IronBurkina: A Triathlon Fundraiser from FBF member, Anne Spear

Anne Spear

Please follow Anne Spear as she trains for the “Ironman 70.3 Eagleman” in support of Burkina Faso. Instagram: @dr.ironroots. Email: Share her journey with your networks and help her raise funds for community-led projects via FBF

It’s 4am on December 15th, 2019. I am in Daytona Beach, FL, putting on a borrowed wetsuit. As I start to warm-up for the Challenge Daytona triathlon, I am taken back to a time I was awakened at a similar early morning hour in August 2008. 

I had just arrived in a medium-sized rural village of Tangaye, in Northern Burkina Faso. A family had agreed to host me for the two years of my U.S. Peace Corps Service. Even before the sun was up, I heard pots boiling and the shuffling of feet across a dusty courtyard. I barely knew how to ask for some water to take a “bucket bath”, whatever that was.

I had one thought: What have I done?

11 years later on that December race day, that same thought ran through my head. Only instead of being in the middle of the Sahel, I was in open water, in full panic attack, during the beginning of a half ironman distance (70.3 miles) triathlon.

What have I done?

While I had planned to go in to the Peace Corps, I hadn’t planned so much to do a half ironman. It all came to be through some shocking events. In September 2019, I was in my comfortable, dry bed when I received a What’s App message that Tangaye, my host village, had been attacked by terrorists. The two schools there were burnt down, along with the health clinic. 

A picture containing person, window

Description automatically generated

It had been unsafe for me to visit Tangaye for quite some time. Even when I was in Burkina Faso for two months during 2018 doing my dissertation, I was told not to return to the northern region for a visit. By 2019, I followed even more restrictive advice, to stay put in the capital, Ouagadougou. 

This was especially hard, to stay away from people I cared about so deeply. During my two years in Tangaye, I had become “bien intégré”, a third mother to the four children in the family, eating and sleeping on the same mat with the women and children. I shared everything, and in return everything was shared with me. 

Ramata and Abibou, the two wives of Saibou, knew me. We had gone through our share of misunderstandings, frustrations, and miscommunications. Yet we persevered through patience and, I dare say, love. Even after returning to the U.S., and despite the bad phone reception, I did not have to say much for them to understand how I felt and what was going on in my life.,

Aissata, the second child of Ramata, who was five years old when I came into her life, was my constant companion for those two years. I will never know what it was like for her when I left – to show up a stranger, uninvited and then to leave, without much of a good reason, having become family. Motivated by the promise to see me again, Aissata was first in her primary school class. In fulfilling my promise, she moved to the regional city, Ouahigouya, where to this day, she continues her schooling. She is in 3eme. 

So, you can imagine my distress upon learning of the attack on Tangaye. What if someone had been killed? Ramata had died in childbirth in March – needlessly. And I did not want to feel I failed to prevent another preventable death. There is only so much a RPCV can do as they read news articles and read messages from friends that they no longer feel safe in their village. Yet, I knew that day in September, I had to do something. There is so little any one person can do. But I can do a small part. I can teach one person about the reality in Burkina Faso. I can raise a few dollars that will go directly to a local association to provide rice for recently displaced families. I can do something.

A picture containing grass, outdoor, colorful

Description automatically generated

The next day I signed up for a half ironman (70.3) triathlon – 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and 13.1-mile run. Never, had I ever done a triathlon. Never, had I ever swum laps, much less in open water. Never, had I ever ridden a road bike or even heard of a tri bike.

#IronBurkina was born

I made a pitch to my family and friends – I will swim, bike and run and sweat to prepare for this triathlon, if you learn about Burkina Faso, and if you can, donate.  I raised over $4000 for displaced families through a GoFundMe campaign. I felt proud of being able to raise awareness of a country I hold dear and that I would show my gratitude  to everyone who helped me get to the starting line – from borrowed tri-bikes and wetsuits to TYR support to free swim lessons in the pool. So, when a mere 2 minutes into the Challenge Daytona 2019 race on that December day, when I was hanging on to a paddle board having a full-fledged panic attack, I thought of Ramata. 

I thought of Aissata. I thought of Abibou. I thought of my dear Burkina. And I collected my breath, gave myself a stern talking to. And I swam.

Since that day, I learned two things 1) The IronBurkina Campaign is here to stay – as, it seems, is the violence in Burkina Faso, and 2) I am kinda good at this 70.3 triathlon thing 😊.

Starting in February 2022, I am raising awareness and funds for the seven local associations’ projects that Friends of Burkina Faso have chosen to support.  In June, I will race the “Ironman 70.3  Eagleman” in Maryland, USA to see if I can qualify for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. To offer perspective of this massive challenge, as I write this (March 15th 2022), I swam without having a panic attack in a 70.3 race for the first time. If I do not make the time needed to qualify in June, I will keep going until I do. Just like all the men, women, and children in Burkina Faso are doing each day. Ca va aller.

At the starting line of Challenge Daytona 2019, minutes before the panic attack.

I swim, bike, run, and sweat for donations. If one more person learns about the work these amazing organizations are doing in Burkina Faso – all of the sweat and time has been worth it. And please, if you read this blog and you feel inspired, use that motivation to support Burkina Faso: Mention “#IronBurkina” when you donate so I’ll know I’ve made a difference.