Canada's 'Marathon Man' in Afghan double victory

Mr Parnell in the Bamiyan marathon on Nov 4. He had been diagnosed with a blood clot on the brain a year earlier.
Mr Parnell in the Bamiyan marathon on Nov 4. He had been diagnosed with a blood clot on the brain a year earlier.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BAMIYAN (Afghanistan) • Crossing the finishing line of Afghanistan's Bamiyan marathon, hand in hand with a young female runner from the country, Canada's famed "Marathon Man", Mr Martin Parnell, felt a double victory.

Just a year earlier he had been diagnosed with blood clot on the brain. Doctors put him in a coma to save his life, and it was unclear if he would ever run again.

But while convalescing, he stumbled across news of the first Afghan woman to run a marathon. Inspired, he made a promise to himself.

"I said... if I get better and I can run again, and I can run marathons again, I will come to Afghanistan and run that marathon to support those women that are free to run and are helping to change things," he told Agence France-Presse.

Mr Parnell was one of a handful of foreigners taking part in the second edition of the ancient city's marathon in the country's central highlands - a loop that starts and ends at the base of the world famous Buddha caves.

The route, at an altitude of almost 3,000m, passes dusty villages and is set against a backdrop of dusky pink cliffs; sheep and donkeys amble freely across the landscape. Bamiyan is a rare oasis of tranquillity, which has largely been spared the wrenching conflict that afflicts the rest of the country.

Just a year earlier he had been diagnosed with blood clot on the brain. Doctors put him in a coma to save his life, and it was unclear if he would ever run again.

The marathon, where both sexes compete together in public, has become a symbol of freedom for Afghan women.

A total of 15 women took part, including six from Afghanistan. Running in public is widely seen as a subversive act in the country for Afghan women.

Mr Parnell said he advised the young Afghan female runner, Kubra, to set aside her nerves about taking part and focus on the road ahead, 10 minutes at a time.

While it was not his first race after recovering, it is one he would not forget. "My best memory is holding hands with Kubra as we ran across the line at 6hrs 52mins," said the 60-year-old.

Mr Parnell sees the sport as a form of meditation and admitted he struggles when he is unable to run. "One of the hardest times was after I was diagnosed with the clot. I had double vision and had to sit on my sofa. It was five months before I could start running again."

The retired mining engineer came to the sport late in life. He started doing it in 2002, after his wife died from cancer.

His runs are all in aid of charity. After a trip through Africa, he began working with non-governmental organisation Right to Play, which aims to improve the lives of children through sport.

"I believe that in life you don't have to do a lot, but you must do something," he said. "Do something to make a difference."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2016, with the headline 'Canada's 'Marathon Man' in Afghan double victory'. Print Edition | Subscribe