May Al Haji

The rise of an Ironwoman

“I’ve always been an active person. As a child you would find me either playing barefoot outside with the neighbourhood children or kicking a football around with my cousins. I was  sporty from a young age and was always encouraged by my parents to try new activities and sports.

When I was growing up, my father owned a welding business and one of his clients was the Bahrain Tennis Federation (BTF). Sometimes I accompanied him on work visits. On one such occasion, I remember being mesmerised by a match of tennis that was being played. I remember thinking to myself, “I want to do that!” When I expressed this desire to my father, he didn’t hesitate in buying me my first racket at the age of 12. After that, tennis became the centre of my life and I went on to play competitively in the Bahrain National Tennis Team.

My father wasn’t sporty and nor is my mother. We come from a humble, hardworking background. I am the eldest of three girls and I’m the only athlete in the family. I am not sure where my love of sport and drive to perform comes from. I think I was lucky to have parents who allowed me to pursue my interests. They did not push me and when I wanted to play tennis, they simply encouraged.

Nine years ago, my husband and I were excited to welcome our first child, a gorgeous daughter. As with many new parents, our lives were turned upside down as we adjusted to having a baby. As much as I loved tennis, I realised that as a young mum, it was difficult to schedule matches around my friends’ work schedules and baby’s routine. It was at this time that I recognised that I was suffering from postpartum depression. Having always lived an active and athletic lifestyle, as much as I loved my new baby, I felt like I needed time away from her too. I felt guilty for feeling this way, but after researching and talking to people, I understood that my feelings weren’t uncommon. It became clear to me that in order to help myself through this, I had to look after myself so that I could be the best mother I could be. I knew that getting active again would help me.

I wanted to slowly reintroduce exercise into my life, but I wasn’t sure how. I came across a running group called the Bahrain Roadrunners. On my first run with them, I could barely see the end of 1km! But I didn’t let that stop me. The people in the group were so encouraging that I kept going back and with each run, I improved. Soon after taking up running, I found out that I was pregnant with baby number 2! I was elated with the news and stayed active throughout my pregnancy. I even entered a relay competition at the start of my third trimester.

Ironwoman May, running at at the Ironman Middle East Championship in December 2018.

Before I began running, I didn’t even know what a triathlon was, and I certainly never dreamed that I would train for one! I went to the Sofitel in Zallaq to watch a local triathlon event in 2012, and I told myself, “I want to do that!” So, I began training. I think I’m always up for a challenge and as much as I hate to admit it, I have a competitive streak. There is a thrill I get from challenging my body. A triathlon of course has three components, two of which I could do (run and cycle) but there was one thing I couldn’t do – I couldn’t swim! I’d never learned to swim and around the age of 33, I jumped in the pool for first time! I used to be laughed at because of the way I swam. I could have stopped, but I didn’t. It really wasn’t easy and it took a lot of coaching and hard work to
get to a strong competitive level. Now, every time I swim at a triathlon and get out of the sea, it’s a win for me! I am an example of how it is never too late to start something new.

“Now every time I swim at a triathlon and get out of the sea, it’s a win for me.”

I love competing so much. My first Triathlon was in in Abu Dhabi in March 2014
after which I took part in my first half Ironman distance race in Bahrain the same year and I have since competed in New Zealand, Dubai, Germany and Australia and many other competitions worldwide. I also recently ran London Marathon (my second major marathon event). I was lucky to get picked for the main ballot and I just can’t wait to run. The feeling you get when you finish a race is amazing. You’re so tired, you think you’ve given it everything, but you see the finish line and you realise you still have more. Sometimes the high of finish is so amazing that I can’t sleep for the next couple of days!

Cycling to success

Without a doubt, sport has helped me become a better mother and wife. My children and husband are my biggest supporters. My husband is not super sporty himself, but he is great at motivating me. He also gives me the space to train at 5am each morning and after the children go to bed in the evenings. I think as women, we are good at looking after others, but we need to do things for ourselves too. I think you should wake up in the morning for yourself before you wake up for anyone else. Those first few moments when I wake up are golden. After I have trained, I am happy to spend the rest of the day (at work and at home) doing things for other people.

I do have my good days and bad days and that’s why I post a lot on Instagram about my ups and downs. I want people to know that it’s not always easy, but that the hard work does pay off. I am currently the Vice President of the Bahrain Triathlon Association and I have made it my goal is to get more women into sport. Just as I did, I’m sure there are so many women out there who are saying to themselves, “I want to do that!” They should know that they can and if they need my support with advice or coaching, I want to be there for them.”

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