THE ULTRA ACTIVIST
FOR Stephanie Case, running in Afghanistan usually meant logging laps inside the United Nations compound in Kabul, where she worked as a human rights lawyer. Then, one day, the 34-yearold ultra runner hitched a UN helicopter ride to the Koh-e Baba Mountains for a day of unrestricted running. During that run, she thought, I’d love Afghan women to experience this sense of freedom.
When Case floated the idea of a running club for women, other organisations dismissed it as too dangerous. To her surprise, it was Afghan women who pushed for the idea. ‘I thought, if they’re interested and brave enough to try this, I should be brave enough to help them,’ she says. So in 2014, Case founded Free to Run. Its goal: to use the sport to empower women and girls affected by conflict in their countries.
Twelve women from Bamiyan, a town about 80 miles northwest of Kabul, joined her for two days in the mountains; after that inaugural outing, the group met once or twice a month. In 2015, a Free to Run member became the first female Afghan to complete a 26.2 in her own country, the Marathon of Afghanistan in Bamiyan, and in February 2016, the country’s first mixed team – trained by Free to Run – finished Racingtheplanet, a 155-mile ultra in Sri Lanka.
Today, there are teams in three Afghan provinces and Case has expanded her initiative to Hong Kong (where it is aimed at refugees). In November 2016, more than 100 women and girls from Free to Run programmes ran either the 10K or the 26.2 at the second Marathon of Afghanistan.
Stephanie now lives in Geneva, but keeps in contact with her teams, coordinates their training and visits often. She’s hoping to expand her programmes. ‘Changing the perception of women’s role in society is a way to achieve peace,’ she says. ‘It’s not for the to-do list after there’s peace.’