “I don’t want to run” feeling.  Part of my brain was trying desperately to hit the “off” switch to cease running operation.
  • On Day 14, I didn’t want to run. I knew that I would do it, I just didn’t want to.
  • On Day 15, we didn’t have enough food and I was hungry.  We were in place that food was hard to get. I was cranky. Then my breasts chafed really badly. Then our destination disappeared and I had to run an unexpected extra 5km pushing my daily total to 30km while hungry with a chafed chest.
  • On Day 16, we ran 6km down the yellow centre line in the middle of the highway, surrounded by insane, angry traffic

I managed all of these setbacks.  On the 2 days I was ill, I knew that when the run ended, I could recover by eating and sleeping the rest of the day.  I knew that I wasn’t physically harming myself by running through it so I pushed through it by being strong.

When my breasts chafed, I hurt a lot. I knew that I couldn’t give in to hurting. If I knew that if I could focus enough, I could get the pain under my sports bra to go away. If I can focus hard enough on just running, I have the ability to just run and tune everything else out.  So that’s what I did.

Focus got me through my emotional setbacks too.  On Day 7, I told Kebba (who was running next to me) that I wasn’t going to talk to him for the next 20 minutes. “I’m not happy or sad, I’m just running,” I told him.  Kebba replied, “That’s ok, I have many exciting thoughts in my head!”  I zoned out and just ran.  I made my mind go blank. Running was all I was focused on.  And I recovered.

On Day 13 when I didn’t want to run, I used my “rope.” My team loved my saying to tie a figurative rope to the runner next to you and let him/her pull you along. That day, I looked at the kids who were running with us and I tied my rope around them and I did it.

A rice farmer and mama embraces a runner in AfricaThe kids, mamas and soldiers were hugely helpful for my team and me.  My legs matched my mood out there on the road in The Gambia.  Like I said, we often hurt or were tired. But each time we were joined by children and youth, all traces of fatigue and pain vanished.  We were running for these kids, for NSGA programs that impact their lives. With them running next to us, we felt like we could fly.  When a convoy of soldiers saluted me, it was impossible not to have my spirit soar.  When my spirit soared, so did my legs.  When 70 year old Mamas in rice fields hugged me, high fived me, laughed with me, expressed their gratitude to me, I would run away from them with legs that felt brand new.

Recognize that if you run long enough, setbacks will happen and some struggle is inevitable.  I’m not suggesting that my exact strategies will work for you.  I discovered that they worked for me by paying attention to my training and learning what helps when I struggle.  So pay attention to what works and put that in the pocket of your short shorts for use when you need it.

Now if your race is in North America and not on the South Bank Road in The Gambia, you may not be quite a lucky as I was.  But there are a lot of joyful sights on the sidelines of a North American race.  There are people cheering.  There are volunteers spending their day with you, handing you water.  There are police officers holding back traffic and recognizing your effort with a smile.  There are folks who have put effort into coloring signs.  Your friends and family may be there.  Think about what you’ll find on the race course and plan to use these small pieces of joy to lighten your feet.  If you tell yourself it’s going to work, it might just work.

Mantras

A Canadian runner high fives a young Gambian runner in Africa

12 yr old Molamin

I have used mantras during many races- a short sentence repeated over and over again.  It helps me push the sensory data from my legs out of my head.  I concentrate only on the words.  On Day 16, my legs were tired and while I wasn’t injured, of course I was hurting. A young boy, Molamin was running with us.  I was watching him run and saying to myself, “Run for him. Run for him.” During the 9km he ran with us, I remember feeling like I hurt everywhere and nowhere all at once.  My mantra made those 9km disappear easily.

Sometimes I have prepared mantras and sometimes they just pop into my head like “run for him” on Day 16. My aunty Debby sent Team Love4Gambia a message every single day and her mantra was “Do your best and the forget the rest.”  I like that one.

a Canadian and an African runner read a running mantra

Almamo & I reading Kate's mantras

My self-proclaimed “number one fan” 10 year old Kate Keast wrote me a motivation saying for each of the 17 days that we ran.  One of them resonated particularly well with me and I repeated it to myself often: “Don’t put pressure on yourself. Just do your best and the best will happen.”  I loved this one and loved that it came from my sweet little Kate, a girl wise and caring beyond her years.

