Completing an ultramarathon is an extreme challenge even with the best preparation. For two young athletes training in Afghanistan, it is almost impossible. For the last few months, Zeinab and Hasina have been battling insecurity, street harassment and pollution as they run through the streets and hills around Kabul. In July, they will attempt to become the third team from Afghanistan to successfully participate in a RacingThePlanet / 4 Deserts ultramarathon.
The 250km race, Gobi March (Mongolia) 2018, is organized by RacingThePlanet / 4 Deserts Ultramarathon Series, and starts on 29 July 2018. It’s a 250 kilometer / 155 mile, seven-day, stage race in which competitors must carry everything they need for the race on their back. The average backpack will weigh 9 kilograms / 20 pounds. A group of international competitors from around 40 different countries will compete alongside the team from Afghanistan.
Zeinab and Hasina hope to repeat the successes of their 2015 and 2016 fellow Afghan teams who participated in the Gobi March (China) 2015 and RacingThePlanet: Sri Lanka 2016. All three teams were selected, trained, and supported by Free to Run, a non-profit organization that uses sport and fitness to empower women and girls from conflict-affected communities.
The founder of the organization, Stephanie Case, is herself a seasoned ultramarathon runner and RacingThePlanet / 4 Deserts veteran. The idea behind the Afghan ultramarathon team came about in 2012 when she was working in Kabul and training for the Gobi March. “I told myself then that it was too early, too controversial, and too impossible to even try to attempt,” she says. That changed when Case made a trip back to Afghanistan to launch Free to Run’s projects. “I was completely inspired by the strength and determination of the women with whom I met. Everything seems impossible until you try, so why not now?”
For most RacingThePlanet / 4 Deserts competitors, getting through a 30-, 50- or 60-kilometer training run takes a great deal of effort. For Zeinab and Hasina, simply finding a place to run and getting there safely is a logistical Everest.
“It is unsafe for them to run outside in the city and they have only just gotten access to a treadmill,” says Case. “The idea of women running in Afghanistan is still shocking to many and we have to constantly keep that in mind.” Case is working to find creative solutions to allow the women to train, but under the current security environment, their training conditions are far from ideal.
Getting proper equipment into the country poses another challenge, involving shipping items by courier through trusted contacts into the capital and out to the area where the women live, about 400 kilometers from Kabul. Training with proper shoes, clothing and backpacks is essential to prevent injury and prepare them for the harsh climates they will endure in the desert.
Despite the enormous obstacles, the women don’t doubt they’ll cross the finish line, and Case doesn’t, either. “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.”
About Free to Run. Free to Run uses running, physical fitness and outdoor adventure as a means of empowering women and girls from conflict-affected communities. By creating and supporting an environment for women and girls to participate in sport and physical education, Free to Run aims to use the power of sport to change lives and communities in areas of greatest need. http://www.freetorun.org