I’ve written before (here) about the perils of training for an Ironman in Liberia at the height of the summer rainy season. So Monrovia, the capital city, might not be the first place you think of for a destination marathon during your well-deserved August holidays. But as I find myself at the start line of the second Liberian marathon – at 5am in complete darkness, driving rain and flanked on either side by blue-helmeted peacekeepers – I have a giant grin on my face.
Held in 2011, the first marathon was a small but important civic event in Liberia, a country that suffered a brutal 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. It served as an important way to bring people together behind a collective goal, and a way to mark the progress that has been made in the country.
This year’s race was bigger and was timed with the celebrations for a decade of peace since the end of the conflict. No better reason to run a marathon than that, I thought to myself. Around 150 other eager runners (dressed in everything from knee-length denim shorts to sockless leather brogues) seemingly thought the same thing.
PORTABLE LOOS AND POTHOLES
As always in Liberia, the imperative to get things done in difficult circumstances was mixed with the bizarre and always entertaining. I entered the portable loo before the race to find several Liberian ladies brushing their teeth. All racers were then instructed to carry out synchronised star-jumps for 5mins as a warm up before the start. And I spoke to a racer who admitted that he’d only started training with a jog the day before but fully expected “to bring home the money.”
The route sent us out around Monrovia, along roads where the sight of foreigners looking wet was generally met by curious spectators with endearing fervour (“Thank you-o! Thank you-o! You can do it! You can do it!”). We turned at the port and headed into the city, helped at every mile by incredibly supportive Liberian troops handing out water and providing first aid. There were potholes and motorbikes to dodge here and there, of course, but nothing your average runner on Britain’s country roads couldn’t handle.
On the home straight we joined the 2,000 or so 10km athletes and headed towards the national stadium. The rain had stopped, the sun came out and we’d been promised cheese sandwiches at the finish, which was all the incentive I needed to keep it together for the last few miles. It was a truly unique experience to cross the line and celebrate with hundreds of happy Liberian finishers.
Liberia still faces a huge number of challenges as it gets back on its feet but collective enthusiasm, infectious determination and big smiles are not on that list. Neither is marathon organisation as it turns out; it was a fantastic race. I wonder what it would take to organise the first-ever Liberian triathlon…
Images: Graham Prentice