“Run Bitches! This Ain’t A Walkathon!!!”

I was in a serious mental funk at 3pm on the third day of the Tigray Trek and my friends were taking too long to catch up; I wanted to sit down as soon as possible to alleviate the pain in my right foot.  I ditched them and kept walking, ignoring everything, until I sat down in Awash Draft house in Mekele and ordered a plate of goat meat on injera and a cold beer.

An hour earlier, our team of Peace Corps  Volunteers and friends completed the third day of the Tigray Trek which consisted of 45 kilometers of hills, dry wind, rocks, tiny towns, innumerable kids, and the stark beauty of the Tigray desert between Wukro and Mekele, the regional capital.  My foot started hurting with about 10km left in the daily run.  I walked for a while and then pushed through to get to the finish in downtown Mekele.  I’d been training for the past few months to complete this crazy-ass idea called TigrayTrek282 and was upset and frustrated that I might not be able to make it all the way.  We planned on running 282km in 8 days, stopping in a total of 9 towns to lead educational sessions about HIV.  None of us had ever done anything like this before and we were drawn in by the challenge and potential rewards that this ridiculous adventured offered.

As the day progressed, I kept hoping the pain in my foot would be temporary and I would wake up ready to run another consecutive marathon in the morning.  We went to a local school to give a presentation about HIV modes of transmission.  I was worthless during the presentation as I stewed on my current predicament.  Luckily the presentation was lead by one of our unbelievably talented 14 year old counterparts, Sara, and the students seemed to enjoy it.

Posing for a running photo at some point between Sinkata and Wukro: Day 2

Posing for a running photo at some point between Sinkata and Wukro: Day 2 – Photo from Ben

Ben still full of energy on Day 1

Ben still full of energy on Day 1

Another photo from the run between Sinkata and Wukro: Day 2

Another photo from the run between Sinkata and Wukro: Day 2 – Photo from Ben

The TigrayTrek282 Team and a few other guests on the run between Wukro and Mekele: Day 3 - Photo from Ben

The TigrayTrek282 Team and a few other guests on the run between Wukro and Mekele: Day 3 – Photo from Ben

Later that evening, I started to accept the truth about my foot.  I probably developed Plantar Fasciitis and could only recover by resting and stretching.  This meant no more running, obviously.  This condition can last for days or months and I really didn’t want to aggravate a condition with consequences as serious as this.  As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia you need to be able to walk every day.  Walking is the only reliable form of transportation in this country and I wasn’t going to compromise my heel-toe express in the name of stubbornness.  I hate giving up on things and not reaching personal goals, but I also hate pain and ridiculousness.  Peace Corps always tells us how we need to be flexible at all times, and this was no exception.  So I reached a compromise; I would continue on the trek, but would borrow Hannah’s mountain bike and cycle my way to the finish 182km away.

My first day on the bike turned out pretty well.  The bike gave me the flexibility for better photography.  I could bike ahead, find a cool shot, and wait for the runners.  This got me into trouble though near the airport as one of the Kalashnikov toting guards told me I was not allowed to take photos of this “sensitive” military target.  I pretended I didn’t understand the Tigrigna and rode off.  Ooops.  I also had the energy and time to engage more people on the side of the road.  Endurance running sometimes shuts me off from the world.  I focus on my body and my feet too much and forget to pay attention to anything else.  As inefficient as my undersized mountain bike was, it was still a hell of a lot more efficient than running and gave me enough energy to be social.  As I rode over a bridge, I noticed a bunch of people in the creek washing mud off of fresh carrots.  After I told them we were going 282km they offered carrots to me and Hannah as she ran by.  That counts as a community contribution right?  At another stop I told a group of country women that there were two runners approaching who were coming all the way from Mekele.  They all gasped and exclaimed “whyyyy, whyyyyy,” an expression of pain and sympathy, as Hannah and Ben trudged by.

Hannah poses with the nice people who just gave us some fresh carrots

Hannah poses with the nice people who just gave us some fresh carrots

Me and the bike that saved my life

Me and the bike that saved my life

You may be saying “whyyyy, whyyyy” to yourself too as you consider this trek.  What were we doing out there running in the mid-day equatorial sun anyway?  I heard about this project from Ben and Ryan, two volunteers who are about to finish their Peace Corps service after living and working in Ethiopia for 2 years.  They somehow convinced each other that it was a good idea to run from one of their sites to the other, Hawzien to Alamata, a distance of 282 kilometers.  Apparently Ryan originally hatched the idea as he sat on a Mekele to Addis Ababa bus reading Scott Jurek’s book Eat and Run.  Anything seems possible after reading what that guy has accomplished!  I guess we all forgot to factor in that we’re not Scott Jurek, although I did end up wearing his shoes that he left in Ethiopia after his February visit.

