In 2002, I met Michael, who was stricken with childhood leukemia. It wasn’t by chance. I had joined Team in Training to raise money for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society and was Michael’s sponsor. I was raising money— and running a marathon—for him.
During my nine months of training, I participated in a bunch of 5- and 10k races, and a half-marathon, and felt amazed by the bonds and camaraderie between runners all across the country and from all over the world. This was my first marathon and I was hooked.
In 2003, during a meeting in Cuba, I learned about Cuba’s Marabana Havana Marathon. I left that meeting and immediately went to see Carlos Gattorno, the marathon director. I was not surprised to learn that only a very small number of Americans had participated in the race since its inception in 1987. After all, 40 years of tight travel restrictions meant that there was no legal way for Americans to participate. After speaking with Carlos I could vividly imagine American and Cuban athletes running side by side, joining hands in triumph as they crossed the finish line for the first time. We couldn’t know, however, that an idea would turn into a ten-year struggle.
Weeks after our meeting, President Bush announced broad changes to travel regulations, eliminating most categories of permissible travel. At the end of 2003, family travel, religious travel, and educational travel were severely minimized and people-to-people was eliminated. Over the next few years, we sought permission to organize a marathon trip for American runners, to no avail. Few Americans were allowed to travel to Cuba at all during the next eight years. Then, everything changed.
On January 21, 2011, President Obama announced that he was restoring many categories of travel, including people-to-people, to Cuba. We began our work in earnest.
During the first year of restored people-to-people travel, we sent thousands of Americans to Cuba legally. However, we were informed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control that a trip to the marathon for runners would not be authorized under the people-to-people license.
If there’s one thing that working in Cuba has taught me, it’s don’t give up. We applied for a license under a new category of travel with faint hope that we would receive authorization to bring runners in 2014.
On May 1, after 10 years, insightCuba received authorization to bring 156 runners under its new amateur sports license.
If you’re a distance runner, and have always wanted to visit Cuba, I invite you to join us for a momentous journey to Cuba to make running history.
I was kept on the sidelines for the actual marathon because of injuries, but I raised almost $20,000, and last I heard, Michael was doing well.
Tom Popper is president ofinsightCuba, a leading provider of legal people-to-people travel to Cuba. InsightCuba was the first to bring Americans to Cuba under this provision in 2000. The company has sent more than 10,000 Americans to Cuba legally.