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I ran Iran: Sweden's ultra-runner overcomes fears and prejudice

Kristina Palten ran 1,840 kilometres across Iran to break preconceived ideas about the country and was overwhelmed by what she found
Kristina Palten on the road in Iran last year pushing her “Baby Blue” pushchair that carried her 25 kilograms of baggage across the country (Photo courtesy of Kristina Palten)

STOCKHOLM – Over a period of 58 days, Kristina Palten ran across the vastness of Iran, from the Turkish border through desert heat via the Caspian Sea, to snow-covered mountains near Turkmenistan. 

Running an average of 37 kilometres per day, she started in Bazargan by the Turkish border and finished in Bajgiran on the north-eastern border, running a total of 1,840 kilometres.

By her side was her only companion, “Baby Blue,” as Palten named her light blue pushchair that carried her 25 kilograms of baggage, which included a tent, a sleeping bag, books and vehicle repair gear.

MEE met Palten at a cafe in downtown Stockholm, and asked why she chose to run through Iran last autumn. “For so many reasons,” she says. “The nature is supposed to be beautiful and the people generous and kind.”

That, she continues, is at least if you listen to the people who have been to Iran. Others are likely to be influenced by the mainstream media's more negative portrayal of the Islamic country. 

Kristina Palten in Stockholm (Photo courtesy of Christine Petre)

Breaking preconceived ideas of ‘the other’

Palten was intrigued by the idea of a woman running solo through a Muslim country. If she went ahead with it, she knew she would not only be challenging her own ideas, but also many other people’s preconceived notions.

The immediate reaction among most people she initially spoke to about her plans was fright - they thought she was crazy and that she would never make it.

“My perception is that people are becoming more and more afraid,” explains Palten. She thinks it is a direct effect of terrorism and the wave of refugees entering Europe. She asked herself if she really wanted to live in a world so full of fear. “When I am afraid of something it is usually unprecedented and makes me feel bad,” she says. Nothing good can come out of a world closing itself off in fear, she says.

“I want a world where we trust each other and listen to one another.” It made Palten think about what she, as a runner, could do to contribute towards building trust. Running through Iran and putting her life into strangers' hands was, to her, the answer.

Iran was not the 44-year-old Swedish ultra-runner’s first adventure. In 2013, Palten ran 3,262 kilometres between Turkey and Finland, passing through eight countries over the course of three months. “If Rune Larsson can run across the US, then the question was, why can’t we old ladies?” she says when describing how she and a friend decided on the challenge.

For the rest of the adventure they would call themselves “the bag ladies of Europe”. But Palten finds challenges in everything. If it is not crossing countries, it is treadmills. She became a treadmill World Champion after she ran 322.93 kilometres during 48 hours and then 107.49 kilometres during 12 hours.

'It is no fun running hungry'

Even though the Iran trip felt short in comparison to her previous eight-country journey, it would prove to involve other challenges. The overall distance of the trek was the toughest element. It was hilly and the wide gap between the cities made it difficult to find food. “It is no fun running hungry,” she says. In addition, it was tough getting accustomed to running in the hot climate, temperatures climbing up towards 50 degrees Celsius.

The sweet relief of an ice-cream break (Photo courtesy of Kristina Palten)

Whilst Palten normally would run in a t-shirt and shorts in such hot weather, in Iran, a country governed by laws that do not allow women to show too much skin nor hair, this trip required loosely fitted pants and a long-sleeved training jacket. She covered her hair with a paddle cap, a piece of cloth hanging from the cap on the neck. This was a much better alternative to the running hijab, which she, during the preparation period, used to run in. But she found it fitted tightly around her neck and became too warm and uncomfortable during the long ultra-runs. 

At one point the cap flew off when she was just approaching a checkpoint. She was concerned how the security guards would react, but was relieved to find them laughing at the incident.

However, two plainclothes security officials were less amused by the Swedish alternative to the running hijab and demanded to see her passport, gesturing towards her hair and threatening her with handcuffs. Palten had to take out a scarf and was, after some time, allowed to continue. Both for security reasons and to avoid any doubt regarding her travelling route, a GPS with satellite and an SOS-button tracked Palten’s every movement.

Perhaps her biggest fear was not security, but traffic. Four car accidents unfolded just before her eyes. In addition, there was often glass covering the roadside, leaving the pushchair with eight flat tyres. She did not normally have to wait long before a group of men surrounded her, curious about what was going on. “Man? Woman?” she heard them say, before eventually deciding she was a woman and finally starting to help repair the tyre. To Palten’s amusement, their judgement was often based on her face. Later it was explained to her that most Iranian women often wear make-up, her lack of which made Palten's appearance stand out.  

Kristina Paltén in Qaemshahr (North of Iran) 9 Oct 2015 (Photo courtesy of Kristina Palten)

But the majority of police officers supported Palten. One foggy day, for example, a policeman on a motorcycle was concerned about her visibility. After numerous check-ups, he decided to give her a reflective vest. Another time she was invited into the police station to warm up from the then cold weather over tea and fruit. And finally, as she approached the finishing line, police gave her a police escort, welcoming and greeting her for her performance.

One more cup of tea for the road (Photo courtesy of Kristina Palten)

Overwhelming generosity

It was not only the police who paid attention to the Swedish adventurer. Her blog was translated into Persian and four Iranian state-run television stations interviewed her along the way. Wherever she turned there were curious onlookers. There were two Iranians who played a key role in the journey. Amir Nazari, an Iranian living in Stockholm who advised Palten throughout the trip, and his childhood friend Mehrdad Kashanin, who started a conversation on the chat application Telegram with 40-50 people across the country, all eager to assist the female explorer.

Because of that and the overwhelming hospitality, Palten was welcomed into the homes of 34 families. “I could have stayed at many more,” she says, but explains how she sometimes needed space and managed to convince her numerous new friends along the way to allow her to stay in a hotel.

Palten laughs as she recalls one incident in particular where a female driver stopped on the road, but with little to offer in the car she handed over a half eaten bun. She recalls another touching moment when she reached Ramsar, a coastal city by the Caspian Sea. She was invited into a woman’s home where eight women had gathered to thank her for the encouragement they had felt from reading her blog. They handed over a painting picturing a mountain, a lotus flower and the sun. “The mountain represents your endurance,” they told her. “The lotus flower your beauty and the sun shining down is God’s grace that has given you both.” It was an emotional episode of the journey that brought tears to Palten’s eyes.

The painting, hanging on one of the walls of her home, is a constant reminder of the eight women of Ramsar. The painting was not the only thing Palten brought home with her. Arriving in Iran with 25 kilogrammes of luggage, she left with 40 kilograms, including gifts of books and scarves.

Personal development through running

Many Iranian women Palten met were curious about ultra-running. It is more than running a long distance, argues Palten. Along the way you descover not only about other people but more about yourself too. It's a process of constant self-discovery and self-development.

After the Iran adventure, Palten left her job as project manager at Ericsson after 18 years. Now, with a new business, she “only” has time to run 80-120 kilometres per week. Her hope is to inspire people to unlock their potential and challenge themselves for their own personal development.

On the road (Photo courtesy of Kristina Palten)

For anyone interested in getting into ultra-running, it is important to slowly build your body by running long distances, she explains. “Don’t worry about the time,” she said. To her it was always more interesting to see how far she could get rather than how fast, and it is never too late. Palten only started running when she was 31-years-old. “We are all so much stronger than we think we are.” 

The Iran journey will be portrayed in a book and a documentary she is now working on as a way to collect all her memories in one place. Overwhelmed by the kindness of the people she met, she has one message to the Iranian people: “Be proud of your generosity!”

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