Saturday, 14 March 2015

Heroes

We hear the word ‘hero’ bashed around quite a bit out here. I find it rather awkward – like we (although I’d much prefer to refer to the local staff rather than us, international folk) have some sort of special power. The British Embassy even cashed in on the term last week, hosting an “Ebola Heroes” night of thanks to the UK teams involved in the response. It’s a shame that the term, for me, has become overused and degraded somehow. When you describe each and every Ebola worker as a ‘hero’ it gets a bit tiresome or we all just get a bit arrogant which has got to be worse.  I really don’t mean to undermine the amazing work that lots of healthcare workers are doing here; entering the red-zone on a daily basis takes a lot of courage. The recent news of a British military healthcare worker infection reminded me of the ongoing risk we face. In fact, following that news, I vividly dreamt I had Ebola the night before last and woke up in a cold sweat. That used to be a fairly regular dream for me when I first arrived but I had obviously come accustomed to the risk and possibly less daunted by the prospect. There’s nothing quite like a military personnel getting infected, with all their resources and protocols, to realise you can never fully eliminate the risk.

Talking about heroes of different kind… do you know who my hero is? A gentle, kind and fiercely determined young man called Idrissa. In the depths of my despair about my marathon training a few weeks ago, I was quite literally in tears in the office and Oliver asked what the matter was. Oliver is the programme director of King’s Sierra Leone Partnership – an amazingly pragmatic person and deservingly well-respected here. His response was quite simply “well, you need a personal trainer”. Within a minute or two he had rung a friend of his and fixed him to be my trainer.



Idrissa Kargbo is not just an ordinary personal trainer. He’s Sierra Leone’s top long-distance runner and at the mere age of 25 (or 24 or 26, he’s not quite sure of his birthday) he has a potentially exciting career ahead of him. He was ‘spotted’ by an Australian girl called Jo (who used to be the King’s media person) and through her own fundraising and the competition money of winning the Liberia marathon he managed to get a place in the New York Marathon in 2013 and London Marathon in 2014. In London, it was a super hot day which suited him perfectly as he’s used to the heat in Freetown, he ran his personal best of 2 hours 32 minutes. That happens to be the exact time I ran the Great North Run (a half marathon!) during medical school. I have, since then, done a half marathon in sub-2 hours (just: 1 hour 59 mins and 50 secs!), but Idrissa really does run twice as fast as me.

For now though, unfortunately and very frustratingly, Ebola has prevented him entering any international marathons this year. He also doesn’t have the funds to pay for flights, visas, and competition entry fees. He barely has adequate equipment to run here - his Garmin watch, a gift from an British friend, broke a few weeks ago and he cannot get a replacement for now. The recent news of Jimmy Thoronka, the Sierra Leone Commonwealth Games athlete who ‘absconded’ in Glasgow last year and a sadly similar story of one of Idrissa’s London Marathon co-runners and friends, Mamie, are both examples of the desperate lengths these individuals take to leave Sierra Leone but only to the detriment of their career. If only these exceptional athletes could be recognised and supported by their own government they may not have been driven to running away. It would be incredible if there were some way of securing long-term sustainable funding Idrissa's running career; he can only so far without any professional training; running the chaotic hilly streets of Freetown. If anyone reading this blog has any suggestions of how to support Idrissa - please contact me.

Without a race to train for now, Idrissa seems happy enough to earn a bit of cash from me and jog alongside my comparative snail-pace four times a week. His love of running is certainly infectious. He’s always got a smile on his face, even at 6am in the dark and I’m already complaining, “I’m tired” before even setting off! He has some pretty fantastic stock phrases, “Keep going, keep the fire burning” or “You are strong, Claire”. Yet at other times, he’s perfectly happy to bring attention to the fact that I do run, in fact, really slowly! The other day, he insisted very sincerely, that on race day in London, “all you need to do is find a really old man, and run behind him all the way”. Ha! Thanks Idrissa. He meant it so endearingly and so wants me to cross that finish line ‘strong’ but telling me a run like an old man isn’t particularly encouraging! I am so grateful for his support though as I know I couldn’t motivate myself to get out running four or five times a week without him.

I should add a little disclaimer - my 3 mile run (15 mins pace) was a serious crazily steep hill training session!

The race is 6 weeks tomorrow. I ran a half-marathon this morning in just over 2 hours and actually felt remarkably good, both mentally and physically. The plan is to scale-up distances over the next 2 weeks until our last training run together on the 30th March when he wants me to run 20 miles. Eek, ‘keep strong’…

Please sponsor me: www.virginmoneygiving.com/canclairerunamarathon – all funds raised are going to King’s Sierra Leone Partnership. Thank you.

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