The 6 World Marathon Majors - Q&A with Haroon Mota
Written By: SportsShoes
Haroon Mota is the founder of Muslim Hikers and Active Inclusion Network, two organisations dedicated to advocating for diversity in sport and outdoor activities by promoting the inclusion of South Asian communities mainly in the UK, where he lives. He is a marathon runner and mountaineer. On this occasion, we spoke to him about his experience running the 6 World Marathons or World Majors.
How did you start your running journey?
I started running a little over ten years ago, I first signed up to run the London Marathon as a one-off charity challenge. Prior to this I had no running experience as my background was martial arts, I used to kickbox and other than that I used to do a lot of hiking, mainly charity hiking with the purpose of fundraising for good causes and this took me to Everest base camp, Kilimanjaro and Peru and raised a lot of money for the charities and from that I thought of running another marathon for charity to raise money for a good cause.
I signed up to run for a charity called Teenage Cancer Trust. It was supposed to be a one-off run experience however it ended up being the most horribly painful experience, I actually told myself I would never run again, it was that bad. I was fit back then, but maybe I underestimated the requirements to run 26 miles comfortably, and I don’t think I trained well enough for it.
So, before I got to the finish line I told myself I was never going to do this again. The last 8 miles my leg was full of cramp, I can barely remember it, it was that bad. When I got to the finished line I told myself that I would not do it again.
However, the following year, I lost my father in a car accident, and it kind of turned my life upside down and I started to run again just to deal with the grief, to try and process my thoughts and my emotions, to try and get more clarity and eventually I found that i was keeping my running shoes on and decided to run for good causes in memory of my father.
So that was the start of my running journey, I ran lots of half marathons and the following year I got a chance to run the London marathon.
How did you find out about the World 6 Majors?
I ran the London marathon again in 2015 and I just kind of fell in love with the London marathon. I think I’ve run 9 Marathons in the last 10-11 years. Only in 2019 when I ran the Berlin marathon, for the first time, that I realised that there is this Series of World Majors and I think it was then that I decided that I might like to give that a go, as a personal challenge.
For me, when I started running all those years ago it seemed very strange that there were so few people of colour taking part in races. I am a British Asian Muslim and community is really important, I live in a really diverse city here in Coventry.
Even when I did my local run in Coventry, it was so bizarre that the diversity you see in your home city doesn’t reflect the make-up of ethnicities in your community that are doing sort of endurance events.
So over the years through my charities I was trying to encourage others in the community to get out and do races and I was often seen running with big groups of people, so championing diversity and inclusion was something high on my agenda.
When I was setting the goal of running a world marathon I knew there were very few people who aspire to such goals so for me and I had the idea that maybe this would pave the way for more people in the community to do this and inspire people.
When did you run them all?
So in 2019 I did the Berlin marathon for the first time, Berlin is considered to be a rather flat course, perhaps one of the easiest marathons of the set, after completing this event I managed to secure entry to Chicago and New York 2020.
I had a goal for 2020 to do Chicago, New York and London all in the space of one month. But then the pandemic hit and all these marathons got cancelled. London got cancelled first in April and then Berlin, but I carried on training with the hope that maybe I’d get to run Chicago, maybe New York but eventually they all got cancelled, which was a difficult time when you set yourself goals and commit physically and emotionally to your goal and you hold a bit of hope when though you face hurdles. And for that bit of hope to be eventually taken away and you receive a notification that your event is cancelled.
So marathons got cancelled and in 2021 I finally thought I got a chance to run Chicago and New York. The US didn’t lift travel restriction and I was still applying to the Embassy for travel permissions and redemptions, and to keep my mind occupied and my goals alive, I ran London and Berlin and signed up to substitute races like Manchester and Istanbul instead of Chicago and New York.
With all these difficulties, how did you manage to secure the 6 races?
So up and till last year, 2022, I was still on 2 stars having only run London (lots of times) and Berlin twice. Chicago came and it was a really exciting time for me. It was the first time I visited the US and now the prospect of visiting the US twice with Chicago and New York in the space of 5 weeks. For me as a British muslim sometimes you have trouble visiting the USA, you hear stories of people travelling there and being denied entry.
It was at Heathrow when they didn’t let me check-in and said “sorry you’re going to have to wait for someone to come and speak to you, it’s standard procedure”, and then you get interrogated for an hour and already my heart starts racing because of all of the preparation I’ve done, my entry ended cancelled in 2020 and again in 2021, could this again be a disaster but eventually they gave me my passport back and I thought, “yes, I’m going to Chicago!”.
But then you get to Chicago airport and the interrogation starts all over again; and you’re kinda thinking “are they gonna send me home?” . But we got there. I remember Chicago really well because it was an early morning start, 07.30, the weather was nice and cold, like 5/6 degrees which is what I like. I don’t like warm weather and I think the week before I had a race in London and I had a really bad cramp.
