Races. #1: Honolulu Marathon

Published February 1, 2017 by kokoinsouthafrica

[I’m re-setting my race count and starting from 1 now that I’m back! New beginnings.] 

In January 2016 I got an email notifying me that early registration for the Honolulu Marathon was about to begin. I thought to myself…I don’t even know if I’ll be back in America in December, but I’ll sign up anyway, just in case. It’s only 26 dollars. Low and behold I ended up being in Americaland in time to start my training program. The challenge, however, was the fact that I had foot surgery scheduled in September. How the hell was I supposed to heal from foot surgery while training for a marathon? Have I completely lost my mind??

I set up a 17 week training program for myself, taking off 3 weeks in the middle to have the operation. The procedure itself was quite simple. I opted to forgo anesthesia, and requested only local anesthetic so I could be awake and see what was going on down there. My doctor had to slice open the tip of my toe and, using a mini power drill, saw off the extra bone that had been growing, sand down the remaining bone to be smooth, then sew it up. I came out of it with only 4 stitches and some ibuprofen. The first couple of days were painful but thanks to my good old friend Tramadol I was able to pull through. I was spoiled with food and wine and Netflix, family and friends making sure I was comfortable and had everything I needed as I was essentially couch-bound for several days. By the second week I was back to walking (with a cane) and by the third week I attempted running again. With mild toe discomfort I resumed my marathon training and began ballet again (the only logical thing to do after foot surgery).

What was taken out >.<

The remaining weeks of training were challenging to say the least, but I had a goal in mind and wouldn’t let anything get in my way. Between surgery, moving houses, and a trip to New Orleans, it’s still a mystery to me how I managed to get any training done at all. Probably the most motivating factor was that I was helping my best friend train for her first marathon ever, and knowing that I’m positively influencing someone is always fulfilling. By the taper in December I had accepted that I’d gotten as strong as I was going to get, and needed to relax until the big day.

Race day morning was very jittery. Partially from nerves, and partially because I allowed myself a cup of coffee after having been caffeine free at the end of my training. I always get giddy before a race. With so much adrenaline and excitement I can feel my heart pounding inside my chest. As my best friend and I approached the start area, we admired the fireworks show and stopped for a photo before hearing the shot from the starting gun. And off we all went! A slow shuffle across the start mat and a constant beeping of runners’ timing chips being activated, Angela and I ran along side each other for the first mile or two. We eventually lost each other and I took a deep breath knowing I’d be on my own the rest of the way.


I love seeing the wide variety of participants that show up to larger races like the Honolulu Marathon. People of all ages and sizes with their own reasons and goals. I saw military men and firefighters running in their gear with full packs on their backs. I saw tons of tutus and national flags. And I love looking at people’s race clothing to see what races they’ve ran or what running club they belong to. I was wearing my Soweto Marathon shirt and was surprised when I man struck up a conversation with me about South African races. He also ran Soweto the year I did, and ran Comrades the year after me. He and I ran together for several miles talking about running, traveling, international work, time (and distance) seems to fly when you’re mentally distracted. He and his wife travel all over to run marathons, they had just reached their 101st country they’ve ran a marathon in the weekend before, in Singapore. Wow. Just wow. At some point we lost each other at an aid station but I was thankful for the good conversation and amazed at this man’s accomplishments.

Distance running is made possible by the support the runner has. I am grateful for my friends who met me en-route with water and hugs. Those moments where I see a familiar face provide me with such a burst of energy that I forget the distance and pain. I was keeping track of my time and knew I wasn’t on pace for the 4:40 finish I wanted, which made me a little bummed but I accepted that. As I came back up Diamond Head I saw a girl cheering on the side of the course with her friends all wearing ‘free hugs’ t-shirts. I ran up to her and asked for a hug. I needed that. Then she handed me a cup of beer. I needed that too. There I was, only a couple of miles from the finish line, and I stopped for a beer break thanks to the Free Hugs girls. What goddamn angels.

