I can think of a few defining moments in my life: landing in Africa for the first time, finishing my first 100 miler, standing up to a sexist boss, witnessing my first attack in Afghanistan and seeing the curvature of the earth from the top of Kilimanjaro. Building up the courage to break someone’s heart and learning how to piece my own back together (mainly through gın and tonics). Realizing I wasn’t invincible ın Rwanda and discovering that I didn’t give a shit in Syria. Quitting my job in corporate law from the middle of the Namibian desert. These moments stick out in my mind as fundamentally changing my attitude, my perspective, and my belief system ın how this world works (and my place in it).
My sense is that when we experience these moments, we usually have no idea that they are ‘defining’ us in any way – we are usually too focused on the moment itself to realize its broader significance or long-term importance. But when we are around to witness others’ defining moments, I think the gravity is much more apparent. Earlier this month ın the Gobi Desert, I had the privilege of witnessing what I would call ‘defining moments’ in the lives of Nelofar and Zainab, the members of Afghanistan’s first ultramarathon team.
Nelofar (19) applıed for the opportunity to race 250 km across the Gobı Desert ın December 2014. Not only had she never run a single kilometer ın her life before, but she had also never travelled by plane outsıde of Afghanistan. Zaınab (25) had more experience travelling, but was just as inexperienced when it came to running. Neither woman saw this as a problem – when they were selected for the team, they told me they would aim to win. Yes, it was naive, but their fearlessness was inspiring. Over the next six months, I witnessed Nelofar and Zainab train day after day, week after week, first remotely over skype and then in person when I visited Afghanistan. They faced street harassment, insecurity and widespread doubt about their ability to persevere. One day while training in the mountains, Nelofar found an unexploded remnant of war. In April, they witnessed a deadly Taliban attack in their hometown in which many were killed and dozens injured. They continued to train, sometimes forced to run laps around the compound in which they worked.
We at Free to Run tried to prepare Nelofar and Zainab for what they would face in the Gobi. We set up a team of international mentors, all extremely experienced in ultras, who skyped with them every week. We showed them videos, pictures of blistered feet, and told tales of tragedy and triumph. However, I knew deep down that nothing could really prepare them for what they were about to face in the Gobi. Let’s face it: no matter where you are from, whether Afghanistan or the United States, your first ultra comes as a rude shock to the senses. I knew they had it in them to complete the race, but I also knew that it was going to be an epic battle, both physically and mentally. They were going to hit rock bottom and it would be up to them to crawl out of it.
And they did. They both hit that point when the body and the mind told them to s-t-o-p. When all of those doubts, all of those ugly fears about failure, bubbled to the surface. That moment when they convinced themselves that everyone who told them they would fail were right. And then they broke free.
I’m not sure I have witnessed such strength – in anyone – as I did in those women. When I saw Nelofar get angry for the first time and turn that energy into forward motion, my pulse quickened to match hers. I fell in behind her silently as she marched along and smiled uncontrollably. Then when Zainab put on her shoes again after an hour of battling internal demons in the middle of the night, her courage sprinkled my skin with goosebumps. In these moments, I am not sure I have been more proud…
At the same time, upon honest reflection, I think I also felt a bit of shame. I wrote on the Free to Run blog all the things that I knew I should: I always knew they could do it! I never gave up on them! But if I am really going to open up here, there were definitely moments out there in the desert when I too let the doubt creep in. I let myself wonder whether I had pushed them too hard or expected too much… maybe I was wrong to think they could finish… Perhaps that is why Nelofar’s and Zainab’s performance in the Gobi has affected me so profoundly: they defied everyone’s expectations, including my very own. I have no doubt that they will be forever changed from this experience, and I suspect that I will be too. Was it a defining moment for me as well? Time will tell. However, I learned that as much as I think of myself as a “blue sky thinker”, I am as just much at risk of getting into the clouds as anyone else. More importantly, I discovered that there is capacity for more: bigger ideas, bolder plans, and brighter goals (I can hear a collective *facepalm* amongst some of my readers at this very moment). But hey, why not? Today is my birthday and I’m turning the ripe old age of 33.
