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Philippa Young

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Running Liberia

Posted: 08/21/11 11:45 PM ET

The last time that Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, saw thousands of feet stampede its streets there was a civil war going on. The country's recent and devastating period of unrest makes it difficult to start any topic without this context. It's the white elephant in the room, but one that hundreds of pairs of running shoes hope to trample, at least for one day, as they run the first ever Liberian marathon.

"Every year since 1956 Liberia has qualified for the Olympic Games, even 2012!" head coach for the marathon trainees, Frederick Massaquoi, tells me early morning inside the SKD stadium.

SKD stands for Samuel Kanyon Doe, former president of the country, who, in 1990, was captured, tortured and killed by rebel warlords. The fact that the stadium still bears his name, not exactly an emblem of peace, is another poignant reminder that there are some things yet to benefit from the past eight years of peace and rebuilding. It is a reminder that two months after this marathon takes place the country will hold presidential elections that may, or may not, take place peacefully. Once a thriving republic, Liberia was reduced to rubble by two civil wars so recent in its history that anyone born before 2003 will have some memory of fighting and unrest. It's an intense backdrop to what will be a fun competitive event. But today is a normal day in Monrovia and, at 7am, in the cool morning air, 100 marathon trainees are warming up.

At first it looks like an all-male affair, but, as the runners continue to trickle through the gates, I spot one girl, then another, then another. Patience Paye is a 20-year-old phonetics teacher running in the 10km race, "I love it. I've been running for three weeks, ever since I heard about the marathon". Her expectations as one of the few women runners? "Maybe third" she says laughing. Next to her a male contender attempts to boost morale, "You will win!" he says encouragingly, "have self confidence!"

This is more than just a marathon; it's a landmark event for Liberia and, more importantly, for the Liberians who will watch their countrymen run on August 28th. Gustav Doe, a 26-year-old competing in the full marathon, has watched the Olympics over the years. African runners like Moroccan two-time Olympic gold medalist El Guerrouj (1500m, 5000m), are his inspiration. "He has courage, "says Gustav, "even when he's tired he doesn't stop".

In the fourth poorest country (by GDP) training for a marathon doesn't seem to comply with the development agency image of day-to-day survival. Efforts to re-brand Africa are on the rise, and events like this are important to a country's national marketing campaign. It's not all surface advertising either; the men and women running down Tubman Boulevard, and training here in SKD stadium, are a small but critical part of Liberia's new context.

Registering to run costs just 100LD (a little more than one US dollar) for local contenders. Around 1,000 have already registered for the 10km, and 100 will take on the full 42km race. You can register and wheel your way too, which is what Ebene Weah Wilson will be doing. He's part of Liberia's National Disabled Sports team, and has competed in South Africa, Greece and Algeria, "I know how I train and I know myself. I will win."

"For people to see Liberians running through the main street of Monrovia to the stadium will be very, very fantastic," says coach Massaquoi. The most serious marathon runners start their 50 laps for the morning, spurred on by shouts of encouragement from their coach.

In a country known primarily for two extreme opposites of civil war and the election of Africa's first female president, with a capital city that features no cinemas, 15,000 UN troops, and 80 percent illiteracy rates, it shouldn't be too surprising that a marathon is taking place. There is everything to do here, so why not hit the ground running?

 

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