There are some races that change you. That teach you so many deep and profound lessons that you wonder if life will ever be the same again. Street Child’s Sierra Leone Marathon is described as "The Craziest Marathon on the Planet" and it lived up to that description and so much more. I didn't think I'd ever run another marathon. With 5 already under my belt and a pandemic that saw me stop running all together...I just didn't see this coming.
But in January an email landed in my inbox which changed everything, and fast forward 5 months and myself and 7 brave women from the Too Fat to Run community were boarding a plane to Freetown filled with excitement and anticipation.
Prepping for this race was unlike any other I have prepped for, finding myself doing 90-minute endurance cycles in my bedroom with the windows closed and wearing layers to replicate the heat and humidity...but nothing would quite prepare us for that.
We arrived in a hot and hectic Freetown on Wednesday 1st June, in the early evening, some of us minus our luggage.
We had a lot to do in Makeni, where the race would take place. Family business schemes to visit, schools to see, local staff to meet. Part of this annual trip is an opportunity for Street Child supporters to come and see the work first hand, to better understand how the money raised is spent locally, to get to grips with the complex challenges Sierra Leone faces, and why education is at the heart of addressing them.
Come Friday, I was tired and in the mid-morning there was a safety briefing with the medic team. It was a sobering affair, reminding us of why we were here....and just what a challenge it would be. Understanding that there is no air ambulance to rescue us, no local trauma hospital...and despite the event being in its tenth year, fully risk assessed with a skilled team...ultimately there was still risk, risk that would have to be personally assessed and kept front of mind throughout the race.
After the official meeting, I pulled my Too Fat To Run team together and we had our own mini briefing. I needed my ladies to understand that there was no pressure from me or from any idea of representation to push beyond their limits. I know how tough normal marathons are, and how quickly things can go wrong, and so I wanted the team to understand that any finish would be a good finish, and that we had nothing to prove to anyone.
We had an early dinner of...yes of course pasta and headed back to our hotels ready for our 4am start. I got my kit ready and got into bed under my mosquito net at about 9pm hoping to get a good few hours’ sleep. No such luck. I just couldn't cool down…
By 3am when my alarm went off, I'd managed about an hour's sleep max, and I'd convinced myself I would be pulled off the course very early. Oh and it was my birthday...did I not mention that? I got a lovely Happy Birthday rendition, and a card and badge from my team...what a way to celebrate hey?
The start area was very weird. We were at Makeni stadium at 5am... head torches and last minute toilet breaks were the order of the day.
I was a little discombobulated, I had all this stuff both physical and mental to carry around the course with me, and I just wanted to get started. I sat and taped up my knees, unsure of how they would cope with the terrain which was described as undulating...
After some speeches and a rousing version of the national anthem, the race got off on time (well 6.12am which I thought was pretty good) the sun was already turning the sky a strange pink and orange at this time. It really did feel like a race against the clock.
The first part of the route felt like a blur...I saw a group of my ladies head off into the distance, I couldn't stick with them, and a group behind me with the sweeper Josh.
Makeni in the early morning is unrecognisable to the later in the day mayhem that is a hustling bustling African town...it was still busy, with folks going about their morning routines, the roads had traffic, motorbikes, trucks mainly, and there were plenty of folks sitting outside their homes enjoying the spectacle that is 100+ international runners making their way through their hometown.
The first 5 miles went well, I was making good time. Running mainly by myself, with a few runners just ahead of me, including Trudy who due to having Covid a few weeks earlier had already decided to drop down to the half. It was nice to have one of my ladies near for some of the run...but we lost each other at one of the water stations, where I needed my first wee.
We had been warned that wild wees would be the order of the day, but at this point I was still very much in town, and thought Makeni was probably not ready for the sight of my glorious naked behind at that time in the morning, so one of the Red Cross staff at the water station directed myself and 3 other runners who needed the loo, to a rather robust looking building that turned out to be the home of the local ceremonial chief. He kindly invited us into his home to use his facilities, and even invited us to sit down for a moment and we learned about how Chief elections work, while we took turns using probably the best toilet facilities of my trip!
The next section of the run was tougher. A long slow hill. Tarmacked which was nice, but the sun was now up. It was only 7.30ish by this point and the sun wasn't exactly strong...but it's presence was felt. It was at this point I was joined by Emily. Emily is a 17-year-old dairy farmer from Devon. She was in Sierra Leone with her cousin who works for Street Child. Emily joined me in my run walk sequence, and it didn't take us long to realise we'd probably run the rest of this race together.
We passed the half marathon turn off point, refuelled, reapplied sunscreen, and kept making our way up this dreaded hill, very much on our own. Throughout the route there were Street Child vehicles and motorbikes checking that we were all okay which was reassuring, but I think it was at this point that I realised how much further we still had to run.
We had been on our feet for 3ish hours by now and had covered about 9 miles...it was 9am and the sun was hot!!! I had found out that Emily had only managed 10 miles in training, and I loved her optimism about the distance...she was an inspiration, just cracking on without moaning.
The road we were on included an out and back section of around 6 miles which I was dreading. We were told in the briefing that this would be the hardest section, with no shade, and still half of the race to go. I wasn't sure I had that in me today with so little sleep and this heat. The medics had explained in the briefing that this was not a marathon where it was a given that folks would finish, and that no matter what distance you did you were still a winner (which made me a little emotional). I wasn't worrying about a DNF (did not finish), I was more worried about a DNE (Did not enjoy...and yes I've just made that up).
