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From Sierra Leone to Central Park

October 28, 2013 at 1:00pm EST | by Barbara Huebner, Marathon News Service

Idrissa Kargbo lived in a disused Freetown hospital in his native Sierra Leone for five months this year, sleeping on a mattress tucked into one corner of a small room without furniture, his belongings piled high along the opposite wall. Even when he was able to garner food via handouts, he seldom had a place to prepare it.

 “You have to fight for yourself,” he says in a video posted on YouTube. “If you have money, after training you go find food. You eat. If you don’t have money after training, you sit down, don’t do nothing.”

Yes, training. Decorating the otherwise dismal space, propped up on a stack of old paint cans, was a silver trophy.

Kargbo earned the cup by winning the 2012 Sierra Leone Marathon, the first 26.2-mile race ever held in an impoverished country that was wracked by a civil war in the 1990s. The field’s 386 runners, raising funds for the charity Street Child of Sierra Leone, ran past thatched-roof huts along a rural dirt course, which ended near a finish-line banner strung between two trees. But the mood was joyous: Colorfully clad spectators sang, danced, and chanted as they greeted the finishers.

Kargbo’s winning time of 2:38:27 in his debut marathon set a national record and gave birth to a journey that will culminate on the starting line of the ING New York City Marathon on November 3.

“I have always watched it on TV and thought ‘One day, I want to run that race,” Kargbo wrote in an e-mail. “When I see the Kenyans and the Ethiopians, I wanted to run against them. I thought maybe one day God will give me this chance. And now the dream has come true. I can’t believe it!”

Helping Kargbo every step of the way has been Jo Dunlop, an Australian who came to Sierra Leone to work on health projects but is who also spearheading a group called Freetown Fashpack, an initiative that aims to nurture young talent in Sierra Leone in arts, sports, and music, and to create a new generation of role models. Kargbo is a member of its offshoot, the Freetown Fashpack Runners.

In February, Dunlop contact New York Road Runners seeking an entry for Kargbo into the marathon.

“If he had been born in America or Australia, he would probably be a name we know,” she wrote. “His participation would launch opportunities for his future as a runner and would provide enormous flow-on benefits for his fellow athletes in Sierra Leone.”

After NYRR granted him an entry into its sub-elite program, the fund-raising race began. The trip would cost an unfathomable amount to a young runner in a country where most people are destined to survive on less than $3 a day. Could enough money be raised to send Kargbo, along with Dunlop, to NYC?

Thanks to a campaign on StartSomeGood.com, $13,840 had been raised, more than $1,000 over the goal.

Meanwhile, Kargbo moved into a downstairs room of Dunlop’s house, earning his rent money by working in the compound there as a gardener. He is now part of a local business called “Coffee Couriers,” a team of young people who deliver fresh coffee to the desks of workers at governmental organizations in Freetown. And he has kept training and racing. In June, he sought to defend his Sierra Leone Marathon title, finishing second, and in August was runner-up in the Liberian Marathon, setting a personal best, improving his national mark to 2:35:15, and earning what to him is a life-changing prize of $1,500.

His time in Monrovia would have been good for 80th place in the 2011 ING New York City Marathon, but thinking big is what got Kargbo this far and he isn’t stopping now.

“Those big athletes there, they are not going to watch me, they say ‘you are a little boy,’” he says in the video, his smile promising mischief. “But they are not going to know that that little boy is a danger boy. So I’m going to show them that.”

In another breath, Kargbo voices excitement at the chance to meet Olympic gold medalist Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda (“I want to shake Stephen’s hand”) and hopes to meet Geoffrey Mutai, the defending ING New York City Marathon champion and course record-holder.

“I ran against a very good Kenyan called Nathan Naibei at the Liberian Marathon,” Kargbo said. “He beat me, but he made me run my best race ever. He was a great sportsman. Those Kenyans are so good!” After the race, Naibei invited to a high-altitude training camp in Kenya.

First come the high buildings of NYC (“When I think of New York, I imagine the skyscrapers”) and the high hopes of inspiring a nation.

“I hope my people will look at me as an example,” he said. “I am just one of many good athletes [in Sierra Leone]. Some of my best friends are good as well. I wish they could come with me. One day, we will all go together.”