calendar Tuesday, 28 September 2021 clock
  • qbook

DOHA: On 29 August, Lolwa Almarri crossed the Ironman Hamburg finish line, making her the first-ever Qatari woman to complete a full distance triathlon.

Swimming for 3.8 km, immediately getting on a bike and riding another 180 km topping that off with a marathon then finally hearing the words “You are an Ironman”; from start to finish, a first Iron distance is a memory for life in any triathlete’s career.

But Almarri is not just any triathlete. In fact, until last December, she was not a triathlete at all – a cross-fitter, a mountain walker while studying biomedical science in the UK, but not a triathlete. She did short runs but did not swim or own a bicycle. But, impressed by the endurance exploits of Hichame Moubarak, she set out to pay the inspiration forward.

A more conventional Ironman journey is via a love of one or more of triathlon’s component disciplines. You cycle, run or swim. You put them together. You enter a short race, then a longer one and some will go further to set their sights on an Ironman.

The World Triathlon Corporation, owners of the Ironman brand, even added a stepping-stone that has overtaken the commercial success of its big brother. The half-distance ’Ironman 70.3’ has allowed more endurance junkies than ever before to stake a claim on being an Ironman but the real deal remains far less common.

Motivation

That Almarri’s motivation was not the challenge of completion but the clear intent to publicly define what it means to be a Qatari woman, perhaps explains why she achieved what she did in a mere eight months.

The very strength of Ironman’s brand and appeal made it her chosen vehicle to make her case. “I’m doing this for my daughter,” she states. “I want her to see me as something more than a job and a mother.”

At the same time, she acknowledges that her own family are concerned, “My mother worries that my skin will become dark, but I have done this and I am still a normal woman. I am still feminine.”

Eight months to achieve what others spend years building up to is not much. It took three meetings with Doha-based coach Gerda Dumitru, to convince her to support the mammoth task of turning someone who struggled to swim the length of a pool into someone who could navigate 3.8 km in open water. Let alone the rest.

Dumitru recalls: “I warned her, ‘This is not a joke, this is high risk, it’s not a joke’, but she had this fire in her eyes, and it convinced me.”

Coach-athlete relationship

The relationship developed with both athlete and coach learning from each other. Al Marri borrowed a two-sizes-too-big bike and started training. Some days Dumitru would question why she had not completed the five hours of graft that she had prescribed and Almarri would reply defiantly”: “When? I work in a lab in Hamad hospital during a pandemic. When could I do this?”

Nevertheless, Almarri describes their relationship with passion.“We were the dream team! I had so many doubts but she knew exactly what to say to motivate me.” For her part, Dumitru is in deep admiration of her protégé as an athlete, “She is so driven and fierce but with that she has good intelligence and stays collected. She has overcome much more than simply learning how to be a triathlete.”

Covid-19 of course threw up other obstacles. At times, with public pools closed, training was in a nine-metre pool, swimming on the spot with elastic attached to her waist. A lot of her marathon training had to be indoors and as Qatar’s summer hit, there was little opportunity to swim in the sea to learn the vital triathlon skills of heading in a straight line while dealing with currents and the chop from other athletes in close proximity.

In fact, race day was the first time she had any experience of wearing a wetsuit.

Trump card

Then, just one week out from day zero, the virus played its trump card. Ironman Kazakhstan was cancelled due to rising infection rates there. Almarri could not wait. She had work commitments and she needed a replacement with a strong chance of going ahead.

The German race just three weeks later was a good candidate but would throw up challenges for which they hadn’t prepared.

However, both Dumitru and Almarri also highlighted the positives of Covid; the new communities of women who have discovered cycling, running and other outdoor exercise while the gyms were closed and who they believe will now seek out their own challenges.

Almarri wanted to inspire her peers and has no doubt that she has achieved that. She herself is now looking forward to the Qatar National Triathlon Series events when they start in October.

  • qshow
  • Qbook