Calgary-area runner, author, fundraiser, world-record holder runs in 'secret' Afghanistan marathon

A Calgary-area author, who also holds five Guinness World Records, is just back from a unique marathon in Afghanistan and hopes his experience will inspire others to find their passion and follow it.

We can all make a difference, whether it is internationally or locally. Do something.

In 2010 Martin Parnell ran more than 10,000 kilometres to raise almost $200,000 for a children-in-sports group. Two weeks ago, he ran in the second ever 'secret' marathon' in Afghanistan to send a message. (AFP news agency/YouTube)

A Calgary-area author, who also holds five Guinness World Records, is just back from a unique marathon in Afghanistan and hopes his experience will inspire others to find their passion and follow it.

"Over the last few years it has become my purpose to pull people together," Martin Parnell of Cochrane, Alta., told Daybreak Alberta this week.

"To build bridges and to try and share this vision of helping children through playing sport."

Parnell, who works with the children-in-sports advocacy group Right To Play, has spent years setting up challenges, raising money and often, running marathons.

In 2010 he ran more than 10,000 kilometres, the equivalent of close to 250 marathons, to raise almost $200,000 for the group.

The 60-year-old has been involved in setting up sport challenges as fundraisers ever since, picking up five Guinness World Records along the way.

"Right To Play asked me to go to Benin in West Africa in the middle of 2011 and visit the children we had fundraised for," Parnell explained.

"I went over there and spent time with the kids and it just got me totally pumped up again to try and do more."

He said finding those challenges, has sometimes required a little help from his friends.

"So I just put the word out on social media, on Facebook and Twitter, which was brilliant because people started to come to me. I certainly didn't come up with all of them, folks came forward to me and said 'What about this, let's try this,'" he said.

Facing his own challenges

In February 2015 Parnell was diagnosed with a clot on the brain. It put him out of commission, preventing him from doing the things he loves, for three months. By October, he could manage to run five kilometres.

"My wife sent me an article from the Guardian about the very first ever marathon in Afghanistan. It just inspired me to read about the very first Afghan woman ever to run a marathon, her name is Zainab," Parnell said.

The differences in experience spoke to him.

"The issues for runners in the west are hydration and nutrition. For them it is abuse, it is harassment, it's being shouted out and having stones thrown at them," he said.

"They are so brave, they are so determined."

After spiking the interest of a documentary filmmaker, Parnell and a film crew were off to run in the second secret marathon, secret because some in the country don't feel women should hold a visible space in public life.

"Two weeks ago I was lining up at the start line for a marathon in the town of Bamiyan in Afghanistan," Parnell said with pride.

Martin Parnell's wife sent him an article from the Guardian that inspired him to participate in the second Afghanistan marathon. (www.untamedborders.com)

"We couldn't tell anyone about it, we called it the secret marathon because we were told 'Don't tell anyone you are going, don't say the date.' Ten international runners went over with a travel group called Untamed Borders. We ran a marathon that was 60 runners including Afghan men but also six Afghan women. What is interesting is the province of Bamiyan, they are some of the most persecuted Afghan people but they are some of the most progressive, very supportive of education for specifically girls and sport."

Parnell said a forthcoming film about the marathon and the experience, is about sharing a message.

Martin Parnell's latest book, Running to the Edge, launches Sunday at the Eau Claire Market in Calgary at 2 p.m. (Russell Bowers/CBC)

"There is going to be a documentary coming out next September and we want to share it with everybody in Calgary and wherever, just to show the message of hope and of working together and achieving things," he said.

"We can all make a difference, whether it is internationally or locally. We can all make a difference. Do something."

Parnell's latest book, Running to the Edge, is out Sunday with a book signing at Eau Claire Market at 2 p.m.


With files from Daybreak Alberta