Its Wednesday 28th May and I have returned home from Sierra Leone after one of the most crazy, humbling and wonderful weeks of my life.
At the outset I want to say a huge Thank You to everybody that sponsored me to run the marathon and I can re-assure you that the money will be used to help some of the poorest, kindest and genuinely humble people that I have met. The charity is superb, run by an army of unpaid volunteers who work in incredibly adverse conditions to make a massive difference to the lives of the children.
Well how did it go? Here’s the full story:
Wednesday 21st May:
I left work mid-afternoon to drive down to Woking to stay with my mate Tim, a friend from Manchester University back in the 1980s. Tim lives quite near to Heathrow. I don’t see Tim very often, we had a great night in the local pub drinking Ale, playing pool and playing Smiths and Talking Heads records on the Juke box. Two men in their late 40s transported back in time to 1986. It was ace.
Thursday 22nd May:
Tim had kindly got his PA to arrange for a car to pick me up at 9.30 a.m. and drive me to Heathrow for the BA flight to Freetown. During the flight I was thinking about the days ahead, I really did not know what to expect…
We disembarked the aeroplane at Lungi airport Freetown just as the sun was setting. I felt the heavy, hot moist air hit me as I walked across the tarmac…I was in Africa for the first time in my life!
We were met by the Street Child team at the airport and boarded the bus for the 3 hour ride to our base for the weekend – Makeni in Northern Sierra Leone. I quickly learned that in Africa nothing ever works quite as you expect. The bus looked like it was made in the 1950s – no luggage space, no air con, but it coughed and chugged its way along the highway with the driver blasting his horn every few seconds to warn the people that were aimlessly wandering around on the side of the highway.
Around 200 International runners, mainly from the U.K. travelled to Makeni for the marathon. I had selected the medium level of luxury for my accommodation – one up from a tent – and billed as a local guest house / hotel.
I was informed that I was going to be staying at Grace Lodge, a small hotel on the outskirts of Makeni. My fellow guests were all runners and they had arrived the previous day. They all worked in the finance/investment industry in London, mainly for Fund Managers Blackrock. They turned out to be a great bunch of people.
The Residents’ Bar and Restaurant:
I was greeted at Grace Lodge by a Street Child volunteer Eva, a tall striking German woman who gave me very clear and very Germanic instructions about how things would be done. I wouldn’t mess with her. I liked her immediately.
My room was better than I expected – working electric power and functioning, if extremely noisy, air conditioning. I even had running water (well for 24 hours at least). There were a few dead cockroaches dotted around and a couple of holes in the mosquito net, but all in all it was perfectly acceptable.
Friday 23rd May:
Exhausted after the travelling, I had a lie in until 9 a.m.
I soon learned that breakfast at Grace Lodge is always the same – The cook Fiona serves instant Nescafe with milk powder then a spicy omelette served in a hot dog bun. It wasn’t at all bad.
We had been told that we would be picked up at 10.30 a.m. to go on visits to Street Child projects. Time is a loose concept in Sierra Leone – nothing ever happens on time, but sometime in the late morning we were picked up and driven about half an hour to the Magburkara project.
About 30 affluent, mainly white Caucasian people trooped off the bus and awkwardly lined up in front of the whole school in the back yard. There were maybe a hundred children of all ages and they sang a beautiful welcome song to us, in perfect African harmony. They had clearly been practising this for a long time. It was phenomenally moving:
An imposing matriarchal African lady welcomed us to their project and asked us to introduce ourselves to the children individually. In typically awkward and reserved Western manner we dutifully said our name and where we were from. In addition to U.K. runners, there were people from Germany, Spain, Italy, Estonia, Lithuania and the U.S.
Then a tall young Sierra Leonean man, the resident social worker, gave us a talk about the Street Child project. Because of the poverty in Sierra Leone, many families struggle to earn enough money to support the children. The hungry children often drift off and fend for themselves, trying to survive on the streets of Makeni as best they can. The aim of Street Child is two-fold – firstly to give some support to the family with a micro loan to establish a small business and secondly to provide a safe school environment to take the children off the street and give them stability.
