Swedish born Kristina Paltén is one of the world’s top ultra-runners and a Treadmill World Champion. She was a “late-starter”, beginning her running career at 31. Challenge this woman with a run of a couple of thousand kilometers and she may very well hold you to it. In 2013, Kristina took on a 3 month run from Turkey to Finland, covering over 3200kms. At the apex of her career and after being a motivational speaker for many years, it came as an almost unthinkable shock to some when she announced her intention in 2015 to run through Iran, its vast lonely landscapes and Shari-ruled culture… entirely alone. Katrina released a full length, incredibly powerful and poignant documentary of her inner and outer journey; the outcome of which was almost inconceivably different to what she… or anyone else had expected. Her book was released in the Spring of 2018 in multiple languages. This woman personifies remarkable bravery and strength… and an open heart and a message we all need to hear and share.
Naia Reid: Hi Katrina, so nice to meet you! During this run in Iran, you covered 1840km in 58 days… quite incredible in itself! How do you prepare yourself mentally and physically for these kinds of ultra-journeys?
Kristina Paltén: I have been a professional long distance runner for years, so I have had a lot of preparation prior to this challenge. In 2013, with my friend Katrina, I ran 3262km from Turkey to Finland, so I had the experience of what to bring and how. I used a baby jogger with modified wheels to carry my kit, as you wouldn’t run too far with a tent and sleeping bag on your back!
NR: A western woman, alone, heading into a Muslim country and for you pretty much unchartered territory… a country that has been painted in a very unsavory light by what we see and hear constantly on the news… what was going through your mind right before you set out?
KP: I had a lot of fear and to be honest, a lot of prejudice too. I was afraid that people would hurt me, or be angry with me, or that maybe I would get thrown in jail. It was almost overwhelming. So to cope practically with that, I decided to make a written list of my fears. It turned out I had 22 of them floating around in my head, so my preparation also became about how to handle these fears. Once they were written down, I took on each one in a very practical sense. I was afraid of being knocked down by a car, so I bought one of those flag poles for a kid’s bike and stuck the Swedish flag on top to make myself more visible. My top fear just before leaving, was that someone would attack me while I slept alone in my tent, so I decided to try and stay in hotels when possible, to seek out families to stay with if not, and to bring a green tent, not a bright orange one! Rape statistics in Sweden show 87% of attacks are committed within close relationships, I didn’t know anyone in Iran… I coped mentally by reassuring myself of these facts and just trusting everything would be ok.
NR: What a great idea… breaking down and addressing each fear individually and practically… it’s so easy to let things get exaggerated in our minds. Was there anything else running wild in your imagination prior to setting off?
KP: I was also worried about becoming sick, perhaps in a remote area of my journey while alone, so I brought broadband penicillin.
I was actually worried about not being left alone as I really like having my own space. In Iran, the guest /stranger is “the friend of God”, and it’s impolite to leave guests alone, so everyone wanted to accompany me everywhere in populated areas or invite me to their homes to eat and sleep. Sometimes people would argue amongst themselves for the honor, as they saw it, of having me. It was always in the most incredibly warm and friendly way. Often the woman of the house would sleep right beside me… but after 10 days I was going a bit crazy!
NR: How did your family and friends react when you broke the news about your proposed trip?
KP: My partner was actually ok about it. He’s living his life purpose and realized I really wanted to do this. My sister was a bit different, she said, “Katrina, what if you never come back? How would I take care of our elderly parents alone? How could you expect me to handle their sorrow?” I felt selfish and wondered if I should actually go through with it. But I realized I can’t live my life based on the fears of others. I might die in traffic in Sweden. I can’t sell my life’s purpose to keep others’ feelings safe. I had satellite GPS so my partner and sister could see where I was. They had a contact within the Iranian government to get help for me, if needed. I could send a message that I was safe each evening.
NR: So you headed off, heart in mouth so to speak. Your first video diary was just an hour into your run… you were literally in tears. When did you begin to feel differently?
KP: I rated my fears once a week along the way. All the prejudice fears about being raped or beaten dropped right off to almost zero as soon as I entered the country. I very quickly realized that the fears before I left, had all been constructed fantasy!
I was invited by family after family to eat and sleep with them. Many were quite poor, yet everyone wanted to share without measure and for no personal gain… it was almost impossibly rude to tell them to leave me alone. Sometimes I went to hotels just to get my personal space!
