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The Power of Uncertainty

In South Sudan, I’m still trying to get used to the emotional extremes. On a good day, the sunrises hold promise, the kids laugh a little brighter, and the air feels cooler. Some mornings, I have these moments of immense gratitude when I’m running through the bush and it hits me that I’m incredibly lucky to be where I am, doing the work I love, and living out my purpose. On a good day, I don’t even smell the rotting cow by the side of the road, mind the midnight drumming, or turn my nose up at the rice and beans I’ve been eating twice a day for over four months now… But on a bad day, the sunsets look sinister, the kids’ cries sound louder, and the sun beats down until I’m level with the ground. On those days, I wonder what I’m doing as a 32 year old woman living in a tent, far from friends and family, with a goat named Majak as my closest male companion. On a bad day, I get under my mosquito net at night and struggle to ignore the bites on my ankles, the pounding in my head, and the bugs chattering away in my belly.

The tricky thing is that sometimes I don’t even know whether it is a good day or a bad day until it is over.

I had one particularly extreme day like that at the end of June. I was heading out to a village called Pulawar to do a rapid protection assessment with another NGO and the local governmental authority. Pulawar was about 45 min by road from Mingkaman, followed by a harrowing 45 min drive through the bush. We had heard that the residents of the village had been attacked by anti-government forces in January and had been suffering ever since, but we weren’t sure exactly what we would find when we got there. Just when we were about to reach the village, I saw two men emerge from behind a clump of trees. I knew from their indigo robes, circular patch of hair on their heads and rubber anklets that they were from the cattle camp. They caught my attention because they were carrying a sack of something that was suspended from a stick between them. As we got closer, I noticed two little feet poking out out of the sack and realized they were carrying a child. That is when it hit me that it was going to be one of those days….

We stopped to ask them what was happening and learned that they were planning on carrying the child – a young girl - 20 km through the bush to the hospital in Mingkaman. They said she had gotten sick the day before and worsened through the night. The team expressed concern, but thought that we could continue to do our assessment and then bring her to the hospital a few hours later. No one seemed to be moving with urgency, so at first, it seemed like a reasonable course of action. However, as I took one look inside the sack at the little girl, I knew we were dealing with an emergency. Her eyes flipped back and forth between staring out blankly in front of her and lolling back in her head. Her lips were drawn back in a permanent grimace, almost like an animalistic snarl, and her hands were pulled up into little claws on her chest. Something really isn’t right here.

We drove another couple of minutes to the village so that we could talk to the community health worker. He said that the girl had had trouble breathing the day before, so he had given her a series of drugs and multi-vitamins by IV through the night. I scrambled to write the names of the medicines down phonetically so that I could tell the doctors at the hospital in Mingkaman. Oftentimes, patients are given completely the wrong drugs by untrained local health workers and it is difficult for the doctors to repair the damage later without knowing what is in their bloodstream…

I left my staff with the assessment team and decided to use our car to transport the girl and her family to Mingkaman – immediately. The parents, the little girl, and her baby sibling and brother piled into the back, along with a local who could help direct our route. He said he knew a shortcut to take and I agreed, thinking it would get us back as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, much to my dismay, after 45 minutes we were still in the bush. Turns out, our shortcut bypassed the main road entirely, meaning that we were on a harrowing trip straight through the bush - we had no reliable way of knowing exactly where we were going or how long it would take us to get there.  I tried to avoid slipping into full panic-mode by talking to the family through our driver, but his ability to understand English was limited. I learned that the little girl’s name was Mary just before she started quietly vomiting all over herself and her father, who was cradling her and trying to straighten our her claw-like arms. Our small chat stopped after that. The smell inside the car became unbearable in the heat, but we couldn’t roll down the windows because of the danger of branches, sticks and other sharp objects that were slapping against the side of the vehicle as we raced through the bush. I focused on breathing slowly through my mouth, but I could taste the small of vomit in the air.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was the longest drive of my life. I gripped onto the handle above me inside the land cruiser and told the driver to speed up, but it was impossible. The brush reached above the hood of the car at time and we couldn’t even see what lay ahead. I had no way of stopping the questions from bouncing against the top of my skull and ringing in my ears. What if we get a flat? What if we get lost? What if – god forbid – she dies in this car?  I must have checked my watch a hundred times. Please, please, please, let us make it to Mingkaman. After an hour and 15 minutes, we emerged onto a dirt path. I quickly recognized it as one of my regular running routes next to the market.  Just a few minutes to go. We pulled up to the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital and I ran around to grab Mary from the back. Her father was moving slowly - was he sick too? - so he just passed her right into my outstretched arms without saying a word. She was covered in dried vomit and stiff as a board. Almost there, Mary. I carried her through the gate  and was immediately ushered into the emergency room (tent). She was extremely weak and barely conscious. What’s wrong with her? Is she going to be okay?  The doctors diligently started their work and informed me, apologetically but firmly, that they wouldn’t know anything until they conducted some tests. I knew that my presence there would not help anyone work any faster, so I stepped just outside the tent to sit with the family.  And to watch.

Within minutes, we had a diagnosis: cerebral malaria.

