September 23, 2014
As most of you know, or at least some of you, for the past two weeks I was running across the northern part of Ethiopia, Tigray. It was the second annual Tigray Trek, an event focused on bringing awareness to and giving trainings on HIV/AIDS throughout Tigray. This year a group of about 25 PCVs (runners, bikers and support team) ran from Atsbie to Korem, giving sessions on ABCs of HIV/AIDs, birth control, nutrition, and container gardens in eight different communities. If you are curious or feel like looking on a map, our exact schedule, route, and approximate distances were as follows: Day 1: Atsbie à Wukro (25 km), Day 2: Wukro à Mekele (47 km), Day 3 Mekele à Kwiha (9 km), Day 4: Kwiha à Hiwane (47 km), Day 5: Hiwane à Ata Shoa (38 km), Day 6: Ata Shoa à Maychew (35 km), Day 7: Maychew à Korem (41 km), Total of 242 km over 7 days.
Day one was wonderful. The champion marathon runner, Gebregziabher Gebremariam started the run with us out of Atsbie. Of course, he was running all the way to Mekele that day for training and he was in my sight for maybe 2 whole minutes. That first day was easy, very little uphill, a nice long downhill at the end, a good breeze, and a beautiful view of surrounding hills. Spirits were high and everybody was optimistic about the rest of the trek.
The second day started out with a light drizzle keeping us cool, even though at 5:30 in the morning we didn’t really need it. The first three or four legs of Day two were nice and easy, just like the day before. But, before I go on I should explain a couple things. Every five kilometers (although this wasn’t very accurate, sometimes it was 4.5 and sometimes it was 7) the support bus, carrying all our bags, water, medical supplies, and snacks stopped and all the runners/bikers got a break. We called these legs. It might seem like that is a lot of stopping, but really it was very necessary towards the end of the trek and, truthfully, I don’t think anyone minded the extra nutella and banana sandwiches we got to eat. Anyways, back to Day 2. It was the fifth leg, that terrible fifth leg, that let us all know just how hard this venture was going to be. At the break after the fourth leg, we stared at the road ahead winding up and up and up. Seven kilometers and one break later, we found the top and started on sweet, sweet downhill. That was just the first of many hills to come that day. In Mekele that night, I was so sore I couldn’t walk. I was waddling. Luckily, the next day was a nice and easy 6-miler and by the start of the fourth day I almost felt normal again.
The days, the legs, the hills, the little villages all blur together. Every night someone would comment “Hey guys, I’ve got a good idea. . .let’s run to (insert name of the next town) tomorrow!” We started running around 5:30 or 6 in the morning once everyone had wrapped up their blisters and chaffing. I, myself, by the end, had several blisters on both feet, chaffing on my collarbones from my t-shirts, and a sore knee. Not so bad. Once we reached the town we would stay in, we took over whichever small restaurant could feed a pack on ravenous ferenji, devouring plates of injera, tegabino, t’ibs, and eggs. And by 7:30 or 8 at night most of the group were sound asleep.
I spend the night before the fifth day hugging the (luckily) western toilet of our small hotel room in Hiwane. The next day I ran the first two legs, biked the third, and sat out, feeling quite unwell, for the last three. From past experience, I was pretty sure I had a parasite. That night I started taking medicine and felt well enough, if not 100%, to finish the last two days of running.
On the morning of the 6th day, the golden sun climbing above the mountains of Raya region was one of my favorite moments of the trek. With the incredible sunrise behind me, wearing one the of the three home-made, mosquito-net tutus that had become a tradition the year before, I felt like I was flying, like I could run forever. I was actually running 11 minutes miles, definitely not flying, and that run-forever feeling faded about 2 kilometers later after I hit my first big hill of the day. But, oh, for a little while I was never so happy to be running.
Then it was the last day. I couldn’t believe how fast it’d gone. Eight legs, that’s all we had left. The road was winding and the mountains were beautiful. Like the six days before, the people of the small villages we passed through were either rude, yelling “ferenji” and laughing or kind and encouraging us on with “Izosh,” and “good, good.” On this last day, at the top of a particularly steep hill, the kids of a small village came out in hoards and clapped for each runner/biker as they came in. Then one came out with a drum, beating the custom heartbeat rhythm of Tigrian music and an impromptu dance party ensued. The freshest of legs from the support team and some bikers joined the group of kids shoulder dancing in circles. Evenutally, we had to pack up and start running again, but that group of kids put a little skip in our steps as we jogged away.
Finally, Korem and the end was in site. For the last leg, the entire group decided we would walk the last 2 or 3 kilometers and all finish together. Crossing the toilet-paper finish line, the group exploded in cheers and sense of relief and accomplishment overwhelmed us, well, overwhelmed me at least. Two hundred and forty-two kilometers, eight towns, and seven days later, we were finally finished. It was an amazing feeling, amazing learning experience, and amazing week.
Hopefully, the Tigray Trek will continue to take place every year, but we hope to hold it in other parts of the country in the future. Maybe we could run it Amhara or the Bale region, where I live. We could call it Tigray Trek III: Bale Edition. Rolls nicely off the tongue, huh?