Stage 5: The 2015 Gobi March with Zainab and Nelofar

June 11, 2015

In case there was any ever doubt, I’m delighted to announce that Team Asma’i has broken the back of the Gobi March: we smashed the long stage, finishing this morning at 8am after 80 km, 24 hours, multiple emotional breakdowns and temperatures in the mid 40sC. Yesterday, last night and this morning, Nelofar and Zainab proved that they were Free to Run, and showed all of us that Afghan women are capable of ANYTHING!

I’m not going to lie, it was a ROUGH day for all. We woke up yesterday morning happy to see blue skies, but we knew that meant it would be hot. We didn’t realize that meant 40+C hot. By checkpoint two, Zainab was already battling some serious mental demons – we were pulling her along, but we knew we couldn’t do that for 60 km more. Nelofar was in pain and refusing to take any medication we had on hand (she only trusted the medication from the doctors, even though we had the same stuff). In the heat, Virginie, Belinda and I all felt our patience wane. I think everyone on the team was thinking: how on earth are we going to make it through 80km?

We gave Zainab the choice to drop out at checkpoint two, knowing that she wouldn’t – we just wanted her to own her race and get the fire back in her. Luckily, it worked and both women plodded onwards to checkpoints three and four. At checkpoint four, the halfway point, we found out that other competitors had collapsed from the extreme heat. It really felt like we had stuck our heads into an oven and the scorching hot air was blowing back on our faces. At that point, I had a tough – very tough – talk with Nelo. She had been refusing to drink her water, despite our insistence, and there wasn’t any room for negotiation. Nelo and Zainab are very capable and bright women, but this was their very first experience with such an extreme race and we couldn’t afford to let then make mistakes. It was a tense moment for the team, but I think we got the message through. I had told Nelo that we would have to pull her out of the race if she didn’t drink…. I hated saying it, but her health was in our hands! Nelofar did an evening prayer and we plodded onwards through a canyon.

At checkpoint five, we stopped for a quick bite of noodles and hot soup, and for the first time in the race saw some of the carnage. Those who had gotten dehydration and heat stroke were scattered out between tents, trying to rest until it got cool. As the sun stays up until 10pm here, the temperature didn’t really start to drop below 40C until after 7 or 8pm, and the heat radiated back into our bodies from the sun for hours. We didn’t want Nelo and Zainab to stop for too long – our strategy was to keep moving – but we could see that they were exhausted. We tried all sorts of tricks (used tums/antacids as a placebo for ‘super strong painkillers’ from the doctors, which seemed to play useful mental tricks). We played bad cop, we played good cop, and we took turns trying to push the team to spread the burden around. But I will admit, it was frustrating. There were definitely light and happy moment. Nelofar sang Indian songs again for all of us and we gigged our way across the course. However, there continued to be very tough moments when we could see Zainab lose confidence in herself and mentally give up. We all knew she had it in her to finish, but she was letting those doubts from checkpoint two creep back in.

Between checkpoints five and six, Zainab refused to speak entirely, attempting to sit on the road in protest. It was dark by this point and Nelofar was going strong. She had only walked outside at night for about 10 minutes before – ever – so she was really enjoying the freedom of moving around safely under the moonlight. Zainab, however, was mentally done with the race. She even told Nelo in Dari to continue on without her. We convinced her that she needed to get to the next checkpoint, even if she wanted to drop out, hoping that she would change her mind by the time we got there. She didn’t.

We felt quite desperate and helpless. After five days of running and walking, just 20 km before the end of the long march and 30 km before the end of the whole race, Zainab insisted on dropping out. We just weren’t going to let her. We could see that she was still physically strong, but she needed to find her inner strength to pull through. It was exhausting and emotional. We all tried tough love, pep talks, but nothing was working. We waivered – what should we do? We knew they could both finish, but Zainab was insistent on staying put and dropping out and Nelofar was starting to fade. Do we let Zainab quit, knowing she would regret it forever, and help Nelo finish or do we keep trying, possibly risking Nelofar going downhill and risking having them both dropout?

In the end, we didn’t give up on Zainab and neither did she. After one very tough hour, she put her shoes on and we headed towards checkpoint seven. HURRAH!!! Nelo and the rest of us breathed a huge sigh of relief. Whew. 20 km to go.

About 3.5 km into that stage, we came across a couple who had been racing together that day. Andrew had been battling dehydration earlier in the day and had tried to recover at checkpoint five. Unfortunately, the heat still got to him and he was freezing in the +30C heat, with his partner standing by. Despite being on our feet for almost 18-20 hours at that point, we got a boost of energy helped them with me running ahead. Upon seeing a jeep up ahead on the dirt track, which was on it's way to Andrew. My running back didn’t help anything in the end, but it was good for Nelofar and Zainab to see the runner code in action – no matter what, we always help our fellow competitors!

I think then it sunk in to Nelo and Zainab that we had been hard on them all day for their own safety – this race was no joke. Pretty soon, we were at checkpoint seven. Just 10 km to go!!!

We popped some caffeine pills and trudged along at a snail’s pace of 2.7km/hr, but we were moving. Belinda and I got a huge kick and started rocking out to iphone tunes, dancing our way into the sun as it rose ahead. Virginie joined in for a number or two. We finally got Zainab to smile (at our expense) as we boogied along. We just kept dancing, I think for over an hour, elated to be approaching the finish.

Finally, at 730am, we saw the finish line ahead. Nelo and Zainab squealed and even broke out into a run. THEY DID IT!!! We came into camp with the Free to Run banner in hand, funny sunglasses on, and smiles across the board. We. Did. IT!  Zainab and Nelofar were over the moon – especially Zainab, who had overcome such emotional lows to succeed.  They proved to themselves that they were stronger than they thought they were… and that they were champions.

It is crazy hot here at camp so difficult to sleep, but it is a good kind of exhaustion. Nelo and Zainab are in good shape. I have a heat rash all over my legs and feet, with some blistering where my compression socks ended, but elated otherwise. I knew they could do it, but it was another thing entirely to actually see it happen.

11km to go tomorrow. The Gobi March is almost done, but I have a feeling that Nelo’s and Zainab’s journey is just beginning.

Leah Anathan