Sunday, February 10, 2013

February 10 - Confessions of a Professional Athlete Accused of Doping and Suspected to be a Man


“People say that you got a shot to make you strong and that’s why you can run.”  I have an 11-year old friend, Alia, who tells me the rumors about me in town.  This is by far my favorite one.  Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I’d be good enough at a sport to be accused of using performance-enhancing drugs.  My brother Nathan tells me that I’m just going through the rumors that all elite athletes face, and could get in touch with Lance Armstrong to tell him I know how he feels.

As I’ve mentioned in a few of my work posts, I’m training for the Parakou marathon.  I really didn’t expect to run while in the Peace Corps, although I did buy a pair of trail runners from REI before leaving (my only closed toed shoes) and packed 6 pairs of socks just in case.  I’m a very off-and-on runner in the states.  I got inspired to do a half marathon with a friend after watching the Boston Marathon for the first time, but after the half was done I literally didn’t run for about a year.  I figured I’d have enough to deal with in Peace Corps without adding running in.  Besides, I can’t stand running in the heat, and I imagined that everyone would stare at me. 

But when I visited Peonga on post visit, I realized several things.  1. It is actually pleasantly cool in the mornings, not hot at all.  2. Peonga is surrounded by 4 beautiful dirt roads through trees and fields with no traffic, perfect for exploring. 3. Everyone stares me no matter what I’m doing.  Add to the equation Cara, a fellow volunteer who has run several marathons and is convinced that it’s easy and wonderful and anyone can and should do it.  She talked several first-timers like me into training for Parakou.  After all, after my half marathon I thought I’d like to try a full marathon sometime – but only when I moved to a new place and had a lot of free time and could easily rearrange my life to accommodate training.  Well, I’ll never be in as new of a place with as much free time and as flexible of a schedule as now. 

 My first run was just 15 or 20 minutes long, right after I moved to village.  That day the victory was just getting out of the house and doing it – and I was helped by a beautiful sunrise that I saw out my window that was begging to be explored. Since then, I’ve been doing 3-4 runs a week, one getting progressively longer each week.  There are many more structured ways to train for a marathon, but this seems to be working for me.  There have been some really nice things about running in the mornings.  Peonga is very small, so after 5-10 minutes at the most I’m outside of the village running through the fields.  I’ve gotten to see the seasons change, watching different plants start flowering, different crops being harvested, and all the foliage dry up and get red and dusty as the dry season has progressed.  On long runs, I leave when it’s still dark and get to experience the day getting slowly light.  On one favorite run, I was running directly towards the full moon, watching it for more than an hour as the day dawned and it gradually faded into the sky.  I’ve gotten to see lots of different birds, and almost everyone I pass- whether on a motorcycle, in a truck headed to a market, or on foot leading a cow, has waved and smiled and cheered me on. 

I’m waxing poetic, and that might be because tomorrow is long run day and I’m trying to convince myself that running for 3 hours will be wonderful.   


7 days to marathon.  Not only have I been accused of doping, but I am also now, in a sense, a professional athlete – last week I made about $6 for running.

I’d gone to Nikki, a nearby large town, for a big festival called Gaani.  I’d been told there would be a race the morning of the festival, and I should go to the mayor’s office at 6 am to register.  The person who told me was going based on his experience in past years, and a volunteer who I know who works at the mayor’s office had heard nothing about a race.  Still, I got dressed in my running clothes and tiptoed over the many sleeping volunteers on the floor where I was staying.  It was still dark at 6 am and I wasn’t exactly sure where they mayor’s office was, so I asked directions several times.  The words for “mayor’s office” and “husband” are very similar in French, and I got a few confused looks – I wonder if I mixed it up a few times.  Either way, I did end up finding the mayor’s office, and a race.  True to Benin form, it started about 2 hours later than scheduled.  The race was a 6k.  Up until the last moment, I was the only woman registered.  In America, you usually find a mixed bag of people registered for races like this- a few serious athletes, several fit mothers with running strollers, many people of all ages who are just out for the personal victory of running 5 or 6 k.  Not so in Benin. All my fellow runners looked like well-trained soccer players in their mid-20s, complete with spiffy running outfits.  I made quite the contrast, the only woman, in my dusty running shoes, loose capris and stained Principia College t-shirt.  At the last moment, I was joined by two high school girls, one of which ran barefoot.  When the time came to start the race, we were all driven outside of town in a police car and an ambulance.  We were given a brief pep talk that consisted of “do everything you can to avoid accidents,” and were off.  Us three girls were by far the last in the race, and I came in dead last, behind even the girl with no shoes.  But as the 3rd place woman, I still won 3,000 francs, a Gaani festival polo shirt, a bottle of coke, and a 2013 wall calendar from MTN, a cell phone company.  Not bad!  My time was 28 minutes 28 seconds.  The winner came in around 16 minutes, so I don’t feel so bad for being last.  My next race will be much, much longer.   


Marathon was yesterday.  Wow, what an amazing experience – I can’t really figure out how to bottle it up into words.  I did it!  The race started at 6 am, when it was still dark.  Most runners met up in Parakou and were bussed to the starting line in Tchatchou, about 13 miles away.  But a fellow volunteer who is also an avid marathon runner happened to be stationed in Tchatchou, so several of us spent the night at her house right by the start.  The first half of the race was along the highway leading into Parakou, and the second half wove around the city, finishing at the catholic church sponsoring the race. 

