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Bullets, bombing and bandanas

AFG 2012 1096An Ultra-runner’s life in the Afghan Desert

When I told my friends and family this past spring that I was going to leave my comfortable life in New York and move to Afghanistan, I expected that they would be worried. I braced myself for the inevitable expressions of concern, pleas to change my mind, and endless questions about how I would keep myself safe.   What I got instead was the same query, repeated over and over again: “but, what about your running?”

It was a fair question to ask. I would be living within the confines of an armed compound and stepping outside the enforced concrete walls is strictly forbidden. The air is thick and hazy from pollution, lining the insides of your nostrils with black grit, coating your teeth in fine dust and turning your eyes bright red with irritation.  I was told that running would be impossible, let alone ultrarunning.

However, the same thing that drew me into the sport in the first place – the impossibility of it all – was what made the idea of ultrarunning in Afghanistan even more attractive. Upon arrival in Kabul, I immediately set out my competition schedule for the upcoming year: RacingThePlanet’s 250 km Gobi race in June, Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in August, and the inaugural 250 km Grand to Grand (G2G) race in September. Cramming in three major races into less than six months would have been ambitious for me under normal conditions.  The thought of trying to accomplish this while living in a war zone made it all the more exciting.   I could not wait to prove to myself and all of the cynics that I was truly badass!

I began my running routine, which I named “Kompound Kilometers”, by making a one-mile course along the two main roads inside the compound. Over the next few weeks, I gradually expanded my training route to 1.5 miles, 2 miles and then 3 miles, simply by incorporating loops around parking lots, darting in and out amongst apartment buildings, and circling the UN helipad. I found nooks and crannies that other compound ‘inmates’ never knew existed and pretty soon, I had the entire base memorized.

AFG 2012 1111After my first six weeks of training, I was chomping at the bit to get to the Gobi race.  The chance to run every day in a straight line for hours on end made me completely giddy with excitement and I was overwhelmed by the freedom of sleeping outside compound walls for a week. I had more fun in that race than I had in years.  My dehydrated meals were pretty much on par with the canned food I ate every day in Kabul, the air was cleaner, and the scenery was a million times better.  Instead of staring at brown, pock-marked concrete walls as I ran, I gazed at red rocks, blue skies and purple mountains. I ended up placing 2nd female, but I would have been just as happy coming in last.

Bolstered by my success in China, I returned to Kabul confident and eager to take on more. I knew that hill-training would be essential for my preparations for UTMB, but the compound was insufferably flat, which left me with only one thought: I had to find a way to get out. With a little persistence, I was able to get myself on the UN helicopter one weekend to a city called Bamyan. At almost 10,000 feet above sea level, Bamyan offered perfect high-altitude training and better yet, the security conditions were safe enough that I could run outside without fear of attack. I spent hours each day running up and down the sandy hills behind the city, careful not to stray from the path but eager to explore as much as common sense would allow.  I felt better than ever when I hopped on the helicopter back to Kabul.

Unfortunately, this was when things took a turn for the worse. Just a few days later, I became ill with amoebic dysentery, which stayed with me for the next two months. Some days, the pain was unbearable. I would lie in bed clutching my stomach, psyching myself up for my daily dose of Kompound Kilometers.  I managed to keep up to my training schedule, but I paid a heavy toll.  Just ten days before I was meant to fly out to Chamonix, I was put on an intravenous drip for an entire afternoon.  I was in no shape to walk, let alone run 100 miles.

061112Stage2 149I arrived at UTMB at the end of August more fearful than excited.  Instead of reveling in the fact that I would be competing against some of the most accomplished athletes in the world and running on the best trails the Alps had to offer, all I could think about was getting through the miles as quickly as possible.  I pushed myself over the muddy mountains, through the falling rain and snow, and against the bitter wind to the finish line, finishing as 30th female.  Normally, this would have been a perfect excuse to celebrate. However, any elation that I should have felt was overshadowed by the weight of knowing that I still had one more race to go.

Three weeks later I flew to the states for the G2G. The race began at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and ended at the summit of the Grand Staircase, one of the world’s most iconic geological formations. For seven days, I crossed wide-open plains, climbed over wooded hills and trudged over pink sand dunes. The scenery was truly spectacular, but I was simply burned out. My mind was dominated by the thought that instead of beating up my body on the course, I could have been sitting beside the pool in Vegas sipping a fruity alcoholic concoction.

When I returned to Afghanistan, I thought I would finally be able to hang up my running shoes and give myself a bit of a break. While I was relieved that I had accomplished everything I had set out to do, I did not feel nearly as badass as I thought I would.  I swore off running and vowed never to enter another competition again.

DSC 9464.lrInevitably, this hiatus from running did not last long and like any true addict, I soon returned to my Kompound Kilometers.  Perhaps because I no longer had anything to prove, I began to appreciate the simplicity of running the same route, day in and day out, all under the watchful eye of the guards peering down from their lookout towers above.  Instead of being a burden, my running routine became my most important outlet for all of the other daily stresses of living in Afghanistan. Thrown in the midst of bomb threats, gunfire, and flak jackets, running was really the only thing that made sense.

I never thought that I would end up enjoying the training more than the races, especially in a place like Afghanistan.  For me, training has always been a means to an end – to prove how far I can go, how much I can accomplish, and how badass I really am.  However, Afghanistan has taught me how much I love running full-stop, even under the most difficult of conditions. Running in Afghanistan is not something I have had to get through this year, it is how I have gotten through this year.  When I moved to Kabul, I had to give up my job in New York, my friends and family, and all of the creature comforts of home... but I did not have to give up my love of running. I know that if I can run in Afghanistan, I can run anywhere… and I think I just might.