A Senegalese man – early twenties, I’d guess – has been running silently beside me for the last three miles as the sun pounds down on us.  He’s wearing a long-sleeved jacket and a drawstring backpack and given that I sweat through my tank top miles ago, I am in awe. As we near the end of the race it becomes apparent that I might place so he begins clearing a path for me to accelerate through the runners ahead of us. I am exhausted but with his encouragement I pick up my pace.  Just before the final turn he congratulates me and disappears into the crowd.  I never see him again, but I realize later that his presence during those final miles was the best gift I could have received on this Valentine’s Day in Dakar.
***
I love to run.  I’m of the mind that running is universal, that like soccer (my other favorite sport) it’s an activity shared by the world at large.  So, when I learned that the inaugural Marathon Eiffage de l’Autoroute de Dakar would take place on Valentine’s Day, only days after my arrival in Senegal to work with Caurie Microfinance, I jumped at the opportunity.

Having run several half marathons in the States, I couldn’t resist reflecting on the differences.  And, given that I was running 13.1 miles—or 21 kilometers—I had ample time to reflect.

Pre-Race:

While most American races offer a reduced price if one registers early, this race offered different rates based upon residency.  Residents of Senegal were charged 2,000 CFA, or about $3.50.  Non-residents were charged 35€ or about $39. I appreciated that this model promoted the participation and inclusion of all who might want to run, regardless of means. 
 
Can you feel the heat?

During the Race:

As we waited for the starting gun the universal excitement and energy amongst the runners was palpable. Everyone—not just elite runners—was alert, full of energy, like a taut rubber band just begging to snap.  Some participants shoved through the crowd of waiting runners, determined to be near the front.  Many others bounced up and down enthusiastically to the beat of the music blaring from the speakers.

Once we were off and running, I noticed a high level of tolerance for the uncomfortable.  I saw men running all 13.1 miles holding their bibs in hand. Others, like my pacer, ran the entire sun-drenched race wearing long-sleeved jackets and drawstring backpacks, demonstrating a general willingness to put up with inconvenience I don’t often witness in the States. 

There was more security than I’ve encountered in an American race, but to my surprise, the gun-toting policemen along the course were interacting lightheartedly with the runners.  One doused me with a bottle of water while cheering me on and others called out to friends they spotted running, eliciting laughs and jokes.

I was passed by groups of twenty or so men running and chanting in unison.  One man would call out a phrase and the others would respond, all in perfect synchronization.  Step – call – step – callstep – call.  I’m going to introduce this with my running club back home next time someone forgets to bring a portable speaker.
 
On-course entertainment like I've never seen in the States.

Post-Race:

When I crossed the finish line, an official grabbed my hand and led me to a table.  Excitedly, they told me I was the 8th female finisher.  While I’ve never placed in the top ten in an American race, I don’t believe any runners outside the top three are celebrated.

After crossing the finish line, we snaked down a long chute to access a tent with medals, refreshments and food. Due to the number of participants, however, we had to wait more than 30 minutes to get our first sips of water.  This was my only serious gripe about the race. Once inside the tent, we were given water, electrolytes and entire boxes of cookies—this last point being almost enough to convince me that the post-race set-up was the best I’ve ever encountered.

It was nice to sit under the warm sunshine and socialize with other runners.  I even got to shake the hand of the US Ambassador, who had also participated in the half-marathon… how often does one get to do that in the States?

Would I run another race in Senegal? Waaw! The excitement, community and support I witnessed made me grateful to be a part of this event.  However, for my next race I may try to find a shadier run with water administered immediately and safety pins for all.

To learn more about Caurie Microfinance click here. To support Kiva borrowers in Senegal, click here
 
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