We hear from one of our awesome members, Areej Mansour, about how she found the motivation to complete her first marathon and the incredible highs and the grueling lows that went with it.
Hi, my name is Areej, I’m 39 and a half I’m Jordanian of Palestinian origin. I grew up here in the UAE I grew up in Sharjah. I’ve called the UAE home for most of my life pretty much.
When and why did you start CrossFit?
Around late 2015 I asked friends for recommendations for podcasts I can listen to. Kim Smith suggested that I listen to the InnerFight podcast. I listened to it, the guys seemed to know what they were talking about but they also said that they had a 5:30am class. I work, I have two kids so I wanted to do something try a class that I could fit in all my commitments, fit in the school run and get to work on time and 5:30 was perfect for me.
What is your day job?
I work for a bank, I’m in client services.
What is your favourite workout?
So I don’t have a favourite workout per se but there’s certain movements that I really enjoy like I like deadlifts, I like squats. On occasion I actually enjoy thrusters too.
What is your most hated workout?
So most hated movement is burpees, I just don’t think they’re necessary.
When you’re not training you’re…
So I’m usually trying to take my kids out and about to try and expose them to as many different things to broaden their horizons.
What is ‘fitness’ to you?
Just being able to move my body in a healthy manner. To achieve my goals basically.
What else should we know about you?
I don’t really like running actually, which is a simple answer but the other answer is my life changed course after a boat trip that I thought was going to be fatal in November 2015. To tell you the story, basically, I had gone to Thailand on a holiday and I’d gone to Koh Phangan and to get to Koh Phangan I had to fly into Bangkok and from Bangkok I had to fly to Koh Samui and from Koh Samui I had to catch a ferry to Koh Phangan and once I got to Koh Phangan I had to get a fisherman’s boat to get to the bay where the hotel I was staying in was. It was rainy season in Thailand and I was done with my hotel stay and I had one more day in Thailand and the next day I was flying out back to Dubai so I had to get on that fisherman’s boat to get back to the bay to catch the ferry but it was a very stormy morning, it was raining, the seas were high and the lady at the hotel was like I can’t let you get on the boat and I said you don’t understand I have to get on the boat I have a flight tomorrow…I have to do this today and she said okay and I had to go find the fisherman to get on the boat and at 8am he’s standing there smoking a spliff and I was like it’s 8am dude chill out wait a bit and then after I got on the boat I understood because the waves were so high we kept crashing into the waves and I was so convinced that we were going to die. I was just sitting on the boat and I was like Dear God please just get me through this and I kept thinking at the time the stories of all the refugees trying to cross the seas so I kept thinking of all the refugees and thinking my God if I’m doing this for pleasure and they’re doing this for survival these people are like you know how bad must it be for them. So it gave me a different perspective, I came back, I was a lot more relaxed, I was more chilled, a chilled person. I started refocusing on what was important and you know like there’s certain things that are more important than others. If there’s pressures at work there’s pressures at work it’s not going to end my life. You know families important, family first. My health and well being is equally important as well so I prioritise these things, I started leaving work at a reasonable hour, I stopped looking at my phone after work. You know I focused on what was important to me and I made sure that I went out and did it. And so that was part of oh I want to listen to new podcasts and that’s how I wound up at InnerFight.
I love the environment, it’s a great place. There’s some really incredible people here. They all inspire me because they’re all out there doing amazing things every single day smashing their goals in their own way and I’m just glad to be part of this place.
What does ‘No Weakness’ mean to you?
Going after what you want, pushing through the pain until you get to where you need to get. Just not stopping no matter how much it hurts.
Why did you want to do a marathon?
I’ve been working with Marcus, Marcus is my running coach since May 2017. To explain why I wanted to do the marathon I have to tell you why I wanted to work with Marcus. So any of the coaches have seen me in the classes or any of the members who have seen me in the classes will tell you I don’t like running. I hate it when you tell me do 50 burpees then run a kilometer then come back and do snatches. But I was listening to the podcast one day and Marcus said oh I have a running program and 2017 was a bit of interesting year for me because you know it was the year I pushed myself to step outside of my comfort zone so it started with The Open, so I did The Open first and I enjoyed that and then in April Heidi Jones asked me if I wanted to go for a hike with her in Showka and so I did and they tricked me into running a bit of it and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the little bit of running that I did while I was there. I walked a lot more than I ran but I enjoyed that. So it was in the back of my mind that I enjoyed doing these things that I wouldn’t normally do and I was stepping out of my comfort zone so when he said I have a running program I said okay fine you know what Areej why don’t you try this, why don’t you try stepping out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself to do something that you claim to dislike so intensely and so we started with the program. Marcus is an amazing coach. We started from the bottom. He took it back to basics, he worked within what I thought was my limits but he was slowly pushing my limits to show me that actually the limits are in your mind and bit by bit I was going further, I was lasting longer I signed up to my first race early October. First 5km race and then I had another 5km race at the end of October and then I did the 10km in January, Standard Chartered 10km in January. Then I did another 10km race in February and then I did a 10mile race in April and I think early on I knew okay what’s the furthest I can. Well it’s not that I knew I thought what’s the furthest I can do, what’s the biggest stretching goal I can do if I do this. And it felt to me at the time that the biggest stretching goal I could do was a marathon so I said right if I’m going to do this I’m going to do it properly I’m going to push myself all the way and the thought of a marathon scared me so much I felt like I have to do this If I don’t do this I’m never going to know how far I can go.
