Fasting meets 'hell week'

When Adam Burpee’s high school football teammates rush to nearby water coolers in the afternoon heat, he watches and waits.

On a normal day, in a normal month of his senior season, the 17-year-old would take the opportunity to hydrate, but with the Muslim holy month of fasting underway, he won’t have any food or drink until after sundown — at least two hours after the end of his practices.

It’s not easy, he said, especially with August and September temperatures that have often crept up to triple-digit levels.

“It’s definitely one of the toughest things I’ve ever done,” said Adam, a Glendale resident who plays defensive back for Pasadena Poly.

Muslims abstain from food, drink and sexual activity during daylight hours for the month of Ramadan, which presents annual challenges for athletes.

But because Ramadan follows the lunar calendar and occurs about 11 days earlier each year, the 2009 fasting schedule is longer — and hotter — than it has been in more than three decades, making it especially difficult for practicing Muslims who are also physically active.

With twice-daily “hell week” practices at the start of the season complicating matters for football players who have never trained while fasting as early as August, this year’s ritual raised questions for some athletes about where to draw the line between religious obligations and athletic goals.

“I think it’s just creating a balance,” Adam said. “I’m not going to abandon my beliefs just so I can play football, and also it’s a test for me — a physical and mental test.”

Ramadan 2009, which is set to end Saturday, has stirred its share of sports controversy as professional athletes across the globe have tried to take part in the tradition while continuing to play under harsh weather conditions.

At the Italian soccer powerhouse Inter Milan, Coach Jose Mourinho benched midfielder Sulley Muntari, a practicing Ghanaian Muslim, during his home debut match with the club, saying at a postgame press conference that the 25-year-old was “clearly struggling” because of his fast.

Ramadan has so far not affected Husain Abdullah, a defensive back for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, who has abstained from food and drink while playing football since he was 7, he said.

His brother, Hamza Abdullah, also fasts while playing defensive back for the Cleveland Browns, Husain Abdullah said.

Although the decision to fast while playing sports may seem confusing to some, it was never a question for the Abdullahs.

“Whether you’re working at a desk job or a teacher or something, or whether you’re an athlete, that’s just a profession,” Husain Abdullah said. “Islam is my religion, and that’s how I live my life.”

Like Adam and other Muslim athletes, Husain Abdullah wakes up before dawn, about 4 a.m., to eat a balanced meal that includes “a lot of fluids,” he said.

He takes a short nap before waking up to attend meetings and practices, finishing his physical work by 3 p.m. most days and sometimes playing during intense heat without having a chance to eat until about 7:30 p.m, which is when the sun sets in Minneapolis, he said.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

While playing in a midday college game for Washington State University, coaches were so worried about his condition that they convinced him to accept intravenous hydration, which some have argued broke his fast, he said.

Since turning pro two years ago, he has continued training and playing during Ramadan without making exceptions for IV hydration, he said.

It may be tough, but it’s part of the ritual, he added.

“We’re told to fast, so we’re going to fast,” he said.

Not all Muslims are required to fast during Ramadan.

People with serious illnesses, the elderly and women who are pregnant, nursing or menstruating are exempt from practice. Muslims who feel sick may break their fasts, as long as they make up for the scratched days before the following year’s holy month, said Levent Akbarut, a member of the steering committee for the Islamic Congregation of La Cañada.

Still, athletes should not give up on practicing the rituals of Ramadan, Akbarut said.

“I think all athletes should participate to the extent that it remains healthy for them and even if they have to sacrifice some of their athletic performance, I think within reason, as long as it doesn’t cross the boundary of being unhealthy,” he said. “That’s the challenge of practicing the month of Ramadan, is that you work through the extra challenge and burden that is placed on you, and you do your best to continue to excel to continue to perform.”

Although most Muslims can adopt some healthy dietary practices to help them power through this year’s fasts of up to 15 daylight hours, athletes training at high levels of intensity may struggle regardless of how they eat before sunrise and after sunset, said Keri Gans, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn. and a registered dietitian.

“Unfortunately, dehydration is a common occurrence during a fast and especially if they’re exercising, so I just think they need to be aware,” Gans said of Muslim athletes. “If they start to not feel well, they need to listen to their bodies.”

Most of the draining effects of a Ramadan fast can be mitigated by eating balanced meals that include substantial quantities of lean carbohydrates that are high in fiber — like oats, barley or lentils — along with lean protein and a lot of fluids, Gans said.

But even with those measures in place, fasting could present a danger for the most active athletes, Gans said.

“It is a conundrum,” she said.

Shadow Hills resident Salam Al-Marayati was concerned about the decision of his 15-year-old son, Zayd Al-Marayati, to play defensive back for La Cañada Flintridge Prep while fasting, particularly during “hell week,” he said.

“I was concerned because it’s twice a day,” said Salam Al-Marayati, who serves as executive director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “So I told him if it’s physically too much to go ahead, go break it if he can’t physically keep up with it, but that he would have to make up the days later.”

Although Adam admitted he has skipped fasts on game days, high temperatures and a regularly empty stomach has not been enough to make him go easy on the practice field, where he hopes to maintain his starting position and place as a team captain, he said.

“The way I see that, I feel like I’m abandoning my team,” he said. “I think it’s better that I be sitting out instead of going easy because if I’m not going hard, there’s plenty of other guys who can.”

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