The start area was very weird. We were at Makeni stadium at 5am…head torches and last minute wees the order of the day.
Oh and it was my birthday…did I not mention that? I got a lovely Happy Birthday rendition, and a card and badge from my team…what a way to celebrate hey?
I was a little discombobulated, I had all this stuff both physical and mental to carry around the course with me, and I just wanted to get started. I sat and taped up my knees, unsure of how they would cope with the terrain which was described as undulating…when are courses not?
After some speeches and a rousing version of the national anthem, the race got off on time (well 6.12am which I thought was pretty good) the sun was already turning the sky a strange pink and orange at this time, so it really did feel like a race against the clock.
The first part of the route felt like a blur…I saw a group of my ladies head off into the distance, I couldn’t stick with them, and a group behind me with back market/sweeper Josh (the only person to have run every race since it started)
Makeni in the early morning is unrecognisable to the later in the day mayhem that is a hustling busling African town…it was still busy, with folks going about their morning routines, the roads had traffic, motorbikes, trucks mainly, and there were plenty of folks sitting outside their homes enjoying the spectacle that is 100+ international runners making their way through their home town.
For context, it’s useful to understand that the marathon hadn’t been run the last two years due to the pandemic, and even before that, the sight of multiple white people running through the streets in this part of the world is probably a bit weird.
The first 5 miles went really well, I was making good time. Running mainly by myself, with a few runners just ahead of me, including Trudy who due to having Covid a few weeks earlier had already decided to drop down to the half (a smart move). It was nice to have one of my ladies near for some of the run…but we lost each other at one of the water stations, where I needed my first wee.
We had been warned that wild wees would be the order of the day, but at this point I was still very much in town, and thought Makeni was probably not ready for the sight of my glorious naked behind at that time in the morning, so one of the Red Cross staff at the water station directed myself and 3 other runners who needed the loo, to a rather robust looking building that turned out to be the home of the local ceremonial chief.
He kindly invited us into his home to use his facilities, and even invited us to sit down for a moment (I’m sure he would have brought us tea lol) and we learned about how Chief elections work, while we took turns using probably the best toilet facilities of my trip lol
The next section of the run was tougher. A long slow hill. Tarmaced which was nice, but the sun was now up. It was only 7.30ish by this point and the sun wasn’t exactly strong…but it’s presence was felt. The road was lined with villages…with children wanting to say hello.
It was at this point I was joined by Emily.
Emily is a 17 year old dairy farmer from Devon. She was in Sierra Leone with her cousin who works for Streetchild. Donna was a little behind us powerwalking with a couple of my ladies but Emily wanted to run. So she joined me in my run walk sequence and it didn’t take us long to realise we’d probably run the rest of this race together.
This road went on for miles.
We passed the half marathon turn off point, we refuelled, reapplied sun screen, and kept making our way up this dreaded hill, very much on our own. Throughout the route there were Streetchild veihcles and motorbikes checking that we were all OK which was reassuring, but I think it was at this point that I realised how much further we still had to run.
We had been on our feet for 3ish hours by now, and had covered about 9 miles…it was 9am and the sun was hot!!! I had found out that Emily had only managed 10 miles in training and I loved her optimisim about the distance…she was an inspiration, just cracking on without moaning. It made me think a lot about my 9 year old Rose, and who she’d be at 19, what adventures she’d have, and who’d accompany her on them.
Rose had said last week she wanted to come to Sierra Leone to run the marathon, I reminded her that she didn’t even like walking to school…maybe one day I’ll bring her lol
The road we were on included an out and back section of around 6 miles which I was dreading. We were told in the briefing that this would be the hardest section, with no shade, and still half of the race to go. As I did the maths in my head I knew tackling this section would see us finishing the marathon distance in 10 hours plus if we were lucky…and I wasn’t sure I had that in me today with so little sleep and this heat.
The medics had explained in the briefing that this was not a marathon where it was a given that folks would finish, and that no matter what distance you did you were still a winner. (which made me a little emosh). I wasn’t worrying about a DNF (did not finish), I was more worried about a DNE (Did not enjoy…and yes I’ve just made that up)
I came to Sierra Leone to undertake the challenge of a lifetime, and to raise money for an important cause, and for me personally, that did not have a mileage attatched to it, and Emily when questioned by the Medic at the mile 9 aid station she felt similar. We stopped for around 10 minutes discussing our options.
If we continued up the out and back section, we’d likely be picked up in a 4×4 later on in the course for safety reasons, if we turned left now, we’d hit some shade, and more likely be able to finish under our own steam. One of the other benefits I hadn’t considered is that by taking this route, we’d also see more runners past us, and I’d get to see some of my ladies finish their race (which I’d end up being so grateful for)
So we made the joint decision to go for 20 miles as our goal.
Now I know there will be people reading this that will have an opinion on this, but I don’t give a shit. My health and wellbeing trumps anyone elses judgement of what consitutes a marathon effort or not. It comes down to personal responsibility, but also the sense of responsibility I felt for my new running buddie. I didn’t want to ruin her race later down the line (as she wouldn’t have been allowed to run by herself), and I would have been equally frustrated if I’d been pulled off the route because she couldn’t finish.
So for us it was the right decision.
The slightly shaded section which saw us head into the jungle was a welcome relief, but the heat and humidity didn’t really let up. 30 degrees, and 90% humidity is no joke, when you are 10 miles into a run. There were also some massive bugs, farmers with machetes in the ajoining fields (sometimes topless…and no i don’t just mean the men) and then the motorbike escorts that were keeping us safe on this more secluded path.
We saw a number of other runners along this path including Anna, Streetchilds Communication Officer, who would go on to win the first international female accolade, and Pete Cooper from Coopah Running who walked with us for a bit which was just the boost we needed.