Jennifer Lazuta '07 never expected to become a media star. She simply thought it would be "cool to run a marathon in Africa."
Lazuta is a Peace Corps volunteer ¿¿in Burkina Faso, a landlocked country on the cusp of the Sahara that is one of the poorest in the world. It's also culturally conservative and maintains extremely traditional gender roles - which meant that when Lazuta heard about the 2009 Ouaga-Laye Marathon and went to sign up, she was at first told she couldn't participate.
"The reason: I was white. I was American. I was a girl," Lazuta said. "Can a white, American female really run a marathon? Nothing like that had ever been happened before." Only after much checking around did the officials decide she could compete in the international marathon.
On the day of the race Lazuta attracted considerable attention. She was the only white racer among more than 400 participants, and also one of fewer than 20 female competitors.
The race started at seven in the morning, two hours after the sun had come up, and it didn't take Lazuta long to wonder what she was doing. "The pavement was hot. The sun was brutal," she said. "There were no trees or buildings to offer shade. Police were there to keep watch, but didn't stop traffic, so we had to weave in and out of cars, buses, and giant trucks - and dodge a stray donkey or goat every now and then."
Although Lazuta had done no training for the marathon and had never run a race longer than 10 km, she managed the first half without too much difficulty. "But then the heat and the fatigue and the pain started to kick in," she said. "My legs were simultaneously numb and on fire. I was dehydrated and hungry. My sunscreen had worn off hours ago and my skin was burning. My feet were blistered. I wanted nothing more than to hop on the air-conditioned buses that kept going by to pick up all those who had dropped out."
Lazuta persevered, however, inspired by the enthusiastic calls of "nasara" ("white girl") and a running buddy she picked up along the way who urged her to cross the finish line together with him - which they did, after four hours.
The finish was a "bit hazy" for Lazuta. "I remember lots of cheering," she said, "and I know some army guys escorted me through the crowd since I could barely stand. Then all of the sudden there were microphones and cameras in my face. Women were wiping sweat away with tissues and rubbing ice blocks on me, all while bombarding me with questions. I could barely think in English, let alone French to understand them. I thought all the hype was because I was the white girl, but then I realized they were asking what it was like to be the 2009 female champion."
That night Lazuta was featured as headline news on multiple TV stations, and on Monday morning she was on the front page of all the local papers. "Every newspaper, radio, and TV station in West Africa wanted exclusive interviews," she said. "I got more attention than the poor guy from Niger who finished in an amazing 2 hours and 30 minutes. Since then, I can't go into the city or to the market without someone asking if I'm ‘the runner.'"
Lazuta donated her modest award money to her community in the northwest part of the country to install fencing around the local garden.¿¿ There, she has been teaching the women valuable, marketable skills such as basic accounting, soap making, gardening, and tie-dyeing fabric.
Right after the race Lazuta swore she would never ever again subject herself to such torture. "But as I sit here a month later," she said, "with fully recovered legs, cooler temperatures following the first rains, and having one pretty cool story to tell, I can't help but think that I might make another appearance in the 2010 Ouaga-Laye Marathon."
Lazuta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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