In the New Year of 2013, I decided I was going to run in the 25 kilometers Abiriba Marathon. I did not just decide that day, I had been saying I would since I saw the runners arrive at the finish line at Okpu Achi the previous year and I was particularly pleased when my cousins UK and David said they were going to run too. We had not trained at all, not once but we were sure we were going to come in among the first ten. After all, it is just 25 kilometers and it wasn’t as if we were going to be running all through not to mention we are young and able bodied.
We were up by 5.30 am the next morning all dressed in our clean shorts and sneakers. Every one else in the house was awake too; mum, dad, Uncle Jerry, Uncle Dike, Ola, ND, UG. Everybody was just as excited as we were even though none of them expected us to win or even run the race to the end. Mum said she was going to sit outside and wait to see us run past towards the finish. We left the house and trekked down to Oriekwa to register. At Oriekwa, there were hundreds of people waiting, strong young men and women like us, children who I was sure were not going to run and old people who could hardly trek a kilometer. I could see many were stretching and jogging around.
“It’s not by stretching oh or wasting all your strength jogging around,” UK said
“Ehee, true,” I agreed and nodded my head as if to reinforce that belief.
“So all these kids here want to win a 100 thousand too?” There was mockery in UK’s voice and I couldn’t help feeling a bit condescending myself as I said
“I wonder oo, they’ll just reach Ugwuezi and faint”.
We registered with 200 Naira which made UK very furious
“This is supposed to be free,” he told the woman sitting behind a plastic table in a shade at the registration point. She made no response and continued with what she was doing, ignoring UK.
“I za gini?” She asked looking at him like she was praying inwards that her eyes could shoot daggers.
“Ukuku Dike,” he answered and he swallowed his anger as she hissed and penned down his name. He made sure he got the last word as he repeated “It was free last year.”
“Your number is 065, pick the label with that exact number there,” she pointed to a heap of number tags beside her “find a way to pin it to ur polo”
“It was free last year” UK repeated adamantly, his anger mounting at being ignored.
“Next?!” She bellowed in response. UK returned the dagger look and moved away,
I took my place and registered. An hour and a half later of waiting and taking a hundred useless selfies and we were standing on the road waiting for the word ‘Go!’ I squeezed my way through the crowd, trying to maneuver myself to the front of the throng.
“Oh boy, it does not matter where you are when the race starts, just calm down”. I looked over my shoulders at the person who had just called me ‘boy’. It was a small sized man, several inches shorter than myself. His face told the tale a hard life. I allowed the insult pass and turned around.
“Go!” the official thundered and we were off, running with all our strength. Anyone looking from above must seen a scene that looked like buffaloes running in the Savannah. Unlike the buffaloes though, most of us were out of breath several metres in, I know I was.
As we turned into Ugwuezi, behind the Assemblies of God Church, Okpi, I stopped to catch my breath. I was panting like I had run the entire 25 kilometres already when I had not even run up to a kilometre at all. I began walking, I would continue running when strength crawled back into my legs or so I told myself.
“Don’t stop,” a lady said to me as she jogged pass “if you stop, you won’t be able to start again”
“Yes, I know”, I told her. I did not know her and I did not believe her. Many people had stopped running and were walking too so I was not the only one. Those jogging seemed to be doing very well, they had not stopped at all to catch their breath so I decided to jog too. I jogged successfully for a few seconds before hitting a wall, I had never felt so stupid in my life; standing there, hands akimbo and panting.
“Nduka, you are tired already?” David’s voice was a welcomed sound to my ears and I looked around to see him walking up to me.
“I am not. Why are you not running?” I asked.
“I am tired, I want to go back home”
“We have not even started, you cannot go home.” He was by my side now and we continued walking.
“I don’t know”
We continued the trek in silence, runners continued to run past us. Spectators from their house shouted to us, telling us to run
“Gbapunu nu oso, ndi ibe unu nolari ebe enya,” a woman screamed at me from her kiosk. I didn’t really care where the rest were, I was sure that when I had gathered my strength, I would run past them all. We met UK at Okagwe Agborji, he was staring at the steep hill in front of him.
“You guys are far behind oo”, he said to us as we walked up to him.
“Let’s gather strength first, we will run”
“If you stop, you won’t be able to run again”
“Eh, why did you stop then?” David asked
“This hill is steep, a girl fell here just now, serious fall o,” UK informed us, “the ambulance took her.”
“I hope she didn’t wound herself” I chuckled
“She did oo,” a girl’s voice answered. She was fair and had bushy hair, her face looked like it was usually buried under layers of makeup and looked weird without it.