The runners pass a horse cart on the run between Mekele and Adi Gudom: Day 4

The runners pass a horse cart on the run between Mekele and Adi Gudom: Day 4

Mike in the clouds on Day 5

Mike in the clouds on Day 5

Ryan and Ben planted this trek idea in the Peace Corps Ethiopia community, and for whatever reason, I decided to accept the challenge along with two other PCVs, Sally and Hannah.  Mike and Bernard also agreed to help out with some of the logistics, rounding out the team.  Bernard took on the role of coach and kept shouting ridiculous things at us for encouragement, including this piece’s title “Run Bitches!  This ain’t a walkathon!”  He also created a playlist heavily influenced by Britney Spears.  Maybe this was a tactic to subliminally reduce rest stop times.  Mike was going to be the photographer, but ended up stepping up to the running challenge, crushing kilometer after kilometer.  Overall we had an awesome team and adopted the fox as our un-official mascot.  “What does the fox say?”

The runners in the middle of a huge descent on Day 6

The runners in the middle of a huge descent on Day 6

Hannah running in the sun on Day 7

Hannah, Ben, and Sally running in the sun on Day 7

Originally, Ben and Ryan wanted to utilize this run to raise money for a cause in Ethiopia.  We met some representatives from the Vancouver, Canada based NGO, imagine1day, during a previous running event in February, so it was decided that online fundraising would benefit this organization.  They do some great work in the Tigray region of Ethiopia helping to improve local schools.  The money raised from this endeavor is specifically being used to fund parent teacher associations with 59 primary schools as well as capacity building programs for teachers and principals in the Kilte Awelalo district of Tigray.

We were fortunate enough to visit imagine1day’s model school during the run.  On day 5, between Adi Gudem and Adi Kayih, we stopped at Wuzah primary school, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, in the foothills of the Raya Mountains.  Anticipating our visit, the teachers lined all the 1-4th grade students in two huge lines. They even made welcome posters for us.  The kids were all chanting “welcome, welcome, welcome” over and over again in unison.  We couldn’t decide if it was creepy or cute; it was almost like a scene out of a horror movie or something.  After some cheesy photo ops, we split the 4th graders into two groups and lead sessions about HIV.  It was nice to finally put a face, well a few hundred little kid’s faces, on this fundraising campaign.  Cumulatively we raised over 4,000 USD for imagine1day.  Thanks to all the people back home who contributed!

A very warm welcome by the staff and students at imagine1day's model school

A very warm welcome by the staff and students at imagine1day’s model school

Hannah with the kids at i1d

Hannah with the kids at i1d

Ben and the kids at i1d

Ben and the kids at i1d

Hannah and Sally facilitating an HIV session with help from the i1d representative Halafom

Hannah and Sally facilitating an HIV session with help from the i1d representative Halafom

As the project progressed through the planning phases, the Peace Corps Ethiopia office pushed the team to develop other causes for the trek to promote.  We settled on teaching about HIV Modes of Transmission because existing reports show that there is a lack of knowledge about this topic.  Currently Ethiopia’s HIV prevalence rate is pretty low by international standards at around 2%.  But Ethiopia’s large population means that there are a lot of people living with HIV.  In fact Ethiopia is ranked 11th for number of people living with HIV (790,000 people) according to the World Health Organization‘s 2011 data.  Additionally, constant education campaigns ensure that prevalence rates stay low in this huge country, preventing the HIV pandemic from spiraling out of control like it has unfortunately done in too many other sub-Saharan African countries.

Teddi leads a session using the Kids For Kids education music videos created by Ben and his counterpart

Teddi leads a session using the Kids For Kids education music videos created by Ben and his counterpart

Bernard does a warm up activity for some kids in Sinkata

Bernard does a warm up activity for some kids in Sinkata

We located several different tools to help teach these messages.  One was an educational video from a series of music videos created by Ben and his counterpart.  These music videos (in Tigrigna) taught about HIV transmission and also had discussion questions to accompany them.  Another great tool we had was curriculum developed by the NGO Grassroot Soccer specifically for Peace Corps Volunteers.  A few of us just received training in this curriculum and were ready to try it out in educational sessions during the trek.  These fun and interactive games and ensuing discussions are an amazing way to creatively teach youth about HIV/AIDS.  Finally we had support from the Mekele AIDS Resource Center who provided us with lots of literature to distribute to anti-HIV clubs at schools along the route.

