by Martin Parnell
When I arrived in the central Afghanistan city of Bamyan, I knew there would be many Free to Run Afghan girls who would be soon running their first marathon. I wondered how I could help.
Then it hit me: why not be the very first “Pace Bunny” in the Marathon of Afghanistan? I made a set of bunny ears and a time placard for 7 hours, one hour ahead of the 8-hour cut-off time. It was going to be a challenging course. The maximum elevation is over 11,000 feet (3,360 metres) which means the oxygen level drops from 21% to 13.7%. Also, it’s extremely hilly and the elevation gain/loss over the 42 kilometres is 3,723 feet (1,135 metres).
The next morning, I met up with Hassina, Free to Run Kabul Field Officer. She agreed to be my “Assistant Pace Bunny” and introduced a group of six girls who would be running with us. They were all very excited. The first part of the race was a 2K out-and-back, then we headed up on the first of many steep climbs out of the numerous valleys in Band-e Amir National Park.
Things were going pretty well as we approached the first aid station. The route had been tough and one of the girls was complaining of back pain. I asked if she wanted to drop out, but she said no. The group kept moving forward and we were on track up to the 10K point. The course was marked with black arrows painted on wooden planks.
At a fork in the road, we followed the arrow pointing left and continued for two kilometres. Then we heard yells from across the valley and people were waving at us to come over. The girls and I trudged across some marshland and met up with the race volunteers. They told us that someone had turned the marker around and we were going the wrong way.
I felt there was no way we would complete the marathon in seven hours. Even eight hours would be tough enough as some of the girls were, by now, struggling with the terrain and physical issues. At the 14K checkpoint, I asked the volunteers to pass along a request to the Race Director to extend the cut-off to nine hours.
We continued on and reached the 21K checkpoint in 4 hours and 30 minutes. We had actually covered 23K due to the detour. The first half had been a tough slog up and down the steep, dusty hills, but we’d been told the second half would be easier. I then noticed the group had become smaller by one. I had lost sight of the girl with the bad back, and another girl had started to lag.
A key milestone at 26K is the arched entrance to the park. It was a long straight climb from there, and as I reached the top, I looked back and couldn’t believe my eyes. There, in the distance, was the girl with the bad back. It had been 20 kilometres and 4 hours since I had last seen her, and she had kept going. I decided then and there that I would try and get her—and the other girl who had fallen behind—across the line before the new, 9-hour cut-off we were hoping for.
At the 28K checkpoint, I told Hassina I was going to wait for the stragglers and that she was to take the rest of the group and carry on. Twenty minutes later, the two girls caught up. One of them could speak a little English. She told me her name was Sonya and she was 14 years old. The other girl, Anita, was Sonya’s 16-year-old sister.
We had three hours to cover 14K. Every so often we would do a short run of 100 metres, just to keep some momentum going. We had an ambulance following us and whenever I asked the girls if they wanted to get in, they always said no.
We had 55 minutes to complete the last three kilometres. The girls were getting excited and wanted to get their medals. The sun was setting as we ran across the finish line with hugs and tears all around. The 9-hour cut-off limit had been approved, so we had finished in 8 hours 46 minutes, with 14 minutes to spare.
In total, 20 Free to Run girls and women completed the marathon on this amazing day. Their resilience, persistence and determination are certainly an example for the rest of us.