Happy New Year to everyone in the Free to Run community – runners, adventurers, and dreamers alike! As I’m sitting here in my compound in Kabul, watching the clock tick down to New Year’s Eve, I’m reminded of how far we have come over the last four years. This year has been our most ambitious year so far. We successfully expanded our programs in Afghanistan, DRC and Iraq, entered into new partnerships, and secured some game-changing grants, which is allowing us to plan more effectively for next year. At the same time, 2018 was extraordinarily difficult for our team in Afghanistan, and for the Afghan people.
An increasing number of suicide attacks have impacted everyone, directly or indirectly, and now when the security situation is at its most fragile, people are speculating whether there will be a drawdown of US troops from the country. We want to take this opportunity to emphasize our deep commitment to Afghanistan and to the women and girls who are striving every day for a better future - for themselves and for their country. We aren't going anywhere. I personally moved back to Kabul full-time in March, having left Kabul as my ‘home’ in 2013, and it didn’t take long for me to remember why I was so drawn to this country in the first place. I’m continually amazed by the progress that our team has made here and the joy we've all found through outdoor adventure, despite the ongoing armed conflict. Our programs are working and our perseverance is paying off. I can genuinely say that things we now consider to be ‘normal’ would have been out of the question four years ago, and I can’t wait to see where we are in another four years.
With that in mind, I’d like to share some news and highlights from the year with all of you. On behalf of the board of directors, I’m very pleased to announce that Taylor Smith has been appointed Executive Director of Free to Run. Taylor has been coordinating and managing Free to Run programs for almost three years now. Under her leadership, the Afghanistan program expanded from 30 participants in two provinces to over 500 annual participants in four provinces. Most recently, she established our new Iraq program and has fully managed it for the past six months. She assists with the strategic development of programs, manages international consultants, supports our global media strategy and outreach, and also leads donor engagement. Taylor has been and continues to be instrumental to our success. I’m absolutely delighted to see her take this leadership role!
We’ve also appointed three new board members in 2018 including a new Board Chair, Ann Wells Crandall. Ann is the Chief Marketing Officer of the BIG EAST Conference and is a recognized leader in the sports business industry. She brings deep experience in business operations, strategic partnerships and fundraising to our board. Ann lives in Manhattan and in her limited free time, is also an avid runner. Of course!
Alex Bancroft, Board Treasurer, is a certified public accountant with Garvey, Steele & Company in Mystic, Connecticut. She has almost 15 years of experience in auditing governments, businesses and not for profit organizations. Alex is also a race director with the Berkshires Ultra Running Community for Service (BURCS). This amazing community of runners has been fundraising for Free to Run every year since we started. Not surprisingly, Alex is a passionate runner who has completed ten ultra-marathons!
Board Member, James Willcox, is the co-founder of the adventure travel company, Untamed Borders, with experience in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Middle East, East Africa, former Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus. Since 2015, Untamed Borders has been a key partner in the annual Marathon of Afghanistan. He may not be a runner, but his intrepid spirit and ability to make the impossible happen makes him a perfect fit for Free to Run.
Taylor, Ann, Alex and James bring incredible expertise and energy to our organization and I’m very grateful to have them on the team as we develop and grow our programs.
At the start of 2018, Free to Run began a pilot project in DRC with local NGO AIDPROFEN. Our past Board Chair, Connie Schneider and Program Manager, Ericka Kriedel, travelled to Goma to get this project off the ground. Around 80 million people call DRC home. Decades of armed conflict have caused DRC to fall within the bottom third on the Human Development Index. Poverty and political instability remain constant even at times of relative peace, and many women and girls have been victims of conflict-related sexual violence in addition to the gender-based violence they experience every day.
Program manager, Ericka Kriedel said, "Arriving in DRC with two suitcases packed almost entirely with donated sneakers, I wondered if we’d find feet for all these shoes. After my first Sunday morning in Goma, I stopped wondering. Eastern Congo, like many countries in East Africa, has a love affair with distance running. Sunday mornings, before heading to church, when the streets are void of cars and motorbikes, it seems like the entire city is out for a run. It is really a sight to see."
Women and girls, however, do not have equitable access to running and outdoor sports in the DRC. Word began to spread that a group called Free to Run had sports opportunities for women and girls in Goma. Almost immediately, we had a team meeting three times a week for a 5-10km run in central Goma where the main roads are nicely paved. The young women in the group are students and mothers, ranging in ages from 15-25. The opportunity to borrow a decent pair of sneakers and a sports bra kept them coming back and bringing their friends. Within a few weeks, Free to Run had over 60 members.
Thanks to a partnership with 261 Fearless, the global non-profit organization founded by Kathrine Switzer, we were able to expand the DRC project into a full-year program that included the 261 Fearless training program and our own Life Skills through Sports curriculum. With our partners and team members, the DRC project has far exceeded our expectations! With the project launched and underway, we look forward to cheering on 261 Fearless with their continued efforts in the country.
