afghanistan ultramarathon runner taliban
Ayat has yet to find a permanent home one year after the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan. Photo: Fred Ramos

Afghanistan’s First Ultramarathon Runner Is Still Running From the Taliban

26-year-old Ayat blazed a trail for women runners in Afghanistan, but a year after the Taliban’s return to power, she’s been unable to find a new permanent home for herself or her family.
THE_FALL_BANNER 16x9
VICE World News marks the first anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, from the devastating consequences that ensued to the millions of lives that were transformed.

MEXICO CITY — Ayat stood out. In the middle of the city’s biggest park, surrounded by street vendors and families in summerwear, she looked a world apart in her black pants, long-sleeved, white linen shirt, hijab, and abaya. Only the inexpensive running shoes she’d bought after arriving in Mexico suggested to locals she was ready to exercise.

The 25-year-old was used to being stared at, and often insulted, while running on the streets of her native Afghanistan. She could handle a few stares from passersby in Mexico.

At 5 foot 1, Ayat doesn’t look particularly athletic. She had never run a mile before the age of 18. But then an opportunity arose to train for an ultramarathon, and Ayat—eager to be the best at a sport, any sport—signed up. A year later, she and a friend walked and ran 155 miles over six days in China’s punishing Gobi Desert, making them the first Afghans to officially complete an ultramarathon. 

Advertisement

Ayat returned to Afghanistan determined to make running accessible to women. That dream abruptly ended when the Taliban seized Afghanistan in August 2021. Ayat fled with her parents, a sister, and two brothers. They made it to Mexico, which gave them a six-month permit while they figured out where to resettle permanently. But as we jogged through Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park in April, the permit was on the verge of expiring, and the family was no closer to finding a country to take them in. Ayat was getting desperate. 

The Taliban's stunning rout in Afghanistan was a disastrous end to the U.S.’ longest war, triggering the evacuation of 124,000 civilians over 17 nightmarish days. Powerful stories of resilience and bravery emerged. There’s the captain of the country’s women’s national wheelchair basketball team, who moved to Spain after receiving offers to play on a professional team; the national girls soccer team, who fled to Lisbon; and the famed all-girls robotics team, members of whom are now trying to reestablish themselves in Doha.

But a year later, Afghanistan has fallen from the world’s agenda, leaving thousands of Afghan refugees stranded in far-flung countries as humanitarian aid has dried up or been diverted to help Ukrainians fleeing the war with Russia. No longer a political priority, some Afghans are hiring smugglers to reunite them with relatives in other countries while others have joined the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers making their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Advertisement

It felt, Ayat said, like they had been forgotten. “I feel sad and hopeless,” she said. Ayat asked to not use her real name for this story because three of her siblings are still in Afghanistan and she worries about putting them in danger. 

Running provided Ayat a sense of freedom and a temporary reprieve from life’s pressures.

“I wanted to be the best. Or I wanted to do something unique.”

As we jogged together, she gave me tips. It’s important to start slow, she told me. Really slow. “Step by step, everything will be ready. The heart knows that she’s running. The lungs know she’s running. If you start fast, the body doesn’t know what’s going to happen and you will feel tired.” She doesn’t usually pick up speed on long runs until around mile seven, when her body is warmed up. Today, however, we would run just two miles, because it was Ramadan and she couldn’t eat or drink anything, including water, until sunset, which was still another eight hours away. 

Ayat runs in a park in Mexico City. Photo: Fred Ramos

Ayat runs in a park in Mexico City. Photo: Fred Ramos

Ayat was taught that running is more of a mental challenge than a physical one, and she stands by that principle. The key to long-distance running is about figuring out how long you have to run, she said, and conserving energy for the whole time. She applies the same logic to her life: Dream big and then plot out how to get there. A doctor as well as an ultramarathon runner, her dream is to one day become president of Afghanistan, when the Taliban is no longer in power. She tells me this with incredible conviction, despite the long odds.

Advertisement

But for now, the future was on hold, dreams deferred, until Ayat could find her family a permanent home. Canada was the family’s first choice because of their support network there and the financial support given to refugees, followed by Germany, where many of their relatives live. But neither country had responded to her overtures for help, she said. The U.S. was their third choice. But even that seemed like a stretch, as her family didn’t qualify for special assistance for Afghan refugees since they escaped the country after the U.S. military pulled out. 

In the meantime, Ayat was waiting, running, and hoping for a miracle. 

The path to ultramarathon runs started with tiny steps.

