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The Afghan women who were determined to run

A seasoned runner might take water and protein bars on a long training run, but girls and women in Afghanistan consider other equipment more essential: knuckle dusters or pepper spray, so that when anybody comes close, they can demonstrate they have something to defend themselves. It’s one of the startling details in a 2019 documentary about female runners in the deeply conservative nation.

The film is the culmination of years of work by Martin Parnell, a Rotarian from suburban Calgary, Alberta, and an avid runner. What he calls the greatest adventure of his life began in October 2015 when his wife, Sue, showed him a Guardian article describing the tribulations and triumph of 25-year-old Zainab Hussaini. That year, she became the lone woman to complete Afghanistan’s first official marathon.

Parnell, a member of the Rotary Club of Cochrane and his district’s 2021-22 governor, had experienced the power of distance running, how it freed both the body and the mind. It had transformed his grief in the wake of his first wife’s 2001 death from cancer, when his brother challenged him to train for a marathon. “Running became my meditation,” he says. “It was huge from the perspective of both physical and mental health.”

He found training and facing physical challenges so rewarding that he decided to put his career in the mining industry on hold. A few months after finishing the Calgary Marathon in 2003, he sold his house, put his belongings in storage, and pursued even more challenging adventures.

Among the feats he accomplished were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in 21 hours (most people need five to 10 days), bicycling across Africa, completing ultramarathons of up to 100 miles, and in 2010, running the equivalent of 250 marathons in a single year. Some were part of a series of challenges that he dubbed his Quests for Kids. Through that initiative, he raised more than $1.3 million for the humanitarian organization Right To Play, which seeks to protect, educate, and empower children around the world through sports and play-based programs.

But in early 2015, just after he finished his final quest, he experienced a debilitating headache. What he thought was a migraine ended up being a life-threatening blood clot in his brain. (His doctor said his endurance training did not cause the clot.) The man who had run marathons now needed help to walk a few steps to the bathroom. During Parnell’s slow recovery, he found inspiration in Hussaini’s determination to run in that year’s inaugural Marathon of Afghanistan, an international competition that organizers say is the only mixed-gender sporting event in the country.

Though some of the most severe social restrictions introduced by the Taliban were relaxed in parts of the country after their defeat in 2001, the sight of women running in the streets for exercise enraged some conservative Afghans. “The children were stoning us; the people said bad words like, ‘Prostitutes, why don’t you stay at home? You are destroying Islam,'” Hussaini recalls in the film. For her safety, she ran laps inside a walled garden and trudged on a treadmill.

Even in Bamyan province in central Afghanistan, which has seen less conflict and where the Marathon of Afghanistan takes place, she faced slurs. When she finished the race, an achievement that won her the Franco-German Award for Afghan Woman of the Year, the governor of Bamyan remarked that she might have been killed in other parts of the country for running a mixed-gender marathon.

Parnell was inspired by Hussaini’s tenacity and decided that if he could get well enough to run again, he would travel to Afghanistan to support her and other women, run alongside them in the second Marathon of Afghanistan in November 2016, and tell their stories. For him, the journey would fulfill The Four-Way Test familiar to all Rotary members: His actions would promote truth and fairness, build goodwill and better friendships, and be beneficial to all concerned. “It was an obvious fit,” he says.

While preparing for his trip to Afghanistan, Parnell was approached at an event by former junior high school teacher Kate McKenzie. She had been inspired by his first book, Marathon Quest, and was pursuing a career as a documentary film producer. Parnell invited her to coffee and mentioned that he was looking for someone to edit videos he planned to take on his cell phone and a mini wearable camera to chronicle the Afghanistan marathon. McKenzie had a better idea: She offered to go with him.

Later, she came back with a specific proposal. She would put the film crew together and run the marathon in solidarity with the Afghan women. McKenzie understood not only the symbolic value but also the practical value of running. She had experienced mental health issues in her life, which she recounts in the film. “There is this negative voice that repeats in my head, ‘You can’t do it. You’re not enough,'” she says.

With the guidance of doctors, she had found relief in running. “As we move, our bodies release positive hormones,” she says. “It clarifies our thinking. It helps us feel more positive.” To her, running became a tool to manage her mental health and stress: “If I run fast enough, hard enough, the negative voice stops. That’s why I run. Everyone deserves that freedom.”

The longest distance she’d ever run was 10 kilometers (about 6 miles), less than a quarter of the marathon distance, but she figured that including footage of her training ordeal would give viewers an idea of the physical rigors Hussaini and the other Afghan women were experiencing as they prepared for the race.

For most runners, completing a marathon is the culmination of months of discipline and effort. Many well-trained athletes can run 10 or 15 miles. But without focused endurance training — mixing shorter and longer runs on a tight schedule over several months — the muscles begin to tire before mile 20. Crossing the finish line is a triumph of the will as much as the body.

For the female runners in Afghanistan, the marathon represented freedom, a bold denial of the harsh restrictions on the lives of women ushered in by the Taliban. “We were fighting back against the rules, many of them unwritten,” Hussaini says. “We were coming out of our houses to say that we are human. We have equal rights. You cannot stop us.”

Even though the female athletes dressed in long-sleeve shirts, full-length pants, and the traditional headscarf while training, they were threatened by people with rigid conservative views, including some in their own families. “I begged my mother to let me go to the race,” one young woman told the filmmakers. “She said, ‘We must ask your father’s permission.’ When I asked, he responded, ‘She’s not my daughter. I will break her legs if she dares to step out.'” Another woman decided to run the marathon distance in her own courtyard instead of joining her fellow runners on the streets.

