Thursday, July 26, 2018

Chasing Rainbows; Reflecting on loss, love, and my first 50 mile ultra-marathon. A guest blog by Farahnaz Afaq

This guest blog submitted by Farahnaz Afaq is a powerful tribute to her brother who died unexpectedly within days leading up to her first 50 mile ultra, Free To Run, in Vermont, USA. Farahnaz was born and raised in Afghanistan where she experienced trauma and extreme gender discrimination. She wraps the memory of her brother around her heart.  This is a story of running beneath rainbows in search of peace and harmony. 

It's a good day to be alive,


Three o’clock AM - the hotel’s wake-up call is ringing while my alarm goes off in the corner of the hotel room. I crawl out of my side of the king-size bed that I am sharing with my friend Zahra. Blind in the dark, I find my way to the bathroom. I look at myself in the mirror and think to myself that this is another day. The pain is hurting my heart and I am overwhelmed by the feeling that it will stay there forever. But then I slap myself and tell myself that today will be a new beginning. After months of training like a maniac for my first ever 50-mile running competition, losing my beloved brother only a few days before the race had completely thrown me off course and made me contemplate quitting. But I knew he would have wanted me to compete.  “I cannot give up. I have not come this far to give up now. I cannot let down my brother who was my inspiration and friends who supported and helped me so I would be prepared for the race.” I thought fondly of Mac, Joan, Barbara and Roy, Spartanburg, SC family who had taken care of me and made sure I did not lack anything during my training. 

I originally signed up for the race to support Free to Run, a non-profit organization that empowers and educates women in conflict-affected communities (like many in my native Afghanistan) by providing them outdoor activities. Growing up in Afghanistan and as a refugee in Pakistan and Iran, Free to Run’s mission spoke to me very much. As a child, I was not able to do any kind of outdoor activities or sports, just because I was a woman. I was constantly reminded by my society that the purpose of being a woman was to raise children and take care of the family. There were many things that I was forbidden to do or have because of my gender. In fact, when I was young, I loved the rain because of the likelihood of rainbows appearing. I desperately wanted to walk underneath a rainbow, because of an Afghan myth that said to do so would change your gender - and I wanted nothing more than be a boy…

Free to Run’s emphasis on sports, and giving greater confidence to girls that they can do the same things as boys, is just what I would have loved to have when I was young, and I was willing to sign up for a 50-mile race to support this great organisation.

Then everything changed. In the week before the race, I read the terrible news from facebook that my brother Sadullah had passed away unexpectedly back home on Friday, Sept 8th. I cried and cried and cried and hoped a family member would tell me that the news were wrong. I kept calling my family all over the world, none of them answered. But after hearing my sister’s voice at 10:00PM I realized that the news were correct and I was not having a bad dream. It was a harsh reality - it never occurred to me that I might lose my young brother. My entire body ached and I felt my heart was on fire. I wanted to be with my family so badly to share the grief. But I was in my room surrounded by Joan, Barbara and my roommates, Elena and Juliana, who were confused and did not know the reasons behind my screams and crying. Running was the last thing on my mind. And yet here I was, on the morning of race day on Sept 16th, somehow trying to get through the day, and survive a brutal 50-mile run.

Four thirty AM - I met my American host family on the trail. They were already wide awake and started cheering as soon as they saw me. After Zahra’s and my short speech on Afghanistan to the twenty fellow 50-milers, I found myself following my headlights on the Pittsfield trail running in the dark.The trail was a 12.5 mile loop, which we had to do four times. While doing my first lap, I started thinking of Sadullah, my life’s purpose and the hope I recently lost, trying to find inner peace and strength.

I ran the first and second laps fast without even noticing. I was the first woman to complete the first lap, and still in second position by the time I finished the second lap. I had so much emotion inside of me, that I ran 25 whole miles without feeling any physical pain. Instead, I was remembering little funny moments I had with my brother. As my host family from Vermont had told me “wrap your brother in your heart and just run with him.” That is what I did; I felt his presence throughout the 12:27:00 hours I was out there, climbing hills and sighing out the pain when running downhill.

But during the third and fourth laps, the pain caught up with me; I felt it crawl up to my legs, especially my knees and ankles. The pain was real and I was assured that I am not having a bad dream about my brother. Luckily, my pacers Taylor and Marie were wonderful in distracting me. While climbing uphills I blacked out a few times, felt sick to my stomach and got really bad cramps underneath my right rib, but I kept going. I kept thinking to myself, “Today is my day to change my life and tomorrow my story will change many others, especially Afghan girls’ lives, so do not give up!” Miles 42-48 I walked most of the time, not feeling my legs except sharp knee pain, with Marie’s words echoing in my ears: “One step at a time! Remember, every step forward makes us get closer to the finish line. You are not competing against anyone but yourself. I want you to cross the finish line with a smile.” She was right, my entire life has been filled with challenges, but with the support of my family, I have always kept moving forward. When I was a refugee girl at three years’ old, I was told that if I wanted to live, I must not stop running until I had crossed the border. I was taught that death was possible at any moment. When I was six years old, I was told to leave my only childhood toy, a doll, behind in order to carry bread for our survival while crossing another border. But today I was running towards my dreams, in search of lifting myself up in order to find myself again and in order to get the lost hope.

With the cheers and love of my American host family, Mr. Robert, Ms. Lea Ann, Hanah and Colin, I managed to make it to the mile 48 aid station. Mr. Robert took my Camelbak to refill and Marie asked me to stop and eat something. But my mind was focused and my eyes zoomed through the woods and saw nothing but the finish line. Wobbling around I crossed the road and entered into the woods. Mr. Robert and Marie’s voice echoed in my ears “have something to drink and eat.” But I did not understand what they were saying. I turned back and with the loudest voice I could muster, I screamed “I love you all!” I heard my host family saying “we love you more!” and Ms. Lea Ann ran behind me and made sure I was good to go. I took a deep breath and started running again. Marie caught up with me and gave me some of her water. Mr. Robert on my left and Ms. Lea Ann on my right started running alongside me. Both were prepared to hold me if I fell. I felt the power, energy and love. I let go of the grief of Sadullah’s loss and filled the void with my family’s love. I promised to cross the finish line with a smile and to “turn this pain into positive energy and love for my family, friends, nephew, niece and unborn children” as my master, friend, teacher, role model and my life changer, Connie had said.

The race in Pittsfield was not only about finishing my first 50 mile ultramarathon. It reminded me that life is filled with ups and downs, that we have to make sure not to give up easily despite hardships we might be facing. It reminded me that even though I might feel weak, I am stronger than I think. Weak because there are certain things in this world that are impossible for me to change. Nothing I will do will bring my brother back. Strong, because there are many things I can change. For instance, I did this race despite going through the hardest time of my life. I did it because it matters. This was not only about running and my capabilities of how far my mind and body could go. This was about humans rights and equality and showing my appreciation for the opportunities and freedoms I have been given.

As a naive child, I chased rainbows all the time, in my quest to become a boy. But now I proudly stand tall and say “I am a woman” … “an As a naive child, I chased rainbows all the time, in my quest to become a boy. But now I proudly stand tall and say “I am a woman” … “an ultra-marathon woman!”

Written by Ultra-marathon Woman, Farahnaz Afaq

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