About a week ago, I stumbled upon ads for the Nike We Run Lagos 2013 10km run. Against my better judgement, I registered for it on Monday and was thrilled when I got a rejection notification. “Applications are now closed,” it said. “We will keep you updated about the race next year.”
I hadn’t run in a while, but I estimated that if I had gotten in, I could squeeze in three runs between Monday and race day on Saturday. I was glad I didn’t have to face those foolish optimistic calculations.
On Wednesday, I woke up to an email from the We Run Lagos committee saying I was confirmed for the race.
Surely they meant not confirmed. It would be ludicrous for anyone to expect me to run on two days’ notice. I was all set to assume it was a mistake and not go but all the reasons I wanted to do it in the first place returned to me. To be on the bridge along the marina watching the sunrise reflected in the water and feel a pleasant breeze blowing across the harbour with seagulls above chasing each other gliding and banking on warm air currents.
I don’t know where I was fantasising about, but it wasn’t Lagos. On race day by six in the morning, the sun was fully formed in the centre of the sky far above the horizon and already too bright to be stared at. Even before the race started, as I picked up my gear and walked to the starting point, the illusions I had melted in the heat.
If you’re out in Lagos on weekend mornings, you’ll pass many identical groups of football players jogging together on the expressways. They are always miles away from any obvious fields, singing and chanting as they exercise.
They must have all skipped their football games that morning because they were all at the race. It was me and two thousand wiry men. People who are members of three or four local teams, who played one full match in the morning, one in the evening, and practised in the hot afternoon. Fatigue was an alien concept to them.
They weren’t stretching, they weren’t pacing nervously like I was or conserving energy. They were bunched up under the Nike start banner singing along with music from the DJ booth and performing choreographed dance moves. They were carrying backpacks, cleats, juggling soccer balls back and forth between themselves, like the ten kilometres was a minor interruption they would sort out quickly before going to do some real work.
One of them was on his phone, he was keeping a soccer ball in the air by bouncing it off his thighs, shoulders, head, and chest. When the race started, he kicked the ball ahead in front of him and ran after it in a full sprint without interrupting his call.
I watched him and his teammates dash off, leaving me standing at the line.
Running, like any other ordeal, is manageable if you know how long it will last. A person can grit their teeth and survive most distances as long as they know how much is left and can pace themselves counting down steadily to the end.
I’d assumed I could do it here using kilometre markers or if those didn’t exist, the water-points along the route. I would watch for the distance left and adjust depending on how I felt at the different points in the race.
I rounded the first bend at Onikan stadium and climbed up the bridge overlooking the marina. And right there at the top of the bridge, not a hundred steps from the starting point was the first water stop. I had barely finished the water distributed at the beginning.
This water stop–like all the others, I would find out–did not have a distance marker on it showing how far along the race it was, but if I had to estimate, I would say the water stops were at 0.6km, 2km, then nothing until 8.5km, and 9km. Their irregular spacing was a mind game. Sure I had moved forward, but by how much?
In mid-stride, between gasps, I tried asking the event coordinators at the water-point, “How far? How far have we gone?” Instead of answering, they thrust water bottles in my face yelling, “You can do it! You’re almost there!” which didn’t make sense at the first stop since I could still see the beginning.
We ran past CMS, past the cathedral and over the motorpark, past Leventis. We were still on the island and I was already winded. At the second water stop, the same thing: “You can do it! You’re almost there!”
I shouted back at the woman, “Liar!” and smacked the bottle out of her hand.
I stopped paying attention to the water and ran aimlessly, chasing the river of red race shirts ahead. I tried to gauge how much time had passed using the position of the sun and innate skills from my ancestors but the sun just sat there inches above me breathing fire.
The Marina bridge sloped down into Ebute Ero, then climbed back up into Eko Bridge to cross the lagoon to the mainland. At this point, it became difficult to keep my head up, so I let it dangle and stuck to a sluggish but methodical pace. People passed me, the sound of their footsteps building from behind as they caught up then fading away as they ran on.
If someone had asked me before: How many times do you think you go uphill when you cross the bridge from the island to the mainland? I would have said smugly, it’s a bridge so you go uphill one time on one side then downhill on the other side. That would have been incorrect. The Eko bridge is a series of undulating hills. Fifty is my current guestimate. Each hill chomped chunks of my stamina.