Last year on this day I was kicking up dust at a Medecins Sans Frontiers party in the bush in South Sudan, twirling around under coloured lights made from plastic buckets and full-body laughing with aid workers. Today I am in Gaza, adding to the list of ‘strange places in which I have gotten a year older’ (Syria, India, Kyrgyzstan, South Sudan). I am having difficulty reflecting clearly on the last year, partly because of my surroundings and partly because of the enormity of everything that has happened… but I am looking forward to clearing my head in the mountain air during the Lavaredo Ultra Trail next week!
I am always so grateful for your blog. Thank you. I like the photos and the reality of life. My son Jack has been in South Africa for the past 10 months and his life will forever be changed such as yours. He is only 17 and he is seeing life as I wish I couldve seen it when I was his age.
Thanks, Colleen! Wow, your son is pretty brave to head out to another country at the age of 17. I was definitely a late bloomer! Congrats to him (and to you for being a very cool mom).
Stephanie. God, I love this blog post. It gave me watery eyes, and goose bumps all at the same time. You are a wonderful and beautiful person inside and out. Love the work that you do and the life you live. And I do mean live, not just exist. Cheers my friend.
Really appreciate that, Jack! Great to be connected 🙂
Stephanie, I suspected you had that something special in you. You never followed the herd and questioned why others didn’t see things they way you did. It was hard for you for a time, but you have obviously carved out your own path and the world is a better place because of it. I admire and respect your passion for what you are doing and what you believe in. It’s not everyone who can do this with the commitment you have shown. Keep up the good work and I look forward to your next blog.
Thanks, Mr Ross! (Yes, even now, I still can’t break the habit of calling you that!). Doing my best over here 🙂 Thanks so much for following and for the encouragement.
Beautiful post, Stephanie. You never cease to amaze us and inspire us. What a privilege it is to have met you.
Back atcha! Looking forward to seeing you in Geneva soon (insha’allah)
You don’t know how badly I needed to read this right now. Thanks for these amazing words, and thanks for being the incredible person that you are. Here’s to many more years in your life, and a whole lot more life in your years. You are unstoppable and I’m blessed to know you. Happy birthday rockstar.
Here’s to the old lady house. Can’t wait 🙂
I was quite impressed by you when I originally subscribed to your newsletter and find that with each newsletter that arrives in my inbox I become even more impressed. Women around the world need to become acquainted with your blog and newsletters so they can see just what remarkable things are possible to any woman that believes in herself and makes the effort to step out of the box to pursue whatever is of interest to her. At the young age of thirty-three you have experienced and learned more than most people in their 70’s. I tip my hat to you, Madamoiselle.
Merci bien! I’m not sure I deserve such praise, but thank you for saying it 🙂
Happy birthday Stephanie! As a traveller/anthropologist with hopes of completing a 100-miler before turning thirty (still a couple of years to go) and reeeally struggling to continue training while travelling long term in some pretty strange places you are kind of my guru, if I were the type for such things 🙂 adding Nelofar and Zainab to my list – time to brave the monsoon heat and put some mileage on my legs again. Keep up the good work and thanks for the inspiration!
Awesome!!! Allez allez allez!! Would love to meet you on the trails someday!
Your perspective on defining moments resonated with me; it can be difficult to identify the significance of our choices when the consequences (positive or a learning experience) are yet unknown. Thank you for again sharing in such an open, vulnerable (read: strength) manner. I love hearing how this project is changing lives and norms!
Thanks, Anna!! Positive or a ‘learning experience’ – how true 🙂
Belated Happy B’Day Stephanie… And many thanks for writing such uplifting journals… And always.. If you are ever back on Canada with a stopover in Montreal… Always welcome…. 👍👍👍
LOVE THIS! Crazy how you don’t realize the moments that define your character until you look back. Your anything is possible attitude is contagious! Would it be possible to use this story for a guest post on http://www.gutslikeagirl.com/ ? Your voice would be a great addition to the guts like a girl family!
Hi there! Yes of course – please go ahead! 🙂
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