somaliland marathon

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Unlikely Marathoners (and, Women Run Without Dropping a Uterus!)

Quick link: The Most Unlikely Marathoners

*photo by Mustafa Said

HARGEISA, SOMALILAND— A cement wall topped with barbed wire surrounds the soccer field where girls gather once a week to play. Boys climb trees or scramble up the wall to peer inside and armed guards chase them away. Here, girls can run.

Across town is a basketball court, not quite regulation-size, also inside a protective wall with a locked front gate. About a dozen girls, most of whom have never played basketball before, are learning ball-handling skills and how to shoot. Here, too, girls can run.

A women-only fitness center downtown has treadmills, but most girls can’t afford the time or money to join, and the hours are limited. For those who can run here, the treadmills are wired to shut down after 15 minutes, to protect the women from injuring themselves.

Female Somali athletes have yet to make any kind of splash in the international running scene. Mo Farah, a Somalia-born Brit, is a four-time Olympic gold medalist and the most well-known Somali runner. Ayanleh Souleiman, a Somali from Djibouti, is one of the best active middle-distance runner in the world. Mumin Guelleh, another Somali Djiboutian, placed 12th in his first-ever marathon at the Rio Olympics.

But the most famous Somali runner on the women’s side is probably Samia Yusuf Omar, who is known more for her death than for her life. She competed in the 400 meters in the 2008 Olympics then, in 2012, worked her way from Mogadishu to Djibouti, then across northern Africa. She boarded a boat, hoping to reach Europe and a life where she could live without fear of being shot by terrorists. On the way, the boat capsized and Samia drowned. She was 21 years old…”

Click here to read the rest of the piece, in Deadspin (!!)

The Somaliland Marathon. Conquered.

26.2 Miles. 42 Kilometers.

The Race

It was the best of runs, it was the worst of runs.

First, the struggle:

There was no blood and no diarrhea and not even any tears, but there was vomiting at multiple points and cramps so bad my feet were wrenched at odd angles and I hobbled as much as I ran. I weaved back and forth on the road. I don’t remember parts of the race.

I haven’t barfed in public since I was pregnant with twins 17 years ago but the streets of Hargeisa, the police in the follow vehicle, the vendors, the people sipping mid-morning tea, and poor, wonderful Dieter, a German runner who got me to the end, watched me hurl up all my hydration and all my energy fuel and all my electrolytes a few times during the Somaliland marathon.

Sorry guys.

And thank you, Dieter.

The possibilities of what happened are nearly endless, I’m trying not to focus too much on those, which range from dehydration to the emotional highs and lows of all that a visit to Somaliland means to me, and everything in between.

I felt more fit for this marathon than I’ve ever been, should have been a PR. But, alas. A strong race was not what I ran last week. I ran my personal worst. Still, I ran. And ran and ran and ran because, well, 42 kilometers.

And I took home second place!

The women’s marathon trophies got stolen, so I don’t have award evidence.

Still, second place!

That feels pretty cool.

Let’s just not talk about how many runners there were total.

Second fastest female marathoner in Somaliland (and not last, not this time). I’ll take it.

To pull me out of my vomit-cramp-disappointment, my husband said, “What was your goal?”

“To enjoy the experience,” I said.

“Did you?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

Oh man! Did I? I did so much that I have been using exclamation points in this post (if you want to know how I really feel about exclamation points, here you go). Yeah. This is getting serious now.

It was AMAZING. I know, capital letters. Before you know it, I’ll put an emoji in here and then what will the world be coming to?!

Truly, what an unforgettable week. Which leads to…

Second, the delight (which trumps beyond a doubt my feelings of wishing I had raced differently):

I think I’m ruined for any kind of regular road race now.

I joined up with the Untamed Borders marathon tour group for the week and met fascinating people from all over the world. We feasted, we toured, we took thousands of photographs.

I was surrounded on all sides by inspiring people – from the international runners and race organizers, to the family running the Gacmadheere Foundation for education, to the Somalis who welcomed us, to my own personal friends in the region.

I’ll be sharing more about all of that, including my own fears and the horrible flashes from the past that still sometimes haunt me, to the healing power of going back to our personal breaking places.

But – what about the race?

Besides my self-destructing body, I can barely imagine a better event. It was a profound honor to be part of it, served by those who organized and ran it, and supported by those who watched it.

8 years of university education funded (4 of those through you guys, Djibouti Jones readers)

205 runners (mostly in the 10k, I think about 20 in the marathon)

21 international runners

15 (maybe?) total women

8 (maybe?) local women

85+ degree heat

Long, really long, hills (in Djibouti City, speed bumps and craters in the road are about all that qualify as hills)

Fierce sun (my lips and face are falling off in flakes of dead, burned skin)

42 kilometers through Hargeisa, through the desert, into the depths of what I could ask of my body and (thankfully) back out again

For me, the heroes of this race were the nurses from Dr. Edna Aden’s hospital. I wouldn’t have made it without these men and women. When things started to get dark, I locked my eyes on the horizon, waiting for a sign of hope. Slowly, (too) slowly, their bright fuscia scarves and white lab coats would pierce the brown desert and I would find strength to keep running toward that light.

Every 3k along the route, they were immediately ready at the side of the road with trays full of water cups, watermelon, bananas, cookies, juice boxes with the straws in place, ready with buckets of water and sponges, ready with more water to dump over my head and down my back. They were smiling, every single time, and full of joy and words of encouragement.

They were out there in the fierce sun, heat, and dust longer than I was. I’m tearing up now, overcome by gratitude for their quick, joyful, and eager service in helping we runners accomplish our goals.

I’m so full of emotions and thoughts I can barely unscramble it all. For me, it was a week of returning, discovering, healing, conquering, stumbling, growing, overcoming.

