The two roads connecting Marathon and Athens in Greece are equally arduous. One is longer by four miles, the other is short, but mountainous. In 490 BC, Phidippides endured the distance from the Marathon battleground to deliver an important message -- the long-distance courier collapsed upon reaching the finish line, but only after announcing Athens's victory over Persia. So goes the story of the first marathon runner who ran not simply because he could but because he needed to.
Centuries later, marathon runners across the globe take to the long road for the sheer joy of it -- some with more purpose than others. Rahaf Khatib, a Muslim-American from Michigan, is one such runner.
Like Phidippides, Khatib also carries a weighty message through her course.
"We're just as much a part of this as everyone else," she says. "And we're all going to be crossing the same finish lines at the end."
It is a counsel worthy of notice, now more than ever.
Khatib, the daughter of Syrian immigrants and a self-described "average but persistent" runner, has been running for four years. What began as a cursory participation in the local 10K in Dearborn, Michigan, transformed into an enduring passion.
"I literally jumped from zero running, to a 10K to a [half, then] full marathon," she says.
She completed six marathons in just two years, as well as 12 half-marathons and two sprint-triathlons. She's done two of the six World Major Marathons since. That is no minor feat for someone without a robust history of athleticism.
Unlike many athletes, Khatib did not take part in after-school sports clubs and programs during her growing years. Like many immigrant parents, hers also focused less on athletics than on academia and overlooked its benefits without a presenting talent.
Equipped with only an app on her phone to record her pace and distance, Khatib took on the 10K Martian Marathon in Dearborn, Michigan.
"I was wearing cotton even, at the time," she says, laughing. "And you know what they say? Cotton is rotten!"
With her first run done, Khatib returned for a half-marathon before attempting a full one in 2014. Experience became her gradual, but willing, teacher. Without a coach or a plan, Khatib learned how to train for a run through her own research using library books, the internet and social media groups.
Running became a lifestyle, and one she learned to balance with the resilience of a stay-at-home mother of three elementary school-aged children. Finding time to run between school drop-offs, adopting greener dietary habits and training religiously disciplined Khatib to become a more seasoned runner.
Immersion into the running community became relatively fluid. Despite the inclusion, however, she was not spared the occasional scrutiny. Her fully-clothed appearance, complete with a hijab, elicited stereotypical reactions: Are Muslim women allowed to run? How could she run with "all that on?" Was she not boiling in there? On particularly hot days, the inquiries surpassed curiosity.
Khatib countered the questions with calm reassurance. No, the layers did not exacerbate the heat. The long sleeves, in fact, kept her cooler and added SPF protection. Yes, she was totally fine.
"Besides," she says, "running in a bra doesn't necessarily make you cooler. Ninety degrees is 90 degrees for everybody."
The negative perceptions prompted Khatib to post a pertinent comment under a cover-girl call for Women's Running magazine. Why were female Muslim-American athletes underrepresented in the fitness world? To bridge this gap, Khatib entered the contest. And in an unprecedented move, the magazine responded by choosing her as the face of its October 2016 cover. Khatib's message was delivered. And the response was surprisingly heartening.
Though naysayers attacked the magazine and its new "covered-girl" with mounting hate mail, Khatib persisted, undeterred by the abuse.
"Nobody, not political or religious figures, should be given control of people's thoughts," she says. "We need to [think and] speak for ourselves."
Rahaf Khatib on the cover of American fitness magazine Women's Running— Media Diversified (@WritersofColour) September 24, 2016
(WE LOVE) pic.twitter.com/03boupXkFy
Her historical cover, she believes, depicts the beauty of her faith that allows women the freedom to pursue whatever they want no matter what they wear. It's a positive spin to crafted negativity. Khatib's image on Women's Running illustrates her point evocatively. Flanked by soft-selling captions, she leans against the backdrop with her arms crossed and not a hair out of place, flashing a knowing smile that's both humble yet unyielding. It's difficult to ignore her appearance, which challenges conventional perceptions of what a fit American woman can look like.
Once she begins to run, Khatib's only focus is the run itself.
"I'm totally in my zone, like any other runner out there," she says.
Having veiled since high school, Khatib finds the dearth of more modest athletic wear a bigger deterrent than her hijab. Her concern signals a lack of representation in the mainstream, where sports brands cater to only one type of athlete. And it's not her.
Through her recent réclame, Khatib hopes to change prevailing attitudes and perhaps even grab the attention of fitness brands to feature more women like her. Longer tops, for example, or "an athletic hijab from Nike," she says.
By questioning the consistent oversight in featuring women like her or addressing their needs, Khatib highlights a more pervasive problem in American society -- its failure to recognize its own diversity.
Khatib, whose parents fled a repressive Syria in the 1980s to seek freedom and higher education, takes pride in her layered identity. To the broader Syrian-American community, she manifests the dream that brought them here in their escape from dictatorship. To everyone else, she embodies the hope they still have in the belligerent now.
Her achievements as a Muslim-American woman, mother and marathoner are showcased by her very visibility. People from different backgrounds can live and work together tirelessly as part of this society, she believes, no matter the race, religion or orientation.
"This is what America is made of," she says. "And the running community reflects it."
While she accepts the publicity that has accompanied her magazine feature, Khatib's grace and humility is admirable. Her conversations rarely meander from their path, and she refuses to court controversy to communicate her point. Instead, she accentuates the ordinariness of American-Muslims who are professionals and athletes living regular lives and often participating in various activities such as running, lifting and playing sports.
Khatib's approachability makes her relatable. Her blog and Instagram handle, "Run Like A Hijabi," normalizes modesty in the active world.
With a slew of runs under her belt, Khatib now works with a coach and trains by running 24 to 45 miles a week. Her recovery phase incorporates strength-training and yoga. She aims to complete all the World Major Marathons, a few more triathlons, and tackle the ambitious Half Ironman. For now.
Her personal goal as a runner eclipses the more immediate ones. Like Phidippides, Khatib does not run to win. She races only against herself and the barrier of time set by her own pace. Moving swiftly past the obstacles, she runs along the steady stream of bodies with her faith on her head and a singular purpose in her stride. As she reaches each finish line, Khatib delivers her message to the world. Not because she needs to, but because she can.
Nasha Khan is a freelance writer with a graduate writing degree from the University of Southern California. She has studied under noted writers at the University of Cambridge. Her work was recently featured in The Tempest and Blue Minaret.