Three days after driving to the Cherry Capital Airport in northern Michigan, USA, for his first trip to Africa, Norm Plumstead is about to start running 250 miles across Ethiopia, the equivalent of almost 10 marathons. Temperatures will reach the mid-80s, with few trees offering relief from the harsh Saharan sun, and the altitude will average 6,200 feet.
In Hase Gola, villagers celebrate their new school.
At the finish line, no one will hand out medals or record his time. Instead, he’ll meet the Ethiopian coffee farmers who want to thank him for what he and his fellow fundraisers are doing: helping to build schools for their children.
The Run Across Ethiopia will raise more than $200,000 from over 850 individual and group donors – enough to build three schools. The project will serve a total of 1,560 students, provide jobs for 40 Ethiopian teachers, and transform neighboring communities.
Plumstead, 39, a member of the Rotary Club of Traverse Bay Sunrise, Mich., and vice president of Honor Bank, finished a 100-mile ultramarathon in Wisconsin but had never run with a group for charity. “Running has always been a solitary and selfish act, because of the time I’ve spent away from family,” he says. “This is a way for me to put my running to good use and help others instead of just improving my time.”
A few months earlier, Chris Treter, a coffee importer in Traverse City, had shown Plumstead Black Gold, an award-winning documentary about coffee farmers in Ethiopia’s Yirgacheffe region – where, according to legend, coffee was discovered in the ninth century by a goat herder. The farmers earn less than $1 a day and see almost none of the profits from the $80 billion worldwide coffee industry.
Though Treter’s Higher Grounds Trading Company and a network of other North American coffee importers pay “fair trade” wages – a certain amount per pound above market value – through a cooperative featured in the film, fair trade prices alone will never lift rural Yirgacheffe communities out of poverty, Treter says. So, in late 2009, he founded the nonprofit On the Ground to help the farmers. Working with Tadesse Meskela, the coffee cooperative director featured in the film, he dreamed up the January 2011 run in Ethiopia as the first fundraiser and used the documentary to help sell the effort.
Plumstead quickly signed on. Rotary clubs in Michigan and other contributors helped him raise the $15,000 required to join the team. “You can define a community as your neighbors, or you can expand it to include everyone who plays a part in your life. And that includes the farmers who grow your coffee beans,” he says.
It has been less than 24 hours since Plumstead, Treter, and eight other runners – a financial management consultant, a pizzeria owner, a Spanish-language interpreter, a land-use activist, a police officer, a gym trainer, an Ohio Wesleyan University track star, and an organic sugar tycoon – disembarked in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. They meet six young Ethiopian runners from Team Tesfa, a local charity for street children, who join them on their journey.
Though one of the world’s poorest countries, Ethiopia is home to some of the fastest runners, including the legendary marathoner Haile Gebrselassie. Most of its champions start young, running miles, barefoot, to distant schools and wells. Gebrselassie is renowned for his unique form: He crooks his left arm as if carrying books, as he did on his daily 12-mile sprint to school and back.
The runners warm up with a 6-mile jog in the thin air of the Entoto Mountains, considered the world’s premier training ground by serious marathoners. They run down two-track roads, across dried-up riverbeds, and through fields of golden teff, the grain used to make injera, a spongy bread that is Ethiopia’s staple food. The fresh aroma of eucalyptus forests and sweet berbere spice permeates the air as the runners pass ancient monasteries and sacred shrines in the hills overlooking the capital.
That night, Meskela hosts a send-off party. Guests include Ethiopian superstars Derartu Tulu, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the nation’s all-time best female runner, and Million Wolde, a Sydney Olympic Games gold medalist.
In the morning, the team members begin their run, which will take them south into the Great Rift Valley and up through the highlands of Yirgacheffe.
- Day 1: 20 miles
Wolde surprises the team at the starting line, on an industrial stretch of highway outside downtown Addis Ababa. He poses for a photo, then jogs about 50 yards to help start the run. Otherwise, there’s none of the fanfare that many of the runners are accustomed to – just two support vans full of bottled water and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, along with a few dozen onlookers. Soon, a thick haze of smoke from the city descends on the runners.
