The longest race held in Djibouti is a half-marathon and I can’t run in it. Women aren’t allowed to participate. Every year a few French women manage to slip into the race, their names disguised in the mass of French men’s names. But for four years I tried to register and was denied on the basis of my gender and presumed speed. Two hours was too long to keep the roads blocked, never mind that every year men crossed the finish line in 2:00, 2:05, 2:20. Never mind that I had run two marathons and countless other races in the United States. Never mind that I had spent months training.
“Women can’t run,” I was told, year after year. “At least not in this race.”
Just like with ski jumping for women, in Djibouti running is sometimes thought to be a risk to a woman’s reproductive health and we are discouraged from putting such strain on our bodies. This week another local man told me that after giving birth it is physically impossible for women to run. Then I told him I birthed three children.
In 2013 I didn’t bother attempting to sign-up. Instead, I planned my own half-marathon. My route normally included President Ismail Omar Guelleh’s home, a French military base, the United States embassy, the country’s only five star hotel, and a few blocks along the beach of the Gulf of Tadjourah.
My route also passed donkey carts, road kill, market stalls with rainbows of oranges, apples, tomatoes, and bananas hanging from knotted ropes, men sleeping on scraps of cardboard, and meandering camels. The day of my race, I added a half-mile stretch to include the grocery store that had burned down the night before.
Smoke still clouded the street and poured from charred remains of Al-Gamil. It was early, still dark, and the only other people on the street were exhausted fire fighters, policemen, and devout Muslim men who stumbled through the dark to neighborhood mosques for morning prayers.
By mile two I discovered the unique challenges that come with running a race alone.
There were no water stops. The morning opened with a heat index of ninety degrees and by the time I finished, would top out at one hundred. Winter, but Djibouti is the hottest inhabited country in the world. I filled my CamelBak halfway and froze it overnight, then added water in the morning. The block of ice on my back weighted me down but by the midpoint, it would be lukewarm and I needed fluids.
There was no one to pace off, no one to chase down, no one to reel in, and no one to fight back. Me versus me. How badly did I want it? My right leg versus my left leg.
There were no cheering fans, only the occasional Djiboutian who honked a car horn or stopped dead in their tracks and shouted, “Bon courage!”
There were no mile markers, only the monotone voice on my iPhone’s GPS clicking off the miles.
There would be no middle-of-the-pack finish. My half-marathon PR was 2:01:07, set in Minnesota on a course along the Mississippi River with my sister-in-law and a sunny twenty-eight degrees. Perfection. Success in this Djibouti race could only be defined as breaking two hours. Either I won or I lost. Anything less than my goal was failure.
My husband offered to get up at 5:20 a.m. and follow me in the car with water bottles but we stayed up too late watching the Al-Gamil grocery store burn and I let him sleep in, as long as he promised to make coffee and a smoothie when I got back. And as long as he promised to ask whether or not I won.
Clouds and smoke from the fire blocked the rising sun from view on my return loop and at mile eleven, the first raindrops Djibouti had received in months fell. Only a handful, not enough to dampen the pavement, but enough to make me smile, which is important at mile eleven in a half-marathon.
At home my husband rolled out of bed and made coffee from freshly ground Ethiopian beans while I stretched.
“Did you win?” he asked.
“I did,” I said. 1:57:36. “First place.”
Apparently, women can run in Djibouti. Even mothers.
For those interested in hosting your own race, look for the follow-up post: 10 Tips for Planning Your Own Race