How did you feel at the start line?
Obviously there’s a whole mix of anxiety and nerves and excitement. I was really excited to finally go out and do this. A little bit anxious, I had my fears I thought oh my God what if it rains because the weathers unpredictable in Beirut at that time. I was concerned about my toenails falling off…vanity I know. Not finishing was never something that crossed my mind I always knew that I was going to finish. But I also had a moment of calm. The day before I left I thought 42km is nothing. Honestly this is what came to my mind. There were people running 70km that weekend, there are people who are training to run 200km across the desert. You know there are people who are training to run 140km, 42km really was nothing and I was so sure of that and I still say that with absolute certainty 42k is still nothing in the grand scheme of things when you look at what other people are trying to achieve.
How were you feeling throughout the marathon?
Obviously it was a 42km marathon in a beautiful historic city Beirut. Beirut is an amazing city, it’s a city of contrasts. They really fixed it up after the war but they also kept elements of the war so some of the buildings were bullet ridden. They had massive holes in them and I feel like that was authentic to the nature of the city. So I tried to soak as much of that in in the first 10km and it helped that around the first 10km was mainly by the water front. So we were running by the Mediterranean sea and the air was fresh. It was just a wonderful start and the organisors of the marathon had roped in around 4000 volunteers, 4000 plus volunteers so the volunteers were all dotted along the route and they made the experience amazing so they were standing there cheering us on so the first 10km actually felt like a party. The next I would say 5 or 8km we were running through some parts of Beirut that were not as nice I saw some of the garbage problems that they were talking about I also felt like this was authentic to the experience as I felt like the marathon organisors wanted us to see all of Beirut and not just the new bits or the nice bits. The route was a bit tough because there was several u-turns So the first u-turn which was up to around kilometer 19 was fine I knew that there was a wall coming up I felt the beginning of the wall coming up around kilometer 24 Marcus and I had worked on a strategy pre-race day and he said this is the pace you go onto up until kilometer 25 and if you feel fine you can drop it a little bit for the last 10 miles I got to kilometer 25 and it wasn’t happening, I wasn’t going to go faster and then I remember getting to around kilometer 28 and thinking that’s it Areej you’ve gone through two thirds of the marathon now just one third left to go and you’ll be fine but then that was around also the second u-turn and that was the toughest u-turn because it felt like it was never ending. I remember getting a message from Marcus saying you’re doing great keep going and I sent him a message back saying I’m really struggling right now I just want to get through this u-turn and I know I’m going to be fine. I was sure with absolute certainty once I got to this point and I did the loop back I was going to be fine. And he sent me a very encouraging video message saying ‘You’re doing great don’t worry you’re going to finish this’ and I need to pause at this point and say so at this point obviously the people who are going fast were going fast and then there was just people like me so it was me and runners were grouping together so two or three people running together people who know each other so it was me running on my own and even though I was on my own I wasn’t actually alone because I had my phone with me and on the other end of the line I had my husband I had my sister, I had Marcus I had people wishing me well I had people encouraging me and supporting me to push forward. So I think around kilometer 31 I was getting ready to do the last turn. This is where I hit the wall and I started crying so I messaged my sister and I said I’m really struggling, I want to get through this I just want this to be over and she said to me don’t worry it gets better after kilometer 34. So kilometer 34 came and went and didn’t get better, Kilometer 35 came and went and didn’t get any better either. I wanted to do the last u-turn because mentally the last u-turn that was it and I was done I was going to run straight to the finish. Kilometer 36 came and went no u-turn and then just after that I managed to do the u-turn and hit kilometer 37. Around kilometer 38 there was a blind woman who was running in front of me I’d seen her running with her group and she was amazing but she was having a breakdown and I saw her and I said to her I stopped and at this point I was crying as well and I said to her you’re doing amazing don’t worry keep pushing through and seeing her gave me the energy to kind of push through so I started running again. I think around just after that point someone from the marathon media group saw me and she started running with me and she started asking what’s your story what are you doing here where do you come from so I told her my story and that kind of gave me an extra bit of energy and then I think around kilometre 39 I found the Palestinian flag on the ground so I picked that up and thought I have to run home with this. I’d been messaging my sister obviously all this time and she said I’ll come back to you at kilometer 41 and we’ll run together so I met her at kilometer 41 and we just went straight through to the end up until 42.2 where around I think in the last 200m Kim was waiting for me, she’d already finished her half so she filmed my ending. In the last 50m or so the media woman from the Beirut marathon was there as well and so she was cheering me on and it was just amazing to finish. The crowds were there. Everyone was cheering everyone on. It was a massive supportive environment and the energy was just overwhelming. You had to finish at that point whether you had the energy or not you just wanted to finish so it was incredible.