Eventually I realized I needed to finish the damn race so I picked up my pace and flew into Kapiolani Park. I could see the finish line in the distance, I could hear supporters cheering all along the sides, I could still taste the beer in my mouth, and I knew the feeling of victory was coming. I crossed the finish line at exactly 5 hours and was so relieved to be done. I collected my medal and t-shirt, and sat under a tree with my friends to enjoy the libations they came with. The next couple hours were filled with champagne and foot rubs, and the sneaking emptiness from knowing that the marathon is over. All of that training and effort, months of logging miles, led me to this day, and the race is done now.
I tracked Angela using the marathon’s app, and could see her approaching the finish. So I laced up my shoes and ran back into the course to find her, hold her hand, and be there with her in the moment where she crosses her first marathon finish line. So proud of her. The rest of the day was a celebration complete with champagne, vegan pizza and more champagne. And some vegan s’mores (this does exist).

There’s nothing quite like seeing your friends accomplish their goals. It’s a beautiful thing to be involved in the process of helping your loved ones turn dreams into reality. I’m glad I got to share this Marathon experience with my best friend, and I’m hopeful there will be many more to come.


For the weeks following, I was left with post-race depression. I felt lost not having a set goal to work towards, and I was (and still am) unsure of my next step. I’m at a point where I want something harder. I want to push myself to try something different. Marathons are great and I’m already signed up for the 2017 Honolulu because why not? But I’ve done enough of them that I’m feeling a strong pull to try something different/more/longer. I’m told this is the natural progression of distance running.  I want something so challenging that I have to question if I’m strong enough to finish it. After the Honolulu I’m faced with the reality that I still have toe pain. I want to train for something more challenging but I don’t know how far I can push beyond this pain. In the meantime I’m keeping myself busy training for the Hapalua Half Marathon, my favorite distance. 🙂

Am I Doing It Right?

Published January 8, 2017 by kokoinsouthafrica

About 8 months ago I stepped back into America and since, my life has been anything but dull. In this time I’ve completed another semester of school, started working, taken 3 trips to the mainland, endured family deaths, recovered from foot surgery and ran another marathon (more on this later).

Writing has always been a consistent outlet for me but for some reason I got so caught up in the whirlwind of life that I neglected one of my most valuable tools for processing and reflection. 

I don’t really buy into the ‘New Year’s resolutions’ hype because I believe if I want to make a change in my life I should do it at the moment of inspiration rather than delaying until the calendar changes. 

Funny how there are no such things as coincidences, and mid-December my Instagram account got hacked (by the Russians) and deleted. Out of frustration I emailed IG explaining the situation and asking them to reinstate my account. A few days passed and during that time I felt it was kind of nice to have one less app on my phone to check. One less portal of social media to rely on for validation, er, I mean ‘communication’ *cough. On the third day I got an email reply stating that my account had been recovered and is back up and running. I thought, damn, *face palm* I don’t even want the damn thing anymore. 

I had come to a conclusion that had been in process for a long time. I believe main social media platforms were developed to increase communication, reconnect old friends, a more trendy way to maintain contact and to do it on a mass scale. But as time passed I felt like it was being used more or less to showcase a life that one wanted the world to see. An easy way to say “Hey look at me!” and somehow get some sort of social validation through that. I’m not pointing fingers at others here, quite the opposite actually. (Although I’m sure most are guilty of it to one degree or another, hehe). [Disclaimer: This is in no way meant as an offense to others and how they use social media. We all have our reasons for doing things, and right now I’m just talking about mine.] 

But in all seriousness, I took a step back and had to really tease apart what impacts social media has in my life, and decide if it’s even a necessary thing to be involved in. The answer is actually…no. I don’t want to allow myself to engage in this false sense of connectedness. What a friend describes as “the like-based effect”. Seeking validation through likes and followers, which feeds the ego, but does nothing for my soul. I want real connection. Genuine relationships. I want to live a life free of the layer of ‘needing to be seen’ all the time. I’m deactivating my IG and FB. This challenges me to create direct pathways of communication via sincere conversation, which I believe will enhance my relationships, while also allowing me to live my life having  removed some ego-centrical drivers. 

And, finally, forces me to get back to my writing. Is this also ego-driven? To think anyone actually reads this?? That’s a question I don’t really have an answer for. But I’m gonna write anyway 😉 

What shall I do with this blog? I’ve got to redirect its focus from my life in Africa to my life in Muricaland. I suppose I’ll hold onto the basic blog framework I’ve established…race reviews, the work I’m doing, trip and life reflections…and there’s another element I’ll weave in. I journaled heavily while making my way around the world and have gotten requests to publish my entries. I’ve hesitated doing this because, well, like I’ve already said, who would even read it? But I suppose the beauty of blogging lies in the mystery of it all…I publish my thoughts in the internet world and really have no idea who or if it ever even gets read. But the release, the sweet release of composition and exhibition, will always keep luring me back. I’m addicted to the written word. Look out blog world, the Unicorn Diaries are back in action! 

Na ke Koko

Published March 17, 2016 by kokoinsouthafrica

Dumelang! Leina la ka ke Koko. [Hello! My name is Koko.]

Koko has been my most used nick-name for as long as I can remember. I never introduced myself that way, it was more so just a name used by my family and close friends. Until I came to South Africa.

Overseas, Koleana can be a mouthfull for some people, and on paper it’s even more confusing so when asked if I have a short name I offered ‘Koko’ and that instantly stuck for a couple of reasons. The most obvious being that Koko is a nickname for my first name. But here it has more implications. In the Sepedi culture a Koko is a grandmother, a wise old woman. You would call any elder women Koko as a sign of respect.

Many Peace Corps Volunteers are given new names by their villages which they embrace as a new identity; names like Lerato-which means love, or Mpho-which means gift. I was not re-named because my community saw me as Koko. I don’t know if I molded to the name or if the village made the name mold to me but either way, I feel honored to be recognized as a wise old woman.

On a side note this whole new take on ‘Koko’ is ironic because I used to have a roommate named Jon that called me grandma. I remember the joke started one day when I wore a crochet cardigan and he said it was a grandma sweater and that I dressed like a grandma. Then I started calling him grandpa just to be a brat. This was nearly 8 years ago, haha.

Now I’m not trying to problemetize my village name but I also kind of am. Peace Corps gives us alot of time to sit and think and try to understand. When I think about what it might mean to be called a Koko even though I’m 26 and childless, my thoughts immediately shift to the very real existence of internalized oppression in rural South Africa. I was dubbed Koko before I did anything to earn that respect or privilege, it was afforded to me instantaneously and under some assumption that I hold wisdom, knowledge and all the answers. Is this because of my Americanness? My skin color??

Serving in South Africa as a health Volunteer was more like completing two Peace Corps services simultaneously. While trying to impact community health I was also struggling to break down racial divides left from Apartheid. My job was not only to prevent HIV but also to be an ambassador for racial integration and trying to capacitate people who think they are incapable because they are black. The Apartheid regime was a true crime against humanity and although it was overthrown about 20 years ago, its effects still linger and the society is still very racially divided. For generations, black South Africans were segregated from white South Africans and forced into labor, project housing in remote areas, and treated as less than. They were denied education, fare wages, and recognition as humans. This relentless oppression eventually became internalized and subsquently many black South Africans today honestly believe they are less than, and that white people do everything better, are smarter, more capable, and have all the skills and all the power.

What does it really mean to be called Koko here? Is it just a nickname, or is there something going on beneath the surface? What can I do to combat this whole white-savior complex? Over 2 years have gone by and I have yet to really place my feelings on the matter. I’ve never been quite so aware of my skin color, and defined by it, as I am here. I’ve blogged about this before and I haven’t developed any solid strategies but I know my task is to constantly be aware of what my whiteness means, and to try to not contribute to the continued oppression of everyone that’s not white. I didn’t choose this skin color but because I was born with privilege I believe I have a responsibility to not exploit others. If you’ve ever seen the movie Ever After, you’d know there’s a running theme of ‘those who are born into privilege have specific obligations’. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Also, Drew Barrymore. I challenge myself to think about what privileges I have and how I can use my advantages to help others. The struggle is real.

At my farewell party a close host family friend gave a speech where he said he never thought he could talk to white people until I came. He praised me for being a good ambassador for America. I guess I’m doing something right. 

All the things! 

Published March 11, 2016 by kokoinsouthafrica

Ok, not really all, but here’s the first 20 that pop into my head! 

