Running. Some people call it an obsession. I call it… an enjoyable pastime for myself. Over the past years, I have enjoyed running, but on a small-scale basis. I run a couple miles, then decide I have adequately put in my time and can go back home and enjoy a big plate of pasta. But then I found myself running a 10K. In Uganda.
Let me tell you how this whole event transpired. I went to work one Monday afternoon, two weeks ago. When I walk in the door of the main office, after spending the morning playing with 150 screaming 3-6 year olds, I’m greeted by the staff, per usual. After about a minute, though, one looks up and says, “OH! Anna! Two weeks on Sunday, what are you doing?” I thought a minute and replied that I didn’t think I was doing anything, thinking that he was going to say we were going to do a food delivery or something of the like. Instead he replied, “Good! We have signed you up for the Source of the Nile Marathon.”
“Um… Excuse me?”
“Well, it’s only a 10K.”
“Oh, ok… WAIT, WHAT!?”
“It’s for a good cause?” (They are using the funds to build a maternity ward at the local clinic, which serves the most marginalized people of the area).
So, this is how I found myself, this Sunday morning, waking up before even the rooster outside my window, before the sun, and getting ready to run a 10K. Now, the running culture in Uganda is one unlike that of America. When I went running at home, I’d see fellow runners, some dressed in their full-on jogging gear, others, women pushing their babies in strollers, running groups, solo runners, any day of the year, any time of the day. We would nod at each other, maybe smile (I live in a friendly, hipster city, after all), and continue on our merry ways.
First of all, when I even walk anywhere in Uganda, being a white person, I’m kind of a celebrity (no big deal). Children scream “Mzungu!” (meaning white person, or traveler) and nearly fall over themselves trying to get a better view of the person who is different than them. Now, when I’m running, this is a WHOLE other thing. I’ve come to the conclusion that when people run in Uganda, they are most likely running from something, or something along those lines. People are perpetually late, so running to a meeting is way too much effort, particularly when the other person is likely to be just as late, if not later than you. People have to walk miles to get to school or some people even to fetch water, so why would they spend their free time also on the road? But more than just that, running is something of a Western thing. When people run here, they get various, but always somewhat puzzled responses. I have been stopped and asked point blank, “What are you DOING?” and when I responded that I was running, the only response was, “Why?” Children have run after/alongside of me. Concerned adults have shouted out, “What are you running from?” Friends have
had motorcycle (the common taxi) drivers stop and say, “Just jump on! I’ll take you!” So, running is not really a “thing” in Uganda.
So Sunday morning, I arrived, a little nervous due to the lack of my training, at the start line with a few minutes to spare, which turned into a few more when “technical problems” caused delay. Then, when the gun finally fired for us to begin, the first thing I heard was one person turning to his running partner and saying, “I haven’t really ever run before.” This sort of attitude was common for most of the other people running the race too, aside from a few serious Ugandans, and the international contestants, such as the other white people and the Kenyans, who (and, seriously, I’m not trying to continue stereotypes, it’s just true, there are some Kenyans who just are really good at running) travel long distances to run in these races all around Africa.
Within five minutes, people around me started to filter off, walking and slowing down, saying things in their good humor of, “You just wait, I’ll beat you when walking.” Within the first half hour, I
saw multiple people speeding away on these motorcycle taxis (the runners were pretty hard to miss, as we were all given bright green shirts). Also, they don’t block off the roads for the runners, so we were often running alongside huge trucks. Policemen armed with AK-47s stopped the cross traffic, so that was nice.
But overall, despite people’s excitement only to “participate” instead of “compete,” saying that they would start walking almost immediately, I was really impressed by people’s endurance and commitment. Throughout the course of the race, I ran past (or was passed by) people dressed in anything they could find, from men wearing boxer shorts to women wearing a full-on traditional dress of the gomesse, people wearing shoes of any and every kind, from sneakers with no laces to Velcro shoes, from dress shoes to flip flops. Some were even barefoot. I saw high school-aged couples (who are not allowed to date by school rules) running while holding hands. There was a group of five Muslim men who were chanting prayers the entire race. Meanwhile, we even got to run along the Nile River for a while. People came out of their houses in hordes to watch the race and cheer on strangers (the calls of MZUNGU! were less, maybe because I have that lucky skin complexion that turns bright red as soon as I begin doing any physical exercise, and they had actually never seen anyone of my color). Schools let their students in boarding come out and cheer. I ran next to strangers as we encouraged each other forward.
No matter what, I can definitely say people in Uganda have heart and determination. With all this inspiration, did I finish the race and run farther than I ever have before in my life? You betcha.
So, should you ever find yourself in Uganda in late May, I would say, go ahead and run the Source of the Nile Marathon. You’ll have a great time, even if running is not your thing.
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