The Gobi March by Racing the Planet
One of the highlights of the year was seeing our 3rd Afghan ultra-marathon team compete in the Gobi March by RacingThePlanet. Zeinab and Hasina spent more than a year preparing for this 250km self-supported footrace. In the months leading up to the race, they ran over 400 kilometers! Runnner’s World even featured them in an article about their training program. It was truly inspiring to see their determination and excitement leading up to this once-in-a-lifetime event.
The race was exhilarating to watch, even from afar. Zeinab successfully finished all stages making her the 4th Afghan woman to complete an ultra-marathon. She covered 250km with 4,450 meters of elevation gain and 3,825 meters of elevation loss. Sadly, Hasina was injured about half-way through the race and had to stop, but she showed remarkable poise and strength. We are grateful for the medical team who made sure she would be able to recover and run another day. We are so proud of both of the team! The support from the Free to Run community throughout the race was amazing - we were genuinely touched by all of the comments for Zeinab and Hasina.
We want to take this opportunity to give a very special thank you to Mary Gadams and the entire RacingThePlanet team! Since 2014, they have been a crucial partner in our growth and success. In addition to providing international race opportunities, RacingThePlanet has also supported our sports and leadership training programs, and the Marathon of Afghanistan. We would not be where we are today without their incredible support. If you haven’t checked out their races before, you should – that’s how I was personally introduced to ultrarunning, and that was the first step of thousands upon thousands of kilometres, dozens of friendships, and ultimately Free to Run.
Sports Week & The Marathon of Afghanistan
Two times per year, we bring together a group of program participants from multiple provinces in Afghanistan for a special week of sports and leadership training. For many of the participants, it’s their first time traveling outside of their province and they spend the week with women and girls from a variety of different ethnic groups. Our 2018 Winter Sports Week in the Central Highlands region of Afghanistan featured skiing, ice skating, ice hockey, cycling, and team runs.
This fall, around the 4th annual Marathon of Afghanistan, we held our Autumn Sports Week with over 20 participants from 4 different provinces. Our team spent a week trying several new sports including kayaking, cycling and even stand-up paddle boarding! The highlight of the week was of course the 4th annual Marathon of Afghanistan! This year twenty Afghan women and girls ran a tough trail marathon course, and another 85 ran the 10K race. As I said to all of the runners at the start line, "This is so much more than a race. When men and women are able to participate equally in society, that’s when there is the greatest chance for peace."
Another big thank you to our very own self-proclaimed ‘pace bunny’ Martin Parnell who was in Afghanistan to help run with our team in the full marathon. They had to overcome several challenges along the route, but in the end… he successfully helped the Free to Run team to finish within the official time limit. A huge thank you to our partners, RacingThePlanet, who supported months of training, Cultures of Resistance and Untamed Borders for helping to make this happen!
We were also proud to be awarded a grant from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives this year, which allowed us to expand our nutrition project in Kabul to local high schools all four provinces in which we are currently operating. As a Canadian myself, I couldn’t be more proud (eh?).
Free to Run in Iraq
In the second half of 2018, we started a brand new program in Erbil, which is located in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Free to Run Iraq already has 19 female runners, ranging from 15-23 years old, including nine Syrian refugees, eight internally displaced persons from Mosul and two community members. The goal of this new program is to provide sports and life skills training to women and girls from a variety of backgrounds. Despite the obstacles that different religions, languages and challenging life situations present, along with the nature of teenage girls, we have an exceptionally enthusiastic team emerging and it’s so exciting to see the potential in Erbil! This fall the city hosted a marathon and 12K and the entire Free to Run team was front and center for that 12K. In the words of Shama, a new runner and participant in our Iraq program:
“When I joined Free to Run, in the beginning I felt awkward and shy when I ran! It was my first time running in front of people in a public place. Day after day, when I ran, I started to feel the value of myself. I felt alive. I continued my commitment to this team by participating in the most beautiful day of my life: the Erbil Marathon day! It was a different day full of hope, challenge, and motivation. Even though I didn’t win, I consider my participation and finishing the 12k race a win for me.”
This incredible year would not have been possible without the amazing leadership from Taylor, key partners like the PARSA Afghan Scouts Program, donors like RacingThePlanet, the Free to Run team who are often working tirelessly behind the scenes, and the running community who run and raise money for us throughout the year. As 2018 comes to a close, please keep us in your thoughts! We would be grateful if you would consider supporting our efforts with a year-end donation - we rely on you to keep us going! To all those who have supported us so far, thank you from the bottom of my heart and the 'souls' of my feet.
With best wishes from Kabul!
p.s. I left the best part to the end… our new logo! We’ve gone through a complete rebranding exercise and I can’t wait to launch the new website. What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinion on our new look.