Running the distance

I have often been diagnosed with incurable stubbornness, but last year, I was almost cured by the Kigali Peace Marathon. It all began when I turned thirty and resolved to adopt a healthy lifestyle, which included getting back into the habit of running.

I have often been diagnosed with incurable stubbornness, but last year, I was almost cured by the Kigali Peace Marathon.

It all began when I turned thirty and resolved to adopt a healthy lifestyle, which included getting back into the habit of running. I needed a goal to keep myself serious, and doing 21 kilometres at the next Kigali Peace Marathon, which was nine months away at the time, seemed like a reasonable target.

 

Five months later, I was jogging a few times a week, but had yet to begin a rigorous marathon training routine. Still, I cheerfully signed up as soon as online registration opened, then proceeded to google everything about running a half-marathon.

 

Dozens of blogs, forums and YouTube tutorials later, I was quite the expert on running, but not quite the runner I needed to be. There were only two months until the marathon.

 

Was it crazy to start training this late in the game? I googled that too.

Ever loyal, the internet came through with an ambitious 6 week half-marathon training plan, “for experienced athletes who have run marathons before”. I ignored the caveat, downloaded the schedule, and got down to it.

Running through these hills is all kinds of thrills. It makes you feel lighter, more fearless. Views everywhere, clean morning air, encouragement from strangers — once I started training in earnest, I loved it. I skipped some of the recommended rest days. I did minimal stretching. These recovery measures felt like a bore compared to the thrill of motion.

I played myself. Three weeks before the marathon, I developed a debilitating backache and ended up in the office of Phophina Gashugi at CHUK who, I was told, was the best physiotherapist in town.

A kind, no-nonsense woman with expertise in sports medicine, she would soon be traveling to help with global preparations for the Rio Olympics, but promptly began treating my back with all the seriousness in the world. “Will I still be able to run the marathon?” I asked her anxiously at the end of our first consultation.

“You have to run it,” she responded without hesitation. “You’ll feel bad if you don’t meet your goal.” That was all I needed to hear. Pausing training altogether, I focused on recovery. With daily sessions of infrared therapy, stretching and massage to treat the muscle spasms that had seized my lower back, I rapidly improved.

Ten days before the marathon, I was able to start running again. I stopped monitoring speed, focusing only on ensuring that my body was strong enough to endure the distance. On the big day I woke up feeling confident and excited. Nothing could get in my way.

Except, as it turned out, the actual way. Just as I finished getting dressed, my phone buzzed with the news that all roads into my neighbourhood were blocked to clear way for the marathon route. I needed to get out of the area on foot, then find transport to Amahoro Stadium from there.

I ran down until I reached a place where motos had gathered on the other side of the blockade. Worried about missing the start of the race, I hopped onto the first one that approached and asked him to rush me to the stadium.

He set off speedily, but as we ascended the hill into Kibagabaga, his engine spluttered out. This day was fast becoming a comedy of errors. I wasn’t laughing.

I flagged down another moto, and after a long ride through back roads, he delivered me as close as possible to the stadium gates — which was not very close.

I sprinted to the start line, where I immediately turned around, willed myself to forget the obstacles so far, and started running again.

14km in, I was ready to call it a day. My back hurt. My legs hurt. I was dehydrated— most water stations were out of supplies. I had to focus on finding hidden rhythms in my music to distract myself from bodily aches.

But throughout, encouragement came from unexpected corners. Some families stood outside their houses, clapping as we ran by. When I slowed down to walk, a man in his fifties jokingly chided me for moving at the pace of old people like himself— “You’ll walk tomorrow! Run!”

On the street by Rosty, enthusiastic cheering and commentary from onlookers, some of whom seemed to be riding a party wave from the night before, brought a burst of humor to the painful last stretch.

Then suddenly, the stadium gates were in sight. Feeling a renewed burst of energy, I broke out of my grumpy walk and ran to the end. Crossing the finish line felt like sunshine after rain.

I kept moving, in search of water, and found a table where officials stood with a container of water and cups. One started pouring for me, then noticed my label, paused, and put the cup down, stating that water was reserved for full marathon runners.

No time like victory time for a lesson in humility. “They did 42 kilometres,” he explained with a straight face. Not even a half-cup for the blood, sweat and tears that had gone into my ka 21k? In that moment, the comedy of the entire experience caught up with me. I dissolved into laughter.

And just like that, it was over. After another meandering ride, I finally got back home, where I drank a litre of water, poured a glass of wine, took a selfie then stretched out on the grass, feeling like the world’s greatest champion.

I am not running the marathon this year (slated for May 21), but I’ll be cheering for the athletes and reflecting on what this race reminded me about life. Don’t delay working towards your goals. Rest is as important as labour.

And be stubborn about you’ve set your heart on, especially when it’s difficult — the pain fades, but you never forget the joy of the finish line.

Ms Akugizibwe is a writer based in Kigali

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