Running Barefoot for Charity in Namibia

Last weekend, I joined a hundred or so other runners in Windhoek’s northern township, Katutura – which means “place we do not want to live” – to run as many laps as possible for charity.  As I wrote in a previous post, the event was “Namibia Runs for Charity”; and as a barefoot runner since July 2010 I was hoping to run ten miles barefoot.  We hgad been given the opportunity to nominate the charities we wanted to support, and I wanted to raise money for the International Women’s Association of Namibia, which supports 9 other charities that help vulnerable communities in Windhoek and Katutura.

Barefoot running has been challenging in Namibia because the roads are especially rough, and virtually every plant here has some sort of thorn or spine (and they end up on the ground).  So I was apprehensive about running on the dirt track – more than I normally am because of the odd looks I’m sure to get.  But as I arrived I was surprised to see that most of the runners were local schoolkids – about half of them running barefoot, some in flip-flops or sandals, and a few wearing dress shoes.  A few teachers, and a group of women running to support the local SPCA wore traditional running shoes.

So as I arrived (an hour after the event had started) the Namibian national anthem was played, an announcer wished us luck, and I set out on the track, which consisted of a fine dust with scattered pebbles of varying sizes – just enough to keep me on my toes.  A rare rain had fallen that morning, and a quarter of the track was wet, bringing cool relief from the sharp stones as I rounded the far curve each lap.  While I was running, occasionally a child or two would stick with me for a few laps, but generally most of the kids insisted on a faster pace than I was willing to run.

I spent a good five miles or so running with “Ernesto.”  About waist-high to me and with a big gap where he had just lost his “baby teeth” he quietly ran with me, ignoring the bigger kids who were constantly passing.  I finally asked him how many laps he had run, and he said, “First I ran 29, then 19, and now I am on 3.”  Doing the math in my mind I realized he had run in the neighborhood of 13 miles by that point.  By the time he left the track to put on his sandals and head to the hostel behind the arena, he completed 83 laps, or nearly 21 miles.  All good motivation to keep me moving.

A local DJ kept things hopping with some kwaito music and local dance groups alternated with local kids dancing in return for frisbees.  Some of the kids had to be shown how the frisbees worked.

As I finished mile 10, it wasn’t the stones that were making running tough, but the temperature of the track.  While the kids appeared impervious to the heat, I was concerned about getting blisters under my calloused skin, and slipped on a pair of Vibram FiveFingers to try and do a few more laps to bring me up to a half marathon.  By this point a 12- or 13-year-old girl had joined me, and, for the last few laps, another group of 4 or 5 kids.  As I cruised in for my final lap, Namibia’s Director of Tourism, Sem Shikongo, was encouraging many of the kids who had finished their runs to do one more “victory lap” with him.

Here’s a photo taken near the end of the run, which ran in the local Afrikaans paper:

And a short video on the event.  Next year I’m going to try for the full marathon!

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