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Free to Be (Sporty)

The first time someone called me ‘sporty’ I laughed in their face. Excuse me? Stephanie Case was the opposite of sporty. I tripped over cracks in sidewalks, let out high-pitched shrieks whenever someone threw a ball my way, and refused to do any activity that turned my face red. I used to beg my gym teacher to let me be a ‘cheerleader’ during soccer and baseball games at school just so that I could avoid the embarrassment of being last picked for the team. Sure, I took swimming and dance lessons growing up, but that was pretty much required of all young girls in the WASP-y town in which I raised. Instead of going away to summer camp, I went to band camp. Yes, it is true – I was a band camp geek. And before you ask, I played the flute.

Being ‘sporty’ was just not a part of my identity, nor was it in the realm of possibility. I was good at algebra, chemistry and physics, not soccer, baseball or basketball. Sports were for the cool kids, the confident ones, not for the awkward, shy nerds like me. Back then, I thought that you were either born sporty or you weren’t. And I fell into the latter category.

It wasn’t until years later when I started ultrarunning that I learned I had gotten it all wrong. The idea that I wasn’t sporty was idiotic… I just hadn’t found my sport yet. Once I did, there was no stopping me. Don’t get me wrong, I still shriek when someone throws me a ball. But I’ve found a sport I’m good at. More importantly, I’ve found a sport I absolutely love, which has allowed me to transform from a shy, awkward girl to an outgoing, sporty one (albeit still pretty darn awkward). I have learned that confidence doesn’t come before sports – it comes with it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOver the past couple of weeks, I have been travelling around Afghanistan launching our projects through Free to Run. Having experienced first-hand the transformative power of sport, I am passionate about helping other women and girls to discover their ‘sporty’ selves. In my case, the only thing preventing me from coming out of my shell was my own shyness. In the case of the women we serve through Free to Run, the obstacles are much more tangible and intense. However, this is precisely why we have chosen to work in conflict-affected areas – this is where there is the most need for support, and in turn where sports can effect the most change. 

In my first blog post for Free to Run, I talk about my experience hiking in Afghanistan with an unlikely group of female students, who showed up on the first day in high heels carrying their purses. Perhaps like me, they had never thought of themselves as sporty. Perhaps like me, they had never thought of themselves as capable of doing sports. But perhaps like me, they just needed the right environment in which to explore their athletic side.

After a few days of hiking and outdoor adventure, one of the girls on the hike said to me in Dari: “now I know I am capable. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow I know that sports aren’t just for boys. They are for girls too.” I tried to nod nonchalantly, but inside I was bursting with excitement. This is only just the start, I thought to myself…

Please take a few minutes to catch up on what we are doing with Free to Run. In Afghanistan, we are helping an Afghan university to set up a sports club for female students, which will have regular athletic activities throughout the year (skiing anyone?). We have also launched a shelter project in Kabul, which provides yoga, pilates and fitness classes to women who have survived gender-based violence. We have been incredibly lucky to get our initial funding through a generous donation from RacingThePlanet, but we need your support to continue our work! Whether you are in a position to donate directly or fundraise on our behalf through your own athletic endeavours, we can use all of the support we can get.

Please feel free to contact me directly at Stephanie@freetorun.org for more information or check out our website or facebook page. I’d love to talk to you more about this if you’re interested!

Finally, just a last note as a ‘life update’ as I know I’ve been off the blogosphere for quite some time. Usually when I go silent it OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmeans that something really good has happened, or something terrible. Luckily, this time, it was the former. I left South Sudan a month ago – despite having a really amazing last month in Juba with a good group of friends – to take up a new position with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Gaza. I arrived in Gaza today, flying in from Afghanistan this past weekend, and am launching into my new job. Having been in three different conflict zones over the past couple of weeks, I have to say, it is having a toll…. But while my body is tired, my heart is full of gratitude and excitement for what is to come.

Stay tuned for more adventures from Gaza.

