Last Sunday, Colleen Duffley completed 7 marathons in 7 days in one of the most dangerous countries on our planet. One where a woman’s safety is never assured, and she was running to raise money and support for the very women who live and work there.
Colleen’s feet bore the brunt of this torture 1000s of miles away from her home in Florida, 1000s of miles from our own political boundaries, from her own personal safety net, from her own long-held views of entitlement and privilege.
I have known Colleen for some time, have worked with her often, benefitted from her wonderful photography. I know she knows how to push on through – to get what she wants, to have a successful business, to maintain a remunerative career. She is a high achiever – the product of all that we educated, liberated women hold dear in the West.
But I will let Colleen tell her own story, now that she has got her breath back.
“In the end, the organisers found 9 women runners crazy enough to take the challenge – and I was one of them – and by far the oldest.
I have always been an athlete, have always wanted to challenge my body. I competed in two Olympic trials for cycling… but at almost 52 years old, I knew I could do more.
I heard that they were looking for women to take part in 7 marathons in 7 days in the Congo, to raise money for the education of women coffee farmers in that country, where the over-riding belief of local culture means that to be a woman is to be a second-class citizen.
When we all met and came together, a 25-year-old in the group was surprised at my age and asked me if I hoped to be running in all of the marathons. She was even more surprised when I not only ran in all of them but ran beside her and frequently in front of her.
We ran as a team. But, because of the security protocols we had to run between two vans, for our own safety. And it was not always safe. My brother who had some experience of this country had begged me not to go. We often ran with guys next to us on bikes with machine guns who were there to protect us. On more than one occasion I thought, ‘Oh my god I am going to die on this marathon, and not because of the marathon.’
One night near us there was an abduction. On another a soldier was killed. I was often scared. I am a spoiled American citizen, running with sterilised water and energy bars, with security, meeting women and children who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. It was hard to be exposed to all of that. I am a photographer but even when I travel to far-flung destinations, I am used to shooting nice things. This was a total reality check.”
“Where did you sleep?” I asked, in amazement, having run several marathons myself. “I know that all you crave is a hot bath, a good meal and a comfy bed?”
Her answers to all my questions come rapidly, and without drama, “One night in a place that was tenuously called a ‘hotel’. We also slept in a hospital, on hospital beds, beneath mosquito nets – many of us got stomach upsets. There was no hot water. Sometimes there was no water at all, and only occasionally a bowl of rice and beans. I had packed most of my own food, tins of tuna, and baby food. I saw starving children rubbing their tummies as we ran past. I had to remind myself that if you want to help a hungry person you don’t give them fish but give them a rod to catch a fish.
And between marathons we travelled on roads which were beyond horrendous, getting terrible bruises as we bumped along African tracks, some times for hours, getting from one destination to the next.
I ran in expensive, specially engineered running shoes, but I will never forget the day that women ran with us, singing and chanting in step with us, and you could hear their foot fall as they ran in flip flops beside us.
So as not to offend anyone, we had to run in tights and cover our arms as much as possible, which sucked in the heat. And in the evenings, instead of putting our feet up after 5 or 6 hours of running, we would arrive in a village and would be expected to dance and talk with the people who lived there.
Several of the Congolese women asked why was it that none of us have boobs. Boobs are a big deal there, a sign of fertility. They looked at us: 9 women squished in jog bras, losing weight and boob-age daily!
I am a brave person but I had to pray a lot and hope that I would get home safely. And now I am back, I see a whole different world. I have a different perspective on everything. It is good to challenge yourself, and if you can help others on the way then all the better.
I live in one of the most lovely of countries and I am blessed to be so secure and to be free to run when and where I want, and to be able to come home and eat. Safely.”
If you would like to support Colleen’s extraordinary charity run then click here.
As Colleen points out, “$100 goes a long, long way in the Congo, way further than it does back home.”