On a cold dark September morning, Free to Run’s two newest Ambassadors, Farahnaz and Zahra, competed in an ultra-marathon with the Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service (BURCs) in the hills of Massachusetts. The 50-mile race was tough, but for these two young women from Afghanistan, it was a race they were determined to finish.
Farahnaz and Zahra met at a boarding school in Kabul in 2010, and have been studying on competitive scholarships in the United States whilst simultaneously taking up running. Both started their running adventures with a half marathon in 2015, followed by several full marathons. Step by step, they gained the confidence and experience needed to tackle the 50-mile ultra marathon hosted by BURCS.
The BURCS community have been early and dedicated supporters of Free to Run. The group was founded in 2013 by three passionate long-distance runners from western Massachusetts who felt they could combine running with social, civic and environmental issues. This race, now in its 3rd year, is called The Free to Run Race. BURCs’ pillars of: Run, Give, Inspire and Achieve fit perfectly with Free to Run’s ethos of empowerment through sport.
Before starting the race, Farahnaz and Zahra had the opportunity to speak with their fellow runners about what it meant to be female runners from Afghanistan. Farahnaz shared that as a child, she wanted to be a boy because the boys were allowed to do all sorts of sports and activities that girls were simply not allowed to do. She used to wish for rainbows because in Afghan legend it's said that if you walk under a rainbow you can change your gender. As a 10 year old child running in sandals, Zahra placed 1st in a local race and won a bicycle. Out of fear for her safety, her family said that she would not be allowed to ride the bicycle. It highlighted how much Farahnaz and Zahra had overcome just to be at the race.
The two friends accompanied each other on the first of the four 12.5 mile loops they needed to complete. But in Zahra’s words, ‘Farahnaz flies rather than runs.’ So they continued the race, each running at their own pace.
The race course was mentally and physically challenging. The first loop had been fun but, by the second loop Zahra’s feet felt like they were on fire. At times she cried with frustration and pain from all of the blisters on her feet. There was no doubt in Zahra's mind that this was the hardest thing she had ever done. She was truly pushed to the limit when she hit her foot on a rock before heading into the fourth and final loop. Thanks to the amazing support from course director, Jake Dissinger, some dedicated pacers along the route, and Zahra's sheer determination... she managed to finish the race in 16 hours. No doubt the best moment for Zahra came at the end of the 50 miles, when she ran in to the arms of her coach who waiting for her at the finish line.
Farahnaz had a very impressive race, finishing 3rd female, and 8th overall. The success of her day was tinged with tragedy as she had lost her beloved brother the week before the race. Her training had been thrown off course, but she knew that giving up was not an option. She had come this far and she knew her brother would have wanted her to compete. Her family and friends advised her to, "wrap your brother in your heart and just run with him."
Zahra and Farahnaz are working to change the narrative of Muslim runners in the West. We're extremely proud to have them as Ambassadors for Free to Run and we look forward to seeing their future success, on and off the trails!