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Finish The Race Attitude

Blog 16/25

The Ageless Athlete

May 29th 2024

By Martin Parnell and Malc Kent


The Ageless Athlete



1 Off and Running

2 Triathlons and Ultras

3 Quests for Kids

4 Ultras and Beyond

5 Malc Kent: The Early Years

6 Malc Kent: The Evolution of the Running Specialist

7 62 Beats 47

8 Hockey Injury

9 Racing 5’s and 10’s

10 Half Time

11 Marathon of Afghanistan

12 All or Nothing

13 The 60’s: Boston or Bust

14 The Stroke

15 COVID-19



About the Authors

Chapter 11

Marathon of Afghanistan (Part 1 of 2)

“Sometimes you just have to jump in a mud puddle because it’s there. Never get so old that you forget about having fun.”

I’m sitting in Frankfurt airport after a nine-hour flight from Calgary. I have a nine-hour layover before my flight to Istanbul, so lots of time to catch up on my journal. Where do I begin? Well, since my first trip to Afghanistan we’ve had two fundraising events for Free to Run. This has allowed the women and girls to go camping, kayaking, ice skating (we installed a rink) and have their first taste of hockey, both ice hockey and ball hockey.

In March (2018) we had the first Secret Marathon 3K. Runners from across Canada, the US, the UK, and Zainab and her friends in Maraz-e-Shaif. Also work continued on the book. I received chapters from Kate, Taylor and Mahsa. I Skyped and transcribed interviews with Zainab, Kubra and Nelofar and received chapters in Dari from Zahra and Behista. The book will be published on October 30.

Packing for this trip was interesting. The girls had started to play ball hockey and I wanted to take them some ball hockey gear. In Canadian Tire I found two sets of goalie gloves, a blocker and a mitt plus six ball hockey balls. Perfect. I had asked Kubra if there was anything she’d like me to bring over. I thought she’d say a bar of chocolate or a Canadian flag. No, she wanted a copy of The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Sue and I found a beautiful copy at the local Chapters.

For Taylor I brought a copy of Hockey Girls of Kabul, an amazing story retold by Zarmina Nekhar, an Afghan teacher and hockey mom living in Canada. For Zainab I had a bag of bracelets with “The Secret Marathon 3K” printed on them. I had also packed buffs, Marathon Quest comics and books. I would have a pretty empty case coming back, but Sue had made a request for scarves and dress material while Cal and Autumn wanted scarves.

I had been told that we would be in Kabul on Sunday and a meeting was planned with Free to Run. I would meet Stephanie for the first time, but I was very much looking forward to chatting with Taylor and Kubra. Kubra had been recently made Country Manager for Afghanistan and I had lots of ideas to share with her.

Free to Run

Free to Run works to support women and girls in areas of conflict through adventure sports to build their physical, emotional, and social wellbeing; developing them into community leaders so they can bring people together across cultural, ethnic and religious lines. We provide them with the tools to succeed and support them to transfer those successes to their everyday lives.

Finding ways for women and girls to safely and boldly engage in outdoor activity allows them to regain public space and changes views about the roles that women can, and should, play in society.

Free to Run’s mission is to enable women and girls to safely and boldly engage in outdoor activity in conflict-affected regions. Through a combination of sports programs, life skills development, and community outreach, we help females to reclaim public space and change views about the roles they can (and should) play in a society. Our programs are designed to develop community leaders who can bring people together across cultural, ethnic and religious lines. We work to provide our participants with the tools to succeed because they can and will be a force for positive change.

We start by creating safe spaces. We continuously work to engage the community and get buy-in for our programs. Our participants regularly run and hike together, and throughout the year we introduce new sports like camping, ice skating, skiing, kayaking, yoga, volleyball and cycling. In parallel, our life skills curriculum develops critical leadership, conflict resolution, resiliency and communication skills.

At Free to Run, we are not singularly focused on measuring the athletic performance of our participants. The success of our programs is linked to the skills and competencies that participants develop, as well as the shift in attitudes achieved within themselves and in the surrounding communities. Our goal is to increase the opportunities for women and girls to engage in public life, using sport as a tool of empowerment and education.

