Notes from the Field: Running in Rwanda with Right to Play

Anyone who uses Strava and happens to follow me will have noticed I am on a bit of a running kick.  Since quitting the bike after my time trial in London on August 1st, I’ve hoofed it in myriad cities and on some awesome trails.  Travel has been intense and it’s impractical to even consider bringing a bike along.  I suffered the excess baggage blues the past two years.  I can’t say how relieving it is to travel with sometimes only a carry-on bag.  In fact, my bikes are still packed in their travel bags from London, sitting in my basement in Utah.


Back to the running.  It’s become my outlet.  My time each day that I have only for myself.  My time of silence.  My escape from fatigue, pressure, stress and sometimes this feeling of being overwhelmed by what life is after stopping the pursuit of Olympic sport after 22 years of full engagement.


Running is my medication.  It’s my key to health.  It makes me feel alive and exhausted all at once.  It makes me sweat and feel the satisfaction of having done something for myself in my day.  Each and almost every day.


I arrived in Rwanda last night and woke early as per jet lag usual.  I woke at about 530am and noticed the bright light of dawn seeping through the cracks in the curtains.  I remembered two years prior when I was here having the same first morning.


The reason I am here in this far-away place?  You guessed it, Right to Play.


The last time when I woke and considered going out for a run I was nervous.  I had asked everyone possible the night before if it was safe to go out and explore the city on foot.  It was a unanimous yes but still, I wondered, how could this place be safe.  How could a place be considered safe when all I’d been reading were recounts of the devastating genocide that happened in 1994.


This fear was dispelled that very first morning.  I even saw a few teenagers out, running just like me.  People seemed indifferent to me as I ran along the quiet streets that first Sunday morning.


This morning was quite another experience.  After consulting the guards at the hotel entrance, I decided to take the ‘go right and it’s flat’ advice rather than the ‘if you want to climb go straight and down the hill, then run back up’ option.  When talking the the guards I saw the first indication of the kind of running company I was going to have.  Guys were jogging by solo and in pairs.  Out for a Sunday morning run here in the capital of Rwanda, Kigali.


And so my run began.  The further away from the hotel I went the more runners I saw.  I passed most of the guys and was treated to some significant challenges in pace.  I even saw some girls.  More girls than two years ago.  An indication that indeed the focus on female engagement of the Rwandan government is working.  A focus mirrored by Right to Play here in Rwanda and many other places in the world.


Running for just over ten kilometers brought me back to the feelings evoked each and every run I’ve done in Africa.  It’s a good thing for a person to be the odd man out.  To be the one different from everyone else.  I felt this again today while running.  Standing out in the masses of kids and youth of all ages running, people walking.  Sunday beginning as a day in Rwanda.  Being the only bright white person running along and then having kids run with me, challenging my pace, seeing how we fared against each other.  Then receiving cheers along the way from many a person standing on the roadside.  Feeling uncomfortable but enjoying this feeling.


This acceptance happened because I was running along like most everyone else.  The common between us all was the form of movement.  In essence, a form of play.


Each time I’ve been in the field with Right to Play I’ve experienced this.  Felt this in real time through the programs that foster the critical elements of self-confidence, self-esteem, respect for oneself and others and the ability to overcome adversity.  The very elements that allow for the development of a child and in turn create a safer, healthier and more productive society.


This trip is no different.  The only difference is that I am no longer just an athlete ambassador for RTP.  I am now on the International Board of Directors and am here with much of the board.  We’ve come together from all around the world to meet, approve and brainstorm.  I have the chance to continue to be a part of the phenomenal programs that are putting into practice providing the right the play of every child.  The right the the UN recognizes as not being a luxury, but more so a tool for education and health.


When you see it you realize the magic.  You inhale and metabolize the transformative qualities of engaging in play that you see in front of your eyes.  It makes your heart smile when you see the sparkle and the joy when children have the chance to grow and be empowered by play.  When a child becomes a leader and you see their confidence flourish when these leadership skills are put into practice in their lives, communities and their own little world.


There are 28 of us here in Rwanda.  Some are going on to Uganda on the weekend, including me.  Five of this group are a remarkable array of US Olympic Athlete Ambassadors from soccer, track and field, swimming and water polo.  They have so many Olympic medals combined I’ve lost count.  I can’t wait to connect with the kids in the field with my fellow AA’s of RTP.  We are going to create some magic of our own.


The gift of traveling to this far away land once again is one which I hope to repay by re-telling the stories of the experiences, people and places I encounter.  Sharing the magic of it all I hope will encourage others to act and give and, most importantly, provide more children with the chance to be engaged in play.  So that the cycle will continue of playing, learning and growing.  Of becoming, as Dennis who oversees all the RTP programs in Western and Francophone Africa, ‘change agents’ in their communities.


Change agents in their communities and in their lives.  Think of the potential of the almost one million children engaged in RTP programs on a regular basis.  Profound.


With more than a week ahead of what I’m sure to be overwhelming experiences, I look forward to sharing the stories of it all.  Sharing the magic of it all.


Last year I raced on the Specialized lululemon Pro Cycling Team and we committed to raising $100,000 for the RTP programs here in Rwanda.  Help us raise these funds by bidding on our auction items and more kids here will be reached.  Our fundraising page will show the latest items up for bid so please check it out, simply make a donation to make our goal a reality.

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