It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon on June 21. The heat is everywhere. We are drenched in it, swimming in it. Even bugs scatter under the blades of the SMU track infield grass. On this of all days, at this time of all times of the day, Ahmed Zaher (pronounced ACH-med ZIGH-here) has requested we meet to work on his speed and running form. His face is all about concentration. The 41 year old has already swum 5,000 meters, and biked over 70 miles. There’s not a cloud in the sky and the sun has made the sky white hot. As I squint and cower underneath a white billed hat, Ahmed says he doesn’t mind the heat, that he does terrible if the sun isn’t shining. “It’s what I grew up with. We always had the sun shining on us,” he says of his younger days growing up in Egypt. Ahmed is one of the few Muslim athletes in America. Today, he will blur 400 meter and 800 meter runs this afternoon as I sip water, give instruction, and hide from the heat and light that beats down man, beast, everything, and everyone except this man, who gets his strength from it. Resembling a mighty warrior who often speaks up for “the underdog,” local triathletes have elevated this 6’2”, 210 lb mass of membrane and muscle to god-like status. Don’t be surprised to see “Ahmed is God” spray painted on a concrete pillar of a north Texas underpass this summer. Dehydrated triathletes will pass by it on some hot, stinking training run or ride, nod their head in agreement, and be inspired.
Ahmed has many faces. The race face of concentration, wanting to bury any opponent in front of him is one most people have seen, especially those he has passed after they thought Ahmed had been beaten. I have seen this face myself, twice, and was completely caught off guard both times. Both times were during a run, which is why I was so surprised. At almost 200 lbs., this freight train can move exceptionally well, running a 5K in under 17 minutes after the 800 meter swim and 20 mile bike of a sprint triathlon. He says he doesn’t believe in PR’s, personal recorded bests, but thinks he broke two hours a couple of times at Olympic distance. “My fastest half Ironman was 4:15 and my fastest Ironman was this year , 9:49.” He placed 6th at the World Olympic Distance Championships this year (1.2-25-6.2 mile), “missing first place by a little over a minute.” Then, six days later, placed 27th overall at the Hawaiian Ironman.
He trains as much as he can, he says. “I believe that you train as much as you can recover.” With three kids, a beautiful girlfriend, coaching 35 triathletes, putting on camps, and directing three races every year, “I can only average 10-12 hours per week. In the winter, I put myself in a biking camp to build some good base, and race in the summer.” In the week-long camp, he will ride 40-100 miles every day. His longest training run of last year was the Friday morning, fast paced, eight-miler with JEFF ROTH, JOE HOWARD, ERNIE CHAVEZ, STEVE MUDGETT, DOUG JONES, and company. “So with the exception of that, my longest swim, bike, and run mileage comes in the two or three half Ironman races I do during the season. Of course, if I’m lucky to do the Hawaii Ironman (2.4-112-26.2 miles) at the end of the year, then you can say that this is my longest mileage.”
He was named “Mr. Triathlon” by The Phast Times News “Best of 2005” issue. Ahmed is a certified coach for swimming, biking, triathlon, resistance training, and certified as a bike fit and biomechanics consultant. He has qualified and competed in five consecutive Hawaiian Ironman Triathlons (2001-2005, his best time was last year; 9:49.25) a feat no one has done since the mid-1980’s. He’s a 5-year All American, been ranked as high as first in the four-state region, and this year was ranked 10th nationally, all done in triathlons. Ahmed is also the race director and Director of marketing and sponsorship for Tri-Mania triathlons. Today, he keeps his training in balance with everything else. Asked what it all means to him now, he answered, “Everything and nothing. Everything, because it helps me get healthy. Nothing, because it’s only a means to make me healthy.”
When I first met him, Ahmed was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. “I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world,” he says. He was born April 7, 1964, in Cairo, Egypt. He has a brother, Khaled, 40 (a pilot for Egypt Air), and a sister, Mariam, 30 (works in the UN helping refugees get to Egypt).
