Running is inherently simple. That is part of the appeal for many people. But beneath that simplicity can lie enormous significance. This is a story about that.
Many people only know of Afghanistan via the news or history books as a terrain that has faced centuries of war and conflict. But for me, Afghanistan is a country of immense natural beauty and a resilient, passionate people. I was 17 years old in 2001 when the United States invaded Afghanistan. I remember sitting with my mom watching the television as soldiers fought in valleys filled with lush fields of poppies while large, beautiful snowcapped mountains cast their shadows over the battlefields. In the news reports, violence raged through the countryside, but I always looked out at the landscape dreaming of hiking in those mountains and meeting people who I imagined could not be more different than myself.
Seventeen years later, I stepped off the plane in Kabul and was greeted by a scrum of locals at baggage reclaim. People pushed and shoved; everything from flat-screen TVs to teapots had been brought into the country – and in my case a bag full of running packs, energy gels, and some body armour. I walked out of the airport, following a crudely drawn map scribbled with a picture of a dolphin, a few lines, and an X at the point where I was to meet my contact: Taylor, the country director for the NGO Free to Run. This tireless 26-year-old US-born individual had worked day in, day out for almost two years to create opportunities for young women to follow their passion. By some sort of miracle, I arrived at the X and approached a crowd of people waiting behind a large concrete barricade shouting at me about currency exchanges and taxi rides. After minutes staring through a jet-lagged fog into the confusing sea of humanity, I finally made eye contact with a smiling face. “Tyler?” the person said. “I’m Taylor… It’s nice to meet you. Welcome to Afghanistan.”
In a country where the rights of women are often overlooked, a courageous team of young females is running to change the status quo, and to prepare for an ultra-marathon. In the cool, early morning hours, an old beat-up Toyota van cruises the quiet, empty streets of Kabul. Neighbourhood by neighbourhood and house by house, the van door slides open, then slams shut. Under the veil and safety of the early morning darkness, the girls pile into the van. The pop hits of Afghanistan blare from the speakers, the bass thumping in our chests, while laughter and gossip fill the vintage Toyota. Rays of the sun peek over the mountains as the smoggy haze rises from the Kabul city floor, passing Afghan National Army checkpoints and bombed-out buildings until finally arriving at our home for the next hour: A place to be creative, a place to be ourselves and a place where the women could truly run free.
Every morning would start in a very similar way. I would wake up to the cool air of the Kabul morning, stumbling out of bed, down the driveway and out of the large steel gates surrounding my guest house. Awaiting on the other side of the gate was the van. I would climb in, wiping the sleep from my eyes, to be greeted by the team. “Good morning, sir!” and “Hello, Coach!” were always the first words I would hear as we begin the drive to our run. Still half-asleep, I would roll out of the passenger seat and chase off the waiting wild pack of dogs so the girls could begin their training session. One by one, they would jump out, and it was apparent that as soon as their running shoes touched the ground, the stress and problems of their world would melt away. Running up and down a tree-covered one-kilometre asphalt road, the team was at home. Armed guards sat in towers atop large cement-blast walls, looking down on them, lap by lap, fuelled by sweat and the dream of a chance to race internationally, pushing themselves to a place where their dreams became closer to reality.
Nothing is free and dreams cannot become a reality without many hours of hard work. Between work and school, days were spent on dusty trails outside Kabul, where kicking a spent bullet is almost as common as tripping over a rock. The girls would run for miles enjoying the cool mountain air. Afghanistan’s history of war lined the trails, a reminder of Afghan resilience. Climbing higher and higher into the mountains, the girls would sing and laugh, picking flowers and taking selfies, all the while making abandoned rusty Soviet tanks into playgrounds and passing men with curious, confused looks on their faces. Running in a place that has undoubtedly seen the darker days of Kabul’s unsettled history, but is now bearing witness to the light of a hopeful future.
Hope for the future not only lies with the team but also in schools of Kabul. After long hours on the trail, still salty with sweat, team members huddled together with young girls in a dimly lit classroom after school. Colourful paint covered the cracked, decomposing walls as random military helicopters chopped through the sky outside the windows. One of the ultra team members stood at the front of the class and began to teach a lifestyle skills lesson: an opportunity to guide young Afghan women on a path toward empowerment and leadership. As soon as her first words hit the ears of the young girls, excitement filled the room, hands shot up into the air with answers to her questions, and questions to be answered. Locked on to her every word, the students became inspired by the discussion, looking forward to the moments when they too could run with their friends, outside the schools and compounds, breathing the cool mountain air and running free, away from the chains of the past.
While younger generations of Afghan women wait for their chance to inspire the world, the Afghanistan women’s ultra-running team is paving the way now. Showing the people of their country what is possible with determination and courage, but also displaying to the rest of the world that through following our dreams and passions, we are more alike than we are different, and something so simple as running is a way to heal and connect us all, but should never be taken for granted.
Words and Photography by Tyler Tomasello a trail runner turned photojournalist, who travels the world finding comfort in uncomfortable conditions, helping amplify voices for those whose may not be heard and always running free.
We’re publishing some of our favourites stories here on the blog in an attempt to help lift runners’ spirits during the COVID-19 pandemic.