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Fasting, Running, and an Act of Kindness

Buzz, buzz, the notification from my Muslim Pro app, which measures Islamic prayer times, appeared on my iPhone screen. Maghrib in 5 minutes, it said. For my non-Muslim readers, this was basically a notification that there were only 5 more minutes left till I could eat and drink, at 9.12p.m., after a day of fasting for Ramadan. Maghrib is the forth prayer of the day which during the fasting month signifies the time to break the fast.

With 5.5 miles under my belt and 3.5 miles left to go, I noticed the darkness of the sky, the emptiness of the sidewalks and the car lights as welcome reminders of nightfall. My heart continued to pound harder with each mile, yet I continued to put one foot in front of another. As time went on, I swallowed my spit to get rid of my thirst, but it was not helping.

My eyes started searching for a store to at least buy water while a battle was going on in my head. One voice said, “you knew it was your long distance running day and you are fasting, then why didn’t you start your run earlier?” The other voice said: “ it is all good, you are almost there. You got this.” As I repeated these sentences out loud, I experienced a sense of comfort. Soon, I accepted that there was no way I would finish my run in time for breaking my fast with my Muslim friends at home and that food would have to wait a little longer. Water, however, I hoped to find on the way.

The last mile of every run, whether 3 miles, a half or a full marathon, tends to be the hardest. As everyone says, you are so close, yet so far. I passed scores of stores with “closed” signs, one after another. Running while fasting sometimes feels like being in 7th century Arabia where the thirst must have been real. That feeling felt all the more true as I couldn’t find a.n.y.w.h.e.r.e. to get water. As these thoughts played around my head, my eyes were about to miss an open gas station on the other side of the street.

Smiling, I moved my hands faster to help me accelerate, ran up the hill on the tip of my feet, and the excitement at the thought of drinking water after fasting for nearly 18 hours was taking over all of my body and my thoughts. I swallowed more of my spit, and ran a bit faster. It was 9:25 pm, 13 minutes after Iftar, breaking fast time, and here I was still running on the sidewalk.

I paused my music, took my credit card from my phone case, and entered the store. As I slid my credit card over the counter, I noticed a 6’2 foot, black man with eye-catching brown eyes standing on the other side.

“Are you fasting?” he curiously asked as he lowered his gaze. With a dry mouth, empty stomach, and short breath, I nodded my head with a surprise. How does he know about fasting? The question rose in my head but since I had no energy to ask, my legs dragged me toward the aisle with the fridge of water. The only thing I could think about were the 1.5 miles that I still had to run and the water that I was about to drink.

I drank the water slowly, reminding myself that otherwise I would be very uncomfortable for the rest of the run. I walked back to the counter to get my card. He said, “Have some dates, would you want some tea?” By now, I was convinced that he was Muslim. He gave me his only dates that were wrapped in aluminum paper. He slid my credit card my way and said, Happy Ramadan, Have a good rest of your run. And, for one last time asked, "Are you sure you don’t want tea?”

Speechless, shocked (in a good way!) and happy are the right terms to describe how I felt right at that moment. Someone knew what I was going through, and was so kind to offer me his own dates, water, and food. This was perhaps one of the first times when I didn’t have to respond to questions like why do you fast? Why are you running while fasting? How can you do this? Are you committing sin or not? No questions asked, no confused look, no judgment passed, he purely helped me.

That night for the rest of the run, I thought of all the times I was questioned about fasting for Ramadan. Vivid memories of being challenged about fasting in 2012 flashed before my eyes. It was me and him throwing rocks at the lake on a hot July day. As I refused to taste his lunch, he asked me, “How can you not eat for so long? How can you do it?”

“Your body gets used to it.” I had said with a confidence in my voice, which even surprised myself.

"But, how though? I don’t see how your body can all of sudden be fine with no food, no water." He stared at me with a world of confusion.

I paused to gather my thoughts and asked myself his question. How? Immediately, I wanted to say, "it is like any other thing in life, if you have done it for a long period of time then you get used to it.”

But, I had stopped myself from saying all of these things. Ramadan is about more than a habit of not eating or drinking.

The holy month of Ramadan is more than just a month of fasting for approximately 18 hours without any food or water. It is the month of mercy, blessing, coming together, and reconnecting with your creator. Ramadan is about controlling not only your hunger but also your desires and wrong-doings. The holy month seems too short for many Muslims, and there is a constant sadness as the countdown to the end starts going down from 30 days to 20 to 10 ... It is the month of discipline and proving to yourself cliché quotes like “ if you put your mind to it, then you can do anything” or “Your happiness depends on your mental stage.” Not hitting the snooze button when your alarm goes off at 4 am for your first meal of the day before sunrise, managing your thoughts and priorities, and waiting till 9 or even 10 at night to break the fast are all ways of conveying a bigger message. Ramadan teaches about commitment, principle, discipline and the impact of simple acts of kindness.

Just at the end of my 9 mile run, I realized I was about to miss my street! I felt ready to run another three miles, and hunger and thirst were the last things on my mind. Once again, the beauty of this month was proven by a simple act of kindness from the shopkeeper.

Now if you have ever wondered, how can I survive my long runs without eating or drinking for nearly 18 hours? Then I can tell you that Ramadan has taught me, and continues to teach me, the principled approach, mental strength, and discipline that are essential to completing any run.

Ramadan Kareem! Happy Ramadan!

The Hijabi Runner

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