I distinctly remember bowing out of the trials for the three-legged race in primary school where he was making the dash for different races. While all of us would run like any other child would, there was something different about him.
Later, I remember his Instagram and Facebook profile full of statements about his achievements, such as “Done 10kms today”, “Done 15kms”, etc. It would remind me of the Winston Groom novel character Forrest Gump.
Sports, health and fitness have remained Faisal Shafi’s forte for years. But after training a number of renowned actors, models and celebrities, how the now-41-year-old went on to run marathons is a different story altogether.
When it comes to running long distance, Faisal can easily be the face of Pakistan. Going on a weight-losing spree in 2017-18 opened the doors for obstacle course-running for him. One thing led to another, and he stumbled into finding a new hobby — running long distance.
Veteran health and fitness enthusiast Faisal Shafi may well now be the face of long distance running in Pakistan. How did he become an international marathoner?
Since then, he has already participated in nine marathons, starting from the Dubai Marathon in 2019. He, then, successfully completed the Berlin, London and New York marathons. Being the flag-bearer for Pakistan at the upcoming Chicago World Championship Marathon in October this year, a successful finish there will land him only two stars short of the much-anticipated and coveted Abbott World Marathon Majors’ six-star medal.
Faisal will be participating in the much respected Masters 40-44 category in Chicago. This year, he will also be participating in Berlin again, followed by Tokyo and Boston in 2024, for which he has already qualified. His dream of gaining the six-star medal is likely to get fulfilled in the prestigious Boston Championship.
Although he is training hard to achieve the elusive ‘sub-3’ time (completing a marathon within three hours) this year, a feat never achieved in the Masters category by any Pakistani before, Eos was able to catch up with him for a chat.
How did he get obsessed with this sport anyway? When he started running, he was told by his elders that there was no future for runners in Pakistan. “They even tried to scare me with the possibilities of developing back pain, ankle issues and even heart problems, if I continued running,” Faisal recalls with a shrug.
“Things change. Today, we have around 600 runners on the roads when it comes to 20, 25 and 30 kilometre races,” he adds.
Faisal says that he does not have the luxury of training whenever he wants to. “My practice runs usually commence at 4:30am, as I have to reach work before 9am, after dropping my daughters off at school,” he says.
About his diet, Faisal says that he eats everything, because his body needs fuel. “I train for at least six days a week. If I am running a 30 to 35 kilometre distance, I need my glycogen tank to be full, so that I can recover quickly. So I like and consume French fries, burgers and shakes, especially for my long runs.
“But before a month or so before a marathon, I switch to a more organic diet, where I will opt for lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, because these are low-glycemic and help me run better. I also eat low-glycemic carbs and avoid refined sugars completely, so that I don’t get tired, fatigued and inflamed. Hydration, minerals and vitamins are all equally important,” he shares.
Asked if it is hard for long distance runners, not being full time athletes, to take time out of their work schedules and family life to train, Faisal says that training for long distance means that you sacrifice a lot.
“Practising in Pakistan, especially in Karachi, in hot and humid conditions, also with work pressures and deteriorating economic conditions, it is not humanly possible to run stress-free. But we manage,” he smiles.
Since he mentions “deteriorating economic conditions”, I wonder how he arranges finances in order to compete abroad. Faisal says that there is literally zero government support, so one is on one’s own, initially.
“Running may look easy but it is costly, too. Decent running shoes cost you around 80 to 90 thousand rupees. The running attire also has to be very light, and its fabric is also very expensive. Throw in the travelling, visa, accommodation, diet and training, and it’s a handful, definitely. But as you get recognition, you can start approaching sponsors.
“Thankfully, I now have a few sponsors who take care of my races. They even help me sign up for events and facilitate my visas. I even get extra amounts for marketing their brands. It took time but, thankfully, it was all systematic and happened exactly at the right moments for me,” he says.
And what about government support? “The government is only now moving towards organising marathons, but the support is still lacking. It might take time, unless an athlete comes out of the blue and qualifies to participate in the Olympics,” he quips.
“It’s high time that the government comes forward to support this sport. A few local clubs in big cities are organising half-marathons or 21 kilometre runs. The government should look into organising the 42 kilometre runs,” he says.
Speaking of the Olympics, can we hope and expect Olympic participation from Pakistan any time soon? “Yes, there are a few athletes here, who will be joining some camps soon. All they need is a little direction and more exposure. I won’t name them right now, but they can definitely qualify and represent Pakistan in the Olympics marathon.
“Some multinationals and other private agencies and even the government — well, up to a certain level — are working to get these guys on that international forum to represent Pakistan in the 2028 Los Angeles edition,” he says.
And does he have any role models in marathon whom he looks up to? “Eliud Kipchoge, the world champion from Kenya, really inspires me,” says Faisal immediately. “It’s a privilege to be around him. I ran a few races with him. Of course, he is way ahead, but he is definitely my role model.
“There are many mentors and friends here in Pakistan also who backed me to run and still continue to do so,” he adds. There’s obviously no holding Faisal still.
The writer is a computer scientist working in the IT industry and an avid sports enthusiast X: @AbbasShahid
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 17th, 2023