I’ve written about ultramarathon’s on this blog before, but nothing could have prepared me for this story about the first two Afghan women to participate in the Gobi March; a 250km ultramarathon that takes place in the Gobi desert.
This is the story of Nelofar and Zainab, two incredible women using running to not only improve their own wellbeing and health, but act as agents for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Lucy Watson and Saleyha Ahsan put together this story for Dateline on SBS:
Zainab, 25 recently ran in an official marathon in Bamiyan (a ‘liberal’ area of Afghanisatan), she was the sole Afghan woman to run in a field of 35. With the support of Free to Run (an organisation working to improve women’s and girls’ access to sports), Zainab and a friend Nelofar, 20 applied to run in the Gobi March earlier this year.
“When I applied for the ultramarathon, I had one goal: to open the way for other girls in Afghanistan – in other parts of society as well, but especially sports,” Zainab said.
Nelofar and Zainab trained for five months for the ultramarathon, often finding it difficult to even train. Not only were they training in a warzone, but access to sport is restricted for women in Afghanistan – the police told Zainab she couldn’t even go to the gym.
“Running is so so so difficult here,” Nelofar explains. “If you’re a girl and you want to run in the street, people think that you’re crazy.”
“It makes me really sad that nobody, nobody encourages us,” Zainab says. “When we are travelling outside, the people think we are not good girls… it makes me really really sad.”
The Gobi Desert ultramarathon is certainly not for the faint of heart. In winter, temperatures can plummet up to minus 40, and up to 50 degrees in summer, with harsh winds, snow and sandstorms along the way. And they have to carry all their camping gear, clothing and food for the seven day race.
During the ultramarathon, both Zainib and Nelofar used all their strength to make it through to the last leg. A sandstorm, unfortunately put a stop to the race, with organisers evacuating all participants. However, Zainab and Nelofar conquered their dream of competing in the Gobi ultramarathon.
Nelofar explained her motivation for doing the race. She plans to open her own running club in Afghanistan.
“I want to make a place for the women to do sports,” Nelofar says. “This is the big thing that I can do, opening the way for other women… If I can do this race, I can do anything in my life.”