Believing in Yourself and Dealing with People

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t or that you are crazy. Well, you don’t have control over what people say to you.  But don’t ever believe it!

A LOT of people thought that we were crazy and that we would never make it toBanjul.  These people lived in both Canada and The Gambia.  But we made it together because we always, always believed that we would make it.

A lot of people in The Gambia could not believe that a woman could do this. And they frequently told me so. Heck, people sometimes didn’t even believe that I was a woman.  Ashley and I were on the Gambian news and people would approach us and say to Ashley: “I saw you and that man on tv.”  Spider’s friends saw us running on Day 16, with their own eyes, and quizzed him after: “are you sure that’s a woman?  Have you seen her body parts?”  I proved these people wrong every single day.

I coach high school runners and tell them:

 “the only person who can tell you that you can’t is yourself.”

I gave this advice to myself in The Gambia.  I gave this advice to my teammates who had never run this long, this far or this much in their lives.  And I successfully coached these runners to run 110km (Ashley), 118km (Spider), 137km (Pa Modou) and 250km (Kebba) next to me.

Recognize that the people telling you that you are crazy are often inactive, spend too much time sitting on the couch, follow a poor diet and are putting themselves at risk for a lifetime of chronic health problems.  They are the crazy ones.

Maybe some of this is helpful, maybe not.  It helped me and my team accomplishment a huge and amazing goal.  At the end of the day, I’m not an overly special or talented runner.  I’m not an elite or a professional.  I am just a regular girl with some talent who worked really hard for 7 months to prepare for a really difficult challenge.  I was determined to reach my goal no matter what.

I wish you the same determination.

Reintegration: Life after Love4Gambia

I’ve been home from Africa for almost 3 weeks now. Anyone with the good fortune to have spent time in Africa will agree with me when I write that it’s harder to come home than it is to go to Africa.

I struggled with whether or not I should continue blogging, unsure if there are people out there who still care about what I have to say now that my team successfully ran across an African nation. I thought about continuing to write in the context of the number of people who come in and out of my life (work, personal, sport) and ask me “how was your trip” and want a 3-word answer. How could I possibly answer in 3 words? But I know that this is what they want so I respond “It was amazing” and they reply “Great!” and go about their day. Then there are the people who only want to know if I saw any spiders or monkeys, if the food was weird and if the toilets were gross.

I also thought about writing in context of my great love for my team, for running, for the NSGA and for The Gambia. At the end of the day, the words are still coming out of me so I’ll continue to write.

3 Gambian runners and 1 Canadian runner running togetherNow back to returning home and reintegrating into my life in Nova Scotia. It’s accepted that some travelers will experience culture shock when traveling for extended periods of time in countries that differ greatly from their own. This was my 3rd summer spent on the continent of Africa and I don’t personally experience what you would label “culture shock” in West Africa. Gambian culture is one that I know and love. This summer, while running and spending 24/7 with 3 Gambians, I had the incredible fortune to get know and love their culture even more intimately.

On August 3, I arrived home in Nova Scotia after pretty much a transcendent experience with Gambians who I call family. The reintegration is complicated.

I’m back at work and have been making comments that I know are inappropriate . No need to make them again here- I need to keep my job. But I’m having a hard time feeling bad about them. And I did preface one with “permission to speak freely”…

A Canadian nurse and young kids in The Gambia, Africa

Young kids in Jakhaly

The thing is, I’ve just spent my summer raising money to help prevent HIV and malaria in West Africa. In 2010, malaria killed more than 1000 kids under age 5 in The Gambia. The 2010 under-5 mortality rate for Gambian children is 106. The under-5 mortality rate is the probability of dying by age 5 per 1000 live births. This means that for every 1000 kids, 106 will die before their 5th birthday. In Canada, the under-5 mortality rate is 6. In The Gambia, 16% of kids under 5 suffer from moderate to severe malnutrition. Only 61% of kids in The Gambia are enrolled in grade one because their parents have to pay school fees. All stats are from Unicef  and WHO.

