Stage 1: The 2015 Gobi March with Zainab and Nelofar

May 31, 2015

Team Asma'i has finished day one intact!  But it was a much tougher day than we were anticipating.

After a very chilly and sleepless night at camp, we woke up this morning to discover that the mountains around us had been covered in snow overnight. What a sight! We were all a bit in disbelief that race day had finally come. After six months of training - and perhaps a lifetime of dreaming - we finally made it to the start line. It was go time.

We got off to a strong start, running and walking as a team over hills, across rivers, and scrambling down rocks. It was quite a bit more technical than Nelofar and Zainab were used to, but they took the terrain in stride. Before we got to checkpoint one, a mere 5.8 km away, we came across another runner who was sitting by the side of the trail. He had fallen on the rocks and scraped his leg. It was only a surface scrape, but it was bleeding quite a lot. Nelofar, who is currently in medical school, immediately ran over to help. She expertly bandaged up the other runner, showing the kind of sportsmanship that is so valued amongst ultrarunners. Way to go doc! Nelofar was loving the sprinkle of rain and the cold weather. "Allah must really love me because if it was hot I would be struggling," she said as she raced in front of the pack!

At checkpoint one, the rain started to come down hard and the wind blew straight into our faces. We had expected 35 degree weather, not cold rain, so we were wearing all of the warm clothes we had. We tried to keep up with walking and running to keep warm, but shortly after leaving the checkpoint it started to snow. SNOW! In the desert! Nelofar and Zainab pushed on without a single complaint. We were all so impressed. Virginie, Belinda and I (Stephanie) have all done many ultramarathons - Belinda has done 10 multiday races and I've done 8 - but even we were struggling. Zainab could only describe the weather as 'awful'. She said, "we kept waiting for the sun to show herself, but she didn't come."

We made it to checkpoint two after about 6.8 km and it was covered in rain puddles, so we tried not to stay long. We were so cold! I had to run with my hands down my pants to keep them warm. Rain was dripping off of everyone's faces and snow continued to collect on our jackets. After leaving the checkpoint, we decided to sing to keep our spirits up. One song and thena little run - repeat. Virginie sang a French song and taught Nelo and Zainab the numbers 1-5 in French, then Nelo taught us all an Indian song! I sang some Canadian songs and broke out a little Tom Petty, Free Fallin', followed by some 50s/60s classics. Pretty soon we were all laughing although our smiles must have looked pretty funny on our frozen faces!

At checkpoint three, 9km later, we headed into the sand dune stage... and the sun finally started to come out. "She finally showed her face!" said Zainab. Nelo and Zainab stopped to pray on the edge of the dune with the snow-capped mountains behind. It was quite a special moment for all of us.

The last stage of the day was the longest - 12 km - and we were tired from all of the bad weather... but no one complained. Nelofar and Zainab put their heads down like pros and soldiered on. The most we could get them to say was that they were 'a little bit tired', which I knew in Afghan-speak meant that they were exhausted... but they didn't ask to stop once. Step by step, bit by bit, we made our way to the finish line carrying the Free to Run flag, hand in hand. Zainab couldn't quite believe she had actually made it and the emotions welled up. Nelofar grinned and said it wasn't any more difficult than she had expected because she knew it would be really tough.  Both women went into the medical tent to get checked and despite experiencing some pain on the course, both of them looked a-ok. Some of the best blister-free feet I've seen!

We are all snuggling down in a yurt tonight, which should be much better than the cold and windy tent last night, and treating ourselves to noodles. Thanks to all for your support! Please do visit or our website at We can't wait to start day two!

-Stephanie, on behalf of Team Asma'i

Leah Anathan