Things I’ll miss about South Africa:

1. Reading by candlelight. Sometimes you just don’t have electricity, and that’s ok. 

2. The sound of rain on the tin roof

3. South African traditional music blasting through cheap speakers on every taxi ride 

4. Fat cakes. Fat cakes everywhere 

5. Going to a community garden where the Gogo picks me fresh spinach straight from the Earth 

6. Sitting. Just sitting. This is usually associated with tea time 

7. Snuggling in bed through a thunderstorm, binge watching TV shows on my laptop 

8. The nanny talking to me in Afrikaans. Even though I’ve lived here for 2 years and speak to her in Sepedi 

9. Endless sunflower fields. Love!

10. “Hello ma’am Koko” from the security guards at work 

11. Children shrieking “Hiiiii” with joy and fear from a bakkie when they drive past me on the road

12. The smell of fresh bread from the bakery in the mornings 

13. Reading on the porch with the dogs sleeping at my feet

14. It’s perfectly acceptable to walk into any party and help yourself to food and drinks, regardless if you know who’s party it is  

 15. Greeting every single person 

16. Kotas = calories 

17. When the trees turn purple- quite possibly my favorite time of year   

  18. The feeling of escaping a near-death summer heat stroke thanks to a guy walking around selling Cool Time in the taxi rank  

 19. Being in a place where the honor system still prevails 

20. Seeing animals run freely everywhere: dogs, cats, goats, chickens, cows, donkeys, and non-livestock game. It was a true blessing to see lions, cheetahs, tigers, giraffes, zebras, monkeys, baboons and wildebeests in their natural habitats…even though a rhino chased me up a tree. 

Races. #18: Cape Gate Vaal Marathon

Published March 7, 2016 by kokoinsouthafrica

There’s was once a time when the thought of running a marathon was a far-off dream. A distant idea that seemed too challenging to come to fruition. I keep a Dreams List, a bucket-list of things I want to do in my life, and on this list I wrote #43. Complete a marathon. I just wanted to run 1, just to see if I could do it, just for the experience. Run 1 then I’ll cross it off my list and be satisfied. Little did I know, at the time when I logged this dream into my list, did I acknowledge that fact that when I set my mind on something sparkly- I chase it wholeheartedly. Nor did I recognize my habit for indulging in things that I enjoy and that make me feel good. 

So I signed up for my first marathon in Honolulu. I didn’t do very well, I walked a lot, winced and wobbled in pain due to lingering knee injuries from my tumbling days. But I finished, and that’s all I cared about. 

A few days of recovery was all it took for me to start daydreaming about future marathons and recalibrating my body for more precise training and deeper dedication to the process. At that point I thought- Well I’ve done one, I can do it again but make it better. 

Peace Corps service equips us with a lot of free time. More so just alone time regularly allocated into our schedules where many volunteers pick up hobbies, or binge watch TV series off their hard drives alone in their bedrooms. I filled this time with going to the village gym: teaching yoga and training myself for more marathons. I set my mind on Comrades: the Ultimate Human Race. The greatest and longest running ultra marathon in the world. Which just so happens to take place in South Africa, about 10 hours from my village. 

The rest is ancient history. In around a period of 16 months, I ran 9 marathons and ultra marathons; each ranging from 26.2 miles to 50 miles. I ran all over the country, got to meet amazing people and bond over these insane experiences. 

Yesterday I ran my very last marathon in South Africa- the Cape Gate Vaal Marathon, just south of Johannesburg. The race was well supported, and I had friends scattered throughout. I ran a pretty good time- just over 4hr40min. Not my best but not my worst. And although I’m quite happy with how I ran my race, I’m also incredibly humbled by my friends I ran with. Anthony Bond, who hosted me for the weekend and who holds the National record for the running festival- a 6 day circuit race where he completed 563 kilometers- ran the Vaal in 3:23. And my friend Talita who ran a 3:52. Both of these people are amazingly fast runners and they inspire me to strive harder. No matter what I think I’m struggling with or how much adversity I think I have, I remind myself that excuses are the nails that build your house of failure. And I will never allow myself to drown in self-pity.

