According to Amnesty International, Afghanistan is still known as one of the worst places for women due to targeted violence against them, especially in Taliban-controlled areas. 

Despite that oppression, an Afghan woman, Zainab, whose last name is omitted by most media outlets to protect her identity, ran a marathon in 2015 for the first time in the country’s history. Her act of gender equality inspired two Canadians who are now creating similar Secret 3K events around the world, one of which recently took place here in Calgary. 

Calgary “marathon-man” and co-founder of the Secret 3K movement, Martin Parnell, took notice when Zainab ran in the face of danger to protest discrimination. 

“When Zainab was training, she had to put up with verbal abuse. Many men were calling her a prostitute,” says Parnell. “They threw stones at her to stop her from running. I just couldn’t believe it.”

Parnell has five Guinness World Records to his credit, was named one of the Calgary Herald’s 20 Compelling Calgarians in 2013, and ran 250 marathons in the year 2010 alone, even though he didn’t start running until the age of 47.

While fighting blood clots when he first read an article about her, Parnell decided, “If I can run again, I’m going to Afghanistan to support Zainab and the right of women and girls to run for freedom and equality.”

 “We didn’t want to draw undue attention to the race or make it a cause for a terrorist attack, so we were asked to keep it all a secret.” 

Making of a film documentary

Zainab also caught the attention of filmmaker Kate Mckenzie, director and founder of Worldviews Project, a digital media production company. Parnell and Mckenzie became friends in 2016, and the two became interested in sharing Zainab’s story.

After discussing the issue, Parnell and Mckenzie agreed that “this has to be a film.” The Secret Marathon, a documentary about Zainab and other women who ran despite the danger, was shot in Afghanistan, co-directed by Mckenzie and Scott Townend, then released in 2019.

“I went to Afghanistan in 2016 to tell a story about people that were doing something incredible — being able to stand up for gender equality through the power of sport. We couldn’t tell anyone what we were doing because we didn’t want to draw undue attention to the race or make it a cause for a terrorist attack, so we were asked to keep it all a secret. We started calling it ‘the secret marathon’,” Mckenzie says.

While making the film, Mckenzie heard from many Canadian women that they could “relate to these Afghan women” because they also didn’t feel safe running in their communities. Mckenzie thought that was, “Crazy… we live in one of the safest countries in the whole world, and women still don’t feel safe.”

Comments like these, combined with the documentary’s success, helped Mckenzie come up with a new idea to do what “had worked in Afghanistan” and reclaim other spaces where people felt unsafe.  As such, she was going to start her own run.

Evolved into a “worldwide united force”

John Stanton, the founder of the Running Room, a specialized store and training hub for running enthusiasts, agreed with Mckenzie on the premise and, to her surprise, said they should “do it in 10 cities across Canada.”

Since then, the event has blossomed into The Secret 3K: a three-kilometre run with a route kept secret to participants until right before they yell, “Go!” This is meant to honour the secrecy that Zainab’s group needed to maintain in order to run as safely as possible.

Because of the combined efforts of Parnell, Mckenzie, the Running Room along with the Girl Guides of Canada, over the last three years The Secret 3K is now hosted in 16 locations across Canada with runners from 16 different countries participating. The event gives women a safe space to run and a community to run with because they don’t always have that luxury.

Parnell says the worldwide response has been “unbelievable.” Mckenzie adds 

for something that started in Canada to become a global movement, “blows [my] mind.”

Michele Harding, a unit leader for the Girl Guides of Canada, claims the Secret 3K has created a “worldwide united force,” that’s empowering to women. It’s a safe space that helps those involved to “make choices, take risks, become better women, and ultimately, make a difference in the world.”

This year, the Calgary Secret 3K took place on March 4 with over 400 participants. Parnell and Mckenzie both made speeches for a crowd that cheered throughout. Excitement was on hundreds of faces as runners lined up for the countdown. After yelling “Go!” their enthusiasm boiled over with the start of the run.

Rob Christie, a representative for the Running Room, says the event has grown because it resonates with the women and girls participating and the larger community supporting them.

“This isn’t just a women’s issue, it’s everybody’s issue,” says Parnell. “And I think we all have to stand together.” 

Martin Parnell: Calgary’s “marathon man”. Photo: Michael Grondin