Women and men run together at the Erbil International Marathon

Erbil (CNN)Not many marathon routes pass under road signs pointing towards Mosul and Baghdad.

Not many marathon routes are guarded by the heavily armed Peshmerga -- Kurdish ground troops -- who have been crucial in the local fight against ISIS.
But then not many marathon routes are in Iraq.
    The Erbil International Marathon was founded in 2011, defying outsiders' ideas about women's freedoms and running as a leisure activity in the region.
    Road sign to Mosul  hangs over the Erbil International Marathon route.
    The event has taken place every year since apart from in 2014, when advancing ISIS forces had taken positions just an hour away from the capital of northern Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
    But this year, as fighting once again crept close to the city -- this time between federal Iraqi forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga -- the 42km race was canceled.
    The race finish line was located in Sami Abdularahman Park.

    A run of defiance

    After the controversial Kurdish independence referendum in September, Baghdad shut local Kurdistan airports to international air traffic, making access to Erbil difficult for overseas runners, who made up about 550 of the hopefuls wanting to run the full distance.
    Even some Iraqis hoping to participate were unable to reach Erbil due to the military operations.
    In the end, 2,000 people took part in the 5km and 10km races -- women making up 20% of participants. Last year, 5,000 people took part in the whole event.
    Kurdish flags were prevalent along the race routes.
    "We felt it was important to persist, and continue to hold the shorter events this year, to show the world that there is life in Erbil and to convey our message of peace," organizer Abdulsattar Younus tells CNN.
    "Of course local Iraqis who made it to Erbil and were planning to run the full marathon were disappointed, but they understood our decision to cancel. God willing, we will hold the full event next year."
    And so on October 27, below those signs to war-torn cities, under the watch of the fondly-named "Pesh," Kurdish teenagers and a handful of foreign runners gratefully grabbed handouts of Sprite as they pushed on in the muggy heat.
    Local TV cameramen tracked runners in white pick-up trucks. Boys at the start line argued with foreigners over FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, who vie for superiority in the Middle East, where the Spanish teams are popular.

    Enthusiasm in abundance

    The event was a far cry from this year's Tehran Marathon, in which women were not allowed to run the 42km race alongside men due to Iran's strict gender segregation laws imposed by the conservative Islamic religious authorities. 
    However, Iraqi Kurdistan -- and Iraq as a whole -- is ethnically and religiously diverse, with large populations of Christians, Yazidis, and Sunni and Shia Muslims.
    "Here, it is the opposite from preventing women from running; we want to encourage them," explains Abdulsattar. "Women can run wearing what they want: some run in hijab and long shirts, others not. They are free to choose here."
    Winner of the women's 10km race, Amal Khidir, takes photos with a Kurdish flag at the awards ceremony.
    "Kurdistan is a great place to be a woman," says Amal Khidir, who won the 10km race. She had traveled from her home in Kirkuk, at the heart of the dispute between Kurdish and federal Iraq, to compete.
    "I run, I dance, I do whatever I want, and my parents have always supported me."
    Most women at the race ran wearing the official Erbil International Marathon short sleeved T-shirt. Some wore headscarves while others had their hair down.
    "We have shown we are different by participating in the marathon," says 26-year-old Mabad Abdulrahman, referring to the 5km race she took part in. "It makes me feel powerful, strong and happy".
    Ahmed Rahman said he was pleased so many women took part in the marathon.
    "People who think girls can't run because of their religion have old minds," Ahmed Rahman from Erbil tells CNN, smiling and pointing to his head.
    "They can run. They have their right, like the men", says the 18-year-old high-school student and 10km race competitor.

    A chance to unite

    Erbil is far removed from the chaos that engulfed southern Iraq after the US invasion in 2003.
    The races went ahead against a backdrop of Kurdish flags and pop music. Sami Abdulrahman Park, complete with a lake and swan-shaped pedalos, marked the finish line. A convenient cafe selling popcorn and fizzy drinks flanked the endpoint, receiving thirsty customers, while the winners' awards ceremony began with a martial arts performance.
    The few foreign runners who were able to reach Erbil for the run saw a less-than-usual side of Iraq.
    "The running event normalizes the area", Mark Craven, a runner from Winchester, UK, says, swigging from a water bottle after finishing the 10km.
    "When I told people I was coming here, they assumed I was coming here just to run round Erbil on my own. So many people have incorrect perception of what this place is, but I have shaken so many hands," he tells CNN.
    Craven traveled overland from south Turkey, which has a land border with Kurdistan.
    Ahmed saw the event as a chance to promote harmony in the region, despite the internecine clashes between authorities in Baghdad and Kurdish politicians pushing for independence.
    "Every morning, I run by myself, or sometimes with friends, but when I am here I am running with others for co-existence and I prefer that," he says. "When I see this many people I feel comfortable and safe. When I am running I keep going until the end."
    As they left the park after the race, participants of both sexes plucked roses from the gardens, and tucked them behind their ears, or arranged them as hair accessories.
    Roses, running and the road to Mosul -- all parts of life here.