Afghanistan's first mixed gender running team: One year on

I see more than athletes; I see future leaders.
— Kubra, Free to Run Programme Officer

One year ago, Free to Run opened up its programme in Kabul to Afghan men, inviting them to join in our sports, learning and volunteering activities alongside Afghan women. This followed the success of our mixed gender ultramarathon team, who competed in a 250km self-supported footrace in Sri Lanka the year prior. Having men and women train, learn and compete together, side by side, may not seem revolutionary, but in a place like Afghanistan, it was unprecedented. Today, it remains the only mixed gender sports team in the entire country.

So what is it actually like to be a part of this team? Here, our programme officer, Kubra, takes a look back on the last year.  

I remember the first day of our running training. We arrived to the training location very late. Picking up the team and organizing everyone took so long! We have to pick up all of the team members for safety - we keep our training locations secret, so they don't even know where they are going. We just did 15 minutes of running. It was short, but enjoyable as I was running freely in a secure place alongside my new teammates.

A year has passed since that day, but I still remember it well. Our team became the first mixed gender team in the country. We had females and males running alongside one another. In Afghanistan. It was very difficult at the beginning.

Some challenges were normal, especially making everyone get up very early in the morning (3:30 am) to run. Sometimes, they did not want to run and felt just walking, so I’d jump in and do my best to motivate them in order to be ready for the marathon.

Sometimes, the challenges felt like they were more related to gender. Some of the boys would argue with me over my decisions as the Programme Officer. A few of them left the team because of this, which made me sad. I would like to help them come back to the team if it were possible to solve the issues, but if not, I wish them a happy life.

As the year continued, new people joined the team. This is the time I got more energy to go forward strongly and help them to explore new things, such as running in a new place.

Sometimes, I had to struggle with guards, police, and people in the community in order to let us run. We had permission letters from the authorities to be able to run, but people were not always comfortable with females and males running together. I remember once I had a fierce argument with two policemen whom assumed we were ‘bad’ women and men because we were training alongside one another.

Despite these challenges, I love my team and they are my family now. I feel their pain and their happiness makes me happy. I enjoy every moment being with my team and I love the sounds of group laughter when we are together and those crazy photo shoot times.

Free to Run in the third marathon of Afghanistan

When they crossed the finish line in the 3rd Marathon of Afghanistan last fall, that was the best reward they gave me. I hugged them, looked at them and I told myself that was it: these individuals did their first marathon and showed to the world that they are strong enough to go forward together and run more freely. 

Running changed me and showed me my strengths. I can see these changes in my team. Now, they are ready to lead their own teams, fight for their rights, and help others around them through volunteer work. I see more than athletes; I see future leaders.

Kubra participated on Afghanistan's first mixed gender ultramarathon team in Sri Lanka in 2016 and went on to work for Free to Run in 2017, leading our first mixed gender programme in the country.