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In 2012, right before she turned 30 years old, Hebah Hefzy realized something needed to change. She felt like she had lost herself. She graduated from high school early and completed an accelerated medical school program, earning her white coat at the age of 22. Now she was married with three children, working full-time as a vascular neurologist in Detroit, Michigan.
As a doctor, Hefzy talked to patients about the importance of exercise. But she felt like a hypocrite. She felt out of shape climbing a flight of stairs. Hefzy couldn’t run a mile, but decided running was something she could fit into her schedule. She recalls changing in a Starbucks bathroom, running 10 minutes, then going to pick up her kids. For her, it was manageable.
Soon after, Hefzy signed up for a local Race for the Cure 5K to support her children’s babysitter, who had breast cancer. She planned on walking, but the atmosphere was so invigorating that she ended up running. “I saw all these women at the event who felt so empowered because they were survivors. It got me super excited,” she says.
She established a rhythm with her schedule, running in the morning before heading to work. Eventually, Hefzy built her way up to running marathons, toeing the line at the 2014 Detroit Free Press marathon. “I was still running in cotton. I didn’t know anything about dry wick clothes or nutrition. I didn’t take a sip of water until the tenth mile,” she remembers.
Not surprisingly, she hit the wall, hard. This was supposed to be her one and only 26.2, but the experience left her wanting to figure out how to train and race better. It set her on a quest to run the World Marathon Majors and qualify for the Boston Marathon. At first, Hefzy was far off from the time she needed to qualify for Boston, but she put in the work, getting a little faster each time. To date, she’s run 20 marathons and qualified for Boston four times.
“When you’re able to watch your body do something you didn’t think it can do, you start to think, ‘If I can do that, I can do this,’” she says. So when the position for the medical director of the stroke program at Henry Ford Medical Center opened six years ago, Hefzy threw her name into the ring. “I never would have thought to apply for that role. But running gave me the feeling that I could step out of my comfort zone and be successful,” she says.
“As a runner you really learn to rely on yourself—during moments of discomfort, or when you’re trying something new, and being able to overcome those hurdles has helped me rely more on myself and be more confident in myself and the decisions that I make, personally and professionally.”
Running was her companion through her divorce and the difficult transition to life as a single mother two years ago. “So much was happening, and I couldn’t control it. Running was the one constant. It helped me feel like I had control over my life when so much was out of control. I feel like I found my voice again; no one can take it away from me,” says Hefzy, now 37 years old.
Hefzy hopes the power she’s gained through running will extend beyond just herself. She likes that her three children, now ages 8, 9, and 11, get to witness their mother prioritize her health. “They get so excited when I do races,” she says. And as a Muslim woman who runs with a hijab, she hopes that she can be a good role model for her daughter, nieces, and other Muslim girls. “I hope that I’m sending the message that they can accomplish anything they believe they can, and that doing so while practicing your faith makes it that much more special,” she says. “Because you have to have the confidence to proudly be the unicorn in a field of horses. I hope they see my confidence and can be confident in themselves.”