Whenever I see someone running on the sidewalk or in the park park, I always want to yell out, “you can’t keep running from your problems!” There’s a reason I only yell it in my head – I usually want to humour myself or I’m envious that I ate 3 cookies that morning and topped it off with a sugar rich caramel macchiato! I used to run regularly and even competed in a half marathon on Fathers-Day in Winnipeg approx. 33 years ago. I do recommend it… but only after proper training. Although I considered myself a very good athlete, running a marathon is really taking on the beast! A marathon will test you like no other sport because it’s a test of endurance. Many times, the word endurance is applied to acts such as relationships, dieting, schooling, training. If you don’t have the endurance to go all the way, then you won’t reach your goal.
We are however only talking about running… but it began as a source of transporting news from place to place over long distances, thousands of years ago. Although it’s evolved into an Olympic sport that only requires a pair of running shoes to participate – in some countries around the world, competing in running is still very much a men’s only sport. The right to run, for a woman can be seen as a form of perversion or support for gender equality. The film, The Secret Marathon examines the women in Afghanistan that want to compete in running, especially marathon running, without persecution.
The documentary film was produced by filmmaker Kate McKenzie (Mums the Word) and was inspired by a story of courage. A filmmaker and her legendary marathon mentor train and travel in secret to join the brave Afghan women who are standing up for equality and freedom, by running in the Marathon of Afghanistan. Kate really took her filmmaking to another level when she trained, then travelled to Afghanistan after meeting legendary marathon runner and multi-Guinness world record holder, Martin Parnell to cover history in the making, by competing and filming the second only Afghan co-ed marathon. Times are a changing and the women of Afghanistan could not be happier!
I had such an incredible chat with both Kate and Martin. I hope you enjoy it…
HNM “Now Kate, when you had made the decision to accompany Martin to Afghanistan, you had some trepidation but once you arrived, you seemed very comfortable and reassured. What did that first day feel like?”
KATE “There’s so much that happens in your travels, as well as the lead up to it. I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel a lot and I’d travelled in this region before. Prior to travelling to Afghanistan, I’ve been to Iran, Pakistan and Israel. Some of that helped me to get a better sense of the region but… with that being said, Afghanistan is still an active war zone – which is a whole different kettle of fish. In the lead up to going, my biggest concern was to be sure that my team would be safe. We spent so much time weighing the risks and talking to our insurance company making sure that we were covered for things that I’d never had to consider before. Things such as terrorist attacks, death and dismemberment. So much of Afghanistan is covered in unexploded ordinances, making it easy to get injured if you happen to wonder off the right path. It’s one thing to come over to Afghanistan as a crew but the families back home struggle with so much concern with the worry and the waiting to hear back that everything’s ok. However, for us – upon arriving in Afghanistan, we were so overwhelmed by the generosity of the people, by the welcoming spirit of everyone that greeted us and the beauty of the country. We saw the smiles on the children we met and were invited in for more cups of tea than I can remember – even after some of them had traveled several kilometers for clean drinking water. When you’re faced with that type of hospitality, you do feel more welcome, you do feel safer. In all my travels, one of the things that’s helped me to feel safe – is building relationships, it brings a level of comfort in a new place. We’re still in contact and still friends with all of the people that were part of the film.”
Kate continues, “It was our intention to make a film with the Afghan people and not make a film about Afghanistan. It’s a small distinction but we wanted the community to be part of the film. We asked for their input and their feedback, we also worked with cultural advisors at every stage of the film to ensure that we were being sensitive to those needs.”
HNM “I read that you’ve run 250 marathons in 1 year. How do you manage to attend so many?”
MARTIN “It would be near impossible to travel to that many official marathons in one year surely, so I had the Athletics Canada come out and measure me up a course that was 42.2 km’s in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, which is just outside my hometown (Cochrane, Alta.). I ran a lot of them there but I also ran some official ones in Las Vegas, Victoria, Vancouver and seven official ones in Boston. Another thing I’d do, is go to a different school every week and run 44.2 around their soccer field. I’d start in the morning and the kids would join in later. At the end of the day, the kids would finish off the marathon for me. I ran at 60 schools and with over 12,000 children that year. I also managed to raise over 320,000.00 for the Children’s Charity Right to Play. It’s just been an amazing experience.”
HNM “It’s seems like such a contrast between you raising a large amount of money from running and the women of Afghanistan not even having the privilege of running?”
