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Lessons of Marathon Training in a Muslim Society

Taylor Smith

How training for a half marathon—by not training—teaches Taylor about adjusting to a new culture.   

This month, my employer asked me to run a half marathon on their behalf. As a proudly serious runner back home, I agreed enthusiastically.

Training for a long race takes a lot of time, energy and commitment. Starting months in advance I build my daily schedule around my training schedule to factor in rest days and long runs. I pass on lots of social outings, because I know that 6 a.m. alarm for my 15-kilometre run will not accept the excuse of “but it was a friend’s birthday!”

Training for a long race in Iraq takes a lot of time, energy, commitment and sheer determination. Believe it or not, women don’t exactly sprint down the street wearing Nike trainers and Lululemon spandex leggings. And the few gyms that even allow women usually have limited hours for them. The obstacles to training in the United States seem frivolous compared with my new home.

Training for a long race in Iraq takes determination. Believe it or not, women don’t exactly sprint down the street wearing Lululemon leggings, and the few gyms that even allow women usually have limited hours for them.

That being said, I’ve learned a lot about myself and cultural adjustment by attempting to maintain this part of my Western identity. First, I ignored the advice not to run in the streets of my neighbourhood. I was rewarded with stares, street harassment, and even a torn-up knee when I fell in the unpaved streets. Lesson learned: If a local tells me not to do something, I don’t do it.

So, I adjusted my habits and found a solution; I split the cost of a treadmill with a friend. It isn’t nearly as satisfying as my runs along the Charles River in Boston used to be, but it does allow me to maintain some part of my identity while conforming to society. Of course, there are days where I feel like I would give my left arm to run outside in shorts and a tank top (especially in this heat), but I’m learning to adapt and embrace the frustration.

Long races are all about beating the challenge, and the challenges I’ve been facing in training will only better mentally prepare me for the challenging race. This race is most likely going to be one of the only times I get to run freely outside, and it will probably be one of my worst race times ever. But, that’s okay. Moving abroad isn’t supposed to be a glamorous experience of new adventures complete with all your old habits.

There are lessons I’m learning here that can be applied to anything I do abroad. By finding a solution that allows me to still hold onto my love of running while adhering to the cultural standards of my new home, I’m learning to adapt. That flexibility may not help me win the battle of completing 21 kilometres in a personal record, but it will certainly help me win the war of assimilation.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Taylor Smith

Taylor Smith is an Italian American living in Erbil, Iraq. She recently graduated from Emerson College with two degrees in Multimedia Journalism and Political Communication. Currently, she works as a teacher, freelance journalist, and documentarian for local NGOs.

Website: globewatchblog.wordpress.com

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