x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Charity fund-raiser running with a purpose

Former airline employee hitting the trail both for sport and to better lives of disadvantaged

Maria Conceicao will attempt seven 50-kilometre ultra-marathons across seven continents in seven weeks, known as her “777 challenge”, to raise US$1 million (Dh3.67m) for charity. Courtesy Maria Conceicao
Maria Conceicao will attempt seven 50-kilometre ultra-marathons across seven continents in seven weeks, known as her “777 challenge”, to raise US$1 million (Dh3.67m) for charity. Courtesy Maria Conceicao

For someone who used to fly around the world for a living, the next two months promise to bring a new kind of long haul for Maria Conceicao.

Seven 50-kilometre ultra-marathons. Across seven continents. In seven weeks. The “777 challenge”.

The aim? To raise US$1 million (Dh3.67m) for charity.

Conceicao’s impulse for giving back stems from a trip to Dhaka, in Bangladesh, where the former Emirates Airline cabin-crew member was horrified at the conditions slum dwellers endured every day. In 2005, she decided to set up her own charity organisation, which would become the Maria Cristina Foundation, which she now runs.

Since then, her charity work has seen her run marathons, climb Mount Everest and win Emirates Woman of the Year 2009, among other awards.

The 777 challenge promises to be her biggest physical obstacle yet. Starting in Antarctica on January 26, it then moves to South America, Asia, Europe, Australia, North America and ends in Africa on March 15.

“I had never considered it before,” she says. “The idea to run ultra-marathons was purely with the intention to raise funds for the foundation.”

It is a monumental task, but hitting targets has become Conceicao’s speciality over the years.

Her recent training has seen her complete two ultra-distance marathons; one 44km with a 2,400-metre ascent and another 55km with a 1,900m ascent.

On January 1, she ran the 42km Zurich marathon and, on January 10, 42km in Doha. Her most memorable running feat was closer to home: seven marathons in seven days across the seven emirates in December 2011.

“This was really tough for me, but it got me noticed by Etihad Airways, who then became our official airline sponsor, giving free flight tickets for the candidates under our employment programme to come to the GCC for job interviews,” she says.

As well as Etihad, the 777 challenge is being supported by the Abu Dhabi-based NAMA Development Enterprises, Right Bite and Up and Running Sports Medical Centre in Dubai.

“Originally, this year we tried to arrange seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, but the logistics are brutally difficult as the infrastructure just doesn’t exist to get this done,” says Conceicao, 33, who has lived in Dubai since 2003.

Instead, she secured a place in the 777 ultra-marathon challenge. “These are ultra-marathons, so, although I have more time to complete this challenge, the distance is longer.”

The demands on Conceicao, psychologically and physically, have been “immense”.

“Up and Running Sports Centre have been involved in the process of keeping me fit, mentally focused and ready to meet the challenge,” she says. “The training is very specific and is designed to gradually build up to the challenge and allow my body to recover quickly after each race.

“They also got me back on track with sport rehab for some injuries that I have picked up along the way. The diet has to be very balanced in order to keep up my energy levels.”

Her responsibilities also mean that there is no such thing as a typical training day.

“Every day is different depending on my schedule. Some days it is muscle strengthening, conditioning, some days endurance training runs,” she says, which can be anywhere from 21km to 42km. “Sometimes it’s threshold training, which helps develop recovery time and speed, or a couple of swim sessions and yoga classes.”

There is real risk of injury and those in charge of Conceicao’s schedules have ensured that rest time is as important as the ­training.

“Obviously, rest and diet is extremely important. However, the training I am doing now is preparing me to recover quickly,” she says.

“I also have professional sports massages. This is essential to get me ready for the next training week.”

As for balancing her time between sporting and logistical work, Conceicao, a UAE resident who was born in South Africa, insists that they are two sides of the same coin.

“For me, both are the same. My current sporting activities are for the charity,” she says. “These challenges have to be promoted with the need to raise funds for the charity.”

Conceicao trains between two to four hours daily, with practice races usually taking place at the weekend. Most days Conceicao will still spend between 10 to 12 hours working at the charity, along with her team of volunteers.

“They also put many hours into the charity even though they have full-time jobs,” Conceicao says. “Without them, this wouldn’t be possible.”

Beyond the 777 challenge, Conceicao says that she will continue to seek out new targets for her foundation.

“Right now, we need $1 million to see through our commitment to those under our programme,” she says. “However, this is a moving goalpost because the financial requirements keep increasing.”

She acknowledges that raising funds is a competitive field and that there are many other worthy causes besides the Maria Cristina Foundation. But that is just one more challenge to tackle.

“I had a vision and made a commitment to change the lives of the slum dwellers and I will see this commitment through whatever it takes,” Conceicao says.

“I expect my challenges to get more and more extreme to keep financing the foundation. I have already registered for a couple of really tough challenges in 2015.”