Cerebral malaria. The most severe neurological complication of malaria. It has a high mortality rate and some patients who survive suffer from long-term neuro-cognitive impairment. It’s something I’ve heard about, of course, and I knew it existed… but I’ve never actually seen it.  Is she going to make it? I naively expected the doctors to say something comforting (not just to me, but more importantly, to the parents). Instead, the informed us all that we just had to wait and see.  Sometimes it is just too late.

I told the family I would be back in a couple of hours and went back to my tent where I broke down in sobs. Actually, I started sobbing in the car (much to the bewilderment of my driver). I wished I could maintain more of a professional distance. I wished I wasn’t so affected by this little girl I had just met. I wished I hadn’t asked the doctors if she’d make it. I wished they could give me a better answer. I went back to visit Mary twice more that day, where she was hooked up to IV in the ICU (another tent). Her temperature was almost 39C and she wasn’t responding to the drugs yet. The doctors had given her an anti-convulsant, which was helping with the tremors, but no one was sure what would happen. Miraculously, by the morning, Mary’s temperature started to come down.  By the next day, she was sitting up and talking.  I could not believe it. She went from near-death to looking like a normal, happy kid within 48 hours. The doctors said had we not gone to Pulawar that day, Mary surely would have died while being carried by the cattle herders through the bush. Holy. Shit. 

Mary, trying out my sunglasses

Mary, trying out my sunglasses

It was a good day in the end – a really, really good day – but it very easily could have been the opposite. The difference between a little girl living and dying was a random encounter in the bush. The thought that we might have done the assessment to Pulawar on Friday instead of Thursday, that we could have gotten a flat tire or that the cattle herders might have taken a different path carrying Mary is just too horrible to bear. The unpredictability of South Sudan, like any country embroiled in conflict, is sometimes hard to take. The unanswerable, open-ended questions are endless. But instead of looking at the uncertainty of each day as a negative, I’m trying to view it as a positive. Uncertainty means that there is still space for hope. Uncertainty means that a bad day can become a good day. Uncertainty means that there is a reason to keep trying.

Perhaps a good lesson to learn in running too….But I’ll leave that one for another day. At the moment, I’m certain if I don’t get to bed then tomorrow will be a bad day!

Happy trails from South Sudan.

What Running Has Taught Me

In starting my NGO, Free to Run, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the role that sports have played in my own life and what running has taught me about myself, about life, and about human nature. Here are my thoughts:

  1. We are not born athletic or un-athletic. Frankly, the idea that some people are ‘sporty’ and others are not is a load of rubbish. As a self-professed klutz (I have the scars on my knees to prove it), I never thought that I could actually be good at sports. I was good at math, not soccer or basketball. The thing is, I just needed to find a sport I enjoyed – once I did, there was nothing stopping me.
  2. The most unimaginable lows will pass if you let them – it is just a matter of when. The trick is to keep moving forward through the fog, one step at a time.
  3. You can tell a lot about people by the way they treat race volunteers at checkpoints. (Or at work, the way they treat their employees or secretaries…)
  4. The hardest mountains to climb are the ones that offer the best views at the top.
    IMG_2936
  5. Sometimes you just need to sink into the pain, let it wash over you, and release it with acceptance. Trying to avoid it or fight against it will only lead to further problems down the trail. In running, we call this over-compensation. In life, we call this denial.
  6. There is something to be said about perseverance, but if you’re on the wrong path, perseverance will only take you further and further away from where you are supposed to be heading. Sometimes the smartest thing to do is stop and admit you’ve made a wrong turn. And start over.
  7. It is better to cross the finish line last holding hands with a competitor than finish first alone.
    HK100 finish 3
  8. Running is the ultimate social equalizer. It doesn’t really matter how much you earn, where you were born, or what job you have when you’re out on the trail. All that matters is how well you trained, how committed you are to finishing, and whether you’re willing to help other people along the way.
  9. The first 20 min and the last 20 min of any run, whether it is 250 km or 10 km, are always the toughest.
  10. Success doesn’t always come in the package we expect.  It might mean simply getting through a run rather than completing it within a certain amount of time. It might mean dropping out of a race early instead of forging ahead and spending months recovering from an injury. The trick is to recognize when we have actually ‘won’ and redefine our failures as unexpected successes.
  11. Similarly, we don’t always know what we want until we get it (or conversely, we don’t always know what is harmful until it goes away). In running, we take pain killers when we really need water, electrolytes when we really need calories and sugar when we really should be eating salt. In life, we date people who aren’t right for us, work jobs that aren’t unfulfilling and convince ourselves we’re doing what is best. Sometimes other people can see what we can’t – it might help to listen them every once in a while.
  12. No important decisions should be made while sleep-deprived or in a sugar low. That goes for navigation on the trails or large financial deals at work. Take a nap, eat a cookie, or call in a pacer (or junior associate).
  13. Your mind is much stronger than the body. The mind can overcome shortcomings of the body, but not the other way around. When the body breaks down, let the mind do the running. If that fails, run with your heart.
  14. It isn’t nearly as satisfying to achieve something you knew you could do as it is to attempt something at which you might fail. In running, we sign up for the biggest, baddest, gnarliest races because they seem impossible. We are pulled towards running challenges that appear out of reach and we aren’t afraid to try. So why are we so scared to expose ourselves to failure in our non-running lives?  Running has taught me to step outside of my comfort zone more and to give myself permission to ‘fail’ (see number 10!).
  15. And finally, running has taught me that age is just a number. Young in the heart = young in the legs. At least that’s what I’m telling myself because…

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…today, I’m celebrating my 32nd birthday from my tent in Mingkaman, South Sudan. When I think back to a year ago, I never would have anticipated I’d be where I am now… but I’m so incredibly grateful and happier than I have been in a very long time. Life. Is. Good. 2014 has already been one of the best years of my life so far and all signs are suggesting the year of being 32 is going to seriously rock.

