MAKENI, Sierra Leone (Reuters) - When retired British General Richard Dannatt spoke to runners gathered last Friday in northern Sierra Leone for the country’s first postwar marathon, there was a shade of Shakespeare’s Henry V on the night before the battle of Agincourt.
“The person who’s going to take most care of you tomorrow morning is yourself,” advised the former Chief of the General Staff of the British Army. “I take your personal safety as being the top line and the bottom line.”
Dannatt’s audience was preparing for a different kind of battle than the British soldiers, whose actions a dozen years ago helped bring about the end of Sierra Leone’s civil war.
They were competitors in Sierra Leone’s first marathon, and their opponent was not Kalashnikov-toting rebels, but the heat in a country once dubbed “the white man’s grave” during the colonial period because its muggy, malarial climate often proved lethal to Europeans.
In the latter years of the civil war, Makeni was the capital of the Revolutionary United Front rebels, and now, it is a booming hub for nearby iron ore and biofuel projects.
The event was organised as a fundraiser by Street Child of Sierra Leone, a charity founded by Dannatt’s son, with the aim to raise 250,000 pounds to take children off the streets in a country, which, despite 10 years of peace since a bloody civil war, remains one of the poorest in the world.
The charity lured around 150 international competitors.
“We want to give the guys who’ve come over from international countries an understanding of what they’re raising funds for,” Street Child’s spokesman Martin Forsyth said.
The event included a full 26.2-mile marathon, a half marathon and a 5 km dash with about 364 competitors including Sierra Leoneans participating in all three events.
It is said that Sierra Leone has never recorded a temperature below 19 Celsius, and Makeni, inland and far from cooling Atlantic breezes, is one of the hottest towns in the country.
Some competitors were apprehensive before the start.
“I think it’s going to be hot, wet, humid,” said Mart Abramov, a 32-year old Estonian who works for an information technology firm in San Francisco. “No one’s running for time, I think everyone just wants to finish.”
The route combined sections of tarmac road in the town of Makeni itself with dirt paths through the bush. In the villages local people watched. Some were baffled.
“This is the first time for us to see this type of programme,” said Momoh Koroma, a 35-year-old farmer in the village of Kunsho outside Makeni. “I feel some of them (referring to the runners), are trying, but some of them, they are very weak.”
The overall winner of the full marathon was 23-year-old Sierra Leonean Idrissa Kargbo, who romped home in two hours 46 minutes. He admitted he had never run a marathon before.
“This my first 26 miles,” he said. “Just God. God give me the experience.”
Others took much longer and in a cruel twist, the slower runners also had to cope with hotter conditions as the heat of the day approached its zenith. By about 11 a.m. the temperature was hovering around 34.6 Celsius (94.28 Fahrenheit).
With humidity at 50.6 percent race director Ben Hodgson said conditions were “borderline” for long-distance running, according to international guidelines.
Well aware of these difficult conditions, organisers laid on considerable medical facilities with six ambulances and four major first aid points.
In the village of Mangayloko American doctor Tom Asher stood by an inflatable blue pool that could be used to immerse people in order to bring down their body temperature, he said.
“When the core body temperature gets very high, that’s when you get irreversible damage,” Asher said.
Long after the first runners had come home, the slower participants, were still struggling in the brutal heat, limping through villages, to the finish line.
Apart from minor ailments such as sunburn and dehydration, no one died, race organisers said. But runners had mixed views after the gruelling exercise.
London-based banker Simon Catt, said the race was better than what he expected, adding that “The fear of the humidity was harder than the humidity itself.”
However, Sarah Steer, the fastest woman with a time of 3:40, admitted she was not keen to run another marathon in Sierra Leone.
“The first 20 miles were fantastic, all the children were screaming and shouting for us,” said the 36-year-old from Cambridge in England.
“The last five miles, I could have done without.”