- Noor Abukaram was disqualified from a high-school cross-country meet in 2019 for wearing a hijab.
- She’s since fought discrimination in sports and will be running her first marathon in New York.
- Abukaram will be racing in bright colors and her hijab to show that “everyone’s a runner.”
In was October 2019, and Noor Abukaram felt “on top of the world.”
The 16-year-old varsity cross-country athlete had just achieved a personal best in a 5K invitational, and was making plans to celebrate with friends. Then, her heart sank: Abukaram’s name was missing from the official place list because, she soon learned, she was wearing a hijab.
Unbeknownst to Abukaram, then 16, the athletic association in her state required waivers from athletes who wished to wear clothing for religious practices. Her coach had failed to supply one.
“I was humiliated. I needed to escape,” Abukaram wrote for ESPN earlier this year. “So, I went to the bathroom, as I think any girl does when they’re going to cry.”
But Abukaram’s instinct to escape was short-lived. She’s since become an outspoken advocate for runners of all identities as the founder of Let Noor Run, which fights discrimination in sports. In October 2021, her work helped to change the Ohio legislation that disqualified her.
On Sunday, Abukaram will be running the New York City marathon — her longest race yet — as a member of Team Inspire in bright colors and a hijab. Now, she wants to be seen.
“Diversity belongs in running, and inclusion belongs in running because it’s such a beautiful sport that anyone can pick up,” Abukaram, now a 19-year-old sophomore at Ohio State University, told Insider. “For me, I feel like everybody’s a runner.”
Meeting another women’s running icon
Before training for the marathon, the longest Abukaram had run was 10 miles in high school. And that was a struggle. “I remember me and my teammates, like, cried about it,” she said.
But she was inspired to train for New York, along with her parents, after running the MasterCard Mini 10K in New York in June with her mom. The race launched in 1972, the first year women were legally allowed to run the Boston Marathon, and is iconic in women’s running.
This summer’s event marked the 50th anniversary of both the race and of Title IV, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in activities like school sports. “I crossed the finish line and just felt like, ‘I can’t wait to run another race like this, and in a city like New York,” Abukaram said.
After the race, Abukaram bumped into Mini 10K cofounder Katherine Switzer, who was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967 — only after notoriously fending off a race official along the way.
Talking to Switzer, now 75, about running in New York was “a magical experience,” Abukaram said. “I was like, ‘Man, I want to be just like that.'”
Since then, Abukaram’s training has developed direction. By mid-October, she’d worked up to 20 consecutive miles.
“I started to feel that energy of running towards something, rather than just running to run,” she said. “That’s why this whole experience has been so uplifting, personal growth-wise: I’m finally finding that love again, that want to run.”
Experimenting with athletic hijabs
For Abukaram, training has also involved experimenting with athletic hijabs the same way other athletes experiment with fueling and hydration.
In the summer, Abukaram learned the hard way that light-weight hijabs were critical. “Sometimes my sports hijabs will be dirty, and then I’ll have to run in a normal one and I’ll feel like I’m suffocating,” she said.
As a fashion student, she’s also learned that certain fabrics, like nylon blends, aren’t for her, and that everyone’s preferences are different. “I’m a big proponent of look good, play good,” Abukaram said.
That’s why she’s grateful more brands are making modest athletic wear, though there still needs to be more visibility of hijabs in sport, she said. She’s doing her part by allowing people to donate a sport hijab to young Muslim athletes in need through Let Noor Run.
“I just want to show other young Muslim athletes that they’re not alone, and that we’re on their team,” she said.
To do that — and inspire others, Muslim or not — Abukaram plans to wear something bright on marathon Sunday.
“Whenever I do something where I feel like I’m representing is Islam, I love to wear a lot of colors so I can feel like I’m the most confident, most approachable, and just feel my best,” she said. “I feel like I can also unintentionally influence the mood of people around me just by wearing bright colors.”