“Welcome to Tunisia!”
It’s a phrase with at least as many meanings as the word “Aloha” has in Hawaiian.
It can be sincere, sarcastic, despondent, jubilant and much more… and all at once.
I got up this morning with an ear infection… or maybe that’s just a tumor rumor. I have a nasty head cold though, that’s for sure. It came on very quickly so hopefully it will go just as fast… and there’s nothing quite like burning out the germs via a 26.2 mile sweat-a-thon marathon. It’s my own form of germ warfare. Jet lag insomnia coupled with stressing out over times by bus, plane, and marathoning foot was a recipe for disaster. Add in the second hand unfiltered carcinogenic Petrie dish Middle East cigarette smoke and seemingly recycled cups on TunisAir, and well, some things are just inevitable.
Welcome to Tunisia.
Allotting extra time to get to the start, I thought I was being smart. And I guess I was as I needed just about every moment. Despite the fact the start line was very close by, at the Roman Amphitheater, apparently that’s a different thing than the amphitheater google maps was taking me.
I got lost. A lot. I kept asking for directions but my Arabic/French was as bad as everyone else’s English. I was near tears as I couldn’t even figure out which direction I came from, let alone which direction I needed to be heading.
Welcome to Tunisia.
Fortunately I spotted a guy in a race official jacket and ran toward him. He reassured me I had plenty of time – “it was no problem,” he said, a phrase I would later grow to hate. But here I was relieved and lucky and felt like things were back on track.
Welcome to Tunisia!
It wasn’t far … I was never REALLY far from it… I was just running in circles and getting nowhere fast. I wound up adding 2 miles to my morning before the race even started.
Despite not appearing anywhere on my google map search, the Roman Amphitheater is real. And it’s a cool place to start an event.
I met a guy who had returned to Tunisia to run this race after having been living in France the last few years. He said he was only doing the half and I told him that was great. He said he was signed up for Rome in March and his doctor wasn’t sure about doing two marathons in two months. I nodded and said you have to listen to your doctor knowing full well the ironic hypocrisy of that statement coming from me.
He also told me there were a lot of hills so it’d be good training for Rome.
Welcome to Tunisia.
There were apparently 1000 races across all the events – 10k, Half, Full. There were at least 30 nationalities represented. The race announcements were done in Arabic, French and even sometimes in English.
Welcome to Tunisia.
All distances started at the same time. With a stirring rendition by the crowd of what I assumed was the Tunisian National Anthem, the final countdown was on.
I glanced down at my Hanna Solo shirt and noticed I had misspelled “Tunisia.” Which means all the artwork I’ve put online and this shirt are a massive testament to my poor proofreading skills and general incompetence. As long time readers will recall, this isn’t the first time I’ve missed an “I.” I must really hate “I.” Freud and Jung would have a field day with that I’m sure.
Note: I feel like I’m being gaslit. I just double checked the image on Facebook, Instagram, and on this very website. Ya know what? It’s spelled correctly – t-u-n-i-s-i-a. I already was annoyed the guy charged me $13 to ship the custom t-shirt to me. Now that I know he screwed up the printing I’m even more annoyed… not so much at him, but mostly at me for ever contacting him. Welcome to the internet, I guess.
At the time the race started however, I was feeling deflated… and I felt worse as the day went on. I’m just going to upload a ton of photos here of the race and occasionally break it up with commentary… something I did marginally successfully for the Tel Aviv Marathon a few days ago.
The key thing to know about the race is that the course was a complete disaster for a non-native speaker. The reason being that at various points along the course marshals/volunteers would tell you if you need to turn off or do another loop or whatever. They did it in Arabic and French… but after the fourth circuit of the N10 road, I finally asked what in the name of Punxsutawney Phil was going on here. I vaguely recalled there were three loops on this course. I’ll admit, I was an ugly American by the third volunteer/course official marking my laps on their printed out form because 1) I should have five hash marks by my name given the times I’d been around this one loop, and 2) nobody understood me and I didn’t understand them. English wasn’t working and I’m worthless at anything else. And I was frustrated, tired, sick, and just generally misdirected.
Welcome to Tunisia.
On the fourth circuit, I was finally told to veer off. But again it was at a roundabout and the gesture they made felt like I was supposed to follow the roundabout as I had been doing the previous three times. Finally this woman grabbed my hand and directed me to a BLOCKED OFF, POLICE BARRIERED off ramp that I was supposed to, I don’t know, instinctively sense was the way I was supposed to go.
I did this twice, looping more and more and feeling lost beyond all words. I kept asking if I was going in the right direction. Nobody seemed to understand me. My Garmin continued to rack up the miles. I took some small comfort in overhearing other runners saying they had been sent the wrong way and they weren’t sure which way to go or what to do even now. And to be honest, neither did I. Somebody said we were supposed to make three loops (confirming what I vaguely recalled) — but it was three loops with two out and back lollipops that I hadn’t been directed to in the previous 4 loops I had done. I lost it. I just lost the will to function and I was broken. I cursed the race, I cursed the town, I cursed me, I cursed Pheidippides and the Queen of England circa 1908.
As I approached the turn off from this seemingly infinite round and round, a race official told me I still had one more loop to go. My Garmin was at 23.85 miles… each long loop was something like 3.5-4 miles. If I went again, I’d be WAY over the marathon distance. I refused and told people I was already at almost 39/40K. There was a lot of arguments, a guy looked at my watch and saw the 23.85 and said I had to go again. Somebody else said that was in miles, not kilometers. I stood my ground and they shoved me to the exit ramp of the never-ending loops. I turned trying to get clarity saying I wasn’t looking to cut the distance short. “It’s not a problem,” someone said, apparently one of the go-to English phrases folks learn to convey that things can be resolved.
Welcome to Tunisia.
<DIGRESSION>I need to digress here and delve a little into the phrase, “It’s not a problem.” I suppose in some ways it’s similar to my common usage of “no worries” or “we’ll get this sorted” or what have you. But the nuances of the words, the inflection and context, and the idiosyncrasies of language dictate that there is a very large chasm between “it’s not a problem” and “no worries.” And maybe one needs to be a native speaker or have complete fluency of a language to know this. And this is not just about English. I recall very often trying to use colloquial words when I was failing miserably to learn another language… and to use the local slang as best I could when traveling in another country. But the truth it, I can’t do it in another tongue and folks who say, “It’s not a problem” in English when it’s not their primary language aren’t using it correctly either. And I’ll explain why – “no worries” semiotically means “there’s no need to worry about this, we can fix it, or we can move past this without any need to be upset.” “It’s not a problem” semiotically means that a problem does not exist. That’s NOT the same thing. The former either ignores the problem as a thing and skips ahead to a solution or implies that a solution is forthcoming. The latter explicitly denies a problem ever existed. That either misrepresents the situation or baldly rewrites it to the point that the person being told that there is no problem is devalued as a speaker and told they are flat out wrong. In the case above, there IS a problem – I was routed the wrong way and now the distances are all messed up but if I do ANOTHER loop I’ll be WAY over. It is NOT not a problem. This IS a problem. </DIGRESSION>
As I made the final push toward the finish line, I could hear the revelry of the post-run celebrations at the Roman Amphitheater. I realized I was going to be a mile and change short… so as I detoured into a small neighborhood and ran 3 loops inside of it to get closer to 26.2 miles.
In the end, I was pretty dead on:
Still, I don’t know if they’ll disqualify me or accuse me of cheating for not passing all the timing mats at the various lollipop out and back turnarounds.
At this point, I just needed to get some food and cold medications into me. I popped more than a few sugar cubes that they had out, a couple of de-pitted dates, and wandered back to my AirBNB.
Ons was there feeding her cat (which I successfully avoided letting out this morning… so score one for me… and deduct one for breaking a dish I was trying to clean this morning). She asked me how the race was. I told her I had gotten lost repeatedly…
“Welcome to Tunisia,” she said and we both laughed knowingly.
Special thanks to my fellow AirBNB rented Chris who is kindly letting me borrow his internet service package to upload this. Shukraan, Chris. Merci.