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Hanover Graduate Running for a Reason

Former Hanover High athlete Georgia Griffin, right, trains for Bolivia's La Paz Marathon in Tunari National Park in March. Trailing Griffin are girls from the Corazon del Pastor orphanage in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where Griffin performs charity work. Courtesy photograph

Former Hanover High athlete Georgia Griffin, right, trains for Bolivia's La Paz Marathon in Tunari National Park in March. Trailing Griffin are girls from the Corazon del Pastor orphanage in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where Griffin performs charity work. Courtesy photograph

Georgia Griffin is an experienced distance runner, but she’d never performed in a race quite so enduring — or endearing.

Griffin, 24, placed sixth among all females with a time of 4 hours, 7 minutes and 8 seconds March 16 in Bolivia’s La Paz Marathon, a rollicking mountainside course featuring an elevation gain of nearly 1,500 feet. She ran to raise funding for a fitness program she conducts as part of her volunteer work with a charity in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

A former Hanover High cross country star who captured individual and team New England championships as a junior and senior, Griffin went on to compete at Stanford University, where she lettered for the Cardinal for three seasons, despite battling injuries, and sits in eighth place in program history in the 10,000-meter run (33:39).

Griffin graduated last June and is now a volunteer, caregiver and project director with Ninos Con Valor, whose mission is to create a “cycle of hope” for neglected Bolivian children through programs and initiatives in Cochabamba. Through that organization, she has helped children at two orphanages: one for girls and one for boys.

The Valley News recently corresponded with Griffin via email to talk about her charity work, the special relationships she has formed with Bolivian children and her motivations for running in her first marathon.

The following is an edited transcript of that correspondence.

VN: The La Paz Marathon had some drastic elevation changes and severe altitude. Were you able to find any similar terrain to train on in Cochabamba? How did you prepare yourself physically for such a race? Was there any way to truly prepare yourself for it?

GG: When I decided to run this marathon, I only had two months to train and did not know what I was getting into. Running has always made me feel empowered, but in Bolivia, I feel vulnerable running. Territorial street dogs, reckless drivers, noxious fumes, relentless cat-calling, and dodging water balloons during carnival season all make running here mentally taxing. Some cholitas (indigenous women) in the country just broke out in laughter when they saw me.

For training, I started from a base of 30 miles per week. I mixed in a long run once a week, which I extended each time. On the other days I trained as much as possible, which meant running to and from the girls’ and boys’ homes, and to friends’ houses for dinner.

The neighborhoods overlooking Cochabamba were among my favorite places to train. The air smells of earth and fire instead of exhaust and rubber, and Bolivian folk music emanates from of brick huts. Taking in the tranquility of country life became the bread and butter of my training.

VN: Tell me about the run itself. What were some of the biggest challenges?

GG: At sunrise, thousands of runners gathered in “El Prado,” the main drag that heads uphill through the center of La Paz. The energy was incredible. Everyone’s hands were in the air, jumping to the beat of the Bolivian national anthem. Confetti was flying and people were hugging. I felt honored to take part in this experience. My face actually hurt from smiling so much. Surprisingly, the gun went off exactly at 7 a.m. — almost nothing in Bolivia begins on time. My parents, who were watching the start, recounted later that dozens of Bolivians showed up fifteen minutes late and sprinted in pursuit of the pack.

Many people had warned me about running out of fuel, and I listened. I walked while I ate a snack at most available food stations. The biggest challenge was the downhill section after reaching El Alto, which shredded my quads and made it difficult to run uphill again. I told myself I had to make it to the end because the girls were waiting there.

I drew strength from people cheering. While Bolivian fans go crazy for soccer games, running is a newer sport to them, so they were a bit more tamed. If I smiled when someone cheered, however, their encouragement would get more enthusiastic. When I’d throw a few arm pumps, the crowd would join in.

Although I felt delirious, the final three kilometers of the race were a lot of fun. Friends who had completed the half marathon came back to cheer me on. They helped me focus and told me that the girls were waiting for me. I was injured for my final two years of competing in college, so it had been a long time since I pushed myself through that type of physical exertion.

VN: I understand some of the girls from the Corazon del Pastor (English translation: The Shepherd’s Heart) helped you with your fundraising efforts? What were some of the methods you employed?

GG: Bolivians are uncommonly warm and generous. That said, raising funds locally is difficult because people generally don’t have much to give. There is a stark class divide in Bolivia, which has surpassed Brazil as the country with the highest income inequality in South America. I see this contrast every day.

To me, an important part of the fundraising campaign was to include the girls in the process. We made T-shirts and flyers and our primary fundraising method was bake sales in parks and in the line outside of the immigration office. We sold hundreds of Bolivian-style bread rolls. At first, the girls were very timid and looked to me to explain in my bumbling Spanish about raising money for our fitness program. After a couple of sales, they gained confidence and took pride in what we were doing.

At home, generous contributions from family, friends, and the Upper Valley Running Club made it possible for the five girls to come to La Paz to watch the race. It was the first time any of the girls had visited their capital city and it was special for me to share this experience.

With the money we raised, we were able to purchase six used bikes and helmets, which the girls love. But there is so much more to do. We hope to raise funds for continuing excursions, such as taking public transportation to the start of a hike, playing racquetball, going swimming, and potentially funding self-defense classes for the girls.

VN: During your time with Ninos con Valor, you developed a special relationship with a boy named Alvaro who recently passed away. Tell me how that relationship developed.

GG: My motivation for the La Paz Marathon came from the kids in the orphanages. In the boys’ home, I’d been caring for Alvaro, a 2-year-old who struggled every day with a slew of health problems, including severe cerebral palsy, epilepsy, a compressed trachea and weakened immune system. Doctors repeatedly gave him less than a month to live. For two years, he fought to prove them wrong.

In January, Alvaro spent several harrowing weeks in the hospital with a serious skin infection. By his bedside, I resolved to do something to show solidarity in honor of his fervor for life and endurance of pain. I vowed to run the marathon for him. Unfortunately, Alvaro passed away on April 24, five weeks after the race. In his short life, he taught me more about conviction and compassion than I can explain.

For me, he epitomizes the tenacity of the human body and the power of human mind and spirit. Through all his suffering, Alvaro’s relentless will to survive inspired me to do all I could to improve his life. I will never forget him.

VN: For how much longer will you be working with Ninos con Valor? What are your goals for the rest of your time there?

GG: I have four more months in Cochabamba and am already feeling crunched for time. I hope to get the fitness program to a place where the girls will continue to enjoy exercise as a routine and important part of their day. Also, only 10 of the 25 girls know how to ride a bike, so I want to teach all who are interested to ride safely.

I also hope to continue to raise funds to support exercise-related programs, health, and wellness in both the boys’ and girls’ homes. Unfortunately, when budgets get tight, these are the first programs that get cut, so it will be important to find a more sustainable source of funding.

I am also working on creating gardens and composts in the homes, and educating about how to maintain them.

VN: What are your personal goals for the near future? Could you see yourself pursuing a career in humanitarianism? Are you headed back to school or coming back to Hanover?

GG: My experience in Bolivia has convinced me that I want to continue working in the health field and with kids. I hope to go to medical school next year and am particularly interested in pediatrics and under-served populations. I don’t know where that will take me, but I hope to return to Bolivia in the future as well.

VN: What’s your next running event? Do you plan to keep running competitively?

GG: I don’t know. I’m sure I will run another race or marathon sometime, when time and place feel right — maybe at sea level. But for now, I am too busy to think about it.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.