Maria Conceicao says her comparison with David Goggins, considered the world’s best ultra-marathon endurance athlete, has more to do with her attitude. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Maria Conceicao has been dubbed the toughest woman alive. A viral video by Vishen Lakhiani, author and CEO of Mindvalley, a learning experience company, compares her to David Goggins, considered the world’s best ultra-marathon endurance athlete. She is the first Portuguese woman to summit Mount Everest and reach the North Pole and South Pole. And she holds 10 Guinness World Records for running ultra-marathons and Ironman triathlons.

But speak to Maria and she will tell you the comparison to Goggins has more to do with her attitude than anything else. An attitude to never give up on her goals, and never find excuses, no matter what.

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It’s a lesson she learnt very early on, she says ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8.

Trying childhood

“I was two years old when my single mother became unemployed and was struggling with many issues,” she narrates. “We were in a village called Avanca in Portugal. A lady called Cristina, a poor widow and refugee from Angola, urged my mother to go to Lisbon to find some work, and offered to look after me until her situation improved.”

For Maria Conceicao, Cristina, a poor widow and refugee from Angola, who took care of her as a child, had a lasting influence on her life. Image Credit: Supplied

Maria remembers how Cristina, who already had six children of her own, worked hard as a cleaner, finding work on a daily basis, to get by and put food on the table. “What Cristina didn’t know was that my mother would never come back. I became her seventh child. And sadly, she died of a cardiac arrest when I was nine years old,” she recounts.

However, the impact that Cristina left on her was ever-lasting.

“People in the village tell me that I was always by her side. There were many times when the authorities tried to take me away and put me in the care system, but Cristina fought to keep me, not only because she had promised my mother but also because the care system at that time was notorious for child abuse and neglect. She created a motto, ‘Who feeds six, feeds seven’. For me, this was more than just a promise, it potentially saved my life,” says an ever-grateful Maria.

Anything is possible

Only able to go to school until the age of 12, she began to work when she lost her scholarship.

“Everyone said I could not be any more than a cleaner, but somewhere, I presume from Cristina, I had learned that if you work hard, then anything is possible. So I thought to myself that even if I would become a cleaner, I would be the best cleaner in the world and I would show people that I’m capable of much more,” she recalls.

Maria Conceicao became an endurance athlete just so that she could get support to fulfill her promise to some families living in poverty in Bangladesh. Image Credit: Supplied

The fighter in her fought on and when she turned 18, she left to Geneva to find better opportunities. “And yes, I worked as a cleaner, a maid, a nanny, I learnt French and was employed in cafes and restaurants.”

Maria, who had to leave Geneva after three years due to visa issues, travelled to the UK looking for work. “I found a job the day I arrived despite not speaking any English, however I soon learned the language. One day, the job centre informed me that Emirates airlines was interviewing in town and that I should give it a try,” she says.

Hit the jackpot

Many thought it was impossible as they felt she didn’t meet the criteria. “But then I thought, no, if I can show them my potential, then they may accept me. I researched all about Emirates and the role of a cabin crew tirelessly. There were 100 people interviewed and only two were recruited. I was one of them, it felt like I had hit the jackpot,” she says with pride.

Maria considers her break with Emirates as the turning point in her life.

As she recounts, “In 2005, I was on a stopover in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when I came across some children. They were living in extreme poverty, but all I could see was their bright eyes, energy and wasted potential.”

A mission is born

When her work took her to Dhaka again, she decided to visit some slums to meet the people there and see how they lived. “One area was a very new slum where families were literally living in shelters made from whatever material they could find. I made up my mind to help them by bringing things they needed on my next trip,” she says.

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Maria Conceicao has 10 Guinness World Records to her credit. Image Credit: Supplied

Maria’s resolve was so strong that she cancelled a two-week holiday she had planned in New Zealand and instead went to Dhaka. “I took as much as I could, toiletries, clothes etc, in a bid to improve their living conditions. I vowed to return as often as possible to do more,” she says, not realising at the time that it was the beginning of a life-long mission.

“Other cabin crew came to know about what I was doing and gave me more things for the families and it just grew. I soon realised that to really make a difference, education was a must – of both the adults and the children. The only schools that would take the kids were very poor NGO schools and the adults had nothing. So I decided to build a small school which just grew and grew, and at its peak, we had 600 pupils,” says Maria.

Today, many of these students have degrees, including master’s degrees, from all over the world, all achieved through scholarships.

But this journey too was not without its share of challenges.

“I started helping deprived families in Bangladesh in 2005, by the time the recession came in 2008, this became very difficult, and by 2010, all my work was at risk. I had made a promise to over 100 families that I would give their children an education, to help alleviate poverty. That was not going to be easy now,” she says.

An athlete surfaces

But Maria knew she could not go back on her word. So she began to think of ways to pursue her cause with due support. After much research, she decided to become an athlete.

“I underwent intense training, I made a trek to the North Pole and became the first Portuguese woman to do it. I went on to climb mountains, and became the first Portuguese woman to summit Mount Everest. I starting breaking world records for marathons, ultramarathon and ironman triathlon challenges - all of it was simply to enable me to keep my promise,” she says.

In the process, however, she was completely transformed into becoming an endurance athlete.

She says she never aimed to break any records. She says, “I was just looking at extreme challenges until somebody suggested that I could get world records for these challenges, which made sense because at the time it was all about trying to get attention to my projects. Today, the objective is different, I want to take my speaking or books business to the next level. Now I do these things to challenge my own limits and to encourage others to push themselves and learn what they are really capable of.”

“Although I wasn’t able to complete my formal education when I was younger, I have since completed a Harvard Executive Programme and explore the possibility of a scholarship with Harvard University for a master’s degree,” she adds.

Maria Conceicao’s 10 World Records

1. Certificate for the most consecutive days running on ultra marathon by a female (seven)

2. Fastest aggregate time to run on ultra marathon in each continent (46 hours, 11 minutes, 10 seconds)

3. Fastest time to run a marathon and ultra marathon in each continent (female) (1 year, 24 days, 7 hours and 2 minutes)

4. Most Ironman races completed in one year - female (7)

5. Fastest time to complete a marathon in each continent by a woman (10 days, 23 hours, 30 minutes and 40 seconds)

6. Fastest aggregate time to run a marathon and ultra marathon in each continent (female) (80 hours, 8 minutes and 3 seconds)

7. Fastest time to complete an Ironman triathlon in six continents - female (56 days, 19 hours, 12 minutes and 47 seconds)

8. Fastest time to complete an Ironman 140.6 triathlon and Ironman 70.3 triathlon - female (34 hours, 35 minutes and 59 seconds)

9. Farthest simulated distance climbed on a ladder machine in one hour - female (159km)

10. Fastest time to complete an ultra marathon in each continent - female (41 days, 3 hours, 23 minutes and 39 seconds)