On Endurance, Congo, and Sexual Violence

On Sunday, May 29, a day after International Day of Action for Women’s Health, I raced and completed once again Comrades Marathon, known to be one of the most competitive ultra-marathon's in the world. I ran 56 miles uphill in an act of solidarity for the resilient Congolese women and children whose lives continue to be ravaged by rape as a weapon of war.

I ran for Run for Congo Women in support of Women for Women International (WfWI), two organizations that help women in conflict find their footing. WfWI works with socially excluded women in eight countries where war and conflict have devastated lives and communities. They create places of safety so that women can develop life and professional skills after harm. I ran for hope and for shared sisterhood as someone once victimized by sexual assault. I ran for Aimerance Byamungu's story of hope.
In the region of Congo where WfWI works, levels of poverty are high and there are many street children. Aimerance Byamungu, a married mother of a 4-year-old boy, was selling fresh milk and was only surviving on £8 per week. Before Women for Women International's programme, she ran her business using basic numeracy. After studying our business skills topics, Aimerance is now equipped with the knowledge she needs to make her business a success and support herself and her young son. Thanks to her new knowledge of profit and loss and accountancy, her income has increased to £25 per week.

When Assault Hits Home
Almost a year ago, I was just off a red-eye back to London. I had run Comrades 2010 on May 30 then stayed in Cape Town to write about public health issues surrounding World Cup 2010. A week out of the race, I celebrated my Girls on the Run team's magnificent 5K race in Manhattan by running up Table Mountain in ode to their spirit, athleticism, and to their health. It was during that run, I decided to work with Run for Congo Women.

After flying from South Africa, I arrived back to the family-oriented Hyde Park hotel I stayed before the race to break jet lag. When the porter delivered my bags to the room, he sexually assaulted me. I did what any writer would do, any person in utter shock who had just run to empower oneself beyond victimization experienced as a child only to slam headfirst into victimization as an adult woman: I stayed in my room and thought about how I didn't want any of this to be happening. I wrote about Molly Barker, the founder of Girls on the Run International. The next day I told a dear friend at her London home, and I knew I had to report it all. I left for Holland as planned but once there called friends and family and shared that this was going to hit me hard. One close friend said the same thing had happened to another friend of hers while traveling in Italy the week before. That female chose not to report it. After alerting friends and family, I emailed the hotel and contacted the UK Police, and so began an error-filled investigation that is still being reviewed by Scotland Yard.

As such, this past year has held a different kind of journey than expected, although I would not let go of my original plans to build Team Congo Paris. The assault also solidified my decision to return back to race Comrades 2011: to reflect how the body, heart, and being are stronger than any act of violence, but also to inspire attention and change for the hundreds of thousands of women and children in Congo who are being raped, not once, not twice, but multiple times.

When Rape Seems Far Away
Four hundred thousand women raped a year. 48 women an hour. In early May, the American Journal of Public Health released the preceding statistics, while a Johns Hopkins professor cited that rape occurrences in Congo could actually be even higher. The day the study was released, I did a training run along the Baltimore Harbor and I stopped every hour in horror of what 60 minutes meant. A passerby asked me if I was fatigued and needed water. I thought to myself this person has no idea. I have no idea. None of us do. How can we allow any human being to live that reality?

Lisa Shannon is the founder of Run for Congo Women and author of A Thousand Sisters. These past weeks a Thousand Sisters marched virtually on Washington and helped coordinate a letter from 77 organizations -- 55 Congolese groups and 22 U.S. and international NGOs calling for a special envoy in Congo. A letter from 16 US Senators followed suit. Lisa and her mother both endured a seven day hunger strike to show dedication to Congolese women. The question is: How far do we have to go to bring change?

In Sisterhood, In Triumph
Comrades 2011 female winners and identical twins.
The day after racing I came off a deserted Durban beach where the female runner-up of Comrades 2011 Olesya Nurgalieva lounged with her partner. While her boyfriend had a rather large gash down his thigh, she had no marks on her knees, which was how I knew she was the runner up (her identical twin sister Elena Nurgalieva is the female winner of Comrades 2011 and fell twice then raced on with a bloody knee -- this was after their belongings were stolen mid-course). Both female runners have alternated winning Comrades for almost a decade, dominating as first- and second-place female champions every year. That is sisterhood.

My achievement of racing 89 kilometers two years in a row, one year for girl's health and the next year for women's health and safety, is also an act of sisterhood and advocacy. At the start of the race this year, I said a prayer for all women and children everywhere. For our safety. Our health. Then, along with 17,000 other runners, I ran straight into the darkness down a highway.

By the second hill there was daylight and I knew all course strategy was about finishing. Comrades uphill run is nothing like Comrades downhill run. There is no varied terrain. Last year, a hill was a blessing. This year by flipping the course we raced uphill nonstop, and many hills took multiple hours to traverse. At Comrades halfway point (42 km/26 miles), I began reciting the statistics about Congo that lead me through Paris races last year and now Comrades this year.
Since 1998, 5.4 million people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The death toll is the equivalent of an Asian Tsunami every 6.5 months. A September 11 every 2.5 days. And nearly half of the deaths in the Congo are of children under the age of five.
How to understand atrocity? The point is: We never should.

At 44 miles into the race, I glanced down at my running watch and thought only a half marathon to go. I reminded myself of how last year my heart problem had risen around then, so I ate two electrolyte tablets, one energy gel, and one banana. Then, in honor of Aimerance Byamungu's life story; in honor and support of Generose who ran for Congo on one leg; in honor of every woman and child who needs safety and support in Congo, I made my way through the last stretch of the hardest race I have ever run in my life.

Never once did I think of not finishing. Instead, I thought of how blessed I am to have the opportunity to run with such strength and share through my beloved sport how resilient the body and heart can be. In the coming months, I plan to sponsor a sister through Women for Women International and invite you to do the same. Or, join A Thousand Sisters where you can help change the world.

Photo credit: Flickr