Regular running not only strengthens the heart, but also heals the wounds caused by war and love. The experience of Trcanje I TO running club from the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina testifies to this.
A weekend morning Sarajevo club Trcanje I TO, or TiTo for short, looks like any Ukrainian running community. Participants of all genders and ages come together in one car, most of them already in sportswear, laughing, saying hello, joking, chatting with the parking attendant, and petting someone’s dog.
After a short stretch they run in the woods nearby. Only the hijabs on several women suggest that this is not Kyiv. One of them is Nudžejma Softić, the founder of a well-known running community in Bosnia and one of the most inspiring amateur athletes in the Balkans. Nudji was born into a Muslim family in the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her father died in the Yugoslav war and she and her family became refugees at the age of four. After years of exile in refugee camps and countries of the former Yugoslavia, Nudžejma and her family returned to their homeland and settled in Sarajevo.
It was, as is often the case, unhappy love that led her to sport – the woman’s first marriage ended in a swift divorce just three months after the wedding. “I realised it was a bad choice,” she comments discreetly, avoiding any details,” and decided that I would divorce even if no one supported me.” Her relatives supported the divorce, but the girl also decided to live alone, apart from her family. The stepfather who replaced Nudji’s father, a Syrian of traditional views, was shocked. It would have been all right if it had been a son, but a daughter! At the time, he could not have imagined that in the future she would become Europe’s first female competitor in marathons and Ironman competitions wearing a hijab.
The stress after a failed marriage and a sedentary job as an editor at Al Jazeera added extra kilograms to the 28-year-old Nudji. “I felt tired all the time. Young, healthy and tired!”. The girl then decided to go to a running school in Sarajevo for a six-month training programme for a local half-marathon.
“I couldn’t run for more than 10 minutes at the time,” says Nudžejma. “Besides, there were no sports uniforms for women of my religion, and I was exercising in uncomfortably heavy clothes”.
Six months later, however, Nudžejma ran her first ‘half’ and found a place to sew comfortable sportswear – trouser skirts, tunics, balaclavas, tights and hijabs. A little later, Nudji decided to run her first marathon, although her coach advised her to wait a little longer.
“I decided to do it so I wouldn’t leave anything in my life halfway. I knew I could do it!”, says Nudžejma, and this is almost her motto.
At the same time, the girl began helping newcomers to the school to train for the half marathon. “It was elitist and expensive,” she says, “few people could afford such training. I didn’t like that approach.”
So one day at the beginning of Ramadan, the month of obligatory fasting for Muslims, Nudžejma simply suggested on her Facebook page that everyone should run after the evening prayers. Three or four people came for the first training session, and forty came for the training session at the end of Ramadan. That’s how Trcanje I TO club was founded.
Since then, two years have passed, 200 people have become active members of the club, and around a thousand have attended exercises at least once.
Park route of the Trcanje I TO club
At first, even the plucky Nudžejma was intimidated by her lack of experience. “Standing in front of fifty people and giving them instructions seemed very scary to me,” she recalls and adds, laughing: “Although in reality it turned out to be OK”.
At first, Nudji did the training on her own, but later there were people who could replace her. Nick, 65, for example.
“I have been running almost all my life,” he says. “I ran in New York, London and all over the world, participated in marathons and ultramarathons and been to many running clubs. TiTo is not a club, it’s a family.”
Nick is responsible for a beginners’ group. He says it’s a great opportunity for him to share his experience. There is always someone to share it with, as there are several new people who join the club almost every month. Many of them have never run before.
“We all know what Sarajevo went through just twenty years ago (during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, Sarajevo was besieged for 44 months – ed.)”, says Nick. “But now people are getting into sports. Now I regularly see at least a few runners on the streets in the morning, afternoon, evening. I have a lot of optimism about the development of running in this country.”
In addition to Nick’s group, there are two other groups in the club, an intermediate and an advanced group. They have their own leaders and running plans for all of them are written by Nudji.
