Saturday, September 11, 2010

La Carrera de Saneamiento: Run to End the Runs #7-Bolivia Style

Making history: Starting Line of the First Sanitation Half Marathon

Team Water For People-Bolivia

A few months ago, Matt and I came up with the idea for the Run to End the Runs as a way to promote awareness about the global sanitation crisis-the fact that billions have no place to go to the toilet-and raise funds for Water For People. I loved the idea of running in some of the countries where we work, so we thought it would be fun to run from one region where we work in Bolivia to another region. Last weekend, tears welled up in my eyes as I crossed the finish line at the First Sanitation Half Marathon in the municipality of Cuchumuela. What was once going to be Matt and I running by ourselves in the high valleys of rural Bolivia had turned into a national event, with over four hundred people participating to get people talkin’ toilets. Earlier this year, Bolivia made international news by leading the call for the United Nations to adopt water and sanitation as human rights. The country continues to make news in the sanitation sector with the first ever race for toilets held on September 5, 2010 in the rural hills of Cochabamba.

Last May, in one of my monthly phone calls with my coordinator extraordinaire, Betty, in Bolivia, I mentioned that Matt and I wanted to run from Villa Rivero to Cuchumuela, connecting two regions where Water For People is currently supporting toilet programs. Interesting idea, Betty said, and I didn’t think much else about it until I got an email from her a few weeks after that phone call with the subject “Primer Maraton de Saneamiento?” The idea was born.

Betty, being a creative, strategic, risk-taker, thought a marathon would be a fun and different way to get people talking about toilets in Bolivia. Anything that does that is going to be a step in the right direction, as only one of every five rural Bolivians has what we call an improved toilet-a structure that safely gets the poop out of the immediate environment. What’s sadder to me, though, is that when evaluations of toilet programs in Bolivia are done, too often over half of them are not used once a project ends. Business as usual is not working to get more Bolivians on the pot, nor keep them on the pot.

I was keen to end in Cuchumuela, as it is one of the more challenging, yet interesting regions where we work in terms of toilet programs. In the span of four years, Water For People, the local government, and communities have worked together to raise access to toilets from nearly 0% to 65%. A huge change, given most rural areas have around 22% coverage. But just building toilets does not ensure they are used and maintained. Water For People, however, is committed to monitoring the sustainability of both its water and sanitation investments, and 2009 data from Bolivia showed that 93% of those toilets were being used and hygienically maintained. Cuchumuela was not satisfied with either more toilets, or that those toilets kept being used. Rather, they are now investigating income generating possibilities from the fertilizers produced by composting toilets, as a way to improve incomes, ensure toilet use for the long-term, and capture the nutrients in liquid and solid wastes. All in all, a good place to host a toilet race.

Having no experience at putting a race together didn’t stop Betty from putting together a very successful first toilet race. Having explained to Betty that Matt and I were also raising funds for each mile we ran for toilets, she initially thought they could try that in Bolivia. However, when she met with the Bolivian Athletic Association and explained 1) that we wanted to do a race for toilets; and 2) that she thought we could charge $25 per runner and raise funds for toilet programs, they laughed. Most races in Bolivia charge between 2 and 5 Bolivianos, the equivalent of $US 0.30 and $US 0.50. So the idea of a fundraiser went out the door pretty quickly, but the Water For People—Bolivia team was still committed to putting on the race.

For 800 Bolivianos-a little over $100US-the Bolivian Athletic Association agreed to develop the route, provide timing devices, judges, etc-all the logistics behind the race. But Water For People was left to promote the race, raise funds to cover the prizes and snacks for the police, and ensure people participated. A week before the race, nerves were high, as we had not raised enough to cover all the costs yet, and the only two confirmed participants were Matt and I. Julia Montes, our Social Coordinator, and I, took advantage of our field visits that week to put up the pasacalles-large banners promoting the race across the main highway, and distribute the flyers, but we were still unsure how it would turn out.

