Monday, March 9, 2015

Running Across Haiti

It’s summer in Pittsburgh. The season that makes up for the grey, cold, and god-forsaken month of February. I’m in work out clothes, hanging out on my boss Ian’s front porch in Friendship. We’re having a beer, talking about our company, my latest break-up, and running. It was during the running talk that Ian poses the question, “What if we run across Haiti?”

There are moments in your life when you know the answer to something so quickly that you have to wonder if deep down you’ve just been waiting for someone to ask the question. I say yes almost immediately.

7 months later, I’ve hired a running coach, run more than I ever have in my life,  and am en route to Haiti to run 230 miles across a country with a group of 17 people who are taking ten days out of their lives to complete this challenge and raise $75,000 for Team Tassy.

Ian Rosenberger has a great many talents, but one of them is his ability to collect people – smart, talented, ambitious, people – and convince them to do crazy shit. The team for this race is no exception. The group dynamics are nearly perfect. Everyone is interesting, hard working, and dedicated to making this run happen. We sleep on floors next to one another, we schlepp luggage, and every time we runners pull into a check-point or finish line, our support crew is there to offer high-fives, hugs, electrolytes, and water before you can even ask. The logistics behind something like this are endless, but everything runs smoothly, thanks mostly to the leadership of Viv Luk, Team Tassy’s Executive Director. It’s unreal. Analogies to summer camp are made all week long.

Poor Dr. Steve is an anesthesiologist, but on this trip he’s mostly responsible for draining blisters and drilling toenails. My feet have completely betrayed me. After 7 months of intense training, after back-to-back 20+ milers, I thought I understood how my body would respond to this level of running. Haiti however, has changed all of that. The heat, the humidity, and who knows what else have caused my feet to swell and widen to the point where my shoes no longer fit. This destroys my pinky toes, and my solution is to cut holes into the sides of my sneakers with Ian’s knife, so that my toes hang out. Dr. Steve super glues my toes back together. Running is gross.

I had 3 goals going into this race:

     1)    Finish.
     2)    Don’t poop my pants.
     3)    Don’t cry on camera.

Halfway through and I’ve completely failed #3. I’m sick. There’s a cold or flu or some sort of virus spreading through our group – unsurprising considering we’re spending every waking and many sleeping moments together. We’ve been saving today’s run for the evening to avoid the demoralizing heat that occurs after 10 am. I’ve spent the day in bed unmotivated to do much else.

Dr. Steve takes my temperature while wrapping up my feet. 101.2. He gives me Tylenol to bring the fever down and tells me we’ll need to check it during the run to make sure it stays below 101.5, or else I start putting myself at risk for heat stroke. I go back to the room I’m sharing with our film crew. I’ve become close with these folks – traveling with them for the past 5 days, falling asleep to the sound of them editing video and photos. I’m tired, and sick, and frustrated, and nervous, and when I talk to Taylor and Andrew I start to choke up.

“Do you mind talking on camera?” Taylor eventually asks, and I agree. So, Andrew pulls out the camera, Taylor asks me some questions, and I cry and blow my nose on film. Maybe it’s footage that will get used, maybe it won’t. Either way, it’s actually kind of cathartic. I put on my gutted shoes and Viv and Ian hang back to pace my shuffling self. A Half-marathon later, Tony Rosenberger hands me a cold Prestige for finishing.

Haiti is a country of extremes. Extreme wealth, and desperate poverty. Jungle, and desert climates. Dark and cool for 12 hours a day, and ruthlessly bright and hot the other 12. I’ve been coming here for 3 years, but am experiencing the country in a whole new way. We run along to the soundtrack of “blan! Blan! Blan!” being shouted at us every hundred feet by children and adults. We look a sight, us white runners (with the exception of Tassy), in our neon running gear and sunglasses passing through towns and villages. I pass a school one morning as students are arriving for their day. A woman, a mother I assume, dropping off her child at school runs up to me and paces me in her sandals and dress.

