This Muslim runner is the first Syrian Six Star World Marathon Majors finisher
During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, from sunrise till sundown, millions of Muslims across the globe fast for about 17 hours a day, without food or water.
But fasting doesn’t set back the training for Michigan-based, Syrian Muslim marathoner Rahaf Khatib. Her Islamic faith is what motivates her to run, despite the hunger and thirst. The 35-year-old mother of three — the first hijabi (a woman who wears a head scarf) on the cover of Women’s Running magazine — is breaking stereotypes and pushing herself beyond limits and expectations.
After raising $16,000 for Syrian refugees in 2017, Khatib says the next big step in her running career is to seek opportunities with an athletic modeling agency. Her goal as a hijabi is to encourage fair representation of female Muslim athletes who are often left out of the athletic community.
Hour Detroit spoke with Khatib about her faith, stereotypes, and training during Ramadan. Here are excerpts.
Hour Detroit: How do you balance fasting and training, especially working out without drinking water?
Rahaf Khatib: I’ll run anywhere from 40 to 60 minutes while I’m fasting. The hardest part is getting yourself out the door. Once I do begin running, I feel re-energized, rejuvenated, and light. There are benefits of running while fasting called intermittent fasting. People think it’s such an exhausting thing to do, but I feel like it helps my mind, body and soul. Not just physically, but it also helps me spiritually.
HD: What is your Ramadan routine like on a daily basis when it comes to food, training, and sleep?
RK: During Ramadan, you have to listen to your body. You have to take in a lot of extra fluids. I drink a lot of sports drinks, like Gatorade and coconut water, because I’m really active during Ramadan, so I have to take in a lot of carbs, sugar, and electrolytes. As far as nutrition goes, I eat a lot of protein, because it fills you up, whether you’re active or not during Ramadan. Greek yogurt, whole grain, lentils, eggs, protein smoothies – those are things I try to get in all throughout the night and not just at iftar (when fasting ends at sunset).
Sometimes, if I’m too tired right after [I break my fast], I’ll wait to run after prayer, so sometimes at 2 a.m. Then I’ll have suhoor (when fasting begins at sunrise), replenish, and begin my fasting.
I also do take naps during the day if I can. I try to have a healthy, clean meal with not much sugar or anything fried, because that’s just going to make you more hungry throughout the day.
HD: How do you motivate yourself to get out and train the last hour before breaking your fast and what keeps you going, despite the struggle?
RK: What keeps me going is how much pleasure it brings me. Satisfaction and pleasure. With running, you have to be persistent and determined. You really have to keep pushing. The winner of the Boston Marathon last April said, “keep showing up,” and that’s how it is. You’ve got to show up despite how you’re feeling and just knowing that it will pay off. And it does. Tremendously.
I know that every day that I don’t run is a day that I’m behind. That’s what pushes me. Even if I’m not running a marathon soon, my fitness level is maintained year-round. And that’s what motivates me, that I have to keep up with that fitness level.
HD: How does your faith play a role in your running?
RK: Spirituality and running go hand in hand for me and it’s just what makes me complete.
I run for social change, I run for representation, and I run for hijabi women who are covered and unrepresented in running – a predominantly white sport. And sometimes I’ll go to races and be the only covered one there and it doesn’t bother me at all, because I know by being there, I am representing my religion and hopefully representing it in a positive way, despite all the media and what they put out about us.
Some companies and magazines, they tend to hire more white athletes and that bothers me. I follow tons of athletic, fitness pages on Instagram and it bothers me that I continue to see the same old model over and over again. Model/runner. Whatever you want to call it. But it’s hard because here I am, trying to change perceptions of people and with these businesses, it’s tough because you’re competing with what’s been there for tens of years. I have to try ten times harder for companies to take me seriously. But I keep trying!
HD: I’m sure you deal with a lot of stereotyping from people who see hijab as a setback. What do you usually say to that when people ask you how you’re running?
RK: Oh definitely. They don’t even need to say anything. I can see it in the way they look at me when I’m lining up at a race. They’ll give me the side eye and they’ll look me up and down. Their eyes will literally travel from my feet to my head! And I’m just like “Hi, I’m like you. Running!”
[Muslim athletes] can be anything we want to be and anything we choose to be. Because in the end, we’re all crossing the same finish line. No matter who you are and what you believe in.
HD: Does that empower you?
RK: It definitely empowers me! I know some people feel intimidated by it or feel like they can’t go to the gym, and I’m like, no! Go to the gym, show who you are, hold your head up high, carry that weight and do an extra rep. When people see what you’re doing and what you stand for, they’ll instantly respect you. When you hold tight to what you believe in.
I always hope I can change just one person’s mind about us. Just one. If I can do that, then my mission is accomplished.
I have had some comments and backlash, when my cover (Women’s Running magazine) came out. Online I read comments like “Why don’t you strap a bomb on yourself and blow yourself up?” Terrible things. There are ignorant people online. But the positive feedback that I’ve had overcome the negative. The negative and hateful people – their voices are loud, but they are so little.
HD: You started training as a marathoner about five years ago. Did you ever expect to be where you are now from when you first started?
RK: Absolutely not. Hell no. I’ve finished about 16 half marathons countless 10K’s, 11 full marathons, two triathlons, and a few biking events and I feel like I’m now living my life prior to not running.