Swimming for 3.8km, immediately getting on a bike and riding another 180, 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 Lolwa isn’t just any triathlete. In fact, until last December, she wasn’t 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 didn’t 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.
That Lolwa’s motivation wasn’t the challenge of completion but the clear intent to publically 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 isn’t 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 kilometres in open water. Let alone the rest. Gerda 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.”
The relationship developed with both athlete and coach learning from each other. Lolwa borrowed a two-sizes-too-big bike and started training. Some days Gerda would question why she hadn’t completed the five hours of graft that she had prescribed and Lolwa would reply defiantly, “When? I work in a lab in Hamad hospital during a pandemic. When could I do this?”
Nevertheless, Lolwa 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, Gerda 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 meter 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.
Then, just one week out from day zero, the virus played its trump card. Ironman Kazakhstan was cancelled due to rising infection rates there. Lolwa couldn’t 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.