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Monday, 25 June 2012

Dust, Sweat and Cheers: Sierra Leone's first International Marathon - by Charlie Habershon

Charlie Habershon, co-founder of volunteering organisation The Collective - Sierra Leone based in Freetown, shares his experience of Sierra Leone's first ever international marathon.

Photo: Mark Gillett - JungleMoon Images

'Aporto, aporto' is the cry of Makeni's children whenever a white person is spotted. This comes from the Timni word for the early Portuguese settlers. But by 12 o'clock on Saturday the children's voices were hoarse. Never had they seen so many 'Aportos' on the streets of Makeni. Sierra Leone's first International marathon, organised by the charity Street Child of Sierra Leone, had just been completed. 

Running a Marathon is no easy task. Doing it in the heat of Sierra Leone, is exceptional. Officials reported that temperatures were at 32 degrees with a staggering 92% humidity. I took the decision not to run. Instead, along with The Collective - Sierra Leone volunteers I joined the support team ensuring that the runners had water, energy snacks and moral support around the track. All of us at The Collective were keeping a close eye out for Sally, a local runner who was a friend of our volunteers. 

I first met Sally in January, when we stopped in at the local poyo bar close to our volunteer's house. She was working hard ensuring all the local drinkers had their cups full of palm wine. 

She told us of her love for running. She had been part of a team that took part in the annual Waterloo to Freetown race, an event in which she finished second. Sadly, women's athletics has for a long time been short on funding and so she has received very little formal training. 

Fortunately, our first cohort of volunteers were keen runners. They soon got to know Sally and began to run with her in the early mornings. She would consistently put them through the paces, gliding gracefully over the muddy tracks around the outskirts of Makeni. While the volunteers rested over breakfast, Sally was straight back to work selling drinks. When it came to marathon registration, the volunteers all got together to pay Sally's entry fee and gave her some running kit that could give her the edge. 

Come race day, we gave Sally a lift to start line. She seemed unfazed by the challenge and excited to get started. I found out later that she had not even had breakfast. Surrounded by over a hundred runners from around the world, she looked relaxed as the official signalled the start of the race. 

Two and a half hours later and the runners started to trickle in. We continued to keep a close eye for Sally, hoping that she could be up amongst the top women. At around the 4 hour mark, the first female came across the line an experienced runner from the UK. This was a pattern that followed for the top three. But at around the 4:20 minute mark we spotted Sally, charging towards the line. As she breezed past the finish, she became the first Sierra Leone women ever to complete a marathon on home soil. What's more she barely looked tired. 

As the other runners came in, Sally danced to the local band and quizzically examined the various energy supplements in her goody bag. It was an emotional moment as she stepped onto the podium with her proud father to receive her cheque from a local representative of UN women. But soon after her moment of glory it was back to work, selling drinks like she has always done.

It was a remarkable day for three simple reasons. Firstly, the organisers brought over 150 people from around the world to Sierra Leone. These people saw the beauty of the country, met the people and will now return home with positive stories. Secondly, it gave Sierra Leone athletes, like Sally, the opportunity to run in a competitive race and learn from experienced runners. Hopefully they will be motivated to continue to train and sponsors will step forward to make the dream of Rio in 2016 a reality. And finally, and probably most remarkably, everyone finished.

Follow Charlie on twitter @ www.twitter.com/thecollectivesl

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