MadAthlete Interview

*Original interview posted on MadAthlete.com. Thanks for the interview, Zandy!*

INTERVIEW WITH ULTRARUNNERGIRL, STEPHANIE CASE

Zandy Mangold, MA Connects

Interview with UltraRunnerGirl, Stephanie Case

It is impossible to summarize the phenomenon that is Stephanie Case. Hollywood take note – this girl’s life is already worthy of a riveting memoir or feature documentary. We are interviewing Stephanie because she is not only an ultrarunning, stage-racing, Madathlete, but she is also a champion of human rights, a writer and an artist.

I met Stephanie while sharing a tent at RacingThePlanet’s 2010, 250km Australia race. A volcanic eruption resulted in many flight cancellations thus causing several runners to miss the race, but not Stephanie Case. She took a train from London to Paris, chartered a taxi from Paris to Madrid, rerouted her flights to Australia through the Middle East and somehow made the start – allbeit sans gaiters. Undeterred, she painstakingly crafted a pair of gaiters out of her buffs, safety pins and spare needles and thread, ultimately finishing as 2nd woman and 8th overall.

Her racing resume includes 1st and 2nd places in five 250km multi-day events, including most recently 1st place at the ICE Ultra in Swedish Lapland, which she completed on snowshoes. She has also excelled at single stage races, placing 1st at the Vermont 100 mile endurance race in 2009, 4th at the Ultra Race of Champions in 2011, and 11th female and 163rd overall at the formidable Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc in 2013.

In between racing, Stephanie works tirelessly to improve the conditions of people around the world. She has been stationed in such hotspots as Kabul, Afghanistan where she worked for women’s rights. Stephanie is currently carrying out aid work in South Sudan, where she lives in a tent in a remote location that has become home to almost 100,000 individuals displaced by recent conflict. You can follow her on Facebook or at ultrarunnergirl.com for an up to the minute report of experiences in South Sudan, in addition to her experiences as an international ultrarunner.

MA: You are currently living in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in South Sudan. Could explain how you ended up there?

SC: I wish I knew! Just kidding. The short answer is that I had been unemployed for a number of months and was desperate to get back to work again, so I took the first job offer I got. However, the longer, real answer, requires a bit more explanation. Last year my life was filled with a lot of change and sadly turmoil. In an effort to try to build a ‘normal’ life, I gave up my job and eventually moved to Hong Kong to be with my partner at the time. I had everything a ‘normal’ person would perhaps want, but something was seriously lacking. It looked great from the outside, but inside I was miserable. I missed the adventure, the passion, and the challenge in my life. Within days of relocating to Hong Kong, the relationship crashed and burned. It was a huge shock, but in hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I needed something ‘more’ and the path I was on was never going to get me there. In the months prior to coming to South Sudan, I spent a lot of time thinking about the Big Picture: what defined me as a person, where I wanted to be, and what kind of life I wanted to lead. I decided that there was no such thing as a ‘normal’ life – especially not for me. I wanted extraordinary and was going to do whatever it took to find it, even if that meant temporary hardship. In February, as I was flying out to Sweden for the ICE Ultra, I received the job offer in South Sudan. I was terrified, but I took it – and I’m so glad I did! This is just a temporary move for me, but it was a necessary one. My friends keep telling me how happy I sound, which seems strange given where I am – but I’m back to where I need to be. I am so grateful for everything that has happened to get me to this point. It’s a pretty special thing to know what you want to do in life – actually doing it is the easy part.

MA: Your FB page has some of the most amazing running updates from South Sudan. Could you elaborate on your experience running there? How do locals respond? Do you feel conspicuous or in danger?

