When a 7.3-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti on the afternoon of Jan 12, 2010, it destroyed thousands of buildings, killed or injured hundreds of thousands and left many more homeless.
It did not, however, knock out the will to run of five Haitian runners and their coach, who have persevered through tough conditions in their home of Port-au-Prince as they prepare for the Nov. 2 New York City Marathon.
The group was in Boulder for the weekend to work with two-time Olympic marathoner Alan Culpepper during their marathon buildup. Sponsored in part by the Sean Penn-founded J/P Haitian Relief Organization, which has worked in Haiti since the earthquake, the marathoners show the passion and dedication common to runners around the world.
And what fuels that dedication in a country struggling to rebuild not just from the 2010 earthquake, but from disasters of other kinds?
“I love to run a lot. If I don’t run, I feel bad for the day,” Carline Lamour said through her translator, Geraldine Staco of J/P HRO. Lamour is a university student in Port-au-Prince and, at 22, is the youngest of the group.
Despite arriving late Thursday night, the runners were upbeat and energetic, as Culpepper found out during an “easy” eight-miler on the South Boulder Creek trail Friday morning. The runners flowed smoothly, with the easy gaits of well-trained athletes. The first three in, Petrus Cesarion, Jean Macksony and Astrel Clovis, ran about 50 minutes, followed by Culpepper a couple of minutes later.
“I got worked,” Culpepper said of the pace that dropped down to near 6 minutes a mile, before walking over and patting Cesarion on the back, saying, “Good job.”
Said Culpepper, “They obviously have aerobic talent. There is a lot of hidden talent in Haiti, and my hope is to help them understand what it takes to compete at a high level.”
Clovis, 44, is the most experienced of the group. He has a personal best of 2 hours, 36 minutes in the marathon and helped get the group together when J/P HRO decided to bring some Haitian marathoners to the 2013 New York City marathon. He was the first selected, with the rest finishing high in a half-marathon in Port-au-Prince to earn team spots.
Bertine Laine, 32, said she started way back in the pack last year at New York, forcing her to spend most of the race weaving her way through the throngs on her way to a 3:14 clocking. She dropped that to 3:09 at the Miami Marathon in February.
“This year they will start with the elites,” said team coach Gerard Cassamajor. He went on to say there has been a lull in Haitian running since the 1980s, and he and his runners talk about bringing Haiti once more into international competitions.
“We have big dreams and are working hard to achieve those dreams,” he said.
There will be much to overcome along the way. Training is “very difficult,” running on crowded streets through traffic, said Clovis, adding that he sometimes gets “teased” while running through Port-au-Prince, the capital.
Clovis lived for a time in a tent city called Guatemala after the earthquake, and getting proper nutrition can be a problem. But all that is no deterrent to his training because he is running for a bigger goal.
“I want to change the image of Haiti,” he said, speaking in Creole as did all the runners. “To give a better image of my country and to show there is value in Haiti.”
The five came to running in different ways. Clovis began playing soccer when he was young and took up serious training about 10 years ago because he has a natural desire to run.
Laine started running when she applied to the police academy, while Lamour discovered her talent at 15, when she placed second in a school race behind her cousin, who encouraged her to start running when she was 13.
Now, it is J/P HRO, coach Cassamajor and Culpepper, among other supporters, who are encouraging these runners, and through them perhaps more young Haitians to come.
“It is nice to see an Olympian,” said Clovis, speaking of Culpepper, who competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympic 10,000 meters and the marathon in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
Does Clovis think of one day making it to the Olympics? After a moment’s pause, he says, “perhaps.”
But there is no hesitation in Laine’s voice when she responds with an emphatic: “Oui!”
Spending a short time with these runners certainly made me want to root for them, in New York City, their running careers and, especially, in their lives. They have the spirit that, if given a chance, can help rebuild a nation.