Two accomplishments I feel rather proud of were accomplished in Africa. Here, I became a runner and here I learned a foreign language. Actually two: French and Somali. Both were incredibly hard and both changed the way I see the world. Amazingly, they have some things in common. Here are eleven ways that running is like learning a foreign language, in my case, Somali.
1. Its hard.
I thought I was going to die during my first mile-long run in Djibouti and I was already in relatively good shape from doing aerobics. At the end I put my hands on my knees and gasped. “People do this, like, for fun?!” Same with studying Somali. It was hard, required obscene amounts of time and strenuous effort.
2. Progress is slow and steady.
I added a few minutes to my runs each week and built endurance. A 5k turned into a 10k, turned into a half marathon, turned into three full marathons. But that took years. A grunted sentence in Somali, “Me like rice” turned into grammatically correct, multi-faceted sentences that include cultural knowledge as well as vocab, “I like rice that has been cooked on holidays and dyed pink and blue, with roasted lamb and hot sauce.”
3. There are pitfalls along the way.
Injuries, tripping over stones in the desert, getting lost while running in a new city. Mistakes in language usage that leaves one saying, “Do you want my husband?” instead of, “This is my husband.”
4. They change the way you see the world.
I now notice runners everywhere, I notice shoes. A guest leaves a pair of Asics by the door and I know she is a runner. I even know they are Asics. I see the world in terms of running trails and get to know new places while on my feet. Learning Somali has taught me new things about history and justice, camels and color and saying ‘Thank you,’ or not.
5. They open up new communities.
I didn’t know people existed who use the word “bonk” in normal conversation or who eat Gu on purpose or who think nothing is wasted about four hours spent running solo or who don’t seem to want all their toenails. Not only have I met these people, I’ve become one of them. I didn’t know people who laughed back in their throat like Somalis or who could memorize entire poems and stories simply by listening or who would sweep and mop my house when I come back from time in the US simply because they cared about me. Now I call those people friends.
6. They are never done.
I can cross off a run for the day but I am never done being a runner. It is who I am now. I will never be fluent in Somali. I am now a Somali-language-learner.
7. They make you do embarrassing things.
Running in the hottest country in the world makes me sweat in unmentionable places. On the run things like farts, spit and other bodily fluids have been, um, encountered. Certain stories remain on the trail. Learning a language also brings up embarrassments. Giving speeches in broken Somali, being featured on YouTube under the title, “White Woman Speaks Somali!”, language mistakes (see #3).
8. They make you feel proud.
Not in a boastful, arrogant way. But they make you feel like you have accomplished something hard, worthwhile, satisfying. A marathon. The first novel read in the new language.
9. They draw strange looks from people.
Once at the end of a run in the hot season, a child saw me and was so frightened he tried to crawl onto the back of my guard, who was praying at the time. The kid screamed, “help me! help me!” When I asked the guard who the kid was he said, “I never met him before in my life.” When I speak Somali sometimes people have physically fallen to the ground in shock. Other times they simply stare. That happens a lot while I run, too.
10. They make muscles ache and make the muscles stronger.
My legs will never be the same. I’m no Paula Radcliffe but I think I’ve got some calf muscle that wasn’t there a decade ago. Don’t mess with my calves. Don’t mess with my uvula, either. Or whatever it is in my throat making those kh, q, c noises. The first few months speaking Somali made the back of my throat ache like my legs ached the first few weeks running.
11. They require support.
I needed the people who cheered me on during the marathons and other races, needed to see their faces and hear their cheers, needed to grab the Gu or the water bottle. I am so thankful they were there at the end, sometimes to literally catch me, that they were there while I trained. Biking alongside, taking care of the kids. I’ll never forget the chocolate-covered strawberries waiting for me at my front door when I got home from my first marathon, a surprise gift from my sister who lived states and states away. Learning language requires similar support, cheerleaders, encouragers, motivators. Maybe some fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie deliveries. People who notice the minutest increments of progress and who honor that.
Runners? Language learners?
Anything else the two have in common?