Maria Conceicao has just completed the 777 Challenge – running seven marathons on seven continents. But her race isn’t over. Her mission is to inspire the UAE to start fundraising initiatives of their own.
Maria Conceicao has climbed Everest and Kilimanjaro, trekked to the North Pole and earned two Guinness World Records for completing ultramarathons, but she doesn’t do it for the accolades and praise. Instead she does it to help educate the street children of Dhaka, Bangladesh. A resident of Dubai and former flight attendant, Conceicao set up the Maria Cristina Foundation ten years ago after a flight from Dubai to Dhaka that left her with 24 hours to spend in the city. She witnessed poverty on such a large scale that it changed her life forever. One month after that visit, she sold everything she owned and vowed to help lift those kids out of poverty by providing access to education to 200 children of school age. To do this, she has taken on one extreme challenge after another.
Her latest was the 777 Challenge – running seven 42km marathons on seven continents – and in February, she crossed the finish line in Antarctica having conquered the event in 11 days, 13 hours and 40 minutes, making her the fastest woman to ever complete the race. Even though her efforts are heroic, humble Conceicao feels that her real challenges are still to be faced. ‘For the 35 other runners who also took part in this race alongside me, the challenge is now over, but for me, it will keep going for another nine years – that’s when the last of the 200 children I endeavour to help turn 18,’ she says.
Conceicao speaks passionately about the foundation and frequently refers to the children in Dhaka she is running it for as ‘my children’. It’s clear they keep her pushing through the barriers of pain and endurance. When asked if she ever felt like quitting, she says, calmly, ‘I do not have that luxury.’ Conceicao says that some of the runners who took part in the challenge downgraded to 21km, and that seven didn’t finish it at all. ‘But because I have the Dhaka children, I had sponsors, so I couldn’t say, “it’s too tough, I have to stop”. If I was just doing it for myself I could have stopped, but it’s about the kids’ lives. If I didn’t complete the challenge I wouldn’t have been able to raise funds and the kids wouldn’t get to go to school. And I’d have to live with that on my conscience,’ she says.
Conceicao trained for six months to get ready herself physically for the race. She also overcame an injury just weeks before it began. Yet she still
says running the foundation and ensuring the children are taken care of are more of a test for her.
‘People think that running seven marathons is hard, but believe me, it was easy in comparison to running a charitable organisation 24 hours a day, seven days a week,’ she reveals. She says that she may be able to raise GBP5,000 (Dhs27,749) in a month, which she sees as a success. But she says it is minimal when there are charities such as the ALS Association raising US$110 million (Dhs404 million) in the States in just two months. ‘I never know on a day-to-day basis how much money I’m going to raise or even if I’ll get sponsorship. When we receive low donations, that’s when I have to do extreme things like climb Everest or run the 777 Challenge to raise awareness.’
Her 777 Challenge raised more than US$75,000 (Dhs275,000) for the foundation and donations are still coming in. ‘I feel like the Maria Cristina Foundation has been on a life-support machine since the recession,’ says Conceicao. ‘I never know when I need to unplug. But then the 777 Challenge was like CPR for it.’
The foundation needs US$250,000 (Dhs918,000) every year to send the 200 children to school and cover their tuition fees, uniform costs, medical bills and meals, and Conceicao would now like the wider UAE community to get involved with helping to raise those funds. ‘I’d like UAE residents to use their hobbies and skills to create an event where they can raise money. I’m just a one-woman show trying to do this by myself. It would be, amazing if others could join me.
Conceicao is now training for another challenge, which she is keeping under her hat for the time being, but as long as ‘her children’ need education, she’ll keep on running. ‘The challenge is not to summit the mountain, run consecutive marathons or set world records; the real challenge is to continually honour a promise that I made to these children ten years ago – to lift them out of poverty.’
To donate to the Maria Cristina Foundation visit www.mariacristinafoundation.org.