17 Hours, 50 Miles of Freedom; Report on My 50 Miler Race
“We are all equally crazy to be out here at 4:30 in the morning,” I tried saying these words slowly to a crowd of around 30 ultramarathoners as my brain chased one thought after another to prepare the next sentence. I had been asked to talk about the importance of being part of this 50-miler trail race, supporting the organization “Free to Run,” which uses sports to empower women in conflict areas. I had SO much to say, yet so little preparation or time to explain the importance of supporting women in sports, especially in places like Afghanistan. In the end, I made it very short and sweet. The warm and energetic claps from the crowd overwhelmed me.
Despite the darkness in the sky, the wetness of the grass, we were all lined up behind the starting line, ready to enjoy what this race had to offer. Under my breath, I mumbled the words of my coach, Annie “You are just running one mile, fifty times.” FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE, ZERO, and here I come.
“Go Runners,” shouted the race director of Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service, BURCS. And so, at 5:00 am, I took the first of many thousands and thousands of steps that would follow, and you bet I already had tears in my eyes.
The sky was pitch black. Even after having lived in America for five years, I was still not fully comfortable in the dark. I spotted Farah, the other Afghan Free to Run ambassador in the US, in the crowd of runners and followed her. Despite knowing that she was a much faster runner than me, I knew there was no way I was going to run in the dark by myself, so I did my best to keep up with her.
Nine miles, probably five hills, and hundreds of steps of wet grass later, the sun started to come out. Right there and then, I gave my blessings to Farah who raced on, whereas I I stopped running to walk up the next big hill.
The course for the 50-mile race was basically one loop four times. Even though I had run this race twice in the past two years, finishing the first loop in 2:44 minutes surprised me.
The night before the race, Annie had said: “make sure you start slow and finish strong.” “Well, I did exactly the opposite of what you asked me to do,” I thought to myself.
Then I was on the second loop: “Why are the bottoms of my feet burning? I’ll change my shoes once I finish the second round.” I told myself, as I ran toward the aid station. “Take salt, watermelon, Gu? Do you like Pb&J?” the aid station helper said as I chucked Gatorade down my throat. Without replying or eating more, I took off. “One down, three more to go. YASSS!!!” I yelled out loud on the trail and patted myself on the shoulder. The first three miles of the loop were a progressive uphill. Over the next three miles, I patted myself five more times.
I still felt the burn from underneath both of my feet. I cursed in Dari; not that anyone would judge me for cursing in a 50-miler race. At aid station two, Annie was there with the biggest smile, ready to feed me. Annie is pretty much my mother, therapist, and best friend.
“Water Annie, Water. Can you get me my other shoes and socks?” I ordered while cursing in Dari. “Which bag?” Annie replied in the gentlest way. “I don’t know Annie, figure it out.” I said while still chucking more Gatorade. I was very short tempered, in a lot of pain, and could only think of one thing: “I want to see what the F*@*! is in the bottom of my feet? Why is it burning? STOPPPP!” I made my way to the last flat mile of the race only to find myself lost. This is when I hit rock bottom. I sat there waiting for someone from the race to get me and I searched for every bit of positive thought and energy out there. There was nothing glorious about being lost, being super slow and having feet that were on fire. This screenshot of what I sent to my running group chat sums it all up.
A minute after this text, I called Annie. Michael, the race director and Annie came to rescue me.
With swollen feet, hands, face and tears running down my cheeks, I followed them to the finish line of the second loop.
“Am I the slowest one? Am I the last one? OMG, OMG, I wont make the time cut. I want to finish this race.” I took my shoes off, and there they were. Big blisters under my feet and my toenails were blue. After seeing my feet, I cried even more. But, in my head I only had one image and knew nothing could stop me. “ I thought I had trained for this race. What happened? I want to finish this.” I was in so much pain but I still couldn’t shut up. I kept talking as Jake, the other race director, dipped everything in salt and pretty much fed me. “You haven’t had enough salt that’s why you are crying.” He said and he went on saying, “Here, I will go with you till the next aid station.” I cried even more and walked ahead of him. We talked about my major, my mom, my blog, how good I was doing and the next three miles despite being painful were a bit faster.