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Wine delivered by helicopter!

I started my day with a run through the market under clouded skies and even discovered a little trail through the bush. Tonight, there is a party at the Medecins Sans Frontieres (hey ho) and tomorrow we have a little ‘drunch’ (way better than brunch) planned in the humanitarian hub. A bottle of wine even appeared out of the sky by helicopter for me yesterday, which was magical (thank you Andrew!). I’ve been loving seeing all of the messages and photos from friends and family around the world in different time zones. I feel loved, lucky and blessed!  Now, back to the compound to put on my best t-shirt and maybe even a little deodorant for those MSF docs….

Until next time!

 

Okay, this was in Zanzibar... but I'm drinking margaritas here in my head.

Okay, this was in Zanzibar… but I’m drinking margaritas here in my head.

Recuperating through running… in Zanzibar

Yesterday morning, I woke up the way I do most mornings: surrounded by mosquito netting, head pounding, and entangled in sheets. However, the difference was that I was waking up in a fancy hotel in Zanzibar instead of in my tent in Mingkaman. My mosquito netting was luxuriously hanging over my bed for decoration instead of strung up on bamboo poles for protection against malaria. My head was pounding from the bottle of champagne (and margaritas, poor choice Caser) the night before instead of general dehydration and constant-random-sickness. And my sheets were made of 400 thread count Egyptian cotton instead of scratchy bright purple material fraying at the edges.

It took a couple of moments after I opened my eyes to blink away the sleepiness and realize where I was. Gone were the dark green plastic walls of my safari tent, the musty smells of mud and stagnant water, and the sounds of village life. In their place were deliciously high ceilings, scents of vanilla incense and sounds of the ocean. There was no reason to get out of bed. No staff to manage, no fires to put out, no crises to solve. I flopped back down on the bed and stretched out in a star position, grinning widely as I fell back asleep.

masharikiWhen I finally got out of bed, I decided to go for a run. It has been about two weeks now since I’ve done any exercise and the break has been necessary… but I wanted to release my brain and celebrate my first day of R&R. I wasn’t burdened by the need to go for a run as I sometimes am in South Sudan – I was excited by the opportunity to explore a place that wasn’t steeped in suffering.

I practically danced around the hotel room as I put on my gear and set my watch. My toes wiggled with anticipation and my quads twitched at the possibility of being put to use again. I decided to take a path along with water so that I couldn’t get lost, rather than try to find my way through the winding streets and markets of Stone Town. I ran past men wearing taqiyahs* leaning against taxi cabs, who shouted things like “you’re an angel!” and “hello lady, where you from?” I made a mental note to wear my ugliest, baggiest running clothes next time and pumped my legs a little faster down the street.

Beautiful Stone Town (photo credit: the Guardian.... I was too busy running to take photos!)

Beautiful Stone Town (photo credit: the Guardian…. I was too busy running to take photos!)

I ran past football fields made of sand where teenage boys were engaged in serious battle. I weaved my way around groups of schoolgirls clutching their books and giggling beneath their brilliant blue headscarves. Everything smelled fresh – salty, but fresh – and I almost gave myself a stitch from inhaling so deeply. It was like the air was infused with coffee vapours – I actually felt like I was getting buzzed from the run. I looked down at my Suunto watch and was pleasantly surprised to see that I was running a full 2 km/hr faster than my best effort in Mingkaman. After an hour of exploring, I was ready to head back to the hotel and continue my day of self-indulgent, guilt-free pampering. (If there is one benefit to living in a tent, it is that you really, really appreciate it when you get out!)

I’m now writing this post from a hammock on the beach, listening to the waves crash at highOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA tide and feeling the champagne bubbles go straight to my brain. It is absolute heaven on earth. For the next week, I will be chilling out at a resort at the north end of the island… and loving every second of it. Our bungalow is spitting distance from the beach bar and about ten feet from the water’s edge…Tomorrow morning, I will wake up at some unplanned hour to run barefoot along the beach and see where my feet take me.

I’m not sure how I got this lucky, but I’m too deliriously happy to question it. South Sudan is a lifetime away…. And for right now, that is just fine with me.

Iridescent turquoise water at my doorstep? Check. Amazing company? Check. Endless miles of beach to run on? Check. Six foot plus Medecins Sans Frontieres doctor with a disarming smile, French accent, and scruffy beard that screams I’ve-been-saving-babies-in-the-Congo-so-don’t-have-time-to-shave? Working on it :) **

Photo stolen from Beyond Borders, a 2003 romantic drama about aid workers. Not exactly cinematic genius, buuuuut....

Photo stolen from Beyond Borders, a 2003 romantic drama about aid workers (including one very dreamy doctor). Not exactly cinematic genius, buuuuut….

