The Ultra-Runner Empowering Women in Conflict Countries
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because running equals quicker diplomacy
Going into the Tor de Géants — one of the world’s premier endurance races at 330 kilometers (205 miles) — this past September, Stephanie Case couldn’t get her head into the run. She cursed at the cows, cried at the medical tents and told her support team she wanted to quit. Midway through the race, she figured it out. Physically conditioned for the Tor, Case hadn’t mentally recovered from a life-threatening fall on January 1 down the Col de Malatrà, a 9,632-foot peak — leaving her with broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a liver laceration. The ultra-runner and founder of Free to Run, an NGO that empowers women and girls in conflict countries, started 2017 with her greatest challenge: recovering.
“In order to keep your sanity when you work in areas of conflict, you do have to have an ultimate belief that everything is going to be OK,” Case says. “Lying there on the side of the mountain … I was faced with the prospect of everything not being OK. The possibility of me freezing to death, bleeding internally, was very real.”
I realized that I might not be fast, but I was stubborn enough to outlast most of my competitors.
Back at the Tor, Case fought to regain focus and finished the race in fourth place. “Part of me wanted to prove wrong all of the doctors who told me I wouldn’t be able to race in the mountains for all of 2017. The other part of me was just desperate to reclaim bits of myself,” Case says.
Robbie Britton, a top runner in Chamonix, France, took Case to task on social media when she posted after her accident about pushing through her recovery. He said she was irresponsible and encouraging others to get injured. Case says it was a good discussion and her aim was to give hope to people in difficult decisions.
At 35, having completed more than 35 ultra-marathons, 20 as a top-five finisher, the Geneva-based human-rights lawyer can’t imagine her life without a 50K (or longer) race on the training calendar — for herself or her charges through Free to Run. For 2018, she has started a pilot program to train runners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the Rwanda Challenge Marathon, in addition to her own schedule that includes the Madeira Island Ultra Trail and another Tor des Géants.
Case’s achievements in ultra-running stand alone. But in a sport that remains male-dominated — in 2016, one-third of ultra-marathon finishers were female — she has also made important strides to increase the visibility of female athletes in areas of the world where women often get sidelined. “She definitely has crazy, and in a good way,” says Stephanie’s mother, Anne Case. “I believe the same crazy has led her to work in conflict areas and persevere for her human-rights passions and beliefs.”
Case’s advocacy can sometimes ruffle running singlets. One critic, Sebastian Straten, founder of the Iran marathon, believes Case pushes too hard in delicate cultural situations that require a lighter touch: “This first marathon could open doors for Iranian women marathon runners. … If it was not for the first men-only modern marathon in Athens, there would not have been a marathon at all.” Case maintains that her work in Free to Run requires respect for other cultures, but also a recognition of “when culture is used as an excuse to keep women in subservient positions in society.”
Case never considered herself “sporty,” she says; nonetheless, the native Canadian rowed varsity crew while at college in Ontario and entered her first marathon during law school at the University of British Columbia. She thought it would be the ultimate challenge — but she felt disappointed after crossing the finish line. “I couldn’t figure out why I had trained for so many months just to participate in a race that was over in a couple of hours,” Case says. “I was searching for that feeling of really hitting the limits of your abilities and having to dig deep to go beyond. For me, that didn’t come in 26.2 miles.”
She started researching longer races and found a 250-kilometer (155-mile) footrace in Vietnam. Unsure she would even finish the February 2008 race, she ended up with a first-place trophy in the women’s division, third place overall. “That’s when I realized that I might not be fast, but I was stubborn enough to outlast most of my competitors,” Case says.
After law school, Case worked at a corporate firm, did a series of international law consultancies and joined the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in 2012. While a posting to a war zone could have curtailed some people’s running dreams, it boosted Case’s. She logged laps on a treadmill and around the UN compound in Kabul and hitched helicopter rides to train in the mountains in Western Afghanistan.
Case also started running to raise money to support a local women’s shelter. But the women didn’t want money; they wanted to run with her. A year later, she launched Free to Run, and in 2015, one of their members became the first female Afghan to run the Marathon of Afghanistan. The following year, the nonprofit sent a team from Afghanistan to RacingThePlanet in Sri Lanka.
As Case moved to another UN posting, in Gaza, before settling in Geneva with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2016, she kept running, notching her first Tor de Géants, as well as the Ultra Trail Lago d’Orta, a 55-mile vertical scramble up 19,521 feet. She also backed an Iranian woman, Mahsa Torabi, as she crashed the first Iran marathon in April 2016 (women were not allowed to run), and joined her for the Iran Silk Road Ultramarathon — 155 miles circling the Dasht-e Lut Desert that August.
Emailing from Tehran, Torabi said, “I ran in that ultra-marathon because I wanted to show the power of women — that nothing could create limitations for us in reaching our aim in sports.”
Now fully recovered from her accident, Case says she has a new perspective on her life and ultra-running. “When we run, we are forced to be our authentic selves. We are stripped down to our most basic needs, and all of the noise and crap falls to the wayside,” she reflects. “It is the greatest equalizer. Out on the trail, it doesn’t matter what your background may be. All that matters is how much training you’ve put in and how committed you are to the journey.”
* Correction: The original story mispelled Anne Case’s name, and the subject of the article has offered a late rebuttal to a source’s critique.