The roller coaster of emotions took a toll. My mind and my legs, though not in too much pain thanks to how well I prepared, are utterly spent. By the time I left Somaliland Monday morning, after going even deeper into my past for a few extra days, I could barely complete a coherent sentence in any language.

I did it.

I ran the inaugural Somaliland Marathon, one of a handful of women. I hope and pray to be one small part of inspiring more women to discover their own strength, courage, fortitude, grit, delight, and community through sport.

That feels awesome.

That is an incredible privilege.

I can’t thank you all enough for encouraging me to do this, for supporting me and Somali students along the way, for believing that all things are possible.

Its been a long time since I started training back in October, I’ve logged hundreds of miles, sweat buckets, digested and barfed more GU than I care to calculate. Its been good.

Two final words, in conclusion:

Next year.

Running Inspiration

I’m in the high miles, tired legs, growling stomach, ‘do I really need to run again today’, time of marathon training. And honestly? I’m kind of loving it. Yes, its hard to keep rolling out of bed at 5:00 a.m. But also, yes, I love hearing the call to prayer and the hundreds of voices that sound out in chorus from the three mosques that surround our house. All these men, seeking God in community, while I pull on my running clothes and get ready to pursue a crazy dream, in solitude, and essentially, alone. I will most likely not see another female running, unless she is inside the barbed wire fences of the French or American military bases. If I do see other, male, runners, they will most likely pass me, literally leaving me in their desert dust.

On the mornings when it is harder to get out of bed, when I wonder why the heck am I doing this, in this country, preparing for this race, asking people to fund this project…when my legs feel like bricks, when the miles tick by too slowly, when the funds come in at a trickle (you can help change that!!)…I need motivation.

This training is not being done with my sisters, urging my nephew along. I’m not training in shorts and a t-shirt. I’m not training in the woods or near green grass. I can’t rely on things like that to push me along.

Then I remember these kids from the blind school who came to the track to race, inspired by the Kenyan World Record holder for the visually impaired, Henry Wanyoike.

And I remember these girls, with Girls Run 2, the only all-girls running club in Djibouti, which also has the goal of keeping girls in school.

I don’t need reminders of why I’m doing this. I know why. I love running. I care about Somalis. I believe in the power of education. A Somali proverb says, “Aqoonta waa iftiin.” Knowledge is light. A Somali educator at the university where my husband first taught, told us one reason education is so powerful in Somaliland is that it keeps young people out of trouble. It keeps them motivated for their future. It gives them hope and purpose and goals. So, no I don’t need reminders for why I’m doing this.

I need motivation from books and podcasts, I need to feel like I’m not alone. I need to hear from other runners who talk about the pain in their legs but with the kind of awe and respect that sounds slightly nuts to non-runners. Reading books about runners surmounting ridiculous challenges and the love-hate that turns into joy-pride at the end of it.

Where do I turn in those moments?

Books

It Takes a School by Jonathan Starr

About a school in Somaliland. Not running, but a school. Education. What this race is all about. I haven’t finished it yet, but so far, I love it.

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami (read it twice, listened to the audio book once, its in my ‘holds’ list from the Kindle library. again.)

“Its precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive – or at least a partial sense of it. Your quality of experience is not based on standards such as time or ranking but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself.”

And: “What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.” Right on.

The Long Run by Catriona Menzies-Pike

I loved this. I had just read Running, a Love Story, which was okay, as is Rachel Toor’s Personal Record, a love affair with running. But these left me wanting more running. More history. Running is already fairly narcissistic, writing about it even more so. The Long Run provided exactly what I was looking for – a book structured around a woman becoming a runner but loaded with fascinating historical information and stories of women running throughout history.

My Year of Running Dangerously by Tom Foreman

I enjoyed this for the unique aspect of the father-daughter relationship that Foreman focuses on. I’ve done a few runs with my kids, too, and it made me kinda teary in a few moments.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe

Fiction. Fiction! I know, I just don’t read much. But, voila. Fiction.

The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb

The quest to break the 4:00 mile. Amazing.

The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances by The Oatmeal

Light reading, silly. Helps me not take it all too seriously.

Run Fast. Eat Slow. by Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky

Because, I’ll say it again, I peed in a port-a-potty next to the port-a-potty in which she peed. I peed faster. She ran faster.

The recipes in the cookbook? Awesome. The attitude behind the food? Love it.

Pre by Tom Jordan

About Steve Prefontaine, ‘America’s greatest running legend.’

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

This is probably my favorite book, if forced to pick. Or at least in my top five. Running plays a minor role in the story but you can’t read it and not feel inspired to persevere.

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (of course, right?!)

I tried my own barefoot experiment after reading this. Djibouti with heat so hot roads melt, streets littered with everything from condoms to syringes to shattered glass to thorns to camel poop, wasn’t such a great location for the experiment. It lasted for a few runs, then morphed into affecting my shoe choices. I now alternate between shoes with a low heel-to-toe differential and a more supportive shoe and for that, I’m grateful.

Once a Runner by John L. Parker, Jr.

Fiction. Again! What?! That’s right, the runner’s cult classic.

Runners World Magazine (including my own stories, pretty cool!)

And right now I’m reading The Way of the Runner by Adhanarand Finn, author of Running with the Kenyans. (another good book) Haven’t finished this new one yet.

 

Podcasts

Another Mother Runner

Ali On the Run

Personal Best

Sometimes I find it hard to relate with runners in the United States. They think women have totally overcome hecklers warning us our uterus will fall out if we keep running. They think an 80-degree days means it is too hot to run. They are terrified of coming in last (done it) or being the only person of their gender (been there). Maybe it is time to find (start?!) a global running podcast or website…what am I saying? I think I’ve fried my brain on too many long runs.

What inspires you to run? And run and run and run?

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