A Canadian nurse and a newborn in The Gambia, Africa

Ashley and a newborn in Jakhaly

I returned to Canada to a work place concerned with and focused on how 1 in 3 Nova Scotian youth age 2 to 17 are overweight or obese. Sure obesity is a public health problem. Our Minister of Health and Wellness’s most recent press release stated that poor diet and inactivity are putting many young people at risk for a lifetime of chronic disease and other health issues. I don’t disagree.

But when you think about where and how I’ve spent my summer, maybe you can understand why I’m having a hard time reconciling… what is a problem. I have to live and work in Nova Scotia. I have to work on this. I expect progress to be slow.

Last time I got home from Africa, I quit my job. I’ve promised my manager that I won’t do that this time.

I’m not really into running right now. I know that running would help burn off professional angst but I just can’t do it. My desire not to run is about several things.

The primary force making me sit on my patio instead of running is that it doesn’t feel special. My heart is just not in it. My last training cycle, all 7 months of it, was focused on preparing to run across The Gambia, which would be the crowning achievement of my running career. It was. But now that we’ve run into the Atlantic Ocean in Banjul, running doesn’t feel special because it’s not for The Gambia anymore.

Second, the thought of running makes me feel tired and this is fair. I’ve just spent 7 months of my life training for The Gambia and one month running in The Gambia. For these 8 months, my life pretty much revolved around 5 or 6 running days per week. I have been so committed to running in The Gambia that I don’t want to be committed anymore. And because a new race commitment won’t be as special, it makes me feel more tired.

Finally, I miss Pa Modou, Kebba and Spider so much with each running step that I almost don’t want to take any steps because then I’ll miss them more. There’s nothing I can do about missing them. It just is. I can’t make it better because I know that we realistically won’t see each other in the next one or two years. But I can stop running and miss them less.

My coach Cliff wants me to take a page out of the Kenyan and Ethiopian training manuals and take a full month off. I always listen to Cliff so you’ll find me on my patio this month.

While I’m sitting on my patio, I’ll be thinking about our Love4Gambia run. People keep asking me if my accomplishment has sunk in. Or if I’ve processed the entire experience: what I’ve been through, what I’ve achieved. I don’t really have an answer for these people. I don’t know how I am supposed to feel right now or what it will feel like when I’ve “processed” the fact that I’ve run across an entire country, that I’ve gained 3 brothers and a sister, that I’ve raised $34,000. Nothing in my life has prepared me with how to process this.

2 runners high five each other while running in Africa

Erin & Pa Modou. Still connected

All I know is how I feel now. How I felt when I saw the Arch to the city of Banjul with my team. Thank God, I can still close my eyes and feel what I felt when Spider yelled, “I am seeing the Arch!” and it appeared before me and my team and we knew that we had made it together. I don’t ever want that feeling to disappear. I also don’t want to lose the way I feel when I look at the Atlantic Ocean. The way that Pa Modou told me to feel; like the Ocean connects us as much as it separates us.

I’ll run again when I feel ready. My fatigue and loneliness will lessen. In The Gambia, I thought a lot about my Canadian support network. They were running 25 minutes a day to support me. They were running in spirit with me. On certain days on the long road to Banjul, I felt like I could just turn around and see them behind me.

I know that when I am ready to run again, Spider, Kebba and Pa Modou will be right behind me.

4 teammates run together across The Gambia, Africa

The Rope. Day 13.

Thursday, July 21, 2011- you are getting this late, there was no internet in Bwiam.
Day 13. 25km. 331 km achieved!
Bwiam Lodge. 4:00pm. Too hot to sleep. Would run an extra 25km to have electricity before 6pm and for longer than 6 hours.

