The morning of Friday, April 25 was partly cloudy and cool with a light breeze. According to Guy Burdett, president of InterAmerican Coffee and veteran marathon runner, the weather was almost ideal for running my first foot race. Burdett declared that his favorite weather to run in “is upper 40s, low 50s, overcast, rain. I like the bad conditions.” Even if it had poured down rain, most joggers would prefer Seattle’s spring temperatures to the bracing cold wind that met Java Jog’s founders last year at the SCAA show in Boston, when they ran their first race to raise money for coffee growing women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year, the largely informal event raised $7,500, but off the back of a groundswell of excitement and a smart crowdsourcing campaign, this year the race managed to raise about $34,000 to benefit women coffee producers.
Scott Douglas, Senior Content Editor at Runner’s World, recently wrote for Sprudge about distance-runners’ love of coffee, and the love is definitely mutual. By race day, there were 210 coffee-people registered to run, a number more than double what had been projected by Java Jog coordinators. This year, a professional race organizer mapped out the 5K and 10K courses, and handled many race-day logistics like tracking times and reporting winners.
Winners in the women’s and men’s categories for both races read like a who’s who of coffee, though one top spot went to an “independent traveler on holiday from Ireland.” Kimberly Easson, a member of the Java Jog organizing committee and the Ethiopia coffee value chain lead at CQI, said, “The roots of Java Jog actually start in Seattle in 2005. A handful of us ran from espresso shop to espresso shop on a couple mornings of the conference taking single and double shots at four or five cafes along the way.”
Rick Peyser, social advocacy and coffee community outreach director at Keurig Green Mountain and one of Easson’s regular running partners at coffee events, has been a serious runner for decades. Burdett recalled one of the first times he met Peyser: “In 1990, I was running the New York marathon and I bumped into Rick Peyser, who I barely knew at that point, I was two years into the coffee business at that point, and I bumped into Rick picking up our bib numbers.”
When I caught up with Easson before the race, she described what last year’s run was like: “It was close to freezing and we were out on this little peninsula out in the Boston Harbor not far from where the convention center was. With the wind chill factor it was another 20 degrees less than it actually was. The wind was blowing our feet out from under us.”
Easson’s recollection matched what Kyle Freund, communication liaison manager at Fairtrade International, reported experiencing that April 2013 day. Wearing shorts, even for a short race, in near-freezing temperatures with wind gusting more than 35 miles per hour is not something he’ll soon repeat. This year, hedging against cool temperatures and predicted rain, Freund’s race attire was a fair trade banana costume.
According to Easson, getting to work again with long-time allies like Freund or Aimee Russillo, now a managing partner of Liseed Consulting, was high on her list of reasons for getting involved with organizing the second annual Java Jog. Russillo and Easson became friends while serving together on the board of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance. Easson’s inspiration for the race came from reading Lisa Shannon’s book, “A Thousand Sisters.” She said, “Being a woman in coffee I have a particular affinity for really elevating the profile of women in coffee throughout the supply chain. What better cause than women in the Congo?”
Richard Bettles of Belaroma Coffee Roasting Company in Sydney took first place in the Men’s 10k, with Mike Mammo, managing director at Addis Exporter, taking first in the 5k. Guy Burdett of InterAmerican took second in the 5k, which is still an impressive finish, considering Burdett had just run the Boston Marathon four days earlier.
Burdett reported, “I’ve actually run three [marathons] in the last four months.” Running multiple marathons in a year is not so unusual for the more serious runners in the coffee world. A scholarship for long-distance running is, afterall, what paid for college for Todd Carmichael, founder and CEO of La Colombe.
Craig Holt, founder and owner of Altas Coffee Importers, prefers ultra-marathons these days. Holt credits Burdett for helping him finish his first 100 mile race. The way Holt tells it, Burdett is “the guy who ran the last 20 miles of my 100-miler with me, that got me through it. Kind of a little coffee business ‘Kumbaya’ moment.” Like Burdett, Holt tends to train alone, but one of his favorite running memories is the morning he and Mike Mammo met three Ethiopian Olympic gold medalists.
This is a story Holt enjoys telling fellow runners: “Two weeks after I ran my first 100-miler I was in Ethiopia for the AFCA conference. My exporter buddy Mike Mammo just insisted I go running with a friend of his who was Million Wolde.” The same Wolde that won a gold medal for the 5000 meter in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Holt set the scene for me, outside the hills of Addis Ababa in the morning. The sun was rising. He’s running through a beautiful forest with Wolde when “this man came hauling butt out of the woods and they were like ‘Haile, Haile, good morning!’” Some consider Haile Gebrselassie to be the greatest living distance runner. His track record, including two Olympic Gold Medals, certainly makes him a contender.
Holt continued, “Then on the way back down to the car, there was a young lady coming toward us.” That young lady was Tirunesh Dibaba, who became the youngest Ethiopian to win an Olympic medal at the age of 19 and has since risen to win gold in numerous 5000 and 10,000 meter races worldwide.
Smiling, Holt declared, “As a runner, I was totally geeked out! Once in a lifetime.”
Holt is beginning to train for his next “once-in-a-lifetime” run. The Discovery Channel ranks Holt’s next big adventure as “the toughest footrace on earth.” The Marathon des Sables, a six-stage footrace trekking more than 150 miles through Saharan desert in southern Morocco. With the sun shining, daytime temperatures can reach well over 120°F.
Holt found the idea of competing irresistible: “There’s this thought process where I go ‘oh my god that’s stupid!’ Then I think ‘I wonder’ and I just get curious because it seems impossible, but it must be possible. Only two or three people die every year. So you’ve got, you know, a 99 percent chance of survival. That’s not bad.”
He will be raising funds for the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) while he prepares for and attempts to complete “the Sables.” When I asked him why, Holt drew a philosophical parallel with the impossibility of this race with what’s happening in Eastern Congo right now. For him, this isn’t about branding. He explained, “I’m not doing it as an Atlas guy or as a CQI guy. I’m just doing it as a person who is interested in that part of the world and seeing things change for the better.”
Easson’s motivations for the JavaJog are quite similar. She spoke of not wanting to disrupt the fragile balance of cooperation that may be beginning to take root in conflict-torn areas like Lake Kivu, a coffee growing region that spans the Rwandan and Democratic Republic of the Congo border. Nor do the race organizers want to create any new dependencies on aid dollars. She made a point of speaking with multiple groups when attending the African Fine Coffee Association conference in Burundi this year, and Java Jog invited some of them submit proposals on how to use the funds raised by the race. ECI, the organization Holt will be raising funds for, is expected to be among those that submit a proposal in May. Easson anticipates the advisory committee will make decisions in June and that funds will be disbursed shortly after harvest season ends.
As for me and my running “career?” I don’t envision taking on anything quite so extreme as a trek to the South Pole or across any desert anywhere. But the energy and enthusiasm that coffee people can have for distance running is infectious, and the way that it can tie this community together across the globe is incredible. For now, I’m happy I beat my pace goal for my first 5K race by about half a minute per mile. Now I’ve got a goal to beat next year, at the third annual Java Jog.
Top photo of founding JavaJog runners is by Scott Shouse, LISEED Photography.