Seven years ago, Haiti suffered a massive setback when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake destroyed the country’s capital city, Port au Prince, resulting in over $7 billion in damages. Since then, poverty, corruption and a lack of basic education have made it difficult for even the most determined to get ahead. To this day, Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with 80 percent of its population living on less than $2 per day.
After learning about the Haitian catastrophe like the rest of the world, Pennsylvania native Ian Rosenberger felt compelled to get involved in the country’s restoration. What started as a volunteer trip, quickly turned into a life long commitment as Rosenberger went on to found an organization called Team Tassy that works to alleviate extreme poverty by creating employment opportunities for locals.
This year Team Tassy completed their 3nd annual Run Across Haiti ultra-marathon where 21 runners set out to tackle 230 miles in seven days. In total, the participants raised over $200,000 for the organization.
MiLLENNiAL caught up with Los Angeles native, Dr. Esther Park, O.D., a 33-year-old optometrist who was one of 10 to complete the cross country trek. She is part of a new generation of athletes triumphing the sport of ultra-running, and in this case, doing it for a great cause.
Training for Team Tassy’s Run Across Haiti
They say a “runner’s high” can be as addictive as any other drug. Once you get into the “flow” it can be mentally challenging to stop. In training for Run Across Haiti’s 230-mile stretch, Esther tells us that she started eight months out, running five to six days per week.
“In the early months, I ran 60-80 miles per week, then gradually increased up to 90-100 miles approaching the run,” she says. Spending three to four hours each day was typical for what Esther referred to as a “short run.” As the days got closer, her runs would last up to five hours. “I would start first thing in the morning – 3am or 4am, to beat the heat, and then get ready for work.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Esther studied Optometry at UC Berkley and moved back to Southern California to be with the Laser Eye Center. She is also the mother of a 7-year-old son who she says is one of her biggest supporters and inspirations.
Running wasn’t always apart of Esther’s life. It wasn’t until her college years that she would suffer a child nightmare – losing her mother. To cope with her tragedy, she turned to running. “It was a great way for me to stay stronger emotionally and physically. I started just going out there, and it helped me stay positive and gain more perspective on life and to just keep on going.”
Esther was first introduced to Team Tassy through the Koreatown Run Club. “One of the leaders there strongly encouraged me to apply to run and I started reading more about it…Haiti has always been close to my heart. When I heard about the cause of the run and that it was an ultra marathon, it clicked and I applied right away.”
Although she had tackled the LA & Chicago marathons, Esther confesses she faced a lot of judgment about her abilities to accomplish a marathon let alone nine in one week. But she turned this negativity into fuel that allowed her to push through the physical and mental barriers that would have otherwise prevented her from finishing her first ultra-marathon. “Finishing the run, it really proved to me that anything is possible.”
Seeing Haiti at 5mph
The run was structured to accomplish a little over 30 miles each day. When the runners landed, they were greeted by Team Tassy members and taken to their hotel. Call time would be as early as 3am where runners would have breakfast while going over the route. They started immediately after.
Esther confirms there was a checkpoint every 5k (or 3.1 miles) for water, snacks, or First Aid. Runners would try to beat the Haitian heat and humidity by finishing between 8-10am. The rest of the day would be spent recovering and enjoying the local culture. The next day the process would start all over again.
“All the runners were amazing. We were all equally tired and in pain, but the biggest thing I noticed from the 10 [that completed the race] was that there was a stronger spirit about them.” She says that while everyone was in a ton of pain, “we were the ones who weren’t complaining and who just kept going.”
In order to triumph over all odds, Esther explains that she kept repeating, “don’t stop, don’t complain, don’t cry, don’t let too much of the emotion come out, you need to push yourself physically.” She says this was the philosophy and the actions of the runners who led the pack. “They were solid and strong the whole time.”
MiLLENNiAL spoke with Team Tassy Executive Director, Vivien Luk, who explained how the non-profit’s run was not intended to pity Haiti but allow the world to embrace the beauty of the country and it’s people. “When you are running 5 mph you get to see Haiti in a whole new light. You’re hearing all the sounds, smelling all the smells, seeing all the children laughing.”
Luk says that being on the ground makes you understand that the poor want the same as everyone else. “They want a roof over their head, food on the table, education for their kids, and for the next generation to be better off than the last generation,” she adds.
More than a Run
Run Across Haiti is so much more than an ultra-marathon; it’s a way to be immersed in the faces, culture, and beauty of the country you are trying to help. The goal of the run was to raise money to fight poverty by finding employment opportunities for skilled and unskilled labor. “We can’t be there everyday. We can’t provide all the money. So by giving people jobs and providing education so that they can turn their lives around, that’s the key,” Esther says.
While moving through various villages and town markets, the runners would often attract the local children to run with them. One little boy even ran 40 minutes barefoot with the group. To capture her experience, Esther was the only participant to jog with her phone. “The children would run alongside me and they would get so excited to take a photo or be shown a video. They were so joyful.” She credits their beautiful smiles as what kept her going through some of the toughest parts of the run.
“When you do something this extreme, some people might not understand it, but doing something in faith makes sense only when you look at it backwards.” And for Esther, she believes a lot of these lessons will play out in her life. “[This run] really gives you the tools to be able to deal with things that we all struggle with, the struggles in life. It really helps you to stay strong and keep pushing.”
Luk describes just how impacting Run Across Haiti has been for Haitians. “The Run Across Haiti has allowed us to see that there is real need and growth available in the tourism industry.” Team Tassy is currently working with 150 family members and employed three families to assist with the run. “This was the first time they were able to see parts of their country they had never seen before.”
The Team Tassy Community
Out of a desire to be the solution to the Haitian humanitarian crisis came an organization that now provides a variety of services to educate and help create sustained livelihoods. Luk explains the organization provides “wrap-around” services.
“We start by getting our families out of the hole,” Luk says, “when we first meet our families, there tends to be large debts and urgent medical needs, so we work together on these major needs first before we move onto longer term access to medical care, putting the kids back in school, and job training and placement.” She adds that these services are intended to get families out of the hole and into sustained jobs.
Haiti might not be at the top of your destination list, but as Esther suggests, “you come back with a greater appreciation and perspective on life.” To learn more about Team Tassy or apply for the 4rd Annual 2018 Run Across Haiti Tour, visit TeamTassy.org.