Donations to Street Child greatly appreciated with all my love xxx https://sierraleonemarathon2016.everydayhero.com/uk/sophiesierraleone
If you’ve been keeping up with my Sierra Leone diaries you’ll have noticed that I have been withholding this post for a little while. I wanted to share every detail of my life changing trip, including the lead up to this day, so that now, when I finally share my marathon experience with you, I can attempt to share the sheer emotional weight it carries in my heart. I make no exaggerations, it was literally the best thing I have ever done!
At 4am I woke up buzzing. Alive with anticipation, excitement, nerves, and energy. Poor Hannah was a little less awake but I soon hyped her up to my level. We headed downstairs for our usual breakfast of African omelette, half a loaf of bread, and a litre of electrolytes. Considering it was four in the morning, the vibe was electric! Having become so close with the rest of the team, it was beautiful to share this pre-race routine with them, psyching each other up. Nothing creates a deeper connection between two people than a shared passion, and in this moment we were all about to elevate our passion for running to a whole new level.
Once we’d put on our race kit it all seemed very real, very fast! We smothered ourselves in SPF 50, laced up our shoes, and Hannah helped me squeeze a total of 5 energy gels into my tiny back pocket. Who knew my shorts were created by Mary Poppins?!
Race ready, we headed for the start line, which was conveniently in the Wusum football stadium right next to our hotel.
Flood lights illuminated the pitch beneath a deep night sky. Teams of locals gathered in their running kit, assessing the competition. Street Child runners huddled together taking pre-race selfies whilst feeding off each other’s energy. It was immensely surreal, and I soaked up every last second of it, wishing new friends the best of luck. After Tom, the founder of Street Child, gave a speech we were split into our distance groups. Marathoners this way! Holy crap, that’s me! It suddenly hit me again, like a tsunami of excitement… I, Sophie House, was about to run my first ever marathon… in Sierra Leone!!
Before I knew it the gun went off and we were running! Our tribe heading out into the rural villages of Makeni to take on the race of a lifetime. At 6am the moon watched over us and a breath taking mist clung to the base of the mountains. An absolute blessing, which kept us cool for the first hour of our race. Well, as cool as you can get in Sierra Leone.
My usual tactic at this point would have been to start with a strong, speedy pace but this was an entirely different game. I knew this race was going to reveal a whole new side of running to me. It was time to let go of my competitive drive and just enjoy the ride. I set off nice and slowly with my friend Natalie by my side. As we passed by crowds of enthusiastic locals, we wished them good morning and their little faces lit up. I could feel their gratitude driving my legs forward and I just couldn’t stop grinning. After around four miles, Natalie wished me to go on ahead as her swollen ankle was already playing up. That’s right! Natalie is an absolute trooper who completed the marathon with two sprained ankles!
I wished her all the best and ran ahead to join a group of runners just in front of us. It’s so important to stick together in races like this. This little team was a group of friends from Norwich who I’d met the day before in my hotel. Dave, Ruth, and Iain soon became my marathon family. Little did I know at this point that together, we would carry each other through the entire 26.2 miles.
We stayed incredibly strong for the first 10 miles, chatting away, laughing and empowering each other. Once we’d run through the villages it was time to hit the open road. Ahead of us lay an incredibly long, straight, tarmac road; a surreal sight considering the country we were exploring. This road would test us to our limits. The challenge was to reach the end and then turn back on ourselves and race back towards the village. It was awe inspiring to see some of the top athletes running towards us having already reached this distant half way point. We high-fived our friends and cheered on the local athletes. There was a sparkle of pure pride in everyone’s smiles and it kept our legs going for what felt like forever! When we finally reached the end of the road there was a water station thank god! We’d made it to 13 miles! I remember being terrified to stand still, scared of seizing up. After downing 2 litres of water and pouring double that over our heads to cool down, I was ready to set off again. But sadly Ruth and Iain were wearing thin, and they urged Dave and I to run on ahead, whilst they slowed down their pace. It felt weird leaving them behind but their insistence encouraged us to power on.