As a high school student, Ayat began volunteering for a nonprofit, Skateistan, that promoted skateboarding in Afghanistan. She became enamored. Her favorite trick was a kickflip, where the rider flips the skateboard 360 degrees and lands on it again. She was constantly injuring herself, and her mom told her to stop skating, but the next day Ayat would be at it again. She ended up working for the organization for three years.

Then Free to Run, an NGO that uses sports to empower women leaders in conflict areas, started scouting for Afghan women to train for an ultramarathon. Ayat was one of two women selected.

“I wanted to be the best. Or I wanted to do something unique,” Ayat told me, explaining her decision to apply. “We had already footballers, we had people who are doing volleyball… But in ultramarathon, it was no one. No boys. No girls. And I thought, if I do it, I will be unique.”

Advertisement

Training presented a host of problems. Ayat and her running partner couldn’t run in the streets because it wasn’t safe. Gyms had separate hours for men and women—and the hours conflicted with Ayat’s medical school classes. So instead, a driver took them 45 minutes outside of the city so they could run up and down hills.

They had half a year to prepare for the 155-mile ultramarathon race in the Gobi Desert, where in 2021, six years after Ayat’s race, 21 runners died in extreme conditions

Ayat’s parents were less than thrilled with the idea of her running an ultramarathon. Her father, who worked for the government, forbade her from going, she said, because he was worried she didn’t have the physical strength. Ayat pleaded with him, to no avail. Then she told him that she would go just as a medical volunteer, she said. He grudgingly consented. Ayat had every intention of running.

In a UK-produced documentary following Ayat and her running partner during the race, the women veer between being committed and being overwhelmed. During the first stage, they’re hit with a freezing snowstorm. Ayat breaks down in sobs. They walked through rain and mud, occasionally stopping to pray. Finally, the penultimate stage: 50 miles under blazing desert sun. The team would have to walk day and night. The race was harder than anything Ayat could have imagined. But then she thought about the people who told her not to run, she told me, those who told her, “If you can’t bring honor to Afghanistan, please don’t give the chance for people to say it’s a backwards country.” Fueled by the voices telling her she couldn’t—or shouldn’t— run, she finished the race.

Advertisement
Ayat works out at a gym in Mexico city. Photo: Fred Ramos

Ayat works out at a gym in Mexico city. Photo: Fred Ramos

While their achievement drew international attention, it wasn’t publicized in Afghanistan, for security reasons. In subsequent marathons organized in Afghanistan, runners were discouraged from posting on social media about the races until they were done, out of concern they could become a target for violence. Female participants tended to wear sunglasses and cloth to hide their faces and shield their identities. In one marathon that Ayat helped organize in her hometown of Mazur-i-Sharif, she recruited her male medical students to run with the women as a form of protection, she said.

“The message was, girls are allowed to run in open areas. This is not out of Islam rule,” Ayat said, speaking in English, just as all our interviews were conducted. “Islam just says, ‘Wear a hijab. Protect your body.’” 

In all, Ayat has run in several marathons and two ultramarathons, she said.

But all sports for women abruptly ended with the Taliban’s rule. In addition to banning girls from high school, they’ve decreed that women should avoid leaving the house at all, and those who must travel anything but short distances should be accompanied by a male relative. The days of girls and women running marathons are a distant past. 

Still, Ayat hasn’t lost hope. The Taliban had been ousted from power before and, she insisted, could be ousted again. 

When I first met Ayat in February, she and her family were living at a hotel in Mexico City’s business district along with around 200 other Afghans who had fled. Ayat’s family was living in a two-room suite—Ayat, her mom, and her sister in one room; her two brothers and father in the other.

Advertisement

The escape from Afghanistan had been harrowing. Ayat was shopping with her sister in Mazur-i-Sharif when a friend called and told her to drop everything, go to the airport, and board a flight to Kabul, she said. There was no time to return home, to pack her prized running trophies or say goodbye to friends.

That night, the Taliban took control of her province. Within two days, they had seized the entire country.  

The sisters desperately waited for their parents and siblings to join them at Kabul’s international airport, Ayat said. Thousands of Afghans rushed onto the tarmac, some so desperate to escape that they tried clinging to planes as they took off.

Ayat’s friend had arranged for Ayat to get on a flight to Canada, which, like many Western countries, was loosening its usual background checks and visa requirements. But Ayat’s parents still hadn’t arrived.

Ayat and her sister left the airport and hid in a “secret place,” she said, reuniting with their parents and brothers two weeks later at a hotel in Kabul. Several weeks later, they managed to escape to Qatar.

