Running for Freedom: Afghan women run 50-mile ultra race in Pittsfield State Forest

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PITTSFIELD — A crescent moon peeked over towering pines last weekend as about 25 runners readied in the darkness to race up Berry Mountain.

The start time: 5 a.m. The duration: 50 miles through Pittsfield State Forest.

Among them stood two young women from Afghanistan who are in the U.S. attending college. In addition to participating in the biggest race of the day, the women came to represent Free to Run, a program that supports female athletes in Afghanistan, where women are strongly discouraged from doing sports.

One of them, Farahnaz — who asked her last name not be used in order to protect remaining family in Afghanistan — had just lost her brother under uncertain circumstances the previous week.

She had never run so many continuous miles before, but saw the challenge ahead as an opportunity "to turn internal pain into external pain."

"Running really, really taught me it doesn't matter how hard, how challenging your life at the moment is," she said. "I cannot stay at one point. I have to move forward."

Farahnaz said she one day hopes to take her newfound love for running back home to Afghanistan.

Taylor Smith, Free to Run's country program manager in Afghanistan, said it's important to provide safe places for women to practice. Smith, herself a runner, said she advises women carry hairspray with them while they run as a means for self defense. She said she's had rocks thrown at her while running, and others have been run off the road.

Zahra Arabzada said she grew up watching the boys play soccer from the windows, but never dreamed of joining in.

"Like kids know it's not nice to hit people, we knew it wasn't acceptable to play sports," she said of the unspoken prohibition for girls.

Arabzada said four decades of war have shifted Afghan culture into solely prioritizing survival — a mindset historically harder on women.

"In the wars men survive better," she said. "It's very much what was happening in the early 1900s in America."

Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service began dedicating their last run of the season three years ago to Free to Run, which provides athletic supplies, transportation and a safe place to practice for athletes in Afghanistan.

The day's events last Saturday raised more than $5,000 for the cause, and race participants packed two suitcases full of lightly used women's sneakers for Free to Run participants.

Jake Dissinger, a BURCS organizer who lives in Northampton, said Pittsfield State Forest boasts some of the best trails in the area. He said the park lends itself nicely to such events because athletes can run 13 miles of continuous trails — enjoying beautiful scenery all the while.

Only headlamps lit the way as about two dozen "50-milers" hit the trails. A sound of running water and whooshing leaves drowned out their steps as they took off quietly into the dark forest.

When the early morning sun began casting a glow on the summit, a dense fog could be seen settling in on the mountains of New York. Here, volunteers readied a table full of fruit and high-salt foods that runners grabbed quickly as they passed.

Farahnaz barely slowed as she flew by, grabbing a slice of watermelon for the road.

"I need it!" she yelled, taking a bite and turning her head to her supporters. "I love you guys!"

Their volunteer-based Free to Run coach, Annie Paredes, of Springfield, said the two young women are fiercely resilient.

"They just don't stop," she said. "The more you give them, the harder they work."

She said athleticism breeds empowerment, which is important for women everywhere.

"You're learning just how strong you are — what you're capable of doing," she said. "The girls started at a half-marathon, and now 50 miles. They're a true testament to empowerment through athleticism. They'll always have that inside them."

Farahnaz finished the race strong, in about 12.5 hours. The first thing she did upon crossing the finish line was cool her burning body by jumping into the pond.

She said she would have run 100 miles, as her late brother kept her going.

"I really, really felt he was with me," she said. "He was in my heart."

Both of the women said running, for them, is about finding inner peace. It's a time for existential reflection.

Arabzada said running got her through the transition of moving to America. It offered a quiet time to process the differences. Here, the nights are alarmingly quiet. She'd grown accustomed to the bomb blasts and gunshots ringing out through the night.

"But you survive it," she said. "Running is the best, to get those things out and to reason things."

Arabzada struggled through the race, and even got lost in the trails after a sign was ripped and fell down.

But she finished. She was able to run farther than ever before, all the while raising awareness and changing perspectives about Muslim women who run.

And she has the battered, bruised feet and lost toenails to prove it.

"Did I just run 50 miles? This girl from Afghanistan?" she said following the race.

All she needed to do was look down at her worn feet for the evidence.

"Wow," she said. "I really did it."

Reach Amanda Drane at 413-496-6296, or @amandadrane on Twitter.


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