On World Teacher's Day, Melissa Woods, a teacher at Qatar Academy Doha, speaks about her journey of adventure through running that she uses to inspire her students.
When Qatar Foundation teacher Melissa Woods isn’t running a class, you’ll probably find her just running.
I would never have expected to fall in love with running in the Middle East, where it is extremely hot, but somehow it happened - and it has honestly changed my life
Away from making lesson plans and imparting knowledge to her pupils at Qatar Academy Doha – part of Qatar Foundation’s Pre-University Education – she has completed 22 marathons in 21 different countries, all within the space of just two years, having only decided to start taking on the sport’s most grueling distance at the age of 37.
At one point, she ran seven marathons in seven nations within eight days, while also participating in 28 Spartan obstacle course races competitions in nine different countries over the course of two years and becoming the first American woman to run a marathon in Iran. Small wonder, then, that she has all the tools she needs when she looks to inspire the children she teaches to think and look further about what is possible.
“I started running for fitness, and that was my only goal at that time - getting healthy and using it as an outlet for stress and to keep me motivated,” says Melissa.
“I would never have expected to fall in love with running in the Middle East, where it is extremely hot, but somehow it happened - and it has honestly changed my life.”
Originally, Melissa just ran “a couple of kilometers in the morning or in the afternoon”, and hadn’t tested herself in a competitive race before moving to Qatar. “That was when I began what we call ‘running adventure series’,” she explained.
“In adventure races, you can run anything from 5km up to a full marathon. I signed up for a series in Africa to be the motivation and cheer people on who were running marathons, but I was surrounded by the most incredible and motivating people.
By the end of those seven days and putting my body through excruciating pain, I felt amazing, like I had conquered the world. From there, it just took over
“There was a woman from the US, for example. who was a partial paraplegic and had come to Africa to do the marathons with a hand cycle? The first thing I thought was: ‘I have working legs; I want to try this marathon’ and I was overcome with determination – nothing was going to stop me from at least trying.
“ I had gone to Africa on a summer holiday and told my family that I wanted to work up to a full marathon; they all thought I was just running 10k. It was the people there who told me I could do it, that I should give it a shot, saying ‘You didn’t come all this way to run 10k’. That was all I needed to hear.”
Melissa’s first marathon was in South Africa – and they just kept coming in the days afterwards. “At the end of the first, I felt incredible and said ‘I’m going to do another one’,” she said.
I always tell everyone that it is a case of mind over matter. You’ve got to push through the pleasure, power through the pain, and just give it your all
“We’d cross the border into another country, run another marathon, and then just truck along. We’d run all day, however long it took to complete a marathon, and have very little sleep – sometimes just four hours – as we would be up at 4am ready to run before the sun came up.
“By the end of those seven days and putting my body through excruciating pain, I felt amazing, like I had conquered the world. From there, it just took over.”
One of the things Melissa has learned from that experience that she now passes onto her students is about not recognizing limits and striving to extend their horizons. “I never knew I could do it, but I wanted to keep pushing to see what my mind and body could do,” she said.
“There were times that my body wanted to stop - my ankles were wrapped, I was swollen, and I was bruised. On one marathon in Zimbabwe, I hit a rock and came tumbling down and had to have ice on my injuries. But while my body was damaged, my mind wasn’t, and I kept going.
What meant the most to me was to be surrounded by people who had just come together for the first time, and to collectively spread love and the message that we are united
“I always tell everyone that it is a case of mind over matter. You’ve got to push through the pleasure, power through the pain, and just give it your all.”
One of the marathon memories that most sticks in Melissa’s mind came last year, when she ran in Iran. “Previously, races had always been gender-segregated. but in 2019 they offered a race and open the doors to males and females from all over the world,” she says.
“I became the first American female to complete a marathon in Iran, running while wearing the hijab. That was a new experience for me. It was also my 10th year in the Middle East, and I wanted to go into the race with a message to the world, so I had a logo on the back of my jacket that said, ‘United We Run, Divided We Crawl’.
“It was saying that if we band together, we can make it across the finish line; but if we are divided and do not allow people to come together because of gender, race, religion, or whatever it may be, we are not going to make it. What meant the most to me was to be surrounded by people who had just come together for the first time, and to collectively spread love and the message that we are united, whether it is through sports or through anything else.
“The whole experience definitely helped me be more determined and focused, to know what I want and how I am going to achieve it. And instilling that within my students is very important – because by being focused, you can have the determination and the motivation to keep going.”