marathon

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Unlikely Marathoners (and, Women Run Without Dropping a Uterus!)

Quick link: The Most Unlikely Marathoners

*photo by Mustafa Said

HARGEISA, SOMALILAND— A cement wall topped with barbed wire surrounds the soccer field where girls gather once a week to play. Boys climb trees or scramble up the wall to peer inside and armed guards chase them away. Here, girls can run.

Across town is a basketball court, not quite regulation-size, also inside a protective wall with a locked front gate. About a dozen girls, most of whom have never played basketball before, are learning ball-handling skills and how to shoot. Here, too, girls can run.

A women-only fitness center downtown has treadmills, but most girls can’t afford the time or money to join, and the hours are limited. For those who can run here, the treadmills are wired to shut down after 15 minutes, to protect the women from injuring themselves.

Female Somali athletes have yet to make any kind of splash in the international running scene. Mo Farah, a Somalia-born Brit, is a four-time Olympic gold medalist and the most well-known Somali runner. Ayanleh Souleiman, a Somali from Djibouti, is one of the best active middle-distance runner in the world. Mumin Guelleh, another Somali Djiboutian, placed 12th in his first-ever marathon at the Rio Olympics.

But the most famous Somali runner on the women’s side is probably Samia Yusuf Omar, who is known more for her death than for her life. She competed in the 400 meters in the 2008 Olympics then, in 2012, worked her way from Mogadishu to Djibouti, then across northern Africa. She boarded a boat, hoping to reach Europe and a life where she could live without fear of being shot by terrorists. On the way, the boat capsized and Samia drowned. She was 21 years old…”

Click here to read the rest of the piece, in Deadspin (!!)

The Somaliland Marathon. Conquered.

26.2 Miles. 42 Kilometers.

The Race

It was the best of runs, it was the worst of runs.

First, the struggle:

There was no blood and no diarrhea and not even any tears, but there was vomiting at multiple points and cramps so bad my feet were wrenched at odd angles and I hobbled as much as I ran. I weaved back and forth on the road. I don’t remember parts of the race.

I haven’t barfed in public since I was pregnant with twins 17 years ago but the streets of Hargeisa, the police in the follow vehicle, the vendors, the people sipping mid-morning tea, and poor, wonderful Dieter, a German runner who got me to the end, watched me hurl up all my hydration and all my energy fuel and all my electrolytes a few times during the Somaliland marathon.

Sorry guys.

And thank you, Dieter.

The possibilities of what happened are nearly endless, I’m trying not to focus too much on those, which range from dehydration to the emotional highs and lows of all that a visit to Somaliland means to me, and everything in between.

I felt more fit for this marathon than I’ve ever been, should have been a PR. But, alas. A strong race was not what I ran last week. I ran my personal worst. Still, I ran. And ran and ran and ran because, well, 42 kilometers.

And I took home second place!

The women’s marathon trophies got stolen, so I don’t have award evidence.

Still, second place!

That feels pretty cool.

Let’s just not talk about how many runners there were total.

Second fastest female marathoner in Somaliland (and not last, not this time). I’ll take it.

To pull me out of my vomit-cramp-disappointment, my husband said, “What was your goal?”

“To enjoy the experience,” I said.

“Did you?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

Oh man! Did I? I did so much that I have been using exclamation points in this post (if you want to know how I really feel about exclamation points, here you go). Yeah. This is getting serious now.

It was AMAZING. I know, capital letters. Before you know it, I’ll put an emoji in here and then what will the world be coming to?!

Truly, what an unforgettable week. Which leads to…

Second, the delight (which trumps beyond a doubt my feelings of wishing I had raced differently):

I think I’m ruined for any kind of regular road race now.

I joined up with the Untamed Borders marathon tour group for the week and met fascinating people from all over the world. We feasted, we toured, we took thousands of photographs.

I was surrounded on all sides by inspiring people – from the international runners and race organizers, to the family running the Gacmadheere Foundation for education, to the Somalis who welcomed us, to my own personal friends in the region.

I’ll be sharing more about all of that, including my own fears and the horrible flashes from the past that still sometimes haunt me, to the healing power of going back to our personal breaking places.

But – what about the race?

Besides my self-destructing body, I can barely imagine a better event. It was a profound honor to be part of it, served by those who organized and ran it, and supported by those who watched it.

8 years of university education funded (4 of those through you guys, Djibouti Jones readers)

205 runners (mostly in the 10k, I think about 20 in the marathon)

21 international runners

15 (maybe?) total women

8 (maybe?) local women

85+ degree heat

Long, really long, hills (in Djibouti City, speed bumps and craters in the road are about all that qualify as hills)

Fierce sun (my lips and face are falling off in flakes of dead, burned skin)

42 kilometers through Hargeisa, through the desert, into the depths of what I could ask of my body and (thankfully) back out again

For me, the heroes of this race were the nurses from Dr. Edna Aden’s hospital. I wouldn’t have made it without these men and women. When things started to get dark, I locked my eyes on the horizon, waiting for a sign of hope. Slowly, (too) slowly, their bright fuscia scarves and white lab coats would pierce the brown desert and I would find strength to keep running toward that light.

