The Current

Meet the lawyer and marathon runner who creates safe spaces for others to compete

Canadian competitive ultrarunner and human rights lawyer Stephanie Case can't stop pushing herself — even while working in war zones where training is near impossible.

Stephanie Case has run over 35 ultra-marathons. Along the way, she's encouraging others to join her

Stephanie Case has ran in over 35 ultra-marathons, placing in the top five out of 20 of those races. (Submitted by Stephanie Case)

Originally aired on May 15, 2017.

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When Stephanie Case first moved to Afghanistan in 2012, people told her she'd have to give up running. For her, that was out of the question.

She knew the task would be near impossible, especially living in an area of conflict. Working with the United Nations, she was under strict security rules and wasn't allowed to leave her compound except by armoured vehicles.

However, she always found a way.

To log miles, Case ran on the treadmill and ran loops around the UN compound in Kabul. Without access to hills, she'd put on a harness and attach a bungee cord to a tire, dragging it around the compound.

Stephanie Case takes a selfie right before a training session in her Kabul compound. (submitted by Stephanie Case )

"To me that just wasn't an option because my human rights work is just as big of a passion for me as my running," Case, a human rights lawyer and competitive ultra-marathoner, told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"I wanted to have both and I just wasn't willing to accept that I'd only be able to do one."

Over the years, the 35-year-old has competed in over 35 races, including eight 250 km self-supported footraces and the challenging Tor des Geants, a 330-km mountain race in Aosta Valley, Italy. In 20 of those races, she finished in the top five.

Free to Run

When Case is not running, she's busy serving as the United Nations' Head of Protection of Civilians and Child Protection in Kabul. Her human rights work has taken her to places like South Sudan and Gaza.

To combine her passions for running and human rights, Case founded a non-profit organization called Free to Run, which aims to give women and girls living in conflict zones the opportunity to participate in sports outdoors.

In one of her proudest moments working with the organization, Case worked with two Afghan women named Nelofar and Zainab, who wanted to become the first people from their country to finish an ultra-marathon. They ended up competing at The Gobi March in China, part of a series of four 250-km races in deserts across the world.

In June 2015, Nelofar and Zainab completed a 250-km self-supported footrace across the Gobi desert in China. In doing so, the pair made history as Afghanistan’s first ultra-marathon team. (Free to Run)

"They went from being not runners at all to running a 250-km self-supported foot race that you do over six days and they finished," Case said.

"It was just such an incredibly inspiring thing to witness because so many people didn't believe that they would be able to do that."

No matter what they faced, they didn't let it become an excuse. They didn't let it become anything that could hold them back from letting them achieve our goal.- Stephanie Case

Case left feeling inspired by Nelofar and Zainab's determination to see an ultra-marathon team in Afghanistan.

"These women faced harassment. They had people throw stones at them when they were running on the street, calling them prostitutes for running," said Case.

"No matter what they faced, they didn't let it become an excuse. They didn't let it become anything that could hold them back from letting them achieve our goal."

Since then, Free to Run has trained a second ultra-marathon team that ran another 250-km race in Sri Lanka. The organization is currently training a third ultra-marathon team to participate in the Gobi March, which will take place in Mongolia this year.

Ups and downs

In addition to Free to Run, Case's own running career is a storied one.

In 2016, she finished second in the women's category and 14th overall at the Tor des Geants. The race took her through 34 municipalities, 25 mountain passes over 2000 metres, 30 alpine lakes and two natural parks. 

"It's just one of the most incredible experiences I've ever had, and you really have to take a different approach to it than than any other race because it's such an experience," Case said.

Each runner who took part in the race had 150 hours to complete it. Case finished in 98, with only about two and a half hours of sleep. Too worn down to eat, talk or even sleep, she kept herself alert by singing while she ran.

"You can hear I'm not a very good singer, but it was functional. There is no one around to hear me anyway," she laughed.

Her running career's lows were just as dramatic as her highs, if not more so.

In 2017 while training in the Alps, she fell down a steep incline and hit a tree. It left her with six broken ribs, a lacerated liver and a punctured lung.

Doctors said she couldn't run for the rest of the year, but that only made Case even more determined to make it work. Three and a half weeks later, she was back on the road.

She even ran the Tor des Geants again that year. She struggled through and placed lower than her second-place finish in 2016, but said that finishing so soon after her injury was meaningful for her.

"Because I was able to push through that and I did keep going, it now means a lot more to me than the time when I came in second," she said.

Stephanie Case climbs runs up the Madeira Island Ultra Trail in 2017. (Submitted by Stephanie Case)

Challenging ourselves outside our comfort zone

After overcoming her own struggles and helping other women like Nelofar and Zainab, Case says what keeps runners from quitting is the ability to put themselves outside of their comfort zones and learn about themselves in the process.

Case believes that the the freedom to move in open space is a privilege. She describes being able to help people achieve their goals in running as an "incredible" experience.

"When you see women and girls getting to experience that for the first time at the age of 15 or 20 or 25, it has a profound impact on their entire lives, their mental state [and] their goals in life," she said.

"For me and I think for these women, sports has really been able to help build confidence and just change the way that you think about your life and your future." 

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

Written by Samantha Lui. This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino.