Always start off the week or the day with an inspiring story that will keep you going for all your upcoming runs. Motivation from other runners with real experiences is usually the first step in knowing how much running can help you. And Stephanie Case has one of the most inspiring stories.

In 2009, Stephanie gave up her corporate law job to pursue a longstanding desire to assist some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Presently working for the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Gaza, Stephanie, an avid ultrarunner is also the Founder and President of Free to Run, an organization that encourages and trains women in conflict-affected areas to conquer the distance. In this two-part interview with FirstRun, Stephanie discusses her work, her passion for ultrarunning and the how sports can affect change in the community.

You’re presently based in Gaza with the UN. What does your role comprise and are you able to make time for running despite your work schedule and security concerns?
I work for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and help coordinate the human rights aspects of the response following last summer’s conflict. It is certainly busy, but time isn’t the biggest constraint – I always find that running makes me more efficient during my non-running hours. The security concerns are definitely what hold me back though. I am not allowed to walk outside, let alone run, and can only travel by armored vehicle. This makes it very difficult to even get to the gym, and when I get there I only have access to a treadmill or running ‘outside’ between two small parking lots within the confines of a UN office compound. I miss my morning runs, I miss my trail runs, I miss my long runs… but right now I just need to focus on doing what I can, where I can; whether it is running up and down the stairs in my apartment or doing laps around a parking lot!

I wanted to find a way to provide women and girls in areas affected by conflict the chance to experience running freely

How was the idea of ‘Free to Run’ born? What were some of the initial challenges?
I think the seeds for Free to Run were planted in my head a long time ago, but they really started to take shape during my year in Afghanistan. I spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of freedom of movement to one’s physical and mental health. Not being able to get out on the trails and run freely affected me a lot. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like for those who had never had the chance to even try. I wanted to find a way to provide women and girls in areas affected by conflict the chance to experience what I had.

The challenges were – and continue to be – immense. I heard so many people tell me that I was crazy for attempting to build such an organization. Outdoor sports with women and girls in war zones? At some points, I thought I was crazy too. Everything from logistics to security concerns are major issues… But I keep telling myself, if it were easy, someone would have already been doing it. The challenges are immense, but we have great relationships on the ground and fantastic support, so we can get things done.

What according to you makes running such an empowering tool during times of conflict and oppression?
Sports activities are tools of empowerment as they can help women develop confidence, skills, and leadership abilities, which can change their lives and the lives of people around them. Running and hiking activities in particular can help women reclaim public space and form bonds outside of their home. I have seen how our activities have directly impacted the lives of our beneficiaries. For instance, Zainab, one of the members of our Afghan ultramarathon team, has said that as a result of her running, she now feels like anything is possible. She used to live a day-to-day existence, but now she has renewed hope for her future.

I heard so many people tell me that I was crazy for attempting to build such an organization
I heard so many people tell me that I was crazy for attempting to build such an organization

You recently concluded the Gobi March with a team of Afghan women. How was the experience?
It was an emotional, intense, uplifting and groundbreaking journey for all of us. I think we are all still in a state of disbelief that the whole team made it over 250 km to the finish line! The conditions were much more extreme than any of us had expected, from snowstorms to rain storms to sandstorms. The ups and downs that we went through emotionally and physically were draining, but we got through it as a team and realized that we were each stronger than we thought (myself included).

What are some of the lessons you’ve learnt personally through running and working with conflict-affected communities?
I’ve learned that women who have had to grow up, live, study, work and love through situations of conflict are some of the strongest people I’ve ever met. What holds them back from excelling in sports – when they do get a chance to play – is not lack of strength, but often lack of confidence. I’ve seen the power of sports towards changing lives and communities. I’ve discovered that there is a way to make the impossible happen with the right amount of determination and heart.

What’s coming up next for Free to Run this year? How can runners from India stay updated and contribute?
We’ve got lots in store! We are continuing to expand and strengthen our programs in Afghanistan and we have started a hiking program with refugees in Hong Kong, who have fled situations of violence and conflict in their home countries. We are also building our athlete program as we have more and more runners eager to train and run races to raise funds and awareness with our programs. Runners from India can stay up to date through our site and social media pages. Any runners, climbers, hikers, athletes of any kind who are interested in helping us spread the word can contact me at [email protected] We need support, and your involvement will go a long way!

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