sierra leone marathon 2022

There are some races that change you. That teach you so many deep and profound lessons that you wonder if life will ever be the same again. 

Streetchilds Sierra Leone Marathon is described as “The Craziest Marathon on the Planet” and it lived up to that desciption and so much more, so buckle up…because this review is likely to be as lengthy, epic and lesson filled as the race itself.

I didn’t think I’d ever run another marathon. With 5 already under my belt and a pandemic that saw me stop running all together…I just didn’t see this coming.

And then in January an email landed in my inbox which changed everything, and fast forward 5 months and myself and 7 brave women from the Too Fat to Run community were boarding a plane to Freetown filled with excitement and anticipation.

I had gone from not being able to run 5K at the start of the year, to running regularly again, hitting my 100th parkrun milestone, crosstraining to get my fitness (and confidence) back, and covering 17 miles in my longest training run.

Prepping for this race was unlike any other I have prepped for, finding myself doing 90 minute endurance cycles in my bedroom with the windows closed and wearing layers in an attempt to replicate the heat and humidity…but nothing would quite prepare us for that.

We arrived in a hot and hectic Freetown on Wednesday 1st June, in the early evening, some of us minus our luggage. 

I’d been smart enough to pack the basics of what I’d need on race day in my carry on bag, but I’m not going to lie the safety blanket of having my own things around me was very much missed those first few days…and I wondered if this would be the undoing of me, with things like my hydration tablets, chaffing gel and race day bag all sitting in a store room in Brussels somewhere.

But I figured there was no point in moaning, I just needed to make the best of it…so with a bit of borrowing (of stuff) and rinsing out of my two outfits, I survived the first 3 days until my case arrived (in dramatic fashion I must admit as it was danced through a party on someones head at midnight to much applause, which still makes me smile)

But back to race prep.

We had a lot to do in Makeni, where the race would take place. Micro businesses to visit, schools to see, local staff to meet. Part of this annual trip is an opportunity for Streetchild supporters to come and see the work first hand, to better understand how the money raised is spent locally, to get to grips with the complex challenges Sierra Leone faces, and why education is at the heart of addressing them. 

There was little down time, and lots of things to get your head around in the days leading up to race day. Accommodation was basic to say the least. Food was good but simple, and no matter how much water you drank, it never seemed to be enough.

Come Friday I was tired. I had already started to feel dehydrated despite now taking electrolytes and rehydration tablets after a short but rather dramatic burst of diarrhea. 

Friday midmorning there was a safety briefing with the staff organising the event, including the medic team. It was a sobering affair, reminding us of why we were here….and just what a challenge it would be.

Understanding that there is no air ambulance to rescue us, no local trauma hospital…and despite the event being in its tenth year, fully risk assessed with a skilled team…ultimately there was still risk, risk that would have to be personally assessed and kept front of mind throughout the race.

After the official meeting, I pulled my TFTR team together and we had our own mini briefing. I needed my ladies to understand that there was no pressure from me or from any idea of representation to push beyond their limits.

I know how tough normal marathons are, and how quickly things can go wrong, and so I wanted the team to understand that any finish would be a good finish, and that we had nothing to prove to anyone.

We had a brief chat about how we would pair up, and what our race strategy might be. For me I wanted to do a structured run walk effort pushing relatively hard for the first couple of hours to better my chances of limiting my exposure to the midday sun. But who knew how it would pan out on race day.

We had an early dinner of…yes of course pasta lol…and then to bed.

I got all of my kit ready and got into bed under my mosquito net at about 9pm hoping to get a good few hours sleep. No such luck. I just couldn’t cool down. My air conditioning was pretty rubbish, and so I used two ice cold water packs placed on my body to try and control my body temprature. I then made the mistake of checking my heart rate via my Garmin app…103 bpm (WTF)…I normally have a resting heart rate of around 58 or 59…so this was outrageous, and then you know what I did next right? Yep I consulted my friend Google lol. 

By 3am when my alarm went off I’d managed about an hours sleep max, and I’d convinced myself I would be pulled off the course very early…probably after shitting myself in the most outrageous fashion lol

I hadn’t been for a poo since yesterdays explosive episode…it felt like it was only a matter of time, and with no official toilets on route this could go one of many ways. 