The sessions varied a lot based on the venue, time of day, and audience.  We were generally exhausted upon arrival in a town, but managed to work up enough energy to facilitate a training with the help of our amazing counterparts, Teddi and Getatchew.  After 9 sessions in 9 different towns along the route, we reached over 500 youth.

The youth of Tigray face a few seemingly insurmountable challenges when it comes to their education.  Throughout the run we passed countless kids on their way to school.  On day two a group of teenage girls saw Sally run by and immediately gravitated towards her.  They saw this strong independent woman running with the rest of the guys and wanted to know more.  They ran with us for around 10 kilometers on their way to high school.  These girls do one half marathon per day getting to and from their high school.  They were running in their cheap sandals, books in hand, in their sweater and skirt school uniforms.  We listened to Tigrigna music on one of their cell phones and gave each other plenty of Izohi’s (be strong) before waving goodbye to them at their school.  This fits right in with the running lore of Ethiopia.  Rumor has it that Haile Gebrselassie, Ethiopia’s most recognized and decorated distance runner, started out exactly the same way: running to and from school in the highlands of Ethiopia.  “This led to a distinctive running posture, with his left arm crooked as if still holding his school books.”  Take it or leave it, but given a decent chance, what are the odds that these girls could be the next Derartu Tulu, Meseret Defar, or Tirunesh Dibaba?  High if you ask me.

These girls have to go 10km each way to get to their high school in Negash, Tigray

These girls have to go 10km each way to get to their high school in Negash, Tigray – photo from Ben

Ben and kid running together on Day 6

Ben and kid running together on Day 6

We had some great interactions with people along the route.  Not just while running but in the small towns and tea shacks that we rested in along the way.   The smallest town we stayed in was Kukufutu on the second to last night.  We got into town early enough to take some time to drink traditional Jebena coffee and play cards on the main street.  This town, so close to Alamata with all the amenities, is rarely visited by foreigners and we were quite a spectacle as we sat on the street and “played.”  Later, we found the one and only hotel in town, which consisted of some mud walled rooms with mud floors.  There were no blankets, locks, or sinks.  Hannah and Sally’s room did come with a shovel though…?  We weren’t off the beaten path, since we were on the main North-South road, but we were certainly in an area overlooked by many.  It was interesting meeting people in this little town that I would normally blaze through on a mini-bus.  Moving at the human pace set by running really allowed us to meet some interesting people along the way.  Sure, we moved on quickly overall, but I’m thankful for the opportunity to meet the people that we did.

Ryan, Ben and Getachew in our mud fort

Ryan, Ben and Getachew in our mud fort

The team’s moral was especially low on day 4.  The day before, we finished the brutally long day to Mekele.  Despite the distance and heat, the added enthusiasm and excitement of at least 8 other PCVs and guest runners boosted everyone’s spirits.  On day 4 there was a sense of loss as we looked around at our diminished numbers.  Also this was the first day one of the core runners, me, was not running.   Everyone hurt everywhere.  We finally reached Adi Gudem in the early afternoon and settled into the local hotel.  I hobbled over to the local “barbery” and sat down for a haircut.  I told the guy to take it all off.  He did the best he could with his dull buzzer, but eventually got it done after too many tugs and pinches.  Mike, who accompanied me, talked me into getting 282 sculpted into my hair to boost the team’s spirits.  At first I was hesitant, but then thought about Hannah and the tattoo she got the night before, and said what the hell, it will grow back.  The barber, Mulu, did his best.  I ended up with 28  2 instead of 282, but that’s ok.  It’s the thought that counts.

