Running the New York City Marathon for Free to Run: Three Young Afghan Women Run in Solidarity With Those Who Cannot

An account of three young Afghan women’s journey to running the New York City Marathon, with the support of the organization Free to Run.

By on December 25, 2023 | Comments

While the world has so much to offer so many of us, it can be easy to forget what so many individuals have taken from them. It can also be easy to forget what a blessing something as simple as a weekly long run actually is. Not everyone can lace up their shoes and head out to their favorite trail, road, or mountain peak for a weekly adventure. It’s important to recognize and be thankful for something as seemingly simple as being free to run.

Hasina, Fatima, and Zahra, three Afghan women, were fortunate enough to flee their country after the Taliban’s 2021 takeover, which resulted in women losing most of their freedoms — including their freedom to participate in sports. These three women came to Canada and the United States. In November 2023, they ran the New York City Marathon, with the goal of connecting with others and sharing their stories, in hopes of giving other Afghan women hope that they, too, will run again someday.

Free to Run - 2023 New York City Marathon

Free to Run’s (left to right) Fatima, Hasina and Zahra at the 2023 New York City Marathon. All photos: Free to Run

Thanks to the organization Free to Run, a world of opportunities has been opened up to these women, and they have been given access to life-changing activities. Free to Run is a non-profit organization that supports women and girls living in areas of conflict — Iraq and Afghanistan — by helping them gain access to adventure sports and other forms of support.

To learn more about Free to Run, check out our two prior articles about the organization itself, and a film outlining the challenges the organization has experienced since the 2021 Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

We had the opportunity to talk with Hasina and Zahra following their participation in the New York City Marathon, both of whom shared their experiences.

When we chatted with Hasina, she expressed much gratitude for her opportunity to participate in the race. She highlighted that she never felt alone while she ran, which was new for her. She explained that in Afghanistan when she ran, there was often no one around, but in New York City, there were always people in front of, behind, and next to her, which was uplifting and enjoyable.

Hasina, Free to Run - Kabul

Hasina running in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Hasina had a message for others who have the chance to be a part of something like Free to Run: “If the opportunity comes, take it as if it is gold because you may find other opportunities as well, but they may not come very soon to you. So, if the opportunity comes, never say no.”

She explained that while she was not interested in running initially, a friend told her about Free to Run, and it piqued her interest. At the time, she did not realize how life-changing it would be for her.

Hasina is especially grateful now, as women still living in Afghanistan cannot run, work, or pursue education. She strongly desires to thrive in Canada. She left us with a message for women and girls who are living lives of restriction: “You should be brave. Be strong and never lose yourselves. Even in a hard situation, just be brave and be strong and one day, the sun will shine on you.”

We also chatted with Zahra and were equally touched by the insights she shared. One thing that really stood out during the conversation with Zahra, was the positive impact she perceived on her mental health after running the marathon. She explained that while it was a major challenge — physically, mentally, and logistically — it changed her for the better.

When Zahra left Afghanistan with the U.S. military, as they pulled out in 2021, she had no idea what was ahead of her. She didn’t know when and if she would speak to or see her family again. She definitely did not know that running would be one of the things that would keep her motivated to stay working hard and living life the best she could in a foreign country.

She told us that running has helped her to be stronger. She said it has mentally prepared her to be a fighter and to stand up and raise her voice for the community she had to leave behind. She expressed sadness for all the women in Afghanistan who do not have a voice and who have so little freedom.

Zahra, Free to Run - Afghanistan

Zahra, back in Afghanistan.

Zahra is a university student in Arizona and has made it a point to share what is happening in Afghanistan with the world. She felt she could do that by training for and running the New York City Marathon with the organization Free to Run.

It was not easy for her. She trained for three months while she was also working on her immigration process and studying. She felt that training helped her to maintain a positive outlook on life.

She expressed thoughts of self-doubt, worried that she did not have what it took to be a voice for her community. Despite the challenges, she knew that she needed to do it for all the women who couldn’t run, or pursue other ambitions.

During the marathon, she struggled terribly with swollen feet and the last 10 kilometers were extremely hard. Physically, she wanted to give up, but she knew she wouldn’t.

Zahra said, “When I was running, I was feeling positive about my situation, that I could do something, at least for my community, and also for women in Afghanistan. So I was not giving up.”

So, she kept going and finished with pride. This is what she had to say about how she felt at the finish: “There was so much peace. So many people were super excited they finished it, and I was very silent and humble.”

Zahra shared that her father was one of her biggest cheerleaders at the start of her running journey: “My dad started running with me, he encouraged me to run with him and I did not even know what running was. I was 13 years old and I didn’t know that women could run on the streets, but he encouraged me. He took me out of the house and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”

While something like this may be a common and valued experience in countries like the U.S. or Canada, experiencing this as a young woman in Afghanistan changed her life.

Zahra, Hasina, Fatima - Free to Run - 2023 New York City Marathon expo

Free to Run’s (left to right) Zahra, Hasina, Fatima at the 2023 New York City Marathon expo.

Running a marathon can be a life-changing experience for anyone, regardless of age, size, ethnicity, or background. Through running, people can profoundly impact their own lives, the lives of those around them, and even those far away. This is all true for Zahra, Fatima, and Hasina.

A final message Zahra left us with was this:

“At the end of the day, we are all human beings, and we all have the same blood, and we can all share one language … love.”

Call for Comments

  • Have you heard of the Free to Run organization?
  • What other great stories have you heard about its work?
Amber Nelson

Amber Nelson is a writer, trail and obstacle course runner, and lover of travel and new experiences. She’s been writing about all things health and fitness for about three years and especially loves writing about about anything running related. Running changed Amber’s life when she stumbled into it after a 100 pound weight loss. In her free time you can find her planning upcoming travel, listening to an audio book while running in the foothills of Boise, Idaho, or slowly chipping away at her PhD in social psychology.