What was the hardest part?
When I hit the wall. Because I think this is important for people to know I just wanted to sit I wanted to take a break but I knew if I did that that was going to be game over so I kept telling myself just keep moving keep pushing forward one step in front of the other. My legs were sore at that point my feet were hurting me so I kept telling myself. You’re not in pain, You’re not in pain, You’re doing fine. It became kind of like this single minded thing like I kept repeating these things. Keep pushing forward. You’re not in pain. Because if I thought that I was in pain if I allowed myself to think that I was in pain for one minute or if I allowed myself to stop for one minute I knew that I was never going to finish so not finishing was never an option.
What was the support like when you finished?
So it was amazing. I was surprised actually as soon as I finished the marathon there was some people who came up to me and said you did so great they were absolute strangers, I didn’t know them. They’d seen me waving the Palestinian flag, ‘Oh we’re so happy to see someone waving the Palestinian flag’. It gave me a high it was an amazing high and the high kind of carried me through to the next day when I got back home. When I got back home my kids were obviously waiting for me. My daughter, she’s four years old, she came up to me and she hugged me and said I’m so proud of you and I kind of felt like thank you you know what I’m glad you’re proud of me because I hope one day you’ll up to me and say I can do this too.
What would your advice be to anyone wanting to enter a marathon?
Anyone thinking of doing their first marathon I would say absolutely go for it. Don’t even think about it. Don’t stop and feed your fears. Put your fears behind you because your fears are going to stop you. Get a running coach. Having a running coach really helped me. Get a group of supportive people. So important, people who are going to encourage you and feed you with positive energy. In the run up to the race and on race day itself as well and just know that you’re not alone. You might be on your own but you’re never alone. There’s people waiting for you on the other end of the line and they just want to see you succeed.
I know what I want to do next I just need to make sure that Marcus is in on it I need to make sure I have his okay because the way I work with him I see it as a partnership. He’s my coach and I rely on him a lot for guidance. Right now I’m just taking it easy I’m trying to sleep as much as possible. Trying to drink as much as possible. Trying to eat well. Going for dips in the sea, I saw my physio yesterday and she said I was okay. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. My legs are sore but that’s to be expected. You can’t run a marathon without experiencing pain.
What else helped you through this challenge?
At the start of the year I started working with Heidi Jones as part of the group coaching and I said at the start of the year at the beginning my goal is to run a marathon and she was amazing. She was incredibly supportive with that. She got me to think about what I was trying to do and more importantly why I was trying to do it. So she asked me some questions that were a bit tough and made me uncomfortable but it helped me uncover my ‘why’. I’m a big fan of Holly and her food as well I’m on the paleo meal plan and when I stick to it I feel great so I’ve been on the meal plan since January on and off mainly more on than off and obviously you know having Marcus as an amazing coach and the last thing is the people here at the gym have been amazing. Every time I tell someone I want to do a marathon or I’m working on a marathon or I’m leaving for the marathon. Everyone’s just been amazingly supportive. There were so many messages I received before and after. People wishing me well. It was just a wave of positive energy that kept me going.
We all have these goals and we all think this is a big goal it’s a stretch goal and I just hope if someone just listens to my story they’ll think I can do this as well. If she did it I can do it because you have to go after the goals that scare you. The goals that seem hard. You have to be willing to put in the hard work. It’s a process and you know sometimes the process is easy and sometimes the process is challenging but you take what you can from the process and you try and make the most the experience and I hope people do it too. Everyone has different goals. People want to climb a mountain, sail across the sea, whatever their goal is, I hope this encourages them to achieve that as well
Any final words?
Initially Marcus had registered to do the Beirut marathon as well. He and I were due a catch up when he had his accident in February. I dropped by the hospital to check in on him and we discussed potential marathons and identified Beirut as the most ideal one. We registered for the marathon as soon as it opened. Then his 30 marathons in 30 days was planned. I could tell he felt really bad when he told me about 30 x 30, as he had committed to join me, he even offered to fly in for the race and leave the same day. But I understood how important his marathons were going to be for him and the significance of what he was trying to achieve. I was just as excited for him to take on his challenge as I was for my first marathon. This is one of the many reasons why I think he is an amazing coach!