For the safety of women participating, the organizers kept significant marathon details confidential, including the route. This fact led to the title of the film and Parnell’s subsequent book, The Secret Marathon.

The book details the difficulties McKenzie encountered in making the film. It took months to find travel insurance that specialized in conflict zones. The crew eventually put itself in the hands of an adventure travel company specializing in trips to countries like Afghanistan.

More than 250 runners took part in the 2016 Marathon of Afghanistan, including six Afghan women who ran the full distance (the event includes a shorter 10K). Several female participants declined to be filmed out of fear of reprisals. And Zainab Hussaini, the pioneering runner who was supposed to be a main character in the documentary, decided not to participate in the race because she had not been able to train for it, something McKenzie learned only after she’d arrived.

But the crew captured inspiring footage of girls running and playing. Free to Run, an international nonprofit, supported the female runners, aiming “to drive change in community gender norms in conflict areas by supporting adolescent girls and young women to advance their leadership and wellness through running.”

Kubra Jafari, an Afghan freelance videographer for Free to Run, decided to enter the marathon when Parnell volunteered to accompany her on her effort even though she, too, was not properly trained.

People used to images of marathon runners loping past crowds of cheering spectators will be surprised at the lonely race scenes in The Secret Marathon. The course started at an elevation of 9,000 feet and had an elevation gain of an additional 1,200 feet. Often just one or two participants can be seen passing through the stark beauty of the vast desert landscape.

McKenzie wore No. 61 in honor of Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon with an official race number, No. 261. A race official tried to forcibly remove Switzer from the Boston course, but she prevailed. In Afghanistan, armed guards lined the route, and national defense trucks closely followed the female runners to protect them. Despite the thinner air at that altitude, McKenzie finished her first marathon in Afghanistan in 4 hours and 52 minutes, close to the global average for female runners.

Jafari struggled mightily with stomach cramps and fatigue, yet Parnell successfully urged her across the finish line in 6:52, just eight minutes before the course was officially closed.

The Secret Marathon documentary ends with an exhausted Jafari sobbing joyfully in Parnell’s arms. Parnell drapes a finisher’s medal around her neck and tells her, “That was really something special for me … running with you and what we did together. … That’s pretty cool, eh? It’s done. You can tell all your friends, ‘Hey, remember you said I couldn’t do it. I did it!'”

The next year, Jafari ran it again, beating her time by an hour and 20 minutes.

Parnell returned to the event in 2018 as a “pace bunny” for girls and women. Meanwhile, Hussaini became the Afghanistan manager of Skateistan, an organization that works to empower children through skateboarding and education.

What viewers don’t see in the documentary is that the film almost didn’t get made. McKenzie and her team learned that some women featured prominently were getting persistent death threats over their participation.

“This is the real story,” McKenzie writes on the website for the film. “This is why the film is important. … To lose [their] stories meant losing the whole reason we were making the film. So, we had a decision to make. … Do we scrap the project altogether? Or do we find a way to tell this story that won’t put anyone at risk?” She and her team had already been working unpaid on this project for two years. “After much discussion, we decided we would put in the work.”

It took another year to re-edit the film and add animation sequences to replace footage that illustrated the dangers female Afghan runners encounter.

Because The Secret Marathon came out in 2019, it does not incorporate the aftermath of the Taliban’s return to power in the summer of 2021. The Marathon of Afghanistan, which at its peak attracted more than 300 female participants to run a marathon or 10K, was canceled.

Hussaini, her family, and colleagues fled the country, and she now works for Skateistan from upstate New York. “We were at serious risk of being killed for our work supporting women and girls,” she says. “It’s a shame the new regime will not allow girls to do sports of any kind.” The Taliban banned girls from attending school after sixth grade and prohibited women from traveling without being accompanied by a male relative and from entering certain public places. Female students already enrolled in universities have been barred from finishing their studies. And women have been largely prohibited from working with nongovernmental aid organizations.

Afghanistan ranks among the lowest of countries in terms of women’s rights, educational opportunities, life expectancy, and access to justice. “Everything has just collapsed,” Hussaini says.

But positive reverberations from Parnell’s involvement remain. He helps female cyclists from Afghanistan adjust to life in Canada. And he and McKenzie have been inspired to draw attention to the general need for safe spaces.

“While I was working on the film, I heard from a lot of people who said they could relate, somewhat, to some of what these Afghan women were going through trying to train,” McKenzie says. “They live in Canada, one of the safest countries in the world, but they don’t always feel safe going for a run or a walk in their own communities. So I thought: Well, what if we could do something one night of the year where we could bring people together where they could feel safe to go for a run or a walk to raise awareness of the safety issues still facing both women and men everywhere?”

With the help of John Stanton, founder of the Running Room chain of athletic shoe stores, McKenzie inaugurated what was first called the Secret Marathon 3K and is now simply the Secret 3K: an annual noncompetitive run/walk to promote gender equality, held during the week of International Women’s Day, 8 March. “It’s an accessible distance,” she says. “Just about anyone can get off the couch and make it 3 kilometers. It’s to show solidarity and support for those who are not yet safe to run in their communities, especially women in Afghanistan.”

The runs began in 10 Canadian cities in 2018 and have spread to over 25 countries around the world. They raise money for aid organizations that advance education and athletics for women. Rotary members in Canada have adopted race day as a day of service.

It’s not exactly the ending to the story he envisioned eight years ago, but the relentlessly upbeat Martin Parnell sees the upside. “It’s incumbent on me and others who have had good fortune in our lives to give back,” he says. “Where can we help, both locally in our community and on a broader basis, internationally? That’s the ethos of Rotary, and it fits exactly how I feel. By being Rotarians, we can do so much more together.”

Author: Eric Zorn

This story originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.

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