Running the Liberia Marathon:
I’d often heard that Liberians aren’t scared of anything but rain. If that’s the case, after this inaugural Liberia Marathon, Liberians are fearless. I hopped out of my car at JFK Hospital, the starting point for those of us who wanted a wet 10K, with my umbrella open as I prayed to the heavens that it would stop raining for a few hours during our run. By the time the amputee runners took their marks, crutches splashing in muddy puddles, I knew there would be no reason to pray for anything except to make it to the finish line.
The Liberia Marathon made me extremely proud to be a Liberian. Here, we had all types of people running toward the same finish. I saw some of the former child prostitutes from West Point running beside the team of Buchanan Renewables associates. I saw my college classmate, an NGO worker, running beside the woman who twists my hair once a month. The high school football players took bags of water and poured it over their heads as they warmed up like they had seen other athletes do it on television. Finally, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf led the start of the race, with her security running around her. Right in front of JFK hospital, we all started together.
The excitement was plentiful at the beginning of the race. The cheers were loud and the pace was more like that of a stampede when we passed the Vamoma House. However by the time we reached Old Road by the president’s mansion, the real runners began to separate from the pack. The rain kept coming down. You’re closer than you think. You’re closer than you think. Then I passed the first mile marker. I was clearly further than I thought. The 10K then became a run-walk.
All types of runners passed me. Runners with one leg, barefoot runners, runners with huge Liberian flags draped across their shoulders, foreign runners, local runners, new runners, fat runners all making their way past little ole me. You’re closer than you think. You’re closer than you think.
We passed the house where my grandfather used to live on the other side of Old Road. I picked up speed as if he were watching me run in the rain. I remember when I was in high school and the doctors told him he should do more exercise for his health. We walked the circle around my neighborhood in the States, and when we almost reached that finish line I suggested we run the rest.
“You wan’ kill me now? Archel, I can’t do this ting man,” he told me between breaths and laughs, holding his glasses case in his shirt pocket as he picked up speed to run with me. We finished together. He was closer than he thought.
After Congo Town Back Road, SD Cooper Road in Paynesville was the last stretch of road before our final destination. As we rounded that turn, my Nike’s found every puddle to splash. My toes were bathing in my shoes as I tried to keep going. When you drive a hill, you never realize how steep it is. When you’re trying to run so the girls peeking from the porches of their zinc-roofed houses can see how strong women can be, it’s then that you start to notice all the hills of the road. I’d driven this hill a million times on my way to Kendeja, but I never knew it would be such a test of will power! I gave a big “Women, oh Women!” call to the spectators. And the women responded with a cheerful “WOMEN!” That was all the push I needed to make it up the hill to SKD Stadium.
The crowd was bigger as I ran toward the finish. I could hear the man on the intercom from outside the stadium. Anyone who has ever ran any race can tell you that the moment you feel the crowd around you cheering you on toward the end, you begin to find strength to run miles you didn’t know you still had in you. You’re closer than you think. You’re closer than you think. Then, I ran into the stadium and realized there was still a lap of the track we had to run. Geez, when will I actually finish?
I dropped back down to a good pace and continued to push forward. The announcer was our personal cheerleader. “You can do it! We don’t just need winners, we need finishers! Keep running, you’re almost there!” I ran, and I ran, and I ran! And I made it!! I finished the Liberia Marathon (well the 10K!), and it was so wonderful I wanted to cry. The rain continued to cover my face with water, so no one noticed that I really did form tears.
My legs felt like overcooked noodles by the time the first female full marathon runner came through the finish line. She was breathing so hard, and Peter, the Marathon Coordinator, was her support as he pushed people out of her way. Out of the 230 full marathon runners, only five of them were women. The first Liberian woman to finish earned herself $1000USD, so she was indeed a rock star to us.
As the stadium filled with music, rain, and runners, Liberians and non-Liberians had united to celebrate our ability to reach the same goal at our own individual paces. During this election season, we needed the Liberia Marathon to bring us joy and accomplishment. The former child prostitutes smiled big smiles with their medals around their necks before heading back to West Point. The girl who twists my hair hi-fived me before she confirmed our next hair appointment. My classmate went home for a hot shower. Tomorrow we all go back to the daily grind of life in Liberia, but I’d like to think that because of the Liberia Marathon we’ve all found a renewed winner’s spirit.