Dr Dina Altayeb is a periodontist, a mother of three, a retired assistant professor, and, in her ‘spare’ time, an Ironman triathlete. With over 100 triathlons under her belt, Dina has blazed a trail for other Saudi women to take up the sport, and her many sporting achievements include becoming the first Saudi to complete a full-distance Ironman. In 2018, Dina bettered this first with another when she became the first Saudi age-group athlete to qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Kona.

This week Dina is competing in Kona for the third time (go, Dina!), which is all the more impressive given how busy her life is. Luckily for me, she found some time to answer these questions about her journey in triathlon and Ironman racing.

Can you share how your journey into Ironman triathlon came about?
I think the sport found me. I stumbled upon Ironman by chance. I grew up loving the outdoors, learning multiple sports, from martial arts to tennis and horseback riding. I ran the casual weekend 5km and 10km races for fun until, one day, I heard about Ironman from a friend during a hike. I was curious to know about this Ironman and why anyone would put themselves in such pain and suffering. I casually signed up for a duathlon in 2002, not knowing anything about training or the sport. I kept finding smaller goals each year until I signed up for my first full Ironman in Canada in 2005.

How long did you spend training for your first full Ironman, and what was your first race experience like?
I didn’t know much about Ironman [training] and what preparation was needed. I did a few half-Ironman races for a few years before signing up for my full-distance race, Ironman Canada, in 2005. I had a part-time coach who left to go on a trip one month before the race. His race advice/plan was to keep swimming, don’t stop; people will swim over you. Do the bike ride. Run and walk between the aid stations and eat whatever you want there. I did what he said and ended up walking most of the marathon after eating so much at the aid stations. I made a few friends along the way that were walking too. It was a long day, and I finished close to 15 hours.

What have been your most significant Ironman learning curves?
When I started my Ironman journey in 2005, the sport was very new in the Middle East. I was the only person in Saudi training for an Ironman. This was pre-Training Peaks and online coaching. I consulted with several coaches from Australia, Canada and the US, but it was hard for them to understand my cultural limitations and what was available at that time. I did 90 per cent of my training indoors on a treadmill and a stationary bike. I did not have the proper skill level and learned by trial and error. I’m happy to see how things have changed since then, how facilities are available, and how new athletes can access what they need to excel in the sport.  

Do you have a favourite discipline out of swim, bike, run?
My favourite discipline is the bike. I love cycling. It takes me to beautiful spots. I often take my bike when travelling and explore new places on it. The swim is always more challenging because it’s the beginning of the race. The excitement and nerves are high, and there is a level of anxious energy around the start line – the combination of excitement and anticipation.

When you’re preparing for an Ironman, what does a typical week of training look like?
I am learning to listen to my body more these days to balance what I want to do with what my body is prepared to do. It’s a delicate balance that’s important in order to maintain a healthy and injury-free state. I divide my time between cycling, swimming, running, strength and mobility, and recovery. I pay close attention to recovery and what happens after training sessions.

You’re about to race in Kona for the third time. What’s it like competing in what’s widely considered to be triathlon’s ultimate race?
Kona is an amazing place. [Prior to qualifying] I had watched NBC’s yearly Ironman Kona TV production and dreamed of being there year after year. This race is on an island in Hawaii, which adds the element of unstable weather; it could be windy, stormy or calm, but it will always have the intense lava heat. It’s tough and more challenging than any other Ironman, which is why it’s called the Championship.

I am grateful that I got to stand on the start line both in 2018 and 2019 with the best athletes in the world. I held the flag of my country, Saudi Arabia, as the first Saudi age-group athlete to qualify and compete in Kona. I will never forget the race morning in 2018; it was intense. Everyone getting ready, and there were a lot of media, spectators, and athletes. I looked around, smiled and felt an immense sense of gratitude. With god’s blessings, my dream had become a reality.

Have you found a fuelling strategy that works for you when racing an Ironman?
Nutrition is a big topic. It’s a crucial part of long-distance racing that’s often neglected. The formula to calculate how much we are burning and how much refuelling is needed is important, but there’s also the individual variation, the weather, humidity and the length of the race. My body performs best when I eat food that I like, that tastes good and isn’t highly processed. I experimented for many years till I found a formula that worked for me. When I race in colder climates, I need food that is solid and denser in calories, and when I race in warmer weather, it’s more easily digested sugars. I also need more electrolyte drinks in warm races.

What keeps you motivated to train and race? 
When I sign up for a big event, an Ironman or an endurance race, I will always ask myself: “why do I want to do this? And what am I willing to give up to reach my goal”. We always get excited signing up for an event, but then days pass, and we realize that we need to commit to a plan in order to show up at the start line ready. If I’m not clear on why I’m doing this, it becomes hard to commit and wake up every morning determined to train.

I write my goals on a board and put it somewhere where I can see it. I remind myself of what I agreed on. Then, when the day gets tough, and the training gets hard, I look at the board and smile. I know that commitment is not easy, but if I want to succeed, I need to put in the work. I ask myself, “Is my action bringing me closer to or further away from my goal?” I also create smaller goals throughout the year that help me keep my motivation. It could be a benchmark test, a 10km run race, or a swim event.

Hard times are inevitable during racing. So what strategies do you use to get through them?
Endurance races are long and tough. One’s mind goes through different stages and thoughts. Having mental clarity and bringing myself back to positive thoughts works for me. For example, if my body starts feeling tired and my mind starts asking me, ‘Why are you doing this? It’s too hard. I want to quit,’ I replace it with a positive thought like ‘I have passed the halfway point, I have finished the swim and bike, and it’s just the run remaining.’ I will focus on being in the present moment and remind myself that I just have to keep moving forward. Just one step at a time.

What are your favourite items of kit, and who are you sponsored by right now?
I am very picky when it comes to equipment, shoes and attire. I spend so much time training, and I need to feel very comfortable. When it comes to shoes, I think it’s very important to have a high-quality running shoe that matches my needs. The long-run shoe is different from the fast interval shoe or the racing shoe. I am proud to be part of the ASICS Frontrunner team. I did my first Ironman in a pair of ASICS Gel-Kayanos, and I am very proud to be a Frontrunner.

You can follow Dina’s racing and training via her Instagram: www.instagram.com/dina.altayeb