He swam 3.8 kilometers, cycled another 120 and ran 42.2 kilometers to become the first Saudi Iron Man in history.
To say that the Iron Man triathlon is not for the faint of heart and limbs is an understatement. Athletes would spend years mastering the triumvirate of endurance. So, imagine how much harder it is if you were attempting to do it in nine months?
It would be hard to believe that only a year before he competed in the Iron Man triathlon, Alwaleed Alkeaid was a self-professed couch potato. Growing up in Riyadh, Alkeaid was a hardcore online gamer, his thumbs had more exercise than him.
For his post-graduate studies, Alkeaid was sent to Canada, where he would initially spend his time shifting from one degree to another. His life as a Saudi student was according to him, typical. Little did he know that one day, he would stumble across a video that would change his life. It was about the Hoyt team. A father and quadriplegic son who were joining races, including the Iron Man triathlon together. The father would swim, bike and cycle while pulling or carrying his son.
“I was confronted with a strong feeling of shame. Here I am, young and able, sitting around while these two, despite their circumstance were doing something no one thought they could.”
For the first time in his life, Alkeaid found himself fuelled with passion. At first, his goal was to finish a marathon then maybe in 3 to 5 years, be fit enough to compete in the Iron Man race but in a way, the universe convinced him to start a lot earlier than expected.
“One of the things I thought of to jumpstart my road to Iron Man was to get better at running. At that time, I was enrolled in a health class and one of our projects for the semester was to run at least 10 kilometers by the end of the course. I went to my instructor and told her I wanted to run 21 kilometers and do a marathon. And her reply to me was, ‘you can’t do it.’”
Being told that he can’t triggered Alkeaid. He started to extensively research, not just on how to finish a marathon but rather, on how to conquer Iron Man in the shortest time possible.
He said, “Okay, granted, I can’t finish a lap in the pool and don’t really know how to cycle but still, I decided I’ll take this 1 out of 100 chance and see where it takes me.”
Alkeaid proceeded to make changes in his lifestyle that surprised not only his family and friends but also himself.
“I had to wake up at 5 a.m. everyday to either swim or run. I would go to class then train some more. My social life dropped to zero. Discipline was key and there are times when I just wanted to stay in bed and slack off. Those times, I would watch the Hoyt video again and again.”
Then the day of the race came. His family and friends all came to witness exactly what Alkeaid has been up to in the past months.
First up was the swim. Open sea, fantastic weather. After finishing the 4-kilometer swim, Alkeaid was just glad to be out of the cold water. Next up was the cycling leg, he started confident and cheery but a few hours in, Alkeaid started to feel pain throughout his body. Things just got real.
“Six hours into the race, the weather turned into a cold mess. The harsh wind hit me head on, I could barely pedal. Eventually, I just stopped at the side of the road and sobbed. Focus, I told myself, my coach said this would happen and so I just slowed down, took a deep breath and carried on. You’d think the worst was done right? I thought so too. I was wrong.”
By the time he got off his bike, Alkeaid was ecstatic; running is all that’s left now. It was the most important part for Alkeaid, not just because it’s the last leg but also, he was running for the Disabled Children Association of Saudi Arabia.
With only a few kilometers left, his legs all jelly and his will almost ready to break; one of his friends caught up with him and told him that his father was waiting for him and handed Alkeaid the Saudi flag.
“You know the hardest part of the race? It’s not just the physical exhaustion but psychological and emotional exhaustion you have to put yourself through. It’s great when you pass by the crowd and they’re cheering you on but for the most part it’s just you and the sight and sound of ambulances rushing to pick up a fellow athlete from the road.”
When Alkeaid reached the finish line, he took a leap, something he had imagined himself doing for months leading up to the moment. He finished the race in 13 hours.
Upon becoming Iron Man, Alkeaid followed it up by finishing the toughest marathon in the world, the 230-kilometer race in Italy. He also found his calling. He went on to finish a degree in sports sciences and accomplish multiple international fitness and health certifications.
Today, Alkeaid is back in Riyadh. He is a professional fitness trainer and hopes to help as many fellow Riyadhis get fit and commit to healthy life changes.
“If you want to change your life, if you want to achieve a goal – you don’t have to be great at it from the start, you just have to show up. Everything you want to happen, will happen for as long as you show up and put in the work.” – Alwaleed Alkeaid