The start area was very weird. We were at Makeni stadium at 5am…head torches and last minute wees the order of the day.

Oh and it was my birthday…did I not mention that? I got a lovely Happy Birthday rendition, and a card and badge from my team…what a way to celebrate hey?

I was a little discombobulated, I had all this stuff both physical and mental to carry around the course with me, and I just wanted to get started. I sat and taped up my knees, unsure of how they would cope with the terrain which was described as undulating…when are courses not?

After some speeches and a rousing version of the national anthem, the race got off on time (well 6.12am which I thought was pretty good) the sun was already turning the sky a strange pink and orange at this time, so it really did feel like a race against the clock.

The first part of the route felt like a blur…I saw a group of my ladies head off into the distance, I couldn’t stick with them, and a group behind me with back marker/sweeper Josh (the only person to have run every race since it started)

Makeni in the early morning is unrecognisable to the later in the day mayhem that is a hustling busling African town…it was still busy, with folks going about their morning routines, the roads had traffic, motorbikes, trucks mainly, and there were plenty of folks sitting outside their homes enjoying the spectacle that is 100+ international runners making their way through their home town.

For context, it’s useful to understand that the marathon hadn’t been run the last two years due to the pandemic, and even before that, the sight of multiple white people running through the streets in this part of the world is probably a bit weird. 

The first 5 miles went really well, I was making good time. Running mainly by myself, with a few runners just ahead of me, including Trudy who due to having Covid a few weeks earlier had already decided to drop down to the half (a smart move). It was nice to have one of my ladies near for some of the run…but we lost each other at one of the water stations, where I needed my first wee.

We had been warned that wild wees would be the order of the day, but at this point I was still very much in town, and thought Makeni was probably not ready for the sight of my glorious naked behind at that time in the morning, so one of the Red Cross staff at the water station directed myself and 3 other runners who needed the loo, to a rather robust looking building that turned out to be the home of the local ceremonial chief.

He kindly invited us into his home to use his facilities, and even invited us to sit down for a moment (I’m sure he would have brought us tea lol) and we learned about how Chief elections work, while we took turns using probably the best toilet facilities of my trip lol

The next section of the run was tougher. A long slow hill. Tarmaced which was nice, but the sun was now up. It was only 7.30ish by this point and the sun wasn’t exactly strong…but it’s presence was felt. The road was lined with villages…with children wanting to say hello.

It was at this point I was joined by Emily.

Emily is a 17 year old dairy farmer from Devon. She was in Sierra Leone with her cousin who works for Streetchild. Donna was a little behind us powerwalking with a couple of my ladies but Emily wanted to run. So she joined me in my run walk sequence and it didn’t take us long to realise we’d probably run the rest of this race together.

This road went on for miles.

We passed the half marathon turn off point, we refuelled, reapplied sun screen, and kept making our way up this dreaded hill, very much on our own. Throughout the route there were Streetchild veihcles and motorbikes checking that we were all OK which was reassuring, but I think it was at this point that I realised how much further we still had to run.

We had been on our feet for 3ish hours by now, and had covered about 9 miles…it was 9am and the sun was hot!!! I had found out that Emily had only managed 10 miles in training and I loved her optimisim about the distance…she was an inspiration, just cracking on without moaning. It made me think a lot about my 9 year old Rose, and who she’d be at 17, what adventures she’d have, and who’d accompany her on them.

Rose had said last week she wanted to come to Sierra Leone to run the marathon, I reminded her that she didn’t even like walking to school…maybe one day I’ll bring her lol

The road we were on included an out and back section of around 6 miles which I was dreading. We were told in the briefing that this would be the hardest section, with no shade, and still half of the race to go. As I did the maths in my head I knew tackling this section would see us finishing the marathon distance in 10 hours plus if we were lucky…and I wasn’t sure I had that in me today with so little sleep and this heat.

