Sunday, October 27, 2013

Running and serving in Senegal (part 3): common sense?

End of week 2 in Senegal already, half way through our engagement in Africa, and taking full advantage of the opportunity to make an impact in this emerging country while learning from the local culture and discovering the Senegalese as well as their country.

Running-wise, quite a few miles this week. No run on Monday to catch-up with some sleep deficit, but 95 kilometers total from Tuesday to Friday and a good long run (21 miles, 33 kilometers) in a new place, Saly! Saly is a very touristic place with many 5-star resorts and beaches along the Ocean. Half the group stayed overnight to enjoy the occidental comfort and party ambiance, the other half, included myself, returned to Dakar on Saturday night to go to the Pink Lake (Lac Rose) on Sunday.

I did run 6 miles South of the Lamentin Beach resort, down to the harbor which, unfortunately was disgusting with all the garbage on the sand. At one point, a young girl cut in front of me to throw the whole content of her trash bin in the Ocean. While the Ocean feeds these poor families, it's quite disconcerting to see such lack of consideration for the environment. With that, I turned back and, after stopping at the resort to say hi to the group which was enjoying the beach, I continued further North for another 5 miles. The beach stopped about a mile away from the resort on that end, replaced by rocks and private villas "les pieds dans l'eau", so I ran inland on nice sandy roads and very local and traditional neighborhood. I could tell from the weird look of the people that tourists don't venture in this area.
While going through Saly, I got quite a few "Allez le sportif!" from locals trying to get my attention and sell me something. As I stopped to buy (bargain...) a bottle of cold water, one guy approached me to introduce me to their local running champion. Remembering the pleasure I had to meet elite runners in Ethiopia, I decided to give it a try. I eventually met his friend who didn't even know the length of a marathon. Sure enough this was a scam and we ended up in a house where they asked me to buy some rice for the local community. Exactly as the guide warns tourist, and conforming to what my sister, Marie, told me, sharing about her experience of two humanitarian medical missions in Senegal. I left the scene without being ripped off, good ending, phew!

While I was running and fighting the oppressing mid-day heat, I was thinking of Alex who was running his first marathon this Sunday, the Marine Corps in DC. And, yes, despite limited training and no competitive goal, he not only made it but in a very respectable 3:46 (8:38 min/mile)! Very proud of him especially as he has never been found of running while in High School. On Saturday, thanks to his job at the Department of State, he got an invitation for Agnès and Max to visit the White House Garden, cool way to welcome the visiting family in town!

Work-wise, this has been a very productive week as we spent time interviewing and consulting with the three selected project teams of Coders4Africa.

We first met, first on Monday then again on Wednesday, Pape Samba and Yazid from the Kenefa team. Kenefa is a project to build a platform to gather public information related to healthcare providers in Senegal.
On Tuesday, it was the turn of the QuickCollect team to get grilled. The team was augmented with a few other coders whose project hasn't been selected for our engagement. QuickCollect is a platform for building online and mobile-accessible surveys. While the idea is extremely appropriate for the emerging countries in general and Senegal in particular, this is a space which has quite a few players already, Datadyne's Magpi being not the least important and visible competitor in the space.

You can see a demo of the QuickCollect project on YouTube.

One Wednesday, we met the third team to discuss the most intriguing Daral project, another platform aiming at addressing the issues of the farmers and their cattle.
You can actually watch a video about Daral on YouTube too. Even the BBC was in Senegal recently to interview the team in Dakar and the farmers in Foundiougne (coincidentally the small village my sister Marie provided medical support to a few years ago!).

Poor coders, we bombarded them with tough questions about their business ideas like potential investors would do. Of course, with all our consideration and to help them assessing the viability of their initial options or come up with new ones. And in a methodical manner which we will further document next week and teach them so they can apply it after we leave.
Overall, I remain intrigued or puzzled with what our work will produce. On one hand, the teams are so eager to learn from us any tip which can help them building successful (i.e. revenue-generating and profitable) businesses. On the other hand, none of us have created a company in Senegal, so I wonder how applicable our generic business concepts will prove to be. While things may be common sense to us, what does "common" means across our cultures, mindsets and backgrounds which are so far apart. At least, our client is actually aiming at infusing the Occidental entrepreneurship spirit in Africa, so we are certainly aligning with that objective.

