14 May 2013

Guest Post: Finish Strong

In this guest post, our friend Erin writes about her time in Congo coming to a close. Runner or not, we think everyone can appreciate the sentiment to "finish strong."

By 10am on a Saturday morning in Kinshasa the sun has laid its claim to the sky, shoving the cooler morning air to make way for its scorching heat. Even the shade is forbidden from carrying the memory of cooler temperatures. It is during this time, when the humidity clings to you like a spider web and causes your sunscreen and bug spray to run down your face like some cruel twist of a snowball that I am running.

As I run my body is awakened with an awareness of itself that is measured in aches and pains. As I begin the tightness in my thighs from yesterday’s Jillian workout pulls against my momentum. My first stretch of running highlights the frailty of my ankles and I know by the end I will have reawakened the new hot-spots on the inner arches of on my feet. My lungs push against my chest, desperate in their search for relief. With three minutes left of my last run I abandon my usual workout mantra of “skinny jeans; tank tops; summer dresses,”- a chant that has pulled me through the workouts my friends and I force upon one another in our classrooms after school. Instead I draw from my mental well the simple phrase “Finish strong.” I imagine pouring it over myself like a bucket of cool water.

By my senior year of college I knew I wanted to teach. My problem though was florescent lighting. Florescent lighting and corduroy jumpers represented a conventionality, a monotonous rhythm that my newly minted 21 year old self just couldn’t handle. In my effort to teach without conventions, intrigued by the idea of experiential education, I signed myself up for a semester with the National Outdoor Leadership School, NOLS, learning how to be an outdoor educator. 

Image from here.

Several months later I found myself strapped to a pack half my weight, trudging through the canyons of Utah and wondering, “What in the eff –star-star-star did I get myself into this time?!” I had never been on a backpacking trip before. My prior experience with the “wilderness” included day hikes up paved hills and working at a summer camp. While everyone else in my group had been practicing these skills their entire life, I was stuck relying on a positive attitude and little else. And let me tell you, after a burned breakfast, packing and repacking your bag several times to get it right, and then hiking eight hours in the blaring sun, that positive attitude was growing smaller with each step. 

On our first day in the canyons everyone struggled. Our bags were heavier than normal from carrying extra gear and our bodies strained against the dry heat pounding upon the sometimes rocky sometimes sandy terrain. About a mile out from our intended campground our bodies summoned up the last of our reserves and we began to double-time it. It didn’t matter that we were panting and swaying heavily from our packs and pains in our legs, the end was in sight. It was at this very moment of momentum that our instructor ordered us to stop and take off our packs.

“Why are you running?” she said. The group responded with frustrated variations of “We’re almost there!”
“You need to remember that hiking isn’t about the finish, it’s about the journey. When you race to the end in a frazzled and jumbled state- packs swaying, breath heaving in and out of your bodies, mind only focused at the end point- you disrespect the journey. You need to take a second and remember why you are here. You need to collect yourself so can walk into camp with pride and dignity, so you can finish strong.”

This past October I hit one of those bumps that life likes to throw your way. Sick, broken-hearted, and professionally exhausted, I wished for a time when I was not in Congo. I had abandoned my journey for the promise of a finish and in doing so I had abandoned myself. Who was this woman who sat pole-axed by life, staring out into palm fronds and wishing someone else would make things better? This was not me.
So instead of turning away from my pain I sat with it in the quiet, examined it, and found it to be fleeting. What has endured is the community I have found in this strange new world. I have met people who supported me as I shared my goals and dreams, who laugh with me, cry with me, are honest with me, and in the case of my workout-buddies, sweat with me. In my community a brunch is planned by simply walking over to a neighbor’s house with a bottle of champagne. A simple text-message about the pool turns into an opportunity for a water-front picnic where some people bring food, some drinks, some babies, some a combination of all, and everyone has a good time. I will probably never live in another place where those I love are only a few steps away from me.

In the next few weeks I plan to cross several finish lines- graduate school finals, the Kima Mbangu, and the end of the school year and my time here in Congo. I’m down to the last three minutes of my run. I know that I will experience a desire to plow through the last few months just like I wanted to run the last of my hike many years ago. But I refuse to let my time here be more than scenery. I am thankful for the opportunity to regain who I was and grow into something better because of the good people around me. It is because of this place that I know when I do cross that finish line it will be with dignity and my head held high. I will finish strong. 


  1. Beautiful. I needed this. I rush finishes---these wise words will help me do it better. Thank you.

  2. Lovely post Erin! I can totally hear you and see you talking me through this. So glad to have known you in your time here!


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