Running to Earn the Street

As you may know, when I’m not running or working my ‘day’ job for the UN, I spend every waking moment (and a good portion of my sleeping time) on Free to Run, an organization I founded last year to provide sports opportunities for women and girls in areas of conflict. In June this year, we saw two Afghan women successfully complete a 250 km self-supported stage race across the Gobi desert. We are now training the second team from Afghanistan to compete in RacingThePlanet: Sri Lanka in February 2016. This post is taken from the Free to Run blog – it is written by Kubra, one of the three members of the Sri Lanka team.  This is her first blog about her training in Afghanistan, following her teammate Arzoo’s blog here. Both blog posts are so powerful that I had to repost them here. Meet Kubra, one of our Free to Runners in Afghanistan:

I start running to earn the street!

My name is Kubra. It is an Arabic word that means massive. I always wanted to achieve big things and do great things in my life. I like testing my strengths and taking on new challenges – running an ultra-marathon is one of them.

IMG_0566Out of nowhere, I was introduced to Stephanie early this year. She needed a female videographer who could travel with her to the north of Afghanistan to record Zainab and Nelofar (the first ultramarathon team from Afghanistan). From that moment, I decided to apply to be on the next team and aim for this amazing and challenging opportunity.

I was so inspired by hard work of Zainab and Nelofar that when I came back from filming them in the North, I decided to start running. I did running on a treadmill. After some times, I felt differently about running. I thought, why should I be limited just to a treadmill in a gym? Why not run on the streets and roads? Why not run outdoors and dedicate my soul and body to nature, to the air around me, and to the blue sky on top of my head? Hence, I decided to create a small group of girls who would join me to run on street. However, except one of my friends, nobody showed interest.  I did not lose hope: I wanted to run to earn the street. When the time came to apply to be on the Sri Lanka Ultramarathon Team with Free to Run, I did.

Then I heard I was accepted for this opportunity and a new chapter of my life began.

I tried my best to manage the training with my school studies and office work. It was much harder than I thought it would be. The training has gotten harder every day and I felt worried about the race. Arzoo, my other teammate, and I decided to run on street, but very early in the morning, as it is not crowed and people will not harass us. We preferred the darkness of night rather than to be harassed on the street during the day. I remember when we both ran on the street for the first time at night; it felt awesome. I thought I had broken all the barriers that have been around me all these years, and now I am free like a hungry tiger or lion who cannot wait to hunt their food. I can’t wait to reach to the end of the road.

The joy and hardships of training increased day by day, but I was getting 1914199_949284138490223_7224973334839602809_nstronger. One early morning as we both were running, I was beaten by a bicycle rider. He hit me with his hand while crossing me. I just turned my face and I have no idea why I did not say anything to him or why I did not have any reaction. After a while, I turned my face back and kept running faster and faster. Arzoo was trying to make me feel better, but I could not talk to her; I preferred to be silent and I know he felt my silence – it had a huge meaning. Like all the hardships of my life, these all will pass and I will come out of this challenges successfully.

Every night I dream of the finish line with my whole team members. I see a clear picture of myself with Arzoo holding the dearest flag of earth, my country’s flag with the nicest smiles we ever had in our faces. I dream this, but I believe this with conviction.

I believe Arzoo and I can go through the training perfectly well and finish the race happily. This race is one of those tests in my life that will lead me to discover my deep strengths and this is what I want from this race.

I run to earn the street and open it for my daughters and granddaughters.

Arzoo and Kubra face many challenges training in Afghanistan due to violence, insecurity and discrimination. Free to Run is working with the team to address these challenges and mitigate security risks. The safety of the team is paramount.


Interview with UltraRunnerDad: Running Strong at 60

One of my most favourite running memories involves my Dad. It was on 18 October 2013, my Dad’s 59th birthday, and we were at our family cottage. I had come home from abroad just a few days prior, reeling from a breakup, and really wasn’t up for doing anything other than drink gin and tonics.  But when I asked my Dad what he wanted to do for his birthday, he said go for a run – with me. I didn’t feel strong enough to go on my own, but the thought of going running with my Dad made me smile for the first time in days. You’re on.

I took him out to a trail in a provincial park called Charleston lake that is a short drive away from the cottage. Dad had only started running that year for the first time in his life and he had never run on trails before. I wanted him to see that running was so much more than the monotonous 5km loop he was running on the road.

