Marathon of Afghanistan: A symbol of progress

With support from Free to Run, over 100 women and girls participated in the Marathon of Afghanistan and a 10K Race in Bamyan.

BAMYAN-Morning dawned cold and brisk over what remains of the famous Buddha’s of Bamyan. Where massive towering figures once stood, now there are only hollow dark spaces. The feeling of emptiness, however, was replaced by the presence of over 100 young Afghan women. They gathered in the morning light to take part in something the Taliban would never allow during their reign. They stood shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts; their female presence was a defiant statement in and of itself. Dispersed among them, a dozen or so international runners mingled, talked, and laughed.

As the sun started to shine on the Bamyan cliffs, runners lined up for the 42 kilometer race kickoff. This is the only official Marathon of Afghanistan. The race was organized by the adventure company Untamed Borders and it’s the second time they’ve hosted this unique event. The race had very clearly grown in size and recognition. While many of the runners were returning contenders, the number of participants grew from under 100 to over 200.

Photo credit: Cindy Issac

Free to Run Ambassador Zainab, the first Afghan to complete an official marathon in Afghanistan in 2015, could not attend this year, but in her place stood five other young women inspired by her and trained by Free to Run.

The team had been practicing in Northern Afghanistan for four months leading up to this marathon, each harboring the hope that they would be the second female to ever finish an official marathon in their country. Among them, Free to Run Ambassador Nelofar had earned the title of ‘ustad’ or teacher in Dari. Nelofar was Zainab’s ultramarathon partner in the Gobi Desert race and since that epic race, she’s taken on a leadership role with Free to Run.

Just behind her stood Kubra, another Free to Run Ambassador and former race team member in the RacingthePlanet ultramarathon in Sri Lanka. She was part of Free to Run’s first-ever mixed gender ultramarathon team, but had had to drop out mid-race for medical reasons. Kubra shifted nervously from foot to foot, battling internal doubts. This race would be her chance to prove to herself that she could take on a major challenge such as a marathon. Beside her stood Martin Parnell, a Canadian world adventurer who recently conquered 250 marathons in one year. Martin and Kubra met earlier in the week on a Free to Run hike, and they had the opportunity to talk about her fears. Inspired by her clear determination, Martin offered to run the race by her side, and coach her through the tough moments.

As the start signal came, a river of international and Afghan runners sprung from under, what should have been, the Buddha’s watchful gaze. As they traversed down a dirt road, dust rising to cloud their vision, one Afghan girl pulled ahead. Hameda*, undeterred by the obvious gender gap and seemingly unaffected by the high altitude, sped away from her friends and flew up the hill.

Photo credit: Latif Azimi

Only 15 years old, she had been dreaming of this day ever since she heard of Free to Run and Zainab’s story. Not far behind her, her closest friend Palwasha* pumped her legs and arms to not lose sight of Hameda in all of the dust clouds and crowd. However, by mile 3 it was clear that Hameda had pulled away. Maintaining her pace, she kept ahead of several of the more professional international runners. As the mountain roads winded up and up she found herself further away from the other runners and any sort of civilization.

It was her first time running on her own, and she had never felt more free. A sharp reminder of the reality of running in Afghanistan came in the form of a young man on a bike on the side of the road, who made a beeline for her and attempted to knock her down. After lunging out of its path, Hameda dusted herself off and raced on. She was a bit shaken, but a motorbike wasn’t going to stop her from achieving the goal she had set months before.

Not far behind her, Palwasha was hitting a wall. She had been running uphill for over 13 miles, and her legs were cramping up with the altitude and uphill route. She refused to give in though, and the knowledge that she was second behind her best friend kept her moving. Anytime a figure appeared in the distance behind her she would pick up her pace until they had faded off in the hilly distance again.

During the second half of the race, she managed to overcome one international runner and two Afghan males in this way. Around mile 16 she encountered two Afghan males who introduced themselves as Skyrunner members, a mountain running club, from Ghazni province. The Skyrunners and Free to Run had previously worked together on several occasions, including the ultramarathon race in Sri Lanka.

Continuing their culture of support, the Skyrunners encouraged Palwasha through to the finish line. They stopped and paused with her when she needed to walk and ran with her when she could run. They repeatedly told her she would be the third Afghan woman to run a marathon in Afghanistan when it seemed like she didn’t want to go on, and together they crossed the finish line proudly touting a Free to Run banner. As soon as they crossed, Hameda was there with a giant smile to celebrate their joint victory as Afghan women.

The two young men weren’t the only Skyrunners who supported their sisters. Mahdi, a Free to Run Ambassador and one of Kubra’s partners in the Sri Lanka race, had also returned to the Marathon of Afghanistan. Mahdi caught up with fellow ambassador Nelofar and Free to Run member Farah* around mile 2, and stayed with them to the finish line.

Crossing the finish line right before them were Kubra and Martin. It was a teary finish, but one that was full of resolve and motivation for future marathons. Martin has promised to coach Kubra for her next marathon, and all self-doubt over Sri Lanka dissipated with her newfound success.

As the Free to Run team completed the marathon, they were cheered on by over 100 Free to Run participants from the 10k race, an increase from 50 just one year ago. Among them was the 10K first place winner Sima*. Sima had been a Free to Run participant since the beginning and was now reigning 1st place champion of the 10k race two years in a row.

Photo credit: Cindy Issac

As the award ceremony took place, feelings of success and resolve circulated throughout the crowd. Many girls made vows, both internal and external, to train more for the next race. Several told the Free to Run staff that they wanted to run the full marathon next year. From one Afghan female finishing a marathon, to five, to who knows how many next year! Each young lady inspires us to keep coming back.

Leah Anathan