“Getting women outdoors enables them to reclaim public space, which ultimately helps to shift the perception of gender roles in society.”
UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.
“With Free to Run, I wanted to do some good beyond my UN work,” she says. “Through sports, men and women have the chance to develop self-confidence, understanding and tolerance. We focus on women and girls who have been affected by conf lict because we believe they are an underserved population and they hold the most potential for positive change.”
In Afghanistan, Free to Run began with a hike for about 10 women, and expanded with skiing, running and team leadership clubs for female high-school and university students. Although Free to Run operates in some of the country’s safest areas, participants must overcome more than just the physical challenge of running to pursue their dreams.
“We’ve seen men throw rocks and shout abuse at women runners,” says Case. “They call them prostitutes and say these women are not representing Islam.”
Despite these deep-seated misogynist attitudes, Free to Run demonstrates that running is more than just a solitary sport measured by distances travelled and PBs achieved: It changes lives and communities. One of Case’s proudest moments was accompanying Zainab, one of Free to Run’s ambassadors, in the inaugural Marathon of Afghanistan in 2015, where she became the first Afghan woman to run a marathon in the country.
“Getting women outdoors enables them to reclaim public space, which ultimately helps to shift the perception of gender roles in society,” Case says. For Case, this idea of sport as an agent of change and community-building is what attracts her to ultrarunning. A self-professed school nerd (“I much preferred to study for an algebra test than play a game of soccer,” she jokes), Case developed an interest running in university. After running her first ultra, RacingThePlanet, a 250-kilometre stage race in Vietnam, in 2008 after she graduated from law school, she was hooked. “I love the community aspect of ultrarunning,” she says. “It’s an individual sport, but it so often involves a team to succeed. I gain so much inspiration from other runners, seeing them overcome pain and fatigue, and I love the experience of crewing to help others achieve success. It just isn’t something you’ll find in a 10k .” Since that initial race, Case has won or placed in more than 40 international running events, including placing 15th female at the 2017 Western States 100-miler, and securing the fourth female placing at the 2017 Tor des Géants, a 330-kilometre trail race in Italy. What’s next? In March, Case will move back to Afghanistan for work, and in May, she will compete in the iau World Trail Championships on Team Canada. “I’ve done a lot of my bucket-list events,” says Case. “I am now starting to think about new types of adventures, rather than races. It is my dream to run an ultramarathon in Afghanistan with Free to Run. I hope to continue building on our success, deepen our impact and strengthen the relationships with the communities in which we work.” When running is more about connection than competition, everyone can see how it takes a village to raise a new generation – of runners and social advocates. Amy Stupavsky is a regular contributor. A Toronto expat, she now runs and writes in Berlin.