If you’ve not travelled to Africa previously, Sierra Leone is never going to be the first country on your list.
However, teamed with the chance to run a marathon and become involved with the charity Street Child, suddenly Sierra Leone becomes a lot more attractive. This is ultimately what encouraged 100 internationals to fly into Freetown, drive to Makeni and run 26.2 miles.
In the 1980s, Sierra Leone attracted thousands of tourists who lined its golden coastline, that is until an extremely brutal civil war gripped the media’s attention between 1991–2002. Sierra Leone has now been at peace for 16 years, yet it has struggled to out run history; perhaps that’s why a running event to raise awareness is so apt.
Then along comes Ebola and well, Sierra Leone slips further off the tourist map.
I first became aware of Street Child when a friend, keen to abuse my weakness for travelling in Africa, asked if I wanted to run the marathon. It was an easy decision and I was excited when I landed in Freetown, and travelled three hours to Makeni where I was based until the day after the event.
Makeni is the largest city in the northern province of Sierra Leone, with the fifth largest population. It’s a cute place with motorbikes spreading dust, colourful clothes on washing lines and car horns. We stayed at Mj’s Hotel which is central, offering spacious rooms, mosquito nets, included breakfast and bucket showers.
When signing up for the marathon, I essentially booked a package which included accommodation with the option to extend on the beach, transport, meals, race entry, vest top, water and support on race day.
It also includes visits to the various projects so I could see where the money I had raised ended up, this was key for me. With so many larger-than-life charities swallowing the bulk of money on overheads, Street Child is a grass routes charity which encourages locals to run the projects, plus works with both urban and rural communities for the greater good.
Street Child arranged for the amputee football team to play a match the day before. Their wounds are a painful reminder of the country’s bitter civil war, but it hasn’t dampened their sporting spirit. The skill and speed of these athletes is incredible to watch.
Sierra Leone Marathon Day
When I signed up for the marathon I knew it would be hot and humid, I’m talking 32degrees with 90% humidity. I never understood what it was like to truly sweat, until faced by a 26 mile run on a sunny Sierra Leone morning. The event kicks off at 6am, but literally 15 seconds after starting, I was sweating. There are water and electrolyte stations every 2 miles which is crucial for getting around this course in one piece.
I would love to say the course was flat but it wasn’t. The best description would be undulating, not hilly, but it did feel like I was constantly running in an upwards or downhill direction. The course begins on a dirt road before evolving onto tarmac, it then veers off into rural land through remote backcountry villages, lush forested areas and across train tracks. It then links back into Makeni and ends at the stadium to the cacophony of drums, dancing and cheering.
What started as an event for internationals to run and raise money for locals, has morphed into a local event which welcomes foreigners with the same vision, to join and cross the finishing line together. Every year a Sierra Leonian wins the event, communities cheer from the sidelines and offer sweet mangos to tired runners, passing cars beep their horns in support, and children with huge smiles chase behind yelling ‘opoto’ or ‘white-man’.
The thing I most enjoyed about the course, besides the finishing line obviously, was the chance to see the rural side of Sierra Leone at my own pace. When I was running, the locals kept me focussed, when I was tired I walked and admired the scenery. It was the perfect way to spend a morning, and finish before the midday heat.
As the Founder of Street Child said, “I have always believed in being the change in the world that you want to see” . If you could like to contribute to the positive impact of the Sierra Leone Marathon, please consider this five-day African adventure for your plans!
Cooling off in the heat, post race
The morning after race day, with weary legs we drove towards the coast to Tokeh Beach. This slice of heaven offers deserted idyllic beach realness, fine golden sand, palm trees lining the shore, fresh seafood, coconut sellers, plus warm Atlantic Ocean water.
There is an array of different accommodations to choose from but we ended up at Token Beach Resort, a laid back lodge with basic, standard and quieter room options. I can recommend this place to anyone and would return at the drop of a hat.
Top tip: Be sure to wander down the beach to River Number Two Beach in the evening for fresh crayfish and local beer to wash it down with. You’ll need to pay a boat man to cross the river but the BBQ sauce alone is worth the trip!
Sierra Leone has thrown open its doors to tourism once again, and desperately needs travellers to return. The marathon does two things; it raises funds for the Street Child projects, but it also raises awareness of a country so deserving of your tourist £££.
You can sign up for next year already…get involved!
Happy travelling and running folks!
If you want to read any other Africa blogs, check these out:
A guide to travelling Sudan
Everything you need to know about travelling in Cameroon
How to spot gorillas in Lobeke National Park
The ultimate guide to travelling in Ethiopia
The Danakil Depression – one of the hottest, driest and lowest places on earth
Tanzania – Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater
Botswana and the Okavango Delta