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College Housemistress Takes Fastest Women’s Time in The Marathon of Afghanistan
28th November 2017

An account of the marathon and trip by Victoria Burford, an Eastbourne College girls' boarding Housemistress.

An account of the trip by Victoria Burford.

‘Another marathon in Afghanistan? You’re going back?  You must be mad’ was the usual reaction from my friends and colleagues when I mentioned my plans to return to Afghanistan in November 2017. Having raced the previous year and surprised myself by winning the female title, I couldn’t wait to return, although to travel to Afghanistan is never without risks. Indeed, as I landed in a misty Kabul from Gatwick and heard of a fatal attack that same day on a Shia mosque, it was with both nerves and excitement that I passed through the many checkpoints at immigration. However, as dawn set on a troubled Kabul and we watched groups of innocent children playing with kites on a hilly outcrop, I knew that my decision to return was right, whatever the outcome of the race.

I have enjoyed running since a young adult, and since becoming a boarding Housemistress although the time pressures of training to run a marathon while concomitantly running a boarding house can sometimes be challenge (anyone fancy a 20 miler between roll call and chapel?), I find that long distance running can be a great way of alleviating the demands of the job and creating vital headspace. Many of my best House initiatives have been borne on the South Downs, although woe betide the girl (or parent) who comes between me and my post run refuel!

The Marathon of Afghanistan and the associated 10k is the only sporting event in Afghanistan where girls and boys can take part together, and is organised with a charity called Free to Run which is an inspirational organisation which works with women and girls in conflict areas to give them confidence, equality and education through exercise. The entry fees paid by the international runners enable both the local Afghans to take part for free, and for a small group of girls from Free to Run to  participate and  take part in a training schedule in the months leading up to the marathon. We spent a day hiking with some of these girls, and it was humbling to hear some of their stories – before Free to Run, these girls would risk stoning, insults and death threats if they ran on the streets, and they would be reduced to training in small compounds or stairwells.  Over tea in a local shepherd’s hut, we all discussed why we enjoyed  running.  For the international runners, the reasons were predominantly health driven, yet the unilateral reason cited by these local girls was to bring about change in their country.  While hiking up the hill, one of girls who was a student at the American University in Kabul told me that ‘things had been tough recently’, due to a Taliban bomb at the university which had killed a lot of her friends and teachers.  The mental and physical resilience of all of these girls is truly remarkable.  

The marathon took place in the town of Bamiyan which is a Hazara stronghold in the North of Afghanistan at an altitude of 2,500m.  With a Buddhist past, its cliffs are dotted with ancient sacrificial caves, some of which now house refugees.   One of these caves is also a school, and it was wonderful to return there and teach a lesson. All that remains of the largest Buddha statues which the Taliban blew up in 2001 are huge silhouettes etched into the black rock face.  It was an out and back route – climbing 700 metres directly up and down a hill on a well tarmacked road – never have I felt so happy in the 14th mile of a marathon! Because of the altitude and the 8 am start, it was never oppressively hot – a bonus since we had to ensure that our clothing fully covered us, including headwear.  The morning of the races afforded a rea sense of camaraderie with 300 competitors lined up to race.  It was one of the fastest starts ever with adrenalin and inexperience playing no small part. After about a kilometre the dirt track became a fully tarmacked road, and I managed to settle into a pace. I passed through the 5k checkpoint without stopping, and paused at 10k checkpoint where an inviting tray of bananas, apricots and home-made cake  awaited. It really was a long and winding road up the hill – it was beautiful in its bleakness,  remote,  flanked by two mountains so the air still bitingly chilly  – running through shepherd settlements where fields of potatoes were being harvested by families, being overtaken by the occasional donkey laden with fodder - it was like running in a bygone era. We passed through dramatic gorges and small villages, where locals would stare at us with mild bemusement. One man even invited me in for a cup of tea – I don’t think that he quite understood the concept that we were running a marathon. Sadly the racing culture in Afghanistan is almost non-existent, so there was a fair amount of cheating, ranging from people jumping into cars to hitching an illicit ride on a bike or even a donkey.  In a land of widespread poverty, chip timing would seem like an ironic luxury, but I really do think that it was ignorance rather than malice behind a lot of the cheating.  Indeed  as I was huffing my way up the hill, I chuckled when a fellow competitor asked me quite innocently how I intended to get down the hill – the concept of actually running the 26 miles of a marathon seemingly quite novel to him.  As I ran down the hill, it became apparent to me that I was the first female, but knowing how difficult the last few miles of a marathon can be (all the more so at altitude), I could afford to take nothing for granted, but it was not until I crossed the finish line and had the position to me confirmed that I could really relax! The winning man, a taxi driver from Kabul, by then adorned in an Afghan flag and being interviewed by local TV was being feted  as a local hero (and rightly so) and it was an honour to be part of his story and indeed part of the journey behind running in Afghanistan – a journey which may only be in its first few faltering miles, but one which thanks to Free to Run and the Marathon of Afghanistan, can increasingly be enjoyed by both girls and boys. 

Back now in UK where I am free to wear what I want, do what I want, run where I want, Afghanistan feels miles away. Without a doubt, Afghanistan is a country which challenges the senses – so often associated with danger, war, bombings and violence, but it is also a country of love, compassion, friendship and  some of the warmest hospitality I have ever encountered. Like running itself, it is a country where a whole range of emotions inextricably connected and the fine line between joy and pain, wealth and poverty, laughing and crying can change at the blink of an eyelid.  Like running, Afghanistan is a country which gets under your skin and challenges a return.  And you may even find yourself a champion! 

Victoria completed the marathon in an impressive 4 hours and 25 minutes.