Coming Full Circle

My last entry was about the Big Sur Marathon Relay, and probably one of the most momentous races in my life. Not only because of the incredible scenery, but because of the experience I had overall running on a team, with my team for charity. It was the only time after finishing 9.5 hilly, canted miles did I wish I could keep running. I envied the excitement and of the full marathoners. I wanted that same sense of accomplishment. Subconsciously, I was planning my first 26.2. I knew it last year, when I was spectating the 2015 Chicago Marathon, that after turning 40 in February of this year, it would be high time for me to finally run the full distance. I was always the person who would talk anyone out of doing a marathon. “It’s bad for your health”, I would say. “There’s no fitness benefit”, I would add. But secretly I knew the jig was up, and if ever I would run a marathon, it had to be in Chicago and for Every Mother Counts.

I secured my charity bib and did not tell a single person until after Ramadan ended in the beginning of July. The marathon lottery came and went and I didn’t say a word. People started their marathon training, and I secretly did as well, but under the guise of “I’m always training”.  I did not want anyone to interfere with my decision, challenge my previous thinking, or comment that Ramadan (the month of fasting) would interfere with marathon training. I told my parents just 2 weeks ago that I was running the marathon after I finished my second 20 mile training run! Slowly and surely I have come out of the closet and am now 10 days away from running this race I never thought I would run. I have incredible support and through family and friends, I’ve raised over $2,100 to help reduce the barriers of maternal mortality, stemming from a lack of access, transportation, supplies and education.

My two sons just had birthdays: 14 and 12. Both of their births had slight complications and running in their honor is the only way for me to run. I connect my steps metaphorically with other women worldwide, who embark on the journey of childbirth, which people tend not to focus on as much. The pomp and circumstance is pregnancy and the baby. But what about those 800 women who die every day in childbirth? And then what about the fact that 90% of those deaths are preventable? So yeah, it’s time for me to put on this jersey and run for those women, so that they too can be around to celebrate their child’s 12th and 14th birthdays.

If you want to help me get to the start line, please contribute to my Crowdrise account here. All your contributions go to great places and make a significant impact, worldwide.

God bless!


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The Big Sur Marathon Relay: my race recap

Disclaimer: This is a LONG post about my experience training and running the Big Sur Marathon Relay.  Enjoy!

Remember running relay races in grade school? Remember that feeling of relying upon your teammate to bring you the baton quickly?  What an incredible metaphor for childbirth. There are so many people involved in the birth of a baby, and every person along the way is part of the end goal: a safe delivery for mother and baby.  Too often the focus lies solely on the newborn, but in reality the health and condition of the mother is just as critical, and often overlooked. Maternal mortality is unacceptably high: the mortality rate is roughly 800-830 deaths daily, worldwide. Of these deaths, 98% are preventable through the availability of supplies, transportation, and education (skilled birth attendants, midwives, etc). Every Mother Counts (EMC) is a campaign, founded by maternal health advocate, Christy Turlington Burns, to reduce this burden of disease worldwide by providing these three needs to empower local communities. Join us this Mother’s Day for the Orange Rose campaign! Please learn more about EMC here.

with EMC founder, Christy Turlington Burns
With EMC founder, Christy Turlington Burns

I appreciate all the work she does to raise awareness and create programs to benefit others: we run so others don’t have to. Running is symbolic such that in many developing nations, a woman sometimes has to walk a minimum of 5k up to a marathon’s distance to deliver her baby. I run to raise funds for these programs, but more importantly to raise awareness of this statistic. We may think the United States precludes us from this rate, but rather, the US is one of a dozen countries with increasing mortality rates. Increasing. Just let that marinate while I tell you about my run.

As a Running Ambassador, I run all my races of varying distances for EMC, and this year, when the opportunity arose to join a team at Big Sur, I did not hesitate for a moment. Why would I say no to run on the glorious Highway 1?

Ragged Point, Big Sur
Looking out at the Pacific from Ragged Point, Big Sur

I committed to raising $1,000 (ultimately raised $2,300) and got to work. I trained on hills, unpaved trails, treadmills, inclines on treadmills, rowers, and stairs. I did a lot of isolation work, lifted less weight than normal so I could increase my range of motion. I foam rolled several times a week and was more strict about rest / recovery days. The biggest gain I noticed was returning from a 9 day road trip in California, and I had not lost an ounce of my game, and that’s when I had a newfound respect for rest days!

Love unpaved trails
I love the serenity and beauty of unpaved trails
My good friend Jenny and I after the Orangetheory 90 minute charity class. We burned 21000 calories and $.01/calorie was donated!
My close friend Jenny and I after the Orangetheory 90 minute charity class. We burned 21000 calories and $.01/calorie was donated!

Are you still reading? You’re awesome!