   
   
  Today, trying to recover from the marathon, I went to the doctors for a lingering toe problem. I’ve been in pain for months and after X-rays this afternoon finally found out I have exostosis; extra bone growth on the top of my toe due to trauma from running. I’ve ran multiple races of marathon distance or longer, always chasing a medal or a time or some goal that helps me transcend pain and seek only my dream. I’ll deal with the toe problem when I come home, it’s painful and most often these situations require surgical removal. 

I must always remind myself that certain opportunities are once in a lifetime experiences and a little problem like exostosis won’t cripple me. I had the best time ever running my last South Africa race. I regret nothing. 

Long-Term Whatnots

Published March 7, 2016 by kokoinsouthafrica

I write a lot about my primary work of availing health service in the villages, which is very fulfilling and takes up the bulk of my time here, but there are a few small projects I’ve kept up throughout my Peace Corps service that I feel it’s time I finally pay homage to. These are things I’ve consistently been working on for 2 whole years and although they don’t really qualify as community health development or HIV prevention work, they contribute to Peace Corps’ unofficial Goal #4, which is that of transformation: personal growth and development. Now I’ll share with you how collecting coins, books, and medals has helped me work towards being more present, knowledgable, and integrated.

  1. Lost and Found Jar

I keep a jar on my fridge that holds all of the coins I have found on the ground over the last 2 years. Only coins I’ve found are allowed into this jar, and I never take any coins out. The jar is filled with coins valued at 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 cents. The 1, 2 and 5 cent coins are no longer produced or in circulation in South Africa, which means these ones are super old! You may be asking yourself- “How is this contributing to personal development?” Well, my answer to that is this- when I’m walking somewhere, I take my time. I stroll around and pay greater attention to everything around me, which causes me to be more present in every moment. Who would’ve thought something so silly as picking up lost coins on the ground could influence presence and consciousness? This little project has led to me being hyperaware of my surroundings and seeing everything, even the littlest of things. I have yet to take my jar to the bank to cash it in, but when I do I’ll let you know how much ended up being in there!

  
2. Book List

Early in my service I told myself I wanted to read 27 books in my 27 months of Peace Corps. I’m happy to say that I have reached my goal, and thanks in large part to people who have sent me books! I couldn’t have done it without you! I really enjoy spiritual fiction and non-fiction, and also works involved in the topics of health and wellness. Thanks to my nagging volunteer friends and their obsessions, I did start dabbling in sci-fy/fantasy, and the infamous Grey series as well. Some books were just excuses to stay under my electric blanket through winter, others were slightly more impactful in my life but altogether I’d say I gained a great deal of perspective and developed my creativity and imagination further. See my reading list for a complete picture!

  
3. Corner of Accomplishment

There’s a huge running culture here in Africa and the general welcoming nature of its people means it’s easy for an international runner like me to break into the local running scene. I hang my race bibs and medals in a corner in my bedroom and I love looking at it to reflect on my experiences here in South Africa. I look at this corner and think about the challenges I’ve faced, the joy I’ve felt and the relationships I’ve built all because I have a love for this crazy thing called distance running. I have developed an obsession over growing this collection and subsequently I’m constantly training and running races wherever I can in this huge country. Running is incredible release, comfort, solace, escape, presence, growth, influence, challenge, and the most insane mix of pain and pleasure. But I think most of all, for me at least, running provided a coping mechanism for the trials of Peace Corps service…of living and working in the developing world and all that comes with it.

  

 Find opportunity for growth and experience in even the smallest of things. Thanks for taking the time to read about my small projects. 🙂

 

Races. #17: Deloittes Pretoria Marathon

Published February 28, 2016 by kokoinsouthafrica

I ran the half marathon yesterday at the Deloittes Pretoria Marathon. The course was lovely, had a couple gnarly hills, but totally worth it. It ran through a lot of residential areas, but like nice residential. Then we climbed some hills up and up until we overlooked Pretoria, the Union Buildings, and there was even a band playing the bagpipes to add a little something extra to the already beautiful moment.

The field before the start.

Deloittes offered 4 distances at this race- 5, 10, 21, and 42 kilometer options. In total, 10,300 runners pitched up.

Runners toeing at the start line!