But, as I’ve learned from two years of living down here, things often come together at the last minute. The half marathon was no exception. Friday night before the race, the last phone calls to sponsors were made, bank balances checked, and prizes organized. The presence of four local television stations, the national government, ambulances and emergency personnel, and the help of the police were assured. The race courses-both the student 7km and the full half marathon would be marked at the crack of dawn the next day.

We picked up our third confirmed participant that night, Water For People staff member Chrissey Buckley, who had come to lead a workplace giving site tour the next week. Nearly thirty hours of traveling, Chrissey surely won the prize for traveling the longest way to participate!

Matt and Chrissey showing off their stylish Run to End the Runs Shirts

Race morning. We left at 7am in the Water For People car and were some of the first to arrive at the main plaza in San Benito, a municipality 21 kilometers (or 13.2 miles) from the finish line in Cuchumuela’s main plaza. There was a group of serious looking runners, and I was able to peg the man and woman who would later win the race. I actually thought I recognized one as the winner from a 10 km race that we ran in Arequipa earlier this year, so I introduced myself and confirmed that it was him. He had heard about the race the night before from a training buddy who works for the municipal water and wastewater utility in La Paz, and they both had ridden the 7 hour bus overnight to participate. They were both extremely excited to have a half marathon to run in Bolivia, as longer distance races are few and far between. And non-existent in the rural areas. What races do happen take place in the larger cities of La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz. The race would not only get people talking about toilets, but promote athleticism and running in some of the most neglected rural areas of Bolivia-a great unintended consequence!

Kate talking about the race with the head of the police force

Kate talking toilets for local television

The Athletic Association had put up the sign up table on the side of the main highway to encourage last minute registrations and last minute registrations did we have! I could not believe my ears when Cesar, the race director, said we had over 420 students and adults participating in the race. A few days earlier, Matt and I were convinced we’d be the only ones running to end the runs in Bolivia.

One of my favorite things about racing overseas has been the different customs that races have. Here, we were actually spray painted with green paint on our legs to avoid cheating-in the sense that another red-haired gringita would jump in as I got tired throughout the race, and finish instead of me, and we would split the prize loot. What was hilariously ironic though was that many people got rides in the ambulances for most of the course, jumped out of the vans down the street from the finish line, and crossed the finish line as if they had run the whole thing. A much easier way to cheat than finding a redhead in rural Bolivia, but I did not pull a Rosie Ruiz, and ran the whole thing.

We didn’t start exactly on time, but I was still in such shock that we were starting at all that I didn’t mind. Many of the Water For People-Bolivia staff and partners donned their race numbers and rarely used running shoes and toed the start line. Many of these folks had run in high school, but not in years, or kept in shape playing soccer, but not distance running. After listening to lots of toilet-related speeches from the local authorities, the firecracker announcing the beginning of the first ever half marathon for toilets was lit and we were off.

And they're off!

The first five km of the race ran along the main highway leading south from Cochabamba. As in most races, everybody went out really fast, but within 5 minutes here, people were already beginning to walk. Cars and buses stopped to honk, as hundreds of people running through the streets of rural Bolivia had never been seen before. The first 5km was marked by a water stop and a right turn into the provincial capital of Punata.

Kate coming through the first 5km

The Mayor of Villa Rivero, Jose, comes out of a 15 year running break to participate!

I realized pretty quickly that most of the Bolivians had a very different racing strategy than I did. The same people would sprint by me, stop, hunch over and breathe, walk for awhile, and repeat. My conclusion was that soccer is so prevalent down here that people are great at shorter distances-the length of a couple of soccer fields-but not kilometers and kilometers of running.

Running through Punata was a highlight of the race; the streets were lined with people cheering us on and the second 5 km passed by really fast, making me think the course might have been so scientifically measured. Because if it was right, at this point, I was running 7:30s at nearly 10,000 feet in the hot morning sun. Passing the second aid station-the government of Villa Rivero’s red pick up truck and several representatives passing out bags of water, I was grateful for the liquid. I don’t think that I’ve mentioned that the Thursday before the race, I finally tried the namesake of my blog, donkey milk, and it had left me dehydrated from days of a runny tummy. But there was no way a little donkey-milk induced diarrhea was going to get in my way from the first toilet race ever, so I tried to hydrate as best as I could that morning, but knew it would probably hurt.

