Amany Khalil - Courtesy of Amany Khalil Amany Khalil - Courtesy of Amany Khalil

My family was the reason I finished the race: Amany Khalil

Mon, Mar. 12, 2018
Amany Helmy Khalil is certainly not your average 50-year-old mother. The banker-turned-athlete has rocked the Egyptian athletic world at a relatively late age, while also caring for her two children and her husband. Coming 21st in the 50-54 age category of the Ironman Triathlon held in Barcelona, Spain, in 2016, Khalil became the first Egyptian woman above 50 to compete in and finish the triathlon race, which consists of a 3.86-kilometer swim, a 180.25-kilometer bike ride and a 42.20-kilometer marathon run. Before Khalil, Khadiga Amin was the only Egyptian woman to ever compete in and finish the Ironman challenge, competing in the 25-29 category in 2014.

Egypt Today sat down with Khalil—who is hoping to positively influence men and women in Egyptian and Arab societies—to hear about her journey to becoming an ironwoman.

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Amany Khalil - Photo Courtesy of Amany Khalil

I have a hundred and one questions to ask you, most of which should come before this question, but I would love to start with the Ironman Triathon. How was the day? How did it feel to win

Let me start by saying that I could not have done it without my family.

I was a bit nervous [ahead of the Ironman competition]. I asked my husband and children to come with me, to support me. For the race, I wanted to finish the swim in two hours and I did it in an hour and 27 minutes, a lot less than the [expected time]. One of my sons told me this as soon as I got out but I didn’t believe him and he kept [swearing] that I had. Then, I did the cycling and instead of doing it in seven hours, I did it in six hours and 11 minutes.

Finally, running, my forte. Ironically, that was my weakest in the Ironman. Here, I would like to give some advice to athletes: always do in the real race what you train for during your training sessions. For me, I was happy and I was doing really well, but I had gels to ensure that I could endure the distance. My trainer had told me to take one every hour to give me the energy for the next hour; instead of taking one, I took a gel and a bar every hour. I was enthusiastic and excited and I did not stick to running the way I had trained for. [Not surprisingly], my stomach started to hurt and I felt nauseated.

I couldn’t put anything in my mouth, I could only drink water and not as much as I should. I got to 15 kilometers and I couldn’t go anymore, my trainer told me to take off the belt, the heart rate one. But that didn’t make me feel better.

That’s when my family came in. They were the reason I finished the race. My older son ran with me [for another] 10 kilometers until I got to 32 kilometers. Then, he started to feel that I was not responding properly. He kept trying to encourage me; he said, ‘Mum you are making history. This is historic.
You can do this. You are really making history!’ But I had lost focus. In a desperate attempt to make me focus, he started to sing and asked me to sing with him. I didn’t know the song, I was learning it with him; I started focusing. I was running and singing at the same time. I was back on track.

Then came the moment that I will never forget. He got his phone out and called my husband. He told his dad, ‘We have a kilometre left until we reach you, then she will only have 200 meters to go to reach the finish line. You can run the rest with her.’ This moved me. It gave me the energy to power through. My family was proud of me; this is what I wanted.

My husband is not athletic and he hates running. He ran with me until I reached the red carpet; and when you reach the red carpet, this is when you know that you have become an Ironman. You hear your name. The microphone roared, ‘Amany Helmy Khalil, you are an Ironman,’ and I could see my name light up on the screen. I had really done this. I had done this with my family.

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Amany Khalil - Photo Courtesy of Amany Khalil

How did it all begin?

I graduated in 1990 from the American University in Cairo with a major in business and a minor in economics. For the first three years of my career, I worked in banking. Then I travelled with my husband to the U.S. in 1993, where he received his master’s degree and qualified for his PhD in accounting. Initially, I had planned to pursue my banking career there, but right before my exam, I got pregnant. I was so unwell that I could not sit for the exam, but I did not let that get in my way. I thought maybe this was for the better, after all, I had always found banking to be a routine [job] and boring. I had been waiting for an opportunity to quit.

So, I took up aerobics. I had always been into sports. Then, I saw people running and I started doing morning runs too, I found out that it is in my blood to run; it is my sport. Someone I know then told me about marathons, they said that I could compete in a five-kilometer race [that was] coming up. I was excited for this new experience, nervous, but excited. I ended up coming in sixth. This encouraged me to keep going. I went on to compete in more races, then half-marathons, and then a full marathon; that was the last thing I ran before leaving the US. I thought to myself at the time, I want to end strong and on a good note. I had never imagined that I would keep going when I returned to Egypt and would eventually compete in and finish the Ironman.

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Amany Khalil with her sons Ahmed Dahawy and Mohamed Dahawy - Photo Courtesy of Amany Khalil

How did you pick back up after returning to Egypt?

I did not run for a bit; I gave aerobics classes at the beginning. Then, I heard about the Luxor Marathon in 2003. I was the only Egyptian in the competition and I was running on Egyptian soil for the first time, I came in third.

I will never forget what my husband did that day.

I had left our two kids with him. On the day of the race, Khaled, my husband, took our two sons, at a very young age, and decided to get on the first available flight so they could watch me. I remember them calling me, and I looked back to find them standing there. It moved me. It was truly an amazing feeling. I think that this is what made me come in third place. Had he not done that, I would have just finished it. I am truly lucky to have such a supportive family by my side.

It was during this race that I met Maadi Runners, they introduced me to the world of marathons. I began to learn more and more, and I ended up competing in the Ironman Triathlon.

