Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Afghanistan's First Mixed Gender Team to Take on Ultramarathon 

Kubra and Arzoo train in the hills around Kabul
Completing an ultramarathon is an extreme challenge even with the best preparation. For three young athletes training in Afghanistan, it is almost impossible.

For the last few months, Kubra, Arzoo and Mahdi have been battling insecurity, street harassment and pollution as they run through the streets and hills around Kabul. In February, they will attempt to become the first mixed gender team from Afghanistan to participate in an international running event.

The 250 km race, RacingThePlanet: Sri Lanka, is organized by the 4 Deserts Race Series, and starts on 14 February 2016. It’s a 250 kilometer / 155 mile, 7-day, stage race in which competitors must carry everything they need for the race on their back. The average backpack will weigh 9 kilograms/ 20 pounds. A group of international competitors from more than 20 countries will compete alongside the team from Afghanistan.

Kubra, Arzoo and Mahdi will race together under the name Team Sahra, which means ‘desert’ in Dari. They hope to repeat the 2015 success of Nelofar and Zainab from Team Asma’i, who were the first Afghan women to complete an ultramarathon. Both teams were selected, trained, and supported by Free to Run, a non-profit organization that uses sport and fitness to empower women and girlsfrom conflict-affected communities.

Team mate Mahdi
Kubra, 25, was so inspired by the performance of Team Asma’i last year that she started running on a treadmill. It did not take long before she began wanting more, “I thought why should I be limited just to a treadmill in a gym,” said Kubra. “Why can’t I run on the streets and roads? Why can’t I run outdoors?”

After Kubra was selected by Free to Run for RacingThePlanet: Sri Lanka, she began training with her teammate, Arzoo. “We run early in the morning to avoid street harassments and bad eyes of men,” explains Arzoo, a 23-year old newcomer to the sport. “We run side by side in order to be protected and we encourage each other so that everything is fine.”

Bringing Mahdi, the third and only male team mate, onto the team was part of a deliberate strategy to provide safer conditions for Arzoo and Kubra. However, for the Founder of Free to Run, Stephanie Case, the reason for a mixed gender team went beyond security alone. “We felt it was important to include a male on this year’s team, not as a chaperone, but as an equal member of the team,” says Case. “Having a mixed gender sports team from Afghanistan sends a very important message.”

Mahdi has already proven he is willing to go out of his way to support Afghan women in sports. Last autumn, he ran alongside Nelofar to complete the (unofficial) Kabul Marathon. An aspiring coach, Mahdi has high dreams for his fellow runners. “They are great and I want to make them the best,” says Mahdi. “We should learn and teach all Afghan [people] that there is no difference of rights between men and women.

Terrain near Kabul where team members train
Even with the strong support from Mahdi and Free to Run, Kubra and Arzoo still face barriers in their community. During one of their recent training runs, a disapproving bicycle rider hit Kubra on the face. Kubra and Arzoo both kept running after the incident.

Team Sahra’s race entries have been sponsored by RacingThePlanet, a leading retail store for all outdoor equipment and gear who is also the title sponsor of the race. Regular race updates will be provided on the 4 Deserts and Free to Run websites.

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