“You’re fast,” I say.

“Yes,” she responds confidently.

She runs with me for about a half a mile before peeling off onto a side road leading to a neighborhood, towards, I imagine, her home. I wonder what she thought of me. Why she decided to run with a stranger passing through her space. I wish my creole were better so I could’ve found out. I told her thank you and have a good day as she left. I wish she knew how much I appreciated the company.

Team Tassy works in a very specific neighborhood in Port au Prince called Menelas. It’s near the water – a network of dirt roads and small houses. There, Team Tassy works with families holistically, to get them out of poverty, until the family is self-sufficient and no longer needs them. It’s long, hard, work. But, they are getting people healthy, getting kids into school, getting parents into jobs, and the difference those actions make is drastic.

We visit the home of one of the families during our rest day in Port au Prince. It’s a home I visited 3 years ago, while I was in country for Thread. When I visited, no one had a job and 2 of the kids were seriously sick. We stood and met with the family in the front yard. The house was in rough shape. The roof leaked constantly. This time though, we visit, and everything is different.

The kids are getting big – their faces are round, and they’re in school. The older kids practice their English with us. We’re invited into a newly constructed house built with a foundation made from blocks of recycled Styrofoam. The father works as a tap tap driver and just paid off the loan Team Tassy gave him to purchase the truck with. He and his wife help to mentor new families as they enter the program. This is working. This is why we’re running.

It’s the afternoon, and I lie on a bed with my legs up against the wall, reading and resting before our last run of 56 miles into Jacmel. I look up at my legs.

“I think my calves have gotten bigger than my knees,” I say.

Taylor looks up from her laptop across the room, “But that’s good, right? Means you’re strong?”

“Totally,” I say. “It’s just weird, not recognizing my own body.”

These legs – these same legs I’ve been distance running with for the past decade look like they belong to someone else.

It’s midnight and we’re driving to the starting point for our final run, 56 miles from Port-au-Prince into Jacmel. We’re running through the night to avoid the heat and city traffic. To know Port-au-Prince during the day is to know streets and sidewalks that are filled. Every square inch of space is taken over by people, mottos, cars, trucks, and the occasional cow. It’s sensory overload with sounds and smells and colors unlike anything I’ve ever experienced anywhere else in the world. At night though, it’s quiet. Almost post-apocalyptic-like quiet. The streets are empty. It’s both peaceful and eerie. Outfitted in spandex and headlamps it feels like we’re part of some covert ops off to do something much cooler than run for the next 12 hours. We take off, the support trucks ahead and behind us until we clear the city limits and hit the wide open, empty, dark road. I love running at night. If I didn’t have to be a functioning human during the day, I think I’d spend most of my midnight - 2 am’s running.

The next 12 hours pass like a fever dream. I laughed, I cried, I cursed God and everyone, and experienced moments of utter joy and bliss. I mentally quit at least 3 times and got altitude sickness at the top of that mountain. Viv kept me sane, pacing me the last 30 km’s. Owen injured his Achilles and climbed the peak in a splint. The support crew kept offering snacks and encouragement despite having stayed up all night. We all met at the bottom of the mountain, and limped into the finish together. Sun burnt, blistered, and a little bloodied – we made it. Every one one of us.

Since I’ve known him, I’ve heard Ian say, “It’s not an adventure until you’re wishing you were safe at home in your bed.” This experience qualifies.

I start writing all of this down during the flight home. A drunk Canadian comes across the aisle and sits down in the empty seat next to me.

“I saw you writing,” he says. “And writing, and writing. Are you a writer?”

“No,” I respond.

“What were you doing in Haiti?” he asks, looking over my shoulder at the scribbling in my notebook.

“I ran across the country,” I reply, “and apparently have just started processing that.”

He blinks, then says, “I could tell you had a story.”

I do, and I am grateful for it.

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