The team loves my analogy of tying a rope to the runner next to you and letting him/her pull you along. Today the rope is strong and the rope is tight.

Bwiam, our man Kebba’s village, was on the map today. Kebba’s 3 sons: Lamin (15yrs), Seko (13 years) and Sheikh (11 yrs) live in Bwiam with their grandmother where they attend school. Kebba, Spider and I began today’s run together know that we would hit Bwiam around 10km. Kebba said that his boys were excited about the Love4Gambia run but that he hoped that they were in school like they were supposed to be (this is that last week of class in The Gambia).

As we approached Bwiam, we saw Kebba’s kids walking towards us. It was a lovely sight. I think that Kebba’s desire to have them in school quickly dissolved as we neared them. Smiling hugely, they began to run with us. His kids are gorgeous. They are miniature Kebbas. Same charming smile. Same laugh. We were also joined by Kebba’s nephews Lamin, aka “More Fire,” age 6 and Sam age 15 and a friend, Mohammed.

After a full kilometer of running with our 6 newest Love4Gambia teammates, I asked Kebba if we had passed his compound- wondering if the kids were just running home. He replied, “Yes, we passed it. Are you worried about the kids?” I said, “No way, they are not my worry, their Daddy is with them!” Kebba says the boys are fine.

And boy, were they ever fine. They were fueled by happiness and excitement- seeing Daddy after more than 2 weeks. They ran easily next to us. We ran 9 abreast, taking up the whole road. Two kilometers passed. I watched with amazement. I am a youth coach and I’ve never witnessed such beautiful form in a group of young people. They ran quietly, soft on the balls of their feet, arms in perfect position, heads held high and proud. I wished that Cliff could see them. None of them had sneakers on. We learned later than Kebba’s sons were so excited to hear that Daddy was approaching that they ran out of the house with plastic sandals/flip flops on.

We approached 3km with the boys. Little “More Fire” had the most perfect form of them all but he was growing tired. He had also taken off his flip flops and was running barefoot. Little Sheikh, age 11, noticed his cousin was tired. So Sheikh reached out his hand and grabbed More Fire’s hand. Sheikh pulled him out front, just slightly ahead of the rest of us. And that’s where they ran, hand in hand. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen while running.

We stopped to drink 3.5 km into our run with the Suso kids and Kebba put More Fire into the truck with Pa. This tiny 6 year old boy ran 3.5km for Love4Gambia.

The rest of us continued. We put Sheikh into the truck after he ran 5.5km. Yes, you are reading this correctly. Kebba’s 11 year old son ran more than 5km today.

When the day ended, Kebba’s 13 year old middle son, Seku, had run 11.5km. Lamin, Sam and Muhammed, the big boys at 15 years old, all ran 14km.

Ashley wasn’t feeling well today so we left her at Bwiam Lodge and continued the last 15km without her. We established the plan to leave her there first thing this morning. It must be a sign of a strong team that we all felt a little down without our full team intact. We were all a little sad today. I was feeling particularly fatigued in the legs. This was my 6th day running in a row. My legs match my mood out here in The Gambia. When the Suso kids joined us, my legs stopped complaining and I was able to run comfortably.
I had the most intense “I don’t want to” feeling that I’ve had before our second 5k run today. Part of my brain was trying desperately to hit the “off” switch- to cease running operation. I knew that I would do it, I just didn’t want to. I didn’t have my Ashley next to me and I keenly felt her absence. But I looked at the kids and I put my shoes back on and I tied my rope around them and I did it.

Ashley is on the mend, no worries. I am a runner, coach and nurse.

And I am also a woman which has been on my mind since beginning this run. Many Gambians’ reaction to Love4Gambia is “HER?!” along with “a woman can do that!?”

The Gambia is a society traditionally dominated by males and the nation is making great progress towards gender equity. But like many nations, progress travels at its own speed. In sport, the gender gap is visible. Football is a man’s world. The local races feature a shorter distance for women. Boys are more willing to join our run that young girls are.

