Meet Manal Rostom, the First Egyptian and Arab to run the Polar Circle Marathon and More…
Manal Rostom is an interesting mix; an international marathon runner, a fitness instructor, a public speaker, a health and wellness influencer, a personal trainer, the founder of a global women’s organization, and the first Nike ambassador to wear the hijab.
A former pharmacist, Manal now resides in Dubai and embraces running and healthy living— being the first Egyptian to have completed five out of the six world marathon majors. She has also climbed some of the highest peaks in the world from Mont Blanc to Mount Kilimanjaro. She is the founder and leader of a community called 'Surviving Hijab' - which now counts almost a million people amongst its members, empowering all veiled women to survive the difficulties they encounter every day.
Sports & Fitness spoke to Manal Rostom about one of her most astonishing achievements— The Polar Circle Marathon.
An inspiring career shift that led to wonders: A full-time pharmacist following her passion for sports
“Sports have been always a passion. I tried everything you could imagine; ice-skating, horse riding, rollerblading, and volleyball and basketball in High School,” Manal said. I was born and raised in Kuwait and I joined the track and field team back in 1993 in High School, and I used to participate in Kuwait foreign schools’ athletic competitions across the country, and that’s what made me fall in love with running. Running stayed with me since then. I believe that running is one of the cheapest sports; you don’t need specific equipment or a gym membership, so it is easy to do anytime, anywhere. It is so therapeutic; although it is a solo sport, you can get the pros of focusing on yourself and clearing your mind.”
Like any Egyptian kid, Manal followed the typical pattern of joining a high-end university after school. She was choosing between pharmacy and medicine, and she ended up choosing pharmacy. She has a master’s in Clinical Pharmacy and had worked in the field for 14 years. She made a shift in her career at the age of 30 after she lost her corporate job in a pharmaceutical company. “When you lose your job, you either stay persistent to choose another job or go through the unwalked path.” And at this time, she had a choice to either find another job and follow the same path, or take her side hobby for sports and coaching, and make it her full-time job and career.
“Running around the world has been always a dream, and my passion made it happen.”
After 14 years in a reputable profession, it becomes a comfort zone; on an emotional level, professional level, and financial level. So, how was her transition journey like?
Transition phases are scary indeed. You’re never sure about anything during that time; are you making the right choice? What if you messed up? Will you be able to afford your loss if it didn’t turn out the way you thought? A lot of questions run into your head but still, one voice keeps pushing you forward towards this new unclear path… your dream, and the passion that drives it.
So, behind every remarkable success, there is a struggle. Manal shared with us some of the hardships she faced during her journey.
“Of course, it was not an easy decision to take, to leave stability and security to explore the unknown. But you know what? That was my calling…my wake-up call. If I couldn’t do it at 36, I wouldn’t do it at all. I had a dream and that’s it, I have to follow that voice. However, the first two years were very tough. I had to move in with another girl to reduce the costs. And then I moved in with another flat mate. And it was really really hard because I was 36, and sharing an apartment due to financial limitations.
“In January 2018, I faced a financial problem, using up all the money I was planning to spend during this transition phase. I was like, ‘okay I need to get myself out of this!’ I didn’t want to break my lifetime savings.”
In 2019, Manal made a vow to take things to the next level. “I stopped working for free,” she said. “Anything related to brands, ads, and of course coaching… nothing was for free.”
A lot of brands call out individuals who’re starting their journey and convince them to work for them for free just for the exposure, experience,…etc. Manal didn’t believe that this was favorable and now sees it as an abuse of talent.
During that year, Manal was booming. She started doing talks all over the world; from Romania, Scotland, to the Middle East, and more. But then, the pandemic hit.
The pandemic was very challenging as everything stopped and places closed. No call-outs, no events, so there was financial instability. The first two months of 2020 took a downturn, but then, experience taught Manal how to better measure the risks and calculate her steps.
“I don’t like calling myself a social media influencer, but I am. I collaborate with brands and get paid. I’d rather say I’m a coach, but that’s not what pays my bills.”
For her 42nd birthday, Manal Rostom became the first Egyptian and Arab woman to run 42.2km in the Polar Circle Marathon in Greenland
The Polar Circle Marathon in Greenland took her 6 hours and 19 minutes to complete! She ranked the 25th out of 32 women and the 80th overall. What a way to celebrate her birthday!
The Polar Circle Marathon: From A to Z
“In 2014, I was researching the world’s marathons and I found the China Wall Marathon and was astonished! It was a BIG dream to run the wall of China. The idea itself was incredibly awesome. In 2016, I participated in the China Wall Marathon. I was the first Egyptian to do it. There, I was given a book where the Polar Circle Marathon was mentioned. The idea stayed on my mind since then. I went to California after, and enjoyed the -10 weather there, and was like ‘why not try to train for a marathon in weather like this!’ This is how the whole thing started.”
The challenge of changing the opportunities for other runners is not her only goal. Manal is just one step away from completing her Abbott World Marathon Majors Six Star journey with only Tokyo left.
Manal took up 6 world marathon major challenges, running London, Berlin, Chicago, New York, and Boston. She finished 5 out of 6.
“I was so focused to be the first Egyptian to finish it. I wanted to put Egypt’s name out there, so it was a dream to finish all 6. I have Tokyo left, I’m eager to go for it, but since the pandemic happened, the country has been having restrictions, not allowing anyone in.”
Her main challenge in 2020 was the Polar Circle Marathon. She already registered, but after the pandemic, it got canceled. “In that case, you’d either get a refund or join the marathon in 2021. It was going to take place on the 30th of October, which was my birthday. I was running 42 km for my 42nd birthday.”
Participants need to finish the marathon in less than 7 hours. “I was like, I’m not definitely losing on my birthday. This is my birthday gift,” she expressed.
Manal was coming back from an injury when she ran this marathon. She took 6 months off running from January to June and was doing rehab to get ready for this marathon. “It was so interesting to have this as a comeback. It was fun, different, challenging. Running in such a weather was…different; It was confusing the body; you’re cold, but then you run and sweat so you’re warm but still cold, you know!” And after all the hard work, Manal made her dream happen and became the first Egyptian and the first Arab woman to finish it.
First Hijabi to Become a Nike Ambassador
“My email to Nike was after I founded Surviving Hijab, which was in August 2014, and it gave me a voice and the confidence to reach out and tell bigger brands: "Hey look, we exist, there is not enough Muslim women representation currently on the sports front, and the question is ‘Why’?".
There are so many beautiful women out there changing the sport of their relative countries, and I was lucky enough that my email hit the right person at the right time.
“So, it wasn’t easy, but I showed them there is a gap and indeed, I was the first hijabi to be featured in Nike campaign… It has been 7 years now.”
Manal’s still hoping to fulfill her dream to finish climbing 7 mountains, and the 6 world marathon majors. Manal mentioned a surprising fact that she has no Egyptian collaboration from sponsors at all in Egypt, although all the accomplishments achieved are with the aim of making her country proud.
“I might be based in Dubai and have my life there, but I am EGYPTIAN, and my dream is always to be the first Egyptian to do this and that.”
Her main sponsors are Nike and MyProtein. She is open to sponsorships from Egyptian entities.
“It is really good to see Egyptian brands supporting athletes, and I want to have that.”
Manal’s an inspiration to many women, and she has exclusively shared with us some wonderful advice for all women out there.
- Listen to your inner voice. If it is loud enough, it will get you places.
- ‘Follow your passion’ might sound so cliché, but passion will make things work… it will give you the power to go through and against all odds.
- If you’re passionate enough, stay patient and persevere. Reach out to people who can support you, or people who really inspire you, and follow in their footsteps.