It’s not every day that you spot a woman running full speed ahead in a marathon wearing a hijab on her head to show the world her faith in such a dramatic way. After all, Nur Illiana Bte Mohamad Malek is usually surrounded by women in shorts, crop tops and singlets, yet her devotion to Islam requires her to dress modestly, no matter what she does in public. Does it get hot under that head covering? She says no – but even if it did, this vivacious teacher would probably just make a joke of it anyway!
RS: Is it true that you’re a newcomer to marathon running?
Illiana: I just started running in 2012, so compared to my fellow Singaporeans, I’m a newbie.
RS: What was your first race experience like?
Illiana: On the night before I was to run my first race, I held a bridal shower and the party ran late. When I awakened, I was so tired, I even thought about not going, but my conscience wouldn’t let me. Not only had I committed to the race but I signed up with a friend and couldn’t let her down, so I dragged myself out of bed, and the rest is history.
RS: Despite that experience, you kept on running. How come?
Illiana: Even though I was sleep deprived, that first race was just a 5km run and while it was a chore, my timing wasn’t bad at the finish. I figured if I could run this well exhausted, I could achieve a better time at a longer race after a good night’s sleep.
RS: You ran quite a few races last year; which is your most memorable 2014 run?
Illiana: (Laughs) Last year’s 21km Sundown Marathon stands out because I was a few days shy of my 29th birthday and I gave myself my first half marathon as a birthday gift. Another is the Home Team NS Real Run. I was racing up a storm when a real storm broke. All I could think about was how much fun it is to run in the rain when I wasn’t worrying about getting my phone wet!
RS: So are you ready for your first full marathon or ultra challenge in 2015?
Illiana: Yup, yup. I’m not getting any younger, so I think it would be a good idea to get one in before I turn 30 on 4th June! Unfortunately, that won’t be the Sundown because it’s been moved from June to July and since that’s a fasting month, I can’t participate.
RS: As we mentioned earlier, you wear a hijab when you race race. What’s it like? Any problems?
Illiana: Actually, it’s not something I think about because the hijab is part of who I am. Do I sometimes wish I could wear shorts and a t-shirt? (Laughs) Yes, but the Capsters headscarf I wear (an alternative head covering) is comfy and cooling. As for problems, I once wore an inner head band under my tudung, but by the end of the race it had disappeared. I must have lost it along the way and didn’t even realise it.
RS: Wearing a hijab is a matter of choice; can you share with us why you choose to wear one while running?
Illiana: As I said before, my hijab is part of me so it has nothing to do with “choosing” to wear it when I run. My religion requires me to put on the hijab and that automatically translates to all aspects of my public life, including running, swimming, work and shopping.
RS: Does wearing a hijab keep Muslim women from participating in sports?
Illiana: Not in my opinion. I’ve never heard anyone say that they don’t want to run due to wearing the hijab because it’s warm or inconvenient. Muslims are just like all women: Their reasons for not running have more to do with being lazy or wanting to sleep the weekend away! But, you can’t imagine how excited I get to see fellow hijab sisters at start lines. I get a weird sense of happiness. We smile at each other like we have a secret only we share.
RS: What kind of training routine do you follow?
Illiana: Hah! I have no training plan. Running is supposed to be fun; why take the fun out of it by training or planning? Last year, I ran around the track before school started in the morning, but I’ve gotten too busy to keep that up, so my training routine is signing up for marathons and running them.
RS: In addition to your hijab, do you wear certain apparel and/or accessories?
Illiana: Just my tudung and my phone with an earpiece so I can listen to music. I recently changed phones and haven’t had time to load it with my favourite music. At the moment, I can only play two songs, so when I ran in March, I listened to the same two songs for the whole 10km!
RS: Do you have a favourite Singapore running location?
Illiana: Not really. As long as it’s windy, bright and nice out, I’m good. There is one location I don’t like: it’s Sentosa. I don’t like those uphill slopes and sandy beach. Most other running routes look identical to me.
RS: Do you prefer to run alone or do you enjoy running companions?
Illiana: I prefer to run alone. Occasionally, I plead with a friend to go with me so we can share a cab to the venue, dine out after the race or take a fun staycation the night before the race. However, I don’t pace my friends during marathons because I like to focus and not talk. This probably stems from being a teacher. I’m constantly surrounded by and talking to people, so races offer me quiet times; I can stop thinking altogether, for that matter!
RS: You are a role model to your students, but who do you look up to?
Illiana: My Dad. He is a very, very patient and kind-hearted man—and despite being 50 years of age, he still runs!
RS: What would you say to encourage women to start running?
Illiana: I would say, “Run so that you can eat yummy food without having to worry about your weight!!” Seriously, I would advise them that it’s easy to fall into a state of inertia, but once you start running and it becomes habit, you won’t want to stop. I recommend taking baby steps: One small race at a time.
RS: What goals have you set for yourself in 2015?
Illiana: At the start of the year, my students and I set target goals. Mine was 15 marathons this year. I’m always encouraging friends to get on my running band wagon so recruiting female runners is a constant goal. Specifically for 2015, I hope to get my BF to run a race with me. I may be able to kill two birds with one stone by convincing her to join me at the upcoming Meiji Run. There’s a free chocolate buffet at the finish line. Wouldn’t you want to join me for that?
Illiana wears her hijab as a sign of her faith and doesn’t hesitate to say “no” to events scheduled on holy days. Have you ever faced this kind of ethical dilemma—running on the Sabbath or ignoring your religion’s practices to run in an event? This is not an easy question to answer, so thanks in advance for your honesty.