Every 3k along the route, they were immediately ready at the side of the road with trays full of water cups, watermelon, bananas, cookies, juice boxes with the straws in place, ready with buckets of water and sponges, ready with more water to dump over my head and down my back. They were smiling, every single time, and full of joy and words of encouragement.

They were out there in the fierce sun, heat, and dust longer than I was. I’m tearing up now, overcome by gratitude for their quick, joyful, and eager service in helping we runners accomplish our goals.

I’m so full of emotions and thoughts I can barely unscramble it all. For me, it was a week of returning, discovering, healing, conquering, stumbling, growing, overcoming.

The roller coaster of emotions took a toll. My mind and my legs, though not in too much pain thanks to how well I prepared, are utterly spent. By the time I left Somaliland Monday morning, after going even deeper into my past for a few extra days, I could barely complete a coherent sentence in any language.

I did it.

I ran the inaugural Somaliland Marathon, one of a handful of women. I hope and pray to be one small part of inspiring more women to discover their own strength, courage, fortitude, grit, delight, and community through sport.

That feels awesome.

That is an incredible privilege.

I can’t thank you all enough for encouraging me to do this, for supporting me and Somali students along the way, for believing that all things are possible.

Its been a long time since I started training back in October, I’ve logged hundreds of miles, sweat buckets, digested and barfed more GU than I care to calculate. Its been good.

Two final words, in conclusion:

Next year.

What Am I Going to Wear in the Marathon?

I wrote another post, years ago, about what the heck am I going to wear? I was heading to New York City for a movie premiere. Now doesn’t that sound exciting? It certainly was exciting, it was the premiere of the Finding Strong documentary which featured Girls Run 2. That week in NYC I also ran a 5k, peed in a port-a-potty next to Shalane Flannagan, met my (no longer) literary agent, watched Captain Philips in an actual movie theater (still don’t have one here), hung out with my amazing siblings (who made me cry) and shopped for clothes because I had nothing to wear.

Yet again, I face the conundrum of what to wear and this time I’m heading east, not west. Heading more conservative, not less. Heading to cooler weather. The perennial question for women here is: What should I wear?

I promised you months ago that I’d show you what I’ve decided to wear for this marathon.

It took some practice and some experimenting, but I think I have a good plan, knowing full well that it might change last minute.

I’ve counted up the total items of clothing I wore in my previous marathons (socks count as 1 and shoes count as 1): Five. Five items of clothing.

For this marathon? Nine. Nine items of clothing. Yowsers.

Everything needs to be considered carefully when training for a marathon. Shoes, socks, underwear (or none), sports bra, shirt(s), pants, and this time, a scarf.

Shoes

I used to wear Asics but recently the toe box seems to have gotten narrower. Or, my feet have gotten fatter. They aren’t working for anymore. I tried Brooks Ghost. I fell in love. I find that rotating my shoes helps protect against injury, so I currently have three pairs I rotate through. One pair of trail shoes: Brooks Cascadia, which are also too narrow and I had to cut slits around the toes. One pair of Asics, because I had brought them with from Minnesota and can’t buy shoes here, so need to wear them even if they aren’t quite perfect. And the Brooks Ghost. I’ve saved up the Ghosts, only wearing them on my long runs. The different shoes challenge me to run slightly differently – lower heel drop, or the trail shoes, and keep my legs fresh.

Socks

I’m still with Asics on my socks, mainly because that’s what I brought with me. They are seamless, don’t chafe, and don’t give me too much trouble with blisters.

Sports Bra

I have trouble with sports bras. It is so hot here, I sweat so much, I need something completely seamless and they just don’t seem to exist. I have one Champion bra, pretty seamless but also pretty unsupportive. As one of the only women running here, I want something that locks me down. I wear that one for volleyball or for walking. The Nike bras I have used to work great, but lately, even my new ones, leave me bloody at the center of my chest and along my collarbone. I turn them inside out, which helps a bit, but not enough. I found some new Nike bras last summer, which have a kind of fuzzy elastic band. Those are a bit better, though they still chafe, so I turn them inside out as well. In other words, this is what I plan to wear, but it is the weakest link in my clothing lineup and I’m open to suggestions (just know I won’t be able to shop until July).

Shirt

This is the shirt I’ve chosen. But, it will be under a long-sleeved shirt, or maybe over the top, since I’m writing people’s names on it. But two shirts? During a warm-ish race? Aiyayai. What have I gotten myself into?

