Note from the editor: The second part of this story will run next month in Neighbors.
"La course commence en 5 minute!"
Groggily, I rub my bloodshot eyes, still stinging from their bitter 3 a.m. wake up and stiffly begin trotting over to the starting line.
"Hurry! They just said they're starting soon!" my girlfriend Jaime shouts while bounding ahead with a perkiness way to abnormal for this ungodly hour.
We find a place among a long line of skinny white French soldiers in equally abnormal short shorts, who, in all their athletic grace, are hurriedly sucking down and stamping out the last of their cigarettes before the big event gets started. The night sky is just starting to melt away enough to reveal the long, flat plains that lay ahead of us. Soon 7 a.m. hits, but no starting gun. Jaime, noticing that everybody's heads are turned upwards scanning the sky, prods me with an elbow.
"Hey what's going on? Why haven't we started?"
I smile. "Just wait, you'll see." This was my second time, so I know what is coming.
Soon, off in the distance, two small lights start shooting forward like tiny sparks, quickly growing larger and larger. Suddenly, with a roar as powerful as a pack of lions, the two French fighter jets swoop low, loud, and proud right over our heads and thunder off in front of us, as a tremendous bellow of cheering and fist-pumping erupts from the thousands of surrounding soldiers. Then, like a stampede of wildebeest we are off, and the 27th annual 15-kilometer race of the Grand Bara Desert is under way!
So what's going on you ask? Well Jaime and I are participating in one of the more unusual traditions of Djibouti: a 15-kilometer race across one of the driest and most barren parts of the country, the Grand Bara Desert. Roughly 18.5 miles long and over 6 miles wide, the Grand Bara desert is an enormous stretch of long, flat, lonely plains of emptiness, not unlike Death Valley in California.
The surface is so arid and parched for water that cracks crawl and splinter along its floor like an engulfing spider web. It's like that desolate place you find your self in your dreams when you're not quite awake, not quite asleep, but caught in a purgatory of consciousness. And it's precisely the kind of place the French Army chose to stake an annual distant race to display their European toughness.
Breathing in and out, I'm a little discouraged that some of those short-shorted French men are breezing ahead of me. It's still just the first ten minutes, I tell myself. I have a long way left to prove my worth. The sun still hasn't shown its face, but the sky is dissolving into a violet hue and the intimidating blue-gray clouds have started retreating back enough to reveal the mountain skyline looming far away in the distance.
At 7:10 a.m., the normally overbearing heat is still kept at bay, so my breathing rate is pretty good. I start to calm down and settle into my pace, setting my sights on a French Legionnaire in the distance who looks susceptible to being overtaken.
What this race serves for the running world is what Djibouti represents to that of politics: a small place of strategic location that has attracted men-in-uniform from across the globe.
When your next-door neighbors are the pirates of Somalia, the Al-Qaeda terrorists of Yemen and the civil unrest of Eritrea, suddenly you become everyone's favorite house to sleep at. Consequently, Djibouti is now hosting a smörg sbord of international armies, including French and US (and soon Japanese) military bases, Spanish, German and Italian soldiers, and navies ranging from Ethiopia to Turkey. And you better believe that all these actors are out and on fine display during the race, each platoon running with matching singlets, racing shorts, and buzz cuts.
I begin to feel it. Pain. The constant hammering of my feet against the dry desert surface sends aches and pains slowly throbbing throughout my legs. Water drains from my body through steady streams of sweat, causing my thirst to build. I glance at my watch and see that I've only been out for 45 minutes. Can my body last?
Philip Dierking is a Juneau resident working as an International Foundation for Education and Self-Help volunteer in the east African country of Djibouti, where he teaches English at the only university.