31 Aug

West Africans Embracing Distance Running

Idrissa Kargbo

More than 1,000 runners took part in the second Liberia marathon last Sunday in the rain-soaked capital of Monrovia. The event, first held in 2011, signifies a growing interest in distance running in football-obsessed West Africa.

Race director, Robert Brinckman spoke about the 2011 race: "There were a lot of people who didn't really understand what a marathon was. They were in a little bit over their head and weren't able to complete the race."

This year, the event had a more professional feel, with weekly training sessions ensuring runners were better prepared for the race.

Robert commented beforehand: "I think one of the special things about the Liberia Marathon is the immense amount of local participation. This year well above 90 percent of our participants are local here from Liberia, many of them kind of learning about long distance running for the first time. And it's a special opportunity to kind of challenge oneself and achieve something truly great,"

10K runners were joined by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and U.S. Ambassador Deborah Malac. Sirleaf donned jeans and trainers and ran a short stretch of the 10k race, stopping early on when the course ran past her house. The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner has previously said that "praying for the other runners" is a more effective use of her time than trying to reach the finish line.

The winner of the marathon was Nathan Naipei, from Kenya's Rift Valley - a hotbed for running talent. The 26-year-old finished in just under 2 hours, 34 minutes - more than 20 minutes slower than his personal best. He blamed his slow time on the weather and the lack of top runners at the head of the pack, saying: "There was no competition."

Whilst East African countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia consistently produce world class marathon runners, the other side of the continent has yet to embrace the sport, favouring football instead. That mindset looks to be changing now with marathons in Liberia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Gabon. There are high hopes the region can start producing running stars of their own.

Mark Maughan, race director for Sierra Leone marathon, believes it's possible: "People in West Africa love their sport, so once they've established what the idea is, what the concept is all about, people over here get really excited about being part of a large scale event."

Idrissa Kargbo from Sierra Leone was the runner-up in Sunday's marathon and will take on the prestigious New York marathon in November - his first race outside of Africa. Looking ahead, it seems West Africa is ready to go the distance.