MONROVIA, Liberia — Prince Weah had no experience with distance-running when he signed up on a whim for a 10-kilometer race in Monrovia four years ago. Like many West African boys, he grew up with dreams of soccer stardom, though he quickly set those aside after unexpectedly placing first in the running event.
On Sunday, 20-year-old Weah joined more than 1,000 other runners who took to the streets of this dilapidated seaside capital for the Liberia Marathon and 10-kilometer race, cheered on by hundreds of spectators lining the streets and even a military brass band.
Star participant was President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Joined by U.S. Ambassador Deborah Malac, Sirleaf donned jeans and sneakers and ran a short stretch of the 10-kilometer race, stopping early on when the course ran past her house. The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner has previously said that “praying for the other runners” is a more effective use of her time than trying to reach the finish line.
In remarks to organizers two days before the marathon, Sirleaf described the symbolic importance of the race for a country still recovering from a brutal 14-year civil war in which 250,000 were killed. Liberia is celebrating 10 years of peace this month.
“Liberia, too, is in a marathon, a race of sustained peace,” she said. “With victory, you will reap the dividends that come from being a nation at peace with itself. Our goal for Liberia is to get to the finish line, to be a winner.”
While Sirleaf alluded to the past, many runners were looking to a future when West Africa might emerge as a force in the distance-running world. The marathon event is one of a few to have sprung up in the region in the last few years. Like Liberia, Sierra Leone held its second marathon earlier this year, and Gabon will host its first in November.
East African countries Kenya and Ethiopia are the world’s undisputed marathon leaders, with their high-altitude training camps and their runners’ longstanding dominance of major races. But on the other side of the continent, organizers and participants increasingly believe they can make distance-running a West African sport.
“West Africans, we are talented,” Weah said. “We have the endurance to compete with the best in the world.”
Holding a marathon in the region comes with its share of challenges, not least of which is the climate. Monrovia, often stiflingly hot, is also one of the world’s wettest cities, and parts of Sunday’s race took place under a heavy downpour.
The concept of long-distance running is also somewhat foreign. Mark Maughan, race director for the Sierra Leone Marathon, recalled spending the night before the 2012 race taping signs and distance markers on trees and billboards in the northern town of Makeni, where the race is held. By the time the race began the next day, however, many had been taken down, with some residents deeming them “bad luck” and others putting them to use as firewood.
Maughan expressed confidence these kinks could be worked out. “People in West Africa love their sport, so once they’ve established what the idea is, what the concept is all about, people over here get really excited about being part of a large-scale event,” he said.
The differences between Liberia’s first marathon in 2011 and this year’s race show that distance running is viable in the region, said Liberia race director Robert Brinckman.
“There were a lot of people that ran in 2011 that didn’t really understand what a marathon was, that were in a little bit over their head and weren’t able to complete the race,” he said. This year, weekly training sessions have regularly drawn over 100 runners.
The race is registered by world athletics body the IAAF, allowing it to attract 10 elite runners from Ethiopia and Kenya, up from just two in 2011. Organizers also introduced electronic chip-timing technology this year to increase accuracy and combat cheating.
Liberians’ ownership of the race sets it apart from others in the region. The Sierra Leone marathon is run by the British charity Street Child, with a focus on bringing participants in from other countries. Gabon’s marathon is being billed as a weekend event intended to provide an international showcase for the capital city, Libreville, and the country’s forests.
By contrast, more than 90 percent of Sunday’s race participants were Liberian.
The winner of the race was 26-year-old Nathan Naipei, who hails from Kenya’s famed Rift Valley — a hotbed for running talent — and finished in just under 2 hours, 34 minutes. The time was more than 20 minutes slower than his personal best, something he blamed on the weather and on the lack of top runners at the head of the pack. “There was no competition,” he said.
But Naipei said he was certain West Africa could produce a marathon champion “in two to three years.”
For much of the race, he ran with, and fetched water for, the second-place finisher, a 22-year old from Sierra Leone named Idrissa Kargbo.
“I was pushing him. I can push that guy and make him the best guy here in West Africa,” Naipei said. “I’ll give him my email, he will mail me, and I’ll send him the program for how I’m training myself. So when I come next year, I’ll see him very strong.”