NR: Tell us about some of the first interactions you had with locals. Did people find it strange, what you were doing there? What was their response to you?
KP: I was in Tehran, looking for some extra maps, when a family walked up to me and just handed me some cucumbers… just to be friendly and helpful. The very first morning, we passed a bakery and the bread maker stopped me as I was passing, to invite me in to see and try her bread. In the park close to where I was staying with a friend, the shopkeeper asked me what I was doing there. I told him that I thought that the world would be a much better place if we all trusted each other and that I was trying to prove that people are good. He asked if I would come back after he closed the shop to play music for me in his house. He told me I was creating a love message to the world and that he hoped the world would listen. As he spoke, I heard the same message from him… “we are one, we are humans.”
NR: Tell us about your most memorable interaction.
KP: I was running through an area with very few people and came across an outpost for the Red Crescent Ambulance in that area. They were all men, so I couldn’t enter the house, but they invited me to put my tent against their wall to offer me their protection. After a while the town Mullah came along. I thought, “oh crap, these guys are going to be in trouble, taking in the single white westerner”. He sat down beside me and we spoke… or at least tried to. He gave me a beautiful text from the Koran and was very warm and kind. A Persian family came along and with no hesitation, asked me to stay with them. In the blink of an eye, the Mullah blessed their invitation and immediately started packing down my tent. It was quite surreal… the highly respected Imam doing this for me.
NR: What kind of terrain did you cover during your journey?
KP: I started on the border of Turkey in the north east of Iran, where it was dry and mountainous. The landscape remained mainly sandy with lots of mountains all the way to the Caspian Sea. After I passed over the mountains, it became very green, lush and humid… almost like a jungle. That area was flat and well populated, then I moved up into the mountains again.
NR: Wow, 1840km over mainly mountainous regions… what weight were you pushing?
KP: The jogger weighed about 9kg and I had about 25kg of equipment and belongings. I actually came home with 40kg of stuff because people gave me so many things. I was given a lot more than that, but left a lot of things behind.
NR: Can you tell us about what your absolute necessities for the journey consisted of?
KP: I’m used to packing ultra-light. I took 2 running pants, 2 light jackets, 1 trousers for evenings, a long sleeves shirt, 3 sets of underwear, 5 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of running shoes, a tablet to blog, a camera and video camera, sound recording equip, my satellite cell phone and charger, the tent, kitchen gear, a sleeping mattress and sleeping bag, tools to repair the jogger and I also filled up 5kg of water every morning… oh and plus some food daily.
NR: Was there any special luxury item that you allowed yourself?
KP: Haha… ok, you got me! Mascara, I actually did bring my mascara! I used it twice. Once was for a wedding I was invited to, so I wore it that evening.
NR: You don’t speak Persian do you? How did you cope with the language barrier? What kind of extra challenges did that throw up for you?
KP: No, I learned a few basic words for food in Persian. I could also call a friend who lived in Tehran, if I got stuck and give him my cell phone to translate for me. Generally, I managed pretty ok. Normally when I run, I choose the smaller, quieter, prettier off-road tracks, but I had to stay on main roads as I couldn’t read signs and the internet outside the big cities didn’t work. I had downloaded some offline maps, but the resolution was too poor to rely on. That was really the extent of the difficulty… you learn to adapt and just go with the flow.
NR: Let’s talk about your average day. How many kilometers did you cover daily? How many stops did you have to make on average per day because of interactions with locals?
KP: I ran 1840km over 58 days, but I also had 8 resting days along the way…so that’s an average of 37km per day. This trip was really more about spreading a message than just running, so I would blog every day, generally as I was having breakfast. I would head off and start meeting people regularly. Everyone said hello, some enjoyed running alongside me, especially kids. I even had the Mehran Male Running Club join me for a stint one day! I was also making the documentary along the way, so I was stopping constantly for that. I had an Iranian photographer with me for 8 days to help with that as I had no experience in film making. The purpose was to go alone however, so I would really be vulnerable, so the message would be stronger. The camera actually became my friend, during long periods of being completely alone… that makes the documentary particularly close, raw and intimate.
