Introducing Zainab and Nelofar - Afghanistan's first Ultramarathon Team

Free to Run is currently supporting two Afghan women in their efforts to compete in the Gobi March2015, a 250 kilometer, 7-day self supported footrace which is part of the 4 Deserts Race Series.

Nelofar and Zainab will be sharing their progress with us through a weekly blog. Read on to find out about their training, share in their successes, and learn about the immense challenges they face as women in Afghanistan… and please join us in cheering them on.

Free to Run is providing these amazing young women with transportation stipends to allow them to travel to and from safe training grounds each day, training plans by world-renowned ultrarunner Ray Zahab and ongoing support through a group of four experienced international ultrarunners, including three-time world record holder Mimi Anderson. We will also be funding their travel costs to and from the race. Their gear has been generously donated by RacingThePlanet and their race entries sponsored by the 4 Deserts. For one year following the race, Nelofar and Zainab will be acting as Free to Run Ambassadors within Afghanistan, working to inspire other young women to reach for the stars.

If you have any questions about this initiative or would like to support this project, please contact Stephanie at stephanie@freetorun.org for more information.

1 March 2015
Introducing Zainab and Nelofar

Nelofar: I was born in Afghanistan and grew up in the Pakistan. I have 6 brothers and 2 sisters, and I am living with my family in mazar –e- sharif Afghanistan. I love running and it is about one month that I’ve been practicing for this running race. In my family, my mom supports me a lot and she thinks that I will be a winner, and I am so excited about this race. Me and Zainab are practicing in the gym four days every week and in the mountains two days of the week. We are running and walking. This is a very good and big opportunity for us. Everybody – my friend and family, are supporting us to be winner in this race. And I will try my best to be winner not just to finish. I have lots of dream about this race to be winner.

Zainab: Last week we had 2 days off because of snowy weather. In fact the problem was not the snow, it was a transportation problem – here when the weather is snowy or rainy streets will become full of water or frozen. Last week in some provinces of Afghanistan we had a very heavy snow, and a bunch of people were killed by snow break. Now we have 3 days of mourning for about 200 people killed in Panjshir, Salang, Bamyan and Badghis provinces. It was really sad news for me. Our running training is going pretty well, I have pain in my hip, shoulders and calf. I am waiting for next Skype meeting with one of our mentors to tell her my pains! One thing that I realize during 1 and half month of running training is that we are scared to do free warm up in front of our people, because our community has instructed us that sport is not good for girls. But we are doing it and it is really fantastic!

March 24, 2015
Running in the wake of Farkhund

Last week in Kabul, an Afghan woman, Farkhunda, was beaten to death after being falsely accused of burning the Koran. This tragic event has triggered protests and public outcry across the country – and beyond. In the blog posts by Nelofar and Zainab this week, we can hear of how this news has affected them.

Nelofar: Last week was not as good as the other weeks because we were not able to practice a lot. It was during the new year and people came from lots of provinces of Afghanistan to our city for celebrating the new year. People had guests and the streets were closed. I heard bad news about an Afghan girl, Farkhunda, that was killed in Kabul by the people. All the girls of Afghanistan that heard about her were sad, not just me. I think lots of girls think that one day these things can happen to them. I also think it can happen to me but I am not afraid. Since I was born I am hearing about these types of things and I grew up with this bad security. Not just Farkhunda, lots of people die here because of this bad security – this is Afghanistan! We can’t say anything about the security. We can just pray for Allah to make everything good. Last week we run some days of the week in the gym and I practiced with football and running with my brothers in the house. And this week we will practice a lot.

Zainab: During last week we practiced in the gym every day for one and a half hours. On the weekend we were off from training because of New Year’s celebrations. In our city it is usual 1 or 2 days before New Year that all the streets are closed because of security. Most of the people come to our city from other provinces to celebrate New Year. So I practiced at our small yard during holidays. At the beginning of New Year I heard a very shocking news about Farkhunda who was beaten to death and burned in Kabul. It is a huge tragedy in the history of Afghanistan. I feel unsafe, I feel I am Farkhunda, I am scared of men in our country – our country is going which way?

March 29, 2015
Stephanie Case joins the team in Afghanistan

Over the past week, Free to Run founder Stephanie Case had the opportunity to meet and train with Nelofar and Zainab in person in Afghanistan for the first time. Accompanying Stephanie was Kubra, an Afghan camerawoman, to get some footage in the hopes of producing a future documentary on the experience of this inspiring team.

Nelofar: This week was very good – better than last week. We practiced a lot and we had lots of fun during the week. We did some filming and ran more than last week. Our training schedule has changed. On Friday we ran around 4.5 hours, which was very interesting. Now I am practicing alone because Zainab is not with me. She is Kabul – I miss her a lot and hope that she comes back soon.

One bad thing that happened is that we can’t practice in the gym anymore because some men want to practice at the same time so now we want to continue our training plan in Skateistan. I am also running around the building and can run a lot, but inside the compound I don’t know how far I am running. My phone does not show me the distance in kilometers. The treadmill was very nice for practicing. I know the treadmill is a little boring, but it is very good for training and being strong. I think treadmill is very important for us, so I am looking to find other treadmill to use.

