When they say Patagonia is big, they mean it: at over one million square kilometers, the region is vast and breathtaking, covering grasslands, temperate rainforests, stunning fjords and sharp stone peaks. And when they say it’s far, they’re not lying either: at just 800km from Antarctica, southern Chile is the southernmost inhabited place on Earth. The Patagonia International Marathon takes runners through the Torres del Paine National Park, across 42km of challenging terrain that rewards runners as much with its beauty as it does with its difficulty. What made the trip even more worthwhile was connecting with the women of Fondo Alquimia during my time in Santiago.
Fondo Alquimia supports the efforts of women and trans people across Chile who “defend the Earth, sexual and reproductive rights, culture, identity, and a life without violence and exclusion” Alquimia supports these organizations directly and by connecting them to one another, creating an empowering and powerful network of Chile’s most thoughtful, inspiring people. Though in 2018, 96% of Chilean women had received college-level education, only 50% of women participate in the workforce and less than 16% of representatives in the National Congress are women. As a result, the voice of women is quiet when it could be booming from the peaks of Patagonia. That’s why Alquimia exists: to aid the efforts of women and trans people in Chile to create equal representation and obtain the respect and recognition they deserve.
To say this marathon got off to a rough start is a bit of an understatement. I stupidly missed the bus to the starting line of the race (which was a 45 minute drive from the hotel) and so after frantically being rushed there, almost 30 minutes after all other marathon participants had already left, the furthest I could be dropped off was at the 6km point. Meaning... I had to run from the 6km point to the starting line to then be able to officially start the 42km race. I’ll never forget the confused faces of all the other runners who watched me essentially run backwards on the course towards the starting line. But in truth, I only felt relieved that they hadn’t disqualified me in the first place, so, running an extra 6km was the least of my worries. If anything, I was grateful for the extra time soaking in the views of the bright blue skies, treacherous mountain ranges, and icy grey glacial spread. The Patagonian landscape appeared straight out of a photoshopped screensaver and it was a humbling experience to be completely surrounded by such jaw-dropping beauty.
Though Madagascar is hardly a small country (it’s quite a bit larger than California), my short trip included a ride straight down through the spine of the island to three diverse cities. I began in the capital, Antananarivo, which resembles a quaint Mediterranean town with its red clay houses clustered harmoniously along its 12 sacred hills. Five days later I voyaged north to tropical, stunning, coastal Antisiranana to complete the Diego Suarez International Marathon, but my trip included a key stop in between.
Through my partnership with 4aWoman, I was able to make a 10-hour drive south to Fianarantsoa to see first-hand the extent of their operations in the city through their Rex Cancer Treatment and Prevention Center. 4aWoman believes that women are the pillars of their families and that all women deserve access to cancer care and prevention tools. In a country where 1 in 5 women is at risk of dying from breast or gynecological cancer, 4aWoman has had to face up against poverty, lack of hygiene and sanitation, lack of awareness, and insufficient medical training. Nevertheless, 4aWoman has provided care to over 12,000 women throughout Madagascar, issued over 14,000 Pap tests in 2018 alone, and reached over 70,000 women with awareness campaigns. Even more impressive was seeing how they mobilize care to some of the most remote parts of the country through their mammogram bus, which has a mammogram machine built in its structure.
Meeting the women and children who have been significantly uplifted by the support of 4aWoman was so inspiring, and I could see for myself why 4aWoman takes so much pride in the relationships they form with the individuals they support.
Once again, it felt completely surreal running a marathon on this tiny upper-most corner of Madagascar. And then finding out that I was 1 of 27 women running the Marathon de Diego Suarez made it even more exciting. I thought maybe, just maybe, there could be a chance of me winning this race! [Let it be known it is a secret goal of mine to come in both first and last place in a marathon during this mission (Note that I am halfway to this goal, having come in last place at the Sierra Leone Marathon after walking it with my husband)]. But as soon as I saw the few professional female runners darting from the start line, the possibility of this dream quickly dissipated. And running under the scorching 35/95 degree heat didn’t help my situation either. But occasionally weaving through tiny villages and running along stretches of the Indian Ocean made this marathon all the more memorable. And hopping into a cab for the airport straight after crossing the finish line to make my flight back to Paris… one beautiful ending to my experience there.
