THE BIG EVENT: THE FIRST-EVER JONGLEI FREEDOM RUN ON SATURDAY FEBRUARY 12, 2011, JUST AHEAD OF THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE RESULTS OF THE REFERENDUM AND IN ORDER TO SET UP FOR A POTENTIAL ENTRY OF THE NEW STATE AS YET-TO-BE-ANNOUNCED INTO THE INTERNATIONAL SPORTING COMPETITIONS OF THE OLYMPICS: THE JONGLEI MARATHON; I CAME IN FIRST IN MY AGE GROUP—IN FACT, I CAME IN FIRST IN THE TOP SEVEN AGE GROUPS!
February 12, 2011
We are all winners here today! That was the subject of one of my briefest speeches on record, as we came to the Winners’ Circle and the Awards Ceremony at the conclusion of the first-ever Jonglei Marathon—actually closer to fifteen K. It was also the first ever sporting event in the as yet-to-be-announced New Republic of South Sudan. In that heady appreciation of what this week has meant, I could add a context. I was not present on July 4, 1776 when the new nation of the United States of America was set in motion. I was not present 2,500 years ago when Phidipedes crossed the finish line in Athens to announce that the Spartans had been defeated before falling over dead, beginning the endurance run to which the town gave its name—Marathon. [I was present at my own MCM Finish Line in October 2010 to celebrate that 2,500th anniversary with a special medal.]I was not present in 1896 when the modern era resurrected the Marathon and the other events of international competition to inaugurate the modern Olympics. But here I am today and here are all of them today watching as this new era is unfolding in their eyes to tell their grandchildren where they were and what they were doing at the moment of inception of the new events sweeping them up toward modernity.
Ajak had told them they would not have Americans coming over to do all the things that need doing for them. In fact, he pointed out that Doctor Geelhoed who has been their most consistent friend has promised them that he would not be coming to DO anything for them other than help them do their best and improve and enhance what that capability might be in each subsequent visit of which this one is a prime example. That would be true only if they worked together including harsh rivals, of which competitive sport is an example as we will run together, and we will work together including with the same groups that were the cause of many of the casualties in recent times. There was a lot of rebuilding to do; and South Sudanese cannot hire Kenyans to run the Marathon or the Spanish to play their football, or the Americans to keep on giving to supply their needs which will have to be answered by themselves. And to that end, today’s Jonglei Freedom Run—with the tee shirts supplied by one donor and the prizes for the finishers supplied by another and the course laid out by the all Sudanese indigenous team with the support of the whole community and the publicity from their own radio and media were set together for all who wished to register and it was the first three places which were won by South Sudanese—as it should be. The winners got the “Mission to Heal” whistle hung around their neck on the platform and were handed an envelope with their name on a certificate and mementos of the event. The first place finisher was John Deng, and he completed the course in about forty four minutes, and the fourth place finisher was (our own) Josh Webster who came in around forty seven minutes. I came in at one hour and 12 minutes, to be first in my age group.
Of course, I may also have been LAST place in my age group, since I was a bit more than twice the age of the next eldest runner in the pack of fifty five registered and about twice that many bandits running with us. One of those was the first woman whom I had hoped to give some award, but she rode in the back of a pickup truck for about two thirds of the race, which is a lot like that race I had done to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the University of the West Indies in Tortola in which I kept passing the same people repeatedly. I had been offered a ride in a pickup truck at the foot of every big mountain slope, but had declined. When I got to the Stadium finish line, I was acknowledged as “the only person who had run the entire course of the race instead of taking the usual ‘lift’ at the upslopes!”
I had talked to the midwives on touring the ruins of the Bor Hospital yesterday and encouraged them to participate. They thought that this was a hoot, but DID show up at Freedom Square to see the sport. They have no doubt carried a lot of water on their heads in their growing up as girls, but they had not run. They were dressed in long skirts and white pressed blouse tunics of their job—and flip-flops! Nonetheless, when the “”Mission to Heal” whistle was trilled to start the race at what was supposed to have been 8:45 AM for our seven AM departure from Werkok to Bor, it actually could not get its act together until 9:15 AM—certainly the latest starting time of any major race I have done and a time I would consider about three hours late for the Equatorial tropics. Cases of water were set out with half liter bottles I picked one up as the whistle trilled.
