Despite living in Africa, there are some things a person must do to feel “normal.” For me, it’s running. I run between three to five miles each morning along a winding, dusty road past mud huts and men pushing bicycles up hills loaded with old fashioned looking milk canisters and large bunches of bananas. When the newspaper announced the entry deadline for the Dec. 9, 2007 MTN Kampala Marathon, I decided to register again. I had also run the marathon in 2006. Running for the fun of it isn’t enough for me. I need a carrot dangling out in front of me to chase after. That means training for a marathon.
The weeks leading up to the marathon, the newspapers boasted "6000 to Run Marathon." In reality only a couple hundred ran the full marathon. The rest ran the 10k and half marathon. Two other Peace Corps Volunteers were also running the marathon. Chad and I had decided to run it together. Chad had recently purchased some (I can only describe them as) 80s style spandex to run the marathon in. As if he wouldn’t stand out enough just being a white guy.
The few hundred of us anxiously approached the start line. Runners were champing at the bit to get going. The starter had to call them back three times before officially starting the race. I don’t exactly understand how a half second jump start is going to help in a 26.2 mile race. As I looked around I saw a number of baffling sights. The man in front of me had on a full sized, green book bag. It didn’t seem heavy, maybe holding a jacket. A few runners were wearing sweat pants though the temperature was mild, it would get very hot very quickly. I also saw a wide variety of shoes: high tops, casual dress shoes, boots – one guy had on one shoe and one sandal made from used tires.
The race began and people surged ahead. Chad and I went slow and steady. In the first mile I counted seven people walking. "Only 25 miles to go" I thought to myself as I felt pity for them. Easily the most shocking moment of the entire run, and possibly the most shocking moment of my entire time in Uganda, came at the two mile point. A man from the crowd wearing casual pants, a button up dress shirt and loosely tied boots jumped into the race a few feet in front of me. "He’s not going to get very far dressed like that," I said to Chad. Shortly there after, a guard wearing a navy blue sweater and carrying a silver shotgun went after him. When the man refused to stop running the guard began beating him, hard, in the head and legs with the gun! He hit him five times with a loaded shot gun and then managed to punch the guy in the head with his fist. Still, the bandit runner continued. For a time the guard was running behind him, yelling something to him in Luganda while pointing the shotgun at his back. The people around me yelled "No" and even covered their ears. I was nearly certain the man was to be shot. I can’t imagine what this guy was thinking or what the guard was trying to prove exactly, but eventually we were able to convince the guard to back off and let him go. I was later told by my supervisor that there could have been state officials running the marathon and the man could have been looking to harm someone, possibly even Chad and I, though it seemed unlikely at the time.
A few miles later we turned off the main roads and into the real Kampala. Back roads, little shops and stores lined the streets. Garbage everywhere. Kids chanting "How are you Muzungu. (white person)." Thick clouds of black exhaust from passing trucks. Pot holes large enough for me to lie down and disappear in. The elite half marathon group, who started after us, blew past us with mud splattered on their backs, kicked up from their fast pace.
Hearing people cheering was unusual. The spectating Ugandans didn’t exactly cheer. They generally yelled something at us and then laughed. I heard someone yell "Sadam" and someone else yell "Bin Ladin." I even heard "Mexico." Groups of 30 or so were especially intimidating because you never knew what they were going to yell or do. I fully expected someone to reach out and touch me as I went by, but it never happened. There was plenty of water along the course. Bottles of it. I began carrying the water bottle with me and dousing kids and the most annoying spectators. Fortunately they seemed to think that was funny. Around the six mile point, down a long hill, I began hearing some loud cheering from a small, motley crew of white people. Unusual, I thought, to hear cheering. My friend Jacob and two other PCVs had a big sign saying "Only 25 miles to go" with our names on it. Jacob’s idea of humor. They were emphatically yelling for us and it was a nice boost of adrenaline.
The miles flew by. With my pace, I thought I would finish in 3:30. The course was only sparsely marked with mile markers so when 3:25 came I started looking for the finish. "Only five more minutes. Keep going." I kept telling myself. Five minutes went by. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. I thought I saw the finish line at one point and let out an exhaustive "Thank You" only to discover I was mistaken. Finally I came to a marking: 41km (the marathon is 42.2km). They tell you when there is 1 km to go?! I’m not sure if that’s beneficial or torturous. As I came around the last corner there was a huge crowd cheering. Not Ugandans. It was about 12 PCVs who had come to see the race, but it felt like 100 of them. They cheered for everyone as they passed, but especially for us! I think I sprinted all the way to the finish line. They were so supportive. The Ugandan runners, as they passed, didn’t quite know what to think. They weren’t used to hearing people cheer them on and had to double check that they were really cheering for them. Some smiled, some waved, but all picked up their pace a little bit as they crossed the finish line.
Anyone who finishes a marathon is a winner. It’s like climbing a huge mountain. It’s a personal accomplishment to look back and say, "I did that" and nobody can take that from you. Running a marathon in Africa was like climbing a mountain and reading Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.
Rush County native Brian Dunn is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa.