By Ben Holmes, RD
“We have a burro on retainer.” I’ve never had a reason to say that, until now.
For the second year in a row, Coco Tieghi and I had the privilege of race directing the 2nd annual Run D’Haiti Trail Run, for the Global Orphan Project, in Croix Des Bouquets, Haiti.
I was introduced to GO Project by my friend, I.V. Whitman. He serves as the overall trip, planning, and logistics director for all “GO Adventures” trips, as well as serving in many other capacities for the organization. Global Orphan Project (and GO Adventures) helps sustain local pastors, orphanages, and family advocacy groups, worldwide. And by traveling to distressed foreign destinations and meeting people from other cultures on their home turf, Americans (and others) can, and do have Life-Paradigm-Shifting experiences. At least for me, it made it abundantly clear what is important in life. (Hint: it’s not material wealth).
This particular event required a lot of up-front planning by our team to execute it smoothly in a country like Haiti, which has a lack of basic infrastructure. There are no Home Depots, Walmarts, or supermarkets to purchase even the most basic of race necessities. But our team can (and did) perform miracles!
In advance of the race, we had obtained another valuable team member: E.R. doctor, trailrunner, and fellow Trail Nerd, Gay Siriwangchai Purcell. Gay had experience with helping at other Trail Nerd races, most notably attending to heat-stressed runners at our annual Psycho Psummer 50K. For Haiti, Gay had acquired and packed-up a large bag of medical marvels and state-of-the-art healthcare gadgets. She had an AED unit could make a downed runner leap-up like frogs in a dynamite pond. She had Cipro and Doxycyclene and Aspirin…oh, my. With her sutures and full assortment of tape and bandages, she could patch-up a runner, or (in a pinch), perform a facelift or tummy-tuck, I’m sure.
This year, I.V., Coco and I decided to fly out to Haiti, early. Our intent was to come up with a new, even more rural course, to further show-off the beauty of the Haitian countryside. For 2014, a 25K and 50K distance had been added to persuade “serious” trailrunners to consider traveling to our special event. We decided upon a double out-and-back for the 50K, so that the runners would become somewhat familiar with the course, and so that we would have enough staffing, logistics, and safety redundancies built-in. The 50K got five entrants, while the other distances attracted 53 other runners.
In Haiti, a race director has to come up with “atypical” marking strategies for a trail run. Otherwise wonderful marking materials such as pink-glow engineering tape, quickly becomes “pretty ribbons” for little Haitian girls’ hair. Along with our alternate marking strategies, we made a list of turns for each runner for each course, based on landmarks, since most roads and streets aren’t marked with road signs.
The only “solid” aid station was at the 10K finish point, in the small hamlet of Dumay. There, we had stationed two transport buses as our base of operations (and to drive the 10K runners back). At Dumay, Coco was in charge of tracking the 25K & 50K runners’ progress with cell phone and a walkie-talkie. Communication was key. Coco is very fluent in French, which helps in a country where French is the second language of choice, and with Haitian Creole being a language steeped in French.
From the 10k point of Dumay, the 50k and 25k courses continued another 1.5-miles and 1,000-foot climb up a mountain to the turnaround point, at the very small village of Bondon (pronounced bow-doe). At Bondon, a local staff member was stationed to turn the runners around. Half-way up the mountain, we had also stationed a local staff member/translator with Sarah Belz, our over-achieving high school student and crew member. So just in case someone crashed and burned on the mountain trail, we had two strong guys, Sarah, and the aforementioned Burro on Retainer to handle the situation. Sarah was to serve as a mountain guide to help any slightly-distressed runners up and down the steep part of the mountain trail.
Along the course route, we had 4-wheel drive vehicles displaced among the ever-expanding pedestrian peloton, each loaded with a translator, security person, and race staff member. We had also hired local motorcyclists to serve as “domestiques” and course monitors. Their job was to keep everybody on course and to also be roving water aid stations. I.V. and others were also traveling the course route on mountain bikes, each with two forms of electronic communication.
Participants were encouraged to learn and use simple greeting phrases, or at least know how to say, “bonjou” while passing any local person. In Haiti, it’s considered rude to not greet passing strangers. Haitians have not lost their sense of politeness (that we once may have had). The local villagers had ample notice from us that, for some crazy reason, “anpil Blans” (many whites) would be running, walking, or plodding through “Ayiti cheri” (their dear Haiti). A strange concept, indeed! Very few Haitians run for recreation; they get plenty of exercise in their daily lives, as it is. Little kids along the course route had ample time to practice their favorite English phrase, “hey, you!”
Running in 95-degree heat on a course with 10% shade is something you have to train for. But for the runners in our race that was a luxury beyond reach, in January! Many had flown out of sub-zero temps at home and had arrived later the same day in Haiti, to a 100-degree heat index. There isn’t much that can prepare you for that. And our 50k runners would have to climb a mountain, twice!
Ultimately, we had two, very tough 50k finishers: Laura Range from St. Louis, Missouri and Kristi Walthall, from Boulder, Colorado. Laura is a veteran ultrarunner, who first cut her “ultra teeth” on the Psycho Psummer course, five years ago. Laura had a tough go of it on the first part of her second out-and-back, but Gay and I got to play pacer to her for a while, while she regained her composure and wrapped her head around finishing. She finished strong, in 8-hours, 16-minutes.
Kristi is a very fit personal trainer, and this was going to be her 50K race debut. She had been leading the 50K race for 25-kilometers, but just three miles from the finish, she cramped-up horribly and hit the ground. Up to that point, I had been pacing her for a couple of miles and had (luckily) just given her an electrolyte capsule. I enlisted help from the motorcycle Domestiques, and we kept her calves stretched-out, until the electrolytes could take effect. During Kristi’s ordeal, Laura Range passed by and would later comment, “her legs were up in the air and they were flexing her feet to try to relax those muscles. It looked more like a labor and delivery to me!” (I’m sure that passing locals thought the same). Gay had been following Laura’s progress in a truck, and jumped-out to help us with Kristi. But Kristi no longer needed our help. She cautiously got up, and then started dancing! One of our motorcyclists had a sound system on his bike, and was playing dance music. Kristi started running toward the finish line with Gay, me, and her motorized entourage in tow. We ran and danced to the finish line with her. And what a finish line…a human arch consisting of all the other runners! Kristi finished in 8:27:00.
Some highlights from this year’s trip:
- Playing catch and interacting with kids at the orphanage, next door.
- Sunday church service (in Haitian Creole) on the exact 4th anniversary of the 2010 quake.
- While marking the course on the mountain, an old man used his machete to make Coco a walking stick.
If you ever want to run in an event that will challenge your body, mind, soul, and your existing concepts of life itself, sign-up for next January’s race. You will definitely come back as a different person. Guaranteed!