Leaving Punata, those that were still running around me started taking frequent walk breaks and I never saw the woman that I had been leap-frogging with again. This was a long, hot, section on an unshaded road that seemed to last forever.

The long road between Punata and Villa Rivero

Little kids would splash runners from the irrigation canals that line the road, providing a brief respite from the heat and sun. This stretch of road always seems to take a long time when I drive it to visit the field programs and it stretched on and on as I ran it. I knew that at the arch marking the entrance to Villa Rivero would be another water stop and I was counting my footsteps to get there. It’s one of those roads that are straight as far as the eye can see, so little by little, I made my way to the arch and the 15km. I heard another M-80 right around this point, and assumed that it was the first man finishing the race.

Cruising through Villa Rivero was also fun, as it appeared the whole town had come out to witness the first half marathon pass by its streets. Before Villa Rivero ends, so does the paved road. Cobblestone is quaint to look it, but it is a pain in the arse to run on. I eventually started running on the six inches of paved road that flanks the cobblestone road and kept my eye on my next goal, the church in the main plaza of the municipality of Tacachi, Cuchumuela’s neighbor and only a couple of kilometers from the end.

Community members were out in full force in this section, offering oranges, lemons, water, smiles, and words of encouragement to the runners. I was pleasantly surprised to see my friend and ex-council member from Cuchumuela, Aureliana, and her two kids in the plaza in Tacachi. She gave me a plastic cup full of goodness-one of the local drinks they make from barley and sugar and it gave me a needed boost to push through those last two kilometers.

The road turns right into Cuchumuela and the incline increases. I was getting pretty emotional here, as it was so amazing to see all the people that had turned out to share two of my passions-running and toilets. I could hear the finish line before I could see it, with its brass band and people cheering. A soft left and I crossed the finish line, giving Betty a big, sweaty bear hug and still in shock at the party that was going on around me.

The band and spectators at the finish line

People continued to cross the finish lines; friends from partner organizations, the exertion of running 21 kilometers showing on their faces as they finished their first half marathon ever.

Friends and partners from the local government, Elvis and Gaby, finishing

The first Cuchumueleno finishes!

Coca-Cola had sponsored the event and the ladies of Powerade handed out cold beverages to the finishers. My two picks did end up winning, both the man and woman are professional athletes in Bolivia, and it was so great to have such athletes at our little toilet race.

Cuchumuelenos come out for the celebration and award ceremony

Although I ran for toilets, I think some people were motivated by the sweet prizes. Master’s and open men and women winners took home 1000 Bolivianos ($130US), second place got 800 Bolivianos ($115US), and the rest got trophies and shirts. The student race had great prizes motivating kids to hustle to the finish lines-mountain bikes for the top winners, and round-trip tickets within Bolivia for the second prize kids.

The littlest finisher-eight years old!

I don’t even know what times we ran, but mine was good enough for fourth woman and it was great to represent Water For People—Bolivia. Both the mayor of Cuchumuela and a representative from the Vice Ministry of Environment, Water, and Sanitation, spoke about the importance of sanitation in Bolivia during the awards ceremony. Like most good Bolivian events, this one ended with a barrel of chicha-the equivalent of corn moonshine, a plate of locally-prepared food, and lots of dancing.

The top women finishes on the podium

Top men finishers, including two ex-olympians!

Delicious post race fuel

The staff of Water For People—Bolivia, all of our local government partners-from Cuchumuela, Villa Rivero, Tiraque, and San Pedro, along with the local governments in the region where we don’t work, sacrificed time and money to put together such a great event. I’m confident that the first toilet half marathon won’t be the last Run to End the Runs in Bolivia!

Betty, Country Coordinator and leader of the sani-marathon relaxes with a post-race dance

Tired and happy Run to End the Runners.....

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