Press Release: The first-ever Afghan Ultramarathon Team

[February 2015, Hong Kong] First-ever Afghan ultramarathon team to take part in the Gobi March (China) 2015

In a country where women risk their safety simply walking alone, two women are training for a self-supported, seven-day race across the Chinese desert.

Two Afghan women, along with Free to Run founder Stephanie Case, comprise the first-ever Afghan ultramarathon team. Their first appearance will be at the Gobi March 2015, a 250 kilometer, 7-day self-supported foot race which is part of the 4 Deserts Race Series.

Free to Run is a charity that empowers women through physical fitness. The founder of the charity, Stephanie Case, had the inspiration for the idea. Stephanie is herself a seasoned ultramarathon runner and 4 Deserts Race Series veteran - she says "forming a team of Afghan women to run had always been a dream". I told myself it was too early, too controversial, too impossible, too much of everything to even try to attempt," she says. That changed when Case made a trip to Afghanistan last fall to launch Free to Run's projects.The women she met, particularly Nelofar and Zainab, stood out for their strength and determination.

She has led a selection process with Afghan partner Skateistan to identify the team members. A large number of applications were received and two young women, Nelofar and Zainab were selected. The primary reason for their selection was their wish to inspire other women in Afghanistan and raise awareness about women's rights around the world. RacingThePlanet is sponsoring the team's training, equipment and journey to the Gobi March 2015.

Zainab is 25 years old and lives with her mother and sister. "When I received the acceptance email for this race I cried and I couldn't stop shaking. It is the first time in my life that I have an opportunity like this". She continues "when my mother was a child, she used to run in the Lahore desert of Pakistan she would reward herself with chocolate. My reward is being a messenger of Afghan women."

For most 4 Deserts competitors, getting through a 30-, 50- or 60-kilometer training run takes a great deal of effort. For Zainab and Nelofar, simply finding a place to run and getting there safely is a logistical Everest.

"It is unsafe for them to run outside and they don't yet have access to a treadmill, so they are stuck with running inside," says Case who eventually found an amusement park so the women could run outside, but the journey there is so unsafe that they can't go regularly. Additionally, the facility doesn't have any hills for the women to run.

Getting proper gear poses another challenge involving shipping items into Germany for a hand-over to a courier, who brings them into Kabul, and a bus to the village where the women train, about 400 kilometres from the city.

Neither Nelofar nor Zainab have ever travelled out of the country, so they will have to fly to Kabul to apply for passports and visas in person. Both will have overcome enormous odds by the time they arrive for the physical challenge that is the Gobi March, a seven-day, 250-kilometre race carrying approximately nine-kilogram backpacks through harsh weather conditions in the Gobi Desert.

The women don't doubt they'll cross the finish line, and Case doesn't, either. Nineteen-year-old Nelofar told Case she's strong and "100 percent sure she could simply decide to deal with the challenges."

"Neither of them are runners," says Case. "This is an incredible challenge they are taking on. We chose them because of their mental strength, positive energy, and their desire to act as role models for other Afghan women."

"I want to say thank you to everybody who is here to support us," says Zainab. "I hope one day all Afghan women will be able to show to the world that we don't want war".

Zainab's final words are "let's bring peace, we can do it!"

Leah Anathan