On the official marathon poster, it is billed as “Un Marathon Atypique au Benin a Parakou” –“An Atypical Marathon in Benin in Parakou.”  The slogan was accurate.  Here are some of the ways this was truly an atypical marathon:

·         There were only about 120 runners. 

·         For the first half of the marathon, we ran past villages of mud huts.  Twice along the course, we were cheered on by groups that were drumming and dancing. 

·         The roads were not closed.  The first half of the marathon was on one of Benin’s largest north-south highways, so we were running on the shoulder being passed by big trucks.  The second half wove through town, so we had to watch for motorcycles and other traffic.  (There were police directing traffic at each major turn, so we did have help).

·         At each water station, we were given bottles of water – and immediately were chased by children calling “donne moi le bidon” – “give me the bottle.”  I felt like asking them, “don’t you know that I sort of need this water right now?” They were actually after the empty bottles, which can be reused, not the water – so I usually handed my bottle off to a kid when I was finished with it.

·         For 3 of the last 5 kilometers, a young Beninese woman ran alongside me.  This was her third marathon.  She was only wearing knee-high socks, no shoes.  Several of the male runners who passed me were wearing strapped, close-toed women’s sandals.    

·         After finishing, when I went to the booth to get my time, I noticed that I’d been written down as the 6th place finisher on the women’s list, but my name was crossed out.  When I asked why, they said “oh, we moved you to this list.”  And they took out the men’s list, where I was 35th.  I clarified that I am indeed a woman, and they assured me they would correct their records.  Clearly, they had recorded me as a woman, then for some reason someone said “wait, no, that can’t be right, she’s a man.”  I’m sure I registered as female on my form, and I don’t think I was looking particularly manly…maybe it was my superhuman strength and speed…Only, only in Benin. 

Seven volunteers ran the full marathon, and for four of us it was the first time.  The course limit was 5 hours, and we all finished on time!  Leading up to the marathon I seriously doubted I could do it.  My longest run, about 20 miles to another volunteer’s post, had been very, very challenging.  But during the dry season (now) the roads around me are very sandy, so it was sort of like training for a marathon on the beach.  Very scenic, but asphalt is a bit faster to run on.  And me and two other volunteers ended up being about the same pace, so we ran all but the last 10 k together.  Running with us was a young Beninese man who runs the marathon every year.  He really took us under his wing (I’m sure he could run faster), directing traffic, making sure we didn’t get lost (a real possibility on a course with so few runners), and staying back to run with whichever of us was falling behind.  As we got to the half marathon mark, I realized we were going to make it.  We were making good enough time that all we had to do was keep going, even if we slowed down we would make it under 5 hours.  From that point on, although it got physically more difficult with each kilometer, I felt progressively mentally more confident and better about myself – so the two sort of canceled each other out.  Every few kilometers we’d see the distance remaining painted on the road, and as the numbers got smaller we’d say to each other “23 k, what a small number!”  “16 k, that’s nothing!”  I ran the last 10 k by myself, a bit ahead of my two friends. My time: 4 hours, 37 minutes, 56 seconds.  Way, way better than I thought I could do.  I was sore and tired of course, but nothing hurt in particular – just general sore.  And I felt – still feel – so amazing.   
Our Beninese friend runs with Heidi, Kelly, and me

This marathon was sponsored by the Catholic Church, and the motto on my medal reads ‘”Tout par Amour, Rien par Force.”  “Everything by love, nothing by force.”  A very clear parallel to the text from the recent Christian Science Bible Lesson I was studying on Love: “With Love, all things are possible.”  On my last long run, the one that was so difficult, I dealt with a lot of hip pain.  I was limping half of it, and for the whole day afterwards.  I was afraid of that happening for the marathon, but it didn’t happen at all.  And I didn’t have the experience of “hitting the wall” that many marathon runners talk about either.  Really, the whole experience was so characterized by love.  Thanks those of you who were praying with me in the days leading up to the race, helping me see this experience as a spiritual one, an opportunity for me to learn more about my abilities as God’s child. 

My friend Cara talked a lot about marathon running as a metaphor for life.  And really, it is.  Life isn’t like a short race that’s a burst of speed and then you’re done.  In a marathon, your body hurts and complains but you just don’t listen, you continue running in the way you know you have to.  Life, perhaps especially Peace Corps, is a lot like that.  All kinds of mental complaints demand your attention and try to throw you off track, but you need to just keep moving forward, living your life in the way you’ve chosen to. 

It’s a struggle to sum all this up and this blog post is getting quite long – but I’m sure at least those of you who have done this will know what I’m trying to say.  Any other marathon runners have thoughts to share?  Even today, the day after, I’m pretty sure I want to do this again.  Maybe not next year, maybe not right away, but sometime.  I’d like to try an American marathon, maybe one with large crowds of runners and no need to dodge traffic…        
At the Finish

1 comment:

  1. Wow. You inspire me so much Bethany! I really want to start running again! Congrats on a race well-run and I'm glad you found your "husband!" :)