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Amany Khalil with her sons Ahmed Dahawy and Mohamed Dahawy - Photo Courtesy of Amany Khalil

How did your Ironman Triathlon story begin?

I was at my bike shop, the one I go to for getting my bike tuned, oiled and whatnot. As I was standing there, the man who was helping me pointed toward a woman standing a mere few meters away from me and said, “This is Khadiga Amin.” I had, of course, heard of her before. Khadiga Amin, we all look up to her.

I went up to her and introduced myself. I asked if she could help me train and for her advice about athletic matters. I was over the moon. It was fate. She helped me a lot. She put me on the right path and we set out goals together.

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Amany Khalil - Photo Courtesy of Amany Khalil

When did you decide to go for the full Ironman Triathlon?

My goal was to finish the Half Ironman Triathlon. That is what Khadiga and I set out to achieve in January 2016—I was 49 at the time by the way. In June 2016, I turned 50 and I started my training program.

This was my resolution, I said, I am ready. I set out clear goals, something Khadiga advised me to do. It was not until the Half Ironman Triathlon that my coach and I decided that I should go for the full Ironman.

For the Half Ironman, I went into the water and finished five minutes before the time we were hoping for; the bike [race] took 33 minutes less [than the number we set] and I finished the half marathon in 1 hour and 57 minutes. It was the best Half Ironman I could dream of. My coach told me, “I know you can do it, would you be willing to do the full Ironman?” I said, “Yes. Yes, I am ready to go for it.” That was my birthday gift.

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Amany Khalil with her husband and two sons - Photo Courtesy of Amany Khalil

To finish the Ironman is every triathlon runner’s dream. How did you achieve this remarkable goal?

Hard work, dedication, passion and setting clear goals. The training for the full Ironman is so much more difficult than the training for the Half Ironman, or anything else that I had trained for before. It can be about seven hours of the day and I missed out on many social gatherings [to make time]. For example, I had to train in Ramadan and I couldn’t [train that long] in the morning so I had to do it after iftar.

I would always swim at 5am, which gave me a couple of hours before the swimming teams came, then I would go home and manage the house and do errands, then I would have to go to the gym at night to either run or cycle. I could not cycle outside at night, so I got a trainer at home. Basically, you fit your own bike into it and it is like you are cycling on the road but instead you are on the air.

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Amany Khalil with two sons, Mohamed Dahawy and Ahmed Dahawy - Photo Courtesy of Amany Khalil

Mothers have a great influence on their children, how do you feel your children have changed after watching you become an Iron Woman?

My kids have become more athletic. They told me that they would like to take part in the Sahl Hashish Triathlon. I happily agreed, but told them that this would need training. They trained with me, they did weekend cycling with me. Ahmed swam and Mohamed ran. We all cheered for each other during our specific parts in the race and everyone clapped for us when we all went to the finish line while holding hands.

We came in third!

I think that the relationship between me and my husband, as well as the way that we behave and what we have accomplished, will also affect my children when they decide to settle down and get married.

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Amany Khalil with her two sons, Ahmed Dahawy and Mohamed Dahawy - Courtesy of Amany Khalil

What’s your advice to women?

Women, especially women who are my age, need to know that it is not too late. You can go out there and do anything you want. You can still make things happen, as long as you take the opportunity. The other thing is that you have to be committed; you have to really have it in you. It has to be something that you want and you have to be passionate about it.

I am hoping that my hard work and dedication really has a positive impact on men and women. You see more men now taking up sports, and that is the case for women too. Many more people are now going to compete in the Ironman and they tell me that this is because I have inspired them. When I first went to the Maadi Runners, they were maybe 13 people, now they are more than 300 people!

I always tell people that I failed, but I eventually got there. It is okay to fail. I think that my failure made me a lot stronger. It really pushed me, and now it is really pushing me for more. Perhaps had I succeeded in everything and not failed, I would not have pushed myself this hard. I will never forget the feeling I felt when I failed, it felt like I had let my family down and this really upset me.

I am hoping this inspiration comes out and people find themselves, like I have. I am happy and this makes me want to do more in life. I get upset when I find mothers, especially in rural areas, who forget about themselves and let themselves go just because they have a family now or are mothers. I am also working to improve this image that athletes cannot be beautiful or feminine.

You can be an athlete and still be feminine. People have a tendency to target female athletes and call them manly. They say, “how can you marry an Ironwoman?” And when they ask me how my husband feels when I’m the Ironman, I always say, he is the real Ironman. He stood by me in thick and thin, and helped me reach my goals. He is the real Ironman. We are trying to change the [wrong] perception that being athletic is equivalent to unfeminine.

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Amany Khalil with her husband and two sons - Photo courtesy of Amany Khalil

As a mother, a wife and an athlete, what nutritional advice do you have for us, non-athletes?

In my home, as much as possible, I [lean] more toward the natural [rather] than preservatives. I have banned sugars and processed meats. We eat healthy all week, but Friday is our family dinner out day. Sometimes, they do order fast food, but once a week is not too bad.

For me, and for any person, you have to always fuel your body with the right food at the right time to ensure the maintenance of your body and your energy levels. I believe in balance, input and output. I do not believe in absolute banning of particular foods. It is about what you eat, how you eat, when you eat, and the portion sizes. If you balance and organize this, you will find that you do not have to do a lot of sports.

Amany Khalil - Courtesy of Amany Khalil
Amany Khalil - Photo courtesy of Amany Khalil, compiled by Egypt Today

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