This is a race I would never have dreamed of competing in even a few short years ago. With an international perception marred by decades of violent conflict, Afghanistan is not on the list of many foreign travelers. But given the opportunity to run along the Central Highlands of Afghanistan and support the inspiring women leaders of Free to Run in the process, I was sold. The Marathon of Afghanistan took place in Bamyan province—a region whose vibrant Buddhist history was destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. This marathon began five years ago as the first and only mixed-gender sporting event in Afghanistan, a monumental event in a country where women’s rights are widely disregarded and women’s participation in sports is provocative. In the race’s first year, just one Afghan woman participated, accompanied by a smattering of others from around the world. In this 2019 marathon, 40% of the nearly 800 participants were women. Afghan men and women ran side by side; male volunteers supported female runners—and vice versa—across a challenging course, featuring over 3,000 feet of total ascent at an altitude already very near 10,000 feet.
The growing presence of Afghan women in running is largely due to Free to Run. It was clear to the organization’s founders that women and girls suffered disproportionate setbacks in conflict zones, compared to their male counterparts. So they began to do something that I see central to the Run to Reach mission: empower these women and girls through adventure sports, bringing them lessons of leadership and teamwork in the outdoors. This year, Free to Run will serve more than 800 participants in over 700 different sporting sessions between its efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their participants, many of them not yet 18 years old, have built an incredible level of self awareness, mutual support and resilience. They face and overcome continuous harassment, offensive reactions to their independence, and sometimes even threats to their safety. Meeting the leaders and participants of Free to Run and even joining them for a short trip in the mountains will forever be a crucial memory in my own perception of the power of sport, especially running, in social change.
Running in Band-e Amir National park felt almost reminiscent of running through the Grand Canyon, with its towering cliffs above and glistening turquoise lakes below. The scenery was simply stunning and it felt like an almost out-of-body experience taking in so much beauty in a place so often equated with chaos and violence. It was an unexpected surprise getting interviewed on Afghan TV right before the race started, but even more powerful getting to run alongside a number of the Afghan women athletes during the race. This marathon meant so much more to these women than just accomplishing a physical feat; it meant using running as their weapon of change to pave the way for future Afghan women to assert their independence and make strong impacts in their communities. Crossing the finish line with these fiercely courageous, resilient Afghan women runners was one of the most humbling moments of my Run to Reach journey—and life.
Though Côte d’Ivoire, the Ivory Coast, isn’t as highly publicized a travel destination as Kenya, Morocco, or South Africa, it could easily match the depth and diversity of their charms. While this West African nation has had a tumultuous few years with its reputation being sullied by the recent civil war, I knew that there was far more to this diverse county than negative headlines. Côte d’Ivoire is a land of crazy, beautiful extremes: pulsating city scene colliding with rugged, pristine Atlantic beaches; modern office blocks squeezed in between long stretches of markets; fancy Lebanese restaurants amongst sprawling street food stalls. It felt very much like a country that is quickly modernizing its lifestyle and culture, but managing to do so without losing its identity.
I felt equally as energized being there in support of Empow’her, a French organization that uplifts women entrepreneurs throughout the world. Now operating 5 entrepreneur training programs in 9 countries, Empow’her recognizes that while there are 300 million women entrepreneurs worldwide, 60% of these women who live in developing countries did not go to school, 40% see their businesses fail within 2 years, and two thirds don’t feel capable of succeeding independently. In response, Empow’her’s mission in Côte d’Ivoire alone has given over 5,000 hours of training to over 900 women, increasing revenues by 36%, and building comfort and independence among women entrepreneurs. Hearing these stories of personal accomplishment and confidence first-hand was a formative experience, and I was encouraged by the deep, ongoing relationships between Empow’her and its beneficiaries.
After running in Afghanistan, I didn’t think I would be visiting a more challenging place for women to run. But I was wrong—when I went to pick up my race bib two days before the marathon, race coordinators told me that women were not going to be allowed to participate in this year’s full marathon. Only the 21K race was an option. After hours of arguing on Day 1 of our standoff, I was told that if I tried to continue past the halfway point, the police would stop me. Not taking this for an answer, I returned the next day with the only other registered woman marathoner and demanded to run the full race. Finally, they relented and I was able to compete. Did I pass male runners? Absolutely. Was this what they had hoped to avoid? Certainly. But was the race tough? 100%. Running in the 35ºC heat on asphalt was no easy feat, but, after fighting my way into the race, it was certainly a rewarding one.