The medics had explained in the briefing that this was not a marathon where it was a given that folks would finish, and that no matter what distance you did you were still a winner. (which made me a little emosh). I wasn’t worrying about a DNF (did not finish), I was more worried about a DNE (Did not enjoy…and yes I’ve just made that up)

I came to Sierra Leone to undertake the challenge of a lifetime, and to raise money for an important cause, and for me personally, that did not have a mileage attatched to it, and Emily when questioned by the Medic at the mile 9 aid station she felt similar. We stopped for around 10 minutes discussing our options.

If we continued up the out and back section, we’d likely be picked up in a 4×4 later on in the course for safety reasons, if we turned left now, we’d hit some shade, and more likely be able to finish under our own steam. One of the other benefits I hadn’t considered is that by taking this route, we’d also see more runners past us, and I’d get to see some of my ladies finish their race (which I’d end up being so grateful for)

So we made the joint decision to go for 20 miles as our goal.

Now I know there will be people reading this that will have an opinion on this, but I don’t give a shit. My health and wellbeing trumps anyone elses judgement of what consitutes a marathon effort or not. It comes down to personal responsibility, but also the sense of responsibility I felt for my new running buddie. I didn’t want to ruin her race later down the line (as she wouldn’t have been allowed to run by herself), and I would have been equally frustrated if I’d been pulled off the route because she couldn’t finish.

So for us it was the right decision.

The slightly shaded section which saw us head into the jungle was a welcome relief, but the heat and humidity didn’t really let up. 30 degrees, and 90% humidity is no joke, when you are 10 miles into a run. There were also some massive bugs, farmers with machetes in the ajoining fields (sometimes topless…and no i don’t just mean the men) and then the motorbike escorts that were keeping us safe on this more secluded path. 

We saw a number of other runners along this path including Anna, Streetchilds Communication Officer, who would go on to win the first international female accolade, and Pete Cooper from Coopah Running who walked with us for a bit which was just the boost we needed.

This section of the route again felt like it never ended. It took us through a number of small villages where the kids were an incredible boost. As were the much needed water stations…my personal technique storing the cold water pouches down my bra to cool me down before drinking them.

I’d been keeping an eye on my heart rate throughout, and our run walk sections had become more sporadic by this point. 

My hands and wrists were so swollen, I’d had to remove my paper race wrist band.

I could feel a hot spot on my foot, and at a section just after crossing a train track I sat down and took a look at my feet. It was definitely the start of a blister and so I whacked on a compeed and covered it with some tape and then we were off again…not before enjoying a fresh coconut.

The next stretch of the route was probably the most challenging. We had been joined by a young local boy who had decided to run with us. He was around 15 or so I’d suggest, and at first it was cute, but after a couple of miles it felt a little strange and Emily and I both started to feel a bit uncomfortable.

We hadn’t seen a bike rider or a water station for a while, and we just needed a bit of reassurance that we were safe. We were just very tired at this point and feeling a little vulnerable.

A little while later I managed to slip down a bank while making way for a small bus to pass…it was pretty dramatic, seeing me slip sideways, breaking my fall with my hip, my legs ending up under the bus…luckily the driver had seen me fall and managed to pull the breaks just in time.

I got up very quickly to see 8 sets of wide eyes in the bus looking back at me. In true British style I smiled, gratefully tapped the drivers arm and assured everyone I was OK…it was only about a mile later at a water station that I broke down and cried.

It was very scary.

The teenager who had been running with us disappeared shortly after my fall and later passed us on the back of a friends motorbike with a cheeky grin…I can only imagine the story he shared that evening with his family about the giant white lady who almost ended up under a bus lol.

I wondered how my ladies were getting on.

Trudy would be finished her half by now, and it felt good to know she’d be waiting in the stadium for us.

I knew the others were in two seperate paced groups, and would be supported on the route, but I had no idea what shape they would be in or what decision they’d make about the distance. 

The last 5 miles of the race were the toughest for obvious reasons. We were tired now. 

I hadn’t really followed a specific fuelling strategy…I’d had a mango, some bananas, and 3 gels along the route…I didn’t feel hungry or like I needed any additional fuel, but my hands and arms were ridiculously swollen now.

I was struggling to use my phone or do anything remotely fiddly. And my hip was now really hurting…and I could feel blisters under my toes on both feet. I was pretty much done now in terms of running…and it was about power walking the rest. Every step hurt.