Sweat spewed from my face like a sprinkler. My calves were the immobile marble support pillars of a grand hall. I couldn’t remember lifting them up but I would feel them clang back down.
Somewhere in that long waterless middle, I heard hooting and hollering then scattered applause. Unable to turn my bobbing head, I listened. I couldn’t hear footsteps approaching but everyone was staring at something past me. The clapping grew louder. People were pointing.
Someone in the roadside crowd said, “Ah! Look at this small boy.”
At my elbow, a child appeared. He was no more than six or seven years old. His tiny shoulders were squared, his fists locked, knees high, on his feet he wore those Baby Gap toddler tennis shoes with velcro flaps. He came in low in my field of vision and a second later was several paces ahead of me. Then he was gone over the next hump in the bridge, his little legs galloping on the wave of applause. I couldn’t have been more surprised if the kid was riding a unicorn. I gave him a weak groan of support.
The next time I opened my eyes I saw a stadium’s tall floodlights in the distance perched over the mainland. The bridge curved slightly and the stadium was hidden behind the abandoned NITEL building. When I emerged from the shadow of the building, the stadium was further away. I was perplexed.
I blinked several times to clear my eyes and checked again. I saw that there were two stadiums. Surulere has two separate sports facilities which are only a block apart but that block was the difference between finishing and shame. My heart sank. Even without asking, I knew we were going to the one that was farther away.
I willed myself to run faster. I would send a message to my legs to move, and it was like mailing something by NiPost. Sometimes the letter would go through taking ten times as long as it should, sometimes it would bounce back, sometimes the message would get lost in transit and the legs would shudder feebly.
The bridge stretched on. We had crossed the lagoon but the bridge wouldn’t end. It kept going over land. Past Iddo, past Costain, all the while finding reasons to still be uphill.
I descended the bridge sometime on Monday morning by my estimation. On the exit ramp, there was a guy wearing a race t-shirt strolling, eating gala. I ran past him. My first overtake!
He waited until I had gotten a few metres away, then he ran, flap flap flap, past me. He stopped ahead of me and started to walk.
Maintaining my painful pace, I passed him again. Second overtake. I was jogging so slow, I could hear him casually dragging his feet behind me. screee screee screee.
Once I got far enough, flap flap flap, he took off running again. Ran past me, stopped in front and continued walking.
I noticed then that the reason he was making that flapping sound was because he was wearing slippers.
The dude was walking in slippers at the end of a 10K and he had managed to remain ahead of me the entire time and was now giving me trouble.
There was a sound coming from my chest like water gurgling through a blocked pipe. The sweat that had pooled on my forehead seeped salt into my eyes. I couldn’t take it any more.
The next time I overtook him, I cursed. “If you stop in front of me one more time, I swear I will kill you.”
He didn’t wait long this time. He chuckled and ran in a wide circle around me.
I reached for him, but my arms did not move. My fists made ineffectual clenching motions at my sides like a sleeping baby grasping an adult finger.
He laughed all the way down the road. Har har flap flap.
I stumbled into Surulere. A bored crowd milled about the barricades waiting to get their road back. I ran through them into the Teslim Balogun stadium.
The finish banner hung over the oval track on the far side across from the entrance. I traversed the last two hundred metres in grim silence, crossed the line, then crawled onto the artificial turf in the middle of the field to die.
As I lay there, although I was certain I was too cynical to care, I felt an unexpected pride. Not at myself for completing the race, but at Lagos and the fact that the race–complete with closed roads, police escorts spurring you on, and area boys cheering–could happen here.
I am always quick to join in complaining about the lack of leisure options in Nigeria. It has been easier to do that than participate in the measly options available. I’ve skipped art exhibitions, comic book conventions, fashion shows, and book readings all while griping that there is nothing to do. With the availability of the internet and the millions of people here, you’d think there would be enough variety to cater to every quirk or interest. But I rarely feel that way. It is always only me.
Then there are days like that day when even running alone I feel like part of something larger.
Lagos forces us into competition for space, for resources, for prestige, but everyone who runs wants the same thing: to finish. And people, even when they are competitive, want that for everyone who runs with them or anyone they see running, that they finish too.
It is an uncomplicated wish:
I don’t know you, and might not like you, but I hope you finish too.