MARTIN “That contrast is what really sparked the idea for me to go to Afghanistan. When I read about Zainab and the persecution she faced, just for running; such as rocks being thrown at her as well as being called a prostitute – there was a switch that went off in my head and I said I had to go. I wanted to support Zainab and the women and girls running for freedom and equality.”
HNM “Were there other countries you considered running in before deciding on Afghanistan?”
MARTIN “No, I’ve competed in other countries all over the world, I’ve cycled across Africa for 4 months, so I’ve travelled a fair bit. I really didn’t have any interest in going to Afghanistan, none, zero… until my wife gave me an article about Zainab. I was mad when I read about the persecutions of the women for running. It was ok for the men to run but they were picking on a gender – that just wanted to run. Running is a big part of my life and I don’t even think about it, so when I heard about them getting picked on for running, I got a little angry… and we got a film (laughing).”
HNM “Why are they so against women running in the first place?”
KATE “Afghanistan was under Taliban rule for decades and unfortunately, under that regime women were not even allowed out in public – going for a walk was also not allowed. If a woman wanted to go outside, she had to be accompanied by a man. In Canada, as a woman – I can lace up my shoes and go out anytime I want, which is something we take for granted. Even though the Taliban are no longer in control, unfortunately, it takes a long time for ideas and cultures to change. From some of the people that we interviewed, many of them were scared to have any of their children be too far away from them, because they never know when conflict might hit their region. Others felt that it wasn’t appropriate for women to do that. It’s actually not that dissimilar to what women have experienced in North America – the first woman to run the Boston Marathon was Kathrine Switzer and they were just celebrating the 50th anniversary, so it was only a generation ago that women were told not to go for a run – in fear of their uterus falling out or growing hair on their chest. I’m actually astounded by how quickly things are changing in Afghanistan. There’re more and more women choosing to participate in sport as well as all different levels of society. There are actually more female politicians in Afghanistan than there is in Canada. There is a lot we can learn from Afghanistan.”
HNM “In the marathon, you and the girls are all wearing pants, long sleeve shirts and the hijab. That must have made it very uncomfortable to run in?”
KATE “Culturally and religiously in Afghanistan, most women would dress in hijab or conservative dress. When I was over there, the cultural appropriate thing to do was to make sure that I was also dressing modestly. In terms of running, what I would normally wear in the winter, such as a toque, long sleeves and pants – that’s what women would wear all year round to compete in athletic events in Afghanistan. Men are also not allowed to wear shorts, because it’s not considered modest – so Martin had to wear pants. It’s a modest country and culture in many ways and we did try to be as respectful of that as possible. For my training, Martin told me to train for whatever the conditions were, so I had to get used to running in clothing much warmer than I’d normally be wearing in those temperatures.”
HNM “Wearing the clothes in a marathon is tough enough but there was also the 10,000 feet above sea level that must have made it that much more gruelling?”
MARTIN “I’ve run in a lot of different countries in different conditions but I’ve never run a marathon at that elevation. The starting point was 9000 feet with 17-20% oxygen. It was an out and back, so you went up 13.1 miles and you’d reach the turnaround at 10,500 feet. When Kate and I arrived, we wanted to do a warm up and after 10 minutes, it feels like there’s an iron grip on your lungs. It’s only after 15-20 minutes of running that it starts to ease off. It’s unbelievably tough to run a marathon at that elevation. The men and women that ran in the race, live at that elevation and are basically altitude training all year round. Top athletes from around the world will go to Kenya and Ethiopia for the elevation when training for the Olympics. This race was in Bamiyan, Afghanistan and the location is very pro-women sport. It’s become a bit of a sports mecca for skiing, running and mountain biking. There are some great athletes there and potentially in the future, the hope is to see some of those athletes competing in the Olympics for running, skiing and mountain biking.”
HNM “Martin, you worked at a mine for 25 yr.’s before starting your marathon career. Was that an underground mine?”
MARTIN “I immigrated from England at 21 with a mining degree. I’ve worked all over Canada, British Columbia and the North West Territories in underground and open-pit mines. In Yellowknife I worked in a goldmine that was 1 ½ miles underground.”
HNM “What was it about running that appealed to you so much Martin?”
MARTIN “To be honest… nothing! (laughing) The only reason I started was because, at the age of 47 – my brother Peter challenged me to a marathon. To be honest, I had been a tubby kid and was never into sports and wasn’t really good at anything… but when your brother challenges you, you can’t say no. I said, let’s do it and from there I had to learn to run. I joined a running club in Sudbury, Ontario – which is super important. They helped me, they trained me and in July of 2003, I ran against my brother Peter and my other younger brother Andrew. It was sibling rivalry and I ran the marathon. I felt terrible but felt good that I had accomplished something. After that I started running and I absolutely love it.”