We were split into two groups and I was taken to visit some of the business projects. It soon became clear that this was nothing like small business as we know it in the UK. The first business we went to was on the dusty highway just outside the school; we were told that a lady had established a restaurant.
The ‘restaurant’ was basically one home-made wooden bench at the road’s edge, a crude open frame with a shade and two cooking pots over open fires – one for rice and one with a sort of fish sauce/stew in it. From there she served local farm and construction workers their lunch for a few hundred Leones (the local currency – there are 7,000 Le to the £). Street Child gave her a loan of maybe £20 so she could buy her two cooking pots and her first supply of rice. They then monitor her closely for 14 weeks to ensure that she understands that she has to sell the food at the right price to ensure that she can buy a further supply of rice, pay back her loan and so sustain her business.
Loans are only given to ‘care-givers’ of children in a Project school. In reality that means the money goes almost always goes to women. Once the beneficiary has proved that they can sustain a business after the 14 week trial period they can apply for another micro-loan if they need it.
The largest business loan that Street Child gives is £50. The sort of money that all of the watching westerners would spend on a night out without turning a hair. In Sierra Leone that amount of money can truly transform the fortunes of a whole family.
We met other businesses at the side of the highway – a lady selling fish from a basket. Her ‘job’ entails walking the 7 or 8 miles to Makeni market every day, buying the fish and then carrying them back in a basket on her head and then selling them on the roadside in Magburkara. Her loan bought her the basket and her first lot of fish. After several months she was doing OK and had several children in the school.
As we walked the half mile back to the school in the brutal heat, I felt reassured that this was a very positive and proper way to help the people here. Most of the people we had met were very shy and humble and I hoped that these little businesses would also increase their confidence.
Back at the school we had lunch of sausage sandwich and plantain and then we had a free hour to play with the children in the back yard of the school. I handed over my little bag of presents to one of the teachers – lots of colouring pencils.
Outside, we played football and Frisbee with the children. A little boy tugged at my shorts and said “You are James – my name is James too, can I be your friend?”
“Of course”, I said to little James and I asked him how old he was – “eight” he said. He was a beautiful little boy. He wanted to hold my hand and never left my side for the rest of my time at the Project.
I then spent a magic 45 minutes playing Frisbee with James and his schoolmates. It was the best fun I have had in ages.
Eventually we had to leave the Project – it was heart-breaking to wave goodbye to my new friend – he never took his eyes off me as we waved from the bus.
I can’t think of the right word to describe how I felt as I left. “Ashamed” is too strong, but it’s in the right ballpark. There I was, an affluent white westerner called James who won the geographical lottery and will always want for nothing, be well fed and do basically whatever I want – and another lad also called James, a charming sweet innocent little boy, who has a virtually nothing. If I didn’t realise it before – this World isn’t fair. I will have to find out more about my new friend and try to help him if I can.
Saturday 24th May:
The main activity today was to attend the pre-marathon festival at the Wusum football stadium. Before the marathon briefing at 4pm we were treated to food and local dancing and lots of hard hip hop and rap music played at ear bleeding volume. Sierra Leoneans like their music turned up to 11.
At around 3 p.m. a big blacked out American car drove into the stadium and shortly after we were treated to a short set from Star Zero – a female Sierra Leonean rap star. Rap is certainly not my thing, but to be fair to her she was clearly talented and gave it everything, the locals were absolutely loving it.
The pre-race briefing focussed a lot on runner safety – understandable given the heat and humidity and we were warned about drinking enough and helping other runners if necessary. There was a large team of volunteer medics that had flown in for the race and the chief medic gave us dire warnings of the possible consequences of running a marathon in the African tropical heat if we went too fast or didn’t hydrate properly – basically it could mean death. “Start slowly and get slower” was the final message from the Race Director.
That evening we had to go to the Street Child Clubhouse – a sort of pub/café in Makeni run by the charity as a commercial venture for a pasta party, to pick up our numbers, sign a disclaimer and watch the Champions League final between Real and Athletico Madrid.
By half time in the match, the Grace Lodge team decided to return to the hotel – those that wanted to could watch the match there, but as we were rising at 3.30 a.m. on Sunday, some decided to retire early.
