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Crossing the Gobi: First-ever Afghan women's team take on ultra-marathon challenge

By film-maker Saleyha Ahsan

When I heard that the first-ever Afghan women's team were attempting an ultra-marathon across the Gobi desert - I knew I had to make that film.

Sport for most women in Afghanistan is a taboo - so how were these girls going to get to the start line, let alone complete a 250km race?

The Gobi Desert in China's Xinjiang Province is a vast, extreme and beautiful environment rising over snow peaked mountains and then falling to iconic black desert sands.

The annual ultra-marathon that takes place there is organised by Racing the Planet and this year, saw 168 competitors from 48 different countries gather at the start line. Amongst them were Zainab, 25, and Nelofar, 20, from Afghanistan, selected to race by the charity, Free to Run.

Nelofar and Zainab took on the challenge of the gruelling race. Credit: ITV On Assignment

Two young women with a love of sport but because of strict cultural barriers at home were limited in how to pursue their passion.

The charity's president and founder, Stephanie Case held a selection process to find the right team.

"We picked them because of their mental strength and their attitude which is all you need to get through these races."

It was something I witnessed for myself as I followed them during the seven-day course.

The Afghan women's team as they make their way across the Gobi Mountains Credit: ITV On Assignment

By night we camped in freezing temperatures inside rain soaked tents. Sleep was snatched in between prolonged shivering. Then under the scorching desert sun, the tents would become furnaces. Rest was hard to come by.

The 80km penultimate stage of the race proved to be my toughest filming experience ever.

On one 10km stretch I walked with them in 50 degree heat filming with 3kg worth of camera kit.

It took every bit of will not to sit down in the sand and stop. If I had done so in that environment during the hottest part of the day - it would have been deadly.

The women faced searing heat and sandstorms in the Gobi Desert. Credit: ITV On Assignment

The girls had only started running five months ago and yet their determination and courage had brought them here in a fight for the finish line.

Zainab and Nelofar running in Afghanistan Credit: ITV On Assignment

Nelofar explained her motivation for doing the race. She plans to open her own running club in Afghanistan.

“I want to make a place for other women to do sports. This is the big thing that I can do. Opening the way for the other women.”

Witnessing this reminded me of the freedoms in my life I enjoy and it humbled me. It kept me on my feet during the hardest parts of the race.

Nelofar and Zainab celebrate at the end of the race Credit: ITV On Assignment

For Zainab, after suffering the pain that all endurance athletes know all too well, she described her baptism-like experience.

When I’m running I really feel free. It makes me strong. When I was walking I was just thinking about my past life... I feel I’m reborn and it's a new life for me.

– Zainab