Sunday, July 2, 2017

Running the Inaugural Madagascar Marathon

"Madagascar?"  I heard over and over from my friends and family.  "Where's that?"  or... "You mean like the movie?"  and someone even said:  "Madagascar, Alabama?"

When I chose Marathon Tours and Travel's inaugural Madagascar Marathon to count for running a marathon on my sixth continent in Africa, I really didn't know what to expect.  I didn't see the movie "Madagascar" (my kids are too old to watch kids' movies but I don't yet have grandchildren to take to see a cartoon movie), I DID know it was an island off the southeast coast of Africa, and I was pretty sure that there wasn't a Madagascar in Alabama.  Even if there was, running a marathon in Roll Tide land wouldn't count as running a marathon in Africa.  Which was my goal.  As a member of Marathon Tours' Seven Continents Club, I was set upon running a marathon in all seven continents. 

So I read up on Madagascar and found out that there are over 100 varieties of lemurs in Madagascar, all of which are native to that country.  And sapphires and other jewels are mined there.  And zebu, a relative to the cow (I am making that up, the relative part, but I believe it is sort of true) are everywhere!

What I didn't know was that the people I met in Madagascar - both the people from Marathon Tours  and the local Malagasy people - would be so amazing that I would remember the Madagascar Marathon trip forever as a trip of a lifetime.

Thom, Jeff, and Karen flew in from Marathon Tours' Massachusetts office to handle the mechanics of setting up a marathon and a half marathon in Madagascar, and cater to about 80 runners' every need.  All three of them were exceptional in every task. 

Thom's work both in Boston and Africa for about 8 years to set up this inaugural marathon paid off.  The course was perfectly marked, each mile marker was exact, and there was ample support by ATV and water stations.  There were even two physicians, Leonie and Sonja, travelling with us and supporting us on the course at all times. Thom,  Jeff and Karen spent many hours, often behind the scenes and unknown to us runners, planning every detail to perfection and handling all of our requests and questions. 

We runners didn't only run a half or whole marathon - we really got to see the country of Madagascar.  Our city tour included visiting the Malagasy Academy's museum of natural history and anthropology (where we saw dinosaur bones hundreds of millions of years old!)

 and checking out the Queen's Royal Compound

 (I will never forget the fertility ritual we were shown!  I should have asked if it also worked for future grandchildren...).  Our tour of the museum and later briefing about Madagascar nature and culture by guide Ziad, was world class. 

Marathon Tours also arranged tours for us of Ilakaka, a mining town which, prior to the mid 1990's, had about 45 people living there.  Once sapphires were discovered there in the mid 1990's, it became like an American gold rush town.  Now there are about 45,000 people living there, with more opportunities for employment, including a jewelry store that we visited.

 We also toured an actual working mine.

Everyday life was shown to us by Marathon Tours, from laundry day in the river

 to rice fields where farmers work to harvest rice,

 to the brick making facilities.

We were humbled by the difficult and back breaking tasks the Malagasy people perform on a day to day basis.

And the lemurs... our Marathon Tours staff as well as our local Malagasy guides

 ensured we all saw plenty of lemurs. 

I fell in love with these adorable creatures!  Especially this guy, my favorite...

Every single runner on this trip was a pleasure to befriend.  We came from varied backgrounds and professions.  Our jobs ranged from physician, professor, pilot, electrician, engineer,  nurse, personal trainer and coach.  I pled guilty to being the token lawyer.  But we were all passionate about running and travelling and it was a joy to spend our days talking about our lives. 

First, a special shout out to Hudson

 and Mark

 You are my heroes.

 As for the others, you helped make this trip fun, interesting, and exciting.  Slowly personal stories were revealed:  including the fact that one of us was an Olympian!  Gary, I can't believe you told me that mid way through dinner.  I would have told everyone the instant I met them if I represented the US at the Olympics.  And I would have worn the jacket and the shirt every single day.  Of course I asked Gary:  "is it like the Boston Marathon?  Is there a jacket, a shirt?"  He smile and answered, "We got a lot of gear." 

There was a woman on the trip who had won several previous marathons.  Won as in - not just the woman's race, but the entire marathon.  Inez didn't disappoint at Madagascar - she won that whole race as well. 
And then there was Brent. He set a world record at our marathon - it was his 133rd country in which he ran a marathon!  It was exhilarating to run among such legends. 

I ran a large portion of the marathon with Karla and Cyrus.

  We ran through many streams, including one that rose past my knees.

 We ran by Zebu, those cow like animals that we saw pulling carts and grazing on grass all throughout our visit.  We ran by beautiful desert scenery, like something you might see in a US movie about our west (except substitute the ubiquitous zebu for cows), and with jagged and dramatic pink sandstone formations.

And then there were the five villages we ran through.

I am no stranger to running marathons with spectators cheering for me and the other runners.  I've run all six World Marathon Majors, with crowds numbering from hundreds of thousands to excess of one million people lining the streets of Boston, New York City, Chicago, London, Berlin, and Tokyo.  The people of Madagascar, who stood out in the blazing sunshine on a warm day with no shade for hours to cheer us, were equal to if not more enthusiastic than any of the spectators at the Majors.  The Malagasy villagers  clapped  for us as if we were Meb, Kara, and Shalane instead of Cyrus, Karla, and Cindy.  And the children... they were everywhere, wide eyed and smiling, as we ran through the villages.  Jeff said they were briefed on how to high five and fist bump the runners and the kids all performed admirably.  Thank you to all the villagers who allowed us to run past your homes in your beautiful country.

The little girls at mile 18 waved to me and then ran up to me, each pointing to themselves and saying their names.  I kept saying my name also, pointing to myself, and then two girls would run up to me and hold my hands for a few seconds until two other girls would take their places, and then two more girls took my hands... I felt like the biggest rock star on the planet.  For a few minutes, it was just me and the girls of Madagascar, holding hands and running through their village.  They pointed to their homes and their school for me to see as we ran.  Mile 18 of the Madagascar Marathon?  I will cherish the time I ran in that village, and those precious little girls holding my hands and stealing my heart, for the rest of my life. 

In June of 2017 more happened then just checking off the list running on my 6th Continent.  It was the people I met on this trip - the staff  from Marathon Tours, the local guides, and the amazing runners of the inaugural Madagascar Marathon - who impressed me in so many ways.  I enjoyed all the conversations, laughs, and stories shared with these intelligent, driven people.

 I will remember all of you forever. 

Thank you all for being part of a life defining event. Happy running to everyone -  may our paths cross again soon.