Staff at the water stations were great, asking what we needed, and at one point I sat on a bench under a tree in an attempt to cool down. I must have looked a real sight. The locals telling us to run, or jog which didn’t ever encourage us to at this point lol.

We just needed to keep moving though.

We were close.

The last few miles were back in Makeni, the town was now a thriving hustle and bustle, as we passed midday on a Sunday, the sun reaching its highest point, the traffic equally intense. 

Emily was such a great running buddy, she checked in with me and didn’t mind when I was grumpy. She asked for what she needed and she shared how she was feeling. The communication between us was spot on, and I know the experience was made all the better for her company. She was particularly popular with the young male population who assumed I was her mum ha ha and shouted after her “young gyal, young gyal”

The last mile was through one of the main roads in Makeni…we had a motorbike escort from the Red Cross, and I swear about 100 kids running with us. Somehow I’d found it in my legs to run the last bit but I had a small person hanging off every finger, and all along each arm, kids in front of me and to everyside. Singing, cheering, grinning. It really was quite something.

They left us at the doors of the stadium (which was an invite only secure space) which we had left 7 hours earlier and we ran the final 300 meters or so across the finishing line to the cheers and support of hundreds of runners from the 5K, 10K and half marathon distance, and of course the marathon runners who had already finished.

It was EPIC, truly EPIC.

But it wasn’t done….the brilliant MC who was commentating the finish line had got wind of the fact it was my birthday, and marched me straight to the stage, where the whole stadium sang Happy Birthday…it was the best race finish EVER!!!! Although how I climbed up and down the stairs I will never know.

The atmosphere was awesome in the stadium, and I am so glad I got to see so many of the other runners come across the line to great cheers and celebration. Some made it under their own steam, others needed a bit of support, they were welcomed as heroes either way.

6 of my ladies were still out on the course, and the heat was so intense by now…but the water station staff were reporting back to race HQ how they were doing, and everyone was holding up OK…heading to the finish line slowly but surely.

Myself Emily and Trudy sat and cooled down in the Stadium stands with kids all around us…taking on fluids and trying to eat (I managed two mouthfuls). It is hard to describe the sense of achievement and relief that we made it in one piece. 

I made friends with 3 little girls who absolutely captured my heart…similar in age to Rose, with the same sass and enthusiasm for life. They were worried about my legs (which had developed a rash from the red dust entering the open pores on my exposed shins) and one of the girls exclaimed “I have an auntie who is fat like you” which made me laugh out loud. 

It was a long old day, and I can’t express how tired I was.

Seeing Kate and Vic cross the line had me in tears, along with Donna (Emilys Cousin) and a little girl who’d walked the last 10K with them (their Dad was one of the Redcross riders and had given permission lol…they hadn’t just stolen a little girl from a village lol)

This wouldn’t be the only story of various kids getting caught up in the excitement and running miles and miles that day alongside the international runners. 

Paula, Adele, Frances and Rachel would be the last runners to cross the line, with Josh of course. An epic effort of more than 10 hours which is truly spectacular. Tears where shed, emotional embraces were had, calls of “it was so fucking hard” were heard.

We had done it…8 plus size runners safely across the finish line at one of the worlds craziest races, smashing stereotypes as we went…raising close to £17,000 to ensure kids get access to quality education in one of the worlds toughest but most extrordinary environments. 

Fancy it next year?

I am pulling a TFTR team together for the 2023 event, so do get in touch with me via julie@toofattorun.co.uk and I’ll let you know how to join.

A massive thank you to Streetchild. Their work is so inspiring. Their commitment and passion for impoving lives at a local level, delivered locally is so important. A young lad who ran with the final 4 ladies said “When I’m older I want to work as a social worker for Streetchild” I mean come on? 

If you would like to support our fundraising bid, please donate £10, £20, £30 or any amount you can here. We have seen first hand what a difference it makes.

Check out my race recap video here, and an overview of our wider trip here.

Until next time

Sierra Leone Marathon…you were the best!!!!

And to Trudy, Kate, Adele, Vic, Rachel, Frances, and Paula we bloody did it.

A massive thank you to Jostahopps the Freetown based photographer who captured so many great photos. 

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