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True grit

True grit

Imagine training for a marathon in a dusty, armed compound in Afghanistan where the longest stretch of road is just 800 metres. Now imagine training in the same location for an ultramarathon.

Despite facing exactly this environmental challenge, over the past year UN legal officer and ultrarunning champion Stephanie Case, Artsci’04, has trained for and competed in ultramarathons ranging from 100 to 260 km in places as diverse as China’s Gobi Desert, the Alps, and the Grand Canyon.

“I have to be creative in making up my training route,” she acknowledges. “I do loops around the helipad and parking lots, and weave around shipping containers, apartment blocks and guard ­towers. In many ways it is more difficult to train here than at home because of the limited space, the extreme pollution, the heat, and the stress of living in a conflict zone. However, in other ways, it is easier to find the time. When you are stuck in a compound there aren’t too many choices for entertainment, so I don’t feel like I am missing out on a lot if I spend my evenings running!”

[photo of Stephanie Case, credit to Zandy Mangold, Racing the Planet)

Stephanie’s dedication to training and racing reveals a level of tenacity that’s almost astonishing – until you realize that this deep-rooted passion is a common thread that runs through every aspect of her life. For Stephanie, life truly is a global adventure.

After studying psychology and international development and competing as a varsity rower at Queen’s, Stephanie went on to study law at UBC, where she supplemented her studies by working on projects for Lawyers Without Borders field researchers in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Liberia, and Palestine. She passed the New York Bar exam in 2007 and took up a position as a corporate lawyer at an international law firm in New York.

Stephanie also held roles at the UN Refugee Agency in Malaysia and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute in London – work that took her to Kenya, Syria, The Gambia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and China – before tackling an LLM in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law as a Chevening Scholar at the University of Essex in England. Upon completion of her Master’s degree, she returned to New York to work for a diplomatic advisory group, focusing on advocacy around the UN Human Rights Council.

In April 2012, Stephanie arrived in Kabul on a one-year contract as a legal officer with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. She immediately set out to find an organization working on women’s rights with which she could become involved.

“I was desperate not to spend all my time locked away in a compound without any connection with the local population,” she explains. “I asked around for recommendations and was steered immediately in the direction of Women for Afghan Women [WAW]. After meeting with the program director and seeing the incredible work they’re doing, I knew it was an organization I wanted to support.”

After receiving permission to incorporate her interest in women’s rights into her work and initiating collaboration with UN Women, Stephanie began fundraising for WAW through her ultramarathon ­competitions. Thus far she has single-handedly raised $10,000.

She has also been overwhelmed by the support she’s received from her colleagues and friends. Upon returning to Afghanistan after her race in the Gobi Desert, she received a personal letter of commendation from the special representative of the UN Secretary-General ­applauding her efforts.

Before her contract ends in March 2013, Stephanie’s goals are to learn as much as she can from her Afghan and international colleagues and to develop long-lasting bonds with the local community and with WAW.

“Now more than ever, it’s crucial to draw attention to the challenges faced by women in Afghanistan,” she says. “Organizations like WAW are the only source of assistance and protection for women, and as international forces prepare for withdrawal in 2014, it is vital that their work is supported. This country cannot be rebuilt and security cannot be regained without the involvement of women, and in order for that to happen, their rights have to be secured, strengthened, and protected.”

Follow Stephanie’s adventures on her blog at ultrarunnergirl.com.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2013-1 cover]