By Terecille Basa-Ong ’03
If you think that running is a solitary sport for grim, driven people, you need to meet Alison Désir ’03. She is the founder of Harlem Run, a community running club that brings together dozens—sometimes upwards of 100—people for running sessions on the streets of Harlem a couple times a week. Open to all ages and abilities, Harlem Run is a way for people to connect, to feel good about themselves, and to be a positive force in the community. Harlem Run’s two most important rules are “Have fun” and “Bring a friend.”
Participants often refer to the club as “a family.” But Harlem Run has also been called “a movement,” “a vehicle for social change and empowerment,” and—by one clever headline writer—“the Harlem Run-aissance.” Featured in social media and such mainstream media as Runner’s World, Black Fitness Today, ABC7 Eyewitness News, NY1, the TCS NYC Marathon site and espnW, Harlem Run is so famous that tourists visiting New York looking for a more authentic experience have been known to join a session. Désir herself is not interested in the limelight. She’s just a person who has recognized—through the ups and downs of her own life—the power of running to bring happiness and fulfillment, and she wants to share that with others.
Running first brought joy to Désir in elementary school. She was that girl who would race the boys at recess and beat them all. As a new sixth grader at D-E, Désir found her niche by joining the Middle School’s soccer and track teams. “Doing sports was a way to feel comfortable at Dwight; being a strong athlete was a way to connect with the community,” she explains.
Later, as an Upper School athlete, she was the fastest girl on both the soccer and track teams. Engaged in more than sports, she was often seen to be literally running from class to club meetings to soccer/track practice and to rehearsals of Jazz Rock. Many in the community will remember her soulful voice enchanting audiences at concerts. “I really liked schoolwork, but I really liked the release I was having from running and soccer, and especially the team aspect of it,” she says, noting, “The coaches were your friends—that’s one thing I really liked about Dwight.”
Désir remembers the late Jerald Krauthamer, both as her AP English teacher and as a track coach. “He was always so focused and meticulous, and so calm,” she says about Kraut the teacher. He was “passionate about what he was doing.” Although Kraut worked more closely with the distance runners and field athletes, Désir says, “You wanted Kraut’s attention as he was tracking people’s time and was a stickler for detail. I remember feeling that when Kraut spoke to you, you listened.” Reflecting now, she believes that they were kindred spirits in way: “A lot of the reason I run, I owe to him.”
After D-E, Désir opted not to participate in athletics at Columbia University. Graduating in 2007, she worked as a paralegal at a law firm, and then went back to Columbia to obtain a master’s degree in Latin American & Caribbean Studies in 2011. But not all was well. A bad relationship, the lack of an ideal job, and her father’s ever-worsening dementia helped to plunge her into depression.
Starting to run again in early 2012 changed everything. A friend’s brother had recently run the San Diego Rock n’ Roll Marathon in June as a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Désir was inspired by his accomplishment and began months of training for her first marathon fundraising for the same organization. She says it was “the first time that I felt as good about myself as I had in high school. I had an actual goal to work towards.”
She began blogging—about her depression, about her training, and about raising money for a good cause. She called her blog “powderedfeet.com” after a nickname her parents had given her based on a Haitian Kreyol expression. (To be a “powdered foot” is to be an adventurer who is always moving and only leaves behind footprints.) After six months, Désir raised more than $5,000 and had come to the realization that being honest about her depression was helping her and others, too. “Having depression is not something that should be a secret. By me sharing my story, other people feel comfortable sharing as well.”
Désir ended up running five races in 2012, and there was no turning back. Having gained a following as a blogger, she wanted to do something more tangible. In the fall of 2013 she started the Powdered Feet Run Club, which became Harlem Run a year later. Early on, she would be ecstatic if one person showed up; but social media began to spread the word, and soon a core group of runners began attending. After the May 2015 HarlemRun.com launch party, 30 runners came. Warmer weather brought out even more runners, sometimes as many as 100 to 150. The phenomenon caught the attention of the local media and, eventually, also the notice of a billion-dollar sportswear company. Harlem Run now boasts a partnership with Under Armour.
“Under Armour was interested in fact that it was community based, authentic, gritty, and an underdog,” Désir explains. “With the Under Armour partnership—providing gear, event support, product, and opportunities—Under Armour sees us as brand ambassadors, bringing Under Armour into the community and connecting with people.”
Last year, Désir began to think of how her work with Harlem Run could be incorporated into a career path. She is currently a master’s degree student at Teachers College of Columbia University. She says, “I applied to the counseling program under the premise of creating interventions that are both fitness-related and mental health-related.”
About Harlem Run, she says, “It blows my mind that what was just an idea looking for people in my neighborhood became so much more than that, and has inspired people to try things they didn’t think they’d try.” She adds, “That’s why I view running as a vehicle for social change. Running brings us together, but it’s so much more than that. We’re a community of people who are conscious about what’s healthy and safe. The key with Harlem Run is telling people’s stories, sharing experiences and creating conditions for social change.”
Thinking back to herself as a high school athlete, Alison encourages young people to see the importance of how “sports relate to schoolwork, hard work and discipline, and to embrace the identity of the student athlete,” she says. “The biggest resiliency factor they have is that they’re an athlete—and that’s an asset in life.”