And before I get even more inappropriate, I must get back to my book. It’s 4pm and that means it is fresh fruit and cookie time.

Happy trails! (And if you haven’t seen my recent post on the 20 similarities between aid workers and long distance runners, please have a peek! It is now my most popular post ever in four years so perhaps it will ring true and give you a laugh).

DSCF0411

*Knitted skull caps worn by Muslims in some countries.

**NB: This description may or may not be based on a real MSF person I bumped into at the Juba airport briefly a few weeks ago… Dear Mr Baby-saving-MSF doctor who works in Yida, feel free to come save some babies in Mingkaman. Just saying.

Making angels in the sand

Making angels in the sand

Dancing in circles

On 16 May, I was awakened at 4 am by loud gunfire. I had expected it, of course – it was SPLA day after all, South Sudan’s day for celebrating the army – but it didn’t make it any less stressful. Whether you call it celebratory gunfire or ‘happy gunfire’, as we used to say in Afghanistan, the sound of a gunshot is inherently violent to me.

Between the rapid-fire pop pop pop and the slower and deeper sounds of the CHUG CHUG CHUG, I crawled over to the side of my tent to get a better look. Gripping the sides of the tent flaps, I peered out to see streams of red fire shoot like broken lasers through the air.  (A friend later described these to me as tracers, bullets that allow shooters to see the trajectory of the projectile so that they can take corrective action). I figured there were at least two or three shooters right on the other side of the bamboo fence and quite a few more nearby. While I’ve heard gunfire before, it was a strange feeling to be so close to so much of it without any form of security around. I couldn’t help but think, what if something goes wrong?

Of course, I desperately had to go to the bathroom (damn tiny bladder). I knew that I wasn’t any safer inside the tent than outside, but for some reason I just couldn’t bring myself to walk 30 feet to the latrines while there was active gunfire going on. So I peed in a mug. Yup, that happened. I didn’t sleep a wink until the sun rose (when I ran out of the tent super stealthily to throw the mug into the garbage pit). Most of my colleagues brushed off the gunfire as ‘business as usual’ and for the most part it was… but I must admit, I was shaken. It made me realize just how quickly things could change here and how we really are just sitting ducks.

I haven’t been able to run this week. At all. I think it has been a combination of SI joint issues, stomach problems (they never stop), and

Tent-based physiotherapy: working on my SI joint problems... Thanks, Handicap International!

Tent-based physiotherapy: working on my SI joint problems… Thanks, Handicap International!

the heat… but I’ve also just had more important things on my mind, which hasn’t been a bad thing at all. I’ve given myself permission to take a break and it has been a bit of a relief. Normally running helps me manage stress, but my body has just reached a level of exhaustion and I know running won’t do me any good right now.

Instead, I’ve shifted my focus to my work this week, which has been incredibly powerful. The chance to be here and stand in solidarity with others is truly a privilege. At least this is what I remind myself in those hair-pulling, tear-blinking moments when I’m at risk of being overwhelmed by the challenges piling up before me!  (I had one of them at the police station yesterday morning following up on a case.) Don’t get me wrong, my role here is small. I’m not kidding myself about what kind of change I can actually effect when the problems are so large. And I’m sure if I wasn’t here, there would be someone else in my place doing the same thing… but it is pretty special when you see that you have actually had a tangible impact on one person or one family in one moment.  So I concentrate on those small wins. I have no doubt that I’m getting more out of this experience than I’m giving back, but I’m at least trying to recognize it.

Yesterday when I was ‘footing’ back to my compound (the South Sudanese word for walking), a group of older women walking by stopped to greet me, smiling from ear to ear and chattering non-stop. I could only pick up a few words, but it wasn’t hard to tell that they were happy about something. Pretty soon, they had surrounded me in a circle, singing and dancing in celebration. Their brightly-coloured Imagerobes twirled around me as they jumped up and down in unison, clutching their breasts and shrieking out in high-pitched voices. I joined them in the dance, clutching my laptop bag instead of my chest, which prompted one of the others to grab it for me instead. It should have been a really strange moment – jumping around erratically while practically being fondled by a woman who didn’t speak my language – but for some reason it just made sense. I added in a few shrieks of my own, which sent the crowd into hysterical laughter, and hugged a few of the women before carrying on my way.  As I wiped the sweat from my upper lip and rearranged my bag across my chest, I realized that I couldn’t stop smiling. We may be dancing in circles here, but perhaps we can do it together. 

Cholera has started to show up in the site and the number of cases in Juba has quickly risen to about 400. Not good. I’m heading out to Juba on Wednesday to meet up with a dear friend from Afghanistan and then to Zanzibar on Friday to get into a whole bunch of mischief. Nine days on the beach with a cocktail in each hand is just what the doctor ordered… I intend to be completely irresponsible until the moment when I hop back on the plane to Juba. Watch out, Z-bar!

A huge thanks to those of you who have already offered to help out with Free to Run. I’m really touched by the support! Reply emails are coming very shortly.