In a cloud of dust, the pack ran along the Freedom Square and out into the “Main Drag” of Bor, where people paused in their grilling of skinned goat heads or pouring petrol into plastic Coke bottles (the standard unit of measure for fuel all through Africa.) A number of these fuel bottles had been placed on the stage at the Freedom Square along with a generator and boom box speakers guaranteed to drown out any sound of a generator engine when the festivities of the finishing ceremony would greet us on our return. I met up with Zach who was giving it a good try, then passed ahead to see a few of the stragglers of the lead pack which had included Josh. I fell back and handed Zach the water bottle I had started and then saw John Sutter way behind. I loitered a bit to get to a kid who was running closely pacing me, and I asked him repeatedly to stick to John. Then I ”heard” the midwives.
The slapping sounds of their sandals and the swishing of their skirts showed they were giving it a good try under less than perfect circumstances. I got behind each of them and slapped each on the back, and they would accelerate with that encouragement. Just like little kids, they would “fartlek” running forward at full speed and then stop and walk and then slowly run until I came up behind them and start the process all over. Many of these first timers, whom I was continuously goading, actually crossed the finish line in front of me eventually. Dr. Deng and Dr. Ajak, both sporting brand new and sparkling white running shoes, with Ajak also wearing a “CUBA” blue warm up suit, were doing the organizing along with a local sporting announcer, and neither ran. Each were on the vehicles, the official Jonglei State health Dept. Toyota Land Cruiser and a similar pickup truck from which they cruised ahead and handed out water and took video of the runners passing by. The ambulance with its flashers had been meant as our pace car, but we passed it in the early one hundred meters.
I had to bob and weave around braying donkeys hauling a fifty five gallon oil drum of Nile River water—“I yelled out “Hey! Get your ass off my course!” humoring at least Kirtus who heard me. I was watching the bemused smiles of some of the men, but on every occasion I could as women were intently staring, I would wave to them and yell “Kudwell Arreit!” They would inevitably burst out in cackling. The one woman mimicked an exaggerated pace and ran alongside me as I took her photo. I shot photos of me as I passed the pack of kids running alongside of us. And I kept encouraging the midwives.
I saw John faltering at one of the turns from the main drag as we turned toward the police station. I had tried to link him with one of the kids running barefoot through the soft sand of the unpaved (naturally) road and then went ahead seeing him in the back of a pickup truck later as he was brought to the water stop at one of the turns. He got out, drank several bottles of water and re-joined, and ran the back half with him—a good comeback!
I could hear the boom boxes as I saw my chronometer point to an hour, and we headed toward the Freedom Square and the gathered crowd all cheering us on as we sprinted toward the finish line. It was a while of milling around and little kids wearing tee shirts that said “For Sale School Books—Never Used” and another with a Barrack Obama tee shirt. One was wearing a tee shirt dealing with a peaceful voting of the referendum and another was urging “secede!” The miscellany of first world tee shirts is always a treat to see in any developing world country and a bit of a wonder about what their sponsors would be thinking if they could see them now. About like it, I am carrying back my own Jonglei Freedom Run tee shirt to see what sense could be made of it in the other world. Probably about as much as my only other acquisition on this trip which I have changed into after the brief shower up after the run—my Banaue “Ifagao Appreciation Day” in 2008, with the back of the tee shirt announcing “Proud to be Ifagao!”—I am always the “Odd Man Out.”
As we distributed the awards and saw all the finishers with a personal hand shake and my brief speech screamed over the PA set to the rap music of “Black Ninja”—no, I am not being funny!—we got in the vehicle and sucked up the rest of the liters of fluid we had packed along. I had anticipated perhaps encountering our big truck and its forty foot container with all the many interested parties seeking to have it diverted form MCH Werkok to their own “distribution networks” when I could not have been more clear about how this volunteer organization had volunteered to donate this gift to the medical mission network of mission hospitals and only as a health bridge to peace among competing tribes and not as an exclusive to anyone of them. We did not see it and it is now likely that it will come forward tomorrow, Sunday, when any good government official cannot be found which is all to the good.
We had passed flocks of hadeedah ibis on our morning trip to Bor, and on return I could point out the Sacred Ibis at the drying up pool at roadside. A mob of baboons were parked on top of the rubble tossed up from attempts to move in the rainy season mud, Sentinel males were posted in the trees as females with young were foraging along the road side. We have made it back to sleepy high afternoon sun in Werkok and will now try to assemble and send the reports back to home base on the first of two rather major events anticipated here—the Running of the First-Ever Jonglei Marathon. The second event, soon to follow and I had feared might coincide exactly is the arrival in triumph of the fulfillment of promise in the Peace Initiative—itself a pawn in power plays by many of those interested in persisting in zero sum games of advantage rather than collaboration in the NEW South Sudan, the forty foot container full of Derwood “Mission Control Room” supplies via “packing parties” of prior mission participants and shipping out of Toledo Ohio to make it to the “”Far Side” of this troubled globe.