Running while female and foreign

Temperatures in Djibouti can reach 113 degrees F. But the rewards I get from my running habit are worth it. Here’s why.

COURTESY OF RACHEL PIEH JONES
The author on a morning run in Doraleh, a port near Djibouti City, in winter 2018. (Note the camel kibitzers.) Tiny Djibouti is in the Horn of Africa, bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

According to Jeff Galloway’s temperature-adjustment guide in his authoritative “Galloway’s Book on Running,” my long run training pace should start around 10 minutes per kilometer in Djibouti’s cool season and move up to 12:30 per kilometer by summer.

I live in Djibouti and sort of adapt to the extreme heat (113 degrees Fahrenheit max, with heat indexes above 131). I sweat. The zippers on my hydration backpack clog with salt; I leave sweaty footprints when I run because, yes, I sweat through the soles of my shoes.

I’ve been running for a decade here. I am not fast, but a 12:30 kilometer pace (a 21-minute mile) feels like a stroll. I think the point of such a slow pace is to suggest that I shouldn’t run at all.

Still, I run. 

I wake at 5 a.m. and dress quickly, before I start to sweat. I begin running slowly, dodging potholes and garbage. I used to turn right, but had to run past construction workers. They stared and shouted things like “You are running!” and “Hey, sexy lady!” in Somali, which they don’t expect me to understand.

I turn left. I won’t encounter hecklers for at least three blocks. This gives me a chance to warm up physically and emotionally for the experience of running while foreign and female.

I run past the mosque, where men have finished morning prayers, and the corner where Hibo sews dresses in the afternoons. My nieces play in her dresses, in Oregon and in North Carolina. Past the garbage dump where men weigh and trade metal scrap. Past a scrum of low wooden benches that surrounds a fire. A woman crouches over the fire, preparing tea. Men squat on the benches and wait for their breakfast. They used to stare at me; now they merely glance.

The sky is 100-franc-coin silver. The heat is visible now as the sun rises above the low houses. 

Sweat settles over me – a mask, a cocoon. Soon, I’ll be able to wring out my shirt. Soon, I’ll be leaving a trail of sweaty shoe prints. Someday, maybe soon, I’ll give in, admit it is too hot to run here. But I’m stubborn. Why else would someone finish multiple marathons? Why else would a foreigner stay in the Horn of Africa for 17 years? 

French soldiers run in packs, in matching mini-shorts and tank tops. If there is a woman among them, and there rarely is, she is in the middle, shielded, hidden. I am alone. It makes me feel exposed – and proud. 

When I’m almost home, I’m relieved and disappointed. Relieved because I’m tired, thirsty, and practically hallucinating about the frozen watermelon cubes that await me. Disappointed because I want to run farther, longer, faster. The run is hard but reminds me of my physical and mental strength. I can live here. I can endure.

I can’t say I love running in Djibouti. I love having run. I love that I do run. I even love talking about running. But I’m not sure I actually love the miserable feat of defying ridiculous temperatures and ignoring sexual harassment. It is one of the hardest things I do. But I do it.

Habit, compulsion, choice, default – I don’t think it matters. It is wrapped up in my sense of courage and identity.

I run here because I love running other places: London, Istanbul, Minneapolis, Kuala Lumpur, Colorado Springs, Venice. My Djibouti runs prepare me, keep me strong, and exponentially increase, by comparison, the delight of running in these other cities. 

As I write that, I realize I do love running in Djibouti. It’s challenging, but embracing such a challenge helps me understand myself. My Djibouti runs prepare me to take pleasure in the rest of my life here.

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