Two women wearing hijabs running through a beautiful mountain landscape

An Interview With Carrie Highman, Filmmaker Of The North Face’s Free To Run

 We’re incredibly proud to partner with the Banff Mountain Film Festival UK & Ireland Tour, taking place this month. The film festival showcases adrenaline-packed films starring top adventurers from across the globe. 

We spoke to one of the filmmakers, Carrie Highman, about her experiences creating the film and getting to know the individuals involved. Watch a short preview of the film below...

An Introduction To Free To Run

UN human rights attorney and mountain runner Stephanie Case was training to take on the hardest ultra-trail marathon of her life in 2021 – the daunting Tor des Glaciers: a 450km self-navigated race through the A'osta Valley of Italy.  


But weeks before she was set to toe the line, her life took an unexpected turn as she watched the Taliban sweep across Afghanistan, threatening the basic human rights of women across the country, including those of her NGO, Free to Run.  


Showing in the 2023 Banff Mountain Film Festival Tour, the film Free to Run documents Steph’s journey on the Tor des Glaciers and beyond, as well as the journeys of the Afghan women in her NGO. We caught up with filmmaker Carrie Highman, who produced and directed the film with her partner Tim, to find out more about this extraordinary film. 

Making Free to Run must have been incredibly challenging. Tell us about some of the obstacles you faced?

The production process for this film was incredibly turbulent. We were constantly pivoting, reworking the storyline and how we’d cover it, adjusting to the events as they were unfolding in front of us.  


We were originally going to film in Afghanistan, on an expedition Stephanie was leading with Free to Run through the Wakhan Corridor, a remote mountain range in the far eastern corner of the country. Afghan women from all over the country were planning on coming. However, weeks before we were supposed to arrive for the expedition, the Taliban took control of the entire province the Wakhan Corridor is in, so we had to adapt quickly to the major change in our narrative. 


Steph left from Europe immediately to meet with Free to Run staff in Kabul to begin preparing for a possible Taliban takeover. Our visas didn't start for a couple of weeks, so we weren't able to go in with her to film, but we were incredibly fortunate to connect with an Australian filmmaker who had been living in Kabul for years and was available to capture footage for us. We called him only a few days before we needed help filming. Not only was he available, his methodology and approach to filmmaking was right in line with ours. He was able to capture some crucial content for us.  

A woman in trail kit running a rugged mountain trail

What were the most memorable moments of making the film?

An aspect of the film that really stands out is filming with Afghan women Zahra and Zeinab once they made it to the United States. They were both going through one of the most difficult times in their lives, having left their country and loved ones behind in such a terribly turbulent and scary time.


While we assured them they didn't need to talk to us if they were under too much stress, they were both very determined to do everything they could to speak on behalf of Afghanistan. They spoke so powerfully in those interviews. We were truly impacted by their strength, vulnerability and courage. The heart they have for their country and humanity left such a strong impression on us.  

Tell us about filming an 450km ultra race in the Alps?

Filming Steph racing the Tor des Glaciers was one of the craziest endurance events we've ever been part of documenting. The course was remote and technical, and we would be hiking for hours, hauling our kit up the mountain to meet her out on the course and gather footage of her along the way. It was such a big task to cover that race, but we had some great team members shooting with us on the project and the Tor race organisers were so helpful and supportive throughout the process.  

How did you end up making this film?

Tim and I are both avid runners and lovers of the outdoors, which made adventure documentary filmmaking an obvious choice for us. We travel the world working on stories at the intersection of extreme feats of human endurance and human justice. We’re currently converting a van and spend the majority of our time in Colorado and Wisconsin when we’re not on a film project. 


This film came about from the curiosity and concern of what women were going through in parts of the world where they didn't have the freedom and safety to simply step outside their doors and run. As we were researching the topic we were pointed in Steph's direction. We got on a call with her and knew instantly that we had to make a film about Free to Run and Steph's story. 

A woman in trail kit running along a trail with green grassy mountains in the background

How about funny stories and mishaps - if they happened, please tell us about them!

Something that didn't make it in the film but was a bit scary for all of us was a donkey attack. While I was filming Steph on the trail, a donkey attacked her, pinned her to the ground, and started biting her head. We had to help free her. It certainly wasn't something any of us had planned as a potential danger during the race!  

Four women running alongside a body of water

Can you tell us a bit about the backgrounds of the individuals in your film?


As a child, Zahra's family moved from place to place, fleeing the Taliban. Growing up she would weave carpets to help support her family while going to school full time.  


She knew from a young age that with few resources to help her succeed, she would need to create opportunity for herself, so she studied hard and became the first female in her family to graduate from high school. She didn't stop there: Zahra went on to earn a degree at Kabul University and started working shortly after graduation. It was during this time that a friend showed her photos on Instagram of girls doing outdoor activities with Free to Run. She had never heard of girls running in Afghanistan! She knew she had to be a part of it and quickly applied for the program.  


"With Free to Run, I discovered newfound purpose. I felt happy again, and was motivated both at work and at home," says Zahra. She went on to run two marathons and a half Ironman in Dubai.  


Zahra travelled to the United States as a Fulbright scholar to earn her Masters In Finance. She now works in New Hampshire as a finance counsellor, but her dream is to return to Afghanistan to help other women open businesses.  




Zeinab grew up in Iran during the Taliban, eventually moving to Kabul where she was able to attend university. It was a stressful time, navigating a new city, working full time and living away from her family. That's when she discovered Free to Run through her peers. She quickly applied, excited for the prospect of being able to participate in sports that, up until that point, didn't seem possible for girls like her in Afghanistan. 


It proved to be a launching pad for her to manage the intensity of her busy life while creating deliberate space for personal self-discovery and reflection. She continued to take advantage of every opportunity Free to Run offered, running three marathons, and more recently, completing a half Ironman. She says her time within the program taught her so much about herself, helping her explore and push her limits and challenging her notion of how powerful a female should and could be.  


Zeinab also moved to the States to earn her MBA. She wants to continue showing what women from conflict countries can accomplish in running and dreams of returning to Afghanistan to apply her new skills and continue engaging with sport and female empowerment. 




Stephanie is a Canadian human rights attorney who's spent the better part of her career in conflict zones defending innocent civilians. From South Sudan to Afghanistan, Stephanie has lived in some of the most war-torn areas on earth, witnessing and fighting against the inequalities of war, especially for women. As an avid runner, and a UN human rights attorney, Stephanie saw a way to leverage her life passions to help women in these hard-hit communities experience basic freedoms. From this vision, 'Free to Run' was born.  


Her charity leverages running as a tool to further the fight for equality for women in Afghanistan and Iraq. She has competed in some of the hardest ultra-trail marathons in the world, from Western States ® 100-Mile Endurance Run, to winning Tor des Glaciers in 2021 and placing top three women at the Hardrock 100 in 2022. She now works in Jerusalem for the UN supporting the protection of refugees across the region. 

What's next for you – any more projects on the horizon?

We’re currently working on a documentary tracking the stories of a number of Ukrainian ultra-runners during the war. We’re always researching potential story options and will continue to push forward in creating long form documentaries on humanitarian-focused narratives. 

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us about this incredible film, Carrie. The North Face's Free to Run is showing at the Banff Mountain Film Festival UK & Ireland Tour, which continues this month. Learn more about the films being screened and how to buy tickets

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