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.
Nelofar and Zainab have pushed their way through day four - 160km done! Only the long stage to go and then a victory run to the finish!
After quite a tough and emotional day yesterday, I think we all needed a bit of a mental break today. Thankfully, other than a brief period of wind and rain, the weather cooperated. In fact, it did a 180 and we found ourselves fighting off dehydration in 35C+ weather for most of the day! It was a rough start, but as we have learned, Nelofar and Zainab just take a bit of time to find their feet in the morning. Nelofar mastered the art of the fast march today, which was impressive to see. With sheer determination, she pushed her poles into the ground and pushed forward. Zainab was experiencing quite a bit of knee pain today, but Nelofar was the one to step up and talk her through the course.
Virginie, Belinda and I walked ahead, leaving the women in peace to figure out their own pace. We are here to support them and push them, but ultimately they have to will themselves through the race. It was such a lovely sound to hear them chatter away in Dari and giggle every once in a while. Despite the pain, Nelo and Zainab are soaking up every moment of this experience, enjoying the chance to walk and run freely in the outdoors without having to worry about their safety.
We have a huge challenge ahead though. We are facing 80 km tomorrow, which is going to really test Nelo's and Zainab's physical and mental limits (and maybe ours too!). It may take us 24 hours or longer. But we are up for it. And when we are done? There will only be 10 km left for Afghanistan's First Ultramarathon Team!!
Thanks for your messages of support. Nelo and Zainab are enjoying meeting new friends around camp and they say hello to their moms. (Me too). Check out our other programs on our website and please consider supporting our work!www.freetorun.org
Today Team Asma'I overcame immense challenges and came together during some really dark moments...but it certainly wasn't easy.
It was another slow start, but we were confident that Nelo and Zainab would pick up speed once we got warmed up. The scenery was stunning as the path followed along the Tian Shan mountains. Unfortunately, however, just when we were getting into our stride, the heavens opened up and it started to pour. And pour. And pour.
Quite simply, it was miserable. Freezing cold, wet, and very windy. Unlike the other days, the rain showed no signs of stopping. Belinda, Virginie and I tried to keep Nelo and Zainab going with more songs and by counting out 20 second runs, interspersed with short breaks, but we were all chilled to the bone. It was tough as 'vets'to keep our energy up and cheer up Nelo and Zainab, and it was really hard as their friends to see them struggle. But they pushed on, silently and persistently, through the bitter wind and rain.
To be honest, most of the day was a blur. We knew it would be tough - over 42 km today - but we really weren't anticipating such horrendous conditions. At 1pm, Nelo and Zainab stopped to pray in the rain and mud without complaint and then we carried on.
When we reached the third checkpoint, there were a number of people huddled up under the tent in plastic bags and bivvy bags, but I knew if we stopped then we would never get going again. We continued calling out 20 second runs, which resembled more of a shuffle by that point, until Nelofar suddenly started struggling. For most of the day, we had been more worried about Zainab as she had barely spoken a word, but then our focus was on Nelo. I think everything caught up to her - the physical exhaustion and the emotional journey - and she broke down into tears. In a great display of teamwork, Zainab sprung to life, grabbing Nelo by the arm and giving her a pep talk in Dari. Virginie, Belinda and I all stepped back and let the two of them work through the pain and the struggle.
Arm in arm, we finished the race - finally! As I type this, it has started to rain again so I must run to grab my clothes from around the fire. Hoping for clearer skies tomorrow.
Nelo and Zainab have shown incredible strength and resilience and are now both smiling and warm in their sleeping bags. Thanks so much for the messages - they are reading them all!
-Stephanie, on behalf of Team Asma'i
Today was a day of extreme lows and highs...but what a strong finish! Day two is done!
After another cold night in the yurt, Team Asma'I lined up to begin the 40 km stage two. While it was sunny and warm when we first woke up, by the time it hit 8am, it was snowy down pretty hard. No one really wanted to believe that we would have TWO days of bad weather, so we just layered up and told each other that the snow would end soon.
