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.
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  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.
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  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).

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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