Friday, November 28, 2008

Running a marathon in Africa...PART 1

Ok, so all things aside..I did mention trying to run a marathon on each of the seven continents. Didn't I?

And I did say this after a strong finish at the Boston marathon in April of 2007, and after knowing that I will be in West Africa for the next two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo. I was at the peak of my physical fitness, ready to conquer anything. May I also say I proposed this before even setting foot on the continent of Africa. I mean, I know this place is hot, but also home to some of the fastest long distance runners in the world. Maybe training here will further increase my capacity to run with the greatest. This Midwestern girl must have been dreaming.

While living stateside I had to cram in time to train between a busy work schedule and the outdoor elements we call a cold and windy Chicago winter (not to mention that come race day in Boston I was dealing with a “Nor easter”). Though on average, the temperatures were more suitable to running during daytime hours. I also had access to all the latest fitness equipment, the ability to train indoors, and the ability to mix in other forms of strength and cross training. I could run in the dark, daytime or early morning hours depending on my schedule.

I had the options of all the latest sports drinks and food supplements, charging me full of electrolytes, vitamins, minerals and elements to aid in performance and recovery. My glycogen levels were maxed out and I was fully loaded for any workout, I followed a balanced diet complete with whole grains and soy proteins, calcium and carbohydrates.

I was also mentally stimulated by others in the act of training, moving at the motion of many athletes in the city all developing their maximum capacity for oxygen flow. I would enter smaller races and half-marathons to challenge myself and be among others like me. There was camaraderie amongst my co-workers and I as we would hold each other accountable for following an exercise regime. “ You going to the gym after work?, why not?” We also made sure each other had made enough trips to the water cooler to consume the full 8 - 8oz glasses of H20 necessary for maintaining a healthy glow.

Towards the end of some of my neighborhood runs I would coast into “Borders Books” to grab the latest issue of Runners World, roll it in my hand like a baton and think back to those track days as I sprinted home. Upon reaching the apartment I would buzz into the nearest coffee shop to grab a latte and pain au chocolate, treating myself to a job well done. I would then take a nice hot shower to sooth the muscles and pop back out into the city.

I had access to personalized training schedules and playlists. I would upload my ipod with new tunes and hit the streets with my Nike+ chip telling me how far I've gone, how far to go, and letting me know stats on pace, time and calories burned. It felt as though I had my former cross country coach watching over me, stopwatch in hand, yelling splits at every mile. This in turn made me feel accountable for my training as well. Plugging in the ipod and uploading all my past runs to log on my personal profile placed me in competition with others like me around the world working to achieve the same fitness goals. But most of all I was in competition with myself. As if the record of my runs would prevent me from slacking or from skipping out on training since there was some form of physical evidence, a log of work completed.

At all times I felt comfortable, able to chose amongst a wide variety of running gear depending on the workout and climate. I could update my running apparel, adding new layers of sweat wicking, cooling fiber technology to my core. I wore my little shorts and tanks most often when the weather was warm. As the temperatures dropped into the 50's and 60's (perfect temperature for peak performance) I would wear tights and a t-shirt, my feet comfortably encased in sweat wicking, no-rub socks.

I would treat myself to relaxing foot baths in the evenings while resting on the couch watching the newest Netflix arrival I grabbed from the mailbox. I was at ease, in my element, and felt on top of the world. Running to me was my Yoga, a time to reflect, breath, cleanse the body and feel revived. How was I to know that in another place and time, these feelings could alter.

Enter...Togo, West Africa.

In the weeks after completing the Boston Marathon I had tapered my runs down to a smattering of footsteps. I replaced the occupation of training with running around town gathering whatever gadget or gizmo necessary for survival in Africa. I had my shopping list organized by hints and suggestions by former and current volunteers abroad. I was also wrapping up my job as a product designer, working up until 1 week before I flew out, which left little time for much else. I would still squeeze in a nightly run from time to time but I closed out my gym membership and started to remove myself from my old routines. I had to get ready for survival in Africa. My co-workers told me that I needed to “bulk up” in order to avoid the famine of Africa or the onslaught of dysentery or amoebas. So that I did, indulging in the many treasures American has to offer by processed foods and snacks.

Bags packed and on my way, I left the cool American soil and took flight. I remember the feeling after stepping off the plane that first night in Togo. The heavy humid air hit me like a marathoner hits the “wall.” Running in this place was the last thing on my mind at this point. It was hot, and for a girl who’s lived in the Midwest her whole life this was something not yet manageable. Plus, I was ready to fight malaria and digestive issues. The idea of running on top of all that was not in the schedule.