SC: I try to go running everyday just to get a bit of a break from the chaos of work, but unfortunately it is becoming harder and harder to do, due to the rainy season. The route I used to run through the bush is now flooded so I have to run through the market, which isn’t nearly as ‘zen’. Wherever I go, it always causes a bit of a spectacle. Seeing a ‘kawadja’ (a white person) around these parts is not common, even with all of the NGOs here, and seeing a female kawadja running is even stranger. There’s no such thing as blending in when you glow in the dark! I get a few different types of reactions. Mostly the men act with surprise or amusement. Some of them try to mimic me as I run and giggle at the sight of my white legs. Many of the women frown at me in confusion until I smile and wave, and then they either laugh or join me, carrying their machetes and jerry cans along the way. The kids respond with either extreme excitement as they trip over themselves to come grab my hand, or they run off into the bush in fear. Many of the children have been taught that when they see someone running, it means there is trouble or violence behind them, so their immediate reaction is to run and hide. It is an awful thing to see and a constant reminder of the struggles that the people here have faced.

MA: I read that you started an NGO to promote social change through running? What is your strategy?

SC: Yes! I am delighted to tell you about my new NGO, Free to Run (the website will be up shortly). Free to Run’s mission is to use running, physical fitness and outdoor adventure to empower and educate females in conflict-affected communities to overcome the harmful effects of gender, religious and ethnic discrimination. Starting this NGO has been a lifelong dream of mine as it combines my love of running with my passion for women’s rights. I have seen first-hand the power of sport to effect change in oneself and in one’s community. Unfortunately, in many areas of the world, there are few opportunities to participate in sport or engage in many other aspects of public life. Women and girls are especially restricted as a result of widespread discrimination and traditional cultural beliefs about female roles. There is an overwhelming need to develop and support opportunities for females to become involved in sport in conflict-affected communities, and I’m absolutely honored that I have the chance to do something about it.

I’ve been lucky enough to secure funding for our first project thanks to the generosity of RacingThePlanet, which I’m running in Afghanistan this summer. I have to keep the details a bit vague at this point due to security concerns, but I’m incredibly excited about it. The plan is to run projects in two countries within the first year by pairing with local partners, and then build upon those relationships to expand to longer term programming in a year two. I’m so fortunate to have support in the running community, without which this wouldn’t be possible. [We already have a number of runners who are fundraising for Free to Run by competing in RacingThePlanet Ecuador!]

MA: As a result of work and travel you have had to train whenever and wherever possible, what are other unexpected places you have trained for an ultra?

SC: I’ve trained inside an armed compound in Afghanistan, mountain ranges and walnut forests in Kyrgyzstan, and even up and down stairs in a beautiful old hotel in Syria. When I was on lockdown in Juba a few weeks ago, I was able to workout for an hour simply by creating a circuit in the enclosed parking lot. You can train anywhere, even with just a few meters of space.

MA: Is it a challenge to adhere to vegetarianism while living where you are? Does this affect your training?

SC: I’m not actually a vegetarian – more of a pescatarian. I do not eat red meat and I’ve gradually phased out white meat as well, so I’m avoiding all land animals now! Here, my diet consists of rice and beans, with the occasional can of tuna if I can find it in the market. I normally live on salads, so this has been a huge change for me. It is a struggle and I have really felt the effects of the poor nutrition. My energy levels are at an all-time low. I am the only kawadja in my compound and I’m pretty sure my colleagues think I’m insane for not eating meat. Every day, one of my colleagues orders me, “Today, you eat meat!” And I have to go through the whole explanation all over again. After witnessing a goat slaughter the first month I arrived, I decided to buy a baby goat as a pet. I’m trying to make sure no one eats Majak. Never a dull moment!

MA: Have the challenges of competing in ultras prepared you for stresses of the job?

SC: Definitely. The discomfort and hardship you experience in ultras is directly transferrable to field work. I think the idea of taking things one step at a time, one mile at a time, one day at a time is also useful.

MA: How did you get into ultrarunning?

SC: The way every good plan is concocted – over too many glasses of wine! I was just looking for a life-changing, earth shattering, soul seeking type of adventure. Eventually, I stumbled across a 250 km self-supported race in Vietnam and I thought bingo. For someone who grew up as a completely awkward, non-athletic bookworm, it seemed impossible. As it turns out, my body likes running really, really long distances. So I kept doing it.