Ahmed has three boys from a previous marriage and shares custody of Khaled, 14; Malek, 10; and Tarek, 7. The three are very active in sports, usually participating as a relay team at the local triathlons. Ahmed calls them the “three most beautiful, best boys in the world.”
In 1980, when Ahmed was 16 (the same age he started coaching others), his dad died.
He was a newspaper reporter who was the first person to appear on Egyptian TV in 1962 as a TV news anchor. His mom was a sports caster that later became a real estate agent.
After graduating high school, Ahmed studied mechanical engineering at a Cairo university and graduated in 1986. While in school, he met his first wife, an American woman also going to school in Cairo. He had come to the U.S. previously (1984, Los Angeles for the Olympics) and didn’t like it. “My first impression of California was, ‘These people are rude and selfish.’ I didn’t like it much at that time. As a matter of fact, when I met my wife, I told her that I would never ever even think of moving from Egypt. That was OK with her as she loved Egypt more than the states. Still does.” But that changed. After coming to Texas on his honeymoon, he says, “I fell in love with the Texans! My first impression of Texas, was, ‘Wow, it’s very close to Egypt; the weather, the people. I love it.’ Not as much as Egypt, of course.” He moved here for good in 1991.
Today at the track, I am see his exhausted face: a blank stare from underneath depths of training sweat that runs from his thick, black, curly hair down over a sculptured body, and filling his training shoes that go “squish” with each step. Today’s face is intent, driven. Though it closely resembles his race face, that look is saved and put on only when Ahmed is all business. Today he tries to stay focused on the task before: beat back the sun!
His mind drifts despite his best efforts. He thinks of his kids. Or Staci, his wife to be. Or his clients. Or “The problems of the world and mostly these last two years. Why, oh, why did we invade Iraq. …How can people be so cruel?”
The inspiration for such training, that a normal man would call punishment, must flow as easily as a creek from a winter’s first thaw. The problem is there’s nothing easy about doing track workouts when even the thermometer is melting and every creek in Texas is as dry as first year Chemistry. Inspiration becomes synonymous with survival, staying the course, and trying not to blow up or burn out. But not for Ahmed. Part of his strength is his mind, his mental toughness. “I always try to think of the result of my training. Be healthy, stay active and strong. It’s easier to get up and go if you know the result is going to be good and will get you to your goal. That is why structural training is important whether you want to lose weight, finish your first 5K, or qualify for Hawaii,” referring to his favorite race, the famed Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon.
“I know this race or any Ironman can make you or break you. It’s becoming a family tradition where the kids, Staci and I go every year for vacation,” he says, already getting jazzed about what this race means to him. “It’s always very inspiring to the kids to see the commitment of all the athletes over there. Kona is a beautiful island, my favorite.” This past October when the race was held, his mom and sister came from Egypt to watch him race it. “I crossed the finish line with them, my kids and Staci, carrying the Egyptian flag! Any time I’m training/racing with my kids, I always have the biggest smile on my face.” At the 2003 edition of the race, despite doctors concerns, he raced on a broken ankle. It was also the year he says, “I found out that I enjoyed coaching more than competing.” He dropped all of his food and supplements early on the 112-mile bike course. “Oh, well. That is what the Ironman is all about,” was his reaction. Even while cramping with 72 miles to go, “I still had a big smile on my face.” Both of Ahmeds legs cramped up at the 100 mile mark. “It was the longest 12 miles of my life. I did not care that people were passing me, just worried I wouldn’t be able to run.” After starting the run, he saw some salt tablets on the ground, picked them up, and ate them to help alleviate his severe cramping. “But I still could not help feeling happy, proud, and could not take that smile off my face. I had chills and I didn’t know if it’s because I’m happy or dehydrated, probably both.” He crossed the finish line holding hands with his sons, and wonders, “Is anyone more lucky than I am? I also realized why I love this sport and the Ironman. There will always be troubles and problems, but just as in life, you concentrate on the solution, find ways within you to stay the course, and do the best you can do to accomplish your goal.” During the 2003 race, he was also coaching a client through his first Ironman race. He completed it under the goal time, as did Ahmed. “I told him after the race we both gained a lot out of this experience. But my biggest trophy was his friendship.”
