He has very recently crossed the Bangla Channel, a 16.1-kilometre long swimming path of the Bay of Bengal, for the sixth time in a row. He marched from Teknaf to Tetulia in only 20 days which means that he literally ran across the country. If you are already applauding his remarkable achievements, save your energy because Mohammad Shamsuzzaman Arafat's list of achievements is longer and richer.
A central banker by profession, he is the first resident Bangladeshi to become an 'Ironman'. This is one of the series of long-distance triathlon races, consisting of a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride and a marathon 26.22-mile (42.20 km) run, raced in that order.
Mohammad Shamsuzzaman Arafat spoke to The Business Standard at length about his remarkable journey of being an extreme endurance athlete, becoming an ironman and beyond.
Hailing from Noakhali, Arafat wasn't someone who took up the sport very seriously. and used to play a bit of football and cricket or whatever the weather permitted as a kid. He moved to Dhaka after passing the SSC but did not engage with any sporting activity there either.
But it all changed when he got himself admitted to Dhaka University. "While studying at Dhaka University, I came to know about a potential mountaineering camp. I enrolled myself there with a desire to conquer Mount Everest. I passed all the tests and was shortlisted among the people who would be part of the summit," he says.
But Arafat wasn't able to attend the summit due to illness. That is when he decided to gain fitness so that he does not miss out on these kinds of opportunities. "I continued to do a lot of running to keep myself ready so that I could grab any chance that came my way. In 2013, I came to know about a half marathon in Cox's Bazar. I participated in it and finished the race successfully."
"I crossed the Bangla Channel for the first time in 2015. I did so in the following couple of years too and finally in 2017, I was all set to participate in the Ironman competition."
After that, he was eyeing bigger and more substantial things. He came to know about 'Ironman'. "I heard from my running mates about the 'Ironman' competition. Initially, I had no idea what it meant or how it functioned. Later I found out about it on their website. I immediately felt that there was something unique about this competition and I must finish this challenge successfully at least once in my lifetime," Arafat mentions.
The desire to be an 'Ironman' turned him on and he decided to cross the Bangla Channel in 2015 in order to make himself prepared for the competition.
"After crossing the Bangla channel, something inside me told me that I owned the stage. I discovered the fearless nature of mine and I wanted to push myself further," says Arafat.
That's how it all started for him.
Ironman is widely regarded as one of the toughest races in the world. One has to complete the swimming, cycling and running generally within 17 hours, sometimes 15.
But Arafat was up for the challenge.
"As I mentioned earlier, I crossed the Bangla Channel for the first time in 2015. I did so in the following couple of years too and finally in 2017, I was all set to participate in the Ironman competition. During the preparatory stage, I ran from Teknaf to Tetulia and it did a world of good to my self-confidence. For cycling, I underwent rigorous training for many days," he narrates his training process when asked about it.
He participated in the 2017 Ironman Malaysia which was his first attempt to become an Ironman. Since he was quite used to long-distance swimming, having crossed the Bangla channel thrice, he strongly finished the swimming part. "After the swim, I completed the running part confidently as well but found the 180-kilometre cycling slightly difficult. However, I finished the race in 12 hours and 43 minutes. It was a huge achievement for me as I never participated in such races before," he says while sharing his experience of competing in the big stage for the first time.
After that, he participated in two more full Ironman races, the Ironman Europe in Frankfurt, Germany and last year he finished Ironman Malaysia. He finished a half Ironman, known as Ironman 70.3 this year in Thailand too.
But the journey wasn't an easy one. Being the assistant director of Bangladesh Bank, it was difficult for him to balance career and sport. "Being a professional service holder, I never compromise with my duty. I am grateful to my governor and my workplace as I am always granted leave whenever I want to participate in any competition. I am lucky to be surrounded by many good hearts."
To excel in triathlon, one needs to undergo extensive training. But Arafat's profession doesn't permit that. But his passion drives him to find a way. "When I failed to participate in that summit because of illness, I made up my mind to keep myself fit always. Since then, I have included my training in my lifestyle. On a typical office day, I get up at 5 o'clock and start training at half-past five. I continued this until 8 o'clock and then headed to the office. On holidays, I go out on long rides or races. So on average, I train for two and a half hours on working days," he explains.
So it is difficult for Arafat to find time for himself as he is always busy, either with professional work or training. He has to sacrifice a lot of his family time and miss get-togethers and social occasions. "On holidays too, I cannot spend time with them because of training. But my family members never complain, rather they always encourage me to get better. I cannot attend any get-together or any social function too. I have to sacrifice a lot as far as my family life and social life are concerned," he says.
Arafat praises his wife and friends for being supportive to him. "My wife has been a great encouragement since 2012. Also, I would like to mention my friend Nasir Uddin who always inspires me to touch greater heights."
He believes that it's important to be in good shape mentally because the real strength comes from within. He explains, "I put emphasis on mental strength more than the physical strength leading up to any competition. When I participated for the first time in the Ironman competition, I noticed a participant who had lost one hand. That's when I realised that mental strength can defy physical shortcomings. This keeps me motivated all the time."
He has to deal with three different sports in triathlon. But Arafat takes interest in other sports as well. "I have a great interest in trekking and whenever I have the time, I try to do it. I do trail running occasionally as well."
"Mountaineering was the stepping stone of my journey. My first goal was to conquer Mount Everest. I have a plan to undergo basic endurance training regarding mountaineering. Then I might climb an 18000 feet crest. I have the desire to fulfil my first dream," he adds.
He has the dream of participating in the Ironman World Championship but doesn't want to look too far ahead. "The best of athletes participate in the Ironman World Championship. It is quite difficult for a Bangladeshi to be among the top two-three participants in a race and qualify for the World Championship. Because I don't always get to enjoy facilities that a top-class athlete needs. I believe I will once participate in it, but for now, I will try to hang on patiently and train hard to raise the bar higher."
Recently he has been named the brand ambassador of Akash DTH. Arafat sees this as a positive sign for athletes like him. "Triathlon being a very expensive sport, I initially had to even borrow money and take loans to bear the expenses. It is difficult for sportspeople apart from cricketers to get sponsorships. I am really thankful to Akash DTH for making me its brand ambassador for a year. I feel this is a good sign for athletes like me who are very passionate. I hope sponsorships will come their way to help them reach their goals. I also would like to thank NRBC Bank, PKSF, The City Bank, Health Revolution, CKH Network that have been involved with me for some time."
A lot of his plans have been on hold due to Covid-19. For now, Arafat wants to concentrate on his next targets. "I have some goals regarding mountaineering. I want to fulfil them in the upcoming 4-5 years. Also, I have registered for a few Ironman competitions in which I want to participate. I am not a professional athlete, so I have to balance my professional and sporting career."
Arafat wants to inspire the youngsters to take up these sports and take the name of the country to a different level. For this purpose, he has started to train others and organised a few running competitions. "I want to see people participating in these sports and create a festive environment," he signs off.