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Health & Fitness

The Dallas Muslim Running Club Is About More than Health

What started as a way for immigrants to stay active has become something more: a community that reflects overcoming life’s challenges.
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The Dallas Muslim Running Club, photographed here at the Cowtown Marathon. Dallas Muslim Running Club

At 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday, every inch of Einstein’s Bagels in Colleyville was filled with beaming faces. People dressed in workout attire lined up to place orders while others shuffled chairs around to form little groups throughout the space. Children were laughing above the buzzing sound of light chatter. This large gathering of strangers and friends had just finished a run along a nearby trail, a small act done weekly that has changed lives.

This is the Dallas Muslim Running Club, or DMRC, a community of more than 100 North Texans that meets every Saturday morning to do what the name says: run. People of all ages are welcomed and trained by coaches certified by the Road Runners Club of America. This helps even the field among seasoned runners, people who may be running for the first time, and everyone in between.

After a quick 15 minute warm-up at 8 a.m, attendees split into three groups with total mileage tiering down. Once an hour flies by, all groups gather to cool down and stretch. Some members leave to go about the rest of their day, but most gather for breakfast or brunch. This routine happens weekly.

“I think people are so happy with this gathering in a very communal sense. Sometimes even the people who don’t really want to run just come to run,” said Lema Sbenaty. 

Sbenaty, a Syrian American optometrist and co-founder of DMRC, has a deep passion for marathons and running. She and co-founder Ariel Del Fierro came up with the idea over dinner. They were discussing how immigrants are so focused on surviving and integrating into the country that they weren’t paying enough attention to their health. They want DMRC to fill that void.

Fierro, a real estate investor, says people have become a better version of themselves since joining the club. It was a surprise to him. “I didn’t know that it was going to affect people’s lives as much as it has,” he says. “Honestly, that’s been the most joy I’ve ever gotten out of all of this.”

He mentions how a woman who had escaped an abusive relationship believed she couldn’t ever accomplish anything. She found the running club. Fierro coached her first 10k, and she told him she never felt like it was something she could do. DMRC sparked a healing journey.

This all started with a simple love for running; Fierro and Sbenaty watched it create an environment that nourishes the body and the spirit of those who joined.

Esraa Almasri, a nursing graduate from Texas Women’s University, was drawn to DMRC because it didn’t look like so many of the other events she attended in Dallas. This wasn’t an organized lecture or a networking happy hour. The sole purpose is physical activity. When she joined, she didn’t know anyone. She slowly built a routine into her life, taking weekly runs and making new friends. Almasri ran her first half marathon last month at Fort Worth’s Cowtown Marathon. At Cowtown, DMRC registered 110 runners, the third-largest group that attended. The youngest runner was five years old. The club completed a total of 800 miles as a team.

“You’re not only learning a lot about yourself but a lot about your connection with God and who you are as a person. It’s just you during that run,” said Almasri. “You have to run your own race in life. If God got you from start to finish, he’s got you for life.”

Sameera Afridi, a longtime member of DMRC, brings her 13-year-old son to weekly runs. (He also completed his first half marathon at Cowtown.) For Afridi, the biggest plus was that her son is seeing a positive environment and is learning how to stay dedicated to something.

“He is around people who are making good decisions for themselves,” Afridi says. “I know they would make good decisions for him and he looks up to them. It’s the Islamic exposure along with a really fun environment.”

No matter his pace, other members will take him along with them. The team makes sure he stays fueled, is drinking water, and is ultimately taken care of.

DMRC heavily emphasizes discipline. Though a support group surrounds runners, it’s ultimately up to each person to push themselves to the finish line. That’s what entrepreneur Abdullah Zatar has realized. Zatar is friends with both founders of DMRC and joined the club for support. “At that time, I’ve never run more than, like, a mile in my life,” said Zatar.

He started running once a week on Saturdays. He built that into a 5k run, which became a 10k and then a half marathon. Running has become a priority in his life. He wakes up at 5 a.m. to squeeze in a run before his workday. But, Zatar believes the club stands for more than just running.

“It’s that connection to the community,” said Zatar. “DMRC is a group that does not care about what your religion is, what your background is, where you’re from, what your past is about. It’s just a bunch of people trying to get healthy together and change their lives for the better.”

He says running and faith go hand-in-hand: there are challenges in every component of your life, and running is something that teaches you, just like faith does. “I’m on this f—ng long run. I’m by myself. I don’t have anyone with me. I don’t have friends. I don’t have family behind my back. It’s just me and the pavement. Am I going to cross that finish line?” said Zatar. “You can add that same exact analogy to faith and the same exact analogy to your personal life.”

The founders of DMRC believe your body is something given to you by God. They encourage people to take care of that honor. There’s a parallel drawn between running and maintaining strong faith. Both require mental stability to overcome a challenge to become a better version of yourself. 

Currently, DMRC is prepping to host its biggest race on March 26, which will benefit refugees based in the DFW area who are serviced by the social services nonprofit Ma’ruf Dallas. Registrations are open to either volunteer or participate in the run for refugees. The club eventually wants to raise money for a charity event to help sustain its efforts. Future plans also include one-on-one coaching and merchandise, says Fierro. But weekly Saturday runs will remain the focus to keep the community intact, one step at a time.

Author

Amina Khan

Amina Khan

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