As the co-director and producer of the documentary The Secret Marathon, alumna Kate McKenzie (BA/BEd ’07) trained and travelled to Afghanistan to not only run her first marathon, but to also share the stories of the courageous women who are fighting for gender equality through sport. In the face of trials and prejudice, this is a story of hope, perseverance and the people who fight for the freedom to run.
What is the history behind The Secret Marathon and the women who take part in the Marathon of Afghanistan each year?
The Marathon of Afghanistan was started by Gul Hussian Baizada from Afghanistan and James Bingham from the UK. It is hosted by an amazing community in Bamiyan who want to change how people think about Afghanistan by switching the narrative from one of poverty and violence to one of hope and adventure. They believe that through sport they can create a new future for their country – one that celebrates the beauty of Afghanistan and that paves the way for gender equality. This is the first co-gender sport in Afghanistan and each year the number of participants has grown.
What inspired you to get involved with this project?
I first heard about the Marathon of Afghanistan through Canadian running legend, Martin Parnell, who ran 250 marathons in one year to raise money for charity. Martin told me about Zainab, who was the first Afghan woman to run a marathon in Afghanistan. When Zainab tried to train outside for the marathon, people threw rocks at her, insulted her and she even received threats from terrorists just for doing something that we take for granted – tying up her shoes and going for a run. So, she had to train in a space the size of the average backyard, running in loops – 42.2km worth of loops. I couldn’t get that image out of my head and I knew I wanted to support her and let her know she wasn’t alone.
In order to reduce safety risks at the Afghanistan Marathon and to protect the wellbeing of the women who run each year, your team had to keep it a secret that you were filming this documentary. How would you describe the experience of working alongside women who put themselves on the line by participating in these marathons?
The women who participate in the Marathon of Afghanistan are truly courageous. There are many more women and girls living in Afghanistan who are still unable to participate as it is too dangerous where they live due to landmines and active conflict, or due to social and cultural pressures. A year into the making of the film, one of the Afghan women we were working with had to be removed from the film to protect her safety as she and her family were still receiving threats a full year later just due to her running. We were able to work with Afghan cultural advisors to share stories like hers through animation as a way to ensure that we could honour the experience that so many women face, while also maintaining their safety.
In addition to co-directing this film, this was also the first marathon that you yourself ran in. What has the impact been, both personally and on a broader scale, of telling these stories and sharing in this race for gender equality?
The Marathon of Afghanistan showed me the power of sport and that by creating a safe race you can create a safe place. Sport can be used as a way to reclaim spaces and to encourage gender equality. When I came back to Canada, many women told me that they don’t always feel safe to run outside, especially if it’s at night or in a rough neighbourhood. I realized that we needed to take what we had seen work in Afghanistan, using safe races to create safe places and bring that to Canada. We’ve since teamed up with Running Room to host The Secret 3K in the same week as International Women’s Day to host a 3km run/walk that celebrates everyone’s right to be free to move. Last year we had people participate in 16 cities across Canada and in 17 countries around the world, including in Lethbridge, and we look forward to having more join us this year as we work together to create safe and inclusive spaces for all.
The Secret Marathon premiered at film festivals in both Sudbury, Ont. and Edmonton, Alta. this fall. To learn more about The Secret Marathon or Kate McKenzie, you can visit the film’s website here.