Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Defying Tradition and Culture in Afghanistan

"There was never a better time to set my worst-ever [race] time. The five local [Afghan] women who took part in the [Bamiyan marathon] this year are the new leaders who are stepping outside the norm. They are making a statement by using the marathon as a vehicle to show they are going to do what they need to do and they are not going to be stopped."
"It  was then I made a vow: if I could recover in time, I would run the 206 Marathon of Afghanistan and support Zainab's [first Afghan female runner] efforts to show that sport is for everyone."
"Many of these older [Bamiyan village elders] men had big families, some with four or five daughters. They said, 'No, we want our daughters to get educated, to get on in the world. We want them to run'."
" ... I thought, here is a young woman who has been dealt a tough hand, losing her friends in the [University] bombing, so I decided then that the purpose of me going there was to help Kubra do this marathon, that if she wants to do a marathon then I'm going to help her through it. The next day I gave a running clinic for the five Afghan women [among 60 men runners], talking about nutrition, hydration and pacing, and after the clinic I pulled her aside and said, 'I'm willing to run with you'. So in the end I found my purpose -- helping this brave young woman complete her first marathon."
"The first half was uphill, a continuous climb. Then it was all downhill coming back. I've never done a marathon quite like it. It was so tough."
Martin Parnell, 60, Canadian Marathon Man, Cochrane, Alberta
Canada’s Marathon Man, Martin Parnell, from Cochrane, Alberta, and a 25-year-old Afghan woman called Kubra, took part in 42-kilometre marathon in Afghanistan in early November.
Canada’s Marathon Man, Martin Parnell, from Cochrane, Alberta, and a 25-year-old Afghan woman called Kubra, took part in 42-kilometre marathon in Afghanistan in early November.

This doughty man proved his running mettle in Canada and internationally by having completed no fewer than 250 marathons in a single year. He has also been involved in raising over $1.3 million in charitable donations to be used for the Right To Play international charity [which supports underprivileged children's exposure to sports]. A year ago, while recovering from treatment for a blood clot in his brain, he had heard about the inaugural marathon taking place in Afghanistan. The first female runner to be involved in the marathon had been stoned and slandered as a prostitute for doing what no women in Afghan society traditionally involved herself in.

What he read motivated him to become involved in the following year's marathon. He was not the only international runner who determined to become involved in the race, and on October 26 he and a few other runners from Britain, the Netherlands and the United States met up in the Afghan capital Kabul, then flew on to Bamiyan, an isolated town of 35,000 residents located in central Afghanistan, in Bamiyan province. Readers of international news may recall that a world renowned heritage site at Bamiyan containing gigantic statues of Buddha were destroyed by explosive set by the Taliban in 2001.

Smaller of the two Buddha statues at Bamiyan, Afghanistan; photograph from 1977. Both statues were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
Smaller of the two Buddha statues at Bamiyan, Afghanistan; photograph from 1977. Both statues were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

The foreign volunteers flew in to Bamiyan because the roads leading from the capital to the valley  though only 240 kilometres from Kabul, are heavily mined with improvised explosive devices, a favourite tactic of the Taliban, well known by NATO forces when the U.S.-led coalition entered the country to disperse al-Qaeda, honoured guests of the Taliban. The people of the province have long been exposed to the rigours of living in their traditional territory while being attacked by the Taliban who doubtless take umbrage at the area's more liberal social stance than other parts of the embattled country.

The race was designed to be run in a manner more physically challenging than might be considered the norm elsewhere, in reflection of the mountainous terrain, than what most westerners are accustomed to. Its pinnacle reaches to an altitude of 2,740 metres, which represents the halfway point at which time any runners who have managed to get to that point, turn around for the return portion of the run. There is a seven-hour window within which runners are held to have achieved their goal; anyone taking over seven hours to complete their run is disqualified.

Martin Parnell was impressed with the attitude of a 25-year-old Afghan woman by the name of Kubra for whom this attempt didn't represent her first run in a long-distance event which had been unsuccessful. She was motivated to try again, and this time the Bamiyan marathon, a gruelling, difficult race that she meant to dedicate to the memory of friends who died when the Taliban set explosives at the Kabul university where she and they were students. She trained, running through Kabul streets, becoming familiar with the taunts of jeering men.

 Mr. Parnell, in assessing the young woman's readiness, attempted to persuade her to commit to a shorter, ten-km event that would take place simultaneously with the longer, more arduous one. She, however, insisted she was committed to the difficult route and meant to accomplish what she set out to do. Pledging to run alongside her, the pair began on a 3C chilly morning, but a fine autumn day full of sunlight. They agreed on their strategy, to run for a nine-minute segment, then walk for one minute and repeat constantly.

For the first three kilometres they ran through the town on a dirt track where burned-out Russian tanks sat, rusting in the landscape, reminders of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan before their army limped back home, defeated by the indomitable Afghan spirit spurning the presence of a foreign army, which eventually led to the rise of the Taliban, nurtured by the Pakistani Secret Service and the American CIA to represent a fighting force to free Afghanistan from the Soviet military presence. It is where al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were inspired. And when the Soviets did leave, Afghan war lords and the Northern Alliance fought the Taliban, but the Taliban conquest led to its extremist Islamist rule of the ruined country.

Once the pair reached the town outskirts where crowds of well-wishers had spurred them and other runners on to their best efforts, it was uphill into the mountains. It took them three hours and 36 minutes to reach the halfway point, before they could turn around and retrace their run. It was at this point where the young Afghan woman was struck with cramps. "I kept looking at the [time], hoping we could somehow make it before the seven-hour cutoff for finishing", explained Mr. Parnell.

"But this woman was tough, she wasn't going to quit and somehow we did it with eight minutes to spare. She had achieved her goal and she was thrilled." The Canadian runner and the young Afghan woman exulted in their finish, and embraced when they reached the finish line, to the amazement of the locals gathered around the finish line.


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