Running the Mt. Cameroon Race of Hope is a bit like going on mission: you prepare as much as you can, but no amount of planning and preparation can ready you for what you meet along the journey. On Saturday I ran, and completed, the 24 mile race in Buea (Boy-ya). It was a landmark experience, and during the race my emotions ran the gamut from fear and excitement, to anger and resentment, to desperation, and finally elation and joy.
On Wednesday, I met a busload of other athletes to travel to Buea for the race. It was fun to travel as part of a local group, rather than with a bunch of Westerners. Most of the athletes in this particular running club were from the village and only spoke Lamnso and Pidgin, I barely understood anything, but that's just part of the experience. Even though the race was on Saturday, we had to get to Buea early to do registration and other pre-race things, and I will spare you the details and just say that the process is thoroughly and utterly Cameroonian. I stayed at the apartment of the son of one of the teachers here at SAC. Bertrand is a graduate student at the University of Buea, which is quite large with a very lovely campus.I spent Thursday and Friday morning doing race things, including getting interviewed for CRTV, the national television station... people back in Kumbo said they saw me Thurs. PM. What can I say, the camera loves me... ;)
Friday I met up Kat and Owen, friends from the Peace Corps, and their visitors from the States, who proved to be an excellent ad hoc support team. Kat and Owen gave me more info about the mountain and the race, we found a supermarket that sold granola bars and other snacks, and generally had a good time. Early to bed that night, though it was difficult to sleep with the all-night parties happening all around town. This race is a very big deal, and many people descend upon the town for the weekend. Fun! Loud.
I woke up and got ready to go, a short taxi ride to Molyko Stadium put me in the starting area. I found the several people I knew who were running, Cameroonians and Westerners alike, and wished them good luck. Then, right at 7 am, the gun popped and off we went!
The race course basically goes like this: Up. Then, down. It sounds exaggerated, but it's really not... first there are about four miles of road up to Upper Farms Prison, with spectators all along the course wishing you well. Then, you go two or three miles through the rain forest on a trail that is pretty good, entering Mt. Cameroon National Park and then arriving at Hut 1 after around 6 or 7 miles. There are people all along the course giving you water, but you have to bring your own food.
After Hut 1, you clear the tree line and enter what looks and feels like Mordor, the volcanic wasteland from Lord of the Rings. You must climb up a steep, scrabbly trail. Imagine a staircase with steps made of sharp volcanic rock, and tufts of grass and charred grass, set on top of sand. Easy to lose your footing, easy to fall. All the pictures I have seen never do the actual experience any justice. It is only two kilometers from Hut 1 to Hut 2, but it's a long uphill fight. Hut 2 to 3 has more climbing, though not as steep, with some runnable portions. At this point the leaders started to pass me on their way back down, bounding down the trail and leaving me wondering how they do it without twisting an ankle and hurtling headlong into the abyss.
At Hut 3 you only have about a mile and a half to go... but it is cold, and windy, and the trail is black cinder sand. By the time I reached the top where the guy gives your wristband to prove you made it to the top, 4 hours and 45 minutes had passed, and the winner and runner-up had already crossed the finish line. I had probably run for a total of 1.5 of those hours, and speed-hiked the rest of the way. I actually had an argument with some race officials at Hut 3, who were barring people from finishing the course because the wristbands were "finished," meaning they were all gone. I got by them, and found wristbands a-plenty at the summit. They just didn't want to spend any more time on top of a miserably cold mountain for runners who didn't care about winning the race. Hey man, I'm not running for the prize, I have other, deeper motivations for this epic. If you want to know the details of the altercation, ask the German tourists who were there at hut 3 waiting to go up to the summit. (You can hire guides to take you up and back over three days, sleeping in the huts along the way.)
Upon reaching the summit, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I was so high! literally, in every way. 13,000+ ft up, having started around 3,000 ft. 12 miles from the start, with twelve miles to go. On top of West Africa. I had done it, achieved a goal, suffered up that mountain, pushing pushing pushing up. A few hundred yards from the top, I removed my sunglasses from their perch on the brim of my Orioles cap, and a quick gust of wind picked up the cap and blew it away. I turned just in time to see it disappear up onto the mountain somewhere. Oh, well, goodbye O's cap!