To the point of changing mindsets and behaviors through education, we met the Managing Director, Mr. Didier Diop and Professor Léon Coly, of Sup'Info, one of the many private colleges/universities in Senegal (mostly Dakar).
We are going to meet the IBM Senegal management team next week to discuss partnership options with local institutions, while Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Oracle, HP are quite active already. To address a demand from these institutions to access to all the worldwide IT leaders.

As you recall, our group (14 IBMers) work on 4 projects across Dakar so, between the geographical spread and our own project constraints of meeting the coders after their day job, in the evening, we mostly meet for excursions on weekends or for our weekly group coordination meeting where we exchange experiences and opportunity to make connections between our clients.

I keep adding pictures to my Picasa album; here are a few direct pointers to specific sections so you don't have to rewind from the beginning of the tape:
  1. Beach cleaning (Sunday October 13)
  2. Team building (Sunday October 13)
  3. Kick-off @ ITA (Monday October 14)
  4. Tabaski (Wednesday October 16)
  5. All-hands with Coders4Africa (Friday October 18)
  6. Ile de Gorée (Saturday October 19)
  7. Safari @ Bandia (Sunday October 20)
  8. Western Corniche run (Sunday October 20)
  9. Metings with Coders4Africa at iDEV (Monday-Friday October 21-25)
  10. Saly (Saturday October 26) (I actually need to upload pictures from my BlackBerry)
  11. Pink Lake (Sunday October 27)

#ibmcsc senegal

Monday, October 21, 2013

Running and serving in Senegal (part 2): we are game!

9 days in Senegal, one third of the say has passed already, time flies. Along with the numerous... flies and feared mosquitoes in this oppressive heat and humidity. But the spirit of the team is high especially after a few have recovered from various fevers, headaches and/or diarrhea. As usual, our Indian contingent is resisting the best to any food poisoning but they are not the only ones. On Saturday night, I even risked a Salade Gourmande (green salad, medium-cooked liver and poached egg) and I'm glad to report I'm still fine two days later, phew! Not quite the rustic conditions we encountered in Ethiopia 4 years ago.

On the running side, nothing extravagant since my last post. I kept running most of the mornings on that 5K loop in our upper class neighborhood and logged 68 miles (109 kilometers) since I arrived in Dakar last Sunday. I've been gaining a bit of speed showing some heat acclimation but I still have hard time sustaining low 7 minutes/mile pace on my 10-mile runs. Even when I start at sunrise and the temperature is "only" 80F...

This Sunday, we had a group excursion in the morning and left the hotel by 7am so I was left with the afternoon as a slot to run and it was really really hot. I ventured outside our neighborhood and ran 10 miles on the West Corniche (La Corniche Ouest) down to the luxurious Radisson Blue hotel and attached mall, passing the embassy of Indonesia and United Arab Emirates, a military base and the beach we had cleaned up the previous weekend. Nice views of the Ocean on one side, and quite some smoking car traffic on the other, yet a good and wide sidewalk most of the way.
I wanted to climb to the top of the Dakar lighthouse hill but it seems the road is closed to traffic. I did climb the other hill of Dakar however, at the top of which is built the controversial monument commemorating the African Renaissance.
Let's come back to the Corporate Service Corps (CSC) experience because, even if the pictures don't really convey this, we do work quite hard on our projects. For one thing, our client is a very hard working and serial entrepreneur and it's an honor to assist him in his amazing challenge of helping Senegal grow through the development of young Senegalese. Our assignment requires that we meet and work with these "Coders4Africa", most of them being only available to us in the evening, after their day job. It reminds me of the Silicon Valley spirit, except that there is no money available here to transform ideas into gold... let's see what we can figure out in 3 weeks to make that happen...!
We learned a lot already about what success means in the local culture, about what "having enough" means in particular, something that our "developed" countries should get back to rather than creating such insane debts by always wanting more. I must say it is still quite challenging to not impose our own assumptions of financial success or finance-driven analytics.

