Recently, Chickfly sponsored two women for the Great Silk Run! Jennie Hughes and Sophie Peters are both teachers who run and also work for freedom and equality. These are their photos and diary entries from their journey (read the background story here).
This ambitious journey took them on a race from the border of Afghanistan to the border of China, traversing challenging terrains as part of a 17 member team. These amazing women raced not only for a deep love of running and athleticism, but also to bring awareness to causes they support. Here are their personal accounts of the week running with their Chickflys on. What an amazing experience!
Diary from DAY 1 of the 282-kilometer run across Tajikistan. Monday, 21 August - Marathon 1/7 41km
Today, we started in Rushan. After a 16.5-hour drive the day before we had slept crazy well. We started our journey at the base of the mountains, in Rushan and followed the river through the valley.
Due to arriving late the night before we didn’t start until 0930, Which was later than we’d planned. Although the morning air was cool, the temperature was due to reach 39 degrees, and the sun was strong.
We started together and it was incredible scenery. My progress was slower than I planned because a few days earlier in Dushanbe I had caught a nasty stomach bug, most likely from contaminated water. As a result, I hadn’t eaten properly for the two days before the run. I did manage to have some breakfast.
Throughout the day, I alternated between short runs and high-speed hikes due to my condition. However the scenery continues to amaze and I had great company.
We had a long lunch in the shade to escape the main heat of the day. Never a dull moment - we were interrupted when a cow broke into our picnic and stole someone’s hat, before being chased down and nearly knocking over a tub of boiling water. Kaz got her hat back eventually - although it was pretty chewed.
We finished just before 7pm. The last few kilometers were the most stunning and we even had a brief dance party to Tajik pop music with the drivers and some bemused locals.
Feeling good after marathon 1. Put my yoga instructor skills to good use by leading the team through a session post-run.
Still got 6 marathons to go 😱it’s going to get a lot steeper as well. Feeling super privileged to be doing this for HopeBox. Recovery, survival and thriving are marathons not sprints.
Diary from DAY 2 of the 282-kilometer run across Tajikistan. Tuesday, 22 August - Marathon 2/7 41km
I love challenging perceptions that somehow women are weaker and men are physically stronger. Some people assume this is a biological imperative, rather than a cultural bias. On this run we were all on an equal footing.
Hottest day yet today. After an impromptu late night pop music session by some oblivious drivers (only solved when we unplugged their speaker) no one slept brilliantly. Perhaps also because we were on rolled out mats on the floor sleeping head to toe. A restorative breakfast of rice pudding helped before we set off.
I took the first 13 kilometres slowly, as I still wasn’t feeling totally healthy. The scenery started to turn into random green oasis villages. Some local children came running over to chat and I especially liked twelve year old Sharnia (I’m guessing the spelling), whose T-shirt declared “Yes I am just the boss."
At the 13 kilometre checkpoint a local teacher greeted us and offered us plums directly from his tree. The next leg was the most spectacular yet. The path dropped into an undulating, and importantly unshaded, lake area. With no shade the temperature hit 39 degrees and a another female runner and I decided to push on. Without warning the path turned into another valley. On the west side was a rapid, brown river, on the east side and gleaming crystal clear pool. I stopped another team mate and suggested we jump in. He looked me “are you serious?” Absolutely. We took off our back packs and trainers, and jumped into the icy refreshing water. Honestly it was exactly what we needed. Every other team mate, and drivers and a team leader stopped and jumped in after us.
We took our time at lunch to eat, hydrate, and stretch while the worst of the days beat peaked and began to subside. By 3.30pm some of us turned out legs east and began what was by now a jog/shuffle/hike combo. Seeking out shady places and “downhill discounts” where gravity could do the work that our screaming hamstrings were struggling to keep up.
Tonight’s yoga sessions was needed and painful. Two marathons done, five to go! Let’s run for hope
The first day going up the Bartang Valley. The gorge seems barren and stony until you turn a corner and find a little oasis of a village with goats lazing in the grass.
After 40-odd km in 35 degree heat it was a huge relief to finally collapse in the home stay - I still don’t know how some people still had the energy to get up and dance at dinner!
The landscape became more dramatic - steeper and sharper. The first checkpoint was 15km in a stunning oasis that looked more like something out of a Roman Empire film.
The second leg didn’t start until nearly 12 so we were running in the heat of the day. I decided the push myself more on this leg to guarantee a good lunch break and spend as little time as possible in the sun. I ran with another team mate and the time passed quickly. It was hilly and the river opened up to a huge canyon and almost lunar like sandy landscapes. Finally, on our longest downhill discount yet, we spotted the lunch trucks and we descended upon the picnic at break-neck enthusiasm (see third slide 😂) It was 3pm by this point.
It was at this point that we saw people starting to flag. Tomas and I were the second pair to arrive and as the other nine shuffled in, hot and hungry, it was clear this day had taken its toll on people.
We came to a river crossing. The current was strong and I am hugely grateful that one team mate, who was far sturdier than me, helped another woman cross and then came back for me. I had to cling onto him because otherwise the water would have swept me away. After that we stayed and helped others cross. Catching shoes they tossed across and reaching out with running poles and our hands to help hoist them onto the bank.
For this final leg our route turned away from the river and through a gorge where we had a view of Tajikistan’s highest mountain, L??????, and then a step windy climb up another hill which involved scrambling over rocky edges and edging our toes over rocks.
There was some drama. At the homestay it became clear that two teammates were missing - Andy and Tomas. Fortunately, Tomas spoke Russian so would be able to communicate with anyone he met in the dark. Unfortunately, we now had no Russian speaker to communicate the need for a search party. It was completely dark so we she was out to spot bobbing lights. About fifteen minutes later two bedraggled, but still fairly chipper, 6ft+ men emerged out of the darkness.
