When Karin Brogtrop-Beekman signed up for the Tehran marathon, she was joining women flying in from all over the world to run what would have been the first marathon in Iran to admit women – given last year’s race was open only to men.
So what to do when, due to disorganisation and miscommunication, at the last moment it is decided that women are barred from the full 26.2 miles after all? Well, you stage your own secret marathon alongside of course, and power to the finish in peaceful protest.
Told they could only run the 10k race, around 13 women jogged repeatedly around a local park before joining the official race for the final 10-kilometre stretch – making headlines around the world in the process.
As Dutch runner Brogtrop-Beekman tells stylist.co.uk, although everyone was aware from the start that men and women would not be running together (due to Iran’s strict laws on mixed-sex sports), female participants were told they would be able to run a separate women’s marathon, as well as the half and 10k events.
After some initial confusion from Dutch organisers I Run Iran, it was confirmed that women could run their own marathon as long as they adhered to the country’s strict rules on dress – covering their hair with a headscarf or sports bandana, and not having bare legs on show.
But a mere three weeks ahead of the event, which took place Friday 7 April, many were told only the women’s 10k race would be happening – while some only found out on arrival in Tehran the day before.
And so, Brogtrop-Beekman’s group of female runners took matters into their own hands and headed to Behesht Madaran Park to run around 32k – far enough to make up a full marathon when combined with the official 10k (some choosing to run 11k in order to complete a half-marathon).
“Nobody, men or women, had a clue about starting times or the route for any of the races. They kept changing it until a few hours before the race,” she tells us.
“The afternoon before, we learned on arrival in Tehran that the men’s race was going to be at 7pm and the women’s 10k at 4pm next day.
“We were told we had to pick up our mandatory running attire an hour before the race. At that point, we were figuring out how we could run it without breaking the rules. Starting before the men was too dangerous and the option of simply continuing after the 10k wouldn’t work as it starts getting dark at 7pm and the run was around a lake, not actually in Azadi Stadium.
“So that afternoon we agreed to just do our own run somewhere else!”
Behesht Madaran (‘mother’s heaven’) is usually a women’s park, but as it was a ‘family day’ according to Brogtrop-Beekman, meaning both sexes were in the usually female-only space, they ran wearing their headscarves.
“We were carrying our own water and food and running the same loop over and over again, while two men were offering us tea, cheering us on and running with us.
“This was my fifth marathon and I cannot compare it to any other marathon. We had a great race due to our own positivity.
“I lived in Tehran for two years with my family, so I love Iran and by running a marathon there I hoped I could be a good example for sports women in the country.
“I’m so happy we pulled it off in such a positive and non-offending way, we all just had a ball.”
Contrary to some reports claiming they “risked arrest”, Brogtrop-Beekman says the breakaway runners were always careful to stay within the limits of Iranian law. In last year’s inaugural race in Shiraz, at least two women unofficially joined the race by running alongside.
“We wanted to be sure we were not breaking any rules,” she explains. “Many outlets have written that we risked being arrested and we defied authorities, which was the one thing we were not doing, especially as we had Iranian ladies in our group.”
She says some women attempted to gatecrash the men’s races, with some being removed by police before the start and others managing to run, but says she’d rather effect change gradually with peaceful action.
“We believe that this [running with the men] actually set women's running in Iran back a step. It will be harder to organise a women’s or a mixed race next time because of this.
“But by politely obeying the rules, our secret running group hoped to just give this thing a positive twist and very slowly change women’s sports rights in Iran.”
At final count, there were 442 runners from 45 countries (the majority were local), and ahead of the event, Tehran-based organiser Maryam Feize told Al Jazeera it was about building “bridges” and enabling people from around the world to experience Iranian hospitality and culture, while Canadian-Iranian runner Haleh Magnus said she hoped it would be “inspiring”.
And though it perhaps wasn’t via the route they’d envisaged, as Magnus later wrote on Facebook, it was inspiring nonetheless: “What a journey! It [ended up] being the most amazing and unique experience of my life.”
Meanwhile, Brogtrop-Beekman tells stylist.co.uk that she was pleased to find a somewhat unexpected bond with the women she ran round Behesht Madaran Park with, describing it as the “race of a lifetime”.
“It’s such a nice example of how modern communication makes it possible to get together online and motivate each other.
“We had never met until a couple of hours before the race and we were all travelling alone, but thanks to social media we already knew each other quite well and we had a very special bond. Each of us were at some point ready to give up and not come to Iran because of all the troubles and uncertainties, but we kept on motivating and energising each other time after time.
“We all came, we stayed and we ran.”
Main image: Iva Hafner