Both Nelofar and Zainab had some aches and pains, but Zainab was really struggling. We weren't even more than a few minutes into the race before she was limping and grimacing from the pain. Pretty soon, we were the last competitors on the trail. Belinda, Virginie and I all knew what was going on in Zainab's head. The second morning is the hardest: you are stiff, in pain, and you still have hundreds of kilometres ahead. Doubts creep in...Can I really do this? We knew she could, but Zainab needed to find the confidence within herself.
The course turned up a hillside, giving us an incredible 600m climb in the snow! Neither Nelofar nor Zainab had done winter hiking like this before - it was quite steep and tough going, but thanks to the rest of the team, we managed to pass people on the hill! Once we got to the top, we were treated with an amazing view, which gave the team a boost. Nelo and Zainab were really happy to see that we were overtaking people, and dare I say the competitive spirit came out! Zainab proved to herself that she COULD do it, and once she did, she was unstoppable. We walked and ran our way down the path, overtaking three teams and a number of individual competitors. It was amazing to see the team rebound!
Nelofar started feeling some pain as well, but like Zainab, she pushed through it. She said anytime she hit a low moment, she thought about her mom and Allah, and that would help get her through. At one point when she was racing down the hill she giggled and said that she felt like Allah's angels were pushing her forward.
We hit checkpoint two right at 1pm, which coincided with prayer time. As Nelo and Zainab prayed, the rest of the team went to work filling up bottles and taking out snacks. It finally started to warm up, so we shed our raincoats and warm layers and basked in the sun and 20 weather...It was hard to believe that a few hours earlier, it was freezing and snowing.
The last couple of stages were tough, but Nelo and Zainab dug deep. We finished the day as the third place team! Incredible effort!
We are seeing Nelo and Zainab get more confident day by day, which is what these races are all about. They are learning to break through the dark moments and enjoy the highs.
Zainab says that without the support of the team, she does not think she could have finished. It was a really tough day, she says, especially the hills, but we killed them!
Thanks to all for the support! Please do check out Free to Run (www.freetorun.org) and consider supporting our work! You can donate through our website or through the fundraising page specifically set up for the Afghan Ultra Team to help offset the costs of training and racing (www.youcaring.combackslash freetorungobi).
Thanks for all of the messages!
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 then a 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 www.youcaring.com/freetorungobi or our website at www.freetorun.org. We can't wait to start day two!
-Stephanie, on behalf of Team Asma'i
Just one week to go! This has been a stressful week for Team Asma’i. With just days to go before their flight to China, the team ran into some unexpected obstacles getting their Chinese visas. We were told that it would be nearly impossible to fix it in time. Thanks to the support of the running community around the world, Nelofar and Zainab now have the necessary documents that they need to get their visas (insha’allah). Here Zainab describes their relief and gratitude to everyone who rallied behind them to help get them to the Gobi:
22 May 2015
Zainab: “I am writing from both me and Nelofar. We want to say thank you to all who helped us to get the invitation letters for our Chinese visas. It is amazing that everybody thinks about women in Afghanistan. It shows humanity, friendship and for me a kind of peace! During last week we were very sad, when we were sitting together we couldn’t even speak with each other. We were just watching face to face and thinking about all the hard training and everything, but now we feel like we are full of energy to do it!” – Zainab, Team Asma’i
We are into the final few weeks of training before Nelofar and Zainab head out to China to compete in the 4Deserts Gobi March. The girls have gotten the green light from the Chinese Embassy on their visas and will be returning to Kabul shortly to formally apply (they have already made one trip). This week, we hear the beginnings of their
plans to start a new running club for women in their area of Afghanistan… Exciting stuff! Stay tuned – you may be seeing a new Free to Run project pop up soon. Don’t forget to leave the girls a message of support and visit our dedicated fundraising page. Nelofar’s and Zainab’s gear and race entries have been generously provided by the 4Deserts and RacingThePlanet, but there are other significant costs related to the girls’ training and participation in the race (see our fundraising page for details. Thanks for your support!