“Hmm, let’s go up please,” UK said. We began the hard climb. My legs shook as I climbed and I began panting like I was dying. I remembered another hill my mum talked about, Ejim Okpo Eme Gini – What am I doing with money? It was so named by a woman who sold yams in the nearby town. She would carry the yams up a steep hill into the town to sell. One day, she carried yams larger than usual and almost fainted climbing the hill, she abandoned the yams there and went home, asking herself ‘Ejim okpo eme gini?’
That was the question in my head as I climbed the hill. At the top, UK, did not wait to catch his breath like I did, he jogged off.
“That hill is too much,” the weird faced girl said as she caught her breath. As we stood there, the children I had seen back at Oriekwa climbed up the hill and jogged past us.
“Children just passed us oo, let us go,” David said and walked off. I followed behind him with the girl tagged along. We did not run, we trekked.
At Ihungwu, there was an official with water. We drank like we had just survived a decade old drought before continuing towards Amanta, then Umuoboro through Udanta into Omaghuzo Amaogudu. Our legs were trembling and we had only gone half way.
“I stay in Cotonou,” the weird faced girl was saying to me as we climbed down the very steep Usumani valley.
“That Aba sef, filled with kidnappers”
“Have you been there before?”
“My uncle lives there, I don’t like it”
I was too tired to be interested in a conversation. We climbed the other side of the valley, we had not seen another runner since the hill at Agborji so we were sure we were in last place. The few spectators we passed told us that we were probably in last position and should go home if we were tired.
“Let’s enter Mama Ochuru’s house and rest biko na”, David begged as we crossed the road leading to our Aunty’s house.
“No, we must finish,” I insisted “we have already gotten here, we can finish”
“ Let’s enter Okada and go home, my legs want to fall off” David said 30 minutes later as a motorcycle rode past us.
“Instead of going back home without finishing, it is better we enter the ambulance and say our legs are broken. They will take us to the finish”.
A few minutes later, we were at the Amaogudu roundabout, an official was there. He was parking a bag of water into an ambulance.
“Ah ah, you people have not finished?” he asked as he passed us sachets of water.
“No”, the weird faced girl answered.
“I was about to go oo, I thought all the runners had passed”
We drank the water and continued into the expressway. The trek was done mostly in silence except for the squeak from David’s shoes as he walked. When we re entered Abiriba at the Amaeke roundabout, a smile tore across my face. This was our final lap. We trekked and soon we crossed our house. Mum wasn’t there waiting, neither was Dad, or Uncle Jerry, There was nobody.
“That’s our house”, I told the weird faced girl and she looked at the white building before squeezing her face like a person expecting a blow to the face.
“It is nice” she finally said.
When we arrived the finish at Okpu Achi, the first three positions had already been awarded their prices. The first ten were now being called and given their 10,000 Naira price. We saw UK and walked up to him.
“You guys are just coming?” He asked. “Go inside that office and write your name, they’ll give you malt to drink”.
We obeyed and went into the office, wrote our names and picked our cans of malt. A boy whom I had seen run past us at Ugwuezi, came up to me.
“Where did you get that malt, I am so thirsty I need to drink something?” he asked.
“Go in there,” I pointed to the office “register your name and they will give you malt.” He turned around to a group of five boys sitting on the ground close by. They had run the race too.
“Come oo, we didn’t register our names when we entered here” he said to them
“Is it important?” one of them asked.
We left the boys and walked back to where UK sat. We sipped our malt slowly. I wondered if they all felt the way I did, like I had been beaten severely all over with a very large stick. My legs vibrated every few seconds.
The officials began calling the names of the rest of us and handing out a thousand naira to each of us as soon as they were done with the first ten. UK was called, and he slowly made his way to the podium and took his money. After him came several names and something in me told me the money might not be enough to get to me.
“David Dike,” the official called. David smiled as he walked to the podium to collect his money.
“Imagine if we had entered Okada that time eh and gone home” I said to him as he returned
“Blessing Agwu”, the weird faced girl stood and went to pick her own money. Her legs were shaking visibly.
“Nduka Dike,” I stood and went up the podium and collected the last note.
When I returned to our seat, the official came up to talk.
“We have about six remaining names here but we have run out of money. We are sorry but these six people who came last will have to bear with us”
“We didn’t come last!” the boy I had directed to register his name shouted furiously. “They came last” he pointed at us
“Let’s go home,” UK suggested. We stood and slowly left the place with the boy still insisting “they came last!”
“I will wait for my uncle to come and pick me up with his driver,” our weird faced companion said and I nodded before walking off.
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