Ebola.

The deadliest virus you can think of.  The stuff of cinematic nightmares, something so far away and scary that it’s like talking about aliens and the apocalypse.

And now that Ebola is here, stronger than ever, spreading, its wormy tentacles fingerering their way into affluent countries while killing dozens of thousands in West Africa and beyond, it’s become even more of a joke word:

I don’t feel well, I think I have Ebola.”  ”

Stay away from me, I don’t want to catch your Ebola.”

But it’s not funny.

 

Sorry to be so sombre.  In May this year, I was incredibly lucky to be asked by employer Norton Rose Fulbright LLP to run the SIERRA LEONE MARATHON in Makeni, Sierra Leone, in aid of Street Child. In brief, the marathon was backed by the insurance industry and I worked as an insurance lawyer.  What an opportunity!

 

In the lead up to the Sierra Marathon, we kept seeing news of Ebola outbreaks in neighbouring Guinea and Liberia.  Sierra Leone remained safe.  And then of course the inevitable… a few people cropping up with Ebola in Sierra Leone too. Would the Sierra Leone Marathon be cancelled, we wondered?  Would we catch Ebola if we went, we joked? But it was still early days and there seemed little cause for alarm.  My colleagues and co-runners Amy and Natasha and I raised as much money as we could for Street Child, holding chocolate sales and harassing friends and colleagues as much as is politely permitted (or more), and off we went.

 

Street Child works with the children of Sierra Leone, primarily to get them into education for a better future for the whole country, but now its focus has had to shift to helping with the Ebola outbreak.

 

I had competed in Ironman Lanzarote the week before, had a short night in an airport hotel in London and then was back on a plane flying 7 hours to Freetown, Sierra Leone.  Upon arrival in Freetown, we immediately boarded a Street Child minibus heading for Makeni, 3 hours away.

 

political-map-of-Sierra-Leo

 We had two days before the marathon for Street Child to show us what it did in Sierra Leone.  We drove for hours across the country to Masimera Chiefdom where we visited one of five extremely rural villages where Street Child was helping with the children’s education.  The distance was only around 150 km, but the state of the roads meant for slow-going, and crossing a river was an amazing experience:

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The roads

 

 

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Crossing the river by raft

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When we finally reached the villages, covered head to toe in dust and mud, we were met by the entire village, singing and clapping – an incredible and somewhat uncomfortable experience.

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They showed us their school and we met their teacher.  Sadly, Street Child has since told us that in these small villages in Masimera Chiefdom, there are now 67 orphans following the devastation of Ebola.  You can read Street Child’s update here if you want to know more.  “Sadly, the worst is still yet to come,” they write.

Back in Makeni, Street Child showed us how it helps families be able to afford to keep their children in school by providing small business loans.  My friend James Tarran wrote in his blog about one such business:

It so[on] 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 … 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.

(I’d highly recommend reading his whole blog post, here).

 

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A woman selling bras at the Makeni market

 

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A fallen mango serving as breakfast, lunch and dinner

 

 

And then it was the day of the Sierra Leone Marathon.

A 4am wake-up for a 6 am start out of the Wusum Stadium in Makeni:

 

 

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It was VERY dark!

 

The early start was obviously to try to avoid as much of the heat as possible, because have I mentioned that Makeni is absolutely drenchingly sweatingly unrelentlessly hot and humid?  The type of heat that makes you unable to move, to swallow, to think.  A heavy humid cloying heat that smacks you hard and pushes you down.

 

Back to race mode.  As I mentioned previously, this was exactly one week after I had finished Ironman Lanzarote, so I didn’t think I was going to be at the top of my game, but on the other hand, it meant that I was pretty fit.  So I got my race face on and readied for the start.

 

SierraLeone Marathon start

 

 

The runners were a truly mixed lot.  Most were from Sierra Leone, and there was some good prize money going to the winners, so this race was no fun run to them, but a serious race.  There were local runners from Makeni and also the Freetown Fashpack Runners, a serious running club from the capital, Freetown.

 

The race started on roads and then eventually made its way into thicker jungle, only to come out through rural villages before disappearing into the jungle again.  Street Child had done a fantastic job of getting marshalls in place and appropriate water stations, and everywhere I ran I heard enthusiastic children shouting “oporto” (spelling dubious?) which means “white person”.  There were long stretches of jungle where I ran alone for miles, wondering if I had gone off-course, only to eventually come across a marshall.

 

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Phil Langley running in style! See footnote below for a link to his blog post on the race.*

SL Marathon  SLMarathon

 

I kept the pace slow and even but nonetheless I knew when I came around an out-and-back section that I was actually holding on pretty well.  Others seemed to be suffering more from the heat than I was.  I marvelled at the lush mango trees, the thick jungle, the village children running alongside.  About 5km from the end, a group of children who looked to be around 4 years old ran beside me for a while, and I thought, “Surely it isn’t right that they can keep up with me….”

 

A few kilometres from the end, I overtook the third place lady, a Sierria Leonian who was running barefoot.  As I finally entered back into Makeni, scooters came alongside me and shouted that I was now in third place overall, and was the first international woman.  My Garmin beeped to say I’d finished the marathon, but the finish line was still nearly a very painful hot kilometre away.  I told myself, rule 5, and put the hammer down.  I crossed the finish line at 4:00:47, overjoyed to be finished, and annoyed to have just crossed over the 4 hour mark!

 

I later found out that James, of blogging fame above, was the first international male finisher in a time of 3:42, and his last marathon just one month previously in Manchester was 2:56:32.  So that was some truly serious heat and I was very happy with my time given the conditions!

 

If you’re a stats monkey like me, you can check out my Sierra Leone Marathon on Strava.

 

Visiting Sierra Leone and running the Sierra Leone Marathon was a tremendous experience and I am grateful to my generous employers for not just letting me go, but for asking me to go.

 

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After the marathon with our medals

 

With James after the marathon

With James after the marathon

 

We raised £3021 for Street Child, but Street Child still needs more help.  Unfortunately for us living far away, at the moment that help can only be financial.  If you would like to donate, you can do so at my fundraising page here or through Street Child’s Ebola Appeal directly at their DONATE NOW page.  And to all those readers who already donated in the run up to the race, thank you again!

 

*For another great blog post about the Sierra Leone Marathon, read Phil Langley’s blog here.  I was lucky enough to meet Phil in Sierra Leone and was amazed to hear that it was his third time running it.  And he is running it again in 2016 for the 4th consecutive time!

 

Would you travel somewhere far far away for a race?

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: 2014 in Numbers, 2015 Race Plans! | Rule 5

  2. Canadian who married that Irish guy

    Once again, you win Woman of the year in my books Julia!
    Fabulous recap of your accomplishment in Sierra Leone.

    Raising awareness and fitting in a monster workout! You have made a huge impact on their lives from participating in that race.

    • Thanks P! It was the generosity of all the people who sponsored me for the challenges that made the difference, though!