Great Escape

Relentless Forward Motion

The incredible journey of U.N. lawyer and ultra-runner Stephanie Case, who finds solace where others find hell

Joseph Bien-Kahn
GEN
Published in
19 min readAug 17, 2018

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Stephanie Case approaches the 150-kilometer checkpoint on the second night of the 2017 Tor des Géants race. She has still not taken her first sleep break. Photo: Stefano Jeantet

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.

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Joseph Bien-Kahn
GEN
Writer for

An LA-based journalist, with writing in Wired, Medium and New York Magazine.