We are WONDERWOMEN: Hadeel’s Story

Welcome to WE ARE WONDERWOMEN, a series of short stories from inspirational women who swim, run and cycle amongst us. Ahead of International Women’s Day on Monday 8 March 2021, I’ll be celebrating the achievements, talking about the challenges and sharing tips from a variety of women across our sporting community.

First up is my ASICS FrontRunner team mate and former Women’s Running coverstar Hadeel. Hadeel’s life motto is ‘Do more of what makes you happy’ and in her inspirational story we learn more about her life with Cerebral Palsy and how running has helped her find her identity after a difficult divorce, and navigate depression and anxiety.

Alongside her passions for running and weightlifting she has completed a PhD (which is no easy feat!) and she is now preparing for her next adventure as fellow at a research institute in Toronto, Canada.

Hello Wonderwoman! Tell us a little bit about yourself

My name is Hadeel and I’m from Leeds. I’m a children’s doctor, and have recently completed a PhD in paediatric oncology investigating the use of probiotics in children with cancers. I will be starting a fellowship in Canada from July.

My main sports are running and weightlifting and I am a member of the ASICS frontrunner UK team. I have a hemiplegia (right sided cerebral palsy) and dyspraxia and dyslexia, which were diagnosed during my PhD.

How did you get into running and weightlifting?

I love running, it has helped me deal with a difficult divorce, depression and anxiety. Five years ago, I was going through a difficult and stressful divorce after years of domestic abuse. I felt like I had a lost my identity and wanted to have something to focus on for myself, so I decided to lace up and give running a go. What started as a short run ended up becoming a 4 times marathon runner and power lifter, including finishing the 2017 Manchester Marathon and the LA marathon in 2020 (just 10 days after finishing my PhD).

What are your biggest achievements?

Work wise- being awarded my PhD; I did this whilst getting divorced, developing depression and anxiety and finding out in the second year of my PhD that I have dyslexia and dyspraxia. In terms of running, I’m really proud of finishing my second marathon in 2018. It wasn’t my best time (in fact it was my slowest) but I trained and did the race whilst managing severe depression. Some days it was hard enough getting out of bed- never mind going on a long run.

What inspires you?

My biggest inspiration are those who try to challenge themselves irrespective of disabilities/mental health conditions/ personal circumstances.

What motivates you to get through a challenging session or tough point in a race?

I always remind myself that the discomfort is short lived. I visualise how I will feel as I cross the finish line and how all the discomfort will vanish.

What do you think the biggest challenges are for women getting into running and weightlifting, and what tips or advice might you have?

Firstly, Self-confidence- I frequently hear from women that they want to run/cycle/swim/go to the weight section at the gym, but they feel intimidated by others who may appear ‘quicker’ or ‘good’ at what they do. My response to this is that everyone has to start from somewhere, so you have to remind yourself that your own journey is completely different to someone else’s and to not worry about what others may appear to be doing. Someone might be quicker because they have ran for 10 years, when you’ve only been doing it for a few weeks. Someone else may have had specific coaching to help them get better, whilst you are wanting to get active. Mental stress can have a huge impact on exercise too. Someone else may have less work stress/family issues/no kids to look after.

Body image is another challenge and I’m always sad to hear some women feel too embarrassed about their weight, worried about how they look or concerned that other people are judging them. In these situations it’s good to remind yourself that your mind may be playing tricks on you and that your fears may be wrong. People are usually worried about their own issues. You are not defined by your weight. You are beautiful. Rather than focusing on body image, focus on how exercise can help mood, well being etc.

One challenge specific to weightlifting is the potential to feel intimidated by the amount of ‘strong’ men in comparison to fewer women lifting weights. I also felt very anxious when I first started and worried others were watching and laughing at me. Everyone is on their own journey- someone may have been lifting for 5 years when you have just started so don’t compare yourself to them. Equally it takes a long time to develop techniques for lifting. Things will not be ‘perfect’ the first time you try or for some time (it took me well over two years to feel like I developed a good squat/deadlift form). Expecting yourself to do a perfect squat the first time will not happen. Falling over/dropping weights/ failing to lift is not a big deal- I’ve fallen over/dropped things AND seen other experienced lifters fail/drop things many a times- no one will bat an eye lid. I once got stuck trying to bench press a weight that was too heavy. I had to ask to strangers (both male) to help lift the weight off me, they helped immediately, and equally I have had to help other guys when they struggle with the exercise they are doing.

What are your top three tips for women getting into running or weightlifting?

  • Focus on 1 goal at a time and listen and respect yourself.
  • Doing two many things at once can be overwhelming and you give up. So set yourself one goal and work on that until you feel comfortable. Then when you are ready add another goal. For example, I started focusing on 5km runs, then 10kms, then half marathon then marathons. I started weightlifting when I began training for half marathons because I wanted to be stronger so I wouldn’t get injured.
  • But equally what works for me may not work for you. You will know yourself best. If you prefer exercising alone do it alone, if you need motivation do it with someone. If you’re an early bird run early, if you are a night hawk run later. If you only have time to run twice a week don’t set yourself a goal to run 6 days a week. Don’t force yourself to do something that doesn’t work for you. It doesn’t make you any ‘less’ of a runner it’s just who you are!

Do you have any final words of wisdom?

Tomorrow is ALWAYS a new day. Just because you had a bad day/didn’t do what you hoped doesn’t mean you’ve ‘failed’. With my depression I sometimes have bad days; brushing my teeth is hard enough, never mind running. It took me a long time to realise that you have to accept/listen to what your mind/body is saying or wanting you to do. I’ve finally that if I have a bad day that’s okay I can just try again tomorrow and that’s absolutely ok.

Thank you for sharing! You can catch up with Hadeel’s running, lifting and general adventures on her Instagram page, find out more about her next challenges on the ASICS FrontRunner UK webpage or read her full article with Women’s Running from March 2020 here.

And don’t forget to check out tomorrow when I’ll be talking with Sarada Ochen former track athlete and founder of DASH Sprint Club about all things sprinting, and balancing training, motherhood and running a business.

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