Free to Run's Connie Schneider accompanies “Team Sahra” on 250km race in Sri Lanka
This article was first published on Finish Line Physical Therapy.
On March 8, people around the world celebrated International Women’s Day – an opportunity to highlight the achievements of women while also bringing awareness to the gender imparity that still exists around the world. For FLPT patient Connie Schneider, the rights of Afghan women has been a cause that’s particularly close to her heart. She spent three years living and working in Afghanistan, and is also chair of the board for Free to Run, a nonprofit that uses running, physical fitness and outdoor adventure to empower women and girls in conflict-affected communities.
In February, Connie was part of a group of Free to Run mentors who accompanied Afghanistan’s first mixed gender ultramarathon team to compete in a race in Sri Lanka. The event was a 250 km/155-mile, 7-day self-supported stage race in which participants had to carry all of the supplies needed for the race. The average backpack weighed 20 lbs.
To hear about Connie’s experience is nothing but inspiring — and it puts running in perspective. We caught up with Connie and asked her to describe how she got involved with this cause and what she learned from this race.
How did the rights of Afghan women become a cause that inspired you?
I moved to Kabul to work with police officers and prosecutors. The vast majority of my interlocutors were men. But outside of my ‘day job,’ I volunteered for a boarding school, which brought together girls from all over the country in an unprecedented bid to provide educational quality in an ethnically diverse setting. Their stories shocked and inspired me: the girl from Kandahar whose family found an IED in their driveway as punishment for educating their daughter; the abandoned disabled girl who taught herself to walk on crutches ‘one hand at a time;’ so many girls who, under the Taliban, had gone to ‘secret schools’ in order to get any education. I was deeply touched by their courage, commitment, pride and enthusiasm.
Engaging in sports for girls continues to be extremely difficult and is reflective of the wider repression of women by society. Our Team Sahra runners had to get up at 4 a.m. to train in order to avoid street harassment or worse. There are frequent threats against institutions considered too ‘progressive’ for girls. There is this dichotomy between odds and tradition stacked up sky high against women’s progress and, on the other side, these incredibly talented and hungry women and girls waiting to change their world and the world at large.
I am very lucky to be working with so many strong Afghan women through Free to Run, and knowing how hard it is for them reminds me every day how special it is that I am able to just get out of my door and … run. I am also still in touch with many of the girls I met in Kabul; several of them are in the USA to study on scholarships, and I will be supporting three of them during the NYC Half Marathon later this month!
What made you sign up for this race?
Let me start by saying, I had never been particularly sporty and only took to running in my mid-thirties (by the time I began training for Sri Lanka, I had two half-marathons and one trail marathon under my belt). In fact, given how successfully I avoided exercise throughout my teens and twenties, this turn of event continues to puzzle people who’ve known me all my life. Most of all me!
But as a director of Free to Run, I had witnessed first-hand how two previously untrained Afghan women had taken on, and conquered, the majestic Gobi desert in Racing the Planet’s 250km Gobi March 2015. “It’s not so much about physical fitness, but about mental strength,” Free to Run’s Founder, human rights lawyer and ultrarunner Stephanie Case, once told me. And that, she shouldn’t have said; I may not think of myself as a physical sports giant, but mental strength, bring it on girlfriend!
So the seed was planted … and I really wanted to run beside one of our Free to Run teams from Afghanistan. “Team Sahra” brought together three young Afghans – Arzoo, Kubra and Mahdi – who had been training in Kabul for the ultramarathon since last year. Although it was late in the game for me to start training, I eventually realized, this may just be the best time this year for me after all, and so I signed up quickly before I could change my mind.
How did you prepare for the event?
I started my training in earnest on January 3, only six weeks before the start of the race. My compromise with myself? I wouldn’t aim to do much running; I wanted to get to the point where I’d be able to walk long distances, not be intimidated by steep climbs and be able to cope with a heavy pack.
I started getting up at 5 a.m. and spent entire weekends walking through all of Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. I bought bulk multi-family rice packs for weight. I got a gym membership to get out of the stinging cold and onto the treadmill for mind-numbingly boring but necessary steep climbs. And I got a lot of help from FLPT’s Andy Fenack, who helped protect me from injury and talked me through a stretching routine for the first time in my life.
What was the race experience like?
The course was out of this world, all the way from Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands to the Indian Ocean! We covered thick jungle, tea plantations and rice paddies; visited mosques and temples and local schools; conquered lush hillsides, outran a local train, and prayed in front of rock buddhas. We saw wildlife in abundance – monkeys and buffalo and crocodiles, and plenty of evidence of elephants and even sloth bears. We suffered unexpected weather extremes: from the cold in the highlands on days 1 and 2 to the heat and extreme humidity during our descent towards the sea. Heavy downpours provided welcome relief during the day and caused nightmares when flooding our tents during nights 4 and 6. The penultimate stage took us through the famous Yala National Park all the way to a local fishing village by the sea.
In camp, every night, the same procedure: after stumbling across the finish line, aching to get rid of my heavy backpack, I would grab three bottles of water. Then lie down for half an hour to an hour with elevated feet (we were usually in late and had to get on with it rather fast!), whilst hoping for a helpful soul to get some hot water to quickly get some food into my body. Then set up for the night, attempt some kind of wash, hobble to the latrines, and – most importantly – have my feet attended to (we were meant to do that ourselves, but most of us tried to charm the lovely medics into popping our blisters for us). Crazy banter in the tent, some resemblance of exhausted sleep, and … get up at 5 a.m. for a drawn-out chat by the fireside and breakfast … to do it all over again the next day.