At the 2005 race, Ahmed ran the marathon with a competitor from Japan. “What I love about this sport, and especially the Ironman, is that through the race you develop friendships with people you have never seen before, and probably will never see again. You share a common goal, which is finishing, and you respect each other for it. In the last two miles of the run, we kept repeating, ‘Home sweet, home.’ ‘Home sweet,’ I would say, as he shouts ‘HOME!” We shook each other’s hands with 400 meters to go and started looking for our families to cross the line. It was funny how both of us wanted the other one to cross the finish line first, we both realized we had already won by starting the race. I think we hugged at the finish line as much as we hugged our families. I guess the Ironman makes us family.”
His other places of “inspiration” that others might call EDS’s (Energy Drainage Systems) include St Croix, Buffalo Springs, Rivercities, and Thurston Duathlons.”
Ahmed has been here before, to this place where his body becomes a machine with the single focus of doing the best workout he can. As a youth, until he was 18, he trained for the Olympics in swimming, going to the pool for three-hour swim practices in the morning before school, then back to the pool after school for another three hour practice. That was followed by one-to-two hours of water polo practice. Eventually, he got back home to study before “crashing to bed” as he puts it.
The work paid off. Ahmed was a ten-time national swimming champion in Egypt, and made the 1984 Egyptian Olympic team as a 100-meter freestyle and medley swimmer. (Though he made the trip to Los Angeles, he broke a bone chip in his knee and did not compete.) Later on, he was also a Modern Pentathlete (swimming, fencing, horseback riding, cross country running and shooting) for the 1986 World Championships. He would have qualified for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, but took a break from all the training he had known. “I stopped because I decided that I liked engineering more, and to concentrate on my career in engineering.” Besides swimming, he still enjoys fencing of the five original sports.
He worked hard, even in his athletics as a youth. Ahmed admits he was most scared of disappointing his dad. “I had a great relationship with my Dad. And out of love, I never wanted to disappoint him. He still plays a big role in life, …even now.” He goes on to say he wants to be the best son and father because of his love for his dad. “[It] got me very close to my Mom and my kids.” (several attempts were made to take photos for this story when family members were in town because it was so important to Ahmed.)
But while growing up, Ahmed also says he was a “nerd,” implying that all that time with his face in the water left little time to develop socially. But there were the other outlets of soccer and judo to help him. Besides “cars and girls,” he became interested in other cultures and people. “I was always amazed traveling through Europe. How can people live so close to each other yet have completely different traditions, languages, etc.” Even at a young age, however, he enjoyed encouraging others to their athletic goals. “I loved coaching athletes.” At the age of 16, “I started helping coach the local swim team and volunteering for weight programs.” Many years later past 40 years of age, this would become a full time profession for him. “I love coaching. It’s my passion,” he says.
“It just felt right to help people achieve what they think is impossible. And that is what I like about this sport and this job. As I look around, most of my friends are my clients.”
But what is his philosophy for working out? “My philosophy is that you have to keep balance in life and training. That goes more for training, where you have to keep balance between working out and recovery. Don’t ever do a workout that you don’t have enough time to recover from. Run as long as you have good form. As long as you have good form, you won’t get injured. Form is the most important aspect of training. You should try to hold a good form all the time. You should do everything you can to improve your form.”
After he quit swimming at 18 (“I swam more because it made my dad happy. When he died, a part of that died with him and it didn’t feel the same.”), he began running to compete in the pentathlon, at a coach’s encouragement.
But there is a large gap in Ahmed’s life at this point where he was working too much, stressed, and didn’t like it. “I was playing with my kids one day running in the yard. After two minutes I was exhausted. I couldn’t hold my breath. I looked at myself honestly and decided that I was a workaholic. I smoked, hadn’t worked out in 15 years and if I didn’t change I would not enjoy my kids at an older age.” That was a pivotal point. The influence of his children is what got him off the couch, and on his feet; off the cigarettes and on a diet. “I’m always proud of the move I made when I left the high paid cooperate jobs to look after my health and try to get others to see how important staying healthy is.” He says this happened when he became a full-time triathlon coach.