During certain moments, I can actually see progress. Maybe this is why the grandmamas greet me so joyfully on the road. Maybe they’ve been waiting a long time for a woman to do it.

We ran through the village of Nyoro Jataba, just before Kalagi this week and a group of boys and girls joined us to run about 600m. A pretty little girl, about 6 years old, began to run next me. I often weave through these groups of kids and did so on this day but this pretty little girl followed me so that she could stay next to me. I’ll never forget what she looked like: green and yellow dress, plastic sandals, hair in little braids like the crown of the Statue of Liberty. She was looking up at me with an expression that I can’t do justice in words. But it was along the lines of, “wow, a girl can do this.” I hope she remembers our run together as she grows up in this society where the balance tips to male. A woman can do it.

Namaste,
Erin

From Ashley:

Small things can make such a big impact on you.
This week, during a recovery run, I stopped running at 3km and I walked to cool down. I was walking along the last farm in the village when I heard “How are you?” from across the farm field. There was no toubab… just “How are you?” I replied, “I’m fine, how are you?” The little girl yelled back, “Good!” At that point I had just finished the bottle of water I was drinking. I held it up and said, “Do you want the bottle?” The little girl ran so excitedly, giggling and shrieking in delight to come and fetch it that I developed a huge pang of sadness and guilt in my heart.

In Canada, it would be extremely insulting to offer anyone, in any social situation, an empty plastic bottle. Here, this sweet little girl greeted me so politely, took the bottle and said “Thank you!” She didn’t have enough English to understand when I asked her name, but she smiled brightly, showed me the seeds she was carrying in her shirt and said “Couscous!” I left her behind to continue planting her couscous seeds as I tried not to cry. These are the type of things that make a trip like this change you.

Together We Can Do It!

Kebba said that to me on Run Day 3.  Ashley yelled “You can do it” out the truck window and Kebba, running next to me, said “Yes, together, we can do it.”

July 10, Day 4 of running.  100km run !!!

Baobablong Camp, Janjanbureh, 9pm

What a day. A very happy one.  We began at 7am.  Today was moving day as we were travelling ahead after the run to make Janjanbureh our new home base.

We had a special beginning to our day in Bakadajie as we began our run at 8am at Bakadajie Upper Basic School with the Peer Health Educator team. We started the run together with the very youth that we are running and raising money for.   When we got to the school, students and teachers were still arriving and I was really slow to get out of the truck.  I was feeling tired.  I had slept through my alarm and Ashley woke me up 20 minutes later than I had planned to get up.  So I looked at the teens under the tree and pulled myself out and went over to chat with them. They were telling Kebba in Mandinka that they couldn’t run and he was saying “yes you can!  Look at her and how far she has run.”  While he did this, some of the girls were making lovey eyes at Pa Modou, who they knew from their Peer Health Educator training.

Then it was time to run.  Our group of about 25 went out onto the road and began running together.  It was incredible.  Kebab led the students in singing, “1, 2, 3 Love4Gambia.”  And then “Thank you Erin, Thank you Ashley” and then “We love you, Erin.”  How can a girl’s spirits be low when surrounded by this.  I could have floated.

I was worrying yesterday (rest day) about how my legs would feel at the start of today’s run.  With the Peer Health Team with me, I forgot to even think about my legs.  You can’t feel pain when you aren’t thinking about pain.  It was the best start of the day.  The youth ran about 200m with us and then Ashley and I continued on.  Ashley set a new PB today of8.25km in 2 runs, go Ashley!

Today was a nice mix of farm, forest and village with just the right amount of each.  Love love love the villages were I get to greet people- women farming, men under trees, kids who can spot a toubab from a km away, people at the shop stalls.  Today 3 men were leaning against a lorrie (big truck) and one of them said “That is very unusual” as I ran by.

