For those of you who don’t keep close tabs on my life (shame on you), approximately a month ago I ran my first marathon ever! And if you know me, you know that’s a HUGE deal since I am generally known to hate running.
When I first came to Ghana, there was a lot of talk about people running a marathon. At that point in my life I was still strongly of the “I will never ever ever run a marathon in my whole entire life, marathons are stupid, I have better things to do with my time” camp. Well, that changed quickly in Ghana as I found myself sitting in a village of 400-ish people for three month with not a whole lot to do. So I started running. And then I started thinking that maybe I’ll just do the 5K and then I started think meh, I’m sure I can do a 10K, and then I started toying around with the idea of maybe doing the half at some point down the road, until eventually one of the other volunteers was like “Just suck it up Olesya and do a marathon.” and I was like, “FINE.”
So that’s how I decided to run a marathon. Almost a year went by before I was able to sign up for one, but in June of this year, I was sitting on my parents couch in Utah and decided to just commit myself and purchase the marathon package while I had internet fast enough to do it. Then I figured I should probably start thinking about training, but I was in America with plenty things to do and lots of food to eat, so let’s be realistic…I didn’t. I postponed it till my return to Ghana.
A few weeks later I was back in Ghana, undergoing a surgery. It was a fairly minor surgery, but invasive nonetheless and my recovery was long and really annoying. I definitely couldn’t exercise for a whole month. When I was recovered enough from my surgery, I finally started training. It was July by that point. A week or two after beginning training, I developed some really big infections on my leg out of nowhere. The infections made it painful not only to run, but to even walk, and then shortly I also started getting sick with a fever and other cold-type symptoms. After doing a blood test, the PC doctor announced that I have a blood infection and put me on antibiotics. So training for my marathon was not going so well at this point.
After recovering, I once again attempted to train. I was going pretty strong until about the middle of August when PC sent me to a really intensive two-week training in Senegal. We were in sessions almost 12 hours a day during this training, with very few breaks. So running 6-13 miles every single days was really difficult, mostly because of lack of time. After about one week of trying to balance training and sessions in Senegal, I started hating my life and slacking off. I figured things would get better once I returned to Ghana…but they didn’t. By the beginning of September I had come to the realization that training for this marathon was making me hate running again. So after some debating, I decided to stop training and just run the marathon anyway. At that point I had about 3-4 weeks until the marathon and the longest run I had ever done in my entire life was 13.1 miles, or half of a marathon. So I just had to double that during the race, no big deal.
So I spent the next 3-4 weeks prancing about, not even thinking about attempting to run. And then a week before the marathon I fell sick with an upper respiratory tract infection (Are you catching a theme here? I get sick a lot in Ghana haha). I was in bed for about 3 days without getting up, and then a few days later I packed my bags, jumped on a bus and went for a 15-hour trip to the capital city of Accra, where the marathon was held.
The two days before the marathon were spent attempting to recover (I was having a hard time breathing and my nose wouldn’t stop running) and relaxing with my fellow PCVs, all of whom were also running the full or half marathon. The night before the marathon I was really nervous and it was extremely hard to sleep. And I wasn’t alone in that. I think all of us only got about 3-4 hours of sleep, despite going to bed really early.
We got up around 2:30 am the morning of the marathon and made our way to the pickup point by 4 am. We were picked up by a bus and driven to a different city (Prampram) on the coast, where the marathon began at 5:30 am -ish. The entire time I thought I was going to throw up from nervous or at least most definitely die during the marathon. I couldn’t fathom running 26.2 miles. But then the gun went off and we started running.
I kept a slow pace from the start. I didn’t care how fast I ran in comparison to other runners, all I cared about is finishing. So I listened to music and tried to zone out. The first part of the marathon wasn’t so bad. We were running on the highway with traffic, but it was early enough that there weren’t too many cars and it wasn’t hot yet. There were also water stations almost every two miles and the marathon was organized and the route was signed pretty well. In fact, I ran my first half (13.1 miles) of the marathon like it was nothing. I wasn’t really even that tired. The only thing I wanted to do was go to the bathroom and when I reached the half-marathon mark, I had to ask if there were a bathroom somewhere I could use (we were told there would be a porta potty at the half-way mark). Turns out I had JUST passed it and so I had to turn around and run back. That was a little annoying, but whatever.