- Excerpted from

Ever since I had been asked to raise funds to install an ice rink in Bamyan I had been pushing hockey. I had shared my idea with Hayley Wickenheiser, four-time Canadian women’s Olympic hockey gold medallist. She was very supportive. I knew that Free to Run had applied for hockey gear but hadn’t got it. I really wanted to use my December 31 event to raise money for hockey gear, but I needed their support.

The other thing I was looking into was crazy: an ice arena for Bamyan. I had googled “ice arenas” and found a company that builds a prefab unit at a cost of $8million. I’m not sure what they’ll think, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

It’s 11:35 a.m. and I’m thinking of lunch. In the airport there’s lots of signs for “Octoberfest.” So I’m going to find a beer and sausage with sauerkraut. Sue gave me Finding Gobi to read. Very appropriate, considering Taylor, Zeinab and Hassina just participated in the Gobi March.

I had nine hours to kill in the airport and I knew I couldn’t eat the whole time, so I followed up on a plan I had put together before going on the trip. I started at gate 48 and looped around to a straight section. Then down to duty free, on to the next section and down to gates 20, 21, 22 and 23. Drink of water at the fountain then back the way I came to gate 48. Time, 15 minutes, a perfect out and back.

The rest of the layover was spent walking the “Frankfurt loop” and sleeping. My flight was 30 minutes late and I was worried. I only had 1½ hours for the Istanbul–Kabul connection. The flight arrived at 11:40 a.m. and the flight to Kabul was 12:40 p.m. After I landed I rushed off the bus and scurried over to the Kabul gate. No worries. On to a bus then on to the plane. I had made it, but would my bag?

I needn’t have worried, as 12:40 p.m. came and went and passengers continued to climb aboard in dribs and drabs. The last to arrive, James Bingham. The four-hour flight, TK706, was uneventful other than the spectacular view of Afghanistan at sunrise. We landed at Kabul International Airport at 7:30 a.m. and ten minutes later I was on Afghan soil again. I was back.

I waited for James and we strolled into the baggage collection area. There we met his brother Olly and the other international runners, the Italians Guvarney, Phillip and Manfried and the Americans Sam and Jasmin. I remembered the routine, two photos to two men behind the desk. I think they were the same two men as last time. Then through security, checking fingerprints, then into the open hall, checked again and finally out into the bright Afghan morning. Now it was time for the long walk, along the airport building perimeter, to the meeting area. There to greet us were James Wilcox, Gull and Hauser, three old friends.

We loaded up into two vans and one car and we were on our way. James B. was telling me that they had brought 250 kg of gear including five paddle boards for use on Band-e-Amir. We headed into Kabul traffic and it was like I’d never been away. Hustle and bustle, people going about their daily business, boys on bikes, women in burkas holding hands with their daughters. Military everywhere and huge concrete posts protecting embassies, hotels and other key buildings. One sight caught my eye, a huge sign saying “Teachers Day,” made up of hundreds of balloons. After 30 minutes we were at the guest house. My roommate was Guvarney, 64 years old and recently retired.

We checked in and went to our room, number 310. Then downstairs for breakfast and James Wilcox’s orientation. Same as last time. Then Kauser got us our Afghan outfit. I had brought the Afghan scarf from last time so I was ready to go.

First stop was the British Cemetery, but it was closed. Then we drove around for a bit looking at the sights. Next stop was the “Afghan Educational Children’s Circus.” It was amazing. Rail car containers stacked on top of each other painted red, yellow, blue and green. Girls and boys juggling balls and clubs and a big party with food and drink for Teachers Day. I had a great chat with the director, David Mason. He told me that the circus had been around for 20 years and had performed in front of 3.8 million Afghan people. I mentioned that two years earlier I had met Zak Warren in Bamyan, and David told me that Zak was one of the original founders.

