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Afghanistan’s only female Marathon Runner is racing to keep women’s sport alive

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Afghanistan’s only female Marathon Runner is racing to keep women’s sport alive

 After the Gobi, Zainab and Nelofar decided they would take on Kabul, that beast that swallowed Farkhunda. On a hot afternoon in August 2015, with two friends in tow, they tentatively approached the starting point of an unofficial marathon into the capital. A small group of male runners had planned the event, promising escort vehicles would provide protection and water for the women. But shortly after the race began, the men tired of waiting for the women. The men and their support trucks vanished down the road. 

Unable to keep pace with the pack, Zainab and her friends became prey. Villagers pelted them with stones and curses as they descended into Kabul’s smog. The women ran for seven terrifying hours, finding relief from the abuse only when one of the male runners turned back to defend them against the onlookers for the remainder of their run. As they finished in the dark, Zainab’s friends trembled with fear. Zainab shook with rage, a rage that she would convert into fuel for her historic marathon run not two months later.
Back at the Free to Run Summit last month, the athletes assembled at the base of the Koh-e Babas, the “grandfather mountains,” whose cracked and tawny backs bend over the city of Bamyan. In the run-up to race day, the summit attendees had planned a strenuous three-day trek along an ancient mountain path. 
As far as anyone knew, no group of women hikers had ever spent multiple days and nights in these mountains. It was so unusual, in fact, that a national television station had sent a crew along to film them. Local communities would undoubtedly take notice, too, and so careful consultation with the area’s mullahs and elders was required. 
The village leaders were gracious and receptive, and a few even offered the hikers places to sleep in their mud brick homes and simple meals of boiled eggs and tea.
The route itself was as daunting as the planning process. The path vaulted from tree line to snow line up two 14,000-foot mountains and traversed rivers and ridges into the villages. It was like an Outward Bound trip, done Silk Road-style. Pondering how women with so few opportunities to get outside would fare across the miles of swamp and shale, I ambled off the path into a crotch-high pit of mud. As an amateur runner myself (and one prone to overreaching on the trail), I was fascinated by Zainab and Nelofar’s Gobi tale and had come to see them in action.
Nelofar was short with a soft, feminine build not usually found among long-distance runners. Her petite frame looked strong, however, as she scaled a glacial moraine with Indian music pumping through her earbuds. She had trained well. At home in the North, she jogged daily at dawn in a public park, again under the protection of police. Twenty-five female recruits joined her, and many more had run in two half-marathons she had covertly organized.
If Zainab struggled at the back of the pack, she didn’t say so. She tended to plod, yes, and had lost strength since her last race, but still she was loathe to quit. Setting a good example was important. “After the Gobi, I found that we are in this world to push others, to change others’ lives with our speech,” she said. As she marched along, she talked of a future shaping women’s sport through politics. Of course, it was unwise to be too imaginative, she said. Afghanistan was masterful when it came to obstructing dreams.
The close of the summit brought the athletes down from the mountains and into Band-e-Amir for the final race. Afghanistan’s first national park was a jewel box of turquoise lakes and crystalline waterfalls ornamenting a desolate, dusty plateau. Wealthy Afghan families wrapped in their best silks had hiked in with tea kettles to picnic alongside the glittering pools. Band-e-Amir was their national treasure.
Free to Run had bussed in seventy girls for the hike and race after successful presentations in local schools. Hundreds of schoolgirls, many of whom recognized Zainab, had listened transfixed to the tales of running and climbing and clambered to ask for more opportunities to get outside. Those lucky enough to get their fathers’ permission had come along to Band-e-Amir. Though the park was only a two-hour drive from town, few of the girls had ever visited. No one had ever spent the time or money to take them. The delighted children spent the day stomping around the canyon with the adult athletes. 
Now, to close out the week, everyone trudged into place for the footrace. The younger girls looked pretty wilted. Chasing around Band-e-Amir Park all day had left them with little fuel for the race scheduled at dusk, so they behaved as adolescents anywhere would. They whined and tried to get the run canceled. The organizers would have none of it, though. The race was on. 
Toes straightened at the start line, some in slippers, sandals, or heels, all hopelessly muddied by the day’s hike. Nazima and Nazira, two gangly sisters who had run a Free to Run 10k the year before, bent at the waist over their knobby front legs. The other girls followed suit, training their eyes on the finish and not on their crumpling dresses. The senior athletes formed a second row. Nelofar took the rear to urge on stragglers. An Afghan TV cameraman perched and started filming.
The flock exploded forward, sending violet, ruby, and teal veils flapping around fifty unrestrained grins. Plumes of white dust and echoes of laughter trailed the stampede as it vanished over the horizon. 
The sight of gleeful, sprinting women seemed to fit naturally against the backdrop of the open plateau, except that this was Afghanistan.
The journalists and race organizers stayed crouched in place for a moment, clutching their cameras as the dust flurried over their heads. Mesmerized, each thumbed through shot after shot of unreasonably powerful girls, radiant and unbounded. For a long time, not a single observer would notice Zainab’s silhouette in the back of the photos. 
There she remained in each frame, head heavy, turning away from the the unseen finish line at the moment a new generation of girls surged ahead.