I had my coach Cliff’s voice in my head today at several points and he was telling me “run smooth, nice and relaxed, let the wheels turn.”  I was trying to run as relaxed as possible to keep my aching shoulders down.  They felt better today so mission accomplished.  I was actually running a bit too fast today and kept trying really hard to slow down.  Fresh from rest.  I’ve decided that I need to run slower than 6min/km to survive, this is a 4 day running stretch, I kept catching myself at 5:48-ish/km.

We had a perfect rest under a tree.  Pa and Kebba built me a bed of leaves against the tree, I’m so Paris Hilton.  I led Kebba through some yoga poses because sun salutations and the plank position were relieving the ache in my shoulders.  Confession, I learned this yesterday during a push-up contest!  Kebba quite enjoyed the yoga and he and Pa enjoyed the word “Namaste” even more.  Then it was “Namaste” everything…

Our last 5km was around lunchtime meaning kids at school were on lunch break.  Kebba and Ashley began the last 5km with me and Kebba completed it with me.  Today I ran about 11km solo, that’s it!  So we are running through the village and elementary school kids are playing in the school yard and they come chasing after us.  I ask them if they want to run and they say “YES!” so the kids at the school join us.  All the kids!  About 50 of them!  I would turn around and see the most amazing train of tiny Gambian kids in blue uniforms running along.  Kebba led them in singing.  Their sweet “We love you Erin” in unison brought tears to my eyes.

We told the kids to stop at the outskirt of the village and when we turned around, they had surround Pa in the truck and I could still hear them chanting “Erin, Erin!”  I knew this run would be touching, emotional, moving etc… but in last weeks, when I was so focused on how I would feel physically, I had no idea it would feel this sweet.

During our last 5km, we were running along and Pa and Kebba both starting shouting “That’s the road! That’s the road!”  Ashley and I were mildly confused: yea, we were running on the road.  Then I looked up ahead and saw a beautiful sight to behold.  After 98 km on dirt road, the paved road sparkled like a mirage up ahead.   We got to it and I did my happy dance.  I kissed the road.  And then we ran 2 smooth miles, appreciated so much by each hard working muscle group that had run 98km on a road sometimes like running on ladder rungs; sometimes like running on a frozen eggo waffle; somethings like running through a maze of potholes.  Rejoice.

Insert from Ashley here!

Evidence of the pain of the very uneven dirt road: my right leg and ankle… During the first five km of the day running with Erin, I had a slight accident. Kebba and Pa were behind us in the truck, cheering and honking and lots of videotaping as usual, then Kebba yells, “Banjul calling!” At which point I hit a rock or bump or hole? And bam! Left ankle and leg underneath me, dragging on the road.

Luckily since I was running my right leg naturally was swinging forward and I just seemed to get right back into stride with Erin… or maybe I bounced off of the road? This may not sound quite as hilarious as it was, but while breaking under the tree, Pa admits he captured my fall on video. We watched of course and you hear Kebba yell “Banjul calling!” See me fall with a very loud “ugh!” and then Pa yelling “Careful Ashley!” after I’m already up and in pace with Erin again. We listened to this and laughed until we cried for at least 20 minutes.  So yes, real road that is smooth is a good thing. Someone had to fall on the dirt road, glad it was me and not Erin…and we had such a good chuckle! Back to Erin now.

Some facts:

Legs: Get a passing grade. Right groin is taped and is running comfortably. Aching some at night but less each night.  Right groin tight after today, hopefully just from stress of miles and will be fine.  One toe is being disagreeable and I’ve popped a blister on it twice.  Everything else is a-okay.

Animals: Not much to report. Donkeys run away from me when I get close.  Cattle don’t give a shit about white girl running passed them.  Today I ran nervously by 2 vultures feeding on a pile of garbage.  God, they are ugly creatures.   They were looking at me like I was quite tasty but didn’t budge when I ran by.

Thanks to Cindi Allen who sent a bag of toys with Ashley.  We gave them to the kids at SOS Children’s Village (Orphanage) where we were staying in Basse.

Supporters at home, we love you all.