Run The Impossible
“I’ve woken up in ditches and had no idea which direction I had come from or how long I’d been there.” Ultra-trail runner Stephanie Case on running into the unknown and her mission to support Afghan women and girls through sport
Stephanie Case is a human rights lawyer, an ultra-trail runner and founder of the ‘Free to Run’ organisation that uses outdoor sport and adventure to help transform the lives of thousands of women and girls in conflict-affected regions. Stephanie always wants to take on what she believes to be impossible and this has led her to the world’s most challenging trails over the last 14 years. The record-breaking The North Face athlete, aged 40, tells us about the necessity for her often unconventional training methods, the reason why she keeps coming back, and who she believes would rule the world if they were alive today!
Glorious: Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
Stephanie Case: I was born in Kingston, Ontario, Canada and grew up in a suburb of Toronto. I lived in a very calm, safe, and frankly privileged neighbourhood where nothing really ever went wrong. Perhaps it was growing up in that environment that contributed to my interest and love for working in complex environments. I knew that I was living a relatively sheltered existence and that there was a lot more of the world I had to understand. My adult life has consisted of trying to understand difficult settings. I live in Jerusalem at the moment, where I am in a regional role for the UN covering Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. I’m lucky to have my permanent home in Chamonix, France.
Glorious: When and why did you begin to run ultra-distances?
Stephanie Case: I began training for my first ultrarace fifteen years ago after I signed up for a 250km self-supported stage race. I had no idea if I would be able to take on such a challenge, but I wanted to try. Having grown up as an insufferable perfectionist, I was really intrigued by the idea of signing up for an event that I was very likely to fail.
Glorious: Are you interested in/play other sports?
Stephanie Case: I was a sailing instructor in high school and a varsity rower while at university in Canada , but aside from water sports, I’ve never considered myself to be very athletic. I’ve always been terrible at team sports – too much stress about letting others down. Running has always been a very individual quest for me and a chance to escape into nature and out of my own head. My partner is an avid climber and skier, among other sports, so he is constantly trying to push me outside of my comfort zone to try new things.
Glorious: You have taken on the Tor des Geants (TOR330) race four times, 2015-2018. What attracts you to a challenging race and tell us about the highs and lows of your experiences.
Stephanie Case: TOR330 is a lot more than a race. With a normal race or even a 100 miler, you can roughly estimate what time you might finish, what the weather forecast will be, and what obstacles you might face. However, with Tor des Geants, there is almost no point in trying to predict anything. When you cross the start line, you are really stepping into the unknown. Mental preparation to convince yourself that you will be able to handle anything that comes your way is key. I’ve had moments in Tor when I’ve woken up in ditches and had no idea which direction I had come from or how long I’d been there, and other moments when I truly felt like the mountains were speaking to me. At times, I have even forgotten that I was running and was just able to breathe in my surroundings. The extreme highs and lows of Tor are just one of the reasons why I keep coming back.
Glorious: What is the process for preparing for such a race? Do you train on your own or with other people?
Stephanie Case: My training for TOR330 over the years has had to be very flexible, simply because of my work with the United Nations. The first and second time I ran, I was based in Gaza full-time, where we weren’t allowed to run outside. The third time I ran, I was luckily based outside of Geneva, but had had a traumatic accident in the Italian Alps earlier in the year in which I’d broken six ribs, punctured a lung and lacerated my liver. The last time I ran TOR330, I was based in Afghanistan. I’ve trained by running up and down stairs in apartment buildings, running circles on rooftops, and pulling tires inside armed compounds. I suppose you could say that my training is unconventional at best! Running for me is treasured private time when I work out my stress and my emotions on some of the complicated issues I deal with in human rights, so I tend to run alone or with a close friend.
Glorious: You are the founder of ‘Free to Run’. What inspired you to set up this organisation and what is your mission?
Stephanie Case: The idea for Free to Run developed out of conversations that I had with Afghan women around my own running. I had made some incorrect assumptions that having lived through decades of conflict they would be concerned about more ‘important’ things than running. I realised that running represented a lot more than just a sporting activity – it represented freedom, empowerment, and visibility. Running had the power to act as a vehicle for social change. I tried to get other organisations who were already well established to incorporate more outdoor sports programming for women in Afghanistan, but they all thought it was ‘impossible’. Just like any ultramarathon, I knew that we just had to find a way. Free to Run’s mission is to support women and girls in areas of conflict through adventure sports. We provide them with the tools to become leaders in their own communities.