Happy trails from South Sudan – sending out massive hugs to my loved ones this week x

 

20 similarities between aid workers and long-distance runners

On this blog, I write about my life in the human rights and humanitarian fields just as much as I write about my running. For me, there is a clear connection – I am massively passionate about both, so it is hard for me to separate the two. However, for those of you out there who fall into one category or the other, you might not see the similarities as clearly.  I thought I’d dedicate this post to all of the aid workers and long-distance runners out there… you might just have more in common than you realized!

belinda and UN

  1. We both have strong quad muscles.  Ultrarunners and aid workers have to spend a lot of time squatting in latrines or out in the bush.  If you don’t start off with good quads, you’ll develop them quickly.
IMG_4875

Helpful message on the bathroom door here in South Sudan

  1. We’re obsessed about gaining “street cred”. The tougher the race, the tougher the field location, the more credibility we earn amongst our peers. We pretend to complain about that ridiculous 100-miler or how crazy it was to live in [insert war zone here], but we secretly love it. Stories of passing out in one’s own vomit on the side of a trail, encountering armed militia at a roadblock, running for two days straight drinking nothing but diluted gatorade (or heaven forbid our own urine), or suffering from malaria in the midst of a cholera outbreak are not uncommon in the ultrarunning and aid worker circles. Totally annoying, but it’s true. #humblebrag
  1. Vomiting and diarrhea are just a part of the game.  Ask any runner or aid worker about the last time they experienced stomach issues. Guaranteed the answer will either be “this morning!”, “last week”, or “oh man, let me tell you about the time when….”
IMG_0885

Stomach problems mid-race

  1. We eat the same food. The dehydrated meals and energy bars often eaten in ultras are not dissimilar to MREs (Meal, Read-to-Eat) kept in bunkers in conflict zones. If it comes in a package and has a three-year expiry date, chances are it is on the ultraunning-aid worker menu. Both groups also tend to be obsessed with food (for different reasons).
Two elite ultrarunners taking their nutrition seriously

Two elite ultrarunners taking their nutrition seriously

  1. Intense experiences = strong friendships (and maybe a few flings).  Whether it is the sheer amount of time spent together, shared passions, or the intensity of the situation, relationships can form quickly within the ultrarunning and humanitarian communities alike. Long-lasting friendships are not uncommon in either field…. nor are short-term flings. Or so I hear. Cough.

friends pic

  1. …But relationships can be complicated.  Despite the ease with which relationships can start for ultrarunners or aid workers, you need an instructional guide to date either type. For any of my current or future love interests (purposely being ambiguous here :) ), here is a helpful list of dating pros and cons:
  • Why you should date an aid worker: See #3. “They know how to fix a bicycle, using only a toothpick, some dental floss and a few small twigs.” Or perhaps #15. “Use ‘Moral Credits’ gained from dating an aid worker to offset the morally hazardous aspects of your life.” It’s totally true.
  • Why you shouldn’t date an aid worker: For instance, take #33. “[They] have silver card memberships and points to airlines you –or the airport authority- never heard of, and expect you to use these for your joint holidays.” Seriously, Aeroflot and Fly540 are the way to go, right?
  • Don’t date a girl who travels: Applies to ultrarunners and aid workers alike. “She will forget to check in with you when she arrives at her destination. She’s busy living in the present. She talks to strangers. She will meet many interesting, like-minded people from around the world who share her passion and dreams. She will be bored with you.”
  • Date a girl who runs: “Date a girl who runs because she’s got more on her mind than makeup and keeping up with the neighbors because she’s too busy trying to keep up with herself, outpace herself, outdo herself. If you want her to stay interested, set your own intentions about how you can be a better You.”
  1. We inspire and frighten. Family and friends think we are amazing and absolutely insane in equal measure… which works to our benefit. We often get invited to BBQs and parties as the token crazy person.
  1. We have our own special language. We use acronyms and lingo no one else can understand. Ultrarunners will talk of bonking, condom jackets, getting ‘chicked’, and DNF’ing, whereas aid workers will chat about NFIs, WASH, PoCs, PSNs, PWDs and cluster meetings (not as dirty as it sounds).
  1. We have a unique sense of fashion.  Between the compression socks and the oversized cargo vests, flips flops and bandanas, we aren’t exactly setting trends (at least not any kind of trend you’d want to follow).
compression socks

Thanks Matt for letting me steal a photo of you to show off your socks… oh wait, I didn’t ask. Oops :) You look good!

angelina jolie

Even Angelina can’t make this look good

10. Cult-ish behaviour. We are constantly trying to pull you into own cult. (“If you can run 26 miles, you can run 50 miles!” “Quit the private sector – I feel passion in my work everyday!”). I thought this was super annoying until I drank the purple kool-aid too… Now I can tell you that you honestly should become an ultrarunner. Or an aid worker. Or an ultrarunning aid worker. It’s awesome!

11. Love of wildlife. Camels, goats, and penguins are all beloved creatures.

penguin

majak

12.  Love of the ‘selfie’. We have a deep appreciation for artistic expression through the selfie. Okay, admittedly, ultrarunners are probably guilty of this more than aid workers, but I suspect there are a bunch of closet aid worker selfie-takers out there (other than me).

running selfies

The hilarious woman who selfie-instagrammed hot guys every mile during her half marathon

Selfie on the UN helicopter

Selfie on the UN helicopter

13. Access to clean water is always a concern. Okay, this one is hard to make light of….

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“Is this drinkable?” -Running in Kyrgyzstan

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My ‘home’ in Mingkaman, South Sudan

14. “Who’s got extra toilet paper?” Bodily functions and weird skin rashes or chafing are totally acceptable conversation topics.

