Wednesday, July 14, 2010
The Kigali International Peace Marathon
Any country that’s nicknamed “Land of a Thousand Hills” should have provided a clue in my mind, a warning, even just an inkling, as to what running a half-marathon in Rwanda would be like. The city of Kigali, which boasts an altitude of 1496 meters above sea level, should have also been a clear indicator of the how hard running 21 kilometers was going to be.
It didn't, and there I was, at the starting line of the 6th edition of the Kigali International Peace Marathon.
There was an eclectic group of individuals haphazardly gathered around the starting gate; a girl attired in black pants and a full-fledged hockey jersey, a man with plastic wings strapped to his back, young adults dressed in Converse high-top shoes. The start time of the race was delayed by 15... 30... 45 minutes, before the organizers decided to put on loud, popular club music. Sporadic dancing instantly began all around me, as I sat down to enjoy the spectacle and conserve my energy.
When the starting gun sounded, the supermarket around the corner proudly advertised the temperature as being 27 degrees, with the sun shyly hiding behind the clouds. It emerged after a short time and boiled for the rest of the run.
The most demoralizing, and incredible moment, was seeing the Kenyans. I stood by a group in warm up, with complete awe and admiration. My biceps were the equivalent of one of the man’s thighs. Ten minutes into the race, you could hear the elite marathoners coming; like a herd of animals in a stampede, pounding pavement with frantically circular wheel kicks in dogged pursuit of an arbitrary line 42 kilometers away. They flew by in a torrent of focus and adrenaline, jockeying for early positioning, running as if chased by some unseen force. I saw every muscle in their legs flexing and contracting as they moved, treating me to a real live anatomy class far better than any one I had in Nursing school.
The first half of the race was fun, almost easy, as the ten kilometers flew by. Somewhere around the 12 kilometers I began doubting myself, repeating a question over and over in my head, "Why do humans run vast geometric distances?" I had no answer for this.
The heat, with the unrelenting uphills of the last half of the race, destroyed me. The injuries I had sustained through the past month crept into play as the race entered it's last stages; from the sprained ankles from falling in potholes on a basketball court, a runners knee overuse injury that continually pulsed and nagged, and a delightful cold which left me sniffling and chilly in the thirty degree heat.
I plowed through, using the doused water-sponges and bottled water breaks to rejuvenate and regroup, trying to motivate myself for a final push that didn't exist. It was too hard and too hot. The last four kilometers seemed like forty, as I entered the stadium to circle the track once before the finish line. I stamped down at the finish line, triumphant and defiant in a distance that simply was too much for me on that day. As I regrouped with Anthony, we watched numerous competitors cross the line and faint straightaway into the arms of waiting medics (including the guy with wings).
The race was an incredible experience, and finishing was a special bonus, but my most memorable moment came a month before the race on one long, unplanned training run.
The sun was setting, almost lazily, emitting the last of its warm rays for the night, winking as it prepared to bring light to another part of the globe. I began my ascent up a sharp, steep cobblestone street of a slum which carved and amazingly constructed itself on a jagged hillside. The fires of the slum could be seen, as mothers were busy boiling water and preparing food for the following morning.
Word spread quickly, almost telepathically, as I continued to stumble my way up the hill, to all neighborhood kids to run/jog/amble beside me on my quest for the top. Within moments, I was doubled over in laughter with the kids, lost in the absurdity of it all; I was lost in a slum as kids continued to come, numbering well over a dozen with the span of a minute. They circled my now slow jog with their dance-ramba-steps and high kicked, as I tried unsuccessfully to cartwheel and attempt some sort of dance, which left them in fits. After exhausting my Kinyarwandan vocabulary, I switched to English, huffing and puffing... "you... don't (gulp)... have to... (haaaah) follow... me.This hill is... steeeeeep. " None of the kids were out of breath when we reached the top, and a group of parents waited alongside a narrow path which led up to more houses on the steep slope. As the parents gathered their kids I waved to them and they all laughed, obviously witnessing my earlier dance attempt.
For its beauty and simplicity, the moment was perfect. Normally, I would feel self-conscious and uncomfortable in that neighborhood, almost ashamed of the divide that exists between me and those who live in the slum. That experience, that hill and those kids made me forget all of that.
I took one last look at the large, sloping, cobblestone hill, and wheeled around to return home. That's why I run, I thought. For moments like that.