Our latest Iran Chat is with Swedish ultra-runner, coach and motivator, Kristina Paltén, who holds the World Record in 48 hour treadmill running, covering a distance of 322.93 kilometers. She is also the first woman to have run across Iran, and the star of a film that covers that journey called Alone Through Iran - 1144 Miles of Trust.
We spoke with Paltén about her experience running across Iran, from Turkey to Turkmenistan, and how that experience, and now her film, are helping to challenge prejudices and misconceptions about the country and its people.
Some highlights from our conversation:
"Running ultra marathons means running distances that are longer than a normal marathon. An ultra marathon could be 43 km to 1000 km [or beyond].... I love to run for a long time; not fast, but longer and longer distances. I did my first ultra when I was 36 years old, and it’s just become longer and longer. I would say it is a travel inside yourself... you learn about your own demons and fears, and you need to handle them."
"Running across a country has so many dimensions. It's a marvelous way to discover a country, to discover its people and also to discover myself.... When I’m running in a street, being vulnerable, people meet me; I’m not coming up in a car. They can just say hello to me and stop me.. It is a very nice way of meeting people to become close to them."
Why Run Across Iran?
"The idea came [as a result of] me and my friend Karina running from Turkey to Finland. We passed through Romania and we realized we had prejudices against Romania, and it turned out that none of them were true. And that’s when I started questioning what is my view of the world and what if I’m just thinking things that aren’t true?
In Sweden and Europe there are xenophobic parties growing and I saw a lot of fear of strangers, and I thought... 'I don't want the world to be ruled by fear. I want it to be ruled by more positive things like trust.' The purpose [of my run] was to contribute to a better world."
What Concerns Did You Have?
"When I arrived, I wrote down all my fears and it was 22; I also graded them from 0 to 100. At the beginning the worst ones were at 80 and then every week I followed up my fears to see how they changed and it was really interesting because the fears I had at the beginning... as soon as I came to Iran they dropped to almost zero. Already the first day there were so many people being kind to me, so that fear changed quickly. But then another fear rose, and that was the fear of being hit by a car! And there was another fear that was increasing, and that was a fear of being never left alone. And I kind of liked that fear because everyone was so friendly all the time, and that’s a very nice situation. But in Sweden we tell jokes that people from the north of Sweden (and I'm from the north of Sweden) need a lot of space on their own. So sometimes I could have used more space!"
How Can Misconceptions about Iran be Remedied?
"Since I came home, I read a lot of Social Psychology and [learned] that you tend to believe a person from your own group, but not people from another group. So I’m a bit skeptical.. I think I could spread this message in the Western world because I’m a Westerner and you listen to someone who is similar to yourself. I think it's more difficult for someone else to spread the message.
But I think what's most powerful is to make people meet.. I mean, when people meet each other we realize that the other person is just another "me." Everyone has his own fears or sorrows or dreams.. and I mean, psychologically, biologically, physiologically... we are the same. There is no difference. So... make people meet!"
Photo Courtesy of Soroush Morshedian