This week my practicing was good. I ran on the treadmill, but I did not go to the hills because the security was so bad. Something bad will probably happen, so I just did my training on the treadmill [see Nelofar’slast blog about the attack in her area]. It was nice because there were some other girls who like running. They said that they also wanted to go in this race next year and that they like to run. During the training, I am listening to music and it is so nice. I found some new treadmills for my club and now about 20 girls say that they want to run and practice. I am very happy because of them and because of my work and I want to say thanks to Free to Run for supporting me in this race.
During the last two weeks I was in Germany for a 12-day camp on sport and peace program run by the UN Office on Sports for Development and Peace (UNOSDP).
I met a man who is working for UNOSDP and he is also training for a marathon. He encouraged me to continue on my path!
During this camp, I didn’t have enough time for training, but I was running during the night in the streets!
For the first time in my life I felt peace and I realized what the meaning of peace was!
I was running alone until midnight. The cars were on the street and they were just continuing their way.
One night when I was running in the streets my new friends joined me and we ran about 1 hour together. I had a very nice experience to run with friends from different countries. And the best part of that was the encouragement of my friends to run.
In my country nobody encourages me for running. It means that when I speak about this race with my friends in Afghanistan they react like it is not possible!
It is really good to have friends who believe in your goals!
I hope one day we have a very big running team of girls who believe in each other and we can run on the streets or even run in a safe place, Amen!
This past week in Afghanistan has been particularly turbulent. Deadly attacks were carried out in a number of different cities across the country, including where Nelofar and Zainab currently live. Five aid workers from Save the Children were also found dead in the south after being abducted and held for weeks. Nelofar’s post this week reminds us of the extreme challenges that people face in Afghanistan on a daily basis. However, Nelofar also talks about how running is helping her deal with the stresses and worries that come with living in such a difficult security environment. Please show your support and help get these women to the Gobi March next month by visiting this dedicated fundraising page… and don’t hesitate to offer your support by leaving a comment.
Nelofar: This week my practicing was good. I ran on a big hill and around the compound where I work. However, during the practice we faced problems. When we went to the hills we saw a hand bomb and we informed the police. Also, the other day a big attack happened in our city and lot of people were killed. Everybody is sad and afraid. The security is so bad. Every night we think that this attack will happen again and they say that this time they will attack a university. Because of that my mom will not let me to go to the university, but I have to go to and study. Everybody is saying to not go to the hills and other places because of bad security. I don’t know what I should do. I am just praying for my country that everything will become okay again and we will have a peaceful country. I like running…when I am practicing I feel free and become relaxed. Running helps me a lot to not think about the bad things. We will start practicing on the treadmill again finally this week.
The safety of Nelofar and Zainab always comes first. Alternative solutions to their weekend training outdoors are being sought in the aftermath of recent attacks. Both women have been provided refresher educational materials on how to deal with explosive remnants of war if they happen to come across them in training.
Over the past week, Free to Run founder Stephanie Case had the opportunity to meet and train with Nelofar and Zainab in person in Afghanistan for the first time. Accompanying Stephanie was Kubra, an Afghan camerawoman, to get some footage in the hopes of producing a future documentary on the experience of this inspiring team.
29 March 2015
Nelofar: This week was very good – better than last week. We practiced a lot and we had lots of fun during the week. We did some filming and ran more than last week. Our training schedule has changed. On Friday we ran around 4.5 hours, which was very interesting. Now I am practicing alone because Zainab is not with me. She is Kabul – I miss her a lot and hope that she comes back soon.
One bad thing that happened is that we can’t practice in the gym anymore because some men want to practice at the same time so now we want to continue our training plan inSkateistan. I am also running around the building and can run a lot, but inside the compound I don’t know how far I am running. My phone does not show me the distance in kilometers. The treadmill was very nice for practicing. I know the treadmill is a little boring, but it is very good for training and being strong. I think treadmill is very important for us, so I am looking to find other treadmill to use.
