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Reconciling Faith and the Field

But his fasting has distinguished him in his teammates' eyes, and he is aware of the awe it inspires. "They think it's a really amazing thing that I'm doing all they're doing" without food or water, said Ahmed, who is from Egypt.

Josh Nesbitt, a beefy middle linebacker for T.C. Williams, concurred. "I'm like, 'Man, doesn't it suck to, like, fast and not drink or eat?' " he said. Ahmed played as well as ever during Ramadan, he said, but that didn't protect him from temptation.


Aimad Khelalfa, kneeling, prays with Muhammed Fahad Khan, before breaking his fast after a cross-country event. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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"We're like, 'Ah, doesn't this look good? I know you want some of these fries, Ahmed, don't say you don't,' " Josh said. "But no matter how much you taunt him, he's not going to break."

By the time of championships, Aimad had not convinced Mo that he should break fast. He also had neglected to consult an imam, and he realized that Meryem, the third Muslim from Wakefield competing that day, was fasting. So, to be safe, Aimad fasted after all.

Before they left for Burke Lake Park, the teammates passed around a can of spray paint and customized their hair with their school color, green. Their coach, Bob Strauss, a tall man with a handlebar mustache, sprayed his white hair green, too. As they warmed up, he didn't mention the fasting. Better not to let them obsess, he said.

The gun went off. The boys sprinted through the trees. Teammates and spectators screamed from the sidelines.

"Yeah, Apache! Move up!"

"Come on, Mo!"

Aimad only had to finish in the top 15. The top 15 runners would go to regionals, no matter how the rest of their team did.

It was a long three miles. He didn't think about his empty stomach or his dry mouth or the fact that he had lost 15 pounds in two weeks of fasting. But he couldn't ignore his legs. They felt incapable of propelling him as usual. And toward the end, there was a incline.

He crossed the finish line in 16th place. The runner in front of him had finished one second earlier.

"Weak, weak," Aimad mused. "It was my best time, but I could have done better if . . . " He managed a wistful smile.

Mo was 19th. Another Muslim runner, who attends J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, came in ninth. He had not fasted.

Strauss told Aimad he had done remarkably well, considering that he had been training, going to school and waiting tables at a restaurant, all on an empty stomach.

"It depresses me that he didn't make it, having so much on his plate," Strauss said. Then he caught the look on Aimad's face and reached out with his thumb to tip the boy's chin up. "But that's okay, we love him anyway."

A week later, they were back to root for the girls' team, which had made it to regionals. Heavy rain was falling, and afterward, squelching through the mud and shivering from the cold, Aimad, T.K. and Meryem headed to Dar Al Hijrah to break their fast.

By the time they arrived, it had been dark for 20 minutes. Prayers were over and the dining area was packed. Meryem tied a scarf over her head, they quickly prayed, then they heaped plates high with rice, breaded fish and spicy stew. They sat with friends and slid to make room for Imam Johari. They talked about the indoor track season, which the boys start Wednesday.

But not Meryem. She's trying out for the basketball team tomorrow.

And it won't help a bit that she won't be fasting anymore, she said. She will be too nervous to eat.


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