Courtesy of Takbo Printipe

Courtesy of Takbo Printipe

15. We believe in the healing powers of junk food. Whenever we get grumpy, all it really takes is a chocolate bar or a tube of pringles to calm us down. Every time.

pringles

16. We live for the extremes. When we are training or working, we give it our all. But when the race is over or it is time for R&R…? All hell breaks loose. Erm, take my last trip to London for example… #trainwreck #butasuperfunone

During the ICE Ultra

During the ICE Ultra

The party after the ICE Ultra...

The party after the ICE Ultra…

17. Tents provide perfectly acceptable accommodation. Showers and deodorant optional.

My accommodation during RacingThePlanet Nepal

My accommodation during RacingThePlanet Nepal

My home as an aid worker in South Sudan

My home as an aid worker in South Sudan

18. Outdoors = bliss. We prefer to be outside rather than stuck behind a desk in an office. Every time.

outdoors

19. Ziplocs aren’t just for sandwiches.  They provide excellent wallets, iphone cases, clothing bags….Sweat-proof, storm-proof, insect-proof!

ziplocs

20. Anything is possible. We dream BIG and constantly take on the impossible… because we believe there is no other way to live other than outside our comfort zone.

wherethemagichappens

Check out my interview this week with Julian Bittel as part of his daily podcast on Inspiring Adventurers (available for free download from his site or on iTunes!) 

Also worth a watch: the IRC has put out a short 3-min video on the conflict in South Sudan. My interview starts at 1:45. Please watch.

Are you running free?

“Are you running free?”

In any other situation, it might have seemed like an odd question. But having spent a couple of months in South Sudan already, I knew instantly what he was getting at. I stopped to take out my headphones and wiped the dripping sweat from my forehead.

“Yes, I’m running free.” 

He looked at me with a puzzled expression, conveying equal parts apprehension and curiosity. His long purple robe hung from his thin frame. He would have looked rather frail if it wasn’t for the large metal rifle slung over his shoulder, swinging ever so slightly towards my direction.

“No one is chasing you?”

I smiled and shook my head, making sure to repeat his words in my answer so that he could understand my English.

“No one is chasing me.” 

He paused. I could see the wheels in his brain turning, trying to figure out why on earth someone would be running through the African bush if they weren’t being chased. He tapped his long index finger slowly against the receiver of the gun.  He then shook his head and chuckled, flicking hand in the air dismissively as if to say “carry on, Kawadja.” 

Running in Mingkaman

Most of the time when I go out on my runs, I get a positive reaction. The kids practically trip over themselves to come join me when they see me coming down the path, often fighting and pushing each other just to grab my hand (I haven’t figured out how to calm them down!). I really have never seen such level of exuberance before – consistently and repeatedly – from kids of any country. I think you’d have to tell a child from North America that they had just inherited 500 puppies, 1000 play stations and spiderman as a permanent playmate in order to elicit the same reaction. It is truly infectious (the only infection I’m not trying to avoid here) and one of the main reasons I continue to drag myself out of my tent in the mornings. Which is really difficult some days, not going to lie.

However, occasionally my run brings out a very different response. About once or twice a week, when the kids see me running down the path behind them, it triggers a reaction I can only assume is pure fear. I can’t say I have ever really seen someone truly terrified – other than in movies – until coming to South Sudan, and it breaks my heart that my running can bring about that kind of emotion. Before I can say a word, the kids will bolt down the path or into the bushes to hide. One time I was able to catch up to one of the kids when he had simply tired himself out. His face was covered in dirt and tears and he was struggling to catch his breath through the sobs of despair. I desperately tried to comfort him by saying “it’s okay, it’s okay”, but I stupidly hadn’t thought to learn those words in Dinka ahead of time (‘doon rioche‘ means ‘don’t fear’, as I now know). It was a full five minutes of weird miming before the boy calmed down and smiled, realizing that I was just a crazy Kawadja out running around in circles.

DSCF0024I’ve been told that the South Sudanese believe that the only reason why people run is to flee violence.  The adults know logically when they see me that this is probably not why I’m running… but some of the kids have clearly been taught that when they see someone run, they’d better run in the same direction - fast. I worry that my running even brings back specific memories of violence that they have recently experienced fleeing Jonglei state before they eventually settled here.


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It is hard not to let my emotions get the better of me here – it has certainly happened to me a few times over the past couple of months. In some ways, I admire those who can work in a situation like this and stay completely unaffected. They are able to always carry out their work logically, sensibly, and efficiently. They don’t get bogged down with some of the questions that keep me awake at night. The ‘what ifs’, the ‘whys’ and the ‘how on earths’ can be consuming. Some mornings I wake up in my tent and I just can’t force myself to run – a rarity for me. Some mornings I just don’t have the strength to witness another child running away in terror.

However, there is enough beauty here to keep me going, even amongst the garbage, the floods, and the sewage. I am really learning a lot about the human spirit and our capacity as a people to withstand suffering and tragedy. I’ve been amazed at the resilience of the families who have settled here, their ability to ‘start over’ (and not for the first time), and their willingness to smile at the drop of a hat. I can only hope to one day be so strong.

