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IslamHolidaysRamadan

September afternoons on the soccer field at Randallstown High can heat up quickly, and Ousmane Toure tires much more quickly than he usually does. During a break in practice, Toure eagerly pours water over his head and arms to cool off, but he will not drink any.

At Oakland Mills, it's heating up, too. Fuad Suleiman, in full pads, goes all-out in hitting drills at football practice. He gradually slows down, eventually taking a knee on the sideline to catch his breath. His buddies tell him to get some water, but he does not.

Toure and Suleiman won't drink anything at practice for 30 days as they observe the Ramadan fast. The Muslim teenagers won't eat or drink between sunup and sundown during the holy month, which commemorates the completion of Allah's revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad.

Fasting all day presents a challenge to young Muslim athletes such as Toure and Suleiman, for whom sports is secondary to their religious beliefs.

"It's not like anybody forces me. It's a choice," said Toure, 16. "Because I go to school, and if I chose, I could easily eat when nobody knew, but that's not what I want. I actually believe in my religion. It's not like some other people: They say, 'This is my religion,' but they don't really practice it."

It's a balancing act for the two seniors, who said they are careful not to push their bodies too far. They eat and drink at night and early in the morning to fuel themselves for the entire day.

Although their diets vary, both usually consume oatmeal, fruit juice and lots of water. They eat a lot of protein and carbohydrates, and Suleiman drinks protein shakes.

Dr. Charles Shubin, director of pediatrics for Mercy Family Care, said their diet is just right to carry them through the day.

"What it boils down to in young people, their physical activity notwithstanding, is they have the resilience, mostly through their liver, to maintain themselves through those periods of not eating," Shubin said. "Basically, what the liver does is store energy in the form of glycogen, which it releases when you need it."

Some athletes can get lightheaded from swings in their blood-sugar levels, said Shubin, who recommends eating complex carbohydrates, such as pasta, to prevent that.

"What the kids have to do is tune in to their own bodies and figure out what works for them," he said, "and it won't be one thing for everybody. It will vary from individual to individual."

Toure and Suleiman do the best they can, but they still find themselves fading as practice goes on.

"Sometimes, I have to think about how many sprints I have left," Toure said. "It's more of a calculation than just running until you get tired. I don't usually get tired, but with Ramadan, it's a different thing with the water limit."

In games, Toure often moves from wing to defense, where he doesn't have to run as much. Suleiman takes more breaks, and because the Scorpions play their games at night, he will drink water after sundown.

Neither said he has ever felt in real physical danger, such as suffering from serious dehydration or heat exhaustion. Both said under serious circumstances, it is permissible to break the fast. Toure said he never has, but Suleiman did on a warm, humid Friday two weeks ago.

"A pain started creeping up from my gut, and it crept up to my chest," said Suleiman, 17. "I felt like when you've eaten a lot or you have to burp real badly, but it just kept building to the point where I was starting to heave when I was breathing … so I said some prayers for having to break it a little bit early. After that, I ate a PowerBar and had some Powerade. After a while, I felt better."

Coaches and athletic trainers are especially vigilant with fasting athletes, watching for signs of trouble.

"When it's real hot, because he can't even technically drink water - he can rinse his mouth out and that's about all - we watch what we have him doing," Oakland Mills football coach Jim Riss said. "We're looking for signs of heat exhaustion, like a cold, clammy sweat, upset stomach, all that stuff. We check with him regularly, and we try not to push him too hard."

Gilman athletic trainer Lori Bristow has observed many fasting athletes but said she has never had a serious health problem with one.

"It's like a wilting flower. We see them fade as the day goes through," she said. "We've been fairly lucky in that they control themselves and sometimes they do not participate in athletics. If they feel they're in danger, they forgo the fast, but you hope they get to you prior to that."

Bristow said some athletes change their training regimens, especially when it's hot. Cross country runners, for example, might work out a few days on a stationary bike rather than run all their weekly mileage.

"We try to make adjustments so they can continue to train and compete without dishonoring their beliefs," Bristow said.

During Ramadan, which ends Wednesday, Suleiman said he goes without weight training and usually loses weight. At 5feet8, he normally weighs 155 to 160pounds, but after three weeks of fasting, he had dropped to 145. Toure, 6-1, said he usually stays about 160.

They still go to lunch with their friends, and Suleiman said he used to get teased.

"When I was first doing it, they were kind of being jerks," he said with a laugh. "They would be, 'Mmmm,' so I was like: 'Well, OK. Yeah, that helps.' After a while, you just shake it off."

Most of their teammates, they said, respect the decision to fast, although some don't know about it.

"It has to be really tough, because in sports you need nutrition and they can't eat," said Khalil Norris, Suleiman's teammate. "I feel for him. I'm just glad I don't have to do it."

Although the fast is mandated for adults during Ramadan, Muslims do not fast if they are sick or traveling - or if it's not safe. That's why Adil Agha Khan, a junior cross country runner at Gilman, does not fast during the week.

"What I do and what I've been doing since I was probably in eighth grade, I've just been fasting on the weekends," said Khan, 16. "Especially with sports like cross country, it's not really a wise thing for a growing kid to be fasting while he's doing something like that. I can't imagine not eating and then running seven miles. My parents have always advised me just to fast on the weekends."

All three boys said there is a misconception that Ramadan is only about fasting.

Khan said there's more to it than that: "The spirituality; just trying to be kind to people; do the right thing; reflect on making good choices; try to better yourself in every way."

None of the three has faced serious hostility because of his religion, but they all agreed Islam is often misunderstood.

"A lot people think it's an extremist thing," Toure said. "The religion, you pray five times a day, don't cheat, don't lie, don't steal. The emphasis is to try to help other people understand your religion. When people hear it, they hear jihad, and they think of some guy with a bomb strapped to his chest about to pull the pin and blow himself up, but what jihad actually means is to spread the faith and the cause of God."

For Toure, Suleiman and Khan, the Ramadan fast is all about living their spiritual convictions while knowing their physical limits. They're fine with their athletic performances suffering a little for their religious beliefs.

"Honestly, I respect the heck out of him," Riss said. "For a kid to have that much respect for his religion and that much conviction toward it, that shows a lot of strength."


Ramadan Ramadan is the holiest month of the Islamic lunar calendar, this year lasting from Sept.2 to Oct.1. During the month, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown and focus their attention on their faith, cleansing the soul and becoming a better person.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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