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If your dreams aren’t laughable, they’re not big enough

The time on my Garmin reads 02.00 a.m. Two hundred adventurers are already tackling a 60km trek through the hills of Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda and they have been hiking for hours. I’m at a starting line and I’m one of nearly 800 people who are pinning race numbers to our tops, squinting in the darkness. Local Ugandans have journeyed here through the night, with babies tied to their backs, to join us as we run. Under each of our names and numbers is the phrase: Waves of Justice Worldwide. The purpose of the race is clear for all to see.

I’m taking part in a Muskathlon: an ultimate endurance event of running, cycling or trekking in a country where a charity, in this case Compassion, partners with local churches to release children from poverty. Throughout the week I have had the privilege of seeing first-hand the difference that Compassion are making in the lives of children who are living in extreme poverty. It’s been an energetic week of activities, playing and running around together with enthusiastic, laughing children. It’s been a time of listening, sharing, talking under the shade of a tree or the shelter of a local Compassion project.

I travelled to Uganda with a group of 20 people from the UK. As a team, we have raised a total of £57,000 and seen our friends and family connect 138 vulnerable children to their local Compassion project – a place where they will be nurtured, loved, encouraged and given the chance to be restored into the childhood which poverty has stolen from them. Meeting with the children, shaking their hands, learning their names, sharing jokes together has reminded me that Katharine or Andru or Robert aren’t just a child living in poverty, but a precious child made in the image of the One who also dreamt up my own life.

Laughable dreams are big dreams

When I was studying at college, I distinctly remember one of my tutors encouraging me to dream big. He said, “If your dreams aren’t laughable, they are not big enough.” As I ran around a sports field in western Uganda, chased by giggling children, I am prompted by those words. I desperately desire for them to aim high, dream big and have the best opportunities in life. The Compassion staff are living examples of big dreams and high aims – every day using their own lives and stories to remind children that they are the key to unlocking poverty for themselves, their families and their communities. I am inspired knowing that these children are being cheered on by people who once walked in their shoes.

There are 200 participants from around the world – me included – and we are joined in this race by 800 local Ugandans. We run alongside each other, side by side. They are the real heroes. I chuckle as I reflect on our differences. I run the trails with a local man for a short while – he looks as if he has decided to run the half-marathon on his way to work. He is dressed in smart shoes and a shirt – why not? Someone offered me a short cut and a thought flashed through my mind – “a little local knowledge won’t hurt” but politely declined. These 800 men and women born and raised in Uganda have turned up at the starting line to give it their all, with a twinkle in their eye, a smile on their face and the odd pair of brogues. By comparison, I have spent months preparing myself for this moment ; purchasing just the right running visor (not too heavy), the right colour calf sleeves (to match my trail shoes) and a hydration pack (I’ve calculated it fits just enough water in it to see me through to the next water stop). We live worlds apart, but we are running the same race.

The sports watch now reads 06:00 a.m. We’re warming up near the starting line. The trekkers will be far away up in the hills stretched out before me. The landscape is being tickled by the rising sun.

Ahead of me is the 39 mile (63km) ultra-marathon course, set over 7,000ft of elevation. The weather is predicted to be a temperature high of 34 degrees C. Out of the total 1,000 competitors, only six of us have signed up to run the ultra-marathon. It’s a long journey in itself, a bit like my decision to begin taking part in Muskathlons.

A year ago, nearly to the day, I was standing under the same “START” banner, deep in the Maasai Mara, Kenya. I was wearing the same trail running shoes and was about to take on a marathon. As soon as I finished that run in Kenya, my decision to run an ultra-marathon was birthed. I was completely spent. I knew I had given my all. But I have a competitive spirit in me; I wanted to run further. I wanted to push myself more. I wanted to test my own limits. I wanted to set a new laughable dream.

A constant smile on my face

In May this year, as I travelled around Uganda with like-minded people, I had a constant smile on my face knowing that all my training at all hours of the day, and the sacrifice of having to say “no” to hanging out with friends as often, was paying off. I travelled in a bus, full of people who had all made their own sacrifices to be there. For me, the sacrifice was running an ultra-marathon. For others, it was a half-marathon or a 120km cycle. This race isn’t about winning, it isn’t even about the kilometres; it’s about the giving up of yourself to offer help to those who need it most.

During my training schedule, I became a father for the first time, which meant I had to train late at night. On a long training session, I ran past a pub at 23.30 and someone shouted after me, “Who runs at this time?” I fist-pumped the air, smirked and ran off into the dark with my head torch fixed on the tarmac ahead and my mind on the goal.

My decision to run an ultra-marathon was a response to the daily struggle that many children in Uganda face. Running on their trails was a personal declaration to say, “I am with you.” I wanted to feel their pain, their suffering, their day-to-day.

The latest figures released by the World Bank show that within a population of 37 million people, 33.24% of Ugandans currently live on less than £1.50 a day. This percentage figure is decreasing, but that is nearly 13 million individuals. Thirteen million separate, unique people – some of whom I have met with, talked with, and been invited into their homes.

One of the most difficult parts of my trip to Uganda was finding out that Compassion church projects have a limit to how many children they can help through the child sponsorship programme. The tough reality, at the end of the day, is that I think this limit is set by me – and ultimately all of us who have been given so much more than we need.

As the starting siren rang out across the still lake, on 26 May 2016, all of these emotions and experiences were in my mind.

For a day, I certainly suffered. I was physically and mentally exhausted. It was the deepest and most profound physical suffering I have ever been through. The route was a half-marathon which I completed three times. The first lap was busy as everyone was out on the course. By the third lap, I was mostly alone. The locals would be out singing and dancing but I had no athlete in front of me to aim for or keep up with. I even forgot to restock my energy bars before setting out for the last lap; getting from water point to water point were my milestones. My mind had to fight for every step.

A friend of mine from the Netherlands, Tiemen, was also running the ultra and he was miles ahead of me for the entire race. Towards the end of the race, I had word from a member of the race crew that he was waiting for me at the final water stop and would like to run to the finish with me. In that moment, my heart reminded me that this was no ordinary race. A Muskathlon, this race, was never about me or my achievements. Muskathletes are a family determined to sacrifice their own agenda to see poverty eradicated for every child and family around the world. They are a band of men and women seeking to serve the needs of those around them, more than the needs of themselves.

For eight hours and 35 minutes, I ran (and I’ll be honest, at points, walked) an intense and painstaking 39 miles of dirt track in south-west Uganda.

As I approached the finishing line, side by side with three friends who also ran the ultra-marathon, I saw a smiling girl in a beautiful peach dress. I took her by the hand and ran with her towards my family and friends, beaming from ear to ear. When I was in Kenya only 12 months before, I had sprinted to the finishing line leaving behind a couple of local boys who had run with me for a fair few kilometres to that point.

I reflect with more fondness on my Ugandan finish. It marked a change in my priorities and many lessons learned.

Fast forward a few weeks and as I sit at my work desk, I have the race marker which reads 63: ULTRA RUN in full view. I see my own achievements less and less in this marker and more and more the children behind it, the ones who have been truly impacted by the support of my friends and family.

With such large numbers of people taking part in these events, I feel part of something bigger and I fully believe we can end extreme poverty in my lifetime; a laughable dream for some, but not for me.

I encourage you all to come on the journey with us in 2017.