TiTo now offers its members three running sessions a week – Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm and Saturdays at 8:00am. The exercises take place even during the winter season and on holidays.
An annual membership in the club costs 25 convertible marks (the national currency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, an equivalent of about 340 hryvnias). It’s not a mandatory amount, you can run for free, but the annual membership guarantees discounts on visits to the pool and gym in the largest sports center in the country.
Almost everyone at Nudžejma’s club speaks English and this is probably why there are many foreigners from Britain, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Austria, Croatia and Slovenia among the members.
It is possible to become part of the community even without running. “There are people who can’t run at all, so they help out, for example as volunteers at our races,” says Nudji. “There are about forty of them.”
The club does not focus on attracting women or Muslims, but there are really a few more women here and some wear the hijab. “Some people still say that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, but we don’t care. We do what we think is right,” says Nudžejma.
A few years ago in the Serbian part of the country, an athlete wearing a hijab was attacked during a race – several fans rudely cursed at her and even tried to attack. Fortunately, she was defended by other athletes.
“But that was only the first time, and when I got there a year later, no one paid any more attention to me. Especially as I was no longer alone, and every year there are more of us. Things change!” says Nudji. It seems that she herself is actually changing this situation in the country.
Like any really good sports club, TiTo is about more than running. Amateur athletes go to lectures together, to the mountains, to cafés, to celebrations and have a friendship as families.
In addition, the club also has a small charity fund called the #TiTo Fund. Each member contributes at least 5 convertible marks (about 70 hryvnias) a month to the fund. With this money the organisers can buy sports uniforms for individual club members, pay for sports clubs for children and finance participation in races.
“For example, one club member, who is about 40 years old, has never been abroad. The club helped her get a passport for travelling abroad and paid for her to take part in a marathon in Beirut,” says the founder.
The club also added money for another member, a young scholar, for a trip to Lebanon.
“I planned to run my first marathon not with a club in Beirut, but in Turkey,” explains Adla, TiTO member, “because it is cheaper there. And then Nudžejma… I’m about to cry again while talking about this… Nudžejma wrote that the club would give funds for a trip to Beirut. That’s why I think this club is special. This support makes me stronger and inspires me.”
This is the way all members are treated, the girl assures me.
“Nudji … she …”, Adla tries to explain, “it is as if you have an umbrella of great love that will always protect and help in difficult moments.”
“Helping is the best thing!”, says Nudžejma herself. “We all love to do it!” She has no plans to receive money from the club, following the example of other European countries.
“I don’t make money from it and never will,” she stresses. “I know many people who can’t pay for running school, and I want to give them the opportunity to practice for free.”
That is why Nudžejma Softić does not leave her day job at Al Jazeera. What’s more, she inspires people there too. For example, her colleagues who made a feature-length documentary called Little Star about how Nudžejma prepared for her first Ironman 70.3 triathlon competition, where she had to swim 1.9 km, cycle 90 km and run a 21 km half-marathon.
“I started learning to swim at the age of 28,” she recalls in the film, which has already started being shown in Bosnia. “I didn’t have that opportunity as a child because there is no open water in Sarajevo. But I learned, and now I take part in competitions where you have to swim, and I’m very proud of that.”
What makes her so strong?
“My life,” she replies. “I lost my father, I was a refugee, I had a difficult childhood – among six children you have to be able to fight for your place. My stepfather lived for seven years in a refugee centre, I was his lawyer, his PR person, a human rights activist, everything … I think that’s what made me strong.”
Now the stepfather sets Nudji as an example to his brothers, not the other way round. The brothers, by the way, still live with their parents, and Nudji married a triathlete and held a competition for a couple of hundred people on their first wedding anniversary.
Members of the TiTo club
Nudji recently ran the Berlin Marathon, and next summer she plans to do her first full Ironman. So as not to leave anything halfway in her life.
Trail running in the mountains