After going to the bathroom, I began my second half of the marathon, feeling good. The next 3-4 miles however took a different turn. I had heard that at some point around miles 16-20 people “hit the wall,” as marathoners call it. This is the point when your body depletes its glycogen stores and has to find energy in other places (breaking down fat, protein, etc.), so you pretty much feel just like you hit a wall because you simply just can’t move anymore. But you have to keep moving. Well, it being my first marathon and not having trained much, I expected to hit the wall early on. So that’s what was kind of slowly going through my mind as I made it past miles 14 and 15. The other issue was that from mile 13 to about mile 16 or 17 or maybe even 18, it somehow got really really hot. The sun was blazing and reflecting in my face off of the pavement. And in addition to that, the path got really hilly (and I’m not used to running on hills) and there were also no water stations for about four miles. Around miles 16-18 I started getting pretty dehydrated and looking for a water station. When I finally saw one, I crossed the road to it in excitement, but when I ran up to it with an empty water bottle in my hand, the two kids sitting at it said “the water is finished.” YUP. I heard that this happens pretty much every year when you run the marathon here in Ghana, but against all odds I was hoping that someone finally learned and remedied the situation. But nope, with about 10 miles to go, the water was finished. So what did I do in my dehydrated state? I threw the empty bottle of water I was holding onto the ground super dramatically and in a very exasperated fashion yelled, “COME ON!”, and then started running down the road again.
I was feeling pretty pissed and dehydrated there, but lucky for me an ambulance must have witnessed what happened, and drove up to me with a small bottle of water. I can’t even tell you how grateful I was, though I probably didn’t look like it because I was too busy trying to rip the plastic cover off the lid with my teeth while continuing running all dehydrated and stuff. So after drinking some water, I felt better and my spirits were high again. I was somewhere past mile 16 and still not feeling too bad, yet to hit the wall. The huge bummer was that of course there was not a single water station left along the marathon route with water in it for the next 10 miles. Luckily though, I had thought to bring some coins with me just in case there was a water shortage, so that I could buy my own water off someone’s head. Unluckily though, there weren’t any water sellers that I could see until at least mile 21. So I was getting pretty dehydrated again. And on top of that, I finally hit the WALL around mile 20-21.
I’ve heard about the wall so many times and I tried to imagine what it would be like so many times, but I didn’t anticipate what came my way. I was doing just fine (except for being dehydrated) until about mile 20-21. Tired and all that of course, but not too bad. And then bam, I didn’t even know what hit me. All of a sudden my thighs cramped up and I literally just didn’t think I could move them anymore. I had to stop for a second to let them uncramp before I could continue my motion. At that point I started singing “just keep swimming just keep swimming” in my head. That’s what kept me going for the last 5-6 miles of the marathon. I had to keep swimming, that’s all I had to do, and eventually I knew I’d reach the finish line.
Something amazing also happened to me a mile or two after I hit the wall. I was still going without any water and struggling pretty bad with dehydration. And then a Ghanaian guy, wearing the official marathon shirt, pulled up next to me on his bicycle. At first I was pissy because I don’t like running with people and he kept asking me questions about whether I was running the full marathon and if I had done it before and blah blah blah. I was trying to tune him out. Couldn’t he see that I was practically dying and didn’t have any energy to waste on being polite and talking? Well I guess maybe he did see that because he asked me if I wanted some water. I’m pretty sure I sounded like I was crying when I answered “YES!”
So he rode away and brought me back a 1.5 L (HUGE) cold bottle of water with ice chunks floating in it. I opened it and drank as much as I could without throwing up. Then I handed the bottle back to him because it was too heavy for me to carry, thinking that he would leave me alone. But he didn’t. He took the bottle and carried it for me while riding his bike alongside me. When I realized that he was going to be my personal water carrier for at least a little while, I didn’t care that he was annoying me with questions anymore. I had access to water. YES.
So for the last few miles of the marathon, the biker (whose name I actually never even asked…RUDE) rode alongside me, giving me water and reminding me to drink regularly and in small amounts. At times my legs cramped up to a point of where I couldn’t move them anymore and I had to stop and let them uncramp. And he would say encouraging things to me, like “walk small” or “drink some water”. Pretty simple and maybe not that encouraging hearing them in the comfort of your office or home, but pretty great and reassuring when you’re barely functioning anymore.
