“When I am in front of an obstacle during the race, I’m neither just climbing a wall nor carrying a heavy weight up to the hill. I always keep in mind that if I can overcome that challenge, I can then change myself, becoming stronger and more powerful, and ready to jump straight into a new chapter of my life.”
When I met Shununa al Ismaili last week, she was contagiously excited about the upcoming Spartan Race Trifecta weekend in Jebel Sifah. Omani, 47 years old, mother of two, among the Spartan community she is considered a true inspiration in the way she changed her lifestyle, and her enthusiasm was further beyond the level of engagement required to a Spartan Race Ambassador, as she is in Oman.
In case you are wondering what the Spartan Race is, it’s an obstacle course racing launched for the first time in Vermont in 2010 and now on the road to becoming an Olympic sport, with more than 130 events per year held in over 42 countries and a rapidly growing tribe of almost 8mn people who have already crossed a finish line.
Last weekend, the race was organised for the fourth time in Oman, with UFC Gym Oman as official partner, and it attracted more than 4,000 participants across all ages, including kids.
Among them there were certainly professional athletes, but don’t think of the Spartan Race as a pure fitness workout, or you’ll miss the real spirit of the race, which aims to be a ‘catalyst for transformation’.
In the mind of the organisers and in their words on the official website in fact, the event was born with the mission to empower people to change their life for the better. It’s not just a sport, it’s a mindset and a lifestyle, meant to push the ‘Spartans’ to achieve mentally and physically their personal best, and help them to ‘connect back to that resilient warrior within’. The call to join sounds quite inspiring: ‘No matter who you are, where you came from or what you do for a living, there’s a Spartan inside each of us. It tells us to get up in the morning with purpose. It dares us to go past our comfort zone’.
Shununa is proving that the Spartan revolution can work. When the first race was announced in Oman in 2016, she started to google about it, avid to know what it was about. “It definitely looked tough, she admits, but I am the type of person who always strives to accomplish what is considered impossible, confronting my fears.”
So, while fighting her personal struggle against divorce, extra weight and mood swings, she decided to test her limits and enrolled for the race. She managed to make it all the way through, up to the final jump over a wall of fire, which marks the finish line.
‘That experience really fuelled my motivation. I felt reborn, I found again my willpower, my inner strength, my self-confidence’, up to the point that she decided to take it to the next level. She started to join the races abroad, in the Gulf region and even in Europe, becoming the only Omani woman to win last year two Trifecta medals.
To give a closer idea of what this means, and the efforts required, the Spartan races are divided into three types: Sprint, Super and Beast, with a distance from 5km to a half marathon, and in between up to 30 obstacles during the course like rope climbing, barbed wire, 30kg bucket carry, monkey bars, plus dozens of burpees as penalties in case of failure. To get a Trifecta medal, you must conquer a Spartan Sprint, Super and Beast in one calendar year.
Shununa did it twice in 2018, to spread her message. “Put aside the athletic performance, she said, I arrived maybe last in one of the races, but I started to do it with a cause. I lost my mother with cancer few years ago and I decided to run all my races in support of the fight against cancer. Some races were however way above my expectations halfway, but I manage to resist focusing my mind on all the people in the hospital who have no other choice but suffer unbearable pain sometimes for years.”
‘Unstoppable and unbreakable’, as Spartans are meant to be, last Friday Shununa further challenged herself in the Hurricane Heat, an endurance event consisting of four hours of demanding teamwork with plenty of mental and physical challenges, and on Saturday she ran the Super.
When we met before the weekend, she mentioned that she would have run this specific race for her father, him too struggling with cancer. When she texted me after her performance, I fully realised the extent of her belief in how much the Spartan philosophy can make everybody more resilient and give strength to deal also with life’s adversity.
Shununa’s father sadly passed away on Saturday early morning, before the race. “I wondered what to do, she told me. I knew that I would have been criticised, but I decided to go for the race, and dedicate it even more intensely to my father. I was crying at every step but I reached the finish line, because life must go on.”