I told my Dad we would do maybe 5-6km because I knew he wouldn’t think he could do more, but secretly I was planning on taking him further using jedi mind tricks and distractions (ultra runners are professionals at this). It wasn’t hard to do. The trail led us through a kaleidoscope of autumn colours – the red, orange and yellow leaves lining the path beneath seemed to reflect warm light back onto our faces. The air was crisp and sweet with the faint smell of fall decay. It was perfect running conditions.

After about 20 minutes, Dad asked me how long we had been running. I said 12 minutes. At half an hour, I told him we were at 20. I could see he was enjoying it, but I knew if I told him how far we had actually gone then he would psych himself out and want to turn back. I didn’t reveal how far we had actually gone until the end of the run. As we were stretching, I told him with a glint in my eye that we had run for an entire IMG_3781hour and covered 8 km on hilly trail. Dad chuckled and grinned, annoyed and pleased with my deception. It was the farthest and longest he had ever run, and he accomplished it on his 59th birthday.

I’m not sure who that run helped more that day, it meant a lot of both of us. For me, I got to share a sport I deeply loved with someone in my family. Dad was not only seeing a glimpse into my life, but he was also experiencing it for himself, which I thought would help him understand my craziness a bit better. For Dad, well, the smile on his face said it all.

When I asked my Dad if he would do this interview, he was hesitant to say the least. He still doesn’t think of himself as a ‘real runner’ and he wasn’t sure anyone would be interested in his story. I disagreed. He may be my Dad so I may be biased, but I think his journey into running at the age of 58, and how he has stuck with it at the age of 60, is pretty inspiring. So read on. Meet UltraRunnerDad.

UltraRunnerGirl:  You only started running at the age of 58. Did you ever try to get into it before?

UltraRunnerDad: I really wasn’t ever into running. I had tried it several times when I was in my teens and 20s as I thought it would be good for getting in shape, but it never worked for me. I ran circles around the track at university and got shin splints. I also tried running around the neighbourhood when your mother was overdue with Ben [UltraRunnerBrother] just to distract myself, but I hated it. The sports I really loved were downhill skiing, sailing, water skiing and golf.

UltraRunnerGirl: There were no running clubs you could join?

UltraRunnerDad: I don’t know, it was the 70s! They didn’t have things like that back then [chuckling].

UltraRunnerGirl: Like computers? Anyway, so what made you want to take up running now?

UltraRunnerDad: You see, I have this really crazy daughter who does all of these

Striking our best running pose in the midst of a Canadian winter
Striking our best running pose in the midst of a Canadian winter

impossible things and I only get to see her once or twice a year. So I thought it would be really cool if we could go running together.

UltraRunnerGirl: Awww, Dad! That’s awesome. So have I inspired you to come with me to Afghanistan too then??

UltraRunnerDad: [Smile fades] No. [Followed by a ‘don’t-push-your-luck-young-lady’ look]

UltraRunnerGirl: [Cough] Moving on. Were you worried when you started running about whether your body would hold up?

UltraRunnerDad: I started when I was 58, so yes, absolutely I was worried. Do you remember the first time you and I went for a run? Our total distance was only 5km and we walked several times. It was a struggle. We couldn’t even run more than a kilometre before I had to take a break. I found it tough from a cardio point of view and also from the strain on my legs. I was surprised – I thought I was in reasonably good shape as I went to the gym regularly – but maybe I wasn’t running efficiently.

UltraRunnerGirl: What challenges did you face when you first started? Did they make you want to give up?

UltraRunnerDad: My body hurt. I got shin splints and plantar fasciitis, and yes, it made me want to give up. I still think about giving up. My knees don’t hurt when I’m running, but the day after I hobble when I get out of bed.

UltraRunnerGirl: What is it that you enjoy about running?

UltraRunnerDad: I’m starting to enjoy running – I’m getting there. I listen to you talking about how you get going and your legs feel great, and one or two times that has happened to me. But most of the time it feels like work. I have gained great respect for real runners and what they can accomplish. And I’ve learned that my body can respond and get stronger, even at my age. My gym work has focused on my upper body, but now with my running my legs are getting strong and I can go further.

UltraRunnerGirl: What advice would you have for others who are starting to run at a later age?

