by Sophie Tholstrup
While you guys were registering blistering times and smashing PRs in Central Park this weekend, NBR's lesser known Just East chapter was moving at a significantly slower pace in temperatures hot enough to melt metal at the Mogadishu Marathon.
The first marathon to be held in the country since the outbreak of civil war in 1991, this was the creation of a couple of young British military guys stationed here, who run for London's Midnight Runners back home. They wanted to celebrate Somali running talent and try to break the narrative of drought, IED attacks and conflict with a more hopeful story. The marathon is also helping to raise much-needed funds for the drought response - more on that below!
The race is named after Samia Yusuf Omar – a Somali Olympic runner who competed in Beijing and dreamed of doing the same in London in 2012. Tragically that was a dream she never got to fulfill. She drowned in 2011 making the hazardous crossing to Europe as a refugee.
More than 200 runners from over 30 countries competed over a 5 mile, 15 mile and 26 mile course inside the protected international area surrounding Mogadishu airport. Diplomats, peacekeepers and even Olympians braved the extreme conditions, scrambling over sand dunes, navigating barbed wire fences and fortified compounds, one particularly important military colleague even running with his own armed close protection team.
32 Somali runners - including members of the Olympic team - competed, and proved that even when the rest of us are complaining that our faces are melting, SERIOUS speed is possible. Particular props to the Somali women, who smoked the competition in the 5 mile race wearing long yellow polyester trousers and modified headscarves.
I probably shouldn't mention this, since there were only about 6 women running and I covered several miles at more of a death-shuffle than a recognizable running pace, but since this is likely the only time in my life I will ever get to say this.... first female half marathon finisher in the house!
This race was the textbook definition of type two fun. It was unbelievably hot. The friendly water table volunteers had, I later discovered, been briefed to ask borderline-looking runners questions to check whether they were delirious. Military medical crews kept a beady eye out from the back of ambulances for runners whose brains had started cooking. Several runners were told to stop, but I think each and every one of them disobeyed orders and trudged to the finish. At one point I spotted a man with a hose spraying filthy graywater onto the ground and dived underneath it for a moment's relief. But it was WONDERFUL! I ran with Ugandan peacekeepers, Italian diplomats and Ecuadorian aid workers, high-fived Olympic hopefuls and race walkers in full makeup. An Indian soldier critiqued my running form, and I fangirled deliriously at young Somali women in head-to-toe yellow polyester running faster over 5 miles than I could manage over 100m.
I got asked to deploy to Somalia to go and help out with the drought response while - and I say this with shame - skiing in the Alps. I jumped on a plane with a suitcase full of ski gear, had a four-day crash course in avoiding/ surviving kidnap, how to stop blood loss if someone's leg gets blown off and what to do if you find yourself being horrible to your colleagues (drink more water), and then turned up for work in the UN's Drought Operations Centre. The operations centre is full of aid workers on laptops, scrabbling for data on who needs what where, what's being delivered and where the gaps are, trying to ensure aid get to those who need it most as quickly as possible. I sit next to the water guy, behind the protection lady and am constantly bothering the food people. It's a strange deployment, in that we sit in an air conditioned shipping container in a walled compound protected by peacekeepers, and we feel a long way from the people we're here to help. Running a race with elite Somalia athletes doesn't change that, of course, but coming together around a love of running was a really powerful experience in lots of ways.
Somalia - already reeling from years of conflict - is in the grips of a devastating drought, with a real risk that the country will slip into famine in 2017. More than half the population - 6.2 million people - are in need of assistance, as failing rains have driven food shortages across the country. The drought has caused massive livestock death, and forced a quarter of a million people to leave their homes and walk for days into urban centres in search of food and water. Nearly one million children are at risk of deadly malnutrition, and cholera has swept across the country, infecting 12,000 people since the start of the year. In 2011, famine killed 260,000 people across the country, and aid organisations and the newly-installed government are working frantically to avoid a repeat of history.
I know there are a million calls on your goodwill and hard-earned cash, but this is a real case where every dollar makes a difference. It costs around $90 to feed a family of seven for a month, and around $100 to provide lifesaving treatment to a seriously malnourished infant. All money raised will go directly to the organisations making the most impact here on the ground. If you're looking for a direct and efficient way to help avert famine, please do give what you can: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/sophie-tholstrup
Here's hoping that there are many more marathons in Mogadishu's future and that, as the situation here improves, these will move out of protected compounds and onto the streets, with anyone and everyone free to participate.
I'll be back in the Greatest Borough soon, and can't wait to see you all.