Running for a cause is an experience I recommend to anyone. It adds a beautiful dimension to your end goal, and it teaches you patience and empathy. Raising funds is not without effort, however, you campaign for a cause and you must believe in it wholeheartedly. And I do, because I’ve had two difficult labors, not near-death, but complicated enough. My conviction made raising funds relatively easy: I am blessed with such INCREDIBLE support all around me, and I don’t take that for granted for a second. Every single man and woman who contributed to my Crowdrise page gave me a reason to push myself and stay focused.  I was also able to coordinate with two local studios, Orangetheory Fitness (where I was a trainer), and the Barre Code Oak Park, to hold charity classes to help raise funds on a larger scale. The events were extremely successful, but again most important is to raise awareness. That is the public health professional in me.

Two weeks before the race. I felt a completely random and uncomfortable pain in my left heel. I’ve been a competitive runner since junior high, and I’ve never experienced a pain in my heel before. (I blamed it on turning 40!). As a personal trainer, I tried not to self-diagnose, but I had a suspicion it could be the dreaded plantar fasciitis. I rolled and iced my heel and took ibuprofen as needed. Pain, pain, go away. It eventually subsided: I ruled out plantar fasciitis.

Race week. Not much more I could do in terms of fitness to contribute to my race day performance, but my coach reminded me that there are many things that could take me out of it.  One was this nagging heel pain. What on earth was it? I had kept my appointment with a trigger point specialist to confirm the source of the pain. In that first visit the therapist officially ruled out plantar fasciitis (thank GOD), but instead told me my left achilles is wrecked from wearing heels and from something called a ‘semi-pelvis’. Essentially, my right psoas* muscle is so tight (again) that it shortened the length of my right leg, causing my left leg to overwork. Whoa! Imagine hearing this information 6 days before a big race! I walked out with some tools for myofascial massage at the appropriate trigger points. I felt pretty good, however. The psoas muscle, by the way, is a rope-like muscle located deep in the core, and runs obliquely from spine to the femur. The psoas is joined at the hip, literally, by the iliacus, which travels from hip to thigh. Together, the psoas and iliacus make up the iliopsoas–the body’s most powerful hip flexor. Each time I lift my knee, I contract my psoas, and when I step, I extend it. Every step of my run it is being used, so this is a pretty big deal for it to be wound up. 

Are you still here? Probably the second worst thing you could do during race week is read articles entitled “What to know before racing Big Sur”.  Of course I read them, and of course I started second-guessing EVERYTHING. Did I run enough? I should have pushed harder that last run! I should have ran that hill two more times.  All the right questions, but at the wrong time. My friends reminded me I am no stranger to distance and this was something I could “do in my sleep”.  Ok sure, that helped. A smidge.

Fast forward to the big event: the relay! Sunday morning, I woke up at 4:50am, slugged my iced coffee, grabbed my almond butter/banana sandwich and got to my bus stop at 5:30am, the bus departed at 6, and we arrived at Exchange 3 by 6:30am. It was a hurry up and wait…and wait….and wait….My teammates and I had roughly calculated our positions and we estimated based on their paces I would see my runner around 9:15-9:30. It was definitely agonizing for me, given that I had been up since 4:50! I started looking for my runner (who I had just met once the day before) at 9:15, she finally came in at 9:50. I grabbed the baton, handed her my gear bag and took off. It usually takes me 1-2 miles to warm up and loosen up, but there was no time to waste here, and the hills start right away. It was slightly annoying to hold a baton (at Ragnar we have slap bracelets), and my handheld water bottle and a belt for my phone. My pace was as undulating as the hills, ranging from 8 min miles to 10 minute miles. I definitely walked a few times and took in the scenery.

Vistas of my course ahead
Vistas of my course ahead – in the upper right corner

I started my leg, the final 9.2 miles of the marathon, around mile 17. The course was remote for a couple miles and people really started coming out to spectate around mile 21. I’d never seen fresh fruit on a course, so it was awesome to eat orange slices and strawberries (a natural NSAID, I learned). I wish I could tell you how amazing the air smelled: the salty ocean, the pine trees, the flowers. It was incredibly invigorating. Equally challenging to the elevation (my total gain – 622 ft) was the road itself. It was a game for me to maneuver the canted roadway on pace, up and downhill. Maybe that’s why my legs gave out around mile 26…

It was a mind game to tell my calves to hold off their predictable calf spasm until after the race. I looked around me. Some were walking, some were slowly running, some were sprinting. We all cross the same finish line, no matter what our journey. Like the others, I made it – it was not my usual sprint finish, however,

Thank you for supporting me! My team of 21 runners raised over $31,000 at Big Sur.
Thank you for supporting me! My team of 21 runners raised over $31,000 at Big Sur.

but I crossed the line and am ready to go back.

Thank you for reading!



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Be a Renegade.

I’m a Ragnarian!