NR: You need a reliable amount of calories daily to maintain your strength. Did you survive completely on the innate generosity of the natives, or did you have a budget to supplement your diet and other needs?
KP: I did bring about €2500 with me as I really didn’t know what to expect. But I only ended up using about half, maybe less of it. I was given so much food. Cars would stop all the time to give me fruit and food. One day a father and two sons stopped to talk to me. They left, but then shortly after, returned with the mother who had been angry with them for not giving me anything! They had returned with food, sunglasses, and sun cream. People constantly surprised me with their selfless and eager generosity! Sometimes, when I did eat in restaurants, they refused to charge me any money! It was really incredible! Iran has an incredibly warm, open and embracing culture.
NR: Many people are probably wondering, why Iran? – It’s not top of the list of “safe” in many people’s minds. What made you decide to push through all these crazy fears and go there alone specifically?
KP: I had initially thought about returning to Istanbul and going in the opposite direction to my first long distance run, heading through China and possibly on around the world… but I knew that would take several years and I don’t like long term commitments! I heard people say Iran has very beautiful nature and friendly people. A Norwegian biker I met who was cycling around the world had said Turkey was a pre-course in friendliness and that Iran was the full course dinner. I wondered if it would be as friendly to me as a woman. I also realized that I could carry an important message back to the rest of the world if I ran through a country with Sharia (Islamic) laws. It sounded crazy dangerous, but what if I was wrong. There is so much fear-mongering in this world and it’s polarized between the western world and Islam right now. I don’t want to exist in a world of fear; I want a world based on trust, curiosity and openness. I have traveled to more than 50 countries in my life. When I meet people who do things differently, I take the good and improve my own life and attitude with what I have learned. The main purpose for this trip was to contribute to more trust in the world. The more this can be spread the better!
Our minds are filled with things that often aren’t accurate. The more we see about terrorism, the more afraid we get. The news displays a very small fraction of the whole story. It’s important to balance things up with the good news. When people are fed fear, that’s when they get scared to build walls and think the world is bad. But when you get out there you realize it’s not actually like that… people are good!
NR: So now that you have achieved this and created a very powerful and poignant message for the world to see and experience with you, what’s next on your to-do list?
KP: It took me more than one year to fully absorb and understand the experience and where it left me. Living in a democratic country with freedom of speech is natural for most of us… Iran is not democratic, people are judged differently by the authorities according to their status or financial position. Even 3 months after I got back to Sweden, I found myself not writing about my story, in case the Iranian government didn’t like what I said. This injustice has affected me deeply. I believe in and want freedom of speech for everyone.
More than 16 million people had already seen the short trailer for the documentary that I made along the way before its 2018 release. A 58min long full documentary on the journey, if you want to see it or show it to an audience, just go to my homepage www.alonethroughiran.com and from there you can arrange a screening. It’s a beautiful movie… and really fun too. I also wrote a book, Alleen In Iran. That’s a huge amount of work! It’s funny, it took six months to prepare, two and a half months to do the trip and two years to wade through everything it brought up afterwards. I don’t know what’s next! I’m feeling quite ready for something new… but after this experience, it will have to be something deeply humanitarian, something important to make the world a better place.
NR: Do you still keep in touch with any of the people that you met during your journey through Iran?
KP: Actually, yes. In Iran they use Telegram, which is like Messenger. My Iranian friend created a group and added a couple of friends he knew who lived along my route. They added their friends, who added their friends. Very quickly, there were 50 people in this group! When I came to a town, generally someone knew someone or word had spread, and often someone would be standing out in the road with a sign, waiting to welcome me to their home. I stayed with 34 families I had never met before during the journey! I am still in contact with many of them.
NR: It was a truly incredible inner and outer journey Kristina, generating a really powerful message that humanity needs to hear. I have so much respect for what you have achieved and wish you the very best spreading these wonderful messages with the world along the way. Can you leave us with a final word of timely advice on facing fear and being open to receiving and giving love and in full authenticity?
KP: Everyone wants to feel safe and most people think being safe means avoiding fear… but if you’re constantly avoiding things, then you will never learn anything new. The truth I have learned is that safety is on the other side of fear. I could have stayed in Sweden, but now that I have walked step by step through my fears, my perspective has expanded and I saw what’s on the other side is really beautiful. Walking through your fears, facing them, is essential to enrich your life!