At 7am the sun was overhead and making the day already seem unbearably hot. Jessica dropped me off at the Institute for Sports and I greeted my Malawian friends who were clustered in the shade waiting for the athletes’ bus to arrive. It was opening day at Malawi’s Bingu National Stadium, a project funded by China that was supposed to give Malawi a cutting edge sports facility to help attract international competitions as well as function as a site for youth development. After several postponed opening the stadium was finally complete and a whole day of festivities had been planned to celebrate this monumental day. This rag tag group of 30 or so runners were the opening act, or at least we were supposed to be if that bus was ever going to arrive. But arrive it did, and all of us crammed inside, a few standing in the aisles or sitting doubled up. The drive to the stadium was event less and security was kind enough to not take our water bottles or food, though clearly outside items of this kind were banned. We found our seats in the 50,000 capacity stadium, which of course were in direct sunlight and waited. After five minutes of sweating I got up and found my way to the shade, sitting on the concrete right around the corner from where our seats were located. They had no idea when our event was actually supposed to be, but the President of Malawi arrived at 10 and so the assumption was we’d compete shortly after that.
The time passed slowly as thousands of Malawians slowly began to fill up the stadium. They had estimated an crowd of 60,000 plus and had police and military on hand to hold back the angry masses that wouldn’t be allowed in once the stadium was full. I munched on a peanut butter sandwich and read some N.T. Wright, preferring to read about the second temple Jewish world than dwell on my current world which in the next few hours would become eminencly painful as we rocketed around the track for 1500 meters. The sight of a lone white man sitting on the concrete turned some heads and the third group of police officers that checked on me finally made the azunugu return to his seat, shady characters reading in the shade are not welcome here. Lucky for me we were called to warm up about ten minutes later and I was spared being charbroiled in the sun to the point that it might have been detrimental to my race.
We shuffled outside to the warmup track and began to shake loose with some light running and drills. Chancy, my training partner, pointed out a fellow that in Chancy’s words “I sometimes fear him, he sometimes fears me.” This sometimes fearful nemesis was none other than Kefasi Chitsala, 5000m Olympian for Malawi this past summer in Rio. Kefasi didn’t make it out if the preliminary round of the 5000m, but either way he was there in Rio and now he was here at Bingu to lay down some hurt on anyone who thought they could run with an Olympian.
Warmups completed we headed inside to an underground holding area where we changed to spikes and started doing strides. Kefasi introduced himself to me there and we exchanged mindless chit chat while probing the other for details about the other’s primary event. Whether an Olympic 5000m runner was alarmed by the presence of a 6’3″ American marathoner who just happened to show up to run a 1500m that day I couldn’t tell, but the marathoner was a little intimidated to say the least, it’d been two years since I’d run a 1500m. A few more minutes passed and we were called onto the track.
The sun was burning overhead and the stadium looked to be about 2/3rds full as we came out onto the track. The women’s 1500m consisted of 6 women, which looked to be girls of highschool age or younger, but regardless the crowd was into it from the start and as the eventual winner surged past the early leader the stadium erupted and I cracked a smile from ear to ear thinking this was one of the craziest races I might ever be in. The women finished and the officials lined us up. The men’s race was a little more crowded with 25 to 30 men stretching across the starting line, the youngest an 18 year old that trains with us. I stood frozen at the line, out in lane 8 of 10, hoping to avoid the stampeding mass as they surged off the line. The starter raised his gun and yelled set, a few Malawians jumped at set and we had to line back up and hold out for a few more seconds. Set and the gun! We were off and as I made the long diagonal to the first turn I found myself pleasantly tucked in behind a lead group of 5-6 runners. We shot around the turn and into the front stretch, the leaders pulling away slightly and I thinking how awful this felt right from the gun. We passed the post and the starter yelled “three laps to go!” At this point there was suffering for a lap. We had done some speed for earlier in the week and top end 200m speed had been 29 seconds for me, this felt similar to that, but I had three more laps of it and I was losing a little more ground on the leaders.
Around the first bend a few more runners passed me. I saw the short quick turnover of my other training partner Francis go by and I latched on, letting him pull me around most of the second lap. The post zipped by again and the starter yelled, “two laps to go!”