In the second station on my third round, I saw Jason Mintz, the fastest runner of the race, running his last loop. Jake walked with me a bit more and I was off to finish my third round. On aid station three, I met an amazing 57 year old runner, Ann, who was still going so strong and she pushed me through the next 5 miles. “As long as we move, we will get somewhere.” she said. It was that simple but it required so much brain power to keep moving. “How do you keep going when every part of your body is literally shouting, cursing you, and telling you to stop? How? That’s when the mental strength comes in.” I told myself out loud. “Did you say something?” she asked. “No, no, ignore me, I am just talking to myself,” I replied, a little bit embarrassed. I talk to myself all the time, move my hands and sing my music out loud when I run, so meh…
Third aid station and there was my coach, Annie, waiting with her arms open or at least I thought she was, so I gave her a very sweaty hug. No one smells good after running 33 miles, using the outdoor bathroom twice, and spilling Gatorade all over one’s shirt. So neither did I, but she hugged me anyway. She ran with me for the next 200 yards. She yelled, “I love you, baby girl. Go get it.” For the next four miles, I was saying the names of people whose love carried me through the race. Here it went: “Appim loves me, Atim loves me, Mansoor definitely loves me even though I have annoyed him a LOT, Fatima is in love with me, technically my mom. Coni has my heart, She loves me, Baba Ted loves me, Will loves me, Duniya loves me, Mrs. DeHorsey, Mrs. Ducharme, Douglass, Petersons, Evans, SG fam love me.”
Fourth aid station - I was standing there for a solid five minutes even after knowing that I was one of the last 50-miler racers to be out there. That day, I decided to be there, to enjoy the conversation, to feel the freedom, to forget my pain, to count my blessings.
Then I crossed the finish line for the third time, wobbling, feeling every inch of the last downhill mile, and every blister that by now was fully filled with pus. “ Here mama, eat this, salt, water or Gatorade?” Annie said. Here is picture of me at this stage which pretty much shows how I was.
On loop FOUR, night was falling. By now I knew the only way to finish the race was to walk. But even so, with every step I felt my blisters. Free to Run’s Afghanistan director Taylor paced me for the first four miles of the fourth loop. Our conversation was all over the place; food, school, what do I miss the most about Afghanistan? What do I love about my current life? These all reminded me of how blessed I was to be in the middle of a state forest, running, focusing on myself, on my own pain, my own self and just that. To be honest, it also reminded me of all the times I was running away from bomb blasts close by, street harassment and somehow strangely these unpleasant memories took some of my pains away or perhaps I stopped thinking about them.
Jake paced me for the next four miles of the last loop. Long story short, I cursed a bunch, cried, and smiled every time Jake took a selfie. At this point, even walking was hard. “You made the cut-off time by one hour. It’s 6 now and you have already run 6 miles of your last loop.” Jake said as he sat the pace and walked ahead of me. I smiled and my heart was happy. The next 3 miles were filled with sentences like:
“F** OMG, F***, Why?” I yelled as I hit my big toe nails on a root again.
“Ouch, ouch, it’s okay, I am good.”
“NOO, it didn’t happen AGAIN!”
Clement was waiting at the third aid station to pace me for the last five miles. I kept moving as he filled my water bottle, grabbed snacks and salt. The last five miles of a 50-miler race were the HARDEST, and the most PAINFUL, miles I have ever done. Regardless of walking the downhill, uphill, flat, I felt my blisters popping. Here are the most commonly heard sentences from me in the last five miles.
“F*@#! this? … Why did I do this? … I am so dumb! … How did I even train? ... Please call Jake... I can do this … alright … no, I actually can’t.”
“You can do this. I understand what you are going through. I had blisters like that once and I was so happy I finished the race.” Clement said with the most encouraging tone anyone can have.
“Just two more miles!” Clement’s voice echoed on the trail. “ No, Call Jake, He can pick us up. I can’t do two more miles, what?”
“ We are in the middle of nowhere, he can’t drive here. The only way is to walk. You CAN do this.”
“No, I can’t. Who do you think I am?” I responded. “ Sorry, I am so negative, it has been 16:20 hours that I have been on this trail. I can do this.” I said these words a couple of times and lasted for roughly 15 minutes before I hit my toe nails somewhere else.
“See, one more mile.” Clement said. “Aha” “See, 200 feet, start running.” He said “You run with me too,” I said, as I ran down the hill and crossed the finish line to find my coach, the race director, Jake all waiting. I ran into the arms of Annie, and by now you can guess what I did. I CRIED. I sat on a chair, had my medal, and a piece of pizza. I had chafed in many places, couldn’t walk, and didn’t take shower till a day later.
The minute I finished the race, I thought to myself “I definitely am going to run another 50 miler.” We truly are all crazy.
Almost two months later, I still find myself asking the same question over and over again as I walk from one class to another at one of the most expensive, Hogwarts-looking colleges in upstate NY. “Did I actually finish a 50-miler race? How did I even get here? Like, I did it, right?” When I asked myself these questions a few days after my race, it was very easy to answer. I would just look at my feet, the blue toenails, the sore thighs, but as I recovered and got back to running, it was getting harder to believe. The physical pain is not visibly there to prove to myself that this body, the girl from the back alleys of a mountainous country, actually finished a 50- miler race.
I did it, I will do it again, and I can’t wait to do it all over again in the back alleys of my hometown, in the mountains of my country with a Free to Run team.
Cheers to many more runs!