Haitian runners hope to put nation on marathon map
BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — The lean 44-year-old Haitian runner settled into a brisk pace as he led the crew along the nearly deserted dirt trail.
No horns honking at them. Only birds chirping.
And no drivers hanging out the window to yell “You’re crazy!” in Creole, either — something Astrel Clovis encounters quite a bit when he’s dashing through the bustling streets back home in Port-au-Prince.
The five Haitian runners — three men, two women — recently spent a few days in Boulder, Colorado, working out with two-time U.S. Olympic distance runner Alan Culpepper. Sponsored by the relief organization of actor Sean Penn — you know, Jeff Spicoli, Harvey Milk — they’re training for another go-around at the New York City Marathon in November.
Only fitting that Penn is involved, too, because their story almost plays out like a Hollywood script.
One of the runners lost a relative in the earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, that killed an estimated 300,000 people. Another had her family’s restaurant destroyed and another lost her house, forcing her to live in a tent set up in her yard.
But running has helped each of them cope. And through running, they’re hoping to inspire a younger generation in a country that has little running tradition.
“This group is showing that in Haiti, we have people that have a lot of big dreams and they’re working hard to achieve that dream,” said their coach Gerard Cassamajor, whose nation has had three Olympic marathoners.
The five runners receive help with shoes, travel and other necessities through Penn’s humanitarian group, J/P Haitian Relief Organization, which is working to bring sustainable programs to the country. This one is called, “The Long Run for Haiti.”
Almost sounds like a title to a film.
“Haiti is a country filled with countless people who have lived lives so compelling and inspiring that the creative options would be practically limitless,” Penn wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “I would love to see people inspired to tell their stories.”
On a scorching July day, the Haitians set out for an eight-mile jaunt with Culpepper, who wasn’t really sure what tips he could offer given the language barrier. Most of them spoke Creole.
“We soon found a universal language — running,” the 41-year-old Culpepper said.
About 40 minutes into the trek, 22-year-old Carline Lamour returned when the higher elevation of Boulder (around 5,430 feet) began to bother her. She struggled to catch her breath along the trail, even though she’s used to running around hilly, but sea-level, Port-au-Prince.
Not long after, the other runners arrived, with Clovis leading the way, followed by Petrus Cesarion, 28; Jean Macksony, 32, and Bertine Laine, 32.
Culpepper wasn’t bashful to admit it was a struggle to keep up. He was impressed with this ensemble, especially Clovis, who ran 2:37.03 at the Miami Marathon in February to take seventh place.
“I had all these thoughts while running, like ‘Man, if we had only found Astrel 20 years ago,’” said Culpepper, who’s hoping to train with the group in Haiti. “He’s that gifted.”
But Clovis grew up with visions of being a soccer player. Only about a decade ago, after watching Kenyans race on television, did the auto mechanic who also fixes generators give running a try.
Clovis said he lost a relative in the earthquake and spent two years in a shelter. He still found time to run, with drivers honking and hollering at him along the narrow streets.
He and his compatriots earned their spots in Penn’s program during a mini-marathon in 2013. They ran in the New York Marathon last year, with Penn proudly standing at the finish line.
“Part of our work became showing the world the inspiring strength and great potential of the people of Haiti,” Penn said. “They can do this — for the long run — if we get behind them today.”
There’s not a lot of infrastructure for running in an impoverished country where millions live on $2 a day or less. One of the nation’s most notable Olympians is distance runner Dieudonne Lamothe, who competed in four Summer Games. His best finish was 20th in the marathon at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
“A lot of countries are known for their sports, like Brazil and soccer,” Clovis said through a translator. “I want Haiti to be known for running.”
Culpepper was brought in to assist.
“This is running diplomacy,” Culpepper said. “Haiti has many talented folks who are diamonds in the rough.”
For Laine, running offers a chance to escape for a bit. She helped run a restaurant with her aunt before it was destroyed in the quake. One day, she’d like to reopen it again — maybe a bookstore, too.
“People always tell me, ‘Why don’t you find a real job instead of running?’” Laine said. “But I know where I came from and I know where I’m going. I focus on my goals.”
Same goes with Lamour, whose family’s house was destroyed in the earthquake. Over the years, Lamour has steadily seen her country get back on its feet. Right after the disaster, she could barely stand to run because, “I didn’t feel well seeing the whole country so devastated. It broke my heart.
“Now, I love to run.”