More than a year ago, doctors discovered a blood clot in Martin Parnell’s brain. During his recovery, this 60-year-old Canadian, who is famous for completing 250 marathons in a single year and raising more than $1.3 million for charities, read an article about the first international marathon in Afghanistan. The article featured a young woman named Zainab, a Free to Run Ambassador, who became the first Afghan women to run a full marathon in her country. In the interview, Zainab talked about how much harassment she encountered while trying to train for the race. Upon finishing the article, Martin decided that he would run the 2016 Marathon of Afghanistan to support Zainab’s efforts.
The Marathon of Afghanistan is organized by the adventure company Untamed Borders and they chose the Bamyan region to host the event. Bamyan, located in the central highlands, is one of the oldest cities in the country and is widely known for their giant, ancient Buddha statues that were carved into the side of a cliff, until 2001 when tragically the Taliban blew them up. For the 2016 event, 70 runners signed-up for the full marathon including five young women who were all inspired by Zainab’s race in 2015.
Kubra, another Free to Run Ambassador, was excited to run in the 2016 Marathon of Afghanistan. Unfortunately like Zainab, she also experienced the same type of harassment while trying to train in Kabul. As the date approached, Kubra was genuinely worried about being able to finish the race. Martin and Kubra met prior to the marathon and talked about her fears. Inspired by her determination, Martin offered to run the marathon with Kubra, and coach her through the tough moments. He said, “It was the best time to record my worst time in a race.”
Martin: In late October 2015, my wife Sue showed me the article from the Guardian that would change the direction of my life. In the article, Zainab talked about children stoning her and using bad words like ‘prostitutes, why don’t you stay at home? You are destroying Islam.’ It got me thinking. We’re so lucky to live where we do. Every weekend, we can sign up for a race and the only thing holding us back is our desire to participate. In some countries this is not the case, particularly for women. I had heard about the same kind of discrimination in Benin, West Africa, when Heather Moyse and Caroline Ouellette (Right To Play Athlete Ambassadors) talked to the women’s national soccer team. The team members said they were treated like outcasts and freaks. After reading the article, I made a vow. If I could recover in time, I would run the 2016 Marathon of Afghanistan and support Zainab’s efforts to show that sport is for everyone. When I told Sue, she said I could go as long as I took my family doctor with me. I immediately asked Bill Hanlon, and he said yes. Game on. In the following days, I contacted James Bingham, the race director, and James Wilcox from trip organiser Untamed Borders. The wheels were in motion.
My initial purpose was to run the marathon in support of girls and women doing sport in Afghanistan, in particular running, without harassment. I also wanted to be a role model for my 12 year old granddaughter Autumn to show her that girls and women all over the world face challenges and they must not back down to them. Arriving in Afghanistan my purpose became more defined when I met Kubra. She had a goal but needed a little bit of help and that became my role.
Kubra: 42k, 10k, half marathon or ultra-marathon… it does not matter which one. This is all about your mind, it is a fight between your mind and your body. If your mind is ready, no matter what, your body will keep going in all steps. This time, I was lucky to learn this from an inspiring man. Martin told me I have a strong mind and I can do the Bamyan marathon as my first marathon although I did not have enough training. Words cannot express my feelings, the sense of achievement I had and have after finishing the race.
After being unable to finish my first ultra-marathon in Sri Lanka in 2016, finishing this race on time and healthily was my dream. First, I decided to do the 10k as I thought I am not ready for full marathon, but after meeting with Martin and sharing my story with him, he asked me to run as a team. When I heard about his offer, the tears were in my eyes and I told him it was an honor to run with him.
Martin: Kubra hadn’t trained for the marathon and normally I would never recommend that someone should tackle the marathon under those conditions. The marathon must be respected. However, I felt she had something to prove to herself. The marathon is 90% mental, and I noted that Kubra was mentally very strong, and I thought there was a chance of coming in under the 7 hour cut-off.
We followed a plan from the very start of the race. Running 9 mins and walking 1 min, hydration / nutrient every walk break, walking the hills. We reached the turnaround point at 3 hours 36 mins. So we had to keep things going for the second half. Kubra was suffering from stomach pains but she was tough and kept going.
Kubra: The day of the race came and we were just behind the start line in front of the big Buddha. Martin checked my water bag to make sure if I had enough water. I had my electrolytes, energy gel and biscuits to eat during the race. We started the race smoothly and stuck to his 9/1 strategy, which really worked. We managed our energy and time very well. He told me it is all about your thoughts and how to be steady with normal pace all the time, not fast not slow, steady all the time. Over the course he talked about his injuries and success during those 250 marathon. Before the race, he gave me his book, Marathon Quest so I could learn more about his experiences.
After 35k I could not breathe well and we decided to walk and just do some running when I could. We were not worried about shortage of time and the finishing line was getting closer and closer. Martin was counting down the kilometers and finally we could see the big Buddha again. During the course he told me no matter what we will run the 100 yards to the finish, so we started running after seeing the big Buddha. After crossing the finishing line, I cried again from great happiness.
Martin and Kubra finished the marathon at 6 hours 52 mins, just 8 mins under the 7 hour cut-off time.
Martin: It was amazing. This was the toughest road race I have ever done due to the elevation (9,000 feet) and route (climb the first half and downhill the second). Running with Kubra was terrific. As we ran along people were shouting at us. I didn’t know what they were saying so she translated ‘best of luck’ and ‘run faster’ and three women even invited us in for tea. Unfortunately we couldn’t stop.
Bamyan and the surrounding area is stunning. There are so many attractions to visit but the biggest attraction is the hospitality and friendliness of the people. I want everyone to know about the strength and willpower of the girls and women who ran the 10km and the full marathon. Nothing will stop them. Kubra was telling me that she bought a can of purple spray paint and a set of “knuckle dusters” for her training in Kabul. I like her attitude!
Kubra: The moment, when you cross the finish line, that moment is a golden time that not everybody can experience. I had been given this chance two times, once during the Sri Lanka ultra-marathon and once in the Bamyan marathon. It wouldn’t have been possible if Free to Run had not provide me this opportunity. The opportunity to know more about my strength, my weakness, my mind and to feel the real freedom through observing and connecting with nature while running. I need to thank all Free to Run staff… Stephanie, Connie, Taylor, and those who are helping like me girls to experiences running. I need to thank Martin Parnell who helped and inspired me to finish my first Marathon with a great experience. I need to thank my friends who were there with me before, during and after the race to motivate me and taking a good care of me. Finally, I run to earn the street and open it for my daughters and granddaughters.