Lolwa Almarri – First Qatari Ironwoman
On 29th August 2021, Lolwa Almarri crossed the IronmanHamburg finish line, making her the first-ever Qatari woman to complete afull-distance triathlon.
Swimming for 3.8 kilometres, immediately getting on a bike and ridinganother 180, topping that off with a marathon then finally hearing thewords “You are an Ironman”; from start to finish, a first iron distanceis a memory for life in any triathlete’s career. But Lolwa isn’t justany triathlete. In fact, until last December, she wasn’t a triathlete atall – a cross-fitter, a mountain walker while studying biomedicalscience in the UK, but not a triathlete. She did short runs but didn’tswim or own a bicycle. Then, impressed by the endurance exploits ofHichame Moubarak, she set out to pay the inspiration forward.
A more conventional Ironman journey is via a love of one or more oftriathlon’s component disciplines. You cycle, run or swim. You put themtogether. You enter a short race, then a longer one and some will gofurther to set their sights on an Ironman. The World TriathlonCorporation, owners of the brand, even added a stepping-stone that hasovertaken the commercial success of its big brother. The half-distance’Ironman 70.3’ has allowed more endurance junkies than ever before tostake a claim on being an Ironman but the real deal remains far lesscommon.
That Lolwa’s motivation wasn’t the challenge of completion, ratherthe 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 chosenvehicle 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 thesame time, she acknowledges that her own family are concerned, “Mymother worries about doing sport outdoors, but I have done this and Iam still a normal woman. I am still feminine.”
Eight months to achieve what others spend years building up to isn’t along time. It took three meetings with Doha-based coach, Gerda Dumitru,to convince her to support the mammoth task of turning someone whostruggled to swim the length of a pool into someone who could navigate3.8 kilometres in open water. Let alone the rest. “I warned her, ‘Thisis not a joke, this is high risk, it’s not a joke’, but she had thisfire in her eyes, and it convinced me,” Gerda recalls.
The relationship developed with both athlete and coach learning fromeach other. Lolwa borrowed a two-sizes-too-big bike and startedtraining. Some days Gerda would question why she hadn’t completed thefive hours of graft that she had prescribed and Lolwa would replydefiantly, “When? I work in a lab in Hamad hospital during a pandemic.When could I do this?”
Nevertheless, Lolwa describes their relationship with passion, “Wewere the dream team! I had so many doubts but she knew exactly what tosay to motivate me.” For her part, Gerda is in deep admiration of herprotégé as an athlete, “She is so driven and fierce but with that shehas good intelligence and stays collected. She has overcome much morethan simply learning how to be a triathlete.”
Covid-19 of course threw up other obstacles. At times, with publicpools closed, training was in a nine meter pool, swimming on the spotwith elastic attached to her waist. A lot of her marathon training hadto be indoors and, as Qatar’s summer hit, there was little opportunityto swim in the sea to learn the vital triathlon skills of heading in astraight line while dealing with currents and the chop from otherathletes in close proximity. In fact, race day was the first time shehad any experience of wearing a wetsuit. Triathletes will understand theenormity of that but others can perhaps imagine running a half marathonin new shoes, one size too small. To novices, swimming wrapped inneoprene is as different as breaststroke is from freestyle.
Then, just one week out from day zero, the virus played its trumpcard. Ironman Kazakhstan was cancelled due to rising infection ratesthere. Lolwa couldn’t wait. She had work commitments and she needed areplacement with a strong chance of going ahead. The German race justthree weeks later was a good candidate but would throw up challenges forwhich they hadn’t prepared.
However, both Gerda and Lolwa also highlighted the positives ofCovid; the new communities of women who have discovered cycling, runningand other outdoor exercise while the gyms were closed and who theybelieve will now seek out their own challenges.
Ironman is hard for everyone. It is a long day (Lolwa’s time was 13hours 27 minutes) but unlike shorter, more intense races, there isplenty of time to appreciate the scenery, atmosphere and crowd support.Lolwa describes it as the most beautiful experience, “At the start I wasnervous but I could tell myself, I know I’m going to have fun. I knowI’m going to enjoy it.”
And enjoy it she did. “I loved the swim!” she says, “Even thoughthere were dead fish in the water and I hadn’t swum there before becausemy coach didn’t want me to get sick!”
Hamburg is truly a race which show-cases its host. Those dead fishwere floating in the lakes adjacent to the historic city centre andHamburg’s massive port. “On the bike it was cold, windy and raining andI’ve never ridden in those conditions before, but the course goes allaround this beautiful city and my coach made sure I had the rightclothes!”
After six and a half hours on the bike, her run starts. This isusually the hardest part. “I didn’t take it seriously at the start –chatting, taking pictures – but then an Egyptian man told me I can stillenjoy but run faster and I started to increase my pace and take itseriously. In the last ten kilometres I was trying to pass a French ladyand we had so much support from the crowds. I was so happy. I carriedsuch pride in my heart!”
If Lolwa paints a rosy picture, perhaps that is the real appeal ofIronman. Nobody remembers the hurt, only the joy. Gerda fills in some ofthe blanks, “She went to the race very scared and over-whelmed but shedid everything I asked of her. Her swim was within a few minutes of the 1hour 35 minutes we planned. I told her to hold 27 to 28 Kph on the bikeand she did that even though she is very capable of pushing harder.Then you can see in her split times that she lost her race food after130 kilometers on the bike, so by the beginning of the run she wasexperiencing some real gut trouble. After she vomited she was able torun well again.”
Lolwa wanted to make a statement and inspire her peers and has nodoubt that she has achieved that. The young Qatari is now lookingforward to the Qatar National Triathlon Series events when they start inOctober, humbly acknowledging, “These distances are better for me!”.She started out with a message for Qatari women but concludes with somewords for anyone confronting a challenge. “You will never be ready.Don’t wait for the right moment. Take your caffeine and train!”
This article first appeared in Doha News on 13th September 2021. Republished with permission. The Qatar National Triathlon Series starts on October 30th
Race photos credit: Finisherpix