I found myself at the crucial decision point, this would have been the third lap of a mile race, a distance I was all too familiar with in high school and the lap of greatest suffering because you’ve already run nearly half a mile all out and you’ve got another half to go. But in the back of my mind I knew others were hurting just as much or more than I was. I had survived the first two laps and felt now was the time to catch the leaders or be too far back at the bell to even have a chance of winning. So as we moved into the bend I pulled out into lane two and began to press. It came slowly, but my surge worked and I felt the runner in front of me slowly coming back to me. At this exact moment something else happened that I’ve never experienced before. As I pulled past the runner in front of me and began reeling in another it sounded like someone turned the volume knob on the stadium to MAX and suddenly we were engulfed by this deafening roar. It was so incredible and it continued all down the back stretch as I pulled up onto the shoulder of Chancy and Kefasi who had taken the lead from the gun and been waiting for one of the others to make a move. I parked it behind these two, knowing that I was not going to be able to hold my current pace for a full 800, and waited for the gun.
The bell was ringing wildly as we ripped by the post for the start of the last lap and immediately Kefasi pressed down on the accelerator and began to telescope away from me. Chancy hung on his shoulder and I did my best to begin some form of last lap kick. We came around the turn and raced down the back stretch, Kefasi with Chancy latched on for dear life slowly pulling away from me. As we approached 200m to go another short Malawian came around me and I slid back to 4th place. We surged around the bend, but I waited knowing the turn was not the place to attempt to take back 3rd. We whipped out of the turn, and I came wide into the second lane and in a moment of strange clarity heard my inner voice say, “you’ve worked too hard for fourth, take back third.” And with that I threw whatever reserve I had left into the last 100m.
At first nothing happened, the white and green singlet that read Malawi across the shoulders stayed a step or two ahead, like we were matched stride for stride and no amount of energy was going to change that now, but gradually I felt the pull, I felt him coming back to me. Each long, powerful stride gave me an inch and with 50m to go I pulled abreast to him and every awful, anguishing stride after that carried me the few inches past him that I’d need to cross the line before he did. In front of us another drama played out: Chancy found another gear and passed Kefasi for the win in the final steps.
I crashed through the finish line and stumbled to a stop. Air couldn’t come fast enough to clear the terrible burning in my chest. I threw a celebratory fist pump before bending over to suck air. An official handed me a small torn piece of paper with the number 3 written on it and I walked over to the mass of finishers lining up to turn in their place and their name. I spelled my name for the lady trying to take down finishing order from 30 screaming men and glanced at the clip board sitting in the lap of another official next to her. There was a list with times written in pen and next to #3 was written in barely legible chicken scratch the time 3:52.36. I couldn’t believe it. “Number 3, 3:52? That says 3:52?” I continued to press until the official said yes and I jumped for joy realizing I’d tied my personal best. Well, actually at that moment I believed I was one second off my personal best, but a few hours later with some digging I found out I had tied it or come within a few tenths of a second of it. Either way I was elated and I bounded over to Chancy who was in the midst of his own celebration having pulled off the win over the sometimes fearful Kefasi and proving a whole lot of haters wrong. Chancy had been sent to the DRC for an African Peacekeeping Mission in 2015 and had been forced to take a full year off from training. For a 3:42 1500m runner who’s entering his prime this is a tragedy and since his return to Malawi and competitive running there had been many in the running world of Malawi who said he was all washed up. I and Francis of course knew better. Over the past four months I had yet to see Chancy falter in a hard session and with his natural gift of speed I knew he was bound to come back ready. This had been a moment of vindication for Chancy and I was glad that my friend had gotten his chance on such a big stage to make such a bold, clear statement: “Chancy Master is Back!”
I found my way out to the warm up track and jogged a slow achy mile as the Chinese and Malawian National Soccer teams did drills in the infield. I was still basking in the thrill of the race and wondered what this meant for my upcoming year. Training is shifting to preparation for my next marathon now and I don’t remember the last time I started a training cycle with this kind of speed. Needless to say I was excited and the euphoria carried me throughout the remainder of the day. It carried me home, and then back to the stadium to get my award for third place.
This trip back was a whole other adventure that I don’t have time to share now, but it involves a mob that stole my phone, ripped down a stadium gate, then got tear gassed (I had gotten out of there by then luckily), the Malawi Flames beating China, and another crazed mob nearly trampling us as we left. Needless to say it was an exciting day. A day that will probably be one I look back on fondly for many years to come and share innumerable times with friends and family whenever they ask me about those days when I was a runner.