Last month I competed in my first international race in what can probably be defined as one of the most intense trail races in the world. When I first learned that Mollie and I would be moving to Cameroon I knew next to nothing about the West African nation. Within my first few minutes of researching our new home on Google I came across a link for the Race of Hope. The more I read the more I knew that it was something I absolutely had to do within my time here. The race runs up and back down the largest mountain in West Africa, covering a total of about 25 miles and about 11,000′ elevation gain.
That passion for running the race never faded upon my arrival in country and as I talked with other volunteers about the race, I soon found others who were also interested at the prospect of running it. It wasn’t long before I had put together a 3 person team who committed to running the relay. As my enthusiasm grew and spread through our ranks other teams formed and dissolved.
As other volunteers took trips to climb the mountain rumors of the difficulty of the terrain echoed among us and slowly runners began to back out of their pledges to run as the race drew closer. Indeed, a month before race my own team had lost one of our runners and was lucky to find a replacement in another Oregon runner, Ben.
The final days leading up to the race were bounded by confusion and mixed messages from PCVs and race officials. The race had already been delayed for one week for reasons no one fully understood. The race entry fee and required medical waiver to register changed daily depending on who you asked. We had all agreed to meet in Yaoundé early and depart for Buea together to figure out everything. Andy, who was running our anchor leg had been taking the lead on the race logistics arranging with a porter for assistance in packing gear up the mountain the night before. Truly, we felt as well prepared as anyone could for what was ahead of us, and if nothing else we at least knew we were all in it together.
Sadly, it was not meant to be. We still had to face one more hurdle before we could attempt to climb the mountain. Our toughest runner and team captain came down with malaria in Yaoundé a day before we were to leave for Buea. Now we were only days from the race and once again found ourselves without a runner. We were unsure of how we would participate, but determined nonetheless.
We asked everyone we could think of to join our team and were finally rescued by one unlikely volunteer from the newest group who happened to be passing through Yaoundé that night. Obviously the volunteer, Jon, had not been training for such a race, but did at least have some running experience and that was good enough for us. In retrospect giving him the hardest leg of the race without him even fully knowing what he was getting himself into may have been a mistake, but he was eager to participate and wanted to summit.
With that, we were off to Buea with our motley team of volunteers ready to try to summit that mountain. We arrived and met up with other runners and began to compare racing strategies. In the end the runners who had to ascend the mountain the night before agreed to set out together and share resources. I waited patiently at the bottom to begin my ascent at day break the next morning.
At dawn I joined my fellow runners at the stadium for the start of the race, I wish I could say that things were more organized at this point than they had been in the lead up to the race, but they were not. The start was surrounded by chaos and confusion with no designated starting point runners lined up everywhere. They had also waited until minutes before the start to begin to hand out the bracelets required for runners of the race. In the end – like most everything in the country – it as messy and ridiculous, but somehow worked out. I looked up from receiving my bracelet to see a stream of runners pouring out of the stadium, I assumed this could only mean the race was underway and I joined in.
The beginning of the race felt almost normal. We ran out of the stadium and onto the main roadway leading up to the mountain. The road had been blocked off from traffic and was lined with spectators out cheering us on and handing out waters. It went on like this for several miles before reaching the trailhead to the mountain. And that was when everything changed, I had already climbed about 1500 feet in just over 4 miles and now I had another 2000 to go in less than 4 more miles. My run slowly began to turn into a jog and then finally a walk. I had to stagger between walking and running the final 3 miles to keep up any sort of pace. Nevertheless, I began to be overtaken by hoards of old men and young girls who I had easily left behind on the pavement, but now on the mountain trail I was in their element.
In the end, it took me just over 2 hours to go under 8 miles up to hut one. I had fallen off pace and we needed to make up time if our team was going to summit. Ben took the handoff and needed to make the climb of 2 miles and 3000 vertical feet in less than an hour and a half to give us a chance, he did it in an hour and 13 minutes. After the last handoff it was up to Jon to make it to the summit and back down the mountain to pick us up before we all finish together.
Ben began to descend to where I was waiting at hut one and where Jon would pick us up to finish. I had been waiting there myself for over 2 hours before he arrived. In that time I enjoyed seeing many of the elite runners passing on their way down the mountain after their individual summit to the finish. Ben met up with me there just before noon and we attempted to refuel not knowing where Jon was on the mountain or when he would be back to us.
We then learned that they had closed the summit earlier than expected, and, as a result a number of teams including our own did not make it. As the day wore on we kept getting reports from runners of who was still left up on the mountain. It wasn’t until another team that we had been ahead of came down at about 2pm that we began to worry. Not having any way to communicate with the other runners on the mountain I decided to head up to be sure that no one was injured. After about a mile I came across Jon and another volunteer on their way back down the mountain, both were tired and sore, but otherwise uninjured. I passed off some water I had and made certain they didn’t want any other assistance and then began to descend back down to hut one to report the news to the others.
Upon arrival back to hut one I had learned that the race had officially closed some hours ago and indeed no one but us was still waiting. Both Ben and I however were determined to finish what we had started and so we set out to run back down the 8 or so miles to the stadium. At the base of the trailhead waiting for us alongside the road we were thrilled to see Andy, still recovering from malaria, standing there waiting for us. He offered to try and run in with us the last 4 miles and we eagerly accepted; we were all tired and just wanted to be finished. Towards the end Andy’s lowered red blood cell count began to get the better of him and he needed to hang back. He insisted that we push on and we obliged as we both just wanted to cross that finish line and be done for the day.
When we came around the final turn and looked into the stadium we saw that a small gathering of our fellow volunteers were all that were left of days crowds. We crossed the finish line, Ben and I with Andy only moments behind at 5pm. Ten hours after I started the race we had finished. Jon never did get to cross the line at the stadium, we were concerned for his safety and so we sent a car to pick him up at the trailhead. He was fine in the end, if not a little dehydrated. He even joined us all out at dinner that evening to celebrate and have a beer.
We didn’t set any new records on the course, or even summit the mountain, but we accomplished our goal to finish the race and for me that was good enough. Everyone keeps asking me if I will do it again next year and I am sure I will, the only question I can’t answer yet is whether or not I will try it alone.
At the finish: he group of Peace Corps Volunteers who all completed the race.