Once arriving at our training site and making our presence as the only white people around for miles I felt a sense of isolation and public display. We were different and something to study. We were placed in our host families and started to adhere to a schedule of class and family time. As much freedom as I felt living in the States, once here, I felt trapped by cultural norms and wandering eyes. I felt as if I was on parade and any movement I made needed to be explained. Since my ability to communicate in French was seriously lacking, I decided to be still. In that way I didn’t have to voice any reason for why I run and where I’m going,when I’ll be back and if I’ll bring home bread. With time, this lack of physical movement left me feeling less than complete and a little depressed.

Running as a mode of calming myself and making myself feel better was replaced by meetings with new friends over local brews and snacks. All the rushing and moving around town that consumed most of my days in the states slowed to a crawl. Partially due to the heat, but mostly due to the lack of places to go, as well as the heavy, vitamin deficient foods that felt like lead weights in our guts. We had a lot of time to sit, whether in class or at the local buvette*. We hid from the cultural suffocation of our host families, and drowned our homesickness’s in conversations of better days. We cracked open bottles of Pils, Eku and Awooyo, and snacked ferverishly on roasted peanuts and fried balls of dough and cookies.

Needless to say, I slowly began to reverse the healthy effects running had instilled in my body. I became tired and bored, and began to look forward to naps and reading books as a moment of comfort. Any of you who know me well, can understand that that profile is not one that describes me well. In my life, I was never one to sit still, never took naps, and never seemed to find time to cozy up to a good book. I needed to move, but here in Africa, there's no where to move we are still.

I arrived at my post in September of 2007 and tried to think of ways I could create a routine that involved exercise. However, I was such a new shiny installation in the village that again, “all eyes were on me.” So I resorted to trying to create a “home gym” routine. I asked for books on pilates and yoga as well as fitness dvd's and equipment. I sectioned off a place in my house to “set up shop” and I went out and bought a fan (a must here for one who has the luxury of electricity). I tried to make myself enjoy doing crunches, thinking, if anything, I will strengthen parts of my body I ignored during my marathon training. In the mornings after my neighbor left for school I would shut the gate and try to do a little jump rope on the terrace. I also though up ideas to try to put together a girls running club but noticed no interest in the sport in village. Since you work all day and live all day in the sun and heat, who would want to run in it for fun as well.

Luckily, AIDS ride was on my program. In October, volunteers from each region gathered to bike from village to village for a week educating the people on AIDS prevention. It was great, we hit the open road and for that whole week I felt at ease. Well, aside from the “Night at the Disponsaire.” when we were rudely awoken to the wailing of a woman in labor and another with a scorpion bite while sleeping over at the local medical clinic. Between stops in village to do condom demonstrations and perform skits on AIDS topics I plugged myself into my ipod and coasted down the open road (or dirt path). The screams of kids yelling “Yovo..Yovo,” and the hisses beckoning me to stop and chat were drowned out in a meditation of music and movement. It felt good.

AIDS ride charged me up to start running again but since the holidays were on the rise I soon forgot to pencil it in. I was trying to find a place in my village, work, friends, etc. I looked forward to time spent with my boyfriend Wil, who left for Peace Corps with me but ended up in Mauritania. It was hard to get back into a routine and even harder when no one here finds interest in the same. I was also dealing with diet issues and the lack of energy felt by the foods I ate. So I resorted back to stretching and meditation. Again...little movement.

Then came the spring and I began to remember what I once said about running a marathon here in Africa. Some of my fellow volunteers mentioned the idea of running Ghana's Accra Marathon in September and within a day I decided to register. I knew I better take a chance while I'm still on this continent because I may regret it in the future. Like in the past, once I advertise that I am going to run a marathon it becomes the little guy on my shoulder that makes me train and keeps me on schedule. So in time I was on the road again. Wil's parents sent me a new pair of trainers and with a fully loaded itunes playlist I plotted my course.

The sneakers were a nice relief from the heavy trail running shoes I brought with me to Togo thinking I would be in the back woods on dirt trails. Most of Togo is “en brousse” as they say, but where I live there are also paved roads, so the road shoes made me feel lighter. I started my training during a camp I was facilitating with other volunteers. It was great to get going with others in search of the same goals. Every morning we would wake each other to head out for a run before starting camp for the day. That week, I ran the most mileage since I had stepped foot in the country. And I felt energized.

Then I brought the energy back home as I continued my training. By then, I had found my place in village and everyone was pretty comfortable with me so I thought it would be less of a stress. I adapted my routine to going to bed early in order to wake at the break of dawn and hit the road. I didn't hold office hours as a volunteer but still had to wake up early to profit from the coolest time of the day. No ability to enjoy afternoon runs here when temperatures reached highs of 80's-90's and upwards. I chose one of three main directions to take, north and back, south and back, up the mountain and back. I wanted to find the back trails but every time I tried, I ended up lost in a farm somewhere or in someones backyard. So I stuck to the pavement.

