Saturday Spotlight- Isa Muqattash

Name: Isa Muqattash

Age: 30

Occupation: Software Engineer (and full-time PhD student – leading a double life, I know)

Family: My wife Lauren and son Andrew (22 months old)

A native of Jordan, I was born in Saudi Arabia where my father was contracted as an English/Arabic translator for a government agency that controlled one of the busiest and most popular oil rigging areas in the world. With access to many beaches, my father instilled in me the love for swimming from a very young age. At six years old, in first grade, I was already competing several times a year. By second grade, the teachers and coaches had nicknamed me “The Bulldozer”.

That summer, my family took our first trip to the United States. Over thirty days, the trip spanned well over twenty states. By the time our trip was over, the Gulf war had already erupted and Jordanians were no longer welcome in Saudi Arabia. As such, we were forced out of the country and headed back to Jordan, just in time for the start of the school semester. That was a rough year and swimming was the last thing on my father’s mind, so sports were temporarily set aside.

The following year, in fourth grade, I joined a competitive local swimming club. We won the national championship that year. I continued to swim year after year, won dozens of medals and titles at the national level, and eventually made the national youth swim team when I was in my teens. I even made the finals in the 200m butterfly at an international competition with several participating countries. Keep in mind that with a country much smaller than the US, it’s much easier to climb to the top and represent as a member of the national team. I definitely don’t claim to be anywhere near worthy of being on the US national team… All along, I hated running, and even recall wishing the town I lived in would flood so I can swim rather than walk to school…

Fast-forward to senior year of high school, where the school year is followed by two weeks of national exams similar to state regent exams that you’re all familiar with. These two weeks of examinations are the sole factor in determining eligibility for college admission and the permitted choices for a college major. For example, medicine is considered the “noblest” of all, and only the top 0.5% are eligible to apply, followed by dental and then by engineering, etc.. Given the importance, I took a year off from sports. Meanwhile, I continued to eat like Michael Phelps. Some of you might have heard about my famous dinner consisting of three foot long Subway sandwiches consumed with two liters of drinks. Needless to say, I gained 45 pounds that year… But that didn’t bother me; I had my eyes set on a good college education and the ability to choose any major I wanted, right?? Despite being severely sick and messing up on one of the exams, I did well overall and placed 213 out of over 100K graduating students on these national exams that year.

But that score didn’t matter in the end… Two months prior, a friend had convinced me to take the SATs “just for kicks”… Like the majority of the other kids, I had not planned on studying outside of Jordan, certainly not at a college or university where the SATs were required or even taken into consideration. Well, I shelled out $30 for the test fee, which was a large chunk of money equivalent to 15% of a teacher’s monthly salary. Math wasn’t a problem for me, but I barely spoke English. I remember only understanding three words on the verbal section of the test, or I should say I “think” I knew the three words… Having discovered some statistical properties on the distribution of the multiple-choice answers, I managed to score a whopping 340 out of 800 on the verbal section. A pitiful score yet much better than I had expected..

Now everyone needs a little bit of luck in life… The high school that I went to had a special arrangement with Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, where they had arranged for two scholarships to be given out annually. The scholarship covered full tuition plus room and board for all four years. A MEGA deal by any standard…Don’t ask how, but yours truly managed to somehow get one of these scholarships! Sure enough, I bought a one-way ticket, skipped prom, packed my two suitcases, and said “America, here I come”… I barely spoke the English language. Sure I had learned it in school, but it was mostly grammar, dictation, reading and writing, nothing really practical for everyday life.. But what did I have to lose? I was an adventurous 18-year old kid… I was told someone from the college would meet me at Philadelphia International Airport, and they would have a school banner. Well, I didn’t know what a banner was, and I didn’t bother looking it up. Yup, that kind of adventurous…

In college, I joined the swimming team for the first two years, but by then I had so many swimming-related injuries and had to quit the sport that I loved most. A friend of mine was a sprinter on the track team and suggested that I try out. Well, I mentioned earlier how much I hated running, but hey, when you eat like Michael Phelps, you do what you have to do to stay in shape, so I tried out for the school’s modest track team (they have a great program now, and it’s not a small team anymore)… Anyways, given the choice of being a sprinter or a distance runner, and listening to explanations on how the two are vastly different in terms of the daily workouts, I chose to do distance to help keep the weight off, even though my body looks nothing like that of a distance runner. After all, it was just a way to stay fit, I knew I wasn’t going to excel as a runner.. Over the next two years, I did indoor and outdoor track, as well as Cross country. With PRs of an 18:40 5K and a 31:00 8K, I was good enough to become the third slowest guy on team (yes college times are insanely fast!!!). By now, I had learned to enjoy running but only when done with a group, never alone..

After graduating college in 2005, I moved to Yonkers, New York, and was faced with the challenge of gaining traction in life, not an easy task when starting from scratch in a “foreign” country. The simple task of renting an apartment turns out to be daunting when you don’t have a job, and finding a job when you don’t have an address isn’t necessarily easy either. Add to that being signed up for a full-time graduate degree, let’s just say it’s a recipe for disaster. Somehow, I eventually managed to have seven concurrent part-time jobs to get by, which left me without choice but to quit running and gain ~50 lbs. Most meals consisted of coffee and chocolate from a vending machine. After a year of terrible eating habits, my organs were always hurting and I was in a lot of pain.. Eventually, I would have trouble breathing after walking up a flight of stairs, so I convinced a co-worker in 2008 to run a ten mile race with me at Eisenhower Park. I pushed through the first eight miles, but the last two miles were different. My body started to shut down, and about 200-300 meters from the finish line, I collapsed and fell to the ground. Some good Samaritans (and most runners are as such) rushed to me with some water and Gatorade, and eventually got me back up on my feet. I wanted to finish, I wasn’t going to quit, but I fell to the ground a second time… Ten or so minutes later, I slowly walked towards and crossed the finish line while the few spectators cheered me one. One of the good Samaritans said “Good job, no one blames you for leaving it all out there on the course”. Since then, that’s always helped push me through a tough workout or race…

That was my wake-up call. How could it be that a once athlete could barely walk to the finish line without collapsing! I made a very bold decision shortly after. Since my Birthday was May 2nd, I decided that each year I would celebrate the gift of life and renewed health by run the Long Island full or half Marathon. Sure enough, I signed up that year and have not skipped a year since. I certainly don’t recommend this for anyone, and I know it’s simply stupid of me, but even on years where I had not trained at all, I would still run the race. We all know marathons hurt even when in top shape, so imagine how it feels when all you’ve trained is a single 3-mile run since the same race the year before. It aint pretty… I got slower each year, and a 10-minute pace, even for a 5K, became about all my body could tolerate…

I’ve done a few marathons since, but all have been at the Long Island Marathon, and my current PR (from 2009, I believe) is 4:24… This year, however, will be different and I’m looking forward to shattering this PR in two week. I’ve been training with and taking advice from some very supportive Selden Hill Warriors that I am proud and honored to call friends and family. I’m finally starting to get back into shape, and you guys have been the reason behind my motivation. Let’s just say I owe you all and will continue to pay it forward!

Happy Easter to those celebrating, good luck to all on your races this weekend, and thanks for the opportunity to share my story.

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