In 2017 Mile 27 founder and head coach Andy DuBois was honoured to be able to provide training plans for the Free to Run organisation for their team of runners participating in the third annual Marathon of Afghanistan. The team, coached by Andy, included the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place Afghan women. This year’s marathon saw eleven Afghan women, including two 15-year-olds, finish the race alongside Free to Run founder Stephanie Case and Ambassador Mahsa Torabi. This is a great improvement on the one Afghan woman who finished in 2015 and the six who completed the marathon in 2016. It may only be the third year of the Marathon of Afghanistan, but we’ve already come a long way.
Free to Run is a not-for-profit organisation that uses running, physical fitness and outdoor adventure to empower and educate women and girls who have been affected by conflict. They support those living within conflict areas as well as those who have been forced to flee and live as refugees outside of their home countries.
So what is it like to be a woman training for a marathon in Afghanistan? In an environment that can be hostile and dangerous, what are the biggest challenges, and how are these overcome? We spoke to Free to Run’s Country Program Manager, Taylor Smith, for her insight.
HOW MANY RUNNERS ARE IN THE PROGRAM?
For the marathon training program/our core teams there are a total of 70 runners from central, northern Afghanistan and the central highlands. This group consists of 80 per cent females and 20 per cent males. The age range is 15-25, but most of our participants are 18-20.
HOW DID YOU GET THE PARTICIPANTS INTERESTED IN RUNNING?
When we first started Free to Run, it was very basic. We could only get them to go ‘walking’. We would take them for hikes in the nearby mountains. Slowly, we gained community support and trust in the schools, and we were able to start sports weeks and running practices. It’s really through the schools and well respected local organizations that we were able to start a running program in Afghanistan.
HOW DID YOU GET THEM INTERESTED IN COMPETING THEM IN A MARATHON?
Steph (Free to Run’s Founder and President Stephanie Case)! Steph definitely sparked the bug on this one with her stories of ultramarathons. And by sending five Afghans to two different international ultra marathons, they were able to speak about it themselves in their own language, which fueled further interest. The stories they had and the increase in their confidence has been a huge motivator for all our participants- there are very few of them who DON’T want to run a marathon at this point.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES THE GROUP FACE IN TRAINING?
Security. Given the instability and daily explosions, navigating the security climate is our biggest obstacle. We’ve had to cancel dozens of practices due to suicide attacks or news of a major threat. We vary practice locations, times, and days so that our Free to Run teams never become direct targets themselves. The participants hardly ever know when/where they will practice, which is very hard for their own personal planning. All we can tell them is we will pick you up at X on Y and transport you somewhere safe for practice. Although, this does make it quite fun to see the joy spread on their face when I take them to a new location or a particularly beautiful running route.
CAN THEY TRAIN BY THEMSELVES AT ALL OR IS IT ALL DONE IN A GROUP?
Always as a group! As a rule, we don’t allow the girls to run alone. Unless they were making up a session they missed on our treadmill, of course.
ARE THERE RESTRICTIONS ON WHERE THE TEAM CAN TRAIN?
When we first started our Central team, the restrictions were massive. Not only did we have to take in everything I mentioned above into account, but our practice locations were very limited. Small business compounds, or house yards is where they would practice. Now that we’re a bit more established in the community and have better relationships with higher officials, they are able to practice in larger protected areas.
HOW DID EVERYONE GO IN THE MARATHON?
They all did really well! No complaining, from any of them. They only told me about pain in their legs/sides when I asked. They stopped to help other runners along the way in pain, and even picked up trash along the route (those few environmental lessons REALLY seemed to take!).
My favourite quote from the race from one of the girls was, “I will never ever do this again, this is so hard.” Not even one minute later, “But I know I will. I will run again, and longer and farther.” That one had me in stitches for at least a mile.
We split the female runners into 3 groups, the first group finished around 5 hours, second 5:30, and last at about 6:20. Not bad for 3000s meters and 21km of incline!
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MOST REWARDING MOMENTS YOU HAVE HAD WORKING WITH THE GROUP?
Marathon finish line, for sure! There were tears (mostly joyful, but definitely some pain!). It’s been a LOT of hard work pushing them to run these distances – especially in confined spaces, and getting them to prepare (in terms of nutrition and hydration). The base line of fitness here, especially for girls, is much MUCH lower, so the ability to run 5k takes twice as long as it would take anyone else.
I’ve also really enjoyed watching the regional teams meet one another. Identifying another female runner from a different province and ethnicity is a fast and quick way to make a life long friend out of someone who once upon a time would have been your enemy. The friendships they’ve developed have been enduring, if only because they face the same challenges doing what they love every day. The first day the teams all meet, they all sit on separate sides of the room in their own little groups. By the end of the sports week/marathon, I can’t pull them apart or speak over them to send them home.
HOW HAS THE BROADER AFGHAN COMMUNITY REACTED TO SEEING THE GROUP RUN?
It’s been different, depending on where we are, but overall I’ve seen an increasingly positive reaction. The first Marathon of Afghanistan, girls were getting rocks thrown at them along the route. Last year, someone tried running one of our participants off the route with a motorbike. This year, there were more smiling faces and cheering rather than jeering along the route.
Some of our practice locations have taken on additional ‘participants’ as well. Two hills, in particular, I’ve noticed local women/girls joining in the running where I never saw females before.
One of our locations in northern Afghanistan has really taken to it. After 3-4 months of Free to Run practices, the local women started coming out whenever they saw the team running. They told our Program Officer that they had watched the girls running for months, and finally their husbands/fathers/brothers had agreed to let them outside to join once they saw it was safe and nothing happened to the girls who were running.
WHAT EFFECT HAS THE RUNNING HAD ON THE REST OF THE ATHLETE’S LIVES?
The increase in confidence is a huge and visible difference I’ve seen. Our participants report being happier after practice, and that it has made them feel better in other aspects of their lives as well.
They’ve also learned leadership skills through attending the practices. We incorporate volunteer projects and leadership workshops as mandatory to be members of the team, and I’ve had the immense pleasure of watching them share their experiences running with other women. It’s encouraged a lot of our volunteer partners’ beneficiaries to ask to join the teams themselves.
RUNNERS THESE DAYS ARE INTO ALL THE LATEST GADGETS AND NUTRITION, GPS WATCHES, GELS, FANCY RUNNING SHOES, I IMAGINE THERE AREN’T ANY LOCAL RUNNING STORES IN AFGHANISATN TO BUY THESE, SO HOW HAS THE GROUP MADE DO?
We organized a shoe drive during my last trip home to the States, so I was luckily able to bring back decent, lightly used running shoes for them to run in.
Nutrition is definitely the harder one- the diet here is mainly bread, rice, beans, and meat. Getting them to eat vegetables and fruit has been an uphill battle, because for many of them it is just too expensive to buy.
Tracking the distance has also been difficult. I measured a lap in each of our locations myself, and the teams would simply add up how many laps they did each practice and log it in their runner journals for our regional program officers to convert into semi-accurate distances.
See Free to Run for more information on how you can help. Donations are always welcome.