*Read the first post in this series here: A Practical (Running) Life Overseas
I didn’t intend to build a running community. I didn’t even intend to start running. But loneliness will make you do incredible things and five years later, I am amazed.
I started running when we had a woman working with us for one school year. Heather had recently run a marathon.
“Is it safe to run here?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “You should go with someone at least the first time.”
“You’re the boss,” she said. “I’m running. You’re supposed to keep me safe, so I guess you’re coming with.”
And voila, I started running. I liked running fine, but I adored Heather. I would go through anything, even a 110-degree run, to spend time with her, to listen to her talk while I huffed and hacked, to pray, to review scripture together.
Eventually we got more serious about training and wanted to do speed work. Through another American and her friendship with Djibouti’s only Olympic medalist (1988 Seoul Olympics, bronze in the marathon), we were given permission to run at the stadium.
A handful of local girls trained there. They were young, not in school, friendly, and often injured. They rarely stretched and ran in bare feet, didn’t know about hydration or post-run fueling, and were often kept out of competitions because they didn’t belong to a club. These girls were fast, they lapped us during workouts, but on warm-up and cool-down laps, we chatted and developed friendships and we started to dream about an all-girls club.
Girls Run 2 launched in 2008 and now includes two coaches and 27 girls in two towns. The club provides running equipment, water at races, transportation to races, academic assistance, and some job skills training.
Running is by nature a solitary endeavor, but all runners can testify to the strength of a running community. A running team, race camaraderie, someone to complain about knee pain to, someone who will ask if you are meeting your goals, someone who understands why you push your body to the limits.
Living overseas isn’t always, but can sometimes feel like a solitary endeavor. My husband has a job and through his work, has a natural community. Over the years I have been much more fluid in how I engage and it has often been a lonely struggle. Running has helped meet a relational need through the development of this community.
How can those of us without a clear-cut niche develop a community overseas? How can we be intentional and creative and get involved?
You don’t need to start a club. It could be one other woman, like Heather and I. What about finding out if any of your local friends run or walk or want to start? Gather one or two and hit the road, the time together might become addicting and attractive to others. You don’t have to be fast. I began participating in races, sometimes one of three women out of a field of over 100. I have been the last person, the.last.person to cross the finish line. The first time that I finished in last place I got on television, shook the hand of the minister for sports, and posed for photos with the national running team, a gigantic trophy in my hands for finishing as the third-place woman. Third out of three. Last place. Champion. There is probably a lesson there, I was just glad to stop running.
You don’t need a lot of experience. Neighbors began talking to me about running, some asked if they could run with me. When university students found out I ran, some came to the train to join, even though they had never run before. Since I was still a beginner, we had a lot in common.
It doesn’t have to be running. Figure out what you love to do and then do it with the people around you. Notice, I didn’t say: figure out what you do well and then do it with the people around you. I do not run well. I have terrible form and turn red as beet juice. I terrify children and make them scream when I try to smile at the end of long runs (true story).
Want to build community? What do you love to do? How can you do it together?
(here is a link to the preview for the movie I mentioned in my last post about running: Finding Strong. If you get Runner’s World magazine, the December issue has a fully page ad for this film and the photo is of three of our Djibouti girls at Lac Assal, the lowest point in Africa, Djibouti’s salt lake).
-Rachel Pieh Jones, (slow) marathoner and development worker, Djibouti