DSCF0370I’d like to tell you about a few characters the keep my mental sanity in check here. I think the positive stories of this place (which I now affectionately refer to as the ‘Mingk’ for short) are just as important to tell as the sad ones, so here we go.

Lucia

Lucia is the cook in our compound and also an internally displaced person (IDP). She arrived in Mingkaman in DSCF0347December and has been living in a makeshift tukul (hut) outside of our compound ever since. She is 35 with eight children.

Every morning, Lucia comes to work and welcomes me in Dinka or Arabic the moment I crawl out of my tent. Her face shines when she smiles and she sings quietly in a high-pitched voice while she stirs the beans or scales the fish from the Nile. She has called me ‘kawadja’ for over two months now, but we’re working on ‘stephanie’ (currently sounding like ‘sephanis’). When she leaves in the evening, she cheerfully waves at me saying ‘good morning!’

One day during our regular nonsensical conversations in languages neither of us can understand, I sensed she was telling me something important. I asked a colleague to translate and discovered Lucia was telling me she wished she could have gone to school and become educated. She thought she was too old now and it was just too late for her. I almost fell out of my chair and told her she was never too old. I asked her what she wanted to learn, thinking (stupidly) that she might say math or politics or even how to become a teacher. She replied simply (in Dinka), “I want to learn how to write my name in English”.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALucia and I now spend some time on the weekends working on her name. She struggles with the letters and has a long way to go, but seeing her copy her own name in English for the first time gave me enough ‘happy juice’ to keep me going for days afterwards.

My staff

I manage nine staff in the field, six of whom are IDPs. Three of them live with me in the compound (aka tent city). Week after week, they surprise me with their commitment to serving the communities of which they are themselves a part, and they make me laugh with their humour. I have been counselled on the intricacies of dowry OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAnegotiations in marriage and other cattle mathematics. (Sadly, I have learned that I am much too expensive for the men in the area and my education would also scare them off – men want an educated woman, but not too educated.) One of my staff members even named his first born girl after me last month (baby Step-hanie, as South Sudanese people have trouble pronouncing ‘F’s!). One day I got annoyed with one of my officers for being 30 minutes late to work. Turns out he had come across an elderly woman who was without shelter and decided to help her right then and there access necessary services. Without their tenacity, cheekiness and camaraderie, I would probably have already gone home.

Majak

Last but not least, I want to tell you about Majak…. my first kid. After an unfortunate goat slaughter incident in the compound, which had me comically in tears (much to the amusement of my African colleagues), I became determined to get a pet goat. Luckily, one of my officers agreed to raise the goat at his home for me (so long as I let him eat the mother eventually, sigh). After some careful searching, I found little Majak, who is just two weeks old. I don’t really need to explain why this little guy makes me happy – just take one look at him and you’ll know!

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Lots going on here and we’re already seeing some flooding with the heavy rains. It is sure to get worse over the coming weeks. But I’ve just got another couple of weeks to go and then I’ll get a much-needed break in Zanzibar, which I’m really looking forward to! Beach, cocktails, books… and perhaps a little mischief are in store. Things are also progressing really well with Free to Run, the NGO I’m establishing, so stay tuned for more info and the launch of our website (thanks to www.puzhr.com for being our pro bono design team)!

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Beneath the Death Zone: A Climber’s Personal Account of the Everest Avalanche

Climbing Everest is a dangerous activity – no question about it. Climbers face the risk of hypothermia, cardiac arrest, cerebral swelling, pulmonary edema, getting crushed by rockfalls, trapped by avalanches, or getting caught at high altitude for many hours in raging storms. As one article simply put it, “to set foot on Mount Everest is to risk death.” But despite the tangible risks, hundreds of climbers head out year after year to challenge the mountain, hoping they might be one of the lucky ones to safely make it to the top.

Lucy's blog

A photo from Lucy’s blog

 This April, Lucy Rivers Bulkeley was one of those hopeful few. As an experienced climber, ultrarunner and extreme adventurer, Lucy already had a number of expeditions under her belt. She was the first European woman to complete the 4 Desert Grandslam in 2010 and had successfully summited Aconcagua, Elbrus and Kilimanjaro. Reaching the top of Everest was incredibly daunting, but Lucy was prepared. Months of training had made her muscles lean, her lungs strong, and her veins thick with red blood cells (read her pre-Everest interview here). All she needed was a bit of luck.

Unfortunately, luck was nowhere to be found on Everest this year – quite the contrary. On Friday, 18 April 2014, while Lucy was acclimatizing at Base Camp, a massive avalanche crashed down the mountain, resulting in the single deadliest accident on Everest. Ever. Sixteen Sherpas died when large blocks of ice – called ‘seracs’ – broke away from hanging glaciers above the Khumbu Ice Fall. The Sherpas who died were carrying gear and supplies from Base Camp to Camp 1 and beyond.

