I’ve never run a marathon.
I’ve never run a half-marathon.
In fact, I haven’t run a competitive race of any sort since the Turkey Trot in elementary school. (And I didn’t put in much of a showing there, in nine straight years of competition. I certainly never won a turkey to bring home for Thanksgiving dinner.)
But now – in Freetown, of all places – I’ve discovered the joy of a race course lined with cheering fans, the motivation of encouraging shouts, and the extra inspiration of running in a crowd.
Many developing world cities are miserable places to exercise. Crowded, polluted, dangerous… and filled with people who don’t understand why you’re running around in shorts and sneakers, dodging traffic and potholes, breathing heavily and sweating like a pig. At best you get odd stares and lungs full of exhaust, at worst you get harassed by people and attacked by stray dogs.
Freetown, it turns out, is an exception to many (though not all) of these rules. First, if you want to escape the pollution, you can head down to Lumley Beach, a great 1.5-mile stretch of flat sand. You might get a bit of attention, but most of it positive – boys wanting to run with you, girls asking to be your friend.
But more importantly, Freetown is a place that respects and understands exercise. People here do lace up their sneakers (or, if they can’t afford sneakers, their plastic sandals or bare feet) and dash off around the city. In fact, the runners are impressive in their determination. I’ve seen guys (because they are almost all men) running through the pouring rain, the searing heat, or along roads absolutely packed with people and cars. On even the steepest hill in a city of jaw-dropping inclines, you’ll eventually see someone jogging – step by painful step – up the hill.
Perhaps inspired by these examples, I’ve recently started running with the Freetown branch of a group called the Hash House Harriers (the “hash” for short). This international movement, originally started by British colonial officials and expatriates in Kuala Lumpur in the 1930s, is often known by the endearing if juvenile slogan, “A drinking club with a running problem.”
The idea is simple. A group of runners set out from a different location each week. They follow a trail – marked by piles of shredded paper, and rife with misdirection, switch-backs, and other surprises – that was laid earlier by “hares”. The switch-backs and other tricks help keep the group together regardless of fitness level, and everyone eventually ends up at a bar, at which group members (or so I’d heard) devolve into fraternity antics complete with silly songs, beer-chugging, and initiation rites.
Turned off by the fraternity reputation, I steered clear. But friends eventually persuaded me to give it a try, and I found that the run was good fun and great exercise, the group friendly and eclectic – an even mix of native Sierra Leoneans, members of the large Freetown Lebanese community, and white expats. Moreover, it turned out the Freetown hashers were more focused on the running than the drinking. (Or at least, they’d let me sneak away before the drinking began.)
So now I spend most Monday evenings on a winding run through Freetown’s hidden corners. The route is different each week, and always avoids main roads, so we find ourselves on tiny footpaths, alleyways, and empty lots. Often we’re running through very private spaces: between houses and their detached latrines, under clothes lines and alongside patches of vegetables and rice, among family members and livestock.
But few spaces in Sierra Leone are truly private, and most people don’t mind at all having a crowd of several dozen people dash through their courtyards and beside their front stoops.
In fact, they often embrace the fun. “No no, they ran that way” yells one man, pointing down a narrow gully. “Keep going, you’re doing great,” calls out another. “You’ve tired,” calls an elderly woman; “don’t give up.” A crowd of children from one household laugh and sing, and two small girls – barefoot and bare-chested – stand along the path with their hands outstretched, offering high-fives to the panting runners. On one particularly exhausting trek through the steep hills of the city, the group passed through a tunnel of cheering, chanting, clapping crowds, all happy to help motivate the runners through that last difficult stretch, much like committed spectators do for Boston Marathoners along the famed Heartbreak Hill.
Between that and my equally enthusiastic fellow runners, I can’t help but push myself a bit further, and maybe a bit faster. And listening to the laughter and warmth of Sierra Leoneans, and looking around at the gems of Freetown’s lesser-known quarters – a cozy domestic scene, with women plaiting each other’s hair while children play in the dust; a dirt lot turned football field, packed with talented young players; a sudden glimpse of a steep valley stretching to the ocean, with the setting sun behind – I can’t help but be reminded how much I love this city.
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