To travel around Makeni involves three options – walk, wait for an infrequent shuttle bus or take a local motorbike. There are very few cars in Makeni, virtually no taxis, but literally thousands of motorbikes.
Grace Lodge was too far to walk, I couldn’t be bothered waiting for the bus so I chanced a motorbike. The story I heard was that after the civil war ended in the early 2000s, the U.N. and the government wanted to get the guns off the street. In order to make the amnesty work, they offered motorbikes in return for guns – by the looks of it, it worked a treat.
Makeni is a small city of around 150,000 people. You agree the price for your motorbike journey with the driver before you set off – I soon learned that the price is always 2,000 Le (about 29p), no matter where you want to go. You might be given a helmet, usually you aren’t.
The drivers always enthusiastically tell you that they know exactly where you want to go; however, about half the time, they get it completely wrong and take you to the wrong destination so a 5 minute ride can end up taking 15 minutes or more. This is Africa, patience and a sense of humour are essential.
Sunday 25th May – Marathon Day
I was concerned to get my pre-race fuelling correct to I had brought my own supplies – a packet of Tesco porridge oats, some malt loaf and peanut butter. We had managed to buy some fresh milk at the Lebanese supermarket in Makeni, so I asked Fiona if she could make us porridge for our 4 a.m. breakfast. She seemed a little bewildered, so I carefully explained that she needed to mix one cup of porridge oats with two cups of milk.
As we sat down for breakfast, she presented us with a pot of porridge and put an unopened pint of milk on the table – she had made it all with water…She had probably never used milk before, it costs the same amount as twenty large bottles of water. It didn’t taste the best, but luckily I had brought a couple of pots of Oats So Simple, so I managed to get a decent breakfast inside me.
Mercifully, it had rained heavily during the night, as it often does in Sierra Leone in May/June. Although the air was still muggy and very humid, it wasn’t ridiculously hot – probably in the mid 20s.
One of the shuttle buses had broken down so about 30 runners had to cram onto a bus designed to carry about 20, but we got to the Wusum stadium in plenty of time for the 6 a.m. start, it was still fully dark
The Grace Lodge Crew Before the start.
There was a great atmosphere at the start – palpable nerves, apprehension, some forced jokes and awkward chatter. It was rumoured that the President of Sierra Leone, who hails from Makeni, would address us before the start. However, although he spoke later to the 5K and 10K runners, he didn’t show for the combined marathon / half marathon start – clearly he didn’t fancy such an early start.
Just as the light started to come, we were ushered to the start line at 6 a.m. – a motley throng of mainly local African runners in a variety of kit – mainly cotton T-shirts – and the 200 or so International runners.
After a short briefing from the patron of Street Child we were off – running out along the roads away from the stadium for about half a mile before turning right onto a dirt road and off towards the Bush. We wouldn’t touch tarmac again for nearly 26 miles.
The African runners absolutely hared off, as if this was an 800 metre race. I started steadily, very aware that the marathon distance has to be respected. I really didn’t know what sort of time I could expect to run. The temptation was to run hard early to beat the extreme heat that would come later in the race, but at all the briefings we were warned this was a dangerous tactic.
So, I just trusted my experience and ran to feel. My first few miles were run at 7:30 – 7:50 pace. It felt about as hard as Manchester had, but there I had been running a minute per mile quicker.
The course was amazing – out on red dirt roads, very rural then on some small paths and tracks linking the remoter villages. Street Child had gone out to all the villagers to explain to the chiefs to expect lots of Apoto (white people) and they had also given one free entry to a man and woman from each village – in the hope that the villagers would come out to cheer on their guys.
Understandably, the race soon got stretched out, I passed lots of locals that had started way too quickly and after a few miles I was running mainly on my own, though I could see a couple of Apoto up ahead. As the full marathon and half marathon runners were running together for the first few miles, it was impossible to tell where I was in the field.
At about 6 miles there was a dividing point, the half marathoners veered off left and the marathoners continued straight ahead. Most of the Apoto I was running with went left, though I could see one pale skinned guy up ahead in a white and green vest.