In the beginning I attracted an entourage of young boys sharing similar interests, joining me “en route.” That was for the first few weeks, and then as my mileage increased I sensed their disinterest in running alongside. My friends in village talked of my activities; “Adjovi, tu faire le sport ce matin? Tu est forte eh?,” stating the obvious. I carried coins in my socks to buy breakfast street side after my runs. I began to love it all over again and the image I was creating by doing so. My confidence rose and I stepped back into who I always was, and what made me “me.” Nothing was questioned and all was understood and accepted.

I continued on with the training and soon was at the height of the long run. Having done a 16 miler with a friend up north I figured I would at least try to get in another longer run. I decided to chart the course by heading south to Kpalime 30k away and upon arriving, jump in a bush taxi back. So I had it planned for the week and thought up ways I would carry water and some energy gels (which in fact had been sent to me in another great care package of enhanced training supplements). Then I got sick.

I had been sick for over a week with allergies and chest congestion. There were few runs I had where I felt completely healthy and energized and this seemed to make the present feel as if there weren't a chance I would feel it again. How could it be that being here in Africa could bring on a cold that not even the coldest winters in Chicago could create. Thinking back it could have been due to the pollution of all the great cargo trucks rolling past me on my runs due to a bridge collapsing on the national highway up Togo, connecting trucks to the port. They were now obligated to take the western routes so I had to deal with the damage they inflicted on the crumbling old road my village was situated on. Soon, I was wishing I still had those trail running shoes as the pavement turned into a dirt path from the stress of traffic.

With only weeks left till the race and not much time to get well, alone squeeze in that long run, I decided to call the med unit and discuss my illness. I mentioned it had been weeks of the same symptoms and so she suggested I try antibiotics. I stopped by my local pharmacy and picked up some to get me on my way to feeling better before she was able to deliver the stronger dose. Thus, in a couple days I was on the Z-pack, a 5 day “knock it dead” antibiotic that I never once needed while suffering through the seasonal changes stateside.

After two days of the Z-pack I felt a lot better and thus planned for the long run to Kpalime. I headed out the following morning at the crack of dawn and strapped on a fanny pack loaded with gels and a small bottle of water, as well as money for the return trip. “All I have to do is keep going, till I hit Kpalime,” I thought. Then I would know that I was capable of finishing the marathon. That was a long morning and at times I considered the thought of hailing a taxi, cutting the route short but I continued on pace. I made it to Kpime about 10k from Kpalime when the need for a nice cold glass of water became too much to handle and I had to stop to seek refuge in the next best thing, “pure wata”(water in a bag). I thought for sure there was water at the local “watering hole” but to no avail, I was fooled. How crazy since this town sits at the base of a waterfall. I pleaded for well water, anything, then finally, as easy as it seemed, the guy behind the counter pulled a bottle of water from the fridge and poured me a glass. Here in Africa, even the simplest demands become so difficult to acquire.

Shortly after the pit stop I saw a Peace Corps vehicle fly past. Hoping it was not my medical officer who delivered the Z-pack to me days earlier I was reluctant to see it was my director. After asking what I was doing 22k from my village, I explained and he remembered my mention of the marathon. He gave his admiration for my “courage and strength” and mentioned he would try to stop by my village on his return to Lome. I felt great having the recognition of my run, visual proof that I actually did it when I try explaining it to others.

Needless to say, I finally made it into Kpalime, and kept on going until I made it to the Texaco station where cars leave to head back north. I had passed many a thought to hail a cab on the outskirts of town and thought at the first sight of the name of the village I would have permission to stop. As is running here, I have to convince myself so much more that it's enjoyable when at times it is truly intolerable. I enjoyed the reaction of all the taxi drivers that normally take me to and from town. They didn't believe me when I mentioned I had come all the way from Adeta, 30k away. “Quoi? C'est Vrai Adjovi?!” “Tu est fou!” Yes, I am a bit crazy because in their minds anyone who decided to run 30k must have either been running from something or had no other choice into town but to make the trip by foot. I verified my story by showing them my mud splattered legs as sweat ran from every pore. I then squeezed myself in between the driver and the 3 others jammed in the front seat, apologizing for my inappropriate attire and sweaty appearance.

Fast forward to race day. My friends and I made the journey the day before in order to have time to pick up our race numbers and receive information on the start of the course.
To be continued........................


Carolyn said...

I love it. You really offer insight into the experience.

Anonymous said...

Thanks alot for the great post
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