Last month was a pretty exciting one for me. I love to travel, and I enjoy exercise, but in May 2016 I decided to combine the two to form one ginormous challenge: traveling to Sierra Leone, to run a marathon, organised by the charity Street Child, in the town of Makeni.
I figured the best way to tell this story is via pictures – so this post will take the form of a photo diary.
Our trip was seamlessly organised by Street Child charity (although transport and timings did tend to happen on “Sierra Leone time”!). Prior to the marathon, we had three days of project visits, traveling to urban and rural areas of Sierra Leone to see exactly where the money we raised would be going. Although harrowing to see such poverty and struggles, particularly in the aftermath of Ebola, it was also so positive to see what a difference Street Child are making in Sierra Leone.
There are no short-term cash injections here – only empowering, sustainable projects. Street Child offers a Family Business Scheme, giving parents of street children a small loan so that they can earn money to keep their children in school. We visited some of these family businesses in a small town called Bumbuna.
“Business” is perhaps an overstatement by Western standards, but since it costs just £20 to send a child to school for a whole year (including the cost of materials and uniform), these small market stalls, selling everything from salted fish to chilis, really do change lives.
This year, Street Child are particularly focused on girls’ education. Girls in Sierra Leone don’t really get a fair start in life, and are not given the opportunity to stay in school, so the #GirlsSpeakOut campaign is looking to change that. You can read more about the campaign here.
We also visited schools that Street Child have built. Meeting the pupils was more uplifting than I could ever have imagined – their energy was infectious, their welcome songs were heartwarming, and their excitement at meeting us oporto (white people) was so joyful.
The Sierra Leonean scenery is like nothing I’d ever imagined too – such lush greenery, stretching for miles, with striking rocky outcrops dotting the horizon, and red dirt tracks winding through jungle.
We were transported about in mini buses and 4x4s – even taking a hand-pulled chain ferry across a river!
And before we knew it, the marathon was upon us.
With a single shake out run under our belts to test out how we’d fare in the heat and humidity, we set our alarms for 4am, to ensure plenty of time for fueling up and stretching before the 6am start.
Race day dawned and hundreds of locals and tourists congregated at the sports stadium, awaiting the official opening of the race by a Sierra Leonean official. And with surprising punctuality, 6am struck and we were off.
I thought I was familiar with the landscape from driving through it – but running through it was something else. We wound along pot-holed tracks heading out of Makeni…
Along highways, dodging escaped goats and chickens, watching motorcycles whizz past…
We were spurred on by the cheers of local villagers, cries of oporto and thank you, and so many little hands reaching out for high fives.
It was so energizing to be running a race where everyone is gunning for the same cause.
This wasn’t about us, the runners.
No one cared for a PB, or for pushing themselves so hard they couldn’t enjoy the experience.
We were all running for the children and families who we’d met over the past few days – the very people whose villages we were running through and waving to.
The first 20 miles flew by, but right at the point where my legs grew heavy and my energy levels dipped, the temperature started to get up… I can only apologise to the locals I passed during the last 6 miles, as I barely had the energy to smile, let alone wave and high five!!
Seeing the stadium that contained the finish line gave me another boost, and somehow – despite 26.2 miles run, 80% humidity, and 35°C – I managed a fairly sprinty finish!
My finisher’s medal was handmade and painted by locals in Makeni, and as a result it means more to me than any other medal I’ve ever won!
We refueled and partied at the Clubhouse that evening, a bar/restaurant owned by Street Child (all profits are plowed back into the charity – nice to know that buying a round of drinks can send a child to school!).
Our last day was spent at the beach – actual paradise, with the warmest ocean, zero tourists besides us runners, and a cool breeze.
These guys were selling fresh coconuts and oysters by the ocean!
We had the most stunning sunset as we left for the airport…
There’s also a video of the whole trip, brilliantly shot by Beej Harris:
If you like what you see, registration for the Sierra Leone Marathon 2017 has opened already, with prices frozen at 2016 rates if you book soon! Details here.
I chose SLM as my first ever marathon, and I couldn’t have made a better choice – the scenery, the route, the cheering locals, the atmosphere – it was all perfect. Mind-blowing, goosebump-inducing and memory-making. That is not to say it’s a “beginner marathon” in any way – a few experienced runner friends of mine flew out for the race, and it blew their minds too (British endurance runner Sorrell Walsh took 3rd place in the race – read her report on the trip here).
Photos by the super talented Chris Parkes.
If you would like to make a donation to Street Child, please do so via my fundraising page or via the Street Child website.