HNM “Kate, have you competed in a marathon since your first one?”
KATE (Laughing) “I’ve tried… I entered a marathon a year after Afghanistan but had an injury at the 36 km. mark, so I wasn’t able to make it over the finish line. I have competed in several 10 k’s, 5 k’s and others since then. Being part of this film, has definitely changed my life. I’ve always enjoyed running before but never at these distances.”
MARTIN “In Kate’s defence, she was the third lady to finish the race.”
KATE “It took me going all the way to Afghanistan to do it, so I take that with a grain of salt (laughing). I owe it all to my coach – he made sure I had proper nutrition, proper hydration. If you’re ever thinking of running in a marathon, choosing to do it to support gender equality is a great reason to start. Every time I’d start to get tired or feel sorry for myself, I’d think about Zainab training in her courtyard, so that people wouldn’t see her. It’s about the same size as your average backyard – so I thought, if Zainab can run circles in her enclosed courtyard then I can learn to do this. For so many women running in that marathon, it was the first time they’ve been able to run outside. It’s still mind-blowing because – when I want to go for a run, I don’t even have to think about it.”
HNM “Considering this was filmed in Afghanistan, has it screened over there yet?”
KATE “That’s an interesting question. We’ve had a chance to show it to all of the people that were part of the film but unfortunately, some of the girls that participated in the film continue to have threats against them and their family for not necessarily being in the film but for participating in sports and for advocating for women’s rights. With that in mind… we’ve not had any screenings in Afghanistan and don’t plan to, for their security and safety.”
HNM “Is this an all women’s marathon?”
KATE “No, that’s what’s exciting about it. It’s actually the first co-gender athletic event in Afghanistan. Not only is the women’s participation important but the men’s participation is equally important. It indicates that they’re choosing to feel comfortable running alongside women. This event continues to attract both men and women and each year the numbers are growing. This year, there are 40 women competing but there’s also an additional 10 km race and a children’s race. It’s amazing to see both men and women supporting a more gender equal society. We loved the idea of using a race to create a safe space, it really stayed with me, so when I returned, we started a run/walk event called the secret 3 K. The event is held every year on International Women’s Day (March 8). The idea of it is to be able to support and promote gender equality. There are still a lot of women in Canada that still don’t feel safe running by themselves, at night or if there’s been violence in their neighbourhood.
HNM “Would you say that this film has had made a difference in the push for change?”
KATE “The Secret 3K is a way to come together as a community and hopefully create more safe spaces. In our first year, we partnered with John Stanton – founder of the Running Room. He suggested we do it in 10 cities across Canada. This film has helped to inspire those folks in those 10 cities. We’ve started receiving requests from other cities outside the 10 cities saying that they’d like to participate virtually. We’ve had requests from Mexico, the UK, Inuvik and this year will be the 4th year of the Secret 4K and not only do we now have every province participating, we now have 23 countries participating all over the world. When you ask if the film has made a difference – I believe it’s created a global movement for equality and its inspired people to say, if it can happen in Afghanistan – then it’s possible for each of us to pursue equality in our own communities.”
HNM “Now Martin, has your brother dared you to do anything else?”
MARTIN “To be honest, he’s backed off a bit, he’s a big gulf player. After my first marathon I did the Boston and it went from there – triathlons and ultra-running, it’s really been a journey. When I went to Afghanistan with Kate in 2016, I also went back in 2018 to support the girls and there’s now a piece of me back there. It’s a beautiful country with amazing people. They want to make a difference just like you and me, and they want a regular life – but they’ve been dealing with incredible hardships. My brother didn’t give me anymore dares but he sent me on a trajectory that changed my life.
Martin also wanted to remind runners that the Secret 3K is coming up on March 3rd, so mark the date. It will be virtual but we can all do something to support change.
Kate adds, “We are hosting our global gala on Jan. 29 – 31 and I’m so excited for it because it’s the first time anyone can see it from anywhere in the world. I think it has the power to inspire people from all over the world to start running the Secret 3 K. Martin and I are so excited to be able to share this film with the rest of the globe.”
An amazing story from 2 people that met serendipitously but are now connected through an incredible experience and life changing event. Film has the power to change lives… whether through making them or watching them. Staying stagnant just doesn’t cut it for me anymore – where’s my runners?