The temperature was rising steadily and as expected I was absolutely drenched in sweat. We were running up a hot open red dirt highway with no shade and I gradually reeled in my Apoto competitor. We ran together for a mile or so and chatted – he was a guy from Bank of America in London. He then said he need to divert to the bushes for a gingerbread man (For non Marathon Talk listeners – that’s a Number 2), maybe he would catch me later…
There was a turnaround point on the red dirt highway and as I was running up the road, the leading Africans passed me running the other way. The leader looked magnificent – a skinny rangy guy with a beautifully languid running style. He was flying. I later learned he was Idrissa Kargbo – the Sierra Leone National Record holder and a 2:35 runner. There were a few more Africans in front of me – between 12 and 20 I guessed – but no Apoto. Oh my God, could I be the leading International runner?? It looked like I was.
I took the turnaround and started passing the runners behind me in the field. My work colleague William Pitt was the second International runner, a few minutes behind me. I saw Nick from Grace Lodge a little further down the road, he was running with colleagues from work and we high-fived as I passed.
There was a water stop at about 10 miles and there I saw Eva, “Go James – you are miles in front!” she shouted as I passed.
Thankfully there were plenty of water stations – at least every 5K with a few extra ones as well. In addition there were a few cars driving around giving out water ad hoc. In marathons in the UK, I drink very little, fearing upsetting my stomach. However, this time I was gulping down half a litre minimum at every opportunity, and any spare water was poured over my head to aid cooling. I was carrying a bottle with Nuun (electrolyte) drink and I had three extra Nuun tablets with me. I refilled my bottle several times with bags of water during the second half. I’m so glad I took the electrolytes with me.
I got to half way in about 1 hour 41 minutes, by now I was totally alone running along narrow rural tracks and rutted forest trails. There were few marshals, most of the time you had to look for yellow arrows for direction with occasional signs or tape in the trees. After not seeing any signs for a mile or two, I did worry a couple of times that I was lost and running off into the African bush completely on my own. Luckily, I never went wrong and marshals were positioned at the key places where mistakes could happen.
After two hours of running, the sun was getting higher and it did feel very hot indeed whenever I emerged from the shade. I kept thinking about my strategy of dousing myself in water and steadily drinking my electrolytes.
The second half of the course was much tougher than the first, it was constantly undulating, no big or long hills, but it was never flat with some short steep nasty climbs that could really sap you. At about 19 miles I decided to take a few tactical walks up any steep uphill inclines, but always kept running if it was flat or downhill.
I was passing local runners from time to time, most were walking and a few of them looked extremely distressed. I doubt that many of them had ever run a marathon before and clearly had not mastered the art of pacing themselves. Incredibly, at about 17 miles I passed a young girl of maybe 16 who was wearing normal street shoes – like flat working shoes. How she had managed to run 17 miles on rough trails so quickly I have no idea. There were also one or two barefooted runners.
Most local runners seemed shocked as I came alongside them, I tried to be friendly, saying hello and encouraging them. Often they would clock me as I approached and then they started sprinting for about 30 metres, only to stop again, repeating this panic sprint again each time I caught them until finally relenting and allowing me to pass. I think only one African guy passed me in the second half of the race.
Running through the villages was overwhelming. Little children would constantly wave and shout out “Apoto, Apoto!”, they loved it when I waved back. Without exception, at every village older people said “Thank you”.
As the temperature rose I felt myself flagging and getting slower and slower. 8:30 miles became 9 minute miles. At 22 miles there was a long section alongside the railway right out in the full glare of the sun, it was brutal. I put my shades on and thought about stopping to put my hat on, but I decided I was near enough to the finish to push on. I passed one poor local male runner who was completely out of it, collapsed by the side of the course, thankfully he was being attended to by the medics.
I pressed on as best I could through the final miles. In the last village before returning to Makeni, I was mobbed by about 30 young children who wanted to run with me and hold my hand.
This was not the usual moral dilemma that a marathon runner faces at mile 24 – do you slow down to run with the children or should you press on for the win? I compromised, high fiving as many as I could and running with them for a hundred metres or so before pressing on.