David wanted to run a marathon so I promised to send him a copy of my training program. We said goodbye to the teachers and kids and headed off to lunch. I had BBQ lamb chops with rice, fries and salad with Afghan tea. Very nice. After lunch it was off to the Blue Mosque and around the corner was the playground. I recreated the swing shot from the last time. Another interesting sight on our tour of Kabul was the swimming pool. In its time it had looked amazing with its four high diving boards. Now it was surrounded by a chain link fence and the water was putrid. Kauser told us that the Taliban would take prisoners to the top board and execute them.

Back at the guest house we had supper and James W. filled us in on what was to come. A group would be flying to Bamyan tomorrow and another group, including me, would be going out on Monday. The reason for this was that “Kam Air” had stopped their scheduled flights and we were being flown out by two humanitarian organizations. The buffet supper was good but it was time for bed. The mattress was memory foam but I think it had forgotten its memory as it was as hard as rock. But that didn’t stop me as I was asleep in minutes.

An interesting night. On the trip two years ago I didn’t get a decent night’s sleep. This time I went to sleep at 8 p.m. but woke up at midnight. I thought, “Here we go again!” However I went back to sleep, woke up at 3 a.m., back to sleep and finally awake at 6:30 a.m. A good night’s sleep.

The usual breakfast of omelet and instant coffee, then we were on our way. The first site was the Museum of Kabul. A number of rooms were under renovation but all in all it was a good visit. One of the highlights was the old steam engines. It was a good idea but only one mile of track was ever built.

Next stop was the Gardens of Babel. We entered the site and the group started up the steps. I had been to the gardens in 2016. It was a hot day and I just wanted to relax. So I found a spot in the shade and told them to come back when they were about to leave. This went well for about ten minutes but then a group of schoolboys came around and started to ask me lots of questions. This continued for 20 minutes as more and more boys arrived. They wanted me to sing a song so I went into a rendition of “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head” as they clapped along. Very bizarre.

The group came back and saw the scene. I said goodbye to the boys and we headed off for lunch. Today was chicken kebabs, rice, salad and a Coke. During lunch I chatted with Jordan Wylie, a Brit, who was doing a fundraiser called “Running Dangerously,” three runs in three conflict countries. It sounded like one of my quests.

After lunch we went over to the Free to Run offices. There I was met by Hassina and congratulated her on her efforts on the Gobi March. Then Kubra came in. It was wonderful to see her and I gave her the gifts. She loved the book, The Art of War by Sun Tzu. She told me Taylor was already up in Bamyan. The group played a game of volleyball and then we headed back to the hotel.

James W. had told me that he and I would now fly to Bamyan on Tuesday as two people had been bumped off the flight. He said that we would do something in Kabul. One idea was to visit the Fatema Tul Zahia (FTZ) School run by Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.

Over supper I chatted with Ita and Mia, an Italian mother and daughter, and Kelly from Singapore. She told me that she had run the Comrades Marathon in 2011, the same year I had. It’s a small world.

I had a terrible night’s sleep. I lay awake with thoughts running through my head. But then I had a brain wave. I remembered that the Rotary Club of Kabul City had their meetings on Mondays, and now, due to flight issues, I would be in Kabul on a Monday. Couldn’t wait to talk to James W. about it.

Dozed on and off but no real sleep. I heard Guvarney pack up at 5:30 a.m. The group was heading to the airport while James and I stayed back. I watched the clock go second by second and at 7:58 I got up. And headed down to breakfast. James had contacted Jamila from CW4WAfghan and she had said she would be over at 9:30. James said that she had mentioned something about Rotary but he wasn’t sure what.

After breakfast James and I waited in the lobby. He was on his phone a lot and he told me that the UN flight with the group had not taken off yet. Jamila arrived at 10:15 a.m. and James said he would hang back as it looked like the flight would be cancelled.

As we were driven to the FTZ School, Jamila told me that she was the Quality Assurance Manager for the school. Not only that, but she was also the Secretary for the Rotary Club of Kabul City. Unbelievable!

