What started out as one woman’s idea for action in the wake of the election quickly multiplied into hundreds of participants and inspired a movement now rippling across the country.
Like many after the election, 31-year-old Alison Mariella Desir was plagued by a sense she hadn’t done enough. As the new year approached and word spread of the Women’s March on Washington she took stock, reviewing her goals for the year ahead. Then she set them into action.
“This was my moment,” Desir said. “I had to do something.”
That something materialized into a plan to run 240 miles from New York to Washington, DC, to attend the Women’s March with the goal of raising money for Planned Parenthood along the way. When three of her friends wanted in, Desir founded the group, Four Women Run for All Women and set the goal of raising $44,000 in honor of the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama.
Desir admits she was a bit nervous about the undertaking at first. Although she participated in other marches and was a runner who’d previously founded the group, Harlem Run, she’d never done anything like this before. “I couldn’t figure out what was going to be the more difficult, running the mileage or raising the money.”
When her mom donated $200, Desir thought she would be the biggest contributor. Still, Desir wasn’t discouraged. “Even if we raised $500, the point is we were doing something.”
Indeed they were. By day eight they had met their goal, and by the time they crossed the finish line they had exceeded it by more than double. At last count the group had raised over $102,000 for the nonprofit organization.
Desir’s decision to partner with the women’s health care provider was intentional. She knew the choice would resonate with women given the threats of defunding Planned Parenthood faces under the new administration. Her hope was that when others saw the action she was taking, they would be emboldened to do the same.
Her instinct was right. The core group of four runners exploded into nearly 700 athletes wanting to join the run. While the original plan was for the four women to begin the run on January 16, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to arrive in Washington on the day of the inauguration, with the growing number of people wanting to participate, the logistics of organizing such a group became overwhelming. It was then Desir decided to turn the run from the core group into an overnight relay where anybody could sign up for a 4-mile leg of the route.
As word spread about Desir’s run, other things began to change too. Originally, Desir and her three fellow runners, Marquita Francique, Talisa Hayes, and Kim Rodrigues, were going to take turns running the entire route with Desir’s boyfriend, Amir Figueroa, providing support and safety by following behind in a van. With more runners, the four women didn’t have to run continuously. They could take more frequent rests, attempt a nap and eat more regularly. They could even shower.
That was a pleasure the women would get to enjoy when they reached Philadelphia. When a woman there heard about the run, she offered up her home to the group.
“She made us sandwiches. She made us soup. She gave us fresh towels,” Desir said, astounded by the generosity of a stranger willing to take the women into her home without question. “I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
But the generosity just kept coming.
“Every single thing on the trip was donated,” Desir said. “There would have been no way for us to do it without the help of the men and women that we met.”
From the van they drove to the meals they ate to the bottled waters they chugged as they loped along the road closing in on DC, everything was donated by those wanting to support the cause. Even drivers volunteered their time so Figueroa could catch a break.
According to Desir, women showed up at 3 a.m. to hand them coffee and Gatorade and cheer them on while others appeared along the route in the afternoon with grilled chicken, quinoa salad, and pizzas.
They had so much food at the end, they couldn’t eat it all. But it didn’t go to waste. The spirit of generosity spurred by the run continued on as Desir donated the extra food to a homeless shelter.
As much as the run was a positive and inspiring experience, it was also a grueling one. The women slept in the van, taking turns, or trying to. With the cramped space and the women swapping out every few hours to continue the course, Desir said sleep was impossible. Stretching out was also impossible, and after a long day of running, the women huddled in the van with their legs cramping and knees swelling.
“I knew it was going to be difficult and painful,” Desir said. “There’s no way to train for something like this in two weeks.”
When the women pushed into Delaware, Desir and Francique had been running for 12 miles straight. They were delirious and exhausted and ready to collapse. Then up ahead they spied a crowd of women lining the route waving signs and cheering. One woman who was 34 weeks pregnant joined them on the run.
“That’s how important she felt the cause was,” Desir said. “That’s the stuff that makes you realize it’s important to keep going.”
As they pressed south into Maryland, the Baltimore Police Department displayed their support by providing a police escort through the city.
But Desir’s favorite memory might have been when they “rolled into Philly.” There, the largest and most boisterous crowd was waiting. With music blasting and the mob chanting, the women cruised by as more than 250 people fell in behind, banding with the women for the next 8 miles of the journey.
After three days of running, the women arrived in front of the Capitol Building early Saturday morning. Following a rest, they briefly attended the Women’s March before collapsing into bed at a hotel room that was, of course, donated.
“It was wall to wall people,” Desir recalled of the march. “It was a great feeling to have made it, and to be a part of something so huge.”
Being a part of the movement in such an active way was personal for Desir. The importance of Planned Parenthood in her life dates back to high school when she and a friend went on a class trip abroad. On the trip, her friend was assaulted. Upon returning to the States, they went straight to Planned Parenthood.
“Planned Parenthood has always been a resource that’s available to people no matter their circumstances.”
Part of what upsets Desir about the defunding effort is the fact that men are telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies.
“As a runner, my body is my instrument,” she said, illustrating the importance of women’s autonomy.
Other women who feel the same have taken their cues from Desir. Runs are cropping up across the country. One run is planned for Chicago, and Desir is advising on another from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
“All these women want to be involved, and I don’t want this to be lost. I want people to know their voice matters.”
Desir is working on putting together a website and keeping the momentum of her movement going. For now, you can follow Four Women Run for All Women on Twitter and Instagram
“There’s so many ways to act,” Desir said. “For me, it was running.” She reminds us, though, there’s no wrong way to get involved.
“It’s just about taking action.”