To round out this present day triathlete, Ahmed bought a bike after watching some friends do the 1999 River Cities Triathlon. “I decided to buy a bike and do one,” he says with child-like abandon. So, six years ago, at the age of 35, he bought his first bike. (It was later traded to Richardson Bike Mart for an upgrade.)
His first race was the September 1999 USTS-Dallas Bally’s Triathlon in McKinney at Stonebridge Ranch, directed by DAVID HARTWIG. There is more than a little irony that the site is where, in 2005, he hosted and directed the area’s largest race in the last 15 years, the Stonebridge Ranch Triathlon. (Hartwig laughs when told the news. “It came around,” he says with a big grin.)
Watching Ahmed in his race director’s face looks like an Army general planning an assault. He knows all of the parts of this day are important, not losing sight of the goal. He is just as focused as if he were in the race himself. He is determined that everyone have the race of their lifetime on that one, single day. The sun glints off his eyes, the sunglasses are long ago abandoned. He commands, delegates, and inspires others working with him to do their best. Through the elements of heat or rain, the sleep deprivation, and answering more questions than a presidential candidate, he holds fast like a Captain piloting his ship through a storm and safely into port.
His schedule for last year’s PlayTri Stonebridge Ranch Triathlon would have been hard for a seasoned flight attendant. After the Stonebridge race on October 2, he left on October 6 for Honolulu to do the World Championship Triathlon (a 1.2-25-6.2 mile affair, placed 6TH overall), raced on October 9, then flew to Kona, Hawaii for the Ironman Triathlon on October 16, placing 27th overall.
His races take on a fun atmosphere, something that has been missing among the areas’ races for a number of years, many triathletes say. Yes, everyone is there to race their best, he readily acknowledges, but not at the expense of hurting someone physically, or emotionally. “Fun” is a word he wanted to bring back to racing because he knows it is one of the biggest reasons why people come to an event. Before the day is done, he will have been awake for over 24 hours, shoaken hands with most if not every competitor, thanked every volunteer profusely until the volunteer is embarrassed, picked up every bit of litter and item left behind that one can imagine, and made sure he has soothed over everyone’s complaint with a toothy smile and a boyish grin of encouragement. Better than a can of Red Bull, Ahmed oozes energy on race day. People hang around him just to catch a shot of adrenalin. (One wonders if this kind of work ethic was learned when he was 16.)
“I love the sport of triathlon because people are judged by their commitment. Regardless of your level of competition and differences, all triathletes respect each other because we, and only we, understand the level of commitment needed to train for a sport that involves so many aspects.”
Ahmed is proud of Dallas’ standing in triathlons. “I think in the last two years Dallas has evolved tremendously. We have so many programs to help triathletes achieve their goals. We have so many great races coming out every season. Triathletes are now coming from all around to compete with our athletes. The level of competition is great. We have great athletes and some that are extremely missed. BRIAN HASENBAUER, PATRICK SCHUSTER, etc. Thank God BILL SHIRE is back. I think it’s a great time now in Dallas.” But he thinks, “The city can always do more. Look at other cities for example: Austin, Chicago, San Diego, etc. But it is not like this in Austin. I think part of it is the lifestyle here. Dallas is a little different compared to the more laid back [atmosphere] in Austin. Of course the hills in Austin don’t hurt.”
And what’s it like putting on races?
