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Sierra Leone Runner to Compete in NYC Marathon

Idrissa Kargbo gets ready to run at the National Stadium, Freetown, Sierra Leone, Oct. 21, 2013 (N.deVries for VOA).
Idrissa Kargbo gets ready to run at the National Stadium, Freetown, Sierra Leone, Oct. 21, 2013 (N.deVries for VOA).
Sierra Leone, for the first time, is sending a runner to compete in one the most prestigious international running events -- the New York City Marathon.  Soccer is the ruling sport in this West African nation, but runner Idrissa Kargbo hopes to change that. 

In an empty stadium under a blazing sun, Kargbo is preparing for the biggest race of his life.

His coach barks instructions at him as the 22-year-old runner aims to beat his own record of two hours and 35 minutes.

At the New York City marathon he'll be running 26.2 miles or 42 kilometers.  He's hoping he can get his time down to two hours and 20 minutes and is honored to represent his country.

“I'm going to try to put my country international, to run a good time, so my people here can appreciate what I'm doing there," Kargbo says proudly.

Kargbo has been running long distance for 10 years.  It has not been easy though.  There have even been times when he has lived on the streets.

"I came from a poor family.  I don't have a job to get money," he explains.

It was through the help of Jo Dunlop, an Australian expatriate living in Sierra Leone, that Kargbo gained support.

They met at the National Stadium in Freetown, where Dunlop would go running.  She saw Kargbo's potential and helped sponsor him in the first marathon ever held in Sierra Leone, which he won with a national record of two hours and 38 minutes.

He also recently competed in a marathon in Liberia where he placed second.

After his big win in Sierra Leone, Dunlop decided to nominate him for the New York City Marathon.  Fundraising efforts have amassed $13,000 in donations - enough to get Kargbo to New York for the opportunity of a lifetime.

He is even featured as an inspiration story on the New York City marathon website.

"They [NYC marathon organizers] gave him a complimentary ticket and a place with the sub-elite runners, which means he'll start the race on the Brooklyn Bridge, with the big wigs, the big guns, the Ethiopians and the Kenyans," explains Dunlop. "And hopefully he'll get some special treatment in the lead-up to the race and it will be  a great opportunity for him to network and meet other runners."

Those other runners he may meet could include stars such as Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya, who won the 2011 New York City Marathon.

Dunlop says just having Kargbo in the race is a big accomplishment as it puts long distance running in the spotlight in Sierra Leone, a country where soccer is the dominant sport.

Both Dunlop and Kargbo hope Sierra Leone's government will look at giving more support to long distance running.  

And according to Ishmail Al-Sankoh Conteh, the deputy minister of sports, that is the plan. He says an "action plan" has been established that looks at gaining more financial support for sports such as long distance and sprint running. 

"We want to put more attention, on distance running, because we think we have more potential to get medals in distance running," Conteh says, adding that the Ministry of Finance is looking at a budget for the program. If approved, he expects the plan can be rolled out by next year.

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