Getting my haircut at Mulu's Barbery in Adi Gudem

Getting my haircut at Mulu’s barbery in Adi Gudem

After debuting my hair to the group, we headed to the local school for our evening session.  It went well thanks to Nicole, the local PCV, who arranged the session.  Teddi and Ryan facilitated “HIV Attacks” from the Grassroot Soccer curriculum.  The session was outside on the school’s football field.  Camels, donkeys, and sheep roamed in the distance with the Raya Mountains beyond.  The whole field was glowing in an eerily orange light.  Although it was only 4:30pm it felt like sunset was eminent because of an annular solar eclipse passing over East Africa.  The sun, partially blocked by the moon, was diminished enough to make for especially dramatic and beautiful light.  After the session we returned to the hotel to watch the eclipsed sun set below the horizon.  An amazing sight to finish off the day.  Sometimes I forget to appreciate the beauty of Ethiopia.  Sights like this one and many others on the trek make me stop and remember to appreciate the beauty of Ethiopia.  Spirits rejuvenated, I slept well that night ready for another day battling the roads of Tigray.

Nov 3rd solar eclipse over East Africa

Nov 3rd solar eclipse over East Africa

Teddi leads another Grassroot Soccer program in Adi Gudem

Teddi leads another Grassroot Soccer program in Adi Gudem under low light

Raya mountains, camels, and a solar eclipse all at once!!

Raya mountains, camels, and a solar eclipse all at once!!

By the numbers:

Total distance covered by the trek: 282km

Cumulative Kilometers ran by the core group of 7 PCVs: 1170km

Most Kilometers ran by one team member in 8 days: 252km (Hannah)

Longest distance in a day: 48km (Mekele to Adi Kayih)

Number of youth who participated in HIV education sessions: 528  (Boys: 324 Girls: 204)

US Dollars raised for imagine1day: $4,586

Liters of water purchased: 268

Kilos of bananas purchased: 9kg

Kilos of oranges purchased: 5kg

Most fluid consumption by a runner in a day on the road: 6.5 Liters

Egg sandwiches consumed: 34

Number of Bani’s (breads) eaten by Mike in one sitting: 6

3-egg-each sandwiches consumed by Ben in one sitting: 4 (that’s a dozen eggs!)

Most shits in a day by one person: 9

Bug bites on Hannah’s left ankle on day 8: 18

Bug  bites on Hannah’s neck on day 8: 21

Number of bum knees at the end of the trek: 6

Number of bum feet at the end of the trek: 2

Number of visits to the health center: 2

Number of cases of heat exhaustion: 2

Mosquito-net tutu survival rate: 100%

Number of dead hyenas in the ditch: 1

Number of blankets in the Kukufutu “hotel” AKA mud fort: 0

Number of times listening to “808s and Heartbreaks”: Too many

Number of times listening to “What Does the Fox Say“: Not enough

The finish line in Alamata!!!!!!!!

The finish line in Alamata!!!!!!!!

Tigray Trek 282!  Getting to ZERO!

Tigray Trek 282! Getting to ZERO!

Our PC Medical team told us that we shouldn't do the run, but realized there was nothing they could do to stop it.  So they gave us lots of rehydration salts and crossed their fingers!

Our PC Medical team told us that we shouldn’t do the run, but realized there was nothing they could do to stop it. So they gave us lots of rehydration salts and crossed their fingers!

Group photo after our last education session in Alamata

Group photo after our last education session in Alamata

More photos are on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100694678500770.1073741840.25916713&type=1&l=20d35ea8ab

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About copelaf

photographer, writer, engineer, eater, traveler, and - occasionally - a thinker.
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9 Responses to “Run Bitches! This Ain’t A Walkathon!!!”

  1. abreich says:

    Hey I found this under the Peace Corps tagged page…An amazing post! and really great photos to accompany.

  2. Betsy Funk says:

    You are ALL ROCK STARS!!!!

  3. adam says:

    Sometimes when you go looking for giraffes you have to see the camels. Good work on a tough job.

  4. Vivian Whipp says:

    What a beautiful photo of the solar-eclipse sunset! And a beautiful story to go with it.

    Thor’s grandmother

  5. Dawn Whipp says:

    Wow, Forrest! What an amazing trek. I can’t believe you guys ran all that way. What a great way to see more of the country and meet more of the people. I think of you back in March when you were wondering just what you could do to make things better for the people of Tigray. I do believe you have successfully found your way there. Congratulations.

    And seriously, that photo of the solar eclipse sunset is astounding. Perhaps you have a future with National Geographic as a photographer?

    Dawn (Thor’s Mom)

  6. Pingback: The Ultimate Taper | Tales From The Big Country

  7. Pingback: Grassroot Soccer SKILLZ! | Tales From The Big Country

  8. Pingback: Another Tigray Trek? | Tales From The Big Country

  9. Pingback: Sunset for Shalin | Forrest Copeland

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