Photo by Ryland West, courtesy of Strava
Hello, and Happy New Year to everyone in the Free to Run community! Over the last few years, Free to Run has seen a lot of ‘firsts’ coming from our programs. From the first Afghan ultramarathon team to the first Afghan female to run a full marathon in the country. We’ve also seen incredible firsts from many of you. A number of people in the Free to Run community signed up for their first road race, marathon, ultramarathon, or triathlon to raise funds and awareness on our behalf. Together, we’ve had an incredible 2017 and I wanted to take a moment at the start of 2018 to share our news… including more firsts!
In Afghanistan, our numbers have steadily risen thanks to a dedicated team on the ground that includes two of our former ultramarathon athletes. Now that we’ve completed our third year of programming, we’re gaining more and more acceptance by the community and that’s translating into higher numbers of participants. We’re now reaching over 100 young women in three provinces across the country. While the security situation continues to deteriorate, we’ve been able to stay safe and operational, delivering over 550 sports training sessions, 50 educational sessions, 10 volunteer activities, running four mixed-gender races, and organizing two outdoor sports weeks.
Our participants have been thriving on our running programs, and they asked for more - so we gave it to them! Thanks to support from the Canadian Embassy in Kabul, we established the first ice skating rink and skating program in the country, which taught our athletes the benefits of stepping outside of their comfort zone. One of our participants said, “If I can stand on ice with a blade, then anything is possible.” Now they’re skating circles around me, and as a Canadian, I’m obviously proud! We also ran the first kayaking program for women in the country, which opened up Afghanistan’s lakes and rivers to our participants. On my last trip back to the country, I was taken aback when I saw how proficient our athletes were at paddling around a lake in the Central Highlands Region.
Our annual winter and fall sports weeks continued to provide unique opportunities for our athletes to come together, learn from one another, try new outdoor activities and engage in dialogue about important issues like women’s rights. In the 3rd annual Marathon of Afghanistan, we saw the highest number of female participants in both the 10km race (over 150 women and girls!) and the full marathon. All 11 of our athletes finished the marathon, alongside Mahsa, our Iranian Ambassador. I personally ran with two 15-year-old girls, who finished their first marathon which was pretty astonishing. You can see footage of the race on NBC News!
In Hong Kong, we had a mind-boggling year of success, starting with the opening of our new office in Aberdeen. Thanks to a passionate group of volunteers and the board members in Hong Kong, we’ve been able to assist 85 refugees and asylum seekers from 17 different countries. In March, we launched a mentoring and education program for 21 participants, matching members of the local business community with adult refugee students, according to their interests. We also started working with refugee children, started a swimming program for female refugees in our program, and much more!
The support from the local running community and race directors has been outstanding. This collective support has really helped to make our athletes feel appreciated – the impact of this cannot be underestimated. We will be announcing some exciting changes to the Hong Kong entity very soon - lots coming up on the horizon!
Finally, on behalf of the entire Free to Run team, I'd like to extend a BIG thank you to all of you! Whether you’ve supported us financially, run a race on our behalf, or helped to share our news on social media, we depend on you to keep us going. Do not doubt the impact of your support. It’s only because of you that we’re able to operate. You’re directly involved in changing the lives of women and girls for the better. We’re counting on you to help us achieve some big things in 2018, so stay with us! The Free to Run team and the people we serve - need you. If you’d like to get involved, please contact us at email@example.com
Happy New Year!