UltraRunnerDad: Go slow and be patient. I have never been patient and I expected too much. And streeeeetch. Probably the walk-run thing is something to consider. I thought it was too wussy so I didn’t do it, but then I got injured.

UltraRunnerGirl: Are you doing the walk-run thing now then?

Running, not walking. UltraRunnerDad ain't no wuss.
Running, not walking. UltraRunnerDad ain’t no wuss.

UltraRunnerDad: No.

UltraRunnerGirl: Because it is too wussy?

UltraRunnerDad: [Silence]

UltraRunnerGirl: What do you think about ultrarunning now that you have started running yourself?

UltraRunnerDad: I’m in awe of you ‘real runners’. It is incredible what you guys do.
It gives me a better appreciation for the physical and mental demands of running. There is no way that it doesn’t hurt at some point. It takes mental discipline to push on.  I’m up for the challenge of running longer distances though. As part of my annual fitness assessment, I am asked about my goals for the upcoming year. I wrote down that I want to run 15 km. I would like to keep pushing it and see if I can go further.

UltraRunnerGirl: You don’t think of yourself as a ‘real runner‘?

UltraRunnerDad: Not yet. A real runner is someone who craves it I guess, and does really impressive distances.

UltraRunnerGirl: I may be giving you the wrong impression here… You’re definitely a real runner to me! Can I convince you to do a race with me? Like a 15km one? You’ve already done the training!

The photo of us in our headbuffs that I promised never to post.

UltraRunnerDad: I don’t know that I have any training – I just go out and put one
foot in front of the other. Races? Never say never… but I don’t think I need the competition. By nature I’m a competitive person, but sometimes it is nice not to compete.

UltraRunnerGirl: Do you think you’re ready for my visit home next month?

UltraRunnerDad: Psychologically?

UltraRunnerGirl: Um, I meant running-wise.

UltraRunnerDad: Well, we usually go for a run, and then you go for a ‘real’ run. I’m ready for a run that serves as your warmup.

UltraRunnerGirl: Any final thoughts, Dad?

UltraRunnerDad: Come home so we can go out for a run. [Thinking that the interview is over…]. I want you to emphasize in question three what a really crazy daughter I have. Make sure you put that in there.

UltraRunnerGirl: Okay Dad.

UltraRunnerDad is now up to a 10km run in an hour and can do 5km in 27 minutes. Now that he has been convinced to give up the trainers he owned since he was 18 years old, he now wears Hokas and Brooks trail shoes. He loves his new gadget – the Garmin Forerunner 205. UltraRunnerDad is currently training for the hurricane that is his daughter, who will be visiting home soil in late September.

Interview with ‘Ba Ba Man’: Afghanistan’s first skyrunner

In a recent Huffington Post article, Mina Sharif, who was born in Afghanistan, lamented that those living outside of Afghanistan only get to experience the country through the distorted lens the media presents. If your only source of information about Afghanistan is the mainstream media, she argues, then you might assume it is nothing more than a conflict-ridden country full of people just wanting to kill each other. She eloquently pointed out that we don’t pay enough attention to the good things about Afghanistan – including all those who are striving for peace and progression. She asks all of us to look deeper for the real story.

I couldn’t agree more. I fell in love with Afghanistan before I arrived and it deepened during my year living there. I love it more every time I return. In the spirit of sharing some of the real stories about the country and its people, I want to tell you about a man I met on my recent trip back to Kabul, and whom I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know over the past couple of months. Meet Baryalai, otherwise known as ‘Ba Ba Man’: Afghan ultrarunner, skyrunning pioneer, and massive Kilian Jornet fan. Baryalai is only one year older than me, but he has lived lifetimes more. From difficult beginnings growing up in Pakistan to his current efforts to start a skyrunning movement in Kabul, his life is nothing short of fascinating.

Ultra Runner Girl: Baryalai, tell us a bit about yourself.

Baryalai: I was born in 1981. I lost my family in the war when I was just a boy, so I had to move to Peshawar, Pakistan, where I grew up as an orphan. I was able to live with my relatives for some of the time, but at some points I had no choice but to move into certain religious schools, where I was provided free room and board. It was not a good situation.  However, I learned something good from there as well such as learning the Quran by heart. The Quran says never to take a life or to hurt anyone, and to let go of anything wrong that someone does to you. It was up to each person to chose how to come out of the schools: as a terrorist or as a good person. Very few would choose the second option. Poor families send children there for shelter, food and studying, but the kids often turn into suicide attackers or terrorists. I feel so sorry for those who are being sacrificed…it is all still happening because of the lack of social awareness and poverty amongst people of Afghanistan.

