By: Farahnaz Afaq, contributing writer
4:30 a.m. – 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 about Afghanistan to our 20 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 was 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 regain the lost hope.
With the cheers and love of my American host family, Mr. Robert, Ms. Lea Ann, Hannah and Colin, I managed to make it to the mile 48 aid station. Mr. Robert took my backpack 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. I can feel weak because there are certain things in this world that are impossible for me to change. Nothing I do will bring my brother back. But I feel 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 human 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 ultra-marathon woman!”