Casual band playing bag pipes

Pretoria Boys High School Band

I like half marathons because they’re kind of an ideal distance. It’s long enough to be slightly challenging but it’s mostly just for fun. State of flow!

Ok, now let me digress into something a little more serious. I really dislike the lack of eco-consciousness that exists in the running culture. On a race course there will be a water station every 3ish kilometers and subsequently those areas become littered with plastic water sachets. The race organizers place plentiful recycle bins strategically to help runners have a place to throw their trash but sadly, most runners just toss their rubbish wherever.

Do you ever have moments in nature where you get misty-eyed because everything is so beautiful? I get those frequently and I love them. Yesterday I experience extremes ranging from gratitude for the beauty, and utter shame of the human condition of carelessness. Here we were, running through gorgeous scenery, but every time I look down I see trash created and left by runners. The race organizers hire a crew to come clean after the event but the reality is that some trash does get overlooked and we’re slowly but surely destroying our natural environment by not discarding garbage into a bin. Plastic doesn’t readily decompose in nature and can take well over 20 years to break down!

These bins exist all throughout the course…

I won’t lie, once or twice I’ve caught myself throwing my empty sachet to the ground, but I have committed myself to never allowing that to happen again. Now I shop for my running shorts in the men’s sportswear department specifically because men’s shorts tend to have larger pockets. When I’m running I carry all my trash with me until I find a proper bin to throw it in. Runners have got to start being more aware of the impact we are having on the environment and not allowing laziness to dictate actions.

…yet trash always ends up here….this makes me really sad 😦

Many runners have been hasgtagging #runclean to promote eco-conscious athleticism, and the #runclean campaign has gone viral. Strides are being made toward bringing awareness to this issue as many runners are unhappy with the state these events leave the ground in. I encourage you to think about your impact on the litter that exists in your realms of life and how you can influence it.

All in all, it was a good race with friends. I met some cool people along the way. Shared some ciders at the end. And I’m sad to say that I think next weekend will be my last race in South Africa! Wild. 

National Condom Week!

Published February 21, 2016 by kokoinsouthafrica

  
 This last week I worked a 2-day campaign at the tertiary colleges of the Sekhukhune district (CS Barlow and Dr CN Phatudi campuses). The campaign was organized by First Things First, a school-based project that emphasizes campus health and health education. Over 2 days I had one-on-one sexual health and wellness counseling with 71 college students, and the event overall reached over 500 students! What a success! 

Common issues found among the students are lack of condom usage and thus a high prevalence of HIV and STIs. 

Developmental work isn’t as simple as just saying ‘use condoms’. No, it must reach a level deeper than that. 

There’s a reason why a person chooses not to use a condom. Some may generalize it as stubbornness, but I see much more complexity in the situation and therefore opportunity for development and capacity building to happen. Ignorance about proper condom usage is a very superficial problem. What’s more likely is that the person doesn’t have confidence in condom negotiation, or is in a relationship where an imbalance of power exists, and there may even be cultural barriers to accessing free condoms without facing berating and judgement. 

These are heavy, intricate issues. And they are real. And I try my best to combat them everyday with the people I counsel. 

And I don’t want to make it seem like these problems only exist in South Africa; it’s everywhere. But I think the prevalence is higher here because of certain cultural drivers of HIV like the pressure for women to be submissive and obedient to men. One woman I spoke with wanted an HIV test because she suspects (knows) her husband is cheating on her. She doesn’t feel comfortable talking about using condoms with him for fear of getting a physically or verbally abusive response. 

I struggle with having to tip toe around cultural norms because I don’t want to offend anyone, while at the same time I must encourage self-advocacy and ownership over your own body.

With each and every person I encounter, I strive to deliver quality service because they deserve 100% from me. It most definitely gets exhausting, but it’s thoroughly fulfilling work and at the end of each day I pack up my tents feeling that I made a positive impact. 

On Friday I wrapped up National Condom Week by doing a group exercise on proper condom usage for male and female condoms with 150 learners at a local high school. These are always full of laughs and fun, but the retention of the skill is there because they all demonstrated pretty accurately!  

The clock’s ticking and before I know it it’ll be time to leave! What a weird thing!