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.
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….”
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.



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….

“Is this drinkable?” -Running in Kyrgyzstan
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.


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.


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


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.


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.

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 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.


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!


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)!




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.”


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!