1. It was after 11 p.m. when Stephanie Case returned to her apartment in the United Nations compound outside Kabul, Afghanistan. To get there, she had to travel through the barbed wire and gates and past the ID checkpoints and bomb-sniffing dogs. She’d been celebrating with a colleague at a nearby embassy event, and when two glasses of wine turned to four, an 8 p.m. planned departure slipped deeper into the night. Case was tired and could have slept — content and a bit drunk. It was, after all, her birthday. She’d just turned 36.
Instead, Case changed out of her formal wear and into shorts and running shoes. She put on a headlamp and went back out into the dark. Case had vowed to run her age in kilometers, so she started a near-marathon 30 minutes before midnight, dehydrated but blissful from the wine. She ran past the apartment blocks and guard towers and parking lots again and again, through shipping containers and dormant construction areas with newly upturned mounds of dirt. As she ran, the compound slept, save the Nepalese guards who patrolled the perimeter, scanning for threats. Now-familiar snaps of gunfire broke the silence of night, not registering as they had five years earlier when she’d first arrived in Afghanistan. Case kept moving forward, battling the burn in her legs and the monotony of the hypnotic loops. At nearly 3 a.m., she circled back to her apartment — eyes blood-red, nose black from soot, teeth gritty from the war zone’s pollution. Finally, she settled in for sleep.
Case, a human rights lawyer and women’s rights activist, has found her tribe in the ultrarunning community, where a midnight marathon is less outlandish than it is the norm. Thousands of trail runners from around the world take on races of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of miles; some races last for days. Many have the same birthday running tradition. Case has spent the past half-decade in conflict zones, from Gaza to South Sudan, and now for a second time in Afghanistan. And yet she runs the same races and completes the same mad traditions, without excuse.
Ultrarunners travel to remote locales — the Gobi Desert, the Peruvian rainforest, Death Valley — to put themselves through the hardest days of their lives. But for Case, for a time at least, the races functioned differently: They were an escape from a much more taxing normal. She found sanctuary where others find hell, until a deadly accident threatened to puncture her unique brand of excruciating solace. Today, the fact that Case can run these mind-numbing distances at all is a bit of a miracle. To do it, she’s had to tap another well of toughness, or perhaps obsession. And she’s repeated, over and over, the ultrarunner’s mantra: relentless forward motion.