84. Women Can Run Too

84. Women Can Run Too

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Women Can Run Too

There are victories of the soul and spirit. Sometimes, even if you lose, you win.
 ~Elie Wiesel

“Women can’t run races,” Muhammad said in French. “Girls, maybe. But not women and never mothers.”

“I have three children and we ran 19 kilometers last Friday,” I said in Somali. “Sign us up.”

In Djibouti, a country the size of Massachusetts, running was reserved for the elite African men and French military. Three American women racing was unheard of.

“You speak Somali!” Muhammad said. “She speaks Somali. Sign them up.”

As expatriate civilians, the three of us didn’t belong to a Djiboutian running club or French military group. Muhammad insisted we were from Camp Lemonier, the American military base.

“We’re mothers and English teachers,” I said. “Not military.”

“But you run.”

“Yes, we do.”

“You must be soldiers.”

Finally he wrote our names down as members of the non-existent “Club American.”

“May Allah give you a wonderful race and may you inspire Djiboutian women to run,” he said. “The race will start at 3:30. Or 4:00. Or 4:30. Insha Allah.” God willing.

Friday afternoon the other Americans and I arrived at Djibouti Telecom at 3:30, the hottest time of the day in one of the hottest countries in the world. At over 90 degrees, the day was considered cool by most and downright cold by others.

The Djibouti Telecom-sponsored race was 18K, but for the last nine years it had been 15K. T-shirts, the hand-painted banner draped over Djibouti Telecom’s security gate and the newspaper advertised 15K. Spray-painted markings on the street read 18K. When I measured after the race, the total distance came to 18.6 kilometers.

The Djibouti National Team arrived and began their warm-ups with the graceful, powerful strides of the East African runner. I envied their speed and their shorts. As a woman in a Muslim nation, I wore long black pants and a baggy T-shirt.

After a quick trip to the “bathroom” — the dirt behind a metal wall blocking a construction site, we moved to the starting line. Alongside one hundred local participants (the newspaper reported 500) stood three American female civilians (the newspaper reported terrorist-fighting soldiers).

“I’ll count to three,” the head of the Djiboutian Sports Federation called out, “One…”

I glanced at the shoes around my Nikes and realized I was going to be lapped by men running in sandals and tennis shoes with the soles sewn back on.

“… two…”

There was a good chance I would come in dead last, but an image of Djiboutian women running with me one day made me lift my head high.

“… three!”

Within seconds, the Djiboutian men left us in their dust.

The first five kilometers looped around the Coke factory and the port where massive blue gantry cranes loomed above container ships. Mountains rose from across the Gulf of Tadjourah, dark shadows behind the brilliant dhows and white yachts. Men in fluores-cent orange port uniforms glanced up from their tea, gaping as three women jogged by.

Soldiers and riot police blocked off the roads, holding back buses, taxis, goats and donkey carts. Spectators taking a break from repairing tires or handwashing laundry lined both sides of Rue d’Arta.

“Women… women… women.”

Word spread down the street and people ran from restaurants, shops and their afternoon siestas and the throng swelled to four people deep.

The aroma of fresh-baked bread wafted towards us from behind fruit stands where bananas hung from ropes and watermelons were stacked ten high. Buyers and vendors stood in shocked stillness, their hands resting on an orange or holding open a plastic bag. As we neared Arhiba slum, the smell of bread was replaced by the stench of feces, urine and burning garbage.

“Les premières femmes!” The first women, we shouted, raising our hands in the air.

People cheered even though we were in last place.

We dodged potholes, sheep and across from Dar Al-Xanaan, the women’s maternity hospital, my partners deftly leaped over the decomposing mass of a dead dog.

Beggar children climbed into the back of a lorry and chanted high-pitched, raucous songs, clapping in rhythm and squealing when I reached out for a high-five. Girls watched in awe and groups of boys ran alongside us until they were beaten back by the police.

With four kilometers remaining, I urged the other women, both stronger runners, to go ahead.

“You’re the last one!” children called to me as I pressed on alone.

“You’re going to die!”

“You’re so tired!”

“You can’t keep up with the men!”

“You’re beautiful!”

“I know!” I shouted back to each one, alternating between Somali, French and English.

Encouragement came from the side of the road when an old man said in a low, serious voice, “You’re doing formidable. Keep going.”

I surged up the only hill in Djibouti, heading into the main market. Souvenir sellers hawked wares from Ethiopia and Kenya. Djibouti’s main mosque, its white minaret stretching to the sky, was filled with men for evening prayers. Women clutched sacks of grain and bundles of cloth. Children with yellow jugs tied to their backs walked, bent over at the waist.

Everyone rose to their feet to clap and cheer. Policemen grinned and waved me on.

I was a champion. The entire market shut down to watch me run past. When has being in last place ever felt like bringing home the gold?

And then… a runner ahead. Then another. With one kilometer left, they were fading fast and I passed two Djiboutians, one because he stopped twenty yards from the finish line for a drink. I nearly collapsed across the finish line, third from last, third woman.

Before I could catch my breath, I heard my name called over a loudspeaker.

“Madame Rachel Jones!”

I waved my hand in the air and tried not to dry heave.

The head of the Sports Federation called me to the front steps of Djibouti Telecom where the ten top male runners stood with trophies in their hands and medals around their necks.

“Third place!” he called out and pressed a trophy into my trembling hand. I turned, shocked, and a camera flashed in my face. He motioned me to stand next to the elite men and called up the other women, first and second place.

The newspaper and television crew took footage of all the winners, three American nobodies and the Djibouti National Team. The men shook our hands and left with their awards.

The morning after the race my local neighbor asked if she could run with me once a week. It would be the first time she had run in her life. A week after the race as I drove along the port road, I passed two Djiboutian women jogging. Two weeks later three female university students joined me for laps at the track.

Smelling burning garbage and feces, dodging dead dogs, high-fives to beggars and being the third-fastest 18K female in the country. But the reward I treasure most is the thought that perhaps I was part of inspiring Djiboutian women to run.

~Rachel Jones

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