“In this period of time, I’m not living. I’m just spending the hours of my life.”

From there, Mexico emerged as the unlikely savior. After the Taliban’s takeover, the Mexican government granted six-month permits to some 500 Afghan refugees, under a critical condition: It would only accept refugees with sponsors who would cover all of their living expenses. In quick succession, members of Afghanistan's famed all-girls robotics team, journalists who worked for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and Facebook employees, all landed in Mexico, a pit stop as they waited for visas from other countries.  

Ayat and her family landed in Mexico in November with the help of a friend and, later on, the International Rescue Committee, which took on the family’s living, housing, and medical expenses—in all my interviews with Ayat in Mexico, we were accompanied by a press officer and aid worker from the organization. Ayat made friends with the other Afghan refugees and even convinced some of the women to go running with her. It was a small community thrown together by tragedy and happenstance.

Advertisement
Ayat applies henna to another woman's hand. Photo: Ale Rajal

Ayat applies henna to another woman's hand. Photo: Ale Rajal

But as the months passed, more and more families started to leave for their new homes, mostly in Canada and the U.S. Ayat’s running companions dwindled. By March, the International Rescue Committee had moved the remaining Afghans—around 40 people—to apartment units. Further from the central park, Ayat had taken to working out by herself in a local gym. 

Her mom obsessively watched news about Afghanistan and cried, worried about her remaining children still there. “Her heart is still in Afghanistan,” Ayat told me. She eventually changed the SIM card in her mom’s cellphone from Afghanistan to Mexico in an effort to prevent her from reading Afghan news constantly. 

Ayat’s 26th birthday came and went without celebration. She tried to keep herself busy, but it was increasingly difficult. There weren’t even families to translate for anymore. In all my initial interviews with Ayat, she had been unwaveringly optimistic. But when we met again in mid-June, she seemed defeated. 

“In this period of time, I’m not living. I’m just spending the hours of my life,” she told me. 

Two weeks later, the family headed to Tijuana. They had exhausted all their options. The only one left was trying their luck at the U.S. border.

Going to the border had been the last resort. The U.S. was turning back almost all asylum seekers under a pandemic-era guideline.

And even if the family could get in, they would be put into removal proceedings. Instead of affirmatively applying for asylum, they would be fighting deportation.

Advertisement
Ayat has learned to design her own clothing since arriving in Mexico. Photo: Ale Rajal

Ayat has learned to design her own clothing since arriving in Mexico. Photo: Ale Rajal

But Ayat’s options had run out. Mexico had extended the family’s permit, with the promise that the family had a plan for leaving. Neither Canada, nor the U.S., nor Germany had agreed to resettle them. The International Rescue Committee told Ayat that it couldn’t provide indefinite housing and economic support. 

“On paper she is the exact kind of person the U.S. government says they want to bring into the U.S. to rebuild their lives after the disaster that happened in Afghanistan,” said Dan Berlin, deputy director for cross-border asylum and migration at the International Rescue Committee in Mexico. “But the administrative barriers to making that happen are steep and really just arbitrary. If she had left Afghanistan on August 31 instead of October, she probably would have been resettled into the U.S. or Canada, like many of the other clients we work with.”

“It’s really hard. But I am trying my best.”

After two weeks at a Muslim shelter in Tijuana, U.S. immigration agents allowed Ayat’s family to cross into San Diego under a humanitarian exception. One of her brothers—who is paralyzed from the waist down—immediately went to the hospital because he had contracted an infection during the trip. Ayat and the rest of her family were received by the Jewish Family Service of San Diego.

Ayat got in touch with a nonprofit that supports Muslim families seeking aid and housing in the U.S. She was hopeful they could help, and thought they might be sent somewhere in New York. She had heard it has “a lot of mosquitos,” she told me. 

But when I called Ayat in August, the family had relocated to Nashville, Tennessee. A friend of a friend agreed to temporarily sponsor them. She’s learned to ride a bike—she sent me a video of her riding down a paved road flanked by a white picket fence and a green pasture. But the stay is not long-term, and Ayat is pondering whether to try to make it to Canada and apply for asylum there. An agreement between the U.S. and Canada to manage the flow of refugees will make that difficult.

“I don’t know what will happen,” Ayat told me, almost one year to the day that the Taliban entered Kabul and took over Afghanistan. “It’s hard for me to handle the situation. To support the family. To find the support for them. It’s really hard. But I am trying my best.” 

Photo: Fred Ramos

Photo: Fred Ramos