I came to Sierra Leone to undertake the challenge of a lifetime, and to raise money for an important cause, and for me personally, that did not have a mileage attached to it, and Emily when questioned by the Medic at the mile 9 aid station said she felt similar. We stopped for around 10 minutes discussing our options. One of the benefits of skipping this section that I hadn't considered is that by taking this route, we'd also see more runners past us, and I'd get to see some of my ladies finish their race. So we made the joint decision to go for 20 miles as our goal.
The slightly shaded section which saw us head into the jungle was a welcome relief, but the heat and humidity didn't really let up. 30 degrees, and 90% humidity is no joke, when you are 10 miles into a run. There were also some massive bugs, farmers with machetes in the ajoining fields (sometimes topless...and no I don't just mean the men) and then the motorbike escorts that were keeping us safe on this more secluded path.
I'd been keeping an eye on my heart rate throughout, and our run walk sections had become more sporadic by this point. My hands and wrists were so swollen, I'd had to remove my paper race wrist band. I could feel a hot spot on my foot, and at a section just after crossing a train track I sat down and took a look at my feet. It was the start of a blister and so I whacked on a compeed and covered it with some tape and then we were off again...not before enjoying a fresh coconut.
A little while later I managed to slip down a bank while making way for a small bus to pass...it was pretty dramatic, seeing me slip sideways, breaking my fall with my hip, my legs ending up under the bus...luckily the driver had seen me fall and managed to pull the breaks just in time. I got up very quickly to see 8 sets of wide eyes in the bus looking back at me. In true British style I smiled, gratefully tapped the drivers arm and assured everyone I was OK...it was only about a mile later at a water station that I broke down and cried. It was very scary.
The last 5 miles of the race were the toughest for obvious reasons. We were tired now and I hadn't really followed a specific fuelling strategy. I'd had a mango, some bananas, and 3 gels along the route...I didn't feel hungry or like I needed any additional fuel, but my hands and arms were ridiculously swollen now.
I was struggling to use my phone or do anything remotely fiddly. And my hip was now really hurting...and I could feel blisters under my toes on both feet. I was pretty much done now in terms of running...and it was about power walking the rest. Every step hurt.
Staff at the water stations were great, asking what we needed, and at one point I sat on a bench under a tree in an attempt to cool down. We just needed to keep moving though. We were close.
The last few miles were back in Makeni, the town was now a thriving hustle and bustle, as we passed midday on a Sunday, the sun reaching its highest point, the traffic equally intense.
Emily was such a great running buddy, she checked in with me and didn't mind when I was grumpy. She asked for what she needed and she shared how she was feeling. The communication between us was spot on, and I know the experience was made all the better for her company.
The last mile was through one of the main roads in Makeni...we had a motorbike escort from the Red Cross, and about 100 kids running with us. Somehow, I'd found it in my legs to run the last bit but I had a small person hanging off every finger, and all along each arm, kids in front of me and to every side. Singing, cheering, grinning. It really was quite something.
They left us at the doors of the stadium (which was an invite only secure space) which we had left 7 hours earlier and we ran the final 300 meters or so across the finishing line to the cheers and support of hundreds of runners from the 5K, 10K and half marathon distance, and of course the marathon runners who had already finished.
It was EPIC, truly EPIC.
But it wasn't done....the brilliant MC who was commentating the finish line had got wind of the fact it was my birthday, and marched me straight to the stage, where the whole stadium sang Happy Birthday...it was the best race finish EVER!!!! Although how I climbed up and down the stairs I will never know.
The atmosphere was awesome in the stadium, and I am so glad I got to see so many of the other runners come across the line to great cheers and celebration. 6 of my ladies were still out on the course, and the heat was so intense by now...but the water station staff were reporting back to race HQ how they were doing, and everyone was holding up OK...heading to the finish line slowly but surely.
Myself, Emily and Trudy sat and cooled down in the Stadium stands with kids all around us...taking on fluids and trying to eat (I managed two mouthfuls). It is hard to describe the sense of achievement and relief that we made it in one piece.
I made friends with 3 little girls who absolutely captured my heart...similar in age to my daughter Rose, with the same sass and enthusiasm for life. They were worried about my legs (which had developed a rash from the red dust entering the open pores on my exposed shins) and one of the girls exclaimed "I have an auntie who is fat like you" which made me laugh out loud.
Seeing Kate and Vic cross the line had me in tears, along with Donna (Emily’s Cousin). Paula, Adele, Frances and Rachel would be the last runners to cross the line, with Josh the sweeper, of course. An epic effort of more than 10 hours which is truly spectacular. Tears were shed, emotional embraces were had.
We had done it...8 plus size runners safely across the finish line at one of the worlds craziest races, smashing stereotypes as we went...raising close to £17,000 to ensure kids get access to quality education in one of the world’s toughest but most extraordinary environments.
A massive thank you to Street Child. Their work is so inspiring. Their commitment and passion for improving lives at a local level, delivered locally is so important. A young lad who ran with the final 4 ladies said "When I'm older I want to work as a social worker for Street Child" I mean come on?
Fancy it next year?
I am pulling a Too Fat to Run team together for the 2023 event, so do get in touch with me via firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll let you know how to join.
Until next time.
Sierra Leone Marathon…you were the best!!!!