This area – the Khumbu Icefall – is notoriously dangerous. It is often described as the “danger zone”, featuring overhanging pieces of ice that can be as large as 10-story buildings. It can take 12 hours to cross. In fact, it is so precarious that climbers try to pass through the icefall by headlamp early in the morning to avoid melting glaciers and shifting ice. “In many ways it is the most difficult and most dangerous part of the climb,” reported experienced Everest climber, Adrian Ballinger, to CNN. “ This specific zone is an area where we all know there is a lot of risk but of course we hoped there would never be a major accident like this.”

khumbu

Photograph by Cory Richards, National Geographic

 I was in London at the time when I heard the news. I woke up with my mouth dry and my head pounding from overindulging the night before on wine (what all R&Rs are meant for). When I checked the news, the pounding intensified. Not only had there been an attack on the UN compound in Bor (South Sudan), 20 km from where my staff were based, but there was a deadly avalanche on Everest.

I was able to quickly confirm that Lucy was safe at Base Camp, thanks to the help of our amazing network of friends, but trying to figure out anything beyond that was an exercise in futility. Some news sources reported that all expeditions were cancelled for the rest of the year and climbers were being flown off the mountain. Others suggested that the mountain was still open. Would she still climb? And if she did, would she be safe? Would she lose her chance to summit? Would she even want to climb after witnessing such tragedy?

base camp photo

Lucy’s photo from Base Camp

 We clung to our phones waiting for updates from Lucy. Days went by and more and more climbing companies cancelled their expeditions.  Lucy remained. New reports of Sherpas being threatened by a small militant group trickled into the media, painting a more sinister picture of what was happening on the mountain. Lucy remained. Fresh avalanches hit the mountain a week after the first one, making it look even more unlikely that anyone would get to climb. Lucy remained.

Lucy stayed at Base Camp until April 26, a full eight days after the deadly avalanche. As one of the last few climbers left on Everest, Lucy brings unique insight into the tragedy and offers a true account of what took place during the days that followed. I had the chance to catch up with Lucy over email after she returned to Kathmandu last week to get her side of the story.

Ultra Runner Girl: Describe to us where you were, what you were doing, and what went through your mind when you heard the news of the avalanche.

Lucy: Avalanches are a worryingly frequent occurrence on the mountains around base camp but early morning on Friday 18th there was an especially loud one.  It wasn’t until I emerged from my tent that I heard from one of my teammates exactly what had happened. We had planned to be heading into the Ice Fall to practice on the ladders (often two or three tied together over the large crevasses) before heading up to Camp 1 the following day. All we knew initially was that a few Sherpas had been caught up in it. It soon transpired that it was a lot worse than that – the official figure was 16 dead and numerous injured.

Ultra Runner Girl: How did your team react? And the Sherpas in your group?

Lucy: We were all stunned and spent the morning listening to the rescue operation being coordinated over the radios. Our guide, Rob, is also a doctor and he immediately left to head up to the accident site – having made the summit of Everest eight times, he knows the Ice Fall route incredibly well and managed to reach some of the injured Sherpas before the helicopters arrived. The two helicopter pilots involved that day were incredible – they managed to airlift all those seriously injured and killed out of the ice fall and take them to hospital or back to their villages. A horrendous task to endure.

We had a team of Sherpas up there when the accident happened but thankfully they were all ok as they were either side of the accident site. However, understandably, they were deeply upset by what they saw. Tragically, two of them also lost brothers.

Ultra Runner Girl: You mentioned on your blog and on twitter that the situation quickly became ‘politicized’. Can you describe the tensions on the mountain?

Lucy: For the first couple of days after the accident it was quite rightly about mourning those lost. No one went on the mountain and all climbers continued acclimatizing on nearby peaks. A couple of teams then started to cancel their expeditions because they had lost too many Sherpas, through injury, to continue – not because the Ice Fall was unsafe as reported in the media! It was then that we started to hear about the threats being made to Sherpas and Ice Fall doctors by militants if they climbed with Westerners. Even our Sidar, Karmi, was threatened. The Nepalese First Minister flew into Base Camp for a meeting with all the Sherpas, but I think by then, it was too little too late.

Ultra Runner Girl: At what point were you going to pull the plug on the climb? Or were you determined to summit at all costs?

Lucy: Our team held out until the last possible moment. We had our Puja on the 23rd, in the hope that things might start to improve. Unfortunately the threats were too much for all the teams and Sherpas involved and we had no choice but to cancel. Gutting.

(Note to readers: ‘Puja’ is a ceremony in which the Sherpas and climbers pay their respects to the mountain deity (Sagamartha) and ask her for clear passage. Sherpa climbers will not climb before they are blessed.)

Ultra Runner Girl: After such an intense experience, most would have headed home to regroup. You are now off to climb Mount Denali (Alaska) to attempt one of your other remaining mountains within the Seven Summits challenge. What is your motivation?

Lucy: I’m acclimatized, having been living at 5300m for 2 weeks, and mountain fit. It seems a waste not to. I also think it’ll help me get my head around everything that has happened as I’m not sure it’s properly sunk in yet. Saying that, having heard that it could get to as low as -50c on Denali, a beach somewhere hot is suddenly looking rather tempting!

Ultra Runner Girl: Does this experience fuel your desire to return next year to try again or are you having second thoughts?

Lucy: I would absolutely love to return next year – I have two climbing permits (Everest and Lhotse) with my name on!

Courage, Lucy, allez allez allez!

 

 

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