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Africa

Sierra Leonean marathon runners take on the world's elite

Soccer is the main sport in Sierra Leone and marathons are fairly new to the region, unlike in East Africa. That could now change as more long distance runners are starting to emerge.

When Idrissa Kargbo started running he didn't realize this would one day take him to New York. "My grandmother used to ask me to buy her food and told me to hurry, so I would run. She said I was very quick and that's how I started to enjoy running," 22 year-old Kargbo told DW.

He started running at school, coaches noticed his speed and encouraged him to pursue the sport. It was with the help of Jo Dunlop, an Australian expatriate living in Sierra Leone, that Kargbo gained more support.

Idrissa Kargbo warning up with his coach (Photo: Nina deVries) Foto: DW Korrespondent Nina de Vries Frau deVries ist freie Korrespondentin

Idriss Kargbo (left) warming up with his coach Harold Leigh-Palmer

They met at the National Stadium in the capital Freetown, where Dunlop herself ran regularly. She recognized 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. That was in 2012. He also recently competed in a marathon in Liberia where he came second.

It was after Kargbo's big win in Sierra Leone that Dunlop decided to nominate him for the New York City Marathon. Fundraising efforts made it possible for him to make the journey.

"Hopefully people will take notice of him and what he's doing," said Dunlop, adding "quite often stories that come out of Sierra Leone are negative, so it's nice to have something positive." The country emerged from an 11-year civil war in 2002 that left over 50,000 people dead.

The New York Marathon is held over a distance of 26.2 miles (42 kilometers). Kargbo's best time prior to the race was two hours and 35 minutes but he was hopeful he could beat that on the day.

Just the beginning

Kargbo's coach, Harold Leigh-Palmer, says West Africa is starting to produce talented runners whose names may one day be as famous as those from East Africa.

Leigh-Palmer says Sierra Leone's landscape is the perfect practice ground.

"We have lot of hills, beaches, rough lands, so we can run well with marathons," said Leigh-Palmer. "Because of the high altitudes, you learn how to keep your breath."

Mamie Lahun on the running track (Photo:Nina deVries) Frau deVries ist freie Korrespondentin

Mamie Lahun left the competition behind to win the 2013 Sierra Leone Marathon

It's not only men who are taking up running seriously in Sierra Leone. Women runners are also coming to the fore.

Mamie Lahun,who is also 22 years old, won the Sierra Leone marathon this year. "When I'm running, I'm feeling happy because I'm always in the front," said Lahun.

Her coach, Jimmy Wright, estimates there are about 15-25 dedicated long distance runners in the country. And with a little encouragement, there could be more.

"If we have more of this competition and these kids are given more facility and support I believe we have a lot of potential," he said.

Wright says the biggest challenge now is getting the government to show more support for long distance running. According to Ishmail Al-Sankoh Conteh, the country's deputy minister of sports, work has already begun. Conteh says an action plan has been established with the goal of gaining more financial support for sports such as long distance and sprint running. He hopes it will be established by next year.

In the meantime, Kargbo and Lahun have their sights set on the London Marathon in April 2014.

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