Idrissa Kargbo and Mamie Konneh Lahun in London before they took part in the 2014 London Marathon. Photograph: Observer
'Don't ruin a brilliant career': friends' plea to missing London marathon star
Sierra Leone's prodigy, Mamie Konneh Lahun, vanished after last week's race. Now her friends and manager say they fear that she is throwing away her chance of happiness and success
The manager and colleagues of the Sierra Leonean runner who disappeared after completing last Sunday's London Marathon have urged her to return home to avoid jettisoning a career in which she could become an African and international superstar.
Despite receiving no marathon or specialist coaching, Mamie Konneh Lahun was the 20th woman to cross the finish line, eclipsing her personal best time and setting a new national record. The 24-year-old then vanished almost immediately after the race. It has emerged since that Lahun deliberately absconded and is safe and well, although her whereabouts and who she is staying with are still not known.
Idrissa Kargbo, 22, Sierra Leone's top male runner, who also competed in the race, received a phone call from his compatriot last week in which she said she wanted to return to Freetown, where she works as a police officer. Kargbo told the Observer: "I was worried she was in a bad condition, but when she called she said she was OK and was coming back. I was so happy.
"But I don't know if she will come or not. If she comes, it's good for her career. If she doesn't, her career is over. She will have to forget about running."
Jo Dunlop, the missing runner's manager, said Lahun had only £10 and no change of clothes when she disappeared and, as far as she was aware, had no contacts in the UK, although she appears to have taken her passport. Lahun, she added, was one of the most naturally gifted athletes she had known and the best female marathon runner in a country still recovering from a brutal civil war and which remains among the poorest on the planet.
Dunlop, an Australian living in Freetown, said: "It's tragic, because her result was just so good. She doesn't know how good she is. I asked her before the race what her personal best was and she couldn't remember. She just runs."
Having established that Lahun is safe, many worry that the west African country has lost a much-needed heroine for good. Dunlop said that one coach in Freetown told her last week that Sierra Leone should be devastated at having lost its "best female athlete – their number one".
Lahun is the country's fastest 5,000m and 10,000m runner and has previously won the Sierra Leonean and Liberian national marathons, an achievement amplified by the fact she has received minimal government backing and no professional training.
There are no distance coaches in Sierra Leone, and even marathon runners are trained by local sprint coaches. Dunlop wonders how far Lahun could have gone, particularly if she received altitude training. Earlier this year Kargbo trained at the Iten Village training camp, high up in Kenya's Rift Valley, with Mo Farah, who finished eighth in last Sunday's London Marathon.
The last time Dunlop saw Lahun, she was striding past mile 21 of the course – 15 minutes ahead of her expected time. "She was absolutely killing it with no sign of slowing down and a look of grit and fortitude on her face. It's really sad thinking back to that last time," she said .
Lahun's "sub-elite" time is likely to have opened up fresh opportunities, including probable entry to this year's New York marathon. Kargbo's country of birth rendered him so newsworthy that the New York Times ran a feature on him before the November 2013 race.
Dunlop added: "I was completely inspired by her, as other Sierra Leoneans would have been. This is someone with no proper professional marathon coaching. Imagine what she could do with the right support. If she stays in England she'll never run competitively again and will have given up the thing in life that makes her the happiest for a low-paid job."
Those who arrived in the UK alongside Lahun insist that there was no sign she was planning to abscond and that they spent the week in Guildford, Surrey, mainly relaxing and watching television.
If anything, Lahun seemed almost bored by life away from the sticky, tropical climate of West Africa and the traffic-choked streets of Freetown, according to Dunlop. "When we visited London before the race, she was really uninterested in her surroundings. She didn't ask me for maps or about the tube or trains. She didn't seem like someone plotting an escape," she said.
Following the marathon, the Sierra Leonean team had arranged to meet at Admiralty Arch, but quickly became anxious when Lahun failed to show up. After searching the surrounding area, including all the medical tents, Dunlop called the police at 10pm to report her missing.
Dunlop spotted Lahun's potential after watching her train at Freetown's national stadium and then through her not-for-profit organisation, Global Fashpack, raised donations and sponsorship to enable Lahun to compete in London alongside Kargbo, who works in Freetown as a coffee deliverer. Kargbo partly blames the Sierra Leone government for his colleague's disappearance, saying that it offers no support to athletes who struggle to survive in a country ranked 11th from bottom of the global human development index. However, he is determined to stay in his home country.
"Athletes train every day, but they have nothing to eat. They have to go to their friends to beg. If the government was sponsoring athletics, this would not happen," said Kargbo, who finished the marathon in 61st place and has returned to Freetown.
To underline his point, he said that the country's media had not reported his or Lahun's success in London while the ministry of sport has also failed to contact them despite Lahun's disappearance. Neither Kargbo nor Lahun has been selected to represent Sierra Leone at this year's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. "If there's a competition, they don't put the right person in the right place," said Kargbo.
Lahun, who lived alone in Allen Town, a suburb of Freetown, has six months before her visa expires and her case is handed to immigration officials.