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Pittsfield Ultramarathon To Benefit Nonprofit Supporting Physical Activity In Conflict Areas

Facebook: Berkshire Ultra Running Community For Service

An ultramarathon this weekend in Pittsfield is benefiting an international organization that supports physical activity among girls and women in conflict-affected areas.

Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service is holding its final race of the season Saturday in Pittsfield State Forest. More than 100 runners will choose between 13.1-, 26.2- and 50-mile courses along a 12.5-mile-loop. Michael Menard is the race’s co-director.

“It’s pretty technical, really rugged terrain,” Menard explained. “It’s not an easy run. If you’ve ever been to Pittsfield State Forest it’s a lot of up and down.”

Money raised will go to Free to Run, a nonprofit helping girls and women in places like Afghanistan and South Sudan participate in physical activity not typically open to them. The organization offers running, hiking and sporting programs for women who have fled domestic abuse or those who otherwise don’t have access or the right to participate. It was created by Stephanie Case, a human rights lawyer, writer and ultramarathon runner. Connie Schneider chairs the group’s board of directors.

“Getting women confident and being able to express themselves, being able to know their bodies, being able to aim high and know that they can reach goals and break barriers,” Schneider said. “This is really what free to run is trying to achieve. Giving girls and women in conflict affected communities the chance to find empowerment and break barriers through sport.”

Menard expects the Pittsfield race to generate $5,000 for Free to Run. Grove City College student Najib Afghan is among those running Saturday. In 2009, when he was 15, Afghan was riding a bike with his younger brother on the back when they were hit by a rocket, killing his brother immediately. A metal shard went into Afghan’s left eye. A British reporter saw the tragedy and came to Afghan’s aid. When Afghan came to the U.S. to fix his eye, he started running.

“Because of my eye surgeries I couldn’t really do swimming or other sports and so just to get exercise I would just go outside and run,” said Afghan.

Afghan’s parents and siblings are still in Afghanistan. He hasn’t been back in two years because of the cost. He says his siblings are struggling to read and write — part of what’s driving him to run for charity.

“Our communities are very conservative so they expect girls to stay at home and they’re not allowed to show their faces to boys and it would be weird for them to go for a run or do sport,” Afghan said. “While boys can go to the park and play soccer. I feel that it’s not fair and they should have opportunities to do sport, stay healthy, make connections and hopefully make careers.”

Click here to learn more about Afghan's story.

Zahra grew up in Afghanistan without sports as a part of life.

“Even going to school is a big deal in Afghanistan [as a girl] so let’s not talk about running,” Zahra said. “It’s one of the things that they tell you ‘Oh, you shouldn’t run or do any sports because you are going to harm yourself as a woman.’”

When she was 10, a telephone company sponsored a race where the top 10 finishers won a bicycle.

“My only reason was ‘I’m going to do this because I want to ride that bicycle before I turn 11 and before my mom says that you shouldn’t go outside or you shouldn’t ride a bike,” Zahra explained.

She came in at the number six spot running barefoot in the 5K.

“I never got the chance to ride the bike,” said Zahra.

She came to Rhode Island for high school in 2012 where she was forced to play sports. Starting out with basketball, she found a passion for running, eventually joining the cross country team. Schneider mentioned the event to Zahra and she was all for it.

“I wish there was an organization like that when I was there so I would know more about enjoying my time running and being outside,” said Zahra.

Now attending Hobart and William Smith Colleges, she is looking forward to the woods course.

“When you run in nature it’s like your spirit is free,” said Zahra.

Click here to learn more about Zahra's story.

The first race starts at 6 a.m. Saturday.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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