As a nation, Haiti isn’t the first place to come to mind when you think of deeply ingrained running cultures. In fact, according to accomplished ultrarunner and author Dean Karnazes, the idea of running for pleasure is a foreign concept to Haitians who, in many cases, are simply struggling to survive. Yet running also has the ability to unite people.
Karnazes was one of 20 people who ventured to Haiti in February for the 2016 Run Across Haiti, a benefit for Team Tassy—a charitable organization founded by Ian Rosenberger in 2010. In addition to being Team Tassy’s largest fundraiser, the run is meant to be a vehicle to help end poverty through job training and placement.
Further, a new documentary short film released on June 1, follows Karnazes and his teammates on their 230-mile, eight day running odyssey from the northernmost tip of Haiti in Cap Haitian to it’s most southerly point in Jacmel. Unlike many adventure films, this one doesn’t have a crisp, happy ending. Haiti is impoverished, polluted and deforested, with no easy solution in sight.
“Haiti is so perfectly fucked up, you can’t imagine anyplace being worse,” says Karnazes, who, months after his return, is still overcome with emotion when recalling his Haitian experience. “Running in Haiti was the most hideously beautiful experience I’ve had in my life, and I’ve run all over the world. It wrecked my body, yet cleansed my soul.”
Karnazes also shared that Rosenberger is a “can-do guy” and just the person to tackle a seemingly unsolvable problem, like poverty in Haiti.
Rosenberger first visited Haiti in 2010 after the devastating, magnitude 7.0 earthquake. While there he met Tassy Fils-aime, who, at the time, had a life-threatening tumor. Rosenberger and his friends worked to bring Tassy to the U.S. and get him the treatment he needed. Once Tassy returned home, Rosenberger and his friends were pleased with what they helped accomplish, but they also realized their happiness was about them, not about affecting a bigger change in Haiti. That’s when they developed the model for Team Tassy, with a focus on helping one neighborhood at a time.
The group held their first Run Across Haiti in 2015, and it has since become the organization’s biggest fundraiser. Tassy was one of seven people to complete the initial run. Now a student at LaRoche College in Pittsburgh, Tassy joined the cross-country team to train for the run.
“It gave him a chance to see his country very intimately for the first time,” says Team Tassy Executive Director, Vivien Luk, of Tassy’s run. “The experience made him proud to be Haitian. We want to show that this isn’t a place to be scared of or pitied.”
According to Rosenberger, what makes the experience so unique and impactful is being on the ground and experiencing Haiti by foot, at six miles per hour.
“You take your vulnerability and set it against the noise, and smell and heat and poverty of Haiti, and you are able to experience it in a way that is completely unique,” says Rosenberger, who developed the idea for Run Across Haiti while running the Sahara Race in Namibia. “Prejudice and stereotypes are all stripped away, and you’re forced to confront what you thought about a place and the people who live there with what you now know about them. It’s intense, and beautiful and really effing scary.”
Seven out of 20 runners on the 2016 Run Across Haiti covered all the miles. As shown in the film, many became ill, overcome with exhaustion and overwhelmed in general. Hillary Allen, a fellow ultrarunner for The North Face with Karnazes, was one of the athletes who fell ill.
“People are reduced to nothing in Haiti, survival is their concern. Yet, they remain joyful, strong and resilient,” says Allen who battled not only being sick, but also the daily mental struggle of feeling as though what she was doing was trivial in comparison to what Haitians endure. “All that being said, the run allowed me to contribute and help, albeit in a small way. I want to use running as a means to help others, even if it is to bring awareness to distant communities.”
According to Karnazes, everyone in their group shared similar mental and physical struggles, making the collective experience all the more powerful.
“Our group bonded in the way people do when they experienced shared suffering, probably similar to what Haitians experience during daily survival,” says Karnazes. “Team Tassy is working, and we saw the direct impact. There’s just so much to be done.”
The 2016 run raised more than $140,000. Next year’s 2017 Run Across Haiti is in the works, and the goal is to have upwards of 50 runners, with a fundraising goal of $200,000. As the run grows, it also becomes a local job creator in Haiti.
“We’re beginning to train work-ready family members for paid positions on the 2017 crew,” Luk says. “The bigger the run gets, the more we can invest in jobs and the local economy. We’ll grow it according to our ability to run this logistically.”
Further isn’t going to leave viewers with warm and fuzzy feels. Instead it opens up the possibility for conversations about the state of the world, affecting change through sport and understanding other cultures. It also gives an intimate, albeit abbreviated, sampling of what it’s like to run across Haiti, minus the olfactory overload, constant noise and some of the chaos—which Karnazes likened to being in a Mad Max movie.
“Beyond telling their friends and family how beautiful and amazing Haiti is, I hope the run sets a foundation for how we think a dialogue about poverty should begin,” Rosenberger says of what he hopes people take away from the run. “Over the course of a week spent running more than 200 miles with strangers, you learn that rich or poor, we all want the same things: a roof over our heads and our kids to have a better life than we did. If people cross the finish line having felt that, even for a minute, we’ll have done our job.”
To learn more, go to teamtassy.org.