It was very amazing that last week Team Asma’i was with each other. We had a lot of fun. I can’t say how happy I was with my team, practicing and filming. We went to the mountains and another place. The two days Stephanie was with us were the best days as she helped us a lot for the training. We learned new things from her and changed our schedule. She told us we have to do more training. When she was here we ran 6 km without stopping for the first time very fast. We had a very nice and lovely and friendly time with her and we miss her a lot.
Last week in Kabul, an Afghan woman, Farkhunda, was beaten to death after being falsely accused of burning the Koran. This tragic event has triggered protests and public outcry across the country – and beyond. In the blog posts by Nelofar and Zainab this week, we can hear of how this news has affected them.
24 March 2015
Nelofar: Last week was not as good as the other weeks because we were not able to practice a lot. It was during the new year and people came from lots of provinces of Afghanistan to our city for celebrating the new year. People had guests and the streets were closed. I heard bad news about an Afghan girl, Farkhunda, that was killed in Kabul by the people. All the girls of Afghanistan that heard about her were sad, not just me. I think lots of girls think that one day these things can happen to them. I also think it can happen to me but I am not afraid. Since I was born I am hearing about these types of things and I grew up with this bad security. Not just Farkhunda, lots of people die here because of this bad security – this is Afghanistan! We can’t say anything about the security. We can just pray for Allah to make everything good. Last week we run some days of the week in the gym and I practiced with football and running with my brothers in the house. And this week we will practice a lot.
Zainab: During last week we practiced in the gym every day for one and a half hours. On the weekend we were off from training because of New Year’s celebrations. In our city it is usual 1 or 2 days before New Year that all the streets are closed because of security. Most of the people come to our city from other provinces to celebrate New Year. So I practiced at our small yard during holidays. At the beginning of New Year I heard a very shocking news about Farkhunda who was beaten to death and burned in Kabul. It is a huge tragedy in the history of Afghanistan. I feel unsafe, I feel I am Farkhunda, I am scared of men in our country – our country is going which way?
Nelofar and Zainab will be sharing their progress with us through a weekly blog. Read on to find out about their training, share in their successes, and learn about the immense challenges they face as women in Afghanistan… and please join us in cheering them on.
Free to Run is providing these amazing young women with transportation stipends to allow them to travel to and from safe training grounds each day, training plans by world-renowned ultrarunner Ray Zahab, and ongoing support through a group of four experienced international ultrarunners, including three-time world record holder Mimi Anderson. We will also be funding their travel costs to and from the race. Their gear has been generously donated by RacingThePlanet and their race entries sponsored by the 4 Deserts. For one year following the race, Nelofar and Zainab will be acting as Free to Run Ambassadors within Afghanistan, working to inspire other young women to reach for the stars.
If you have any questions about this initiative or would like to support this project, please contact Stephanie at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
1 March 2015
Nelofar: I was born in Afghanistan and grew up in the Pakistan. I have 6 brothers and 2 sisters, and I am living with my family in mazar –e- sharif Afghanistan. I love running and it is about one month that I’ve been practicing for this running race. In my family, my mom supports me a lot and she thinks that I will be a winner, and I am so excited about this race. Me and Zainab are practicing in the gym four days every week and in the mountains two days of the week. We are running and walking. This is a very good and big opportunity for us. Everybody – my friend and family, are supporting us to be winner in this race. And I will try my best to be winner not just to finish. I have lots of dream about this race to be winner.
Zainab: Last week we had 2 days off because of snowy weather. In fact the problem was not the snow, it was a transportation problem – here when the weather is snowy or rainy streets will become full of water or frozen. Last week in some provinces of Afghanistan we had a very heavy snow, and a bunch of people were killed by snow break. Now we have 3 days of mourning for about 200 people killed in Panjshir, Salang, Bamyan and Badghis provinces. It was really sad news for me. Our running training is going pretty well, I have pain in my hip, shoulders and calf. I am waiting for next Skype meeting with one of our mentors to tell her my pains! One thing that I realize during 1 and half month of running training is that we are scared to do free warm up in front of our people, because our community has instructed us that sport is not good for girls. But we are doing it and it is really fantastic!
[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!"