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Imagine if I told you there is a miracle cure-all out there that makes you healthier, lengthens your life, protects you from disease, improves your willpower, brings you good mental health and concentration, and also makes you look and feel better. You’d probably be asking “what’s the catch?” Well, the catch is that this miracle cure is called exercise and if you want all the benefits you have to force yourself to do it for a few weeks before it becomes a habit and a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle.
I know how annoying it can be to hear all this gushing praise for exercise. There once was a time when I saw people running at the crack of dawn and thought them crazy, delusional, or otherwise chemically imbalanced. (The last one may not be far from the truth as the brain is awash in a potent speedball of stress-crushing, euphoria-inducing hormones and proteins during exercise). I have been reading up on the many benefits of habits and exercise and it seems the two go hand in hand to form the single best thing you can do for yourself after eating right. While this is apparently “common knowledge” it’s surprising how many people choose to ignore it completely.
I started jogging regularly in the early mornings about two and a half ago years ago and despite some rather significant gaps, I’ve mostly been able to stick with it. I was very concerned that moving to Ghana would send my running habit off the rails for good, but happily (and it’s really no surprise, people jog here as everywhere), I’ve been able to stick with it.
(As an important side note, in Ghana the term “running” has stronger connotations of diarrhea than it does in Canada, so for the first few weeks when I told people “I was running in the morning”, they looked at me a little funny. I’ve since amended this faux pas and say that I’ve been out “training” instead.)
Like everything else, the first few times going on my 6km grandpa jog around the tamale sports stadium near my house was a challenge. I was super concerned about standing out, looking silly, somehow annoying people with my “foreigner ways”, and simply not being able to keep up in the heat. Thankfully, these have all proven to be neurotic non-issues and I’ve been able to establish myself a “regular”. The hazards one faces on the roads, even early in the morning when the traffic is light, still take some getting used to: treacherous open storm gutters, giant mounds of rocks, feral sheep, herds of cattle, garbage fires, and Harmattan dust clouds are just a few of the adventures that keep things interesting.
For the most part, I like to run solo. This gives me the ability to leave as early as I want (typically hitting the road around 5:45am when there’s just enough light out to see), and to set my own pace, tracking progress with my endomondo app. I had been meeting up with two high school students, Gannu and Yazid, who live nearby and doing most of the route with them on Sundays, but (being high school students) their reliability isn’t the greatest. I’ve also trained with another guy, Aziz, a few times, which is great because he is a much stronger runner than I am. He claims to have a certificate that documents him as the fastest 1000m runner in West Africa for his age group. I haven’t seen the certificate, but I can believe it after listening to him describe his punishing 50km+ per week training schedule. He’s probably the most passionate runner I’ve met anywhere; unfortunately, he’s finding that running doesn’t pay the bills unless you’ve got a sponsorship and can get to Europe to work the marathon circuits.
Other than these regulars, there’s a familiar cast of characters out and about on the street at this time of morning: street sweepers, footballers doing wind sprints, older guys power walking, and many regular folks already going about their days. In much the same way as in Canada, I’ve notice that a sense of community starts to form out of these early morning encounters. You may only get as far as a nod of the head or a quick “good morning/dasiba”, but after some time a sense of solidarity and shared purpose starts to emerge. Whether you are young or old, fast or slow, man or woman, foreign or local, in shape or out of it, if you’re out there squarely facing the day and getting your move on, then you’re on the same team.
Running is the great universal equalizer and a common thread which people from all over the world can connect to. It’s woven into our DNA, it’s what we were designed for, and it is just one part of the vast commonality we share as humans that often gets lost in our ceaseless need to differentiate and pick out the differences between people. Last year about this time I was hard at work training for my first half marathon and helping organize the Vancouver edition of the Run to End Poverty/Run to Enable Possibilities fundraiser for EWB. The team in Vancity is at it again this year, so if you are at all inspired to take part or make a donation, I’m sure you’ll be glad you did: https://r2ep.ewb.ca/vancouver. The event takes place on June 22nd and there are running meetups every week leading up to the race: http://www.meetup.com/EWBVancouver/.
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