Sierra Leone Marathon

Running one of the world’s toughest races: Sierra Leone Marathon

‘Whilst struggling with the final mile, a local girl from the street decided to run with me to the finish line, and I’ll never forget that moment when the emotions suddenly kicked in; a mixture of exhaustion, relief and pure happiness. I was so overwhelmed with emotions that I couldn’t talk or cry when I crossed the finish line. I just sat down, took my shoes off and said to myself, I can’t believe I just did that.’ 

Earlier this year, while researching about an upcoming trip to West Africa, Louise, our Commercial Product Manager, stumbled upon the Street Child Marathon in Sierra Leone and knew it was something she wanted to do; see the beautiful country, challenge herself and raise money for an incredible charity. So off she headed to Sierra Leone to take on her first ever marathon, powering through the 32 degree heat and 90% humidity levels. We caught up with her post-race to find out how she handled the heat, her emotions and why Street Child charity should be supported. You can read Louise’s pre-marathon post here to get a deeper understanding of the motivation behind her decision to run and donate to the amazing work Street Child do

Louise Sierra Leone marathon

26 miles later

Sierra Leone marathon children

© Chris Parkes

First of all, a massive well done for completing your first ever marathon, what an achievement. Can you tell me about how you felt arriving in Sierra Leone ahead of this extraordinary event?

The heat and humidity hit me as soon as I got off the plane and my immediate thought was, how the hell am I going to run a marathon in this? I spent a couple of days visiting various rural and urban Street Child projects, meeting local communities, learning about life in Sierra Leone and seeing firsthand where the £1,694 I had raised would end up. We then watched a football match played by the local amputee football team which was an incredible experience.

The night before the race we had a ‘you could potentially die’ briefing. I’m not exaggerating here, I remember the words ‘this is one of the toughest things you will ever do in life. The risk of dehydration, over-hydrating and heatstroke is life threatening. Please, please take care of yourself out there.’ And on that note, everyone took their last sip of beer and headed to their hotels for a good night’s sleep.

Sierra Leone football game

That’s one way of giving a motivational talk I suppose. So, how did you find running in the heat and humidity?

Having your alarm go off at 4am doesn’t quite put you in good stead for running one of the world’s toughest races, and sleep deprivation only adds to the pre-race nerves. 

A few seconds into the run and I was already drenched with sweat. Nothing can quite prepare you for running in this level of heat and humidity, and it kind of throws you. I was no longer thinking about a finishing time.  It’s an undulating route with a lot of vibrant red dirt tracks and very uneven terrain, crossing along train tracks and bridges as you run through the remote villages and lush jungle scenery. The best moment had to be when I was looping back into Makeni. Suddenly a whole school class ran towards me with huge smiles, and before you know it I had six kids hanging onto each arm whilst I was approaching mile 24. Then into the stadium for the finish line, where the sound of drums, cheering and a cold Star beer awaits. You’re finished before the midday heat, so in theory this is probably one of the most productive mornings you’ll ever have in life. 

 

‘Often I’d hear a ‘thank you!’ as the villagers know you’re running to raise money for Street Child. Occasionally a local kid would join me for a while. 10 year-old Mohammed ran with me for 20 minutes to find out where I was from and how I was feeling, only to realise that he then had to run all the way back to his village.’

That must have been an amazing feeling crossing the finish line while everyone cheered you on and the drums played. Was there a particular moment that you struggled with?

The hardest moment was mile 20. No people, no distractions, blazing hot sunshine, zero energy and yet another hill ahead of me. This was a dark moment where I felt I couldn’t go on. It was soul destroying. I just wanted to give up running, but I also wanted to cross that finish line. I was having a battle in my head and I didn’t know what to do, do I walk the rest? I managed to dig deep for that positive mindset; looked around at the gorgeous scenery and thought about the unique moment I’m experiencing right now. So I kept on running.

Sierra Leone Marathon running over the train track

© Chris Parkes

It certainly is a unique experience, and one you’ll remember for the rest of your life I’m sure. Has it left a lasting impression on you?

It’s a run I’ll never forget. You realise that this marathon is life changing. Not just for yourself but for local communities. The fellow runners I met along the way also left a lasting impression; people who have quit their office job to set up charities and social enterprises, people running in memory of a loved one and those running because they were here during Ebola, now treating the communities they are raising funds for.

There’s nothing quite like challenging yourself and finding out what you’re really capable of. It ignites something; you realise that you really are capable of anything and stronger than you think, both mentally and physically. 

Wow, it must have been so inspirational meeting people from all walks of life. What did you get up to post-run?

Must runners finish their race with a night on the beach and then return home after but I decided to stay in-country for longer, to fully recover and relax on the beach for a few nights. Fresh seafood, coconuts, cold beer and sunsets, why the hell not? I finished the trip off with a visit to the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, where I stayed in a treehouse and sipped rum in a hammock to the sound of the chimps. It was the perfect end to Sierra Leone.

‘It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but such an amazing way to see the country. Sierra Leone is officially one of the most stunning and friendliest countries I’ve been to.’

It’s great that you got to stay a little longer and see other parts of Sierra Leone. And finally, post-marathon do you have any future plans for your running career?

I’ve really discovered my love for trail running, using it as a means to explore the world and have already signed up for an Ultra Trail Run along the South Downs Way in October. Adventures like the Sierra Leone marathon (don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be that epic) are great ways of exploring places you wouldn’t think of venturing out to, meeting inspiring people and feeling a great sense of achievement. I‘d really urge anyone thinking about an adventure, big or small, to just say yes, get out there and do it. 

Who knows, this might be the start of my Ultra Marathon career? (Kidding). 

Moved by Louise's marathon?

There’s still time to give to Street Child and help provide children with an education through the building of schools and training of teachers.

LET’S MAKE A DIFFERENCE