Running across Liberia
Running Across Liberia
In October 2018, I was invited to Liberia to be a part of a global delegation filming an inspiring documentary series called Awakening Giants.
Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is still rebuilding after 15 years of a brutal civil war. Most of the population is under the age of 30, teachers make less than $30 a month, and there are many without access to clean drinking water or a proper education.
Our goal was to spend 2 weeks in country conducting humanitarian work, running a TEDx style event in Monrovia, leading workshops, bringing clean water to those that needed it, and raising funds to build the 1st sustainable vocational training school in Liberia. In alignment with that final objective, I decided, as one does, to run 167 miles across the entire country.
Running brought me back from the darkest corners of my soul. Since then, whenever possible, I used it as a vehicle of service to help our human family rise above their suffering.
I arrived in the West African nation a week and a half before the rest of the delegation. My mission was to run just under a marathon a day for 7 days from the Guinea, Liberia border to the capital city of Monrovia. Along the way, we would help bring clean water and school supplies to villages across the country, and tell stories about the run to raise funds for the vocational training school.
I had never been to Liberia before, I didn’t know anyone on my support team for the run, and considering everything the nation had suffered through, I felt nervous. I knew this would be an intensely beautiful experience…
On day 1 of the run, I met 2 kids, Blessing and Emanuel. One wanted to go to medical school, the other to vocational training school.
One of them lost his mother in the war and lived with the other’s family in a small hut. The odds of them actually being able to fulfill their dreams were almost zero.
As I continued my run, I wondered, what makes me different from them? Just by being born where I was born, I instantly received 100 times the opportunities they had. I didn’t do a damn thing to deserve that. To earn that. So why did I get this life?
Running across a country may have been challenging, but it was a 1st world kind of struggle. I got to choose my suffering. Those kids did not. They lived through real suffering…
On day 4 of the noble quest, my morning started with pure fatigue and exhaustion from a bad night of not much sleep and the cumulative miles. But once I started running, I got in flow and the first 15 miles flew by like they were nothing. Then, at about 17-18 miles in, an aching pain struck on the outer part of my right shin. I tried running and the pain would suddenly shoot into my leg. I massaged it and stretched it, but it wasn’t going away. I had no choice but to continue. The day wasn’t over.
I limped along battling not just the physical pain, but the psychological pain of wondering how I would be able to complete the run if I could barely walk…
After about a mile, I decided to try jogging once again. Within seconds, that jog turned into an all-out sprint.
The pain didn’t go away, I just became one with it.
I dug deep and sought out the darkness by telling myself things like…
“Remember Neal, that should have been you. You should have died out there, earn this life. If you quit now, you deserve a coward’s death. You haven’t done shit, people are suffering and dying all around you, suck it the fuck up. Earn this. Earn it…”
This became my war and sometimes in a war, you need the power of controlled rage to accomplish the mission.
There is beauty in finding the light. But the light cannot exist without the dark. They must both be embraced. Greatness lies in being able to access each at will. Only by tapping into my demons, was I able to discover the divinity within to rise above them.
Those last 5 miles were the fastest miles I ran the entire trip.
On the final day of my run, I pushed real hard with no food and water. I told myself if I finish with a smile, I haven’t worked hard enough. If I’m laughing at the end, I haven’t suffered enough.
The reward of the destination must not be joy, but pure relief that the suffering is over. That, to me, is the absolute best way to cross any finish line.
Although I was personally blessed with great suffering during those 7 days, the most beautiful and defining moment of the journey came on day 2…
I struggled that morning and entered the pain cave pretty early into the day. I couldn’t do anything about it. My body had not yet accepted and adapted to this new way of life. After running 25 miles, the previous day, it just wanted rest.
Eventually, I knew my body would get with the program and start to realize this is just what we are doing. But at the time, I needed to go to war with myself to keep moving forward.
As I fought my way through each step, suddenly this kid came up to me and started running beside me.
He wore a police shirt that was clearly too big for him, which made it all the more endearing. His incredibly warm smile dramatically lifted my spirits. He didn’t speak much English, so we didn’t say anything to each other. We didn’t need to. For those few brief moments, we were in this together. We were one. It was a profoundly beautiful moment of human connection.
Soon after he left my side, I passed a sign that said “the world is but one country and mankind its citizen.”
Those moments are one of the core reasons why I do what I do…
This is the route I took from the Guinea, Liberia border to the beaches of Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia