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White men can run: A report from Run Across Ethiopia

Anne Stanton - January 17th, 2011
White Men Can Run: A report from Run Across Ethiopia 1/17/11
By Anne Stanton
On January 5, six runners left Traverse City to “Run Across Ethiopia”
-- an 11-day, 250-mile (plus) ultra-marathon conceived by Chris
Treter, who buys coffee beans from farmers in Southern Ethiopia. They
run at elevations of 6,000-7,700 feet in temperatures ranging up to
115 degrees.
There are 10 runners in all, and each had to raise $15,000, a sum that
would pay their expenses, with the remainder — about $11,000 — going
toward building three schools in a corner of the world where there is
currently scant hope for a better life.
The runners were joined (at their own expense) by other Traverse City
folks, including myself from Northern Express Weekly. I’ve been
updating people back home via my Facebook page. The following are
excerpts of what I’ve seen and experienced in landlocked Ethiopia, the
second most populous country on the African continent. Half the
population, incredibly, is age 14 or younger. There aren’t many
elderly here, with longevity averaging around 46 years of age.

As background, Treter is the owner of Higher Grounds Coffee, which
pays a “fair trade” price for coffee beans in developing countries.
Treter believes a living wage is the only way out of generational
poverty, but only about 10% of Ethiopian coffee bean farmers receive
fair price. But even a living wage won’t completely solve poverty,
which is why he founded On the Ground. It’s a nonprofit business that
Treter launched to help communities with water, schools, and health
Treter has teamed up with an Ethiopian man, Tadesse Meskala, who has
organized the coffee bean farmers into a union called the Oromia
Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union. Meskala, one of the few heavy men
you’ll meet in Ethiopia, and who appears to have a cell phone
continuously connected to his ear, has been instrumental in organizing
the run’s logistics.
Some Traverse City folks have criticized the fund-raising project as a
waste of money. Why pay airfare when the money could be better used to
— well, build even more schools? The answer isn’t easy, but Treter
says you can only create change by developing genuine relationships
and airfare is a small price to pay. The lives of both peoples are
changed in a way that’s difficult to describe as compared to sending a
check to an unknown organization.
Following are excerpts from Anne Stanton’s Facebook page as she
follows the runners on their trek. To see pictures and video of the
ongoing event, go to

First day in Ethiopia • Friday, January 7 • 10:26am

So today we went to a Catholic charities home for children and adults
who have HIV, tuberculosis, all kinds of maladies. Ohmygod, what an
experience. These children just loved to be loved. I had my reporter’s
notebook, and they drew pictures and ripped off the page and gave to
(singer-songwriters) Seth and May Erlewine, who were singing for
It was Christmas today, so we tried singing Christmas songs for them,
and they sang Christmas songs for us. Women drummed, we all danced, me
holding this little guy (who I think was a girl but wasn’t exactly
sure, but had the biggest smile I’ve ever seen), and then I left and
just cried for all the people there. They were not in good shape, and
I mean NOT in good shape, but well taken care of.
Some of the patients were giving other patients IV. Some were so down
and out, they didn’t want to look at us. But I am telling you,
bringing Seth and May on this trip was a stroke of genius. The people
LOVED them. The head sister told us that the men patients liked
Michael Jackson, so Seth and May came up with a couple Michael Jackson
tunes. You would not believe their huge smiles. The little kids put on
sunglasses and strutted around.
Tomorrow, the runners are going to do a little run in the Entoto
Mountain, and, yes, I will go with them. They are worried that the
Ethiopian runners, who are going with us, will not be able to hold
themselves back. Anyway, weather is perfect and I am so grateful I am

2nd day in Ehtiopia • January 8 • 8:56am

So far, nobody sick. Matt Desmond accidentally bit himself on the
finger falling down, Mary Moore got a blister from her new Tevas, and
May Erlewine was actually feeling queasy during yesterday’s
performance (unbeknownst to anyone). But no one violently ill.
Last night we went to an Ethiopian restaurant that is famous for its
food and dancers. A very nice place. So the tradition is that you wash
up before the meal. The waiter brings you liquid soap, a pitcher of
hot water and a bowl, and everybody scrubs up for the meal. Which is
the same every time.
This weird bread, enjara, that has the texture of those round things
that you use when you can’t open a lid (kind of stickyish), beige,
with lots of holes. It sort of reminds me of coral reef, only, as I
said, it’s beige... So the enjara is rolled up like a roll of medical
tape, and served on a tray of a different variety of foods to eat it
with--spinach, green beans, hummus, etc. But it’s the same variety
every time. So how happy I was to go to a restaurant today where they
served PASTA. Yeah.
… We drove up to the Entoto Mountain where the 10 runners and maybe
six Ethiopians ran together for the first time. I stayed back and hung
out with the 10-year-old goat herder and other little kids. The
altitude was 10,500 feet, and, okay, I did not think I could do it.
But Jacob Wheeler, another reporter, did and kept up. He said he was
thankful for a gang of baboons showing up, giving them a rest as they
watched them (they ran away, didn’t attack).

Interesting things I saw out of my bus window in Addis Ababa • January
8 • 9:27am

- Boys playing on a soccer field, kicking the ball among goats and cows.
- A guy walking down the street behind what appeared to be a Brahmin bull.
- Large round sticks used for scaffolding instead of metal.
- These funny horse taxis, with big black rubber wheels and the driver
sitting on a wooden kind of cart.
- Houses slabbed together with corrugated metal for walls and roofs and fences.
- There are all kinds of VW buses used for public transportation (seat
12 or so) and they are filled to the brim.
- Only have seen one burkha.
- A horse walking down the road--by itself. (and, yes, you will see
the occasional horse walking right down the street).
- The Ethiopians love their scarves, even men. No one wears shorts. In
fact, for 75 degree weather people here dress really warm.
- A Beyonce poster on a bus window that got everyone in our bus excited.
- A woman who had made a permanent home out of a pile of rocks.
- A throng of crippled and sick and elderly in wheelchairs hanging in
front of church compounds. I was told that if you don’t have someone
to take care of you in the hospital (as in to empty your bed pan,
change your sheets, get you dressed), you are not admitted. Churches
appear to be the social services agency. Not to be political, but I
would ask anyone who is really sincere about eliminating Social
Security and Medicare to please visit this country.

Part Three: The Snap In The Middle Of The Road • January 10 • 2:19pm

Today, the team ran 28 miles (amazing), and I ran six (four, then one,
then one), and it was hotter than hell. Poor Claire wasn’t feeling
well at all and STILL ran 28 miles. As we were running out of town,
this little guy in a school uniform broke away from his friends and
ran with us, smiling and laughing -- he was running fast, and just as
I was getting worried about him, he ran up the driveway to his school.
It was like that the whole run, little guys joining us, some even
A “runner’s bus” follows the runners, and stops every 30 minutes with
water, and every hour with some kind of sustenance. Even so, two of
the runners “bonked” because they didn’t eat enough food. Every day,
there’s a kind of recap meeting where we discuss what went right and
wrong, and everyone unanimously agreed we need an earlier start
because of the heat.
 …There were times today when I was the only white person on the bus
with eight of the Ethiopians, who were rocking out with the Ethiopian
music and chatting, chatting. The runners, of course, are rock-hard.
Two of the Ethiopian women went ahead of the group (probably
frustrated with the pace), and ran all the way into town, at which
point another Ethiopian had to come and find them. They were kind of
“timed-out” today on the bus but will run again tomorrow…

Day three of the run • January 11 • 12:50pm

… Claire is better today and ran the entire 30 or so miles. Ah, to be
young. Wait, I was young, and I never ran 30 miles. It is interesting
to be around serious runners. They are a rare breed who talk about
peeing and pooping as easily as you might talk about the weather. Who
is constipated, who is having the runs… You pee (or poop) as necessary
by the road, so you always have a tissue in your pocket. Thankfully,
Ethiopians out in the country do too, so they don’t find it strange.
Today an Ethiopian runner got hit by the runs, and, yes, she did the
entire run, which was about 29 miles. And then there’s 30 miles the
next day, and the next, and the next. Then the miles will stop
And today, it got hard for some of us. I couldn’t run more than a mile
or two at a time, although I’m not sure why...
Once we were out of the city, we were faced with a choice. Run on the
smooth, hard pavement, or down on the trail that’s riddled with stones
and acacia, a thorny bush that’s all over the place. I chose the trail
and within about 10 minutes, poor Chris Girrbach (a phenomenal runner,
btw) stepped on a thorn. One of the Ethiopian guys was able to pull it
out. Chris decided to save it for a nose piercing. Kidding.
Even though you’re out in the country, there are still all kinds of
people along the road. One woman was shaping liquid poop into these
perfectly round, pizza pan sized circles that I imagine they must use
to burn as fuel.
Later on in the day, the runners went by a lake, where there was a
fruit market and we bought 5 watermelons to split up for the runners.
We also stopped near a little village for a lunch break. We usually
draw a few people to the bus when we stop, but there was quite a crowd
at this little village. I usually take pictures of the folks at the
stops and show them the picture, and it’s fun. But got a little hairy
at this little village. At the end of the stops, we give out water
bottles, which the villagers like because they need it to transport
water. But it was hot, and there was some tension, and one of the men
pulled out a switch (that they use on donkeys) and started waving it
around (not using it)—I guess it’s the version of Ethiopian crowd

Wednesday Day Four of the Run • January 12 • 8:02am

Chris Treter made a joke that it’s Groundhog Day. Just like yesterday,
three of the group got up to make breakfast of peanut butter and jelly
sandwiches, coffee, and bottled water. The runners gathered in front
of a motel room at 5:30 a.m.
The motel rooms were rough — someone compared them to a Nigerian
prison with no toilet lids and very little light. Luckily, I was at a
different motel room across the street and had hot water, a working
toilet with a lid, and a really comfortable bed. Unfortunately, it
sounded like dozens of dogs were engaged in civil war during the night
and I did NOT get enough sleep…
So we clean up breakfast as best we can. There are no washcloths, so I
use toilet paper, the cleaning material of choice. We move quickly
because the runners want to get out as soon as possible before the day
heats up. Hard to imagine when everyone at home is shoveling snow and
This is the fourth day of the run, and the plan is to run 30 miles
today, 30 tomorrow and 30 the next day. Hans Voss (Traverse City), who
sprained his ankle in the second mile, but still ran the next 28 miles
yesterday, decided to sit out today’s run. Actually his ankle decided.
It was decidedly bruised and swollen, but he could easily walk.
Almost all the runners have red, swollen lower lips—a result of
putting sunscreen on their lips with their lips closed and then
holding their mouths open as they run. The bus driver this morning
plays pop songs that you’d hear on WKLT, and the bus was rocking, with
Nigel (the oldest and one of the best runners from Texas) doing a
hilarious dance.
I join the run first thing since it’s cool, and I’m a heat wimp. Three
or four miles later after viewing ENORMOUS ant hills, about half the
size as the stick houses, I climb back on. The team is running like a
well-oiled machine with fewer bathroom stops, and a much quicker pace
through the water and food stops.
At mile 12, Dena Piecuch, a pretty 29 year-old blonde from South
Carolina, climbs on. She is spent and not happy about it. She had
trained in 115-degree heat, but the Ethiopian altitude is getting to
her. That and maybe not eating and drinking enough on day 2, due to
the fact she isn’t crazy about Ethiopian food.
The run is harder than she thought, much harder and longer than
originally planned, but she wanted to do it for the kids, and she’s
visibly moved by what she sees outside the window. Because on this
day, it’s clear the families are in much more dire straits than the
first few days. We see our first naked bottoms, and the little ones
are wearing dusty clothes that are shredded from wear...
The bus? Not so fun. Which is a great impetus for me to get off and
run, which I find VERY hard in the heat. And the reason why is that
the bus draws a crowd. When it pulls over, kids run after us like
American kids run after an ice cream truck, and with as much passion.
Mamush, our gentle and intuitive Ethiopian medic, explains to those
who appear that we are raising money for schools. One kid amongst
maybe a group of 20 turned to me and said, “No school,” and pointed to
the others. Like, while you’re at it, can you help us out here too?
As we drove away, Dena pointed to a girl who looked no taller than my
six-year-old son. She was carrying a baby on her back, using her hands
behind her as a cradle. I was really overwhelmed. Chris Girrbach,
another Traverse City runner, keeps saying these kids have no
childhood. As soon as they walk, they are put to work. I thought,
well, American kids could use a little more of that, but Chris is
right. I saw them out at 7 a.m., their staffs in hand and guiding
cows, donkeys and bulls. They don’t seem unhappy, to tell you the
truth, but life has become a matter of survival.
Yesterday we gave the kids empty water bottles and they were
satisfied. Today, they weren’t. They wanted water, and they really
wanted it badly. We gave them food, but quickly found it created a
food fight that you didn’t want to be in the middle of. We quickly
concluded that it was easiest to give the food to the eldest in the
crowd and ask him to pass it out. And then we climbed on the bus,
quickly, and drove away. I haven’t been doing the picture thing as
much, because the crowds were bigger today and a lot hungrier. Chris
told me that the coffee bean people are in even worse shape, which is
hard to believe…

Look for part II of Anne Stanton’s report from Ethiopia in the next
issue of the Express.

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