Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Running Under an Equatorial Sun

As we come into view of the compound, a wild-haired man cries out and launches himself towards us. The attention is nothing new; the sight of two white folks in fitness gear is quite unusual here on the footpaths of Lira's rural outskirts, and provides much hilarity, and occasional terror, for the many members of the under-10 crowd we come across. However, this is the first adult to respond to us with such enthusiasm. He's carrying a small bottle, I note, no doubt some kind of home-brewed liquor, foul and potent.

We figure he'll lose interest quickly, and so choose to ignore him, continuing our Sunday afternoon trail run. But he's pretty impressive for a drunkard, and his flip-flopped feet keep pace with us even when we speed up, hoping to lose him. All the while he mutters unintelligibly, though it's clear he's mocking us. The villagers who spot us with this unlikely third on our tail smile with a bit of sympathy, until finally his grunts fade off into the distance, and we are alone again.

I'm in Africa, and I'm running. Anyone who has been following my humanitarian adventures in the last 16 months might guess at how significant this is, at least to me.

When I first got my job offer for South Sudan back in 2010, I had about two weeks in which to resolve my work with the census, come up with a pile of red tape-intensive documents such as a criminal record check and an international driving permit, bring a slew of vaccinations up to date and transport all of my possessions (there aren't too many of them, thankfully) from California to Massachusetts. Somewhere in the shuffle, I mistakenly chucked out my running shoes.

I figured I would just make do with the only footwear I'd brought with me, a pair of sturdy trail shoes. When I arrived at the base, the other American stationed there gave me hope. "I try to go running a few times a week," he said. "We can go tomorrow if you want."

True to his word, he approached me at around noon the next day, when the equatorial sun was directly overhead and the thermometer at 90-something degrees. "You feel like a run?"

"Sure," I replied, not wanting to appear wimpy in front of my would-be running pal, though silently questioning his sanity. I felt better once we left the compound, jogging at a reasonable clip towards an abandoned airstrip, the carcasses of decades-old plane wrecks coming into view. Scraggly grass poked through compacted orange dirt, with the figures of children in the distance, playing soccer before a net-less goal.

Suddenly, we stopped, in front of a schoolyard where two towering teams of Dinka high schoolers were facing off across a volleyball net. "So I usually stop here for a while and either play or just watch. You feel like playing?"

"Um...I guess we can watch for a bit," I muttered with ill-concealed surprise. We had been running for about seven minutes. And so we watched. The volleyball match wasn't all that impressive, but those kids were sure tall. 

After we'd watched a few points, it was time to move again...back to the base, apparently. "So, d'you wanna run back, or d'you feel like walking?" asked my compatriot. 

"Let's run," I offered, my disappointment tangible now. We took a shortcut back to the base, completing a whopping 12-minute loop, at an easy trot. 

"Yeah, so I really like running," my pal repeated. "I try to get out a few times a week. It helps keep my stress down."

He was the most athletically-inclined expat I've shared a base with since. 

Congo was no better. In fact, it was much worse. My housemates, when I had them, aspired to consume large volumes of whiskey. I managed to convince one of them, with a sizable gut, to join me for a yoga session, once. (After which we recovered over whiskey and wine.) 

When it came to running, I would definitely be on my own. 

Except that I wouldn't really be alone. The second I left the compound for a run, the alarm was sounded, and quickly spread to every single one of the hundreds of barefoot and gleeful children who inhabited our overpopulated neighborhood. Soon several dozen of them were right on my tail, giggling, poking my freakish white skin, demanding money, candy, a reaction. 

I tried to summon my inner Zen and just ignore them, figuring that they would tire after a few minutes. I was right, kind of. But when some kids tuckered out, a mob of reinforcements would emerge from thirty new doorways. I couldn't hack it; I was seeking respite from the many stressors of my cooped-in compound life, and this swarm of over-eager taggers-on behind me only stressed me out more.

So my Congolese running ambitions fizzled out.

Of course, I got back to it right away once I got back home in the States, building up to a half marathon that I ran with an old friend in September. I'd simply resigned myself to regressing for a couple of months during my stint in Uganda.

Then I met a German fella with an extensive knowledge of Lira's footpath network and ambitions to run the Kampala half marathon in late November. He's an excellent guide, and a pretty reliable deterrent, so far, to mobs of children, if not to the occasional enthusiastic drunk. 

Kampala, here we come(?)!

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