At mile 26 I was back in the outskirts of Makeni and I could hear the booming PA and the hubub in the stadium. After a couple of nervous moments ensuring that I was taking the correct route, I ran around the external perimeter of the stadium and then ran in through the gates.
My senses were blurred with the heat, the effort and the overall overwhelming experience of it all, but I was arrogant enough to take off my sunglasses and raise my hands for the photographs as I crossed the line.
I wasn’t 100% certain that I was first international, but Tom Dannatt, the head of the charity greeted me after the line and said that I was, as did some of my new chums from Grace Lodge.
As I stopped running I felt the full blast of the heat which felt much more concentrated in the stadium. I drank water and a volunteer unpinned my number for me. All I wanted to do was to lie in the shade, but there was very little available without fighting my way into the football stand. As I lay half under a truck, the official photographer Mark introduced a journalist from the London Evening Standard and I gave a garbled interview whilst laying prone.
Her article appeared in Wednesday’s Evening Standard:
In my confusion and elation at the finish I completely forgot to stop my watch, however, from my Garmin times up to mile 26, my finish time should be around 3:42:00 – I did measure the course about half a mile long. To be frank, I don’t care about the time at all.
Unfortunately, although I had no issues whatsoever with organisation of the race, I always had plenty of water and I am sure that I ran the full and correct route, others were not so lucky. It emerged after the race that due a marshalling cock-up, most half marathon runners had been mis-directed – some running as few as 9 miles, but most where still running after 16 miles. The organisers had to send cars out onto the course to pick them up and bring them back to the stadium, dropping them outside so that they could run in and cross the line. Not at all ideal. One lady I spoke to after the race ran 18 miles in her first ever half marathon.
It also emerged that the main race had suffered a controversy as well. There was an allegation that the leading runner Idrissa Kargbo was misdirected by the lead motorbike and ran 5K extra. Whilst off course he was passed and eventually finished only second. The prize money of one million Leone (£145) would mean nothing to me – to these guys it is enormous.
I felt for the organisers – all unpaid volunteers, but aided by the Sierra Leone Athletic Assocation and something went badly wrong. I think because of this, no results have yet been published. Maybe they never will. However, I am 100% happy that I completed the correct course. No International runners in the full marathon seemed to suffer any problems.
My Strava record of the race is here: http://app.strava.com/activities/146477270
The boys back at Grace Lodge were made up that one of their residents was first international finisher. They were so nice to me and even insisted on washing my filthy race shoes for me:
At the post race party, the Race Director and the head of the charity apologised profusely about the problems, they seemed genuinely devastated about the cock up in the half marathon. After a few earlier complaints, I think most runners accepted that everyone did their best, this was Sierra Leone where things often go wrong, and the main reason we were there was to raise money for Street Child. The Race Director also said that it was the hottest day that he had experienced during his time in Sierra Leone.
In the clubhouse after the race I met and chatted with the first International Lady finisher, Julia Kelk – a Canadian lawyer living in London. Amazingly, Julia had completed the Lanzarote Full Ironman triathlon only the week before:
I am so delighted that I travelled to Sierra Leone. I had an astonishing experience. It was wonderful to connect with the real Africa, to learn about these incredibly humble and resourceful people. And of course it was lovely to have my ego massaged by finishing first Apoto in the marathon.
If you are a runner and want to experience the hottest, most crazy yet life-affirming race you could ever do, then go and run the Sierra Leone marathon. You won’t regret it.
However, the one thing that I remember for the rest of my life is that hour spent playing Frisbee with little James and his friends in the baking African sun in that rough school yard. No amount of money or stuff will ever buy that.
Finally, if you can find it in your heart to donate even a tiny amount of money, remember that it will be doubled as long as you give before June 17 when the UK Gift Aid window shuts for Street Child.
Here’s what that money can achieve in Sierra Leone:
£40 sends a child to school for a year.
£100 starts a business that supports a child and their entire family.
£500 trains and supports a rural teacher for a year.
£1000 pays a social worker to counsel and support 100 street children.
£5000 builds and furnishes a first ever semi-permanent school in a rural village.
Thank you again to all that supported me, you have given to a very worthy cause.