Samia Akbar is no stranger to winning races. The 31-year-old was a decorated runner at Oakton High School in Vienna and at American University, where she was named a 2003 NCAA Outdoor Track All-American. But Akbar says her win at home at this weekend’s inaugural Nike Women’s Half Marathon in 1:19:32 was particularly special.
Just days after her big accomplishment, we chatted with Akbar about what it meant to win the major race in her hometown, her favorite race moments, and whether she went in with the intention of winning.
Congrats! What it was like to win the Nike Half in your hometown?
It was a fabulous feeling. It was a beautiful course, first off. When you look at the course map ahead of time, anybody would see all the little switchbacks and turnaround points—but it made it so much fun. Seeing all of the competitors around each bend kept energy level up. Plus whenever I run in town, my family gets a chance to come out and see me, which is nice. I spent my years as an elite runner traveling all over the place, so it’s always a special feeling to be at home and racing there.
Did you start this race with the intention of winning?
Yeah. Competition has always been one of the times where I just feel the most strong and beautiful. With this race being at home, and also kind of transitioning out of elite running and working at the [Pacers Running] store, the thought of competing in such a huge race with 15,000 runners made me really anxious. But I just focused, for the first time in a long time—not worrying so much about time and just worrying about being competitive and taking things in along the way.
Did you experience any particularly tough moments during the race?
On Hains Point it’s beautiful and really calm, but there aren’t as many spectators, and I was kind of alone. I went a few miles without seeing what was behind me. From my competitive racing history, I’ve learned to never turn around to see what’s going on because then it becomes about what’s going on behind me as opposed to own personal goals. So that was a little bit challenging just having it so quiet.
Were you in the lead the whole time?
Yes, I was. I was in the lead from start to finish. The second-place woman placed three or four minutes behind me.
What were some of your favorite moments from the race weekend?
As far as the weekend goes, the biggest focus was just race day. It was amazing. The views at the start line looking up at the Capitol were awesome. I’ve run a lot of races in DC, but the magnitude of this race and with all the women, it was just so cool and definitely made my heart race to be a part of that group. In light of all the recent events, with Boston and everything, it was awe-inspiring to have that feeling of solidatory, with some of the most inspirational [women] running the race, like Shalane Flanagan and Joan Benoit Samuelson, one of my all-time favorites and idols.
What’s the first thing you did post-race?
Post-race I went to my parents’ house in Reston. That’s where I grew up. My mom loves entertaining, and she’s famous for having big family brunches and dinners on Sunday where we laze around and hang out and talk about what’s been going on. I have lots of sisters and nieces and nephews that live in the area. So that’s what I did—just hung out with family and kicked it.
You mentioned you’re toning down your responsibilities as an elite runner. But do you have any upcoming races on the calendar?
I don’t at the moment. But that’s the great thing about this race. Running this race really meant a lot to me as far as having that kind of confidence level to go out there and to do something really long and challenging and not fall apart. It gave me an itch to plan something for the fall and showed me I don’t have to be nervous about doing something, because I have nothing to lose. It makes me feel like I’m finding a groove with work and life and running and having a balance. I think that’s the key thing.
You’ve competed in the USA Half Marathon Champions and the marathon for the 2008 Olympic Trials. Which is your favorite race distance?
My PR in the marathon is 2:34, and it was my debut in New York. And I’ve had some half marathon races that have been kind of rough, where I expected to run better. But I would say I’m happier with something under the marathon. I always tell people that the marathon is a big, huge equalizer because somebody running four hours has a lot of the same worries and concerns as someone who is trying to run 2:25. Something close to half marathon distance or ten miles is more pleasurable for me as an athlete. There’s just less anxiety going into preparing for it.
I have to say, you look so relaxed in the photo of you crossing the finish line, like you hadn’t just run 13.1 miles.
I was! I was relieved it went all okay and I didn’t fall apart. It was one of the longest tempo race runs I had done in months, so I was really pleased to cross the line. And I saw people like my husband, mom, and dad waiting for me. They always make me smile.