After getting back to the hotel around 10 pm on Friday evening, we were able to take our weekend off and get two very special excursions to keep discovering Senegal and Africa.

The first, a must when in Dakar, a place that most of the Nations' heads have visited to pay their respect to the African continent was Ile de Gorée on Saturday. We took the ferry from the Dakar harbor to cross the 3.5 km separating the island from the Senegalese capital. What a unique place to relate to the immense cruelty which got 20 million slaves "shipped" to America over three centuries, 6 million of them dying during the cross-Atlantic journey. First, the number seems so surreal, larger than the population of many countries. But, to me, the fact that this practice lasted for 3 centuries (300 years!), at a time we knew about the great civilizations such as the Egyptians, Greeks or Romans, or others further East, at a time we even had our own Renaissance or industrialization era, it's good that the greatest leaders have been visiting this place to pay their and our tribute to the African continent and people. With a special intention to my Mom who has actively supported this movement, here is a plaque from the founder of Aide à Toute Détresse - ATD Quart-Monde:
After this humbling visit to the launch pad of slavery, we changed backgrounds and, in reference to the title of this post, went for a safari, almost a game although we did shoot animals only with our harmless cameras. At the Bandia Reserve (government-owned land but operated by a Lebanese family like many successful businesses in Senegal).
I was able to upload quite a few pictures onto my Picasa album and invite you for a tour of a few key representatives of the African wildlife: giraffes, zebras, crocodiles, ostriches, monkeys, giant turtles and various birds.

The album counts 500 pictures by now, so here are a few direct pointers to specific sections:
  1. Beach cleaning (Sunday October 13)
  2. Team building (Sunday October 13)
  3. Kick-off @ ITA (Monday October 14)
  4. Tabaski (Wednesday October 16)
  5. All-hands with Coders4Africa (Friday October 18)
  6. Ile de Gorée (Saturday October 19)
  7. Safari @ Bandia (Sunday October 20)
  8. Western Corniche run (Sunday October 20)
And I've also added a few comments and notes on some of the pictures to guide your tour, enjoy Senegal's legendary Teranga, the Wolof word for the art of hospitality!

This week, we are focusing on meeting the coders, learning about their expectations and challenges, teaching them some business sense and tips to create their business plan and think of ways and recommendations to make Coders4Africa even more successful.

#ibmcsc senegal

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Running and serving in Senegal (part 1): first days in Dakar

For those following this running blog, first you should already know that I'm going to be blogging from Africa for a few weeks. And, my apologies, I will also include some non-running topics to avoid creating another transient blog for just a few weeks. Indeed, as part of our engagement, IBM invites us to share about our experience and, since running is an integral part of my life, you'll get the two facets, running and work, in the upcoming posts.

For those who are visiting this blog for the first time, welcome, hope you will enjoy!

This is a first post about my IBM Corporate Service Corps assignment in Senegal. This is an amazing program from IBM, providing an opportunity to employees to spend a month in a developing country to assist local organizations with technical and business skills and make an impact through targeted consulting engagements. Since 2008, more than 200 teams have been deployed to 30 countries and the program has received praised for its positive impact around the globe, starting with a case study from the Harvard Business Review. We are the second team in Senegal.

I arrived this past Sunday in Dakar, as scheduled, at 5:30 am. Most of the team flew in on Friday and got a tour of the city and some orientation on Saturday but we already have a great team spirit among the team, every body was very helpful to get me up to speed. As a matter of fact, Sunday was full of team building and additional orientation activities. As soon as I got to the hotel, I went for a run from to discover the neighborhood as the sun was rising. No better treatment against jet lag (7-hour time difference with home) and after a red eye from the US and 5 hours of sleep!
Our hotel is on the Pointe des Almadies, at the most western end of Africa. Literally. It gives quite a feeling to think that this is the closest point to America, yet that we are so far away and there is so much ocean between us. No wonder why this point was chosen as a platform for sending slaves across the Atlantic, specifically from the close by Ile de Gorée which we should visit this coming Saturday.

