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The footsteps begin before dawn Wednesday morning on Tubman Boulevard, runners pounding away down the main artery into the heart of Monrovia. You don’t find many runners in Liberia’s capital, not in this West African nation more renowned for its brutal 14-year on-again, off-again civil war than for athletic success, but there are some, and they move steadily down the smooth, graying asphalt, sweating in the already developing summer humidity, faces stoic and resolved.
Most are training just for fitness, outfitted in baggy shorts and tanks and footwear that ranges from sandals to cheap sneakers to worn running shoes. Many are training as budding soccer players, heading to informal early morning practices with friends. One boy jogs down the boulevard toward a local field and holds up a pair of cleats, one in each hand, as if to say, “Well, why else would I put myself through this?”
Along the way, some of the runners pass banners strung high above the street — beautiful, clean, white banners the size of American billboards announcing the upcoming Liberia Marathon. The race will be held eight years after the official end of the war, and its symbol as a unifying event is not lost on race organizers; the race website advertises the marathon online and on T-shirts concisely: “Let’s finish together.” So amid the joggers and footballers are a dedicated few who will take on a task never before attempted in the country — running a marathon on home soil.
Among the haphazard assortment of runners on this morning in July, Emmanuel Agu is the outlier.