Olympic marathoner Guor Mading Maker thought he was done running when he was granted asylum by the United States in 2001. No one would blame him. He spent most of his childhood running for his life.
Mading Maker grew up in South Sudan amidst a civil war, and was just 8 years old when his parents sent him away to find his uncle in hopes of escaping the violence. But shortly after, he was captured and enslaved by a group of Messiria, an ethnic group of herdsman in Western Sudan. He became one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” roughly 20,000 adolescents who were displaced during the war.
Following a daring escape, Mading Maker ran through northern Sudan, eventually landing in a refugee camp in Egypt. He was united with his aunt and uncle in Concord, New Hampshire, where he began attending high school. Soon after, during one of his PT classes, a teacher noticed his natural athleticism and asked him if he wanted to try track and field.
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“I didn’t realize running was a sport,” Mading Maker tells Men’s Journal. “I had never seen it in that light before.” Following a little convincing, he signed up—a decision that would forever change his life, as seen in the newly released documentary Runner.
Now, Mading Maker is a two-time Olympian, training for his third Olympic Games, and a member of the United States Air Force World Class Athlete Program; he served at the Colorado Springs base as an Airman. Here, he reveals more about his tumultuous upbringing and how running has changed his life.
Men’s Journal: What are your earliest memories of growing up in South Sudan?
Guor Mading Maker: Back home, I was always a very active kid. I spent a lot of time helping my father with his goats and sheep, as well as other farming chores. In my country, every kid is like that, outdoors all of the time. Of course, growing up in a warzone, there was a lot of danger and violence, which was difficult to escape. It’s hard for me to think about those early years and that time in my life. I try to avoid those memories, because it brings me nothing but sadness. Yes, there were happy moments with friends, but it was more tragic than anything. I don’t consider my story special in this regard, though. There have been and still are many young people who are refugees. If you’ve been forced to flee from your own country, you’re going to have challenges, maybe each to a different scale, but in many ways the same.
What was the hardest adjustment when you came to America?
The most difficult part of acclimating was learning the language. Back in South Sudan, I was only speaking one language. I had to learn Arabic when I moved to northern Sudan and then Egypt. All these places also had different cultures I had to understand. Coming from African culture, the States were completely different. There was a lot to get used to from the food to the language to the culture. But I’m glad I found running, because the friends I made I will have for my whole life. It allowed me to connect with my peers. I look back on my decision to join the running club and say thank God because of the gifts and relationships that it’s given me.
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Were you apprehensive to join the team?
I initially had no interest in running. I felt like I had run enough back in Sudan—and in that instance I had been forced to run to save my life. So when I arrived in the United States, I had no interest in running any longer. Even more, I had no idea that running was a sport. I had never seen anyone running on television and I had really never heard of it. The only sport I’d seen back home was soccer, which I saw on a television back in Egypt.
What were some of the initial challenges?
I couldn’t believe the distances they were running. I just thought it was crazy. Why would you run for that long? And how? I thought that maybe I would just do it to make friends, which I did, but when I eventually won a national indoors championship it became a lot more serious for me. I could see it being a way for me to be of use and help others. My coaches started telling me about the potential for scholarships, and the chance to get a proper education was very appealing.
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Do you remember when you actually fell in love with running?
During my training in high school I started to become addicted to it. Every day that I didn’t run I felt like I was missing something. No matter what, I’ll get in at least a jog, even if it’s just six miles or so at an easy pace. I feel the energy it gives me in my blood and in my heart. There were a lot of trails to train on in New Hampshire, and I trained hard on those consistently. By the time winter came around, we were pretty much stuck on the roads, because of the snow. Sometimes it would be so cold that we would just stay inside, doing laps in the gym. Every weekend our coach would take us out for a nice, scenic run— through the hills for about 15 miles or more. There was a small park nearby the school where we would do our cross country workout… staying out there to do a bunch of 800-meter repeats. I looked forward to those. I believe running can be a great therapist to anyone who’s prepared to really commit to it. Even if you are without trauma, it’s healthy for your mind.
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How did your relationship with running change in college at Iowa State?
There was a major increase in mileage and intensity. Iowa was cold in the winter, even colder than New Hampshire. So everything was inside, for about two hours, doing 200 to 300 miles of track. We wouldn’t even take holidays because we were so committed to being the best. For me, I felt a sense of responsibility to be as good as possible, because of the opportunity I had been given from the school.
I believe running can be a great therapist to anyone who’s prepared to really commit to it.
How much did competing in the Olympics mean to you?
I knew that if I made it to the Olympics, and accomplished any kind of finish, it would mean something special for the young kids from my country, as well as for other refugees like me. My career has always been for them. I want to give them hope, for them to see where I’ve been able to go and perhaps do the same or go even further. I want them to dream. I have hope that some kid who’s in a refugee camp or who’s displaced may see footage of me running and know that they can do it too.