It is also Nike. I don’t love the color (why does every women’s running shirt here have to be pink?). But, the shirt doesn’t chafe, is nice and light, and is the longest and loosest shirt I have and doesn’t have a v-neck or low cut scoop neck. So it is the most conservative running shirt in my closet. It is a size Large, which is why it hangs past my butt, and was a hand-me down from a runner who left Djibouti. This is the shirt, that will bear the names of everyone who donated to the Go Fund Me campaign.

I tried a shirt from a Muslim-friendly athletic apparel store, a shirt-dress. I hated it. Way too much material for a marathon in a warm climate. Too much flapping. I know from experience that flapping and sweat leads to chafing and bleeding, which is why I wear spandex here. Plus, it would get so dang heavy. It was really comfortable and I could wear it for anything less than an hour, or for someplace cooler than the Horn of Africa, the material was great, but nope. Too much of that great material.

Pants

After my shoes, I’m most excited about my pants. I love these pants. Brooks Chaser. I had to take a big risk and ordered them online, unable to try them or or return them once they got to Africa. But they fit perfect, they are incredibly lightweight and breathable, they aren’t tight but aren’t so loose that they flap. They have four pockets.

But still, they are pants. And my shirt is long-ish but not super long.

So I’m adding a little bonus, which might be removed once I see how things are on the ground.

I used to have a pair of leggings with a skirt attached. I wore them out, the seams got all hard and crusty from sweat and use, so I was almost going to throw them away. Instead, I cut off the legs and saved the skirt part. Now, I can pull that on over the Brooks pants and, if I feel like my shirt isn’t modest enough, I’ll wear the skirt, too. But because it is less material than the t-shirt dress and is more designed for running, it isn’t as flappy.

Underwear

No photos, but I have a good plan.

Scarf

I got this from the same store, Veil Garments, as the shirt dress. I love it. The color, the material, the fit. It doesn’t feel like I’m wearing anything and doesn’t make me feel much hotter or sweatier.

 

I’ll also be wearing my TomTom Spark watch, sans headphones so I won’t miss any of the fun of the race. And, I’ll have my phone in an armband, so I can snap photos if the chance comes up.

Voila!

My marathon outfit. At least in my plan.

Everything could change…

 

Running Afraid

Y’all did it. You helped me raise the funds for the marathon and education fundraiser in Somaliland. Thank you.

And now that means I have to do this.

Uh, I mean get to do this.

But kind of? I mean I have to do this.

I’m kind of a chicken type of person.

You might not believe me. People call me brave. I rarely feel brave. I rarely feel competent. I often doubt my decisions, question my ability, cower before negative self-talk.

I am also stubborn. That’s one thing I have going for me. Stubborn works well for long-distance running. It works well for long-term cross-cultural living. It works well for the years of research and rejection and revising that go into book writing.

But stubborn is not the same as brave.

So I confess that I’m feeling nervous.

I have my plane ticket. I have my visa. I paid my fees and made our donation. I won’t back down (thank you Tom Petty), but I’m doing it afraid.

Anything can happen.

Anything can happen at any time and in any place. I know this full well. I’ve written about it several times.

There’s the marathon nerves that any runner feels before the start of a big race. We’ve spent months training our legs and lungs and brains. We’ve read for inspiration, woken up way too early, pooped in places we wish we hadn’t, downed GU by the bucketfull, kept pasta-makers in business. We’ve tweaked training plans and figured out the best shoes and running gear. We’ve given up on ever having ten toenails all at the same time. So we’re ready, but also not ready.

Its a frickin’ marathon.

That’s a long way.

26.2 miles. 42 kilometers.

It hurts.

The nerves are excited-nerves. I love this stuff. Running, education, the region, the people I’m meeting and spending time with. I love it.

But it is also outside my comfort zone.

So I’m nervous.

I’m nervous about being one of only a few women, only a few international runners, about the location, about what I’ll wear (I’m bringing several options). I’m nervous about the meetings I have arranged for before and after. I’m nervous that not everyone will be thrilled about this event.

My husband tells me to stop being so self-conscious. To not worry about what to wear or what to say or who to talk to, to not doubt myself, to be strong and assertive. He says, “Its all strange.” Meaning: female, running, white, foreign, Somali-speaker. He says to stop thinking so hard and to enjoy it.

He’s right.

I think that’s what it takes to do something while afraid. To jump in with both feet. Forget about dipping one toe in at a time. Forget about self and focus on what I know is true. This is such a unique opportunity. I should not waste time being timid or afraid.

I should be all me. Meaning: curious, interested, hopeful, excited.

Instead of bringing all my baggage of:

I’m too slow

Women don’t run here

I stick out

Its unsafe

I look ridiculous

What was I thinking? (this will come in mile 22, if not before)

I should bring:

My love for Somali culture and the ways it has molded into my American-ness

My dreams of competitive female athletes from this region

My thrill at being part of this unique experience

All the Somalis who have loved me, welcomed me, helped me laugh my way through these years abroad, all the people who have fed me and clothed me (quite literally) and embraced my kids, and forgiven my faux pas, and shown me how to create a home here, and given me their courage when I lacked my own.

So yeah, I get to do this.

Here we go!

(Here are a couple of videos I made of my last two long runs, if you want a peek at running in Djibouti)

 

 

Three Djiboutian Bumpkins in New York City

I’m going to New York City. This trip came up rather suddenly and has sparked a flurry of questions.

What airplane ticket, what hotel, what is the schedule of the main event, what time will I schedule all the meetings, how do you use cell phones in the US, how on earth will I survive a flight all the way to NY without children, why didn’t I train for the New York City Marathon, will Tom and Lucy be okay without me?

And one of the most urgent questions: What am I going to wear?

Three women are going and while our men laughed, we all had the same question. What are we going to wear?

I own sandals and running shoes. So do I freeze my toes off or tromp around in flourescent yellow tennis shoes while wearing a black dress?

I am heading into year number 2 of no shopping, of washing clothes in salty water, of sweating yellow stains into every armpit, and of burned out elastic bands. Year number 2 is a rough one, fashion-wise, in Djibouti. Because we have one long warm season (12-months long), wearing clothes for one year is the equivalent to wearing them for four in Minnesota. With that in mind, I’ve been wearing mine for 6 years.

The other day I went out in something and was so embarrassed when I caught a side glance of myself in a window that upon returning home I took the clothes off and immediately dropped them into my toss-it pile. Those were some of the better clothes.

Its hard to wear such awful earrings and be so shiny and wear such an ill-fitting shirt...ahem...I mean, its hard to look so good

Its hard to wear such awful earrings and be so shiny and wear such an ill-fitting shirt…ahem…I mean, its hard to look so good

So…what am I going to wear?

Blue jeans? It is hard to know whether or not jeans still fit because in the bloated, swollen, sticky-skinned season which is 12-months long, like I said, jeans are hard to pull on.

I could wear the shirt with the coffee stains on the front or the one with the missing buttons or the one with the stretched-out neckline or the one with the crow poop from hanging on the line. I could wear the pants that give me mom-butt. I am a mom and while I have a butt, I prefer to keep the two as far apart as possible.

My hair is in dire need of a hairdresser but I’ve been saving up for a Curly Cuts day in Minneapolis. Haircuts here are expensive so this means I’ve gone six months of no haircut and no hair color. Things are looking gnarly. I didn’t plan on a trip to New York.

clothes2

I have one fleece jacket that I bought in 2002. It has served me well these past 11 years (since I wear it only while traveling it has seen approximately two-months worth of wear) but I don’t think it was designed to keep people warm at movie premieres.

Because that’s why I’m going. Enough about clothes, this is the important deal: The Runner’s World and Saucony film featuring Girls Run 2 is premiering the weekend of the New York City Marathon. One of the coaches, one of the founders, and I are heading to New York.

Returning to the US is something I like to ease into. I’ve never been there, straight from Djibouti, without my mom or dad’s face being the first thing I see. Familiarity. The grass and lakes of Minneapolis. The house that smells like my childhood. Now it will be one straight thrust into all that is good and overwhelming about American culture without my reliable protection of family and a box of clothes from friends who know I’ve been lost for two years down the fashion no-man’s hole.

clothes3

Excited. I will bring a box of Kleenex because I know the movie will be stellar and I know the girls will look beautiful and inspiring.

Sad. That Tom and the kids aren’t coming, I’ve never traveled so far without at least one of them along.

Eager. I am planning meetings with other amazing people as well, not all related to the film.

Hopeful. Can’t wait to see what possibilities this holds for the running team.

Foreign. For some reason I really feel my expat-ness thinking about this trip. Maybe because it is taking me out of my Minnesota comfort zone or because I’m feeling culture shock already or because I’m nervous-excited about the implications of some of these meetings. On my last flight to Kenya a man sat next to me who had never flown before. I had helped him with everything from seat buckle to headphones to opening salt and pepper packets but before I could stop him, he ate the butter straight from the plastic pot, with his fork. I feel like I will be an airplane-butter-eater in New York City.

Nervous. Not that I’m this superficial, but okay, maybe I am sometimes. I just came out of the ‘I tuck my dress into my underwear‘ season and I don’t think that flies in New York. Although on the other hand, pretty much anything flies in New York. But still. You know how clothes help with confidence? What am I going to wear?

Advice?