“As a race director and a coach, I have seen how hard it is to get a permit for a race. On the positive side, you have people like JIM HOYT, the owner of Richardson Bike Mart. You hear about his relationship with Lance Armstrong. But his support to the cycling and triathlon community in Dallas is the book that has never been written. I tell him ‘Thank You.’ Of course with every great [area], you have your typical fake coaches that have never done a triathlon, your loser triathletes cheating, or buying an Ironman title. It’s sad, but its part of the evolution. They will always fade away.” At this past Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, he saw some people that made him sad. “I was disappointed with one incident. I saw a former client of mine that had cheated in Ironman New Zealand. I was disappointed because she admitted to having her boyfriend enter the race with the sole purpose of helping her make the cut off and finish. Despite my words of wisdom to get both of them to do the right thing, they still repeated the same mistake again in Ironman Hawaii. Of course, they are ‘eBay Ironman triathletes.’ Very sad people. It’s very sad that she never got that feeling we Ironmen get, to do a race by yourself, without any help, you and the elements. They will never get these friendship stories as they alienate themselves the whole time worrying about getting caught. They will never be true Ironmen. I say this because I want everyone, friends and clients, not to forget. What is most important about triathlon, the Ironman, and life is the striving to become a better person every day. It’s about becoming a good example to your family, friends and even strangers, around you. It’s how you react to the ups and downs that life throws at you. It is not about the medal, trophy or PR. It’s the about the journey that no one knows anything about, but yourself. It’s about the person inside of you, the person that you become. The Ironman in you!”
Ahmed would like to see athletes concentrate on what is important when racing. “The only bad thing I see now is with the ranking system in place. I find a lot of athletes concentrating on the points and forgetting what they really started triathlon for, which is to be healthy and happy. My favorite quote is ‘The miracle is not that I finished but that I started.’” That quote could easily apply to Ahmed Zaher. He had his own problems with rankings this year when he came in 10th in the national rankings and made the Inside Triathlon Magazine’s list of great athletes. “It’s funny because I beat seven of the [regional] guys before me at Worlds and Hawaii this year and I didn’t place first in the Master’s catagory in the region. What a ranking system, huh?”
He has a relaxed face that laughs loud and shows a toothy grin while wanting to share stories, both victorious and embarrassing. His family and clients, “They come first before me.”
Ahmed loves watching his kids, he says. “It is my hobby!” He also likes studying physiology and religion. For 2006, Ahmed is planning on doing the local races. “Of course,” he says. “I love supporting anyone that is local to help grow the sport.” He is also planning on racing in the Honolulu Half Ironman, the Buffalo Springs Half Ironman, the National Olympic Championships, “and hopefully the Hawaii Ironman and Worlds Olympic Championships again.” But his main goal is to continue to be healthy and active. He exhibits the sign of a champion before races start, one he is directing or one he is racing.
“What you don’t know about me is I don’t care about winning and losing. I believe that when you show up for a race, you have already won. Everything else is a bonus. Finishing or winning overall is extra. That is why I never get nervous in a race.”
After that, he wants to “Be the best coach I can be, now that Playtri is one of the best coaching companies in the nation. One of the best in the world would be nice, too.”
At the beginning of each year, Ahmed looks back to see if he has achieved his goals: personal, professional and spiritual. “I always focus on one important aspect: Am I happy? Did I do the best I can to achieve my goals? If yes, how can I improve? How can I at least maintain that momentum? How can I help others and get them involved?” He has just as many questions if he did not achieve his goals. “What can I do to improve and change? Why did I fail? What were my weaknesses and how can I fix them? Planning is a very important aspect of success. Help and support from others such as family, friends, and co-workers are important as well. How can I seek their help or surround myself with the right choices? You only fail if you don’t try.”
“Happy” and “improve” are key words for Ahmed. “There are a lot of factors in life that we have no control of, but our choice of level of effort is not one of them. To measure progress and success, I look at the whole season, not just one race or incident. I’m doing well if I live a healthier, better life. If I have influenced others to live healthier. If I did the best I can to achieve my goals. If I finished the season with no injuries or overcame them. If I placed locally or nationally better in my age group in at least one race than the year before. If I improved my technique, and general nutrition. If I figured out my weakness and work on it. If I improved in one of the sports. If I had a PR.”
