Runners need grit and determination when completing ultramarathons, but the suffering all pales into insignificance when one has survived a war. That is the case for Hong Kong-based runner Janine Canham, who is about to attempt to run seven marathons, in seven days, on seven continents (777), starting on February 6 in Antarctica.
Canham, 55, was just 12 years old when she fled their home in Lebanon in 1976. It was the height of the civil war, and her father was in England on a business trip when her mother decided it was time to seek help from the British consulate and escape.
“We took a convoluted route to the airport, to avoid these checkpoints where they'd try and find out what nationality you are or religion, and shoot you if you gave the wrong answer,” she said.
It took them three days to reach the airport. On their final night, they stayed in a village called Damour. The locals did not know them but looked after them anyway. Only three months later, the village was the scene of a massacre in which a large number of men, women and children were murdered. Estimates of fatalities range from 100-500 people.
Canham is running the 777 for Hong Kong charity Rebuild, Unite, Nurture (RUN), which looks after refugees whilst they wait in the no-man’s land between being accepted in Hong Kong and deportation.
“I never understood it before, survivors guilt. I now completely get it. I look at the refugees here and think why did my life get to be OK, and theirs isn't? Why me? Why am I the lucky one? I feel drawn to their cause,” Canham said.
It was 20 years before Canham returned to Lebanon. In the meantime, close relatives, such as one of her grandfathers and an aunt, had died before she had a chance to see them again. She had blocked out parts of the traumatic time. It was only recently when she asked her sister about their last day at school that she remembered an incident in which the army stormed the building as a bomb had been planted there.
Canham is a prolific ultra runner. She has completed numerous trail and multi-day races, including all four of the 250km 4Deserts races. She turned to the 777 because it was a new challenge.
Though the 777 is a series of road runs – Novolazarevskaya in Antarctica, Cape Town in South Africa, Perth in Australia, Dubai in the UAE, Madrid in Spain, Fortaleza in Brazil and Miami in the US – she will be drawing on all her experience to get through.
“It is a strength having run the big multi-stage races and ultramarathons. Having things that went wrong I have a big bank of events I can think about and say ‘I survived that, I can survive this’,” she said.
For example, during the Everest Marathon, Canham had a stomach bug, she was vomiting and suffering from altitude sickness.
“Every step was a challenge, I just don't know how I got through it,” she said. “And now, every time I have a challenge I just have to think about that, and I think how I survived that.”
Another memory is during a 250km multi-stage race in Costa Rica. She had fractured her spine in a car crash a couple of days before the race. A doctor had assured her the fracture was not in a dangerous place, but that, as the muscles seized up it would become very painful. She decided to run anyway, but with 10km to go on the penultimate day, the pain became unbearable.
“I was in so much agony,” she said. Doctors told her she might do permanent damage, so she quit and got in an ambulance. “But about two hours later I said, you know what, I'll just walk for 10km, surely I can do this and get through that day.”
She completed the stage. With one final day left, nothing was going to stop her and she walked the last stage and crossed the finish line.
“There were a lot of traumatic events in Lebanon and possibly it explains some of the resilience I have,” she said.
What’s more, she wants to set an example for her children. Canham pushes them to find solutions to problems, rather than sorting out all their issues for them, and does not want to undermine her point by quitting.
“They don't always thank me for it. They sometimes say ‘It's the weekend, do we have to live outside our comfort zone?’” she said.
But all the pain of ultramarathons is nothing compared with what Canham lived through, or what she sees when she talks to the refugees at RUN.
“It puts a lot of things in perspective,” Canham said. “You think that a little bit of pain in an ultramarathon is nothing. And it's self inflicted. We chose to do this sport and I can walk away from it at any moment. But the refugees here just have no choice, no freedom here, they do not have the right to work, they have a meagre allowance.”
You can donate to Canham’s charity RUN page here.