Apr 17, 2012

Haiti Ultra Marathon Recap

Haiti Ultra Marathon Recap

In the several months leading up to moving to Haiti I had for the most part stopped exercising. My days were filled with trying to wrap up the last 7 years in Texas, sell a house, leave a job, church, friends, family that I loved, and just prepare for the new adventure God had me on. It felt like I was being pulled in a million directions and there were just not enough hours in the day to stop and exercise.... or so I thought. For me exercise specifically running has always been an outlet and way to process all that is going on around me. It has been a way to challenge what is physically and mentally possible and a way for me to just get quite and enjoy a conversation with our creator while taking in the beauty around us.

When I moved to Haiti and met Jeanie she was equally full of energy and shared a similar passion and need for exercise however she was much faster. So I quickly had to start getting this old self back into shape if I was going to chase after her. We started doing some basic runs around the compound but quickly learned running the same loop around the same 5 acres was not going to get it. Part of the cool part of running is exploring your environment and here we were in a completely new country, where we didn’t speak the language, and knew very little about our surroundings but had this desire to just explore. Many told us it was unsafe and not smart as two white females to just go running off in Haiti. First of all many Haitians don’t understand the point of running just to run. I mean if you are chasing a chicken or goat that is one thing but to exercise just to exercise does not make a lot of sense to most. Secondly we understood you have to be smart and aware of your surroundings but you can’t live in fear. This was going to be our home for the next 15 months so it was time to start exploring a little bit at a time.

After learning some basic Creole and getting a very basic sense of our surroundings we slowly decided to venture off of our 5 acre compound and run around our neighborhood.  For the first time we were out truly experiencing the culture, seeing how people lived, how they ported water, and the different ways they travelled. We were fully immersed without any barriers hearing them sing, watching them washing clothes in buckets, cooking in small pots over coal, carrying large objects on their heads, watching them dance, passing children as they chanted “blan”, watching the men play dominoes, smelling the burning trash, dodging the motos and tap taps, watching the farmers work with machetes, hearing them preach in church, being cut off by cows/goats/ or dogs and just meeting people where they were at.  It was eye opening because every run was full of the unexpected, we never knew what we were going to encounter or where the run was going to take us.  Sometimes it even took us into the homes of our patients we would pass in the street.

Our hearts and minds raced as we tried to process it all but this had become our outlet.  It was the time in the day where we could just go, let our minds get lost in our new reality, and experience the complex beauty that was around us. It was this beauty that made me fall in love with Haiti. Its simplicity yet complexity. Its magical mountains and surreal beaches. Its people that despite their circumstances were not only surviving but in many ways happy. The people demonstrated such inner strength by the way they cared for their families and strangers with such resilience and grace despite the challenges of life in a place where it can be a struggle just to provide very basic needs.  It was unlike any other place I had ever been. It challenged me, stretched me and made me question what really matters in life. I wanted others to be able to experience this side of Haiti and not the hopelessness and desperation that is shown in the news. So this is where the idea started in December when Jeanie asked wouldn’t it be great to run across Haiti and make a documentary to share with others the Haiti we have come to know and love. The school of Haiti that has in many ways changed our lives.

So on March 29th we set out a as group of 7 to run across Haiti. Five guys and two girls. Five of us that had spent over a year in Haiti and two that were fresh off the plane experiencing Haiti for the first time. We all came from very different backgrounds for different reasons but each shared the love of running and desire to share in this epic adventure. We also had with us Ben our photographer and John our videographer that were there to help document this journey.

Day one: The Urban Assault. We started at champ De Mars in Port au Prince across from a large tent community and fallen palace. This for me was the most challenging day secondary to the air quality and constant alertness you needed to be in dodging the tap taps, buses, motos or whatever else was coming your way at the time.  Despite the traffic we manage to make our way through the busy streets of Port au Prince and Petonville before ending in the mountains of Kenscoff.  The incline was gradual but constant as we climbed 5700ft and transverse 16.5 miles. The traffic was a challenge but it was nice to reach the mountains where the views were incredible and the air was crisp and clean. We were finally out of the dust and exhaust of the busy streets of the city. We enjoyed sharing stories the rest of the day of our run, ate a couple good meals and got some rest in preparation of the next days mountain climb, we knew it was going to be a challenge.

The highlight of day one was picking up a new teammate Astrel. He just so happen to be the fastest man in Haiti and was out for a run that morning. When he blew passed us Olaf went chasing after him to find out his story. It turns out he shares a love for running and after hearing what we planned to do over the next couple of days he decided he was up for the challenge. “Pagen pwablom” he would say meaning “don’t have problem”. Astrel was amazing he runs with such ease making even the toughest climb look effortless. He hardly ate or drank but was like a machine when it came to running. What an inspiration he was to all of us.

Day two the Magical Mountain. After trying to run all the inclines the first day I quickly learned from my teammates the value of walking the steep slopes to preserve some energy and allow muscles to work in a slightly different way.  Day two consisted of winding up several thousand feet of steep, rocky, rolling trails high into the mountains of Seguin. The views were breathtaking and the women just amazing as they trucked up the winding mountain trails effortlessly with large bundles of fruits/vegetables perfectly balanced on their head.  The trek at times was brutal making it difficult for even our ATV to make the climb without 4-W drive. Haitian 4-W drive equals manually pushing on foot and that we did as our ATV got stuck throughout the climb. We had locals jump in and lend us a hand and one even helped pull me from the tire as it was rolling back after taking a spill. Day 2 ended at Clayton’s school after 17.8 miles of running up over the pass, through what remains of the pine forest and then winding along single track trails. We were greeted with about 100 kids smiling faces. They sang us songs, danced and shared a wonderful meal with us. It was the perfect way to end this incredible day. Our bodies were tired but our souls were being filled with a new kind of energy. There is something about those mountains that breaks you but also puts you back together.

Day 3 the final descent to the surreal beaches of Caye, Jacmel.  18 miles of straight steady down hill trails and then another 7 miles of pounding it out on the hot pavement roads before crashing into the waves of the Caribbean.  We all woke up with little aches and pains but were excited about finishing this AMAZING adventure. Knowing this was going to be a mile short of a marathon (which to that point was the most I had ever run) my strategy was to just take it slow and easy.  Jeanie had been struggling with some stomach issues and was forced to slow down so there we were together running for the first time side by side step for step.

I certainly believe everything happens for a reason and found it very fitting that on this day like so many of our other Haitian experiences we were going to run through this together.  15 months prior we had come to Haiti not knowing each other or this beautiful culture that we had now grown such a love for.  We had been challenged, inspired, humbled, and stretched in ways we did not think possible. As we came down the mountain we took in the views, engaged with the people, ran with the children and just tried to take in every minute. We knew quickly not only this run but our time in Haiti (or at least this chapter) was quickly coming to an end and we wanted to savor every moment we could. We had been changed by this school we call Haiti. 

The guys had waited along the beach shoreline as we came into town. Together as we had started the 8 of us ran the last two miles. Such emotions whirled around inside: relief that we were almost there, sadness that this part of the journey was coming to an end, overwhelmed knowing we had all been changed but finding it hard to explain how, and excitement that we had completed such a great feat. Finally we reached our destination and were greeted by all our friends who had anxiously been waiting at Surf Haiti. It had been 3 days 59 miles transcending over 10,000 ft.   I must say it felt good to hit that Carribean blue water and take it all in. We had completed the journey we had set out on but in so many ways it felt like it was just the start of a new journey.  If this is something you think you are crazy enough to try I welcome you to join us next year for the Haiti Ultra Marathon January 2013. Details to follow……….