Neil came to run UGM2015 and it was his first time in Africa. He flew out with his girlfriend Katie (who’s luggage turned up the following day!) and they planned to stay for 5 weeks after the event, exploring Uganda and East Africa. For the past year, Neil & Kaite have been huge friends to the marathon! They have started a charity with Carson (Athlete’s Village manager) called Creative Canvas that gives Ugandan children a retreat to explore their creative and artistic side, they have spent a lot of time in Masaka with the UGM team and Neil’s Facebook statuses over the past year have told some utterly incredible stories.

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Here is a letter that Neil has written to those who are running UGM2016.

A few days ago my girlfriend, Katie, and I were spending our last night in Masaka under the stars up at Weaverbird – the arts camp where the marathon team will be based and where many of you will be camping this June. Some 9 months after first going to Weaverbird for last years marathon, it was hard not to get nostalgic. Thinking back to how much that marathon week gave us, it was also impossible not to think about all you guys who will soon be heading there and, laying in bed that night unable to sleep, I decided I was going to write to you.

We went to Uganda last year for that marathon week, and also for a further five weeks of volunteering and travel. Just how much that time inspired us is hard to describe, and we decided to head back to England and raise some more money before going back to Uganda to start our own project. We’ve just spent the last six months out there, where we now have a project right at the foot of the hill where Weaverbird is so beautifully located (trust me when I say that photos do it absolutely no justice). Ndegeya, the village that the campsite is in (and where you’ll run through 3 miles into the marathon) is now forever a part of us. And I wanted to write to you for the very fact of just how important it is to us.

We built our little project, Creative Canvas Uganda (www.creativecanvasuganda.org), with Carson. Carson is the man who lives at Weaverbird, and is the one who will be hosting you for that week. To get a measure of how close we became, I was honoured to become Godfather to Carson’s little boy Elijah last month. Sisi, Elijah’s mother, is now one of our project’s teachers, and you will no doubt meet all 3 of them during the week in June. As we sat under those stars reflecting back at just how much has happened since we first rolled into Weaverbird last May, exhausted after a long flight into Entebbe, I began to wonder how a place that was once so foreign to me had become home.some-people

I was scared before I went to Uganda. Scared of running, as I’m not a good runner at all, but also scared as I’d never been to that part of the world. You might hear scare stories about it, so maybe some of you are scared as well. Let me tell you, from the bottom of my heart, that you have absolutely nothing to worry about. I’ve just spent half a year in the very village that most of you will be staying in, and I can wholeheartedly assure you that it is nothing but hugely welcoming – as is the whole of Uganda. I’ve travelled in over 60 countries, and I can in fact say that Uganda is easily one of the safest. The people are phenomenally friendly, and they are very excited to have you all there. It might be hard to do, but please don’t fret about your safety going out there. When you get there, you’ll understand. Incidentally, you might be aware that the Presidential election has just happened. Events surrounding elections in Africa can be unpredicatable, but we were in Masaka for the whole time and there wasn’t even a hint of trouble. Don’t waste energy worrying about it. The locals want and enjoy peace just as much as you do, and after a quiet day on the actual election day itself, life immediately returned to normal.

I’m not going to tell you about the marathon, as I’m sure the guys have been telling you lots, and like I said, I am not a good runner. One thing I will say though, is no matter how experienced or inexperienced you are, this marathon is right for you. I only did the half marathon, but coming off a broken leg, I had never run more that 5 miles in my life. I wasn’t able to run for the 6 weeks leading up to the marathon either, having sustained a pulled calf muscle. I love sport, but I have never enjoyed running for the sake of it. I can honestly say I loved every single minute of those 13.1 miles. I even considered carrying on for the whole marathon, as the adrenalin of the event actually made it remarkably easy. On the other hand, if you are an experienced runner and want to have a crack at winning, then bring your A-game. Last years Ugandan winner was unbelievably fast. All in all, it’s a wonderful run for all standards.

Having said that of course, don’t do yourself an injustice. Train as hard as you possibly can. And please, please fundraise as much as you can. I went out there with the plan of splitting the proceeds 50/50, but once I surpassed my target, every extra penny I raised went to the projects in Masaka. That was the down to the effect that seeing them had on me. This marathon does very, very good work. As we later found out, trying to use money in the best way possible is a very difficult thing in Uganda, but I can tell you that Andy Bownds is out there working very hard to ensure that happens. Fundraising is hard. I personally struggled with the emotion of it. People might let you down, people you never expected might touch your heart by helping you. Either way, carry on trying. When we went back to England to raise money for our own project, I watched my girlfriend Katie in tears as her fundraising efforts didn’t work out as planned. But she carried on. That, as much as anything, is why I am so proud of her. And remember, it doesn’t matter how much you raise, no one will judge you for it, but it is important that you try. Do yourselves proud, because when you get out there you will be glad that you did.

You will all have your own reasons that you are going out to participate, just as I did last year. But when you are out there, please remember what this marathon is primarily about. This is about transforming people’s lives. It is about Uganda. You will get the most amazing welcome you could possibly imagine, but at the end of the day, you are guests in their country. Learn some simple greetings in Lugandan. As with anywhere in the world, the locals appreciate it so much. Nothing difficult, literally just a few words. It means the world to the locals. I’m sure the marathon team can provide you with the simple greetings. Another thing, you’ll be in Africa. Things run on Africa time. Don’t expect everything to be the same as your own countries, relax, and you will enjoy the experience that much more. Don’t focus on this event helping you, focus on helping the people it is set up to help. That will in turn help you in ways you haven’t yet even imagined.

And explore. It is safe, so make the most of it. Talk to Carson and Sisi at Weaverbird. Go and visit Creative Canvas. Walk down any street you fancy. Talk to Grace, and Mama Nassongo, and all the ladies who have a little shop in the centre of Ndegeya. Eat at the restaurant. Go into the next village, Ssaza, and try some street food. Go into town and walk around the shops. Talk to people. Smile at people. You won’t get hassled in the street in Uganda. Sure, you’ll have curious looks, and about a million kids shout ‘Bye Mzungu’ to you, but the locals are polite, friendly, and extremely excited to meet you.

As we were saying our goodbyes to everyone last week, Katie wanted to paint a message on one of the walls at our project. She asked me what to write, and I said the first thing that popped into my head. It was ‘You gave us more than we could ever give you’. I could sit and write a book about the positive impact this experience has had on me. It has quite literally changed my life. But this is now about your adventures, your experiences. So please, train hard, fundraise harder, and don’t worry one bit about the country to where you are going. But most of all get excited to meet the locals because they, more than anything, might just be what changes your life.

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