Last month, Eleanor Mooney joined Free to Run and Untamed Borders for the experience of a lifetime. Alongside several thousand other runners, she participated in the Erbil Marathon, and had the opportunity to meet Free to Run’s first Iraqi team.
Today, Eleanor shares her first-hand account of the trip, explains how the young women challenged her preconceived notions of the sport and Felt Free to Run’s spirit of unity and support.
“Recently, I had the opportunity to meet the girls of Free to Run on a trip to Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the site of Free to Run’s newest pilot program. These girls challenged my preconceived notions of the sport. I was amazed to see the obstacles they continuously overcome, and the commitment they demonstrate to the sport of running.
Although a pilot program, Free to Run Erbil already has nineteen female runners, ranging from fifteen to twenty-three years old, including nine Syrian refugees, eight IDPs from Mosul and two community members. If not for Free to Run, girls from these different backgrounds would probably never meet. In fact, the Mosul girls live in a conservative and restrictive camp that does not allow them to leave unless it’s with an approved program like Free to Run. Free to Run bridges these gaps, providing girls from vastly different backgrounds with a unifying goal, interest and outlet: running.
It was incredible to watch this diversity in action. Despite the obstacles that different religions, languages and challenging life situations present, along with the nature of teenage girls, their interactions were incredibly positive.
When I first met the Free to Run Erbil team for an evening run at a local park, I was amazed by their energy! Approximately nineteen young girls swarmed around me, joking, smiling and loudly introducing themselves. Contradictory to initial perceptions, their small sizes and young ages were not indicative of the vast, bright spirits they unwittingly shared with everyone, and in every situation they encountered.
This team of girls run together after school, or after working a full day, as struggling incomes forced several to leave school to help support their families. They also spend up to 90 minutes in-transit to and from the park; because of the different cultural approaches to exercise in Iraq and/or because many parents do not own a car, Free to Run hires drivers and vans to transport the girls to activities. These time constraints mean that the girls run in the dusk and dark.
Yet, this does not dampen their spirits, and they chatter whilst they run, later laughing and helping each other work through new yoga poses. They also happily conversed with me, an English speaker with zero knowledge of either Kurdish and Arabic, using it as an opportunity to practice their broken English and teach me basic Kurdish and Arabic, all the while sharing small details about their lives.
These same levels of enthusiasm are present at every Free to Run session, which includes five run sessions and one hike, where they also receive a Life-Skills lesson applicable to their daily lives.
When I arrived for Free to Run’s seven a.m. morning hike, I was bleary eyed and quiet, still wiping sleep from my eyes - and that was with only an hour drive to the location of the hike. An hour’s extra sleep was definitely on my mind.
Yet, when the girl’s arrived, they were blaring music, singing, laughing and dancing. Despite being up since 4:30 a.m. and driving for two hours, they were energetic and excited. Lack of motivation was certainly not an issue. Actually, we had to constantly remind them to quiet down so they wouldn’t wake the surrounding neighbours. Throughout the hike, the girls constantly expressed their enthusiasm about participating in the [Erbil marathon weekend] the following day and peppered me with questions about running a race. They would be running the 12K and I was running the full marathon.
My clearest memory of running the Erbil marathon is not the actual race. It’s the avalanche of girls in matching Free to Run t-shirts and red Erbil marathon baseball caps that descended upon me at the finish, hugging me, handing me water and proudly congratulating me in three different languages. In a little under a week, the girls had accepted and supported me as one of their own, exactly as they do for any other female that joins Free to Run. They couldn’t wait to hear about my marathon and share their experiences on running their first 12K race, proudly showing me their race bibs and exclaiming about their sore legs. Their joy in having participated in a social and sporting activity, as a Free to Run team, was all-consuming.
These girls commit to Free to Run not out of obligation, but because they want to. This transforms their every approach to the program, making their energy contagious and transforming many hard and gruelling miles in the dark into an achievable and enjoyable feat. It makes every girl want to come to each session - continuously excited to be there. In a country where exercise is a foreign term, it’s this spirit of unity and support that propels the girls to persevere.
I will always treasure and remember the incredible, positive spirit of Free to Run Erbil. It’s this spirit that makes the team the inspiring and ground-breaking movement that it is.
The girls recognize that this spirit is difficult to obtain in Iraq, and value this outlet as a rare form of self-expression and a way to discover more about different ways of life, challenging their thinking and allowing them to entertain the possibility, and even realization, of something beyond their current reality.”