Pointe des Almadies has been deeply transformed over the past 10 years. From a very poor area, it has become the residence of a few of the country's wealthiest, a few embassies starting with the gigantic US one, the UN local headquarters, several international schools and few high scale condominiums. As a result, the area is rather safe with numerous guards at every building. Mamour, from our local host organization, Pyxera Global (which was still named CDC Solutions 3 weeks ago), was nice enough to drive me around to show me the neighborhood. It turned to be a 3.15-mile loop, close enough to a 5K loop, perfect for some good running. The temperature was already quite high, so I just did two loops. The weather is going to be very predictable with temperatures of 79F/26C at night and 88F/31C during the day, and a humidity between 76 to 90%, definitely on the painful side for running, or even standing outside and in areas without air conditioning.

On Sunday morning, we went to a local beach, not for a swim, but for some cleaning. The project was also meant to get us to meet with kids learning English, but they ended up being off for the upcoming Tabaski religious celebration. We have been quite efficient, collecting 15 large bags of plastic trash. The local fishermen were quite impressed and pledged to continue to keep the beach as clean as we left it. To their defense, it seems that most of the garbage comes from the Ocean and, after three days going back and forth across the capital, there is certainly a lot of trash everywhere. The trace of the Western "developed" civilization...
Monday was our official kick-off hosted by ITA (Institut de Technologie Alimentaire, literally the Food Technology Institute). Our group counts 14 members coming from 7 countries (Japan, China, India, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and USA), and representing nationalities: Japanese, Swiss, Dutch, Belgian, French, Indian, Chinese, Canadian and American, a perfect illustration of IBM's global aspect.
We are split in 4 teams to address 4 projects and challenges, or opportunities as we say in the US, specific to Senegal. Our team will assist a wonderful and fascinating organization, Coders4Africa, in their local development in Senegal. Here we are, with the manager of our client, Léger and one of his sisters on the left, then Dean, Phil and Tomomi.
By the way, you can get additional and detailed news from our team on these three other blogs: Tomomi's, Dean's and Phill's.

On Tuesday, I woke up early after yet another short night, and was able to run 5 loops before a quick breakfast and driving to our client's office (they provide us with a car and chauffeur which is very convenient). We met several of the "coders" whom we will be working with these 4 weeks and had fascinating discussions about what they managed to achieve during their three month-training, as well as the cultural specificity shaping their projects and development plans.

Wednesday was Tabaski (or Aid al-Adha in Arabic) which is the major Muslim holiday in Senegal, a country which is about 85-90% Muslim, so quite a big deal. The celebration of sacrifice during which each head of families kill a goat and gather/host the extended family. A sort of Thanksgiving which transformed Dakar in a dead city as most of the inhabitants go to their family in the suburbs or native country side. Léger got us to visit 3 families so we can experience this unique and joyful celebration. We ended the afternoon with a tour of the city including the Corniche and the Presidential Palace (see pictures).

After working on my "home" job in the evening, clearing off emails, and in order to catch-up with my blogging, I skipped the night party that our team was invited to, and look forward to hearing about this other experience from the team tomorrow morning.

The Internet bandwidth is quite limited and slow here so I can't include too many pictures in the post, but I invite you to visit my Picasa album to see more of Senegal! And I will "talk" to you in a few days to share more news about this amazing discovery experience.

#ibmcsc senegal

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Rock'n Roll San Jose Half: yes, yes, yes, faster!