We reached the school and as we walked through the security door in the massive gate I couldn’t believe what I saw. There was an honour line of young girls with white flowers. As I walked between them they handed me the flowers. Then I entered a court where 250 female students were all applauding. The principal came up and shook my hand and guided me to a seat in the front row. Then the official ceremonies began. We sang the Afghan National Anthem, six girls sang a song about education and another group did a skit about how education helps you in the world.

Once it was over Jamila gave me a tour of the school. We saw the kitchen, principal’s office, new washrooms, computer room, tailoring room and classrooms from grades 1 to 10. In every room the girls waved their arms and said “cheese” and I took a photo.

We had lunch in the principal’s office and I was given three gifts: the bouquet of flowers, a handmade Canadian flag and a dress for Autumn. It was time to go and Jamila dropped me off at the guest house. No rest for the wicked. I grabbed a quick nap and was back out front of the building waiting for Jamila at 4:30 p.m.

At 5 p.m. Jamila’s driver picked me up with Jamila in the car. The location of the Rotary Club meeting was only five minutes away, which was great, but getting into the room was another story. They didn’t have my name on the guest list so phone calls had to be made. Then it was through one security check followed by another. Finally we arrived at the designated room and there were the Rotary banners.

I met a number of the members and at 5:30 p.m. the meeting began with the Four-Way Test. The agenda was good. We had a speaker, then went over the projects. I had a good chat with Hamid, the ADG, and then had cake for Teachers Day. The meeting finished at 6:30 p.m. and after saying goodbye to Jamila I was having supper with the gang by 7 p.m. They hadn’t managed to leave so the plan was that we would all head to Bamyan the next day. Fingers crossed.

Another difficult night. Went to bed at 8 p.m. and woke up at 10:30 p.m., then on and off the rest of the night. Luckily it was an early start and I was up at 5:15 a.m. Guvarney and I headed down for a quick breakfast before we were off. The majority of the group were going with UNAMA but James W. and I were travelling UNHAS. Arriving at Kabul airport we went through a number of checks before hitting the departure lounge. The big group left first and the Jameses and I headed out to the tarmac.

We got in a bus and I tried to guess which plane we would be in. Well, I was in for a big surprise when we pulled up next to a helicopter, a Mi-8 MTV, a Russian unit. It was a tight squeeze but the trip was amazing. We arrived in Bamyan to clear skies and a cool, crisp morning. Stepping out of the terminal everything came back.

James W. and I pushed out our bags to an awaiting van and I was in for another surprise. Our driver was Ali-Sha, one of the young Afghan men who had attempted to reach the Olympics in downhill skiing. It was a thrill to meet him. We went to the hotel, I checked in, and 30 minutes later we all got together in the lobby and headed off to our first destination, the Buddha Niches. I had missed this excursion back in 2016 and was looking forward to doing it now.

We parked below the big Buddha and made our way along the base of the cliff. At the second Buddha we entered a cave and started to climb an internal staircase. Every so often there were openings or rooms where the frescoes once were. Most of them have been removed but sections still remain.

I was feeling the climb. My lungs were tight and my heart was pounding. At the top we looked out of the head of the Buddha, across the valley, to the Hindu Kush mountains. The return journey was tricky but we all made it. Next stop, lunch.

Ali-Sha took us to the bazaar and we walked the streets looking at all the shops. We stopped at the Chihanna that I had been to two years previously. After lunch we went to the Shahr-i-Ghulghulah fort. Again my heart and lungs had a good workout. Returning to the hotel I was done so I grabbed a nap.

At 6:20 p.m. I headed down to the lobby, ordered supper and chatted with several of the international runners. Ita and Mia are from Italy. They are mother and daughter and this was Mia’s first marathon. I was interested to find out that Ita’s first marathon was meant to be the 2012 New York marathon and just like me they hadn’t run it as it was cancelled due to hurricane Sandy. At 7 p.m. Taylor Smith from Free to Run arrived. It was great to see her and we caught up on Free to Run activities. Supper was pizza and then it was off to bed. Tomorrow is Band-e-Amir.

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The Ageless Athlete
The Ageless Athlete (18 minutes)
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