When I ran in Kyrgyzstan, a small country in Central Asia, I gulped icy air hailing from Siberia. I stared down frozen mountain ranges that stand taller than all but Everest. I broke trail in snow where only horses and crows ventured. Those were personal moments of Olympic triumph. But I was invincible only until I saw the little boys in tattered socks and flip-flops, snaking toward me on a mission to mimic my every move. Their scrawny legs spun as they outpaced me for a quarter mile.
At that point in my life, I considered 3 miles a long run. Before the Peace Corps assigned me to Kyrgyzstan to teach English in 2003, swimming and inline skating were my workouts of choice. But because pools and smooth pavement were nowhere to be found in the rural village I called home for 2 years, I reluctantly began to run for the first time in my life.
The first 6 months in Kyrgyzstan I struggled to adjust to the radically different lifestyle Ã¢â‚¬” I'd been willing to go anywhere in the world except the "stans," countries that seemed harsh and bleak, despite the jagged beauty of the snowcapped mountain landscape. My husband, Hans, and I no longer lived alone, but with a Kyrgyz family. My morning coffee required pumping well water first. Each day I trudged to the local school to teach about 90 students ages 14 to 17. The days were punctuated by the Muslim call to prayer, the chant floating through every dawn and dusk. And while most locals were gracious Ã¢â‚¬” inviting us to birthdays, weddings, even funerals Ã¢â‚¬” some were less so. One afternoon, a man put his face so close to mine our noses nearly touched. Snarling, he told me to get out of his country.
I persevered until one blustery morning in February. Huddled in my sleeping bag, I didn't want to face another day. Outside my window, clouds clung to the mountains and roosters screeched their early-morning calls. Living in a country described as deteriorating, instead of developing, was exhausting Ã¢â‚¬” physically and mentally. I wanted to go home.
Lying there, I thought about how I coped with stress back home by working off my frustrations lap after lap in the pool or skating away from them on a freshly paved road. I knew that getting my heart pumping would help, but since arriving in my village, I had invented excuses to avoid exercise that trumped the trivial ones I'd used in the States. Kyrgyz culture demanded women to be demure. I didn't have access to running water. A constant diet of bread and rice left me sluggish. In a village where most families ate one substantial meal a day, exercise just for the sake of fitness was a luxury.
But if I didn't find a way to stay sane, these would be 2 long years. I couldn't swim or skate, so I'd have to run. I layered clothing over long johns, covered my ponytail with a hat, and opened the door, dreading the sharp cold of the Kyrgyz winter. I fought the urge to crawl back into bed and stepped outside.
I jogged to the nearby riverbank, about half a mile away. The river cut across the frozen white earth like a string of iridescent black pearls. Two cows nosed the ground looking for grass. Tentatively, I did a few jumping jacks. Crunch, crunch. One. Crunch, crunch. Two. The cows looked up. I jumped until my cheeks burned. As I ran home, my heart pounded and I felt confident. I was finally wresting some control over my life.
Villagers soon became fascinated with my running. I wasn't surprised, since my neighbors were already curious about me, but I never expected such strong reactions. Old men advised my husband to forbid my running. Fellow Kyrgyz teachers conjectured that it caused infertility, leaving me barren at the ripe age of 29. My students demanded a daily report of how many miles I'd run. As I gained the undeserved and controversial reputation of an athlete in just a few short weeks, I felt a responsibility to keep running.
With a little ingenuity, I conquered my excuses not to exercise. I traveled 3 hours round-trip to the city of Jalalabad where I bought energy-rich foods like nuts and dried apricots. After running, I rinsed off in a shallow plastic basin. And some things I just accepted, like stringy hair and semi-clean running clothes.
By late spring, my muscles were more defined and my everyday stress felt more manageable. But it wasn't all good. Running presented a new challenge, especially when I ventured beyond my village. Teenage boys mimicked me and laughed raucously. Young boys threw rocks. One afternoon, a man threw a slab of firewood that struck my shoulder. Hard. Boys and men, no matter what their age, were uncomfortable with a woman running.
But I wasn't going to stop. For one thing, it made me happy. And I felt entitled to hold on to something that was meaningful to me. As a guest in Kyrgyzstan, I took great pains to adapt to the culture. I learned to cook traditional meals using a kazan (similar to a wok) over an open fire. I observed the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. I struggled through lengthy Kyrgyz conversations. In exchange, I felt that I deserved to run without being harassed. Each day was a complicated exercise in cultural understanding. I longed to be accepted, and my running was becoming a barrier.
That summer, I decided to start an after-school running club, hoping it would help me integrate. The first day of school, I posted my announcement in the front hall. During classes, the boys informed me that girls couldn't run.
"I run," I said.
"You're different," came their reply.
"Actually, we're very much alike," I said. "We want love. We want our basic needs met."
They stared blankly. A girl's hand shot up.
"When do we run?"
The next week, I waited for my runners to show for our first outing. A group of girls bounced into the room wearing big smiles and $3 sneakers imported from neighboring China.
As we jogged to the riverbank, the girls' demeanor transformed from meek to boisterous. Free from English grammar rules, we chatted freely in English and Kyrgyz. "The boys think we can't run, but they aren't here!" one girl said. "We're beneath men, but it should be different."
Her assertion surprised me, but the other girls immediately agreed. And that was the beginning of a yearlong conversation. Some days, talk of an alcoholic father or a mother working in Russia left me heavy-hearted. Other days, we laughed over their secret "crushes," an English word they loved. The boys never joined us, but a surprising thing happened. When I ran with the girls, the harassment stopped Ã¢â‚¬” for one simple reason. Most of the boys or men we passed were somehow connected to one of the girls: a cousin, a sister's husband, a father's friend. Word spread.
As the months passed, the girls and I made a goal to run 3 miles together. And I set a personal goal to run a marathon when I got home. Promising to run 26.2 miles in their honor felt more binding than the entrance fee that equaled 2 months of my Peace Corps stipend. I couldn't disappoint my girls because they believed in me more than I believed in myself.
During the last meeting of our running club, we made it 3 miles. It was a bittersweet victory, because it also meant I'd be leaving them soon.
Three months after returning from Kyrgyzstan, I stood among thousands of women near the start of my hometown's marathon in Portland, Oregon. As I ran each mile, I thought about the doubt that had filled me during my first run to the river. I thought about my running-club girls: their courage to try something new in an intolerant culture; the grace with which they moved through their difficult lives; the bliss they found in running. As I crossed the finish line, I felt hopeful Ã¢â‚¬” hopeful that someday they would experience the same freedom and buoyancy that I did in that moment.
When my letters bearing news of my achievement reached the girls, I'm told they broke into wild applause. And I applaud them each time I lace up my running shoes and head out the door.