(Un)familiar territory

Ever done a loop course, or perhaps the same race multiple times, when you think you should be experiencing deja vu, but instead you find yourself in unfamiliar territory? You are covering the same ground and your brain is telling you that you should recognize your surroundings…but everything looks, sounds and feels different. It is like you are running through that area for the first time.

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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.

Defining Moments

I can think of a few defining moments in my life: landing in Africa for the first time, ghana2finishing 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!