running fartleksBy Rachel Pieh Jones, author of Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

I’ve been running on the golf course during the coronavirus pandemic. Djibouti, a small country in the Horn of Africa, has been on lockdown, like the rest of the planet, but we can still exercise and the golf course is as socially distant as you can get. Not many people brave the 120-degree heat and the dust stinging our eyes. Douda is a desert golf course, all sand trap. The “river” is a dirt squiggle dirt marked off by yellow sticks. My husband and daughter golf and they carry little patches of green turf with their clubs.

I run. I loop around them and zigzag across the desert. I dodge packs of wild dogs, bleached bones and the occasional rotting animal carcass, goats and their nomadic shepherds, who stare at me, the strange foreigner. I make a wide circle around the ancient burial site in the middle of hole 7. Earlier this spring, camels gave birth and now baby camels bellow for their mothers and wander the course on spindly legs.

Running here means a change of scenery from the roads in the city, a soft surface, and time with my family. Then I discovered a surprise benefit of running on the golf course. Fartleks.

I enjoy fartleks, that burst of speed followed by a breather. The unplanned, create-as-you-go run. But, confession, sometimes I get spacy. I forget to pick up the pace or forget to slow down until I’ve pushed too long, too hard, and exhausted myself too early. Other times, I plan to slow down at that jasmine plant or when I reach that mosque, and then stubbornly run past it until the purpose of fartlek training is ruined.

But the golf course is perfect for fartleks. Run to the ball. Jog to the t-box. Run to the golf bag and grab a drink of water (it is 115-degrees, ladies, lots of runs to the golf bag for water). Sprint around the “green” (here the green is black dirt), then walk or jog to the next hole. Hustle to the baby camel but slow down before scaring it. Take a break to hunt for the ball my daughter hit into the thorn bushes.

Before we do our golf-run at the end of another day in lockdown, my emotions have often deteriorated to, “we’re never getting through this pandemic.” But. The sun sets as we finish the last hole. My husband and daughter pack up the clubs. I wipe dust-turned-to-sweaty-mud from my ankles. We pull on our masks and drive home past several roadblocks. I think, “maybe we’ll get through this.”

If we push a little, rest a little, push a little, rest a little, we’ll make it.