Going down started easier... I could run! I was booking it. Then came the steep climb... this time down. Yikes. Ouch. Oof. Those rocks are sharp when you fall, and it is pretty annoying when all the volcanic sand gets in your socks. Below Hut 2, clouds came in and I couldn't see more than 50 yards ahead of me. The trail was well marked, but I had moments of doubt. It was slow, but I knew once I was in the forest again, I could run again.
Well, as it turned out, my body was not in agreement. I tried, and my legs felt like tree stumps. I would plod a few paces, and stop. Oh my. At this point, I was about 18 miles into the race, with six left to go. I ran/walked the rest of the way, and it was the hardest thing to finish. I had enough food, I had enough water, my body just broke. My plan had been to descend carefully when I thought the footing was too steep or dangerous, and run the rest, but the further I got, the more dangerous even small steps looked to me.
Back on the tarred road, I decided to keep myself moving by praying a rosary, and running for everything but allowing myself to walk for the Our Father. I do believe I said two Our Fathers on at least one of the decades, just to keep walking... The rosary was finished, and that road kept coming and the stadium was nowhere in sight. Nobody was watching the race at this point, and only a few people wished encouragement as they drove past. I ran for a hundred meters, I walked for 300. I looked at my watch.... I was still under 8 hours... could I cross the finish line in under 8? Maybe. I'd need to run, and my muscles didn't like that. I pushed on, and ran more than I thought I could, and finally I saw the giant inflatable beer bottle at the stadium. The race is sponsored by Guinness. Motto: Run for Hope Now, Beer Later. 7 minutes left, a half mile to go... could I even make it? That's an easy pace, normally. Now, I had no idea.
So I did it, I ran and walked and powerwalked and dodged taxis and pedestrians and entered the stadium and crossed the line in a time of 7:59. I have no idea if I have an official time or place, I didn't really care. They whisked me over to the first aid tent, where I dropped down onto the dirtiest mat, and it felt so good to be off my feet. It felt so good to be through! Kat's friends met me at the finish line and tended to me. The race organizers gave me a bag of food, which I started to eat. I called home to tell Logan and the kids I had finished and that I loved them. It was great.
After I had recovered and was back on my feet, I congratulated Kat, who took 9th place for women and a modest cash prize. She was sitting in the tent where they were distributing prize money... another logistical nightmare that I did not envy.
Back on the field, I had finished half of the loaf of bread they had given me at the finish line, when a boy came up and begged for some bread. It's not unusual for children to beg from Westerners all the time, and I had a little chuckle that he had either such chutzpah or such need so as to beg from a runner who just finished a grueling race. Either way, he deserved the bread and I gave it to him.
There were several winners from the club I traveled with, including 2nd boy and 3rd girl in the junior division (they only run up to hut 1, about a half marathon total). I met them at a bakery in town, and joined them in celebrating.
Upon returning to Kumbo, everyone asks what number I took... people are very interested in comparative success here. Participation, not so much, however, the other athletes did respect my perseverance, if not my final time. Logan and the kids went into town to watch the coverage, but didn't see me. They did tell me that everyone in the crowd cheered for the first three runners, but not for the fourth! After the first three in men's and women's division crossed the line, coverage of the event ended. On the mountain, I noticed that as soon as it was clear that they wouldn't finish in a prize-winning position, many runners gave up and left. The mountain was teeming with observers and coaches and athletes going up, but going down there was almost nobody. Many people race only for the money, and I think many of those don't train much, or properly.
I thought up about a thousand and one metaphors for running and mission and morality and development work before, during, and after the race. It's probably good I don't remember the ones during the race, because I was getting a little cloudy in my thinking in my exhaustion. You might have some of the same ideas if you ran the mountain race.
Which you should, if you can. Strip away the logistics (or lack thereof) and strip away the glory and posturing and prizes, and you are left with a test of yourself against the mountain, or really a test of yourself against yourself. I trained for months on end, I readied myself as best as I could, and I went ahead and did it. I had a mountaintop experience, I cried and sweat and bled, and I'd do it all again.