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Haitian Runners Get Help Chasing Dreams

With help from the J/P Haitian Relief Organization founded by Sean Penn, five Haitian runners are training for the New York City Marathon.

With help from the J/P Haitian Relief Organization founded by Sean Penn, five Haitian runners are training for the New York City Marathon.

When Alan Culpepper walked over and turned off the TV showing the Brazil-Netherlands World Cup soccer game being watched by a group of New York City Marathon-bound Haitian athletes on July 11 in Boulder, Colo., it was a small, but clear, statement of the discipline these runners will need in order to progress as hoped in the years to come.

The runners, who visited Boulder July 11-13 for a training camp, want to progress in their running careers not just for their own personal goals, but for the good of their country, a nation of 9 million that shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.

Decades of neglect by the international community and their own leaders, as well as natural disasters—capped by the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake that left hundreds of thousands dead or injured and many more homeless—has meant a dearth of runners in Haiti as well as a negative image of the country internationally.

Now, with the help of the J/P Haitian Relief Organization founded by actor Sean Penn, the five runners—Astrel Clovis, Bertine Lainé, Carline Lamour, Jean Macksony and Petrus Cesarion—are training to promote running in their country.

To do that, they will race the New York City Marathon for the second year in a row. Helping them along way is Culpepper, a two-time U.S. Olympian who is working with J/P HRO, advising the runners on what he learned from a long international career that included seven national titles, two Olympic teams, numerous world championships appearances and a marathon personal best of 2:09:41.

Culpepper is doing this on the side, in addition to his day job as vice president of government relations for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series. “It’s my way of staying close and connected to the essence of the sport,” he said.

According to Clovis, fastest of the group with a 2:36 clocking, the team’s goals are not only personal bests.

“I want to change the image of Haiti,” he said before heading out for a run with Culpepper Friday morning, just hours after arriving in town. “I want to show there is value in Haiti.”

Of course, Clovis, 44, wants to run fast in New York. His goal is a top-20 finish.

“I want to run with the Kenyans,” he said. “People know Jamaica, people know Kenya for their runners. I want people to know about Haiti.”

J/P HRO, which has been on the ground in Haiti since the earthquake, enlisted Culpepper to help guide Haitian coach Gerard Cassamajor and to show what it will take for these passionate, yet inexperienced runners to run fast.

“Overall, it was great,” Culpepper said of their Boulder training stint. “We accomplished what we wanted; they got in some good training, got some good information and had some new cultural experiences without going overboard.”

After a grueling 8-miler along the South Boulder Creek Trail, Culpepper said he was impressed with the runners’ aerobic talent. He also put them through a workout with 5-minute surges around Louisville’s Harper Lake, as well as a Sunday long run at the Teller Farm open space area.

“Meeting ‘super-Alan’ is a great honor,” said Laine, 32, who ran 3:14 last year in New York and 3:09 at February’s Miami Marathon. Like her teammates, Laine showed a passion and determination to train despite living in a tent for two years, as Clovis did.

Before the earthquake, Laine, 32, worked with her aunt at “Chez Ana,” a restaurant that served “good Haitian food.” Clovis is a mechanic. They have put their jobs on hold to train as best they can. It’s not easy, Clovis said. The runners get teased often when they run.

And, shades of pre-running boom in the U.S., “Sometimes, people yell, ‘Get a job,’” Lamour said. For now, their job is running, and on Nov. 2, they will be starting near the front of the field, instead of back in “20,000th place” as was the case last year, coach Cassamajor said.

“I wish we could have a month training here,” Cassamajor said.

Instead, the runners are back in Port-au-Prince, where Lamour, youngest of the group at 22, still lives in a tent next to her parents’ house, ruined in the earthquake.

As the runners chatted about training in their hometown, battling traffic and crowded streets, their excitement came through. They had listened raptly to Culpepper speak for three hours on Saturday about nutrition, hydration, sleep and living the runners’ lifestyle.

Culpepper is an “old-school” guy, not adverse to the latest gadgets, but cut from the mold of other Boulder runners such as Steve Jones and Mark Plaatjes, as well as his college coach, Mark Wetmore and former training partners such as Scott Larson, Adam Goucher, Peter Julien and Mark Coogan.

“I told them that all the peripheral stuff should support their training,” Culpepper said. “I tried to distill everything down and keep it simple. It is all about the running. That was the goal; to establish that everything should be in line with supporting the training.

“More than anything, I wanted to keep it simple and to show them what I had done in the past, which was pretty straightforward, really.”

Culpepper was on a bicycle during the Sunday long run, handing out drinks and monitoring the runners while his wife, Shayne, herself a 2000 Olympian, passed by on her morning run. Lamour had to stop and walk a couple of times up the muddy hills just across Boulder Creek on the Teller Farm trail, but she and the others were all smiles later that afternoon as the group packed up to head back home.

Sitting in the comfortable Boulder townhome owned by former Japanese elites Tsutomu and Harumi Hiroyama, the marathoners looked refreshed. I recalled what coach Cassamajor said after Friday’s run:

“We have big dreams and are working hard to achieve those dreams.”

* * * 

Editor’s Note:

One World Running and Competitor donated shoes to the visiting Haitian runners and sent them home with more for other runners in Haiti. To donate shoes or running gear that will go to Haitian runners, send them to:

One World Running
6439 E. Arapahoe Rd.
Boulder, Colo., 80303

For details, call Ana Weir at (303) 261-5936 and email her at