About a week ago, I got the following text message (without the capitalization, punctuation or embedded hyperlink): ‘Hi Clara, this is Kalika from Peace Corps.  I got your number a volunteer in Buea.  One of my relay members for the Race of Hope dropped out and we desperately need a replacement.  Want to run?’  The rest, as the say, is history.  With just a week to go before the race, I had to scramble to get the necessary paperwork together for registration…passport photos, passport copies, a medical note from a military hospital certifying fitness for participation, a medical examination at the delegation of health double certifying fitness for participation, etc.  (Apparently, a heartbeat is the only real requirement for running up a 14,000 ft mountain.)

The morning before the race, my newly acquired relay team came up to our house, along with the other two Peace Corps relay teams.  I made chocolate-chip pancakes and we talked details.  Kalika, our starting runner, would be staying in Buea and joining the crowds at the starting line at 7 a.m. the next day.  Cynthia and I would be hiking part way up the mountain—I to Hut 1 and she continuing on to Hut 2—where we would spend the night and wait for our turns to run.  We passed off equipment to one another (warm clothes to put on after running our respective legs, extra water, snacks), and wished each other good luck. 

Josh kindly agreed to hike up to Hut 1 with me for the night, so in the early afternoon we cooked up a vat of spaghetti and began the trek up.  Very quickly, we were dripping in sweat.  (This first leg of the race-track is not as steep as the second two, but it is the longest—nearly 7 miles of steady uphill running—I do not envy Kalika.)  On our way up, we passed many locals hiking down who had volunteered to carry up water for next-day’s racers.  Eventually, we turned a bend and the foggy rainforest opened into the Hut 1 clearing.   Hut 1 has two small rooms, one of which is riddled with missing floorboards, so we set up ‘camp’ next to 20 or so relay runners, spectators, and a giant pile of bottled water (during the night, we were all awoken by a giant crack—apparently our combined weight was pushing the hut floor to its limit, if not yet beyond).

We were awoken around 5 a.m. the morning of the race by a chorus of religious singing coming from our roommates.  At around 6 a.m., the singing stopped.  Numbers were pinned to uniforms, uniforms donned, and suddenly everyone was stretching or taking experimental runs up the trail.  (Everyone except for me and the two other Peace Corps relayers running the stretch from Hut 1 to Hut 2.)  At 8 a.m., the first runners started coming by.  At 8:30, we watched as Sarah Etonge ran by to tremendous cheers—known as ‘the Queen of the Mountain,’ she’s the 5 time women’s champion from Buea and mother of 9 (this year she took 2nd place). By 9 a.m., we’d seen hundreds of competitors pass—some as young as 8, others older than 60.  At 9:10, the first Peace Corps runner reached his teammate. At 9:20, Kalika came into view, exhausted but determined, and handed off the relay sash to me. 

Hut 1 to Hut 2 is only a two-mile stretch, but it climbs 3000 feet over those two miles.  It took me an hour and fourteen minutes to run/power walk my way up the incline.   It was a painful hour, but luckily there was no one left to pass me at that point (at least no one who was going up anymore—a few relayers were already coming down).  In fact, I even passed a few of the individual runners whose paced had slowed.  When I reached Cynthia at Hut 2, she took off for the last leg of the race, summit bound.  After I had recovered slightly, I ran/slip back down to Hut 1, where Kalika and I waited for Cynthia to meet us so we could finish the race together.  It was 3:30 pm (more than 4 hours after the fastest racers finished) by the time we dragged one another into the stadium where the Race of Hope ended.  Most spectators were gone by then, but Josh was waiting with salty Pringles and sweet chocolate.  A few of my students were there waiting as well. 

I think I'd do it again...


Sarah Etonge is followed by cheering fans as she nears the finish

The first non-African relay team to finish!

A small crowd surrounds the 'white men' women who have just finished the relay


One of the members of our sports club has run the race for years...