Glorious: Last year you decided to make a leap from the TOR330 and take on one of the most gruelling ultra-distance races in the world – the Tor des Glaciers (TOR450). What is the difference between the two?
Stephanie Case: The main difference with Tor des Glaciers (TOR450) compared to Tor des Geants (TOR330), other than the extra 120km, is that glaciers require runners to conduct their own navigation. The course is wild, unmarked and often off-trail, which adds a whole other element of difficulty. After multiple days of running on no sleep, it becomes harder and harder to follow a GPS track, believe me! You need to be a lot more self-sufficient as the distances and times between refuges is a lot longer than in TOR330. The course is certainly not for the faint of heart.
Glorious: At the same time as preparing for TOR450, you were busy trying to organise a Free to Run women-led, women-run expedition in Afghanistan. Tell us about this.
Stephanie Case: The expedition that we had planned was meant to be in the Wakhan Corridor in the North East of Afghanistan. We were bringing together female leaders from the Free to Run program from across the country. It was going to be the chance of a lifetime to explore huge mountain peaks in one of the most remote areas of the world. Unfortunately, we watched the security situation deteriorate across the country in 2021, and the province in which the Wakhan Corridor is located was the first to fall to the Taliban.
Glorious: The North Face came on board to support a documentary of Free to Run. What was the aim of this documentary and what can people do to help/find out more?
Stephanie Case: The aim of the documentary was to highlight the importance of women’s visibility on and off the trail, whether on the streets of Afghanistan or in the Italian Alps. I am grateful for The North Face’s support so that women like Zahra* and Zeinab** could share their stories, and I hope the film will inspire others to follow their purpose in their own lives! I would love it if people would share the film on social media and check out Free to Run. We rely on support from the running community to keep us going in Afghanistan and in Iraq.
* For Zahra, her dream of helping to improve the lives of women in Afghanistan begins with education. The first female in her family to graduate from high school, Zahra went on to complete a degree in business and economics and found Free To Run gave her a new perspective, connecting her with others and helping her to explore the world around her.
** Despite balancing her degree with a job to help fund her studies, Zeinab found Free to Run sessions an invaluable way to stay motivated and push her out of her comfort zone. She found the strength to take on not only multiple marathons, but also challenge the status quo, changing perceptions of what women can do in her home country.
Glorious: You smashed the women’s course record in the TOR450 race and took third place overall. What emotions did you feel at the finish line, describe your overall experience, and how did you celebrate?
Stephanie Case: It is hard to describe what it is like to finally cross a finish line after almost seven days of continuous movement. I had only got about 4.5 hours of sleep in 6.5 days, so I was pretty out of it! I felt immense pain, relief, bewilderment and gratitude. I celebrated with a short nap on the couch and then my partner carried me to the bar for a cocktail, where I could cheer on the other finishers!
Glorious: Your mission hasn’t ended with your TOR450 race and the expedition, so what’s next and what do you want to achieve?
Stephanie Case: Every time I finish something that I think is impossible, I realise it never was… so naturally, that makes me think about the next impossible thing! I am committed to making sure that Free to Run continues to grow in Iraq (and elsewhere), and that we continue supporting women’s and girls’ access to sports in Afghanistan, even if a bit underground for the moment. As for my own running, I recently placed 2nd female at the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run in Southern Colorado’s San Juan Range, which was an amazing surprise, and I’m looking forward to crewing a dear friend in her first Tor des Geants in September.
Glorious: When you’re not running or protecting women’s rights, how do you spend your time?
Stephanie Case: Between my UN work, my work with Free to Run and my own running, there isn’t a lot of time for much else! But I feel very lucky to be following my passions. I do try to carve out time for my nieces and my partner, although he would complain that most of that time is spent running!
Glorious: If you could invite four inspirational women for dinner, who would they be and why?
Stephanie Case: I would invite Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa and the 24th Liberian President; Greta Thunberg, who needs no introduction, but from whom I think we all have a lot to learn (I wish I had her courage when I was her age!); Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who I’ve long admired as a lawyer and feminist myself; and my grandmother, who passed away years ago. Had she grown up in another era, I think she would have been ruling the world.