Arriving in Afghanistan, I was looking forward to running with Zainab, the first Afghan woman to complete a marathon and the person who had inspired me during my recovery from a clot on the brain. However, two days before the race I had been told by Taylor Smith, Program Director for Free to Run, that Zainab had other commitments and would be unable to participate in the race. I was very disappointed. However, I knew there was a large number of Free to Run Afghan girls running their first marathon and I wondered how I could help.
Then a brain wave hit me, why not be the very first “Pace Bunny” in the Marathon of Afghanistan. I put this to Taylor and she thought it was a great idea. The night before the race I made a set of bunny ears and a time placard. I knew that was going to be an incredibly difficult course. The maximum elevation is over 11,000 feet (3,360m) which means the oxygen level drops from 21% to 13.7%. Also, the course is extremely hilly and the elevation gain / loss over the 42 km is 3,723 feet (1,135m). This would be a challenge for me and the girls. So with the cut off time being 8 hours I made the “pace bunny” time 7 hours. Go Bunny Go.
The next morning, at the Band e-Amir National Park race start area, I met up with Hassina, Free to Run Kabul Field Officer. She agreed to be my “Assistant Pace Bunny” and pointed to a group of girls who would be running with us. We got together and I gave them a pre-race talk.
There were six other girls, 2 from Bamyan, 2 from Herat and 2 from Kabul and I explained to them that we would let the other runners go ahead. I also explained that as we did this we would shout “Hey Ho, Let’s Go!” They were all very excited. There were speeches from Stephanie Case, founder of Free to Run and the Governor of Bamyan said a few words and then at 9.10am, James Bingham, Race Director, did the countdown 5….4….3….2…..1 and we were off.
The first part of the race was a 2 km out and back and at the completion of each km I yelled out “Hey Ho” to which the girls replied “Let’s Go!” Then we headed up on the first of many steep climbs out of the numerous valleys in Band e-Amir.
7km Check Point
Check points were located every 7 kms and things were going pretty well with the group as we approached the first aid station. The route had been tough. My only concern was that one of the girls was complaining of back pain so I suggested she drop out at the next check point but she said no. I knew there was a sweep vehicle behind us and that she would probably take that before the next check point. The group kept moving forward and were on track up to the 10 km point. The course was marked with wooden planks, laying at the side of the road, with black arrows painted on and we had been following them diligently.
At a fork in the road we followed the arrow pointing left and continued for 2 kms down a path. Then we heard yells from across the valley and people were waving at us to come over. The girls and I trudge across a marshland and met up with the race volunteers. They told us that someone had turned the plank around and that we were going the wrong way.
14km Check Point
This was a disaster and I was pretty mad. There was no way we would complete the marathon in 7 hours. It would be tough enough for the girls and I to even make the 8 hour cut-off without this, as some of them were, by now, struggling with the terrain and physical issues. At the 14 km check point I shared my feelings with the volunteers. I asked that they pass along a message to James Bingham, Race Director, to extend the cut-off to 9 hours.
21 km Check Point
We continued on and reached the 21km, half way check-point in 4hrs 30mins. However on my GPS it said 23kms, due to the detour. I knew at this pace we had a chance. The first half had been brutal, stunning views but it had been a tough slog up and down the steep, dusty hills. We had been told that the second half would be easier but I had my doubts. James Bingham had said the course had “Rolling Hills”.
As we left the 21 km check-point, I noticed the group had become smaller by one. I had lost sight of the girl with the bad back and another girl had started to lag.
A key milestone on the route, at the 26 km point, is the arched entrance to Band e-Amir National Park. It was a long straight climb from there and as I reached the top of the hill I looked back to the arch and couldn’t believe my eyes. There, in the distance, was the girl with the bad back. It had been 20 kms and 4 hours since I had seen her and she had kept going on her own and not given up. I decided there and then that I would try and get her, and the other girl who had fallen behind, across the line before the hoped for 9 hour cut-off.
28km Check Point
I continued to the 28 km check point and told Hassina that I was going to wait there for the two girls and that she was to take the rest of the group to the 35 km check point and wait for me there. 20 mins later the two girls caught up and told me they wanted to continue. The girl who had been way back could speak a little English and she said her name was Sonya, she was 14 years old and lived in Herat. She told me that the other girl was Anita, 16 years old, also from Herat and her sister. Unbelievable.
We had 3 hours to do 14 km. The girls were struggling but they plodded on. We arrived at the 35 km check point but no Hassina or the other runners. She had done the right thing and not waited for us. Every so often we would do a “Little Run”, maybe 100m just to keep some momentum going. We had an ambulance following us and I asked the girls on a number of occasions if they wanted to get in but they always said no.
The last 3 kms were downhill and we had 55 mins complete it. The girls were getting excited and wanted to get their medals. The sun was setting as we rounded the last corner and then we heard the cheers and yells. The three of us ran across the finish line with hugs and tears all round. Sonya, Anita and myself had finished in 8 hours 46 minutes and were told that race director James Bingham had approved the 9 hour cut off limit. We had finished with 14 minutes to spare. I saw Hassina and the other girls and we were all extremely happy and relieved.
It had been an amazing day and in total 20 Free to Run women and girls completed the marathon. The resilience, persistence and determination shown by these women and girls is an example to the rest of us.
About the Author
Martin Parnell is the Best-Selling author of MARATHON QUEST and RUNNING TO THE EDGE and his final book in the Marathon Trilogy, THE SECRET MARATHON-Empowering women and girls in Afghanistan through sport, is being released on October 30th 2018. He speaks on having a “Finish the Race Attitude – Overcoming Obstacles to Achieve Your Full Potential” and has written for, or been covered by CNN, BBC, CBC, The Huffington Post, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Runners World, Men’s Journal, Canadian Business, and Maclean’s.
In a five year period, from 2010 to 2014, Martin completed 10 extreme endurance “Quests” including running 250 marathons in one year and raising $1.3m for the humanitarian organization Right To Play. In 2016 he ran the Marathon of Afghanistan in support of Afghan women and girls running for equality. Find out more about Martin at www.martinparnell.com and see what he can do for you in the long run.