Photo Rachel Link
Whilst struggling with severe depression six years ago, American Alison Mariella Désir discovered running. It saved her life and she ran her first marathon in 2012. The following year, in a bid to share her love of running and its benefits within her own community, in Harlem, NYC, Alison founded Harlem Run, a running movement with a vision to empower urban communities to get fit. Using the power of running as a vehicle for activism and social change, she went on to found Run 4 All Women to campaign for women’s issues such as reproductive rights.
I love what Alison is doing and I’m excited to have her on Lessons in Badassery via this short Q&A.
Tell me about your childhood – your nickname ‘Powdered Feet’ suggests you were a bundle of energy growing up?
I started running as a little girl, earning the Haitian Kreyol nickname ‘Powdered Feet’ from my father, which describes someone so active you never see them – just the footprints of where they’ve been in powder. However, my long distance journey began in 2012 when I was going through a really deep period of depression and felt like I had no purpose. I spent my days on social media and one day, I happened to see that a friend was training for a marathon. I kept following his journey, and his transformation really struck a chord with me. With nothing to lose, I decided to go out on a limb and try this impossible goal – I signed up for my first marathon in exchange for fundraising $3,500 for The Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society.
How did running help alleviate your depression?
What I found, almost immediately, is that running gave me a sense of structure and this sense of power over myself and it really changed my perspective. When I got to the finish line, the seeds were planted right then. I thought this could change so many lives. In November 2013, I launched Harlem Run with the hopes of sharing this experience – the transformative power of running – with my community. It would be about 4 months before anyone else showed up. Bit by bit, folks began to hear what I was doing and thanks to consistent effort, within a year we had over 100 people joining us on Monday and Thursday nights.
You went on to found Run 4 All Women – can you tell us about this?
Run for All Women started after the Presidential election. I wanted to get my community involved in a meaningful way to show up for what we believed in. The run to me was less about resisting the presidential election and more about taking action in support of the vision 3 million more folks voted for. I had this idea about running from Harlem to Washington DC (250 miles) for the Women’s March. I really wanted to do something meaningful with that, and that’s where the fundraising piece came in. I decided that I would fundraise for Planned Parenthood.
Women from all over the country and the world started reaching out, wanting to participate. We did not know any of these people. So, it was a huge leap of faith to set out on this 250-mile journey and hope that it would be supported. It was bigger than anything we ever could have imagined. There were people who were meeting us at 3am, people who were cancelling work, mothers who were bringing their kids with them, so they could be there the morning of the Women’s March. We made it there and there was this beautiful realisation that there’s so much power in running, and in community. When we left NYC, we had raised $70,000. By the time we arrived on the steps of the Capitol, we had raised $100,000.
What is it about running that you enjoy?
Running has transformed my life. In 2012, I was so depressed that I was regularly engaging in behaviour that could have meant I would not be here today; as in, sooner or later, taking too many sleeping pills would’ve killed me. Running has given me an opportunity to be alive, period. But beyond that, it has taught me discipline, resilience, and the power of community.
Are you training for any running events right now?
I’m currently training for the New York Marathon along with 100+ other members of Harlem Run.
What are your favourite places in New York to run?
My favourite places to run are in Harlem. We have beautiful parks uptown, lots of interesting street artwork, friendly faces on the streets and lots of great hills for training. I also enjoy running up and down the West Side highway for long runs and, on occasion, going across the GW bridge and running in The Palisades. When you’re there, you almost forget that you are just a few miles from NYC.
Are you working on any projects at the moment with Run 4 All Women and Harlem Run?
Our latest initiative is the Midterm Run. The Midterm Run is a national grassroots progressive initiative to raise money and awareness of candidates running to flip Congress by running (or walking) 2018 miles. The districts and races we’re focused on were picked because the progressive candidates in those races are committed to the Midterm Run’s core values regarding women’s health and women’s rights, common sense gun laws, LGBTQ issues, immigration rights, criminal justice reform, and healthcare. Run 4 All Women has partnered with Black Voters Matter on this initiative, which is an organisation that’s leading the way to motivate traditionally marginalised voters to Get Out the Vote (GOTV) during the Midterm Elections. We hope that folks around the US will join us during Midterm Run week, contribute to our fundraising, and/or organise their own events across the country. Visit midtermrun.com to join the movement.
Finally, we are planning some great retreats with Harlem Run that are open to folks everywhere so I look forward to seeing some new people with us, from beginner to fitness junkie, outside of New York at a retreat soon.
What’s on the horizon for you personally for the rest of the year?
On a personal level, I’m currently enrolled in yoga teacher training. I hope to incorporate yoga more into my life and use it as a tool to connect with others.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I am an Under Armour sponsored athlete.