I’ve talked lots about HopeBox here to my teammates. Hope keeps you going.
Wouldn’t have believed it from the 36° weather and summer flowers but apparently it can start getting snowy from October, which is why we keep seeing people cutting reeds and carrying hay bales everywhere.
First proper snowy mountains in the distance!
Diary from DAY 5 of the 282-kilometer run across Tajikistan. Friday, 25 August 2023 - Marathon 5/7 46km
What a day. This was a day when things started to turn. Aches and pains showed up, altitude started to take its toll, exhaustion began to set in, people were ill, the temperature dropped and the climbs became harder. This was the day when it set in that this was my hardest challenge, both physically and mentally, that I have ever done. And also… that it was a choice and it was epic.
The first 15km leg began uphill through trees and towards a set of red coloured mountains. After the first checkpoint we continued on and this was when I began to feel my left hip start to complain. The pain ran from my lower back, rapped around my hip and down my t-band to my knee. I felt it most on the down hill discounts when my body leant back, so I tried running more forwards, which made balance harder. I simply fast hiked the last few km to lunch then spent a while stretching out my back, legs and hips.
So far I’ve lost a pair of walking poles and a yoga mat, but never my sense of humour. However, this day did test it. We woke up to the rain streaming on the tents. Everything was wet. Everything was cold. I got up at 6 to admin my stuff, to give Jane plenty of room, then sat in a vehicle to stay dry. Gradually people woke up and began to move. The rain continued and there was a moment, sitting shivering and damp, facing a 48km day, where I had to remind myself why I was doing this. And most importantly that I could do it. The prospect of a perhaps nine hour day in the cold and wet, and then climbing into wet tents to sleep in the cold before ANOTHER ultra run felt daunting.
More joined me in the car as the morning progressed. After a breakfast of cold meats and cheese, it became clear that by 8am that the rain was not going to let up. So waterproof jacket on. Leggings, warm kit in waterproof bag. We set off. Running was out of the question. It was so muddy. Eddie stacked it into a pile of goat poo. I stacked it into some regular mud about five minutes in. We hunkered down. Hat on and good up. Gloved hands in pocket. Negotiating river crossings became far more essential as wet feet could allow in hypothermia.
A few people came down I’ll that night. One man went down with hypothermia, requiring medical attention. Another woman we had to take the oxygen blood levels of and coax into food. I was relieved to get into bed and couldn’t quite believed we’d made it this far. Or that we had only one day left.
Diary from DAY 7 of the 282-kilometer run across Tajikistan. Sunday, 27 August 2023 - Marathon 7/7 47km
On the final morning I was woken by a mixture of shooting pains in my hip, having rolled onto my side in the night, and by my feet feeling half frozen. I tried to stay as warm as possible until it was light. When I emerged the clouds had cleared revealing bright, light skies and snow capped mountains that were surprisingly close. The ground was frozen, there was ice on the tents and chairs. The temperature had plummeted overnight to -5, yet the sun was strong and warm. Waterproofs were swapped for fleece, buffs and more thermals. I couldn’t quite believe it was the last day and we prepared ourselves with a breakfast of flapjacks slathered with chocolate spread. When we set out it felt surreal. At 3900 meters, and having covered over 250km already, we managed just short jobs before being seriously out of breath.
The scenery only became more spectacular as we continued to the first checkpoint. We were almost level with the snow line by this point. One minute we were overheating from the sun. The next, the wind was sending a chill that pierced multiple layers of clothing. The next leg to lunch took us up and down, allowing for a few more excellent downhill discounts. Then, at about 25km we joined the Pamir Highway. The first bit of (kinda) tarmac we’d seen for a week. We jogged/hiked tucking off various posts. I got chatting to Liz and felt totally inspired by her fourteen London Marathons with a personal best of 3.27 😍
When we saw the vehicles in the distance and came upon our final lunch stop of the Great Silk Run, it felt strangely celebratory and sad at the same time. The wind was picking up more and we piled inside the vehicles again to prevent chills. Many people were taking this day slower. A mixture of exhaustion and not wanting it to be over. Two people with altitude sickness came in on the arms of a third person who was distracting them with his life story.
Finally, with another runner, I put my water pack and snacks on for the last time. We were now just taking the Pamir Highway along the lake and into Karakul. I walked with Tomas, with occasional runs, but mostly taking in the last 16km. The sun came out and the lake was an unbelievable blue, while to the east imposing, white mountains marked the border with China.
This 16km leg went incredibly quickly. Far too soon we saw the beach by the lake, occupied by people wearing several layers of jackets and thermals, and a read banner announcing the finish line of the Great Silk Run. As we descended onto the beach we broke out into a final run and crossed the finish line. People were there to cheer, hand us medals and envelop each other in hugs. The drivers enthusiastically swung me around in the air. Later, they fully admitted that they thought we were all nuts and would never make it 😂
I thought I would feel super emotional at this end point. Or at least relieved. But I actually felt incredibly calm and peaceful. It seemed like a very natural journey. I am so proud to have done this for HopeBox. To have carried their trust and spread awareness about their incredible work. If anyone ever says that gender inequality is “natural” or that women are “naturally weaker”, know that this group of seventeen people include men and women. And you bet your arse we all did it. HopeBox helps women recover from gender-based violence. Survival and recovery are marathons. They can lead to fresh starts in life, new skills, opportunities and hobbies, perhaps even to running hundreds of miles across remote parts of the world.
Although I was delighted to make it this far, I was also reluctant for it to be over. I had been building up to this for so long, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it being over. Overall I was pleased with how well my body had held up. No injuries apart from a few blisters on one foot. It had been tough, and I loved every minute of it.