AMBESSA RUN

“Sorry, I did an accidental Forest Gump”. This was my excuse for many a missed dinner party, coffee catch-up or general social interaction that had been planned before I went for a 5 km run that, accidentally, turned into a marathon. 

I love running. I used to hate it, like many people I know. I was dragged into running as a university student when I went home for breaks, by my sister who made me join her for company on morning jogs around the block. I remember those first runs. It was like running over glass, convinced at every corner I was going to have a heart attack. To get me through them, I would force myself to keep my eyes from constantly darting at my watch, thinking; “Okay, I haven’t looked for at LEAST fifteen minutes. Maybe more, it’s probably been about half an hour”. I would hungrily look at my wrist: two minutes would have passed. Running kidnaps time, it is friends with exams, moments of crippling embarrassment, and planes taking off in this skill.

With time however, I looked ever less frequently at my watch, and slowly the wall of heart thudding, limb solidifying pain turned to pleasure. I looked less at my wrist and more at my surroundings. I thought less of how far away the nearest hospital was and more of what I was going to do in the immediate or far future. Running became a type of meditation.

My runs became longer, and now years later, I run marathons for fun. Always one for extremes, I decided that a marathon wasn’t enough, I wanted to do a MASSIVE run. A massivathon. So I decided to run across Zimbabwe, where I am from.

I ran to raise money and awareness for ZIMNAMH, the Zimbabwe National Association for Mental Health (perhaps because mine was questionable!). In all transparency however, the run came first and the charity afterwards. I would have happily done a Forest Gump across the country alone, but I figured that something on that scale presented a good opportunity to team up with a charity. I also selfishly hoped that it would be easier to organise with their help.

Deciding upon the charity was difficult. I have volunteered for various organisations in Zimbabwe; with orphans at Emerald Hill, disabled children at St.Giles, and KidzCan in the cancer ward at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare. Most of these charities already have international sponsors and get regular funding. Mental health however is something that gets very little national or international funding in Zimbabwe, and even less publicity, so I thought it would be a deserving cause, and the directors of ZIMNAMH responded with enthusiasm to the idea.

The pros of supporting an underfunded charity is that they need the money. The con is that lacking funding means they are also not capable of providing resources.

I decided to run from Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe where I was born and raised, to Victoria Falls, the border town with Zambia and home to one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It is a total of 724km.

Impossible. Insane. Crazy. Stupid. These were some of the adjectives thrown at the idea. In my stubborn response, I decided to prove the doubting Thomases wrong by making the run low budget (not that I, with my moth-filled bank account, nor ZIMNAMH, had a choice) by insisting I would sleep in the car or camp, and live on supernoodles and cereal. (The supernoodle vow was broken on day three, replaced by a large spicy chicken pizza, and I have not eaten a supernoodle since).

All we needed was one single-cab pickup and driver, ZIMNAMH conveniently had the former and one of the directors, Mr Tendai Mayuni, kindly offered to take on the role of the latter. I blew away some of the moths in my bank account and scraped out enough for a mammoth supermarket shop of water, noodles and camping gear and off we went!

To run 724km – at the rate of a marathon a day – I needed three weeks. I did it in 15 days, meaning that I averaged over a marathon a day. Over this period however, I varied my routine. The first few days I did my solid marathon in the morning, and then either ran another 10km in the early evening or just rested. The run went from the centre of the country to the north-west, getting lower and hotter every day.

The challenges varied from the start of the run, where I was so close to big cities, and had to run on busy motorways. I wondered if I would join the roadkill that I would jog past, with ‘death by car’ to be inscribed onto my gravestone. Later, as towns became smaller and further apart the challenges were more in the form of wild animals, snakes and the possible dangers of camping in isolated areas.

As we came ever nearer to the spray of Victoria Falls, the heat only seemed to double every day. From the higher altitude part of the country called Mashonaland we carried on into Matabeleland, and finally into what is known in Zimbabwe as the ‘low-veld’ where in the heights of summer, temperatures can reach over 40 degrees. I chose to run in April, which is our winter month, but the low veld is pretty immune to winter. I had to change my routine now to adapt to the new conditions, getting up as early as 4am so that I could run 40km before the sun was too high in the sky. And then Mayuni and I would park the pickup and find a shady spot on the side of the road to wait for the heat to subside. Imagine hanging out in a pizza oven. Too hot to talk, read, or even listen to music. The car being an inferno, we would lie by a tree, silently scraping flies out of our eyes, too sun-fried even to question what we were doing there in the first place. Birds were dropping like flies from the heat. I ran past dead cows from the heat, bloated corpses on their backs, all four legs sticking in the air as though pointing accusingly at the sun.

On the fundraising front, I was appealing for donations throughout the whole run. Posting sweaty selfies on Instagram whenever I had internet connection, and updating my blog whenever my brain had cooled down enough to string a sentence together. My initial target was 1,000 dollars, and at first the donations came in very slowly (thank you Conor O’Toole for that first generous donation that got the financial ball rolling), but things soon snowballed and I ended up raising nearly 8,000 dollars!

While we were short on resources, ZIMNAMH did the best they could to help with the organisation of the run. Mayuni accompanied me all the way, handing out flyers and giving talks on mental health in towns and villages along the way to raise awareness. We were going through areas far from suburban centres, where many people with mental illnesses were ostracised from their communities due to a lack of understanding.

Mental health, in my opinion, is something sorely misunderstood not only in Zimbabwe, but all over the world. I am no expert, but I believe misdiagnosis is rife, and antidepressants oversubscribed. One of the reasons I chose mental health as the cause, was to correct some misunderstandings in Zimbabwe that mental ‘disorders’, such as schizophrenia, epilepsy and bipolar conditions, are not the fault of the individual and must be treated in ways other than blaming the sufferer.

It is an ongoing challenge, and my Gofundme page (all the links are at the bottom of this article) is continuing to receive donations, so if you feel it is a worthy cause, please do chip in with whatever amount, it all makes a difference. So far some of the funds have been used to fix a dire water shortage in one of Zimbabwe’s only halfway homes, sinking boreholes and fixing water pipes to save the patients themselves having to walk miles to fetch water. The next use will be to build sporting facilities; as I believe exercise can at times be a much more effective remedy than drugs.

I am often asked, ‘What were the worst and best moments of the run?’. Challenges I faced were running through such suffocating temperatures that at one point I had to sellotape a pair of socks to my hands, because I felt they were blistering in the heat. Also, the very final part of the run was through National Park territory, adding ‘lion, buffalo and elephant’ to the list of ‘death by…’ on my gravestone.

The highlights were the generosity I encountered on every step of the run. From nurses in village clinics who provided buckets of water (that were probably sorely needed by them) for us to wash, friends who offered beds and dinner, the ‘Ivory Lodge’ who put us up in luxury accommodation free of charge when we ran past them, and all the donors who helped me raise the money for the worthy cause.

The best moment however, was the final 10km stretch into the town of Victoria Falls. I thought I would be exhausted, but the adrenalin of knowing that the end (i.e. pizza, a bucket of ice for my feet, and an ENORMOUS cocktail) awaited, made me run faster than I ever have to the finish line. I celebrated the end by doing a gorge swing (like a bungee jump) with my nephew.

Anyone can do it really; you just need good trainers and a lot of time! The next challenge is 1,000 km – so watch this space.

https://www.gofundme.com/cdrn78kk

https://nellieenglish.wordpress.com

https://www.facebook.com/pages/AmbessaRUN

Eleanor English (Lyttelton 08)

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