I returned to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2001 and when I came back, things were totally different than before during Taliban times. Soon I got a job with the Army and was deployed to Helmand province, Afghanistan. At the same time I got a call from my older sisters that they had chosen a girl for me to marry. I said, “ok, totally arrange the marriage” and when I saw the woman they picked we started to like each other. I got married in 2008 and I have two sons now, Rayan & Lian. I thank god for giving me back a family as I lived too long alone. I am so happy to have a family.

Ultra Runner Girl: What does running mean for you in your life? 

Baryalai: Running is my love – it has changed my life. I decided one day to get rid of my car and run tobabaman and from work every day instead, which is 15 km from my home. I lost 7 kgs in the first three months. With running, we can explore. Running is the king of the sports. It is keeping my dreams alive inside me. It is making me a good seeker and showing me how to achieve. Running makes me feel like a hero and I can follow my dreams. I have already achieved some of my dreams with running that would have been impossible otherwise.

Ultra Runner Girl: Describe what it is like to run in Afghanistan.

Baryalai: It is great to run in the mountains or in the places far from the city. It is like you are running among your dreams and can touch them… but it is not that cool when you run in the capital, Kabul. It is like you are carrying smoke in your mouth when you run through the city because of all of the pollution. There is risk of land mines in the mountains and there is also the danger of some ‘non official’ gunmen firing at you without reason – just because they don’t like you moving better than them in the mountains. There is also 11169624_1583825808554371_3718279324656677603_othe danger of Taliban in the mountains if you go far enough, but risk and danger is everywhere. Even the White House is not be free from danger so I believe that whatever is going to happen, will happen. Running has made me strong. I think I can handle these risks by moving faster in the mountains. The land mines are the real danger. You have to plan your steps and watch carefully so as not to step on any of them.

Ultra Runner Girl: Who or what inspires you?

Baryalai: I will say from the depth of my heart, and I take his name with a lot of respect, that Kilian Jornet is the one who inspires me so much. I am following his way – what he does in the mountains is great. It can change someone’s life as it did change mine.

Bruce Lee is also a source of inspiration most of the time. He has some great quotes. When I read them they really inspire me.  The one I like the best is this one: “Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”

Ultra Runner Girl: What do you hope to do with running in Afghanistan?

Baryalai: We can bring change with running: a change for the mothers, daughters, sisters, men and everyone who loves to go running but can’t because of some cultural ideas. There are those who don’t know the value of running and they gain weight, which makes them depressed,  stressed and lot of other problems that I see with my eyes.  I know they can end these problems with running just like I did when I found out about running.

Ultra Runner Girl: How do you think we can get more women and girls involved in running?

Baryalai: There are several options. I think a running school based in Afghanistan would be a very useful option or a running show on a TV that would come once a week. People would watch and find out about how to explore with running and about being sporty. Right now people don’t know the importance of running at this point. I would also say that running in Afghanistan really needs someone like Bruce Lee. What he did for the King Fu we need someone to do for running. This is when great change will happen, inshallah, as we expect.

Ultra Runner Girl: Finally, we’ve got to know…Why do you call yourself Ba Ba Man?

Baryalai: Well, usually my kids call me “Ba Ba” and my oldest kid, Rayan, who is six years old, is very interested in some of the superheroes from the movies like spiderman, Iron Man, batman and the X-men. Rayan will always tell me that the Iron Man is the strongest. I tell him, “Son! There is a person who is stronger than the Iron Man!” And Rayan will ask me, “who?” I tell him that it is Ba Ba Man! This will make us both laugh a lot every time.

Rayan also asks me why, if I am stronger than the Iron Man, am I not faster than Kilian Jornet? My answer to him is that Kilian has been practicing since childhood so that is why he so fast. So if you want to be faster and stronger than all of us, you need to keep practicing.

Stay tuned for some more news from Baryalai and Free to Run as we help him develop skyrunning in Afghanistan (with women and girls involved!). Don’t forget to follow him on the Skyrunning Afghanistan facebook page or contact Baryalai directly at You can also contact me at if you are interested in finding out more!