Nurse plans gruelling run across West African nation to raise money for education and health programs By LAURA FRASER Staff Reporter Sat, Apr 23 - 4:54 AM
Erin Poirier runs in Point Pleasant Park, Halifax. Poirier plans a 17- day run across The Gambia, a total of 430 kilometres, to raise money for the Nova Scotia Gambia Association which provides health and educational support for the African nation. (Ted Pritchard / Staff)
ERIN POIRIER remembers running down a Gambian beach four years ago, her back salted from the ocean and the blistering heat of the African sun.
Right now, Poirier is in the middle of her longest-ever training cycle, for the longest race she has ever run. She plans to cross Gambia in 17 days, covering more than a half-marathon each morning as the humidity starts its climb to more than 40 C.
"My goal is to be ready to start running the second the sun’s in the sky," says the nurse and long-distance runner. "I’m telling myself that hot yoga is going to get me ready for the heat of the Gambia."
The global recession and the size of the western African nation combined to give birth to Poirier’s idea. The Gambia River bisects the country, with a road running along either side for more than 400 kilometres.
Poirier decided the distance between the Gambian border town of Basse Santa Su and the coastal city of Banjul could be manageable to run. She hopes to raise at least $20,000.
"It kind of came out of the Nova Scotia Gambia Association’s desperate financial picture," said Poirier, a board member for the group. "(Over) the last two years, like lots of Canadian charities, our donations and fundraising has been down."
Poirier, 30, got hooked on running in high school when her basketball coach forced the team to include it in their workouts. Then, they had to run about 10 kilometres each week.
But to prepare for the Boston and Scotiabank Blue Nose marathons, and Gambia, Poirier has been running more than 85 kilometres about every six days. Poirier caught bronchitis during Week 19 of training and still logged 52 kilometres — eight more than the week she got hit by a car and nine less than the week she recovered from the crash.
Poirier visits a chiropractor once a week to fix any damage she has inflicted on her body. And she has enlisted a sports nutritionist to make sure she fills herself with the right fuel. She is built like a whippet, more skinny than strong, and can burn a significant number of calories during a long run.
"Eating has been an important part of this training cycle. I’ve been piling food into my body like I’m never going to eat again," she says, laughing.
Poirier will arrive in Gambia during the rainy season, when the humidity will be at its peak and tropical storms are a threat. She will start running at dawn to stay cooler. She says she would begin earlier, but streetlights are a rarity along the unpaved road.
The heat will likely lengthen Poirier’s running time to three hours instead of her usual two. For the rest of her day, she and her support team plan to visit some of the schools she worked with during the summer of 2007.
Poirier spent that summer teaching small groups of children about how to reduce their risk of getting HIV-AIDS and malaria. Local actors hired by the Nova Scotia Gambia Association then taught the students how to best deliver the information to their peers.
"Theatre is very important to Gambian culture (and) it’s an oral culture, so history is passed down through theatre and storytelling," Poirier said.
When she returned from Africa, Poirier decided she wanted to continue her work in Nova Scotia. She became a board member with the association and took a job at Prince Andrew High School in Dartmouth, where she runs a youth health centre. In the spring and fall, she also coaches the cross-country and track teams.
Some of Poirier’s student runners will join her Love4Gambia charity team in the Blue Nose marathon. She has raised about 75 members and $6,000, but is still recruiting. After the Blue Nose marathon, all her focus will be on Gambia, she says.
Once she gets there, Poirier says her job is to focus solely on the run. Her friend Ashley Sharpe, an emergency nurse, will deal with any obstacles, especially those with scales or a forked tongue.
Hippopotamuses, snakes, lizards or crocodiles could conceivably get in Poirier’s way during the more rural part of the journey, she says. It is one of the only things she doesn’t like to picture.
Instead, she will think about the beach in Banjul, knowing that she will be running closer to the ocean’s balm with every step.
Poirier’s blog, www.love4gambia.com, has more information about the run, her Blue Nose charity team and how to donate.