Saturday, October 9, 2010

Jogging in Juba

Thirteen months after being forced to quit running owing to a terrible injury to my left achilles tendon, after thirteen months of boredom and falling out of shape and gaining weight, I recently was able to take-up jogging again here in Juba.
I say jogging because my achilles tendon, which was injured when I foolishly decided to add a “hill workout” to my running routine as I was training for the Ashland Half-Marathon last August, is still a bit tender and not really one-hundred percent. But I am so sick and tired of not being able to run that I am cautiously tempting fate by running at a seriously reduced pace which thus far, it's been three weeks, seems not to be causing my left heel any problems and even seems to be helping a bit.
I added the “hill workout” after reading the annual Runner's World guide to half-marathons. In it they give all sorts of training advice. But, I didn't think to introduce the routine into my workout gradually. Given my “all or nothing” personality, I simply decided one day to pound up a huge hill ten times. As with injuries caused by overuse, like hard gardening on a Saturday, I didn't feel anything at the time. But the next morning (what happens while we are sleeping that causes our bodies to fall apart?) my left heel was in agony. Thinking that I just needed to “stretch it out” I keep running for a few more days until the pain became unbearable. After doing a little on-line research I found information about something called “achilles tendonosis” that seemed to match my symptoms. The information also said if I didn't stop running immediately I risked causing a permanent injury that would preclude me from ever being able to run again. So, I figured a few months of rest was better than a lifetime of inactivity.
But the injury was stubborn. Every morning for the better part of a year I would wake-up and find the same pain, the same stiffness in my left heel. Stretching, the normal antidote to most running injuries, did nothing and, in fact, seemed only to make matters worse. Eventually I decided to just quit worrying and just let time heal my heel.
And, eventually, things did improve, in spite of moving overseas to a town where I mostly walk everywhere, though rarely more than a mile or two at any given time. But Juba is a town made for running. Mostly flat, with mainly dirt roads, and normally warm which precludes having to wear sweats and hats and gloves like back home, Juba is a great place to jog.
Once I was certain my left heal could take a little abuse, I started out cautiously lightly jogging about a half mile loop from the Guest House grounds to the MAF compound, up to the paved Juba-town road and back to the Guest House. I knew, thanks to all the walking I do, that I had the aerobic capacity to run a little, but would my heel hold? Unlike my normal seven-minute mile pace I was plodding along at ten-minute miles, or slower, but I was jogging! And so long as I didn't try and go too fast or strike the ground too hard I was able to jog along at a measured pace almost indefinitely. In fact, it's been only three weeks and I'm already up to covering jogs of five miles or so without causing any harm to my heel!
Almost the only people that jog in Juba are ex-Pats, the European and American folks working for the innumerable NGO's (non-governmental organizations) that litter south Sudan. There are all sorts of folks here, the well meaning save the world do-gooders, the grizzled embittered “got no where else to go” people, the people that have figured out how to make a lucrative living off the generous “overseas, hardship” pay plus per diems and car and housing allowances, and some folks that have absolutely no business being here at all. But except for the current crop of police recruits who are forced to jog all over Juba on Saturday mornings, and the odd soccer team that occasionally takes to the streets, the only people seen jogging on a regular basis are kwagas, the local word for “whites.”
Adult Africans, when presented with something they don't understand, simply laugh in response. And so, when I'm jogging about town, I often hear adults break out into roars of laughter at seeing what to them is a crazy white man going jogging past. Part of the laughter stems from the extreme practicality of Sudanese, especially the men. If a Sudanese has a job for which he is being paid he will work at it very hard, not even minding working seven days a week. But, if he is not being paid, then a Sudanese sees no purpose to stirring himself no matter what. Other than the observation that if you hire a Sudanese to do a job its best to hire him on a project by project basis, it's also understandable that to a Sudanese, someone out debasing himself by expending energy on something like jogging for which he is not being paid is more than bizzare, it's downright hysterical.
Case in point: In almost every case whenever I am coming back from my late afternoon/early evening run, I pass by Bishop Gwynne College. BGC is a project of the Episcopal Church, a theological college with aspirations of being much more. In the evening a number of the students, all but one of whom are adult men ranging in age from early twenties to upper fifties, can be found sitting out on on the road in front of the College, enjoying the evening. And when I jog past every time it causes the men there to burst into laughter. It's been three weeks and the men find it still as funny as the first time.
But, whereas the adults might find the sight of a white man running through the streets nothing less than hysterical, the children of Juba find it downright wonderful. The children here are normally fascinated by kwagas anyway, squealing out their “good mornings” to you as you go past their homes. But add in the spectre of a running kwaga and the appeal becomes irresistable. Never a time I'm out running does it not come to pass that I won't have a gaggle of little children running along behind me squealing with laughter, and yelling out “kwaga” and “good morning” with more delight than usual. It's always the same thing, just young children, from toddlers to no more than about seven or eight years old, at which point some internal switch seems to activate which makes such behaviour no longer seemly or “cool.” But the little ones have no such self-consciousness which gives them the freedom to act with such pure abandon.
The other great thing about jogging in Juba is the ability it gives you to really get a feel for the town. In fact, one of the main reasons I wanted to take-up jogging again was to be able to see more of the town in a much more time efficient manner. It's been interesting to get to see up close some of the neighborhoods as I've explored the back roads. Security is not a problem. Firt of all, the Sudanese are too busy laughing at me to think of causing me any harm. Secondly, since I'm only wearing running shorts and a t-shirt it's obvious to anyone that I haven't got anything worth having on me. And I think the fact that I'm out jogging also pre-supposes to the Sudanese that I'm mentally unfit enough for anyone to be willing to pay much ransome to get me back, in case that scheme ever occurred to anyone. Fortunately, that whole business of kidnapping people as a form of raising cash has not started here in Sudan like it has in places like Somalia or El Salvador.
I'm hoping after a while to be in enough shape to really be able to jog all over town. There's no better way to get to know a town than to walk around it, or jog around it, in this case. I am thus far thankful that I've been able to return to the one sport that I absolutely cherish and I hope that my running experiences here will be long lasting and wonderful.