Running in Sierra Leone

I have tried to complete the Couch-2-5K (C25K) program more times that I care to count.  I always get to the 5 week mark, and then fall off.  It is often said that doing anything for 2 weeks forms a habit, well, 5 weeks didn’t do it for me numerous times.  And it isn’t because the program gets that much more difficult – I can run the distance.  I just stop doing it.

Before I was preparing to leave for Sierra Leone, I had restarted the C25K program.  It did happen to be in January, despite my resistance to new year’s resolutions.  I just decided it was time to lose the weight I’d been frustrated with carrying around, and I needed to get back in shape.  So, I start up the running again. I also started going back to the pool regularly.  And, I figured that I would be able to continue this running discipline in Sierra Leone, probably maintain a good low-cal diet, and I figured the side benefit of volunteering to fight Ebola would be returning home slim and fit!

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.

For one, every meal in Sierra Leone is based on a large serving of rice – at least 1 1/2 cups.  I had been using the Lose It! app to track what I had been eating, for the last year or so.  I recently read that the various calorie counting programs, whether they are Weight Watchers, or Jenny Craig, or an app like Lose It!, are not effective at helping people lose weight.  Here’s a Slate article that talks generally about the failure of dieting to treat obesity.  I have felt, however, that using an app does help me be more mindful about the choices I make.

So, with diet out of my control, for the most part, what about exercise?  Well, running in Port Loko, a town with a population of about 23,000, according to Wikipedia, involves a lot of dust, and a lot of heat, and a lot of children yelling “Apado, apado!”  You might hear that yelling as an encouragement, cheering you, the runner, on.  Or, you might, as I found it, get exhausted by the demand to acknowledge everyone you pass along the way, when you’re just trying to focus on running, despite the heat and the dust.  In addition, there were not strict warnings about a woman out by herself, but there was a tendency to encourage a western (white) woman to have someone accompanying her when out on the streets.

I ran on my own several times, and was pleased with my progress.  my usual route led out of town, and the road has kilometer markings, which helped me track my progress.  the road also led down to a river, and then a nice climb back up (twice, since I turned around at the 2.5km mark, and retraced my steps.

Origin - The Sugar Sharg (aka Sugar Shack), down to the river, and up the other side, then back

Origin – The Sugar Sharg (aka Sugar Shack), down to the river, and up the other side, then back

One evening, I was doing this little run, and ahead of me, on the downward slope heading to the river, there were two children on the side of the road, a small boy and his older sister.  She looked to be about 12 years old, maybe a little older.  I had my headphones in, plugged into my HTC One Android phone, which I was holding in my hand.  The phone didn’t have global connection, so, was useless as a phone, but it worked fine to track my runs on the GPS, and also to listen to podcasts while I ran.  This young woman confronted me, standing right in my way, so that I had to stop running, and she demanded, with a big smile on her face, that I give her my phone.  I said “No, I can’t give you my phone”, and I shoved the phone into my shorts pocket.  She insisted again “Give me your phone!” still with a smile on her face, and I said firmly “No”, and ran around her, and continued on my way, heart-pumping with adrenaline at the confrontation, in addition to the exertion of the run.  When I turned back and returned to the spot, both kids were gone.  They had both had baskets of produce, probably heading to market, or maybe home after purchasing the goods at the market, and they had clearly been taking a little rest break.  But, the incident made me less confident about running out alone.

But, one of the other residents of the Sugar Sharg, Jake, a nurse I worked with who was in my “cohort” – we met in Boston, along with the 4 other volunteers traveling with us to Sierra Leone, ran just about every day, without fail.  He is a serious runner, and in excellent shape.  The nationals, mostly drivers for PIH, who sat out front of the Sugar Sharg, would tease him, and joke that they would join him for a run, one of these days.  Jake welcomed them to come with him (although I couldn’t imagine any of them keeping up with him).  I had seen Jake run on the beach several times, with me running separately from him, and much, much slower!!  Jake runs easily and effortlessly, and can cover a lot of distance.

Finally, on the last three days of our stay in Sierra Leone, one of the nationals, Musa, finally  took Jake up on the offer to join him for a run. Musa worked in the office and in the field, as part of the Community Worker outreach program.  He’s very tall.  Here they are together:

Musa and Jake

The next evening, Musa joined Jake again, with a friend:


And the last day, my dear friend Saidu joined Jake for a run.  I thought I had a photo of Saidu with Jake, but apparently not, so let me share this one of him with me, on our last day of work together.

Saidu and me

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