Then he totals it out. If he gets just one of these things, he had “a good season.” Two or three, he had “a very good season.” Achieving four or five of these measures of his success and he has had “a great season.” More than seven he considers “by far, an outstanding season.”
His bride to be on June 17, STACI BRODE, also helps with the different faces of Ahmed. A previous client of Ahmed’s, Staci is his longtime girlfriend and business partner as the CFO for PlayTri (their other company, Tri-Mania, has been folded in to PlayTri). She has previously coached Team In Training’s Half Ironman Team, and has done several half Ironman, Olympic and sprint distance races. Staci met Ahmed at the 2002 Rivercities Triathlon in Shreveport, LA, when she was looking for a new coach. “Someone told me about him. I had no idea who he was or even what he looked like. I heard his name called out as the winner so I went and introduced myself and told him I was interested in him coaching me.” They were both dating someone else at the time. But two years later they began dating each other. Who he is and what he believes is what made Staci fall in love with him. But there are many aspects of Ahmed she likes, as well. “Ahmed is a ‘What you see is what you get’ kind of guy. You either love him or hate him – there is just no in between. I love that. He is always trying to improve himself whether that be as a man, father, coach or athlete. It makes me strive to be a better person. He is incredible. He strives to do his best in all aspects of his life. He loves being happy and that is what is wonderful about being with him. So many people are too worried about money or what other people think. We just live our lives and do the things we love to do. I also love the way he is with his kids. He is an amazing father. Last, but not least, I also love that he is extremely good looking, takes care of his body and likes to be healthy. He’s perfect!” She says “His honesty, integrity, and drive to do the best he can do in whatever he does,” are some of his strengths. “He pushes me to be a better coach and race director. He makes me think outside the box all the time and helps me help Playtri be successful.”
That face is the opposite of Ahmed’s angry or frustrated face, where he is sure of his point of view, emphatic and without doubt. On another day we’ve caught up with each other, after some encouragement, we briefly touch on the politics of the day. “I thought it was good when they asked Farris Alsultan (2005 Hawaii Ironman Champion and Muslim) what his views on 9/11 were.” It upsets him that, particularly, Americans lump all nationalities together. They are unable to distinguish say Osama Bin Ladin (the supposed master mind behind the Twin Towers tragedy on September 11, 2001) from the rest of the Muslims, he says, using the example of David Koresh, the wacko Waco resident who had started a religious cult, The Branch Davidians, in the name of Christianity, and in the end, 85 were killed, including many innocent women and children after barricading themselves in. “Bin Ladin pretends to be a Muslim,” Ahmed says enumerating all the commands of the Muslim faith Bin Ladin has broken. “He does nothing to line up with the principals of the beautiful Muslim religion. He is as much Muslim as Koresh was a Christian. Taking advantage of kids and people that believe in you and your cause, convincing them to murder others for your cause, and [then] finding ways to justify it through religion is the most un-Christian un-Muslim thing I ever heard of.” He sends the present president his thoughts. “In a nut shell, I’m against Bin laden and the Iraqi war. There is no justification in my eyes for killing an innocent life, or more, millions. Right, Mr. President?” Ahmed’s voice can be heard over the crowd gathered near by. I’m feeling a little uneasy. “War is bad. Peace is good, no matter what the excuse is.” His face muscles relax and he smiles. “I can talk about this for years, not days,” he says laughing at himself. “Of course, I don’t know everything. But I’ll tell you everything I do know.”
It was a long day at the track and in the sun. Ahmed has miles left to go, distances that would separate him from those that help anchor him; his heart, his mind and his soul. From A to Z, Ahmed Zaher’s face changes. But for the boy inside who doesn’t want to disappointment his dad, this sweating machine as fighting back the Dallas heat and pollution from nearby Central Expressway. After this workout, Ahmed will be coaching his athletes and making plans what would turn out to be Dallas areas’ best and biggest triathlon in over a decade. Eventually, he will drag home to Staci and their pet dog.
The sun will be just beginning to set.
Tomorrow will be another day.