Another title for this blog post could have been: "faster, to my own surprise...!" After the good work and results of September, the overall win and course record at the Headlands 100-mile, then the win at Stevens Creek 50K last Saturday followed by a good 10K at Trailblazer the next day, I wasn't sure what to expect. On the start line, I was approached by a member of the West Valley Joggers and Striders club which has tried to recruit me these past years on their Masters Cross-Country team. But cross-country is really too short for me, not to mention the seasons overlap between cross-country and ultra running. Asked what I was shooting for, I replied that 1:17 would be great. My best at this distance is 1:15:04 at the International Paris Half in March 2006 and I clocked 1:15:04 after 4 attempts (1:18:47 in 2003, then respectively 1:15:44, 1:15:58 and 1:15:04). Being 42 then I kind of admitted or decided that I wasn't going to get faster at that distance and that's when I switched to ultra.

Brooks invited me to run this local half-marathon in 2010 and I couldn't resist, although, like this year, I had run a 100-mile a few weeks before (17:22:45 at Rio del Lago) and a 30:25 10K at Trailblazer the week before. Leveraging the fast course and the perfect weather, I pushed and finished in 1:15:53.

Brooks offered an entry again this year, a great incentive to get back to some speed on asphalt. With the September races, I couldn't even do any speed work so last week's 10K had to server as a short tempo run to "train" under 6 min/mile pace (5:51 average last Sunday). I logged a few miles on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then tapered Thursday-Saturday.
Although my bib granted me an access to corral 1, there was no way to get even in the corral 10 minutes before the start, it was overflowing. I had seen some room on the start line actually and, thin enough, I actually passed through the fence, literally! The elites joined us with a couple of minutes to spare then we were off after the two wheelchair competiors took off and we listened to the National Anthem.

There were still about 50 or 60 runners ahead of me, including some slow ones (go figure...), but the Santa Clara Street is wide enough that it got safe to pass on the sides. About ten elite runners took of way under 5 min/mile pace, and I settled behind a group with the 4-5 lead women. I passed 3 of them between mile 1 and 2 and could still see 2 others 50 and 100 yards ahead. On Santa Clara, right after the start, my GPS was indicating 5:24 min/mile pace but I had it now stabilized at 5:37. I did passed a few other runners including one who, as I was on his side, said: "at last someone in my age group!" He asked for my age and told me he was "much younger", 44 (found his name in the results afterwards: Douglas Woods). And he stayed right behind. Usually, I'd rather run my own race and pace, must be my tendency to run for tens of miles on my own in ultra. But he was quite positive and entertaining and actually joined by another runner as I could hear them exchanging words. I was wearing my Quicksilver ultra running team top so they teased me, saying how impressive I was able to maintain such a pace as an ultra runner.

On the long 2-mile stretch on The Alameda, I told them that we were slightly slowing down, now at 5:38 min/mile on my GPS, maybe slightly more as the distance was on the optimistic side. We had passed the 5K mark in 17:26 and now the 10K in 35:19, faster than my 10K time last week, oops! With great sportsmanship Douglas took the lead and, after a few strides, I passed him again, getting us back to 5:37 pace. The other runner, Andrew Blaich, was now on my heels. Literally, so his shoe touched mine three times. Something which usually get me mad when we run in such an open area but I kept my cool, especially as Andrew was very apologetic, even offering me his free beer ticket. That was quite funny but I admit that I wasn't in the mood, or even in the capacity of joking and talking about it, all focused on maintaining a light and long stride and, even more importantly, holding on my breathing.

In the convoluted part of the course between mile 6 and 11, we still had sight on one of the two lead gals, and now another runner whom it take us 4 miles to catch and pass. We passed the 10-mile marker in 57:17, which is quite fast. Douglas said "wow, faster than my PR at 10-mile by 3 minutes" and he took off. I was not able to respond to the acceleration, but Andrew did so we were not spread over 20 yards or so. Half a mile later, Andrew passed Douglas and I saw Douglas holding his side, likely a side stitch caused by the slight change of pace. I passed him, exchanging a few words of encouragement, and tried to stay as close to Andrew as possible on the return stretch on The Alameda. Interestingly, we were now closing on the woman in 2nd place, who was herself closing on her competitor. Having been surprised by the long finish in 2010, and starting believing that I might break 1:15 finally, I was sprinting too, so much that I passed Andrew on South Almaden Boulevard, with less than 500 yards to go and could see the lead gals sprinting for the finish.By the way, I thought that, given 16,000 entrants, the race organization was perfect, except for one thing: as we were approaching the finish line of our half marathon, it was pure chaos as we were merging with the slow and erratic flow of the 5-mile "mini marathon" (what a name... ;-), making it quite dangerous actually and removing all pride of finishing in the top runners of this competitive race. So much that I was even handed a "mini marathon" medal in the flow of finishers where the poor volunteers couldn't figure out who had cover which distance.