It was very amazing that last week Team Asma’i was with each other. We had a lot of fun. I can’t say how happy I was with my team, practicing and filming. We went to the mountains and another place. The two days Stephanie was with us were the best days as she helped us a lot for the training. We learned new things from her and changed our schedule. She told us we have to do more training. When she was here we ran 6 km without stopping for the first time very fast. We had a very nice and lovely and friendly time with her and we miss her a lot.

*Thanks to RacingThePlanet for providing all of the gear for Team Asma’i and to Ray Zahab of impossible2possible for providing their training plans.

April 13, 2015
Running in the face of Taliban attacks

This past week in Afghanistan has been particularly turbulent. Deadly attacks were carried out in a number of different cities across the country, including where Nelofar and Zainab currently live. Five aid workers from Save the Children were also found dead in the south after being abducted and held for weeks. Nelofar’s post this week reminds us of the extreme challenges that people face in Afghanistan on a daily basis. However, Nelofar also talks about how running is helping her deal with the stresses and worries that come with living in such a difficult security environment. Please show your support and help get these women to the Gobi March next month by visiting this dedicated fundraising page… and don’t hesitate to offer your support by leaving a comment.

Nelofar: This week my practicing was good. I ran on a big hill and around the compound where I work. However, during the practice we faced problems. When we went to the hills we saw a hand bomb and we informed the police. Also, the other day a big attack happened in our city and lot of people were killed. Everybody is sad and afraid. The security is so bad. Every night we think that this attack will happen again and they say that this time they will attack a university. Because of that my mom will not let me to go to the university, but I have to go to and study. Everybody is saying to not go to the hills and other places because of bad security. I don’t know what I should do. I am just praying for my country that everything will become okay again and we will have a peaceful country. I like running…when I am practicing I feel free and become relaxed. Running helps me a lot to not think about the bad things. We will start practicing on the treadmill again finally this week.

The safety of Nelofar and Zainab always comes first. Alternative solutions to their weekend training outdoors are being sought in the aftermath of recent attacks. Both women have been provided refresher educational materials on how to deal with explosive remnants of war if they happen to come across them in training.  

May 13, 2015
Ideas about a future running club

We are into the final few weeks of training before Nelofar and Zainab head out to China to compete in the 4Deserts Gobi March. The girls have gotten the green light from the Chinese Embassy on their visas and will be returning to Kabul shortly to formally apply (they have already made one trip). This week, we hear the beginnings of their plans to start a new running club for women in their area of Afghanistan… Exciting stuff! Stay tuned – you may be seeing a new Free to Run project pop up soon. Don’t forget to leave the girls a message of support and visit our dedicated fundraising page. Nelofar’s and Zainab’s gear and race entries have been generously provided by the 4Deserts and RacingThePlanet, but there are other significant costs related to the girls’ training and participation in the race (see our fundraising page for details. Thanks for your support!

Nelofar

This week my practicing was good. I ran on the treadmill, but I did not go to the hills because the security was so bad. Something bad will probably happen, so I just did my training on the treadmill. It was nice because there were some other girls who like running. They said that they also wanted to go in this race next year and that they like to run. During the training, I am listening to music and it is so nice. I found some new treadmills for my club and now about 20 girls say that they want to run and practice. I am very happy because of them and because of my work and I want to say thanks to Free to Run for supporting me in this race.

Zainab

During the last two weeks I was in Germany for a 12-day camp on sport and peace program run by the UN Office on Sports for Development and Peace (UNOSDP). I met a man who is working for UNOSDP and he is also training for a marathon. He encouraged me to continue on my path! During this camp, I didn’t have enough time for training, but I was running during the night in the streets! For the first time in my life I felt peace and I realized what the meaning of peace was! I was running alone until midnight. The cars were on the street and they were just continuing their way.

One night when I was running in the streets my new friends joined me and we ran about 1 hour together. I had a very nice experience to run with friends from different countries. And the best part of that was the encouragement of my friends to run.

In my country nobody encourages me for running. It means that when I speak about this race with my friends in Afghanistan they react like it is not possible! It is really good to have friends who believe in your goals!

I hope one day we have a very big running team of girls who believe in each other and we can run on the streets or even run in a safe place, Amen!

May 22, 2015
Worldwide support for Team Asma’i

Just one week to go! This has been a stressful week for Team Asma’i. With just days to go before their flight to China, the team ran into some unexpected obstacles getting their Chinese visas. We were told that it would be nearly impossible to fix it in time. Thanks to the support of the running community around the world, Nelofar and Zainab now have the necessary documents that they need to get their visas (insha’allah). Here Zainab describes their relief and gratitude to everyone who rallied behind them to help get them to the Gobi:

Zainab: “I am writing from both me and Nelofar. We want to say thank you to all who helped us to get the invitation letters for our Chinese visas. It is amazing that everybody thinks about women in Afghanistan. It shows humanity, friendship and for me a kind of peace! During last week we were very sad, when we were sitting together we couldn’t even speak with each other. We were just watching face to face and thinking about all the hard training and everything, but now we feel like we are full of energy to do it!” – Zainab, Team Asma’i

Leah Anathan