MA: Did you start with the intention to be competitive?

SC: Absolutely not! I started with the intention of trying something impossible and maybe finishing. I had three goals in my first ultra: (1) don’t get lost (which I did) (2) stay upright (which I didn’t) (3) and don’t vomit. I don’t think I vomited that race, but I’m pretty sure I did pee on myself at some stage so I can’t really call that a win. I wouldn’t say I’m competitive with others – there’s no reason to be. The whole point of ultras (for me) is to see what my limits are and try to surpass them. I’m definitely competitive with myself, but I try not to be.

MA: Upcoming races?

SC: I was signed up for the Tarawera 100 km and UTMF as I really wanted to complete a few more races in the Ultra Trail World Tour. However, with my job in South Sudan, it is impossible from a logistical point of view and a training point of view. But that’s okay for the moment. I’m happy taking a break and focusing on this crazy intense job I have for now. I’m planning on heading back to Hong Kong soon and will spend some quality time getting my legs back on the trails! Hopefully I’ll be back to racing this fall.

MA: Could you tell us three important lessons for someone attempting their first stage race?

SC: It’s not about the race. It’s about the friends you make and the experience you have. You’ll quickly forget what place you came in, but you’ll always remember how you felt crossing the line at the end… and who was there to give you a hug! You’re going to hit some low moments. Really low moments. Expect them, embrace them, and know that they will pass (because they will). You will get through them and there is a high moment just around the corner. Some people say that you should save your energy in a stage race for the ‘long day’ (if there is one). I say screw it – if you feel good, run. If you feel badly, walk. Just go with what your body tells you.

MA: You have been able to tell the story of your life, including your love life vis-a-vis running. Can we expect a book or memoir down the road?

SC: You know, when I started my blog years ago, I was totally uncomfortable with the whole concept. I thought it was a bit self-involved and I didn’t think I had anything interesting enough to say that other people would want to read. But over the years, the more I’ve opened up and the more authentic I allowed myself to be, the better responses I have received. The blog has actually kept me honest (with myself and with others). Previously, I might have tried to put on a brave face when going through a rough time. Now, I say hey, this is me! I think everyone can relate to going through a rough time, whether it is in training, in life or in love. Those that try to hide away from their struggles are the ones who end up suffering in the end. The blog has been a great way to connect with people and share experiences. I imagine a book might do the same. While I don’t have any specific plans to write one at this stage, let’s just say it has crossed my mind… I’ve had a lot of fun developing my writing career and there is more in store. Watch this space!

MA: Assuming you’re on a well-deserved break from training and work, what’s for dinner, where and champagne or white wine?

SC: Menu: Something green and crunchy would definitely be on the menu. Having not had a single vegetable for the last six weeks, that is all I can think about. Throw in some oysters, maybe some miso-glazed black cod, green papaya salad, and cold vanilla ice cream for dessert. I know these things don’t go well together, but these foods top the list things I’m missing right now! (No, I’m not pregnant). Oh yeah, and my mom’s cioppino stew. It is my regular ‘welcome home’ and ‘bon voyage’ meal, so as you can image I have it a lot! Location: not nearly as important as who I’m with, but I love eating outside. Drink of choice: Champagne, no-brainer. I may be living in a tent, but I haven’t lost certain expensive tastes (unfortunately for my bank account).

MA: NYC or Paris?

SC: Despite an amazing trip to Paris a few months ago (I was properly spoiled), I would pick NYC every time. Nothing beats the energy, diversity and magic of New York. It is a city that attracts go-getters, dreamers and believers. Anything is possible in New York. I’ve lived there four times already and I have no doubt I will be back there again. It exhausts me and fulfills me at the same time.

Original interview posted on madathlete.com on July 25, 2014. Updates included in this post on July 31, 2014.

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…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

…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).

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*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.
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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….”
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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.

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