A runner's endurance
Originally printed in The Boston Globe on April 17, 2006
Author: Adrian Walker
Copyright (c) 2006 Globe Newspaper Company
Record Number: 0604170153
Even though today will mark his first official venture into the tumult of the Boston Marathon, running is nothing new for Ibrahim Konteh.
Truth is, the Boston English senior has been running most of his life. Running toward the Copley Square finish line is nothing compared with what he's run from.
Konteh, who will be running the Marathon for charity, came to America four years ago, fleeing a civil war in his native Sierra Leone.
His interest in running comes naturally. "I started running because I play soccer," he said. "I was running in my country, too."
Konteh, whose personality could light up the Hancock Tower, last year ran the Marathon unofficially. He took about 5 1/2 hours to finish, a mark he hopes to improve on this year.
Konteh will be running for Team Brigham, which raises money for health centers affiliated with Partners HealthCare. He has $1,000 in pledges, and hopes to raise more.
It's all a long way from war-ravaged Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone and his hometown.
Freetown is still recovering from a civil war that pitted the Sierra Leone government against the rebel Revolutionary United Front. Officially, the war lasted from 1991 to 2001, though it continued to smolder for several more years. Estimates of the dead range from 20,000 to 75,000. Another 2 million people were displaced.
The war was marked by the brutal toll it took on children. Soldiers younger than 10 years old were not uncommon, pressed into unspeakable duty, including killing their own families
By adolescence, Konteh was in hiding. It was the only way to avoid being forced into battle by the rebels.
"They were looking for young kids like me," he said. "They inject them with drugs and give them guns to fight." Foreign aid workers theorized at the time that the children soldiers were given amphetamines.
Konteh escaped, narrowly.
"I remember when the rebels went to my house," Konteh said, recalling how he hid under a bed. "It was terrible during that time. I'm not supposed to be here right now. Either I die or I kill someone because that's the only thing you're going to do."
After the war began to wind down, partly through the intervention of UN peacekeepers, he and his mother escaped. They traveled in a small boat to neighboring Guinea, and eventually made their way to Senegal.
Two years after leaving Freetown, they got visas to come to America.
Since coming to Boston, Konteh has gotten his healthcare at the Brookside Community Health Center in Jamaica Plain. There he met JoAnn Dillman, a nurse-practitioner whose Marathon experience inspired him to try to run the race, and Oscar Ponce, who has trained him.
He saw a picture in Dillman's office one day of her running the Marathon and was drawn to the challenge.
Ponce, who directs a sports program at the health center, describes Konteh as the ideal pupil. "It's not hard to coach somebody like Ibrahim because he's a workhorse," Ponce said. "He does anything you tell him to do. You just write down the things, and he goes out and does them."
Last year, finishing was its own reward. "I was in pain, but to finish was really a good thing," Konteh said. "The ambulance people picked some people up, some people stopped, some people threw up. I was having a cramp, but I stopped to stretch it and kept on moving. I didn't give up. I kept going to the end."
This year the end could be sweeter. A busload of English High classmates plans to line the parade route to cheer him on.
He's looking forward to seeing the raceday crowd.
"Some people give you water, some people give you oranges. I can't wait to see that again. I'm not worried about any kind of pain. I can do anything I start."