This past weekend I participated in an epic running event: a relay race! I haven’t done a relay race since my track & field days, and this is arguably the most challenging running-related experience I’ve ever had. The Ragnar Relay is a national running event, which takes place is over two dozen cities across the country, starting in one city, ending 200ish miles somewhere else. The Ragnar Chicago relay started in Madison, Wisconsin, headed east to Milwaukee, south along the Chicago lakefront and finished on Montrose Beach. We ran on country and city roads, trails, sidewalk and pavement, in and out of pouring rain, through the night.

My running group (Best Foot Forward) had two teams sign up for the Ragnar this year, thus we decided to make one a competitive team, and the other slightly less competitive team. I was on the first team, with the goal to win 1st place. Here’s a longish glimpse into what it entails to run on a team of 12 amazing women, eat, run, & ride in a van with 5 others, and sleep for 1.5 hours over a period of 28ish hours.

Van 1 - all decorated and marked by kills. Before we headed to the car wash
Van 1 – We’re all done! Here’s our Suburban, all decorated and marked by 179 kills before we headed to the car wash.

Leg 1: My team was assigned a start at 7:45. I was in van 1, which meant runners 1-6 got the first shift, while van 2 (runners 7-12) slept in and would start in the afternoon. Runner 1 started around 7:50am. We quickly drove off to exchange 1, and I hurriedly got out of the van, slightly overdressed in the misty rain. I’m a little high maintenance when it comes to running in various weather conditions so I was a bit anxious running in the rain. Trust me, this Ragnar experience has squashed all of those anxieties! I cued up my music and started my Charity Miles app as Runner 1 slapped the bracelet on me and I took off. (My teammates and I donated our miles to Every Mother Counts – EMC – via the Charity Miles app!) I knew the route, having reviewed the app but didn’t realize it would have a few slow inclines. I knew my strong legs were trained for hills and could do the work. My van honked at me along their way to the next exchange, and it put a smile on my face. The first couple miles of the 4.5 mile leg felt choppy as I was settling into a pace, calming my nerves and dodging intersections. Around leg two I switched to a different playlist and just took off. I saw a big incline coming, and passed a few more people. Every person you pass is called a ‘kill’ in the Ragnar vernacular, and in that leg I had 10 kills (I think). The ‘one more mile’ sign put another smile on my face as I kicked into higher gear to meet my teammates! As soon as I finished, a wave of adrenaline hit me, and I FINALLY felt energized as I realized the importance of MY part of this big relay team.

How does the team work? Each team has 12 runners, and is divided into 6 runners per van. After each of our 6 runners would complete her first leg, we would have a mini break while van 2 would complete their first 6 legs. At EMC, we say that a relay race is a beautiful metaphor for the experience of childbirth. There are so many people involved in the birth of a child, from family at home, to the transportation, to the birth attendants, every single person plays a vital role into bringing that baby into the world and keeping the mother safe and healthy. We didn’t see our van 2 too often, but we were in constant communication with them, and that we were working toward the same competitive goal is the most amazing feeling. That is true teamwork and takes serious camaraderie.

Team 1 Finish: Van 1 and Van 2 together. We run in with Runner 12. Totally shed some tears coming down that finish line!
Team 1 Finish: Van 1 and Van 2 together. We run in with Runner 12 (in the fuschia tank top). Totally shed some tears coming down that finish line! We decided on finish line costumes: “Ladies of the 80s”

Back to the race!

Leg 2: Everyone was on pace. I was getting more and more excited as we moved from one exchange to the next. Unfortunately, our anchor (runner 6) sustained a leg injury and was unable to complete her miles. (She ended up going home with her husband and her second and third legs were picked up by other teammates – that happens!). Another runner instantly jumped in to go after her, grab the slap bracelet and complete the remaining mileage to the next exchange were van 2 would begin their first legs. That was the first time the entire team of 12 got to see each other since the night before! After we handed off, van 1 headed into town for lunch (Lake Mills, WI). It was refreshing to sit, unwind, talk about our morning, and use a proper restroom. It was also the first time the 6 of us were together since the race started. After lunch we headed to the start of our second shift of running for an opportunity to rest. I pulled out my sleeping bag, laid out on the grass and enjoyed the afternoon sun with a little foam rolling.

Find a place to park, lie down and rest those legs.
Find a place to park, lie down and rest those legs.

By 5:45 pm it was time to get dressed and get moving again. Runner 1 was getting ready to go and it was a short leg so I had to be ready to run as soon as she took off. My second leg was another 4.5 miles, and I came in under my expected time again, and faster than my morning run, which was also coincidentally 4.5 miles. I was feeling so good on that run, so solid, and I had 15 kills! (I had 16, but then a guy I passed ended up passing me). My teammates told me I looked very strong coming into that finish, which is always nice to hear! I handed off the bracelet to runner 3 and we jumped in the car, time for me to get refreshed, and we drove to the next exchange. We had our exchanges down to a science! The team would greet the finishing runner at the chute and ask what she needed. I headed to the back row of the Suburban to change and clean up. We tended to rely upon baby and athletic wipes (Shower Pill!) and removed our wet clothing into sealed bags, which kept our car smelling fresh!