Breaking my long standing PR by 10 seconds, I even pumped a fist on the finish line; some folks must have wondered what glory there was as I was surrounded by all sorts of runners at the end of their 5-mile. Oh well, there wasn't much to brag about indeed, the race was won in a blazing 1:02:46 by Ryan Vail, from Portland, Oregon, and sponsored by Brooks. At the award ceremony, Ryan told us that he was using this race as a last tune-up before the New York Marathon next month where he hope to finish in the top 5. In 2010, Meb Keflezighi also won the San Jose Half, in 1:01:45, one month before winning New York in a new PR of 2:09. Wishing the same to Ryan then! Ryan admitted that he had a good fight with California born and resident, Fernando Cabada who finished mere 27 seconds behind, wow! Overall, 4 runners ran under 1:05, the US marathon trial qualifier standard for the half, very impressive!
As for the women race, this is pure mystery, like I was chasing some chimeras. Indeed, at the award ceremony, three other ladies came on stage, the winner with a time of 1:17:40, so behind me! Maybe the other two were imaginary rabbits to get me to run faster. After all, most of us don't like to be "chicked" as we say in the ultra world. Not that I really mind by recognized and much younger elites anyway. ;-) Chimeras, bandit runners, disqualified, let me know with a comment below if you find out what happened. Or how you enjoyed that race too!
Ok, the results have just been posted and they do show Natasha Wodak, from Canada, winning the women race in 1:14:39. Making one of the two chimeras real then...!

How did we fare in the Masters? Donnie King, 45, from Calgary, won in 1:11:41. John Healy, 42, was second in 1:13:56 and I took third (20th overall out of 10,154 finishers!), or second in the M45-49 group. Douglas finished in 1:15:33, then Phil Daum, 47, in 1:15:55, also from Calgary! The winner of the M50-54 finished in 1:20:48, that gives me some hope for next year... ;-)

With that, I'm now off to Africa (Dakar, Senegal) in 6 days, for a 4-week IBM Corporate Service Corps engagement with Coders4Africa. It's much hotter and dryer there, and not so safe in the city, but I still hope to get some good running on that other continent. I will see some, or many of you actually I hope, at the Silicon Valley Turkey Trot at the end of November. For some more speed... ;-) By the way, that was my 26th half marathon race, a mythical number...

Before I go, a thank you note to Sports Basement's General Manager and Quicksilver teammate, Rich, for organizing a viewing of the movie "In the High Country" (DVD to be released in November), from runner/climber/film maker Joel Wolpert and featuring Anton (Tony) Krupicka's love for running and climbing in the Rockies. Master of Ceremony and UltimateDirection guru, Buzz Burrell, caught me off guard by inviting me to fire the first questions to Joel and Anton.
And here is John Burton's picture which got me in trouble at home because Agnès thought I was attending a running event... And, I promise, I didn't drink, ask Jim, our Club President! ;-)
Prior to the viewing, I had a chat with Buzz about a few improvements I'm looking forward to in the second generation of the hydration pack/vest he designed with Scott Jurek:
I must say that, although I met Tony several times and have read quite a few of his blog posts, I discovered another man in this movie: beyond the amazing runner, how much of a hiker, climber and scrambler (per his words), he is. And lone bobcat when not studying at the university (mountain lion and wolf wouldn't capture Tony's kindness, so I'm going with a smaller and better reputation animal as an analogy, hope you don't mind, Tony!). See Reese Ruland's review on iRunFar for more details about the movie. And this trailer: