Pain is Temporary, Pride is Forever: Running for Virunga National Park

Gabriella Gallagher

23 Mar 2018

One park ranger is going above and beyond to protect Africa's wildlife

Definition of a Marathon

  • A long-distance running race, strictly one of 26 miles, 885 yards (43.195km)
  • A long-lasting or difficult task or activity

Everyone who runs a marathon does it for their own reasons - a personal goal, to shed the Christmas weight, to raise money or maybe to prove someone wrong. Training takes over your life for the months before with gruelling long runs, constant sore joints and the mental challenge of just what you are undertaking. There is something overwhelming yet extremely empowering about embarking on a 3-hour run, in all weathers, whether it be in the dry, humid Democratic Republic of Congo or rainy Brighton.

Myself and Angèle Nzalamingi most likely have very little in common with the exception of three things: we are both female, both in our 20s and this April we both hope to complete a marathon for the first time. However, Angèle’s story is much more inspiring than my own, and highlights one of the extraordinary reasons people run marathons.

Angèle is 25 and has been a park ranger in the DRC’s Virunga National Park since 2014, where she currently works as an assistant instructor to train new ranger recruits. Located in Eastern DRC on the border with Uganda and Rwanda, Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park, having been established in 1925. In addition to an incredible variety of habitats – from forests and savannahs to mountains and glaciers – Virunga is also home to two species of great ape: chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and around a quarter of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei). With less than 1,000 individuals left, this subspecies of gorilla is classified as critically endangered, and as such Virunga is a vital stronghold for them. The park also hosts the world’s largest active lava lake, within the crater of Mount Nyiragongo.

Although this abundance of biodiversity and rich ecosystems makes Virunga an incredibly valuable part of the natural world, the park has also been deeply affected by the unstable political climate in the DRC. With the ongoing civil war, armed rebel forces have entered the park with the aim to injure both its people and its wildlife. Those protecting Virunga have also had to combat pressure from foreign oil companies wanting to begin exploratory work for oil.

The park owes its continued existence to the presence of Virunga’s rangers, who provide protection for animals, visitors and local communities alike. These rangers are without a doubt some of the most brave and selfless individuals in the business – tragically, more than 160 rangers have lost their lives defending the park, a shocking figure which highlights just how tough these conditions are. Virunga has lost more park rangers than any other protected site on earth. Yet this does not stop more new recruits signing up to protect their precious park, and the number of women in the job are rising.

Angèle has set her sights on running the London Marathon this April to raise money for key programmes in Virunga such as ranger training and wildlife protection methods that will ensure a sustainable future for the park. Angèle describes the challenge in her own words:

I have never run a marathon before, but I have been training every day. I am excited and a bit nervous to travel to London as I have never left the Congo - I just hope I don’t get lost on the course… but at least I don’t have to worry about avoiding the hippos!

Angèle trains in her boots every day - no fancy gear or physio, just sheer determination. The marathon will give her a chance to run in trainers for the first time, a bare necessity for marathon runners here yet a luxury for Angèle. However, a typical day as a ranger can involve running 30km without a break with all your gear on, all the while with the fear of being attacked by armed rebels – making some elements of the marathon, dare I say it, seem easy.

My story is far less inspiring, but it’s people like Angèle that keep you motivated on the long runs and remind you that someone will always have it so much harder; so, I really should stop moaning about my aching knees, but unfortunately for my friends and family, the moaning continues. Angèle and I work as a team, but neither of us knew it – I help prepare for our guests to go to the DRC and Angèle protects them with her life when they are there. I was unaware of her story to run the marathon until recently, but I have been completely moved by it. It has affirmed that my decision to run a marathon was the right one, if it meant I was in someway similar to someone so inspirational. She has the pride of a whole national park behind her and I am now added to that list of supporters – what a woman, what a ranger and now what a marathon runner.

I decided not to raise money for my own run, but I will most definitely be donating to Angèle’s campaign and will ask for donations to that cause instead of one of my own. On April 15th I will be covering the streets of Brighton for at least four hours - it will be tough, both physically and mentally, but I know the feeling at the end will make it all worth it. If you are interested in sponsoring Angèle, you can do so through Virunga Fund Inc. if you are in the U.S. or via Virgin Money if you live elsewhere. I have the utmost respect for anyone that sets out on a challenge such as a marathon. When the going gets tough on marathon day and you start to hit the wall, I hope that all runners - but especially Angèle - remember that pain is temporary, pride is forever.

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