I used to hate running and at the end of the first run I completed in Djibouti I put my hands on my knees, nearly tumbled to the ground, and said (through heaving breaths), “People do this, like, for fun?”
Apparently they do. And then I started to do it, like, for fun too.
A (Running) Life Overseas will include three posts. First: practicalities. Second: building community. Third: digging deeper (issues like running in expensive shoes in developing countries, etc).
Some of the first practical issues when running overseas are:
- Getting started
- Clothing and Gear
- Nutrition and hydration
The best thing to do is to ask a local, a longer-term expatriate, or to observe. How, where, when do people run? What do men wear? Women? Even if you are an avid runner already, it might be good to start with leisurely walks to learn the neighborhoods. Invite a friend, spouse, or neighbor. When you drive around town, keep on the lookout for where people are running. Find the local sports stadium and introduce yourself, ask if there are any races or clubs.
Try to be sensitive to cultural norms but don’t be locked into them. People might think you are bizarre but guess what, expat? You are bizarre. Own it. Sensitively. This is something that takes years to settle into, so I say that lightly. In the beginning it is a good idea to learn and follow most cultural norms. But as you become more knowledgeable, you will discover which boundaries you are comfortable bending or crossing and which you aren’t.
I run in clothes that are more modest than French runners and less modest than Djiboutian runners. I wear t-shirts and capris that cover my knees. Djibouti is so incredibly hot that loose clothes gather sweat, flap around, and chafe so I tend toward more fitted clothing. My number one favorite piece of running clothes is a pair of spandex pants with a skort attached. I also look for shirts or pants with pockets for keys, coins, Gu. Trail shoes are great for less developed locations. Because quality running shoes might not be available in many parts of the world, find a pair you like and stick with it so you can order online and have visitors bring them in a suitcase.
Listening to an iPod can be motivational and inspirational and can provide a good distraction from onlookers’ comments but they can also be a magnet for getting robbed or a distraction from looking out for wild drivers so use them with caution. I find music grating after a while and prefer sermons and audiobooks, or I plug in the headphones without anything playing. Then people are less likely to try and talk to me. I cherish that quiet, alone time.
Nutrition and Hydration
In steamy countries, this is so important. In August in Djibouti we are breathing fire and I can feel the air sucking life moisture from my body. It is too dry to sweat, making hydration that much more important. In the spring and fall, it is so humid we can slice the air with a knife. At those times, salt intake is of extreme importance, not just water. These are important things to know about your location and the seasons and your body. In the dry season, I freeze water bottles to carry. In the humid season I bring Gu packets, bananas, or salted snacks. It can be hard to rehydrate adequately if you run every day so either take days off when your pee isn’t clear or chug-a-lug the water during the day. A side note about eating on the run – in many developing nations, litter is everywhere. This doesn’t make it okay for you to drop the Gu packet or water bottle. Try to care for God’s creation, even when exhausted.
Don’t be stupid. Don’t go on a long run in the hot season without water and without telling someone where you are going. Bring a phone if possible. Run in a group if that is safest. If mugging is common, take appropriate precautions or don’t go to certain areas. If you feel doubtful about a specific street or something just doesn’t feel right, trust your gut, cut the run short or make it long by going around. In some places, running simply might not be possible. Invest in good exercise DVDs like P90X or Insanity for running-quality workouts and learn to be okay with that.
So many things about living overseas are never finished. Language learning, cultural adaptation, development projects, fund-raising. But I can start and finish a run, it is one of the only things I can actually cross off my to-do list. Running helps me appreciate unique aspects of Djibouti, builds community, and makes me stronger. It is an hour or more a day not spent parenting or team-mating or studying, running has become a sort of refuge. A space for me, my breathing, my feet, and God.
Your turn. What are some beginning or practical tips you have?
*The first and last photos are of the Girls Run 2 team in Djibouti, the only all-girl running team that I helped to start a few years ago. On November 2 a Runner’s World/Saucony film featuring these girls will premiere in New York City. Thanks for letting me indulge in a little film-promotion. I am so proud of these girls!
-Rachel Pieh Jones, introverted development worker, Djibouti