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New West Africa Marathons Spur Interest in Distance-Running

Sierra Leone's Idrissa Kargbo who finished second in the Liberia Marathon

Sierra Leone's Idrissa Kargbo who finished second in the Liberia Marathon

The streets of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, were taken over by distance runners on Sunday for the country’s second-ever marathon and 10-kilometer race. The race is one of several that have been organized in West Africa in recent years, creating a new crop of runners yearning to compete on the international stage.

Hundreds of runners outside Monrovia’s John F. Kennedy Medical Center took off when the whistle blew to mark the start of a 10k run.

The course took the runners past the home of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf -- who ran a short stretch of the race herself -- before veering toward the sea and then ending up at the city’s stadium.

Two hours earlier, contestants in the marathon embarked on a course that also took them through Monrovia’s downtown. Although the winner of the race was Nathan Naipei of Kenya, who finished in just over 2 hours, 33 minutes, West African runners were encouraged by the strong second-place showing of Idrissa Kargbo, a runner from Sierra Leone who began competing in marathons just last year.

Naipei helped Kargbo through much of the race, setting a pace Kargbo was able to maintain until the end. But Kargbo said his rival's superior training made it impossible for him to keep up down the stretch.

"I relaxed. I said, ‘Oh, I’m not going to compete with this guy. This guy is higher than me," he confided.

Since 2011, new marathons have been organized in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Gabon, which will hold its first race in Libreville, the capital, in November.

Prior to that, West Africa’s marathon circuit was limited to a race in Accra, Ghana that is in its seventh year, and a half-marathon in Dakar, Senegal.

Races help promote tourism, local runners

The races are often seen as an opportunity to bring in foreign investors to countries that are still developing their tourism sectors. But there is also increasing interest in promoting distance-running in West Africa.

Robert Brinckman is the race director for the Liberia Marathon. He said that since the first Liberia Marathon in 2011, there had been a noticeable uptick in interest in the sport, which has long been the specialty of East African countries Kenya and Ethiopia.

"I think one of the special things about the Liberia Marathon is the immense amount of local participation. This year well above 90 percent of our participants are local here from Liberia, many of them kind of learning about long distance running for the first time. And it’s a special opportunity to kind of challenge oneself and achieve something truly great," he said.

Liberian runner Prince Weah was competing in his first marathon on Sunday. He said he believed that with additional training and opportunities to compete in other countries, the region could soon be well-represented at the world’s top races.

"West Africans can be strong on this. Because based on our performance, you know if we train more it means we can do better. And really we love the training. So West Africa can be a place for the marathon" he said.

Some of those opportunities are already starting to emerge. Sierra Leone’s Kargbo, who until now has only run the marathons in Liberia and Sierra Leone, recently qualified for the New York Marathon in November, one of the world’s most prestigious races.