My teammate and I slept in one of these tents on the beach in Racine for about 90 minutes.
My teammate and I slept in one of these tents on the beach in Racine for about 90 minutes.

Leg 3: After runner 5 finished came through, our second set of legs was complete. (Van 2 would pick up our injured runner 6’s leg, which meant it was our turn to rest). We met up with the rest of our team and our other team at what was a rather large exchange location, where there was an indoor sleeping option (with sleeping bags of course). It was close to 10pm and our van decided to quickly inhale Jimmy Johns and drive to ‘tent city’ to sleep in the van or on the beach. A teammate and I opted to sleep in a tent on the beach of Racine. Easily one of the most exhilarating experiences of Ragnar overall! We “slept” from roughly 11:30p-1am. It was really hard to wake up but once we all got going, the energy started to flow again. We felt sluggish on our semi digested sandwiches, and whatever shuteye we could get. I rejoiced in the simple fact that I could lay down horizontally for a bit. This was probably the second lowest moment for me during the entire race – the first being the first 2 miles of leg 1 – as I was exhausted, extremely anxious to run my third leg, and sleep deprived. How could I possibly run fast feeling this way? The pace calculator gave me 1 hour to run my 6.33 legs (we are still wondering who or what the pace calculator does to determine expected finish times). I told my team I was going to take it a little easy and I’d try to run an 8:45 average. I got dressed, headlamp on, butt light on, and a light mist started. No big deal, I told myself, as it didn’t really impact my vision in any way, and it was somewhat refreshing. Around 3am, runner 1 came into the finish, I got the bracelet and took off into the darkness.

Finished my 3rd leg - all done!! 15.3 miles
Finished my 3rd leg – all done!! 15.3 miles

The MRK (Milwaukee-Racine-Kenosha) trail is very much like running on the path in Salt Creek, a trail I run on frequently. I am sure it is just as gorgeous but given that I only had visibility with the headlamp, there wasn’t much to admire at that hour. I dialed into a quick pace right away and tuned into my thoughts (normally I tune out). It was during this run I realized how incredible this entire experience has been thus far, how ridiculous it sounds that I’m traveling by foot from Madison to Chicago, and how a lot of my running fears have been conquered. I am always afraid of falling while running, and here I’m running in the dark and cannot see anything but what is ahead of me. I’m so programmed to running in the morning, and here I clocked an 8:14 average for 4.5 miles at 6:30pm. One after another my fears and hesitations were being smashed, and that encouragement plus my teammates constant motivation kept fueling me through my race. Back to my night run. When MapMyRun told me I was at mile 3, I quickly texted my team to say I was finishing ahead of schedule. After the trail part of the race ended, I ran on a road and some sidewalk. I don’t know exactly where it was, but I made one turn and suddenly I saw the city lights of Chicago ahead of me! I ran along the lake for about a quarter mile gazing at my city, with tears of joy and a big smile on my face. I took my headphones out and absorbed the sounds of the waves and birds chirping (who knew birds are up at 3:30am!?) As soon as I saw the ‘one more mile’ post, I firmed up my pace and focused on a strong finish. I averaged an 8:23 pace and it was easily my most favorite run ever. Period.

What have I learned from this experience? I am reminded that we make up excuses and stories about why we can’t and won’t do certain things outside of our comfort zone. But we NEED to. I do one crazy thing every year to keep challenging my fears and set higher goals. Back in August of last year, I decided this would be it for 2015. Running this race through all sorts of nature also reminded me of how small my daily issues, problems, and fears are, as compared to this big, beautiful world, and how much exploring I need to do! Be a renegade and get out of your head!

Oh in case you were wondering, the preliminary results are in: we won 1st place in our division (all women team).  Stay tuned for the final results!

Yours truly,

(One of ) The Fast Girls Your Mother Warned You About.


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My Interview with the SkinLess Project

The SkinLess Project presents:
Inspirational Woman May 2014: Ayesha Akhtar
An Interview.

I was honored to be the “Inspirational Woman” for the month of May at the SkinLess Project. To hear more about my endeavors, check out the website here.

You are passionate about advocacy for women and young girls, where does this stem from?

In college (Loyola University Chicago) I received a scholarship into a 4 year women’s leadership program. I knew I was some version of a feminist (or a proponent of the advancement of women), but had no idea about the passion the program would ignite in me by the time I graduated. Thereafter, I viewed everything from the lens as an advocate for women and girls. (Check out the Gannon Center for Women and Leadership)

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