What was it like training for your first Olympics?
I pushed myself to my limits. The human body is incredible under adversity—but I may have pushed too hard. One day, my teammates actually took me aside and told me, Guor, you’re going to go crazy if you keep working like this. They thought I was putting too much on myself, but there was no other way it could be. I had the opportunity, so I needed to do everything in my power to make the most of it. That was my responsibility. If I’m healthy enough to run, I have to get out there.
How did the decision to run independently in the 2012 Summer Olympics come about?
I remember sitting with my roommate during my freshman year of college and making the decision that I wanted to run for South Sudan. Back then, South Sudan and northern Sudan were one country, but I always carried the people of South Sudan in my heart. So when it was determined that South Sudan wouldn’t be able to participate in those games, and I wasn’t going to be able to represent my home country, I had to decide an alternative. I understand that not many are given the opportunity to compete at the Olympics, but the only flag I wanted to raise was South Sudan’s. So my sights almost immediately turned to 2016 when I would have that chance.
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What was that experience like—getting to raise the South Sudan flag?
Raising our flag during those Olympics is a moment I’ll never, ever forget. Raising it for my family, for the young kids of my country, and the millions who died during the war. I wanted to raise that flag in tribute for them. It’s tough to put the feeling into words. The thought of it brings tears to my eyes. Because I look back at all of the people we lost—my own siblings. It hurts so deeply. I see in my heart and in my mind that one day a kid from South Sudan will win the Olympics, of that I’m sure. I will be able to look back at the part I played in laying the foundation for that, and that makes me proud.
Who were your role models in the sport?
I remember when I first started to watch running on television there were a few guys who truly inspired me. One of them was the U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson, another was Haile Gebrselassie from Ethiopia, and another was Paul Tergat from Kenya. I looked up to these guys a lot. Even to this day, they’re my heroes. I dreamed to finish a marathon like them. I ended up meeting Paul Target at the 2016 Olympics, and I was thrilled to take a picture with this guy. I believe we look quite a bit alike, too! I hope to meet Gebrselassie one day as well. The way they competed was amazing—not just the way that they run, but the commitment they brought and their determination. I have their books and read them often for motivation. I actually used Paul Tergat’s program to train for the 2012 Olympics. I was obsessed! Those are my guys.
Courtesy of U.S. Air Force
What drove your decision to join the Air Force after the 2016 Olympics?
I wanted to join the Air Force to give back. Following the Olympics, I was filled with gratitude for what I was able to do for South Sudan, but I wanted to also show respect to the United States, which helped me have that opportunity. It was here that I was welcomed and allowed to become the person I am today. I also wanted to help show that refugees can be productive in the countries where they reside. I wanted to thank the country as a whole, and I could think of no better way to do that than to put on the military uniform and serve.
How do you feel about the Black Lives Matter movement as it pertains to the world of running?
I believe it’s the responsibility of every society right now to eliminate prejudice, based on race, sex, or any other discrimination. We’ve come far, but there’s still further to go. The color of our skin should not separate us or put us against each other. We bleed the same blood, breathe the same air, and eat the same food. Let’s focus on what unites us. The sport of running is doing its part; they work hard to bring us together. You can see unity in the spirit of the sport. I think the Olympic village shows us a better way, countries may be at war, but inside the Olympic Village, where all the athletes gather, it’s about camaraderie. We may not speak the same language, but we have a common purpose. The friends I’ve made at those competitions will last my lifetime. I have never felt discrimination inside the sport. The only moments I have felt profiled is outside—on the street, where people may not be able to see I am an Olympian, an athlete, or a member of the military. The first anyone is going to see is an African man. That’s why it’s important to know the law, and the rules, so you can protect yourself, just in case. The way I look at it, every civilization has issues. We are a complicated species. I believe people are beginning to understand that this is not good for our society. We can be better.
How’s training going for the Tokyo Olympics—now slated for 2021?
The training is going well. The focus is there, nothing has deviated, even during the pandemic. I had a lot of injuries since 2016, but that’s a part of being an athlete. But I will not allow them to stop me. I’m taking care of myself, and the rest will take care of itself. Because of the pandemic, we aren’t meeting in big groups. We have two or three people in our training crews. I enjoy training in Colorado. It’s much different from Flagstaff, Arizona, where I used to train. There are a lot of hills and dirt roads. It’s really good for training for 10K up to marathon level—filled with beautiful scenery.
How do you stay motivated to this day?
Every morning when I put on my shoes before my workout, I repeat to myself that this is what I have to do. This is my moment. I have spent every day since I left my family thinking that I have to be better today than I was yesterday. I believe that that idea has helped me get to where I am today—that and the desire to help the people of South Sudan. It’s a driving force in everything I do.
“Runner” is now available on demand here (a portion of the proceeds benefit the Refugee Assistance Alliance).
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