Saturday, September 4, 2010

Running In an Oven

Hot, hot, hot!!! You haven’t experienced the full force of the sun until you’ve visited Samoa. I’ve gotten plenty of sunburns and seen countless 90 degree days back in Michigan over the years, but none of it compares to the heat I experienced on Saturday, August 28, 2010.
I was one of six team members for the men’s Peace Corps relay team which participated in a 62 mile relay around half the island of Upolu, the same island I live on. The relay race was sponsored by the U.S. Veterans living in Samoa. They’ve organized other races and community events in the past. This race has gained more popularity over the past couple of years. This year there were ten men’s teams, with the Peace Corps contingent being one of them. Each relay team’s six members were each responsible for running 12 miles. We ran these over four heats with each heat being about 3 miles long!
There was also a group of six female Peace Corps volunteers who participated in the ladies race. The ladies began running on the south side of the island at 4:20a.m. on Saturday, and then the men began a couple hours later. Our team was the last to take off from the start line around 6:45a.m. I would have preferred to start around 4:20a.m., but they wanted the women and men to finish near the same time. So starting at 6:45a.m. meant that the sun had already been up for 15 minutes and it was hot from our first heats (no pun intended).
A.J. ran in the first spot for our team and started us off strong, and then Dan took over from him. Our Peace Corps Country Director had rented a van for us to use, so when we weren’t running we were traveling to the next hand-off point to stretch and get ready for the next runner to grab the baton and continue. Robin Yeager, the Charge de Affairs from the U.S. Embassy also helped us enormously by helping with our race fees and also packing a ton of sandwiches, energy bars, muffins, water, Gatorade and many other goodies we kept in the van for our long journey!
Taking over the running after Dan was Joey, our team captain, and a great competitor. He ran the third spot. I was in the fourth spot and grabbed the baton from Joey all day long. After me was Ben in the fifth spot and finally Matt who ran our sixth position. Between the six of us we traveled from the south side of the island up the mountainous east side of Upolu and back down to the relatively flat coastal road on the north side of the island. We would eventually end the race in the heart of Apia, Samoa’s Capitol.
Each time I prepared myself to run I got a little nervous. All my team members were telling me just to run my own comfortable pace, but still that didn’t take away from excitement and desire to pull off a good run for the team. We had been favored to win based on estimated ending times, and the team we were trying to beat was the Samoan team who had won last year when Peace Corps came in second. There was a little unsettled business. It was always a friendly competition, but knowing we had to perform helped us do just that!
That first run was annoying because I had planned to run with my i-pod, but my headphone set kept falling out of my ears and I couldn’t seem to find a decent song to match my mood, so I finally stuck it in my pocket after a few minutes and ran the rest of the day without it. I normally run with music, so this required me to focus on other things in my head to get me to that next point. It was hard. That morning sun was hot and humid and it was only 7:30a.m. It felt like it should be 11:00.
My second heat took me along the southern coast where the tsunami had hit, now nearly one year ago. There were beautiful beaches and blue waters, and I tried to remind myself how awesome it was that I had this chance to compete like this in such a beautiful place. This is something I probably wouldn’t have taken the initiative to do back home in the States.
We continued switching through our rotation. Chris, one of the female Peace Corps volunteers was our driver and was great about getting the van to the next hand off point with five guys telling her how to drive—and it smelt awful in that van! She motivated us and took pictures along the way.
Before my third heat it was discovered that because of the rotation I would be running the steepest part of the entire race, heading through some of the most mountainous areas of Samoa. We weren’t scaling the summits of these mountains, but we were high enough that my ears were popping as I ran up and then back down. I run hills on my daily runs, so I felt prepared and that I could help keep my time consistent to keep us on track.
Matt had the joy of going down the hill which we had all just helped to go up. It was a big drop to the ocean’s edge where the road flattened out for the most part. By this time it was getting close to noon and the heat of the sun was in full force upon our bodies as we ran even harder to get us to that finish line, still more than two hours away!
My fourth and final heat was the most strenuous physical activity I’ve ever done in my entire life. I can run three miles without too much trouble at 5:00p.m. in the evening, but I was trying to push myself in the intense tropical heat at 1:30p.m. The Sun was relentless and unforgiving! The country director was out there at the hand-off as I began my final stretch and my team members cheered me on. Three of the guys had already run that final heat and they said it was HOT! I kept my pace steady as I ran along the beautiful rocky shoreline. Countless coconut palms lined the road but the sun was so high in the sky that there was just no shadow to find to run in. This was it, I had to push myself. As I kept running I kept waiting to see the van and where they had stopped at the next transition spot, but every corner I rounded they weren’t there. Every long stretch I saw, they just weren’t in sight. Children were saying hi to me as I ran through villages but I didn’t even have enough energy to say hi. I was so motivated on my end destination.
And finally, there it was, the van. In need of a bathroom, I interrupted a social gathering going on in a local church hall as they all saw me dash for the bathroom. Leaving the bathroom still shaking from my race and not having time for any water yet, the group of Samoans were as polite as their culture always is and offered for me to sit with them and eat. What they were eating I had no desire to eat after running that last stretch, so I politely thanked them for the offer and the use of their bathroom facilities.
We were off for one more hand-off and then headed into Apia as Matt lead the final stretch for us. Once we got the van to the finish line we all got out and went to wait for Matt. Once he was about a minute out from the finish line we all ran with him through the last stretch and across that marvelous line! Our time: 8 hours and 5 minutes! Rumor had it that we had come in first place!!
The rumors were confirmed and it was all made official at 5p.m. during the award ceremony. We did indeed have the fastest time by seven minutes. We also found out that the women’s team from the Peace Corps had won first place for the women runners! Two huge victories for our teams!
As I said before, this is one of those things I probably wouldn’t have done a year ago. I’m finding that as I’m here longer, I’m more willing to tackle new challenges and push myself a little bit harder than I had in the past. Being a Peace Corps volunteer, I’ve been able to see how the struggles and frustrations of “the race” which we call life, can provide such confidence and motivation in how I live my own daily life.
Running in that heat , I kept telling myself I was crazy and this would be the last time I did this. But of course that was in the moment when things were feeling tough and I was certainly tired. Yet I knew deep down that each stride I took I was helping my team and myself by achieving the goals I had set out for myself. At the end of the race, I was so excited that I had decided to run the race! And yes, I may even do it again.

Accepting our first place award.

Getting ready for the race, just before sunrise.

Joey handing the baton off to me.

Here we are. From the left, Dan, A.J., Matt, Me, Joey and Ben

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