Honestly, from a training perspective, I did a lot of things wrong. Race day found me with an empty stomach, less than 2 hours of sleep, and for once in this country, cold, stiff muscles! But that’s a funny story.
Check-in for the marathon was 4 AM at the edge of Parakou (only in Benin…). We got our numbers and t-shirts and were loaded into the back of military vehicles to be trucked thirteen miles in the dark to some middle-of-nowhere village where the race would start. The event was designed so that the marathoners would arrive back in Parakou just as the half-marathoners were starting there, and we’d all finish at the same place. It’s not often cold in Benin, but speeding down the highway in the back of an open-air vehicle in the wee hours of the morning, I learned that sometimes, it is down right freezing here! And it’s not like I thought to bring a blanket.
So we arrived at the starting point with goose bumps and chattering teeth, and at 6 AM, the race began. Even though it was still pitch black, we already had enthusiastic cheering squads. Every time we passed a little village or cluster of huts, people were lining the road, ready to sing, dance, and even play drums for us as we ran by!
I made it to Parakou around 8:30, still feeling kind of fresh, but the second half of the course was very hilly. Fortunately, with race organizers handing out bananas and bissap (a tasty purple juice) and throwing cold water at us, I was able to keep going. The event was so well organized I almost forgot I was in Benin! Then I passed a Fulani herdsman trotting about thirty sheep and goats down the highway — yep, still in Africa.
Finally, after a lengthy four hours and forty-nine minutes, I crossed that finish line, where someone grabbed my number, threw a medal around my neck, and gave me a hearty shove in the direction of water. I was among the last, but it didn’t matter. I joined other Peace Corps Volunteers in the recovery area, where we congratulated one another with sweaty hugs and talk of how much guilt-free indulgent eating we could do the rest of the day.
Almost forty Peace Corps Volunteers participated in one of the races that day – a sizeable representation for a country with (I think) fewer than two hundred volunteers total. Peace Corps service doesn’t necessarily make someone athletic, but it does teach you how to tackle tough things with a spirit of camaraderie and adventure. After the race, one of my friends cheerfully admitted that her training regiment, “probably should have involved some running!” Well, yes, that would have been a good idea. But she participated (and finished) anyways. Because honestly, it wasn’t about the running. I mean, part of it was. But the part of it that was about running was different for all of us – to get in good shape, to relieve stress, to cross “run a marathon” off the bucket list… The other part of it, the part we all shared, was about setting a non work-related goal and empowering one another to get there.
With a crowd of a thirty plus volunteers all staying the weekend at the Parakou workstation (with beds for only nine or so), most of us ended up sleeping on the floor that night. It’s not how one would generally choose to sleep the day after running a marathon, but when I woke in the middle of the night (because a book fell on my head when I rolled over and bumped the book shelf) and saw every square inch of floor and couch space filled with a soundly sleeping PCV, it didn’t feel like it should be any other way. We come from all over the U.S. and a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, but at the end of the day we’re all coming from the same place really – from our shared humanity. There’s some quote, and I don’t know who said it (but I’ll look it up and update this post when I have more than three minutes of internet time left…) that essentially states that peace is the mutual understanding that what we have in common is far greater than what separates us. And that of course is what this is all about.