I really enjoyed the Chicago marathon and had some friends out there who told me that New York is a tough race because of the bridges and the hills but I do a lot of hiking so how hard can the hills be? Shockingly the weather was 23 degrees which is unseasonably warm for New York, when really it should have been autumn weather. I love crowds and the energy and London is nice for that but I was told New York would be too. It didn’t disappoint but I didn’t enjoy it as much because of the heat and I remember in New York around the 17/18th mile and the crowds were great. So New York wasn’t quite the race I planned but it is the one I would like to do again.
I did want to tick New York and Chicago off my list. Also with all the whispers out there now being 7 stars I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of being a 6-star finisher, and also the month of Ramadan in 2023 fell in the month of March and April so Boston marathon was in the month of Ramadan and it clashed with the training period of the marathon and that becomes problematic when racing during the month of fasting but I was keen to enter this race.
I have a relationship with London marathon because of the work I do in inclusion and I am also a Spirit of Marathon Award winner for my fundraising contributions which means I never have to apply for a ballot for a marathon and I get invites to the marathons for the rest of my life.It also comes with some perks, they were able to sort my entries for Tokyo and Boston arriving there as an invitation athlete.
I do have a lot of support from my wife, people say I make it look easy but the reality is that it’s difficult and challenging having to balance these races and travel around the world with family life.
So 2023, the idea of knowing that I am close to my end journey of running 5th and 6th stars was an exciting ordeal with the anxiety of getting injured and the worry of every hurdle ive had up until now.
Tell us about achieving your 6th Star in Boston
For me having Boston as my 6th star, it was quite important because it was also the 10th anniversary of the Boston bombings and one of the things I showcase is how muslims contribute positively to society so I decided for my final race run for a good cause, I am the ambassador of a charity called Charity Right which provide school meals for needed children around the world.
Remembering this was Ramadhan, it was a tough few weeks of training as I was going without food and drink as well, but this marathon was important to me. I did lots of reading of reviews and sought advice because the Boston course was hilly and I wanted to do this right.
When I got to Boston, the thing I remember is the entire city embraced the Marathon, you walk around the EXPO or downtown and you see everyone wearing the Boston Marathon jackets and so I started to wear my jacket everywhere. One of the things I do on my marathons is not to do too much sightseeing and relax and stay sensible and just focus on completing the race and hope my prayers have been answered.
On the event day of a world marathon majors, they give you a special badge to wear on your back which says “I’m running for my 6th star” and it's amazing when so many runners come up to you and say “good luck with your 6th star, good luck with your 6th star” and what was surprising was that so many people had already heard of my story through social media, what was amazing was I was in Boston- the best marathon in the world, with people from all over the world saying “hi Haroon, we follow you on Instagram, we’ve seen your story and heard your podcast”, and it all built up to the climax, it was emotional for me reflecting on how my running journey started, losing my dad, the obstacles I had to face and being there without my family in the month of Ramadan and achieving the 6 stars which not many Muslims have done this.
I was ecstatic, euphoric and there’s a photograph with tears in my eyes and it was so emotional as well as the raising over £20,000 for charity. Everything went perfectly but it is one of the hardest marathons I have run, I don’t think it had sunk in properly and I had to run London five days after and Eid (celebrations) were one day before the London Marathon.
Which one was your favourite?
I was excited about a far eastern country and a flat course and the goal was to go to Tokyo and get a PB. I remember the atmosphere there, the culture was so different there with volunteers there cheering you on. I was focused mentally and enjoyed it and I got a PB. For me that was a special event and brought me closer to Boston.
What are your plans after completing the 6 World Majors?
Even after the London marathon I was wearing my 6-star medal with pride. I feel very proud about this, but now I’m taking some time out and focusing on shorter races, trail marathons and ultra-marathons. I also know they will be announcing the 7th and 8th stars for Cape Town and Sidney around 2025 and I want to try and be one of the first people to complete those marathons.
Lastly, what advice would you give to somebody with not much information about the Majors?
I only got the special entry for Tokyo and Boston, for the rest of the entries I secured myself. So for London most people know that you have to apply for the ballot or you can run for a charity. When I ran Berlin I was successful in the ballot but my advice for this race would be to try the ballot or look for charity places who offer places and tour operators because it’s quite available and easy to get to. Chicago I was lucky in the ballot but sometimes you can get in by charities offering places through a tour operator. It is sometimes costly, and if money is a barrier for you, there are charities offering places for Chicago and New York but you will have to raise quite a bit of money but if it is the race you would like to run and you are not fast enough to qualify those are the avenues I have explored in the past.
Thank you very much for your time and for answering all our questions Haroon. SportsShoes looks forward to your sporting and social success with Active Inclusion Network.