Marathon expedition for Eastbourne College housemistress

Victoria Burford recounts her experience running in Afghanistan

Another marathon in Afghanistan? You’re going back? You must be mad!” was the usual reaction from my friends and colleagues at Eastbourne College when I mentioned my plans to return to Afghanistan in November 2017. Having raced the previous year and surprised myself by winning the female title, I couldn’t wait to return, although to travel to Afghanistan is never without risks. Indeed, as I landed in a misty Kabul from Gatwick and heard of a fatal attack that same day on a Shia mosque, it was with both nerves and excitement that I passed through the many checkpoints at immigration. However, as dawn set on a troubled Kabul and we watched groups of innocent children playing with kites on a hilly outcrop, I knew that my decision to return
was right.

I have enjoyed running since a young adult, and I find that long-distance running can be a great way of alleviating the demands of the job. Many of my best House initiatives have been born on the South Downs, although woe betide the girl (or parent) who comes between me and my post-run refuel!

The Marathon of Afghanistan and the associated 10k is the only sporting event in Afghanistan where girls and boys can take part together, and is organised with a charity called Free to Run which is an inspirational organisation which works with women and girls in conflict areas to give them confidence, equality and education through exercise. The entry fees paid by the international runners enable both the local Afghans to take part for free, and for a small group of girls from Free to Run to participate and take part in a training schedule in the months leading up to the marathon. We spent a day hiking with some of these girls, and it was humbling to hear some of their stories – before Free to Run, these girls would risk stoning, insults and death threats if they ran on the streets. 

The marathon took place in the town of Bamiyan which is a Hazara stronghold in the North of Afghanistan at an altitude of 2,500m. With a Buddhist past, its cliffs are dotted with ancient sacrificial caves, some of which now house refugees. One of these caves is also a school, and it was wonderful to return there and teach a lesson. 

The morning of the races afforded a real sense of camaraderie with 300 competitors lined up to race. It was one of the fastest starts ever with adrenalin and inexperience playing no small part. After about a kilometre the dirt track became a fully tarmacked road, and I managed to settle into a pace. 

As I ran down the hill towards the finish line, it became apparent that I was the first female, but knowing how difficult the last few miles of a marathon can be, I could afford to take nothing for granted. It was not until I crossed the finish line and had the position confirmed that I could really relax! 

Back in the UK where I am free to wear what I want, do what I want, run where I want, Afghanistan feels miles away. Without a doubt, Afghanistan is a country which challenges the senses – so often associated with war, bombings and violence, but it is also a country of love, compassion, friendship and some of the warmest hospitality I have ever encountered. Like running itself, it is a country where a range of emotions inextricably connect and the fine line between joy and pain, wealth and poverty, laughing and crying can change in the blink of an eyelid. Like running, Afghanistan is a country which gets under your skin and challenges a return. And you may even find yourself a champion!

Victoria completed the marathon in an impressive 4 hours and 25 minutes, the fastest women’s time in the Marathon of Afghanistan. 

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