So I ran for a few miles with the biker and then at about 2-3 miles from the finish line we hit the absolute worst part of the marathon. Up to this point, we were running along a highway and then through a university campus, where there weren’t thaaaaat many people. And then we hit a town. The marathon literally took us through the middle of a town on the outskirts of Accra. I wish I could somehow discribe to you guy what that means. Towns in this part of Ghana are congested, stinky, dirty, loud, busy and people are pretty obnoxious and rude a lot of the time. Especially if you’re clearly very foreign and doing something the locals don’t understand, like running. So here I was running mile 23-24 through this congested town with a ton of people and trying really hard not to die. Because this area is so congested, the marathon also didn’t block out any space for us runners. There wasn’t like a route that we could run. We just had to run through the town with all its people and traffic and goats and sheep and chickens and children moving every which way. And we had to run up and down sidewalks or on the road trying not to get hit by traffic. At one point two drunk (at least I think they were drunk) men were walking towards me and one of them pushed the other into me and I almost fell into the gutter (that’s full of trash and sewage and piss and gross green slime and probably a hundred undiscovered diseases). But I was too tired to even react to that event anymore. I just had to keep swimming. Just keep swimming.
Moving up and down sidewalks was too painful so I ran on the road whenever possible, dodging cars and motorcycles. At one point I was crossing a street and it got so congested, that I just couldn’t run anymore. My path was blocked and I couldn’t move ahead, so I gave up. I couldn’t do it anymore. I stopped and let the cars and people blocking me clear a little and somehow made my way through and around them. And then I just didn’t have it in me to keep running through this congested area anymore. My brain and my body couldn’t handle stopping and going like that. Switching pace was really painful. So I walked the next half a mile or so until I got out of the most congested area. And then my biker told me that I should try running slowly.
So I did. I picked up pace again and started moving. It was really painful at first, but after a minute or two I got into the rhythm again. And I knew that I was getting close, which helped. At some point, about a mile off, my biker said, “See that orange billboard over there? The finish line is somehow near there.” That was all I needed to hear. I could grasp the concept of the finish line and it was enough of a kick to keep me going that last mile, which was tough. The last mile of the marathon feels like it lasts forever. You have more energy because you know you’re about to finish, but you’re so tired that time seems to be barely moving anymore.
After what felt like an eternity, I finally saw the finish line off in the distance. And then I saw my biker turn and ride back and start talking to someone else. Turns out there was a guy closing in on me. A guy that I had passed a long time ago. Seeing him and feeling him so close behind me gave me extra energy. While I didn’t care how fast I ran the marathon or where I placed, I didn’t want to be passed by someone right at the finish line. So I started running as fast as I could, which I’m sure wasn’t actually that fast, but I felt fast, so that’s what matters. And he never caught up to me. He was close, but I still crossed the finish line ahead of him and then I WAS DONE. DONE. FINISHED WITH MY FIRST MARATHON.
I was super delirious and could barely move when my friends came to me to hug me and congratulate me on finishing. And I was sooooooooo happy. It’s probably one of the happiest I’ve ever been. I felt incredible. I turned around and shook my bikers hand and said, “My friend, you saved me. Thank you so much! I don’t know how I would have done it without you.” And that’s the truth. He was there for me at the toughest time and I probably owe this marathon to him. I never asked his name because I was too delirious and I couldn’t find him when I finally came to my senses, but I’ll probably never forget him. He was a huge part of a really important and tough experience.
After the marathon, all of us half and full-marathoners relaxed, ate some food, collected our medals, got some free massages, drank some coconuts, and talked about our experiences. Everyone said that this was the toughest marathon they had ever done and that if I can do this one, I can easily do any marathon in America, ESPECIALLY if I train! So who knows what the future will bring, maybe I’ll become a marathoner 😉 (just kidding, we all know that’s not gonna happen).
Anyway, here you have it guys. I ran a marathon. And I didn’t even die!
Until next time,
Your newbie marathoner.
Morning before the marathon with fellow PCVs. Soooooo nervous!
Getting a massage (in the back on the table)!
We did it!