Even though I had suffered from mild panic attacks with physical symptoms in the weeks before the race, once I started running, I never questioned my physical ability to finish. It’s true what they say – in a strange way, your body grows stronger as the race goes on, despite your feet and legs and shoulders hurting so badly. I learned a lot of things I never knew about my body and my mind:
Your body can recover incredibly fast. I’d come in at night thinking there was absolutely no way I would ever walk again, and then you’d get up and do it all over again.
What it feels like to hit zero. I was so exhausted on day 4, I couldn’t even lift my head when our tent flooded at night. I simply lay in my sleeping bag in a puddle. Yes, that was zero!
It’s hard to adapt your rhythm to somebody else’s. With Arzoo, Kubra and Mahdi strong on downhills and me stronger on uphills, it was a struggle to find a communal pace. Team building galore!
Overall, it is actually easier to run than to walk the really long distances. It hurts as much, but you are out of the sun so much faster, and you have more time to recover.
Wet skin that won’t dry, eventually may just peel and fall off, something best avoided in case of your feet!
There is this weird mix of having to fend for yourself and incredible camaraderie. You come into camp and think somebody surely will take care of you, but instead, everybody is busy with themselves! And yet: it was unbelievable how many people walked with me at the back of the pack when my feet were swollen to the size of small melons, gave me their last Ibuprofen 600mg, lent me their gaiters or their own jacket during the night.
Man, those demons questioning why on earth I’d want to continue putting myself through all this pain are strong!
Do you have a favorite part?
I have a lot of “least favorite” parts (!!) – the aching; the smell of your clothes, stiff with filth; yet another bowl of dehydrated something when all you crave are fresh veggies; and how ^£%$ing long the final daily mile always appears to be! But: the lower the lows, the higher the highs!
I think my favorite part about the race is how it makes you rediscover simplicity. The delight of a fresh watermelon donated by a friendly Sri Lankan along the way… The sunrise over a Buddha statue at our makeshift campsite… The joy of a genuine laugh and the intensity of raw tears… Life without internet. Rediscovering slowness. Pure emotion!
Simplicity, the incredible landscape and … your fellow runners. There was not a single person who did not have an intriguing story to tell. From the elite athletes and Seven Summit explorers to the recovering drug addicts to the septuagenarians to your average Joe; everybody is there for a reason, and everybody has shown a lot of courage for just showing up. You become very connected to each other, especially your tent mates. By suffering together, by witnessing how each of you reacts to being confronted with your physical and emotional limits, you very quickly see to the core of each other. That is what creates immensely strong bonds. Everyone is recognized for how much they have put in to cross that finish line, the months of preparation, the last-minute challenges, the demons each day – whether it takes you four hours or 10 to cover the distance.
What does it mean to be part of such a groundbreaking experience for the Afghan team?
I cannot even begin to tell you how remarkable Arzoo’s, Kubra’s and Mahdi’s achievement is, each in their own right. I saw them fight through that race: arriving at the start line ready to ‘win,’ then realizing this was far worse than anything they had ever experienced or expected, then flick some mental switch saying, “This is the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but we’ll just do it.”
Kubra was forced to drop out of the race due to a condition that wouldn’t let her go on, which proved to be more of a challenge for her than continuing the race was for the rest of the team. Many Afghans are extremely proud, and I have often observed peer pressure to portray oneself as the eternal achiever. But she beautifully rose to the challenge, embracing her new role as volunteer, later telling us about the race in her own words: “This experience was a sprinkle to find more about myself, the strengths, the weakness, being disappointed but hope deep in my heart, being happy but sad deep in my heart and what matters now is to learn and enjoy the life. Way to go for more adventure in my life!”
Arzoo and Mahdi chugged on day after day towards the finish line. Men and women do not exercise together in Afghanistan, and it was beautiful to see them complement each other so completely: Mahdi with his athletic stamina, Arzoo with her dogged determination, gritted teeth and cynicism. For Mahdi to go back and advocate for more women in sports is phenomenal.
All three team members will be acting as Free to Run ambassadors for the coming year. Last year’s ambassadors, Zainab and Nelofar, have gone on to, respectively, becoming the first Afghan woman to participate in an official in-country marathon, being awarded the Franco-German 2016 sports woman of the year award, and organizing a supported half marathon race in northern Afghanistan. That is tangible impact and reflects Free to Run’s theory of change. I am beyond lucky to be able to witness that.
More than 50 girls participated in a 10k race in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in October. They signed up for the race inspired by Free to Run ambassador Zainab, who talked to the local schools.
Interested in learning more and getting involved? Check out the following resources:
WATCH a short documentary about the first Free to Run Afghan ultramarathon team that participated in a race in the Gobi desert last year.
The two girls, Zainab and Nelofar, not only became the first Afghan ultra running team, successfully completing a 250k ultra through snow, ice, scorching heat and sand storms, but also literally broke down barriers when they returned to Afghanistan, including becoming the first Afghan woman to participate in an official marathon in Afghanistan.
FOLLOW Free to Run on Facebook.