On my third day in The Gambia I looked down at my key chain thermometer, yanked it from the hook on my gym bag, and threw it in the trash.
It read a blazing 38 degrees and I was realizing the hard way that temperature is irrelevant on the shores of West Africa – there was only hot or hotter.
“Hot” means you’re squirming in a small pool of wetness under your clothes and your coffee-colored hair feels hot to the touch. “Hotter” means your bra and underwear are saturated in sweat and your hair just won’t seem to dry after your shower.
I was there during a scorching summer in 2007 when I worked as a nurse with the NSGA’s Gender Equity and Youth Leadership through Health and Human Rights Education project. Big project name, big ambition: to keep kids alive through HIV and malaria education.
This July, I’ll once again brave the heat of The Gambia to lace up my sneakers in an attempt to run all the way across the country in support of the same cause. Over my 430km route, I’ll be raising money for the Nova Scotia-Gambia Association (NSGA).
In 2007, I went through a life-changing experience when I taught youth to be peer health educators. These kids returned to their schools to share HIV prevention messages with youth in their communities.
In a country that does not offer sexual health in school, the role these kids play in preventing HIV is vital. It’s not something we often think about in a country where health care is readily available and going to school is a right, not a privilege.
But when I returned to Halifax, I couldn’t get The Gambia out of my mind. I thought about how my teenage students, some as old as 19 years, would sit three to a two-person desk, often with their arms around each other in affection. I thought about how they valued education in a way that you can only understand if 50 per cent of your peers can’t afford school fees.
I thought about the answer I got when I once asked my class: “How do you help somebody with HIV stay healthy?”
“They need love and caring and understanding,” they said, “They need hope for the future, and a positive attitude.”
I joined the NSGA board of directors and this year, after 25 years of operation, NSGA began to run into financial problems.
We had endured two years of financial loss and were looking at a third. Like many other charities, our donor base was down and some board members felt that we may have reached the end of the organization.
I thought about my Gambian youth and couldn’t reconcile their thoughts. I wanted to do something.
Then I thought about running. I’ve had lots of success racing. The Gambia is a small country. It would be possible to run all the way across The Gambia.
So this is what I’m doing. I’ve called my campaign Love4Gambia. I’ll begin my mission on July 4, and over 17 days, I will run 430km (that’s a half marathon each day) from Basse, near the Senegalese border, to Banjul on the Atlantic coast.
Four support people will join me. My friend and fellow NSGA volunteer nurse, Ashley Sharpe, will be my medical support. My massage therapist, Katherine Tidman from Total Kneads, has volunteered to come. Two members of our NSGA staff in The Gambia will also accompany us.
Sure it’s going to be tough. The heat will present my biggest challenge because I know that no matter what length of time I spend in Africa, I’ll never acclimate to it.
So I am trying to prepare my body for the heat by going to hot yoga practice. Sometimes in the studio, I feel like I’ve become one with the melting air. Other times, I think: “Gentle Lord! It’s 37 degrees in here!” I look like I just got out of a swimming pool and this is average temperature I’ll be running in.
On these days, the preparation isn’t so productive.
Right now, my marathon training with coach Cliff Matthews is geared toward my third Boston Marathon. I’m running 85 km-plus per week, fitness that will carry well onto my plane to Africa.
Running is the easy part. Cliff dictates my training plan and I do exactly what he says. It’s hard work, but it’s something I love.
The really brutal part is doing the extra things I need to do to stay healthy in this long training cycle. I’m piling food into my body like I’ll never eat again. I’m forcing myself to strength training.
I have chiropractor Dr. Jason Gray working with me for free — his contribution to Love4Gambia. Weekly treatment keeps me healthy and he sets my strength-training program. I’m lucky for this.
The sidewalks have been in poor condition during this wicked winter we’ve endured on the East Coast. The wind freezes my cheeks and sometimes my contact lenses, blurring my vision.
The “nicest” place to run outdoors in the entire city has become the MacDonald Bridge sidewalk deck where plowing and salting are thorough. The Halifax Ocean Terminal at Marginal Road, with its bright lighting and quality snow removal service for transport trucks and trains, has also been kind to winter runners.
An average training week for me is 6 days and looks like this:
- Monday – easy 6-8km + hot yoga
- Tuesday – track workout with Cliff- often short and fast intervals, such as 10 x 800m, total 14-17km with warm-up and cool-down
- Wednesday – recovery 12km + strength training
- Thursday – track workout with Cliff- often long intervals close to marathon pace, such as 3 x 15 minutes, total 14-17km
- Friday – recovery or easy 12 km
- Saturday – long run 2-2.5 hours including quality speed segment every 2nd week.
- Sunday – rest + strength training
So yes, it’s going to be tough. I knew that when I said I’d do this. But it’s worth it.
While volunteering in The Gambia, I saw how the NSGA’s programs directly impacted the youth. When the NSGA ran into trouble, I knew I needed to do something to help these programs continue. And that’s what I’m going to do.
To support my Love4Gambia campaign and to follow my progress as I prepare for and run across The Gambia in July, visit me at www.love4gambia.com