Women have not only outstripped men at running events here, they’ve raised the Kingdom’s profile by competing at the high international levels. Meet the passionate female fraternity of Bahrain Road Runners.
The Bahrain Road Runners has come a long way since the 1970s, when members comprised a handful of running enthusiasts from the expatriate community.
As the passion for running and competing catches on, membership is now predominantly Bahraini and women are an overwhelming majority.
“There was a time when I won a lot of medals, simply because I was the only woman participating,” recalls Duniya Elias, two-time ultra marathoner and one of the earliest female runners.
Duniya had been a smoker for 20 years when she vowed to quit and run her first marathon before turning 40.
“Anyone with determination can do it. Age is just a number,” believes the 44-year-old, who recently finished an ultra marathon in South Africa and will be competing at the Full Ironman in Germany this August.
Hessa Al Khalifa made history in May when she completed the Full Ironman in Lanzarote in Spain, one of the toughest routes in the world. Hessa completed the event in less than 17 hours, becoming the first GCC woman to achieve this feat.
“The cycling event really set me back on timing. The headwind was so strong that my bike just wouldn’t move forward. But I kept going and in the last 15 minutes, I ran really fast to be in time for the finish. Luckily, I made it just four minutes before midnight,” says the 23-year-old.
Interestingly, Hessa’s mother, who was waiting for her at the finishing line, compared the experience to giving birth.
“My mother said the 16 hours she waited for me to cross the finish line were more painful and anxiety-ridden than her labour when I was born,” she laughs.
Hessa’s story shows the support Bahraini women receive from their families as they strive to fulfil their aspirations on the world stage. She ran the London Marathon last year and the Bahrain Marathon earlier this year. She’s planning to compete at the Texas Ironman next year to improve her timing.
For women who plead that they have families to look after, there couldn’t be a better inspiration than May Al Haji. The mum-of-two finished her first international event — the Full Marathon in Dubai — only seven months after she’d given birth to her second son. May surprised everyone, including herself, by finishing in less than four hours. She then participated in the Abu Dhabi Triathlon after 45 days’ training.
“Since my son was less than a year old and I was working, I could only train at night, when everyone was sleeping. I never got enough sleep, but once you have a goal and when you’ve completed a race, you can do anything
— even without sleep,” May notes.
This sentiment is echoed by fellow athlete, Nada Jamsheer.
“Anyone can run a marathon. Eleven weeks’ preparation is all it takes,” says Nada, who has completed the Half Ironman twice in addition to the Abu Dhabi Triathlon, Dubai Full Marathon and countless races in Bahrain with the Bahrain Road Runners. Nada started working out at the gym nine years ago to shake off excess weight, but it’s running in the open that inspires her to push herself.
“Running outdoors, you visualise going much further and you test your body to the maximum. Before an event, I worry about my equipment and the weather, which are factors beyond my control, but crossing the finish line is the best feeling ever.”
Running is a great stress buster that helps her deal with the rest of her day’s problems.
“When you feel accomplished, it changes you for the better and your outlook becomes more positive, making you a stronger person. I feel I can accomplish anything I want because I’ve completed some very tough Ironman events,” she says.
Karla Solano is Mexican and has lived in Bahrain for nine years. Karla completed the Half Ironman, the Abu Dhabi Triathlon, Dubai Full Marathon and countless Bahraini races with the Bahrain Road Runners.
“I carried the flag of Bahrain in Abu Dhabi, which was very inspiring. I wasn’t fit earlier, but I learnt to push myself harder. Running improves your focus and helps channel your energies in a positive way. It makes you a better person,” Karla believes.
The girls follow a structured diet and competing at events has led them to develop disciplined and healthy lifestyles. They’re now gearing up for the Bahrain Challenge later this year, a 70.3 mile event being held for the first time in the GCC. Training will start around September.
“Once you hear the gunshot, you become a different person. The thing about endurance sports is that you’re not beating others; you’re pitted against yourself. Mishaps during an event only make you a better athlete. You learn to pick up the pieces and go on,” concludes Nada.