I'm surrounded on all sides. My legs are on fire, my side hurts and I'm having some trouble breathing. But I have to push on. If I stop, they will catch me from behind and overtake me. If I keep going, I may be able to snag those in front of me ... but will my body endure it?
I hear a loud whirring to my left and catch a glimpse of an army helicopter whizzing by, soldiers inside cheering us on. Then on my right a couple of army trucks storm past also filled with hollering and shouting soldiers. Who would have thought a 15 km race would be so much like a war zone? The excitement picks up my adrenaline and gives me a much-needed boost.
So no, I'm not in the middle of any war, just ankle-deep in a battle against Mother Nature as I slog it out in the middle of the Grand Bara 15 km desert race of Djibouti (courtesy of the French Army). In general, my experiences as a runner in Djibouti have been fairly positive.
True, I could do without the stifling humidity that steals your breath away like an overzealous bear-hug. However, I have found that although I'm perceived as somewhat of an oddity by the local countrymen, many of whom prefer the past-time of lounging on sidewalks drinking sugary tea and chewing khat leaves (a popular mild narcotic in the region), I usually garner a lot of support.
I can't count the number of times I get a "Bon Courage! (good luck)" shouted my way as I jog past. I'm most tickled too by the moments where I'll be running by one of these various street loungers, and suddenly they will get a squirt of inspiration and will randomly join me for about 20 seconds before calling it quits again.
It also does my heart good when I'm out running by a school right as it is ending. Without fail, I'll receive a small entourage of 6 year-old Djiboutians trailing behind me, trying to see who can stay with the odd white man the longest.
My favorite memory was one night when this little girl, on her way to the Mosque in her nice clothes, suddenly broke from her mother's hand and skipped along with me for a short part of my run. In general, it seems Djiboutians appreciate the effort it takes to pursue sports in their country.
My breathing picks up, and sweat starts flowing down my face. Five kilometers left, and I start to feel myself puttering out. The heat is rising and bringing my fatigue with it. A few runners I so vigorously passed at the begging have slowly started catching up. Fortunately, this also seems to be the same time the majority of my fellow cigarette-puffing French "runners" have hit their own wall, only for them it manifests itself as bending over and coughing their lungs out.
Djibouti is not a country known for sports. Unlike its more celebrated neighbors Kenya and Ethiopia, Djibouti hasn't developed the same legacy of producing fine runners ... or any athletes for that matter. It's unfortunate though, because there is a lot of potential in the country. Djiboutians come from many similar origins as their legendary Ethiopian neighbors.
I also noticed that during community races, my Djiboutian friends who hardly ever partake in sports still seem to keep me huffing and puffing after them. And let's not forget the 1988 Olympics, where Djiboutian runner Houssein Ahmed Salah took home the bronze for the men's marathon competition.
Regardless, Djiboutians still don't seem to embrace sports the way most countries in Africa do. Some Djiboutians blame their lack of athletic motivation on the national addiction (and consequently pastime) of chewing the khat leaves that I mentioned earlier, which render them completely sedated for a better part of each day.
The end is in sight! Distant tents and trailers have now grown bigger and bigger. Although my legs ache from the constant pounding on the desert floor, my body soaked in sweat from the desert heat, I try to turn my pace up a notch for the finish. Slowly and steadily I breeze by a few runners dying out at the end. I see the finish line. I push forward, and suddenly I'm there! Finished! With a 1-hour-17-minute race time, I stagger past puking French Legionnaires to get my free T-shirt. I turn around just in time to see my girlfriend soaring across the finish line herself, not too far behind.
While it may not be the most normal place to engage in athletics, and by far not the easiest, it is fair to say that Djibouti certainly creates one of the more exotic atmospheres in the world for sports. With any luck, maybe in the future we will be able to see more and more running representatives from this land of harsh conditions. We certainly wont be seeing more French ones.
Philip Dierking is a Juneau resident working as an International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH) volunteer in the east African country of Djibouti, where he teaches English at the only university.