Have you ever seen anyone more in their element?!
Determined to run the entire distance, Dave and I kept our spirits high, cheering on every runner we passed. We shared our life stories, our worst fears, our passions. It was here I found out that Dave was in fact a trustee for Street Child. He told me all about how he’d turned his life around, quitting law and becoming a vicar. he had some inspirational stories about a local brothel in Norwich he’d turned into a parish community centre with the rest of his team from Norwich, and his beautiful wife Anna. I think the moral of the story here was to never settle for a job that drains your soul of passion. Seek out something rewarding and energising! A story I will keep with me forever. Thank you Dave!
Now, if we thought the long, straight, tarmac road was a challenge the first time round, it was ten times harder the second time, as we raced back towards the village. Energy gels, bananas, children singing, villagers waving; nothing seemed to distract us from how tired we were feeling. When all of a sudden, through the waves of heat in the distance, two motor cycles sped towards us. As they passed, I heard Hannah and our friend Maya cheering my name. I cannot tell you how much it lifted me! Dave’s wife, Anna, followed on the second bike and screamed our names with tears of joy. She hopped off the bike and ran towards us with sweets. The proudest woman I’d ever seen. Having restored our energy levels with Maoams and mountains of encouragement we were finally feeling alive again.
At the end of the longest road in the universe, was an absolute oasis of a water station. Street Child workers like our friend Hans Christian, and incredible medics were on hand to check us over. We’d made it to 20 miles! And the best thing about this station? Coconuts!! I felt like the luckiest girl in the world, holding a fresh coconut and downing the ice cold water from its shell. So lucky in fact that I forgot how to use my legs, as one collapsed like jelly beneath me. Don’t panic, it was just a slight wobbly moment and I laughed it off as medics washed away the blood. It’s all part of the experience and I wasn’t going to let a bit of blood stop me now! Just so ironic that I managed to hurt myself stood still.
For the final 6 miles of the marathon, Dave and I ran back through the villages. The dirt tracks and winding roads were such a welcome relief, even if it was just mentally. We passed several Red Cross vans and thanked them profusely for all their help. There literally couldn’t be a marathon without their efforts! Finally, there were people again. Children running along beside us, elderly women shaking our hands and men high-fiving us along the way. BUT, as hard as we tried, our minds got the better of us at around mile 22. For these last few miles we started to combine bursts of running with power walking. It was all mental from now on.
At our final water station we were greeted by Simon, Molly, and the talented Beej, a young filmmaker, who’s working on a film for the marathon as we speak. I cannot wait to see it! They poured ice cold water all over us and I remember a euphoria rushing over me as we set off, totally restored, for our final mile.
As we got closer to the finish line, a group of young boys raced alongside us, holding our hands as we ran. I couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down my face. This was it! As the music grew louder we could see the entrance to the football stadium. Sprint finish time! We looked at each other and grinned before running towards the arches. God I love that rush of adrenaline that hits you square in the face. As I crossed the line I burst into tears of happiness. Never have I ever felt so accomplished. Stunning, hand carved, wooden medals were placed around our necks as we took group pictures, congratulated each other came to terms with our achievement.
I would love to compare the feeling to something relatable, something witty, or clever, but I simply can’t. There is absolutely nothing like it! Nothing beats that feeling of connection through shared experience and sheer passion. My love for running has been cemented into my soul; as if it wasn’t already firmly ingrained!
The best thing I have ever done! By a mile! (or 26.2)
Big shout out to Street Child! I cannot thank you enough for keeping us safe out there. You guys are an incredible team and I cannot wait to see you all again next year!
If you’d still like to sponsor their work please visit https://sierraleonemarathon2016.everydayhero.com/uk/sophiesierraleone to make a donation!
Lots of love,