- Day 2: 28 miles
The team leaves at 8 a.m., passing a group of children in uniform on their way to school. One of the smallest boys, carrying his book bag, breaks away and runs with the team for nearly a mile, until he arrives at his school and waves goodbye with a big smile. He is the first of dozens of children and adults who join the runners for a mile or two each day.
By late morning, the urban grit gives way to fields of teff. The runners pass herds of cattle and families living in straw huts, who are astounded to see a contingent of ferengis (Westerners) jogging by.
- Day 3: 30 miles
On the first of four consecutive 30-mile days, the runners can choose between the hard pavement of the road and the roadside dirt, strewn with loose stones and long, spiky acacia thorns.
Two miles into the run, team member Hans Voss, executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, sprains his ankle but doesn’t tell anyone until he has finished the next 28 miles. “I’m sure I’ve had tougher days,” he says. “I just don’t know when. But it’s nothing compared to the challenges that people in this country face every day.” He sits out the next day.
- Day 4: 30 miles
The team runs through the African savannah. Plumstead, one of the most experienced runners, is struggling. The daily diet of injera disagrees with him – he can’t keep down much water or food. “In addition to the mileage,” he says as he runs, “it’s darned hard to be out in the equatorial sun for six or seven hours straight.” And the altitude is increasing. Plumstead keeps his head down and kicks one foot in front of the other. “I just stare ahead at the heels of different team members and follow them home. If I were just one athlete, even with all the logistical support, I don’t think I could do this.” The runners’ spirits are buoyed by the villagers who run with them, sometimes for miles.
- Days 5-6: 30 miles each
By the end of Day 5, the exhausted runners are no longer sticking together, although running as a group helps protect them from heat exhaustion, injury, errant trucks, and animal attacks, among other hazards.
On Day 6, the team members awaken before 5 a.m., determined to start while it’s still cool. They limp to the bus, many with toes bound in tape and knees wrapped in gauze, for a predawn breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and more peanut butter and jelly. No one has slept well. They run in a much tighter group than yesterday, stopping in the city of Awassa in the Sidamo region.
- Days 7-8: 15 miles each
As the runners head south, they begin to see the worst signs of poverty: children with no clothes, their stomachs distended from hunger, each rib visible.
The route plotted by Treter takes them near the villages that On the Ground seeks to help. Runner Bill Palladino blogs: “There was some worry early on that this might look like a phalanx of white do-gooders running through Africa so they could throw down a big check. We addressed this through comprehensive conversations and partnerships with the organizations, communities, and people this project would impact.”
The long-mileage days are behind them, but now the runners are heading into the highlands, including a 2-mile run up one hill. They recover at Aregash Lodge, a collection of round bamboo huts overlooking lush green forests.
- Days 9-10: 16 miles and 12 miles
Refreshed, the team members are ready for the hilly coffee country of the Yirgacheffe region. When they arrive on Day 10 in Hase Gola, where the first of two schools is under construction, thousands of Ethiopians wait at the end of an almost-impassible two-track road. They swarm the runners, singing, clapping, dancing, and playing hand-crafted musical instruments.
Meskela and Treter explain how each school will accommodate 650 students from surrounding communities. After the speeches, the team members tour the new school building and are treated to injera and a plate of fresh raw meat, dipped in berbere spice.
- Days 11-12: 18 miles and 6 miles
The group’s final stop is Afursa Waro, a rural village outside the town of Yirgacheffe, where Treter’s company has supported an existing school for several years. Thousands of villagers hold a second celebration. Seven of the team’s 10 runners, including Plumstead, have completed the entire 250-mile journey.
Back home in Michigan, Plumstead has joined the board of On the Ground, which is raising funds for ongoing education and water projects for fair-trade communities in Ethiopia; Chiapas, Mexico; and Palestine. In September, two board members visited Ethiopia to monitor projects and assess needs, and next month, a team will begin a Run Across Palestine to help families of olive growers. This time, Plumstead is devoting his time to support and fundraising.
“It’s real now,” he says of his experience in Ethiopia. “It inspires you to do more, to work harder.”