Ultramarathons have taught research and development engineer Tayebeh Alirezaee to focus on what matters – in work and in life.
“I find it incredibly similar to life,” said Tayebeh Alirezaee of the races that see her run hundreds of kilometres at a time.
“It gives you skills that you can bring back to your work, or even parenting.”
Alirezaee, a mechanical engineer, works in innovation and new product development at manufacturing company ITW Construction Systems. Her job sees her create new materials that can stand up to harsh Australian conditions and are safer for construction workers.
She’s also an ultramarathon runner, testing herself in some of the world’s toughest endurance races.
Going the distance
One of Alirezaee’s toughest races was the 330 km Tor de Geants in Italy’s Aosta Valley.
Runners are allowed 150 hours to complete the gruelling course, which has an elevation gain of 24,000 m.
By comparison, Mount Everest is 8848 m high. Alirezaee was hospitalised with hypothermia after being found catatonic on the trail on one of the final days of the race. Her GPS read 305 km.
Alirezaee said there’s so much more to ultrarunning than the physical aspect.
“It’s the ability to put yourself into a really big challenge, put your body out there, and discover what you can or cannot do,” she said.
“It’s incredible how much you understand about yourself. You have to go back to the foundations of being flexible, being resilient, and focus on what matters. And go with very little – only take what works.”
Alirezaee said the ability to focus on what matters and “cut the crap” has had a huge impact on her personal life and work.
“It’s just focusing on things that are important and if they are helping me,” she said.
“And if they are not helping me, it’s so easy to drop it.”
The philosophy has carried over into Alirezaee’s engineering as well.
“Most of my career’s been in development and innovation, and new products and new ideas,” she said.
“It’s a fascinating skill to have, to be able to cut what is not serving to the project.”
Among Alirezaee’s products already on the market are simplified construction materials that can withstand cyclonic winds.
She’s also working on a new treatment to protect surfaces from corrosion.
Alirezaee said ultramarathons have given her the ability to persist when negative thoughts creep in while designing new products.
“It’s never easy to come up with new things,” she said.
“Our brains are so good at making things overly complicated, focusing on negative points.”
Alirezaee grew up in Iran, the youngest of six children. She was two when the Islamic Revolution happened and lived her childhood in the shadow of the war with Iraq that followed.
A personal revolution
As the baby of the family, Alirezaee was largely left on her own to grow, with a freedom not available to her siblings. And while Iran’s media was extremely constrained, Alirezaee’s father had a massive collection of books – including many banned after the revolution.
Alirezaee spent hours reading about the world in her father’s library. It made her start to question everything.
“I think very critically about things, including myself,” Alirezaee said.
“And I think it helps in engineering, because in my mind there’s nothing that I shouldn’t be questioning.”
Alirezaee loved science and engineering from a young age and was attracted to devising solutions that weren’t influenced by opinion. And with bans on women studying certain subjects at university having been lifted, she signed up to study mechanical engineering.
“It was just an incredible experience to go through that university,” Alirezaee said.
“My brain grew in ways that I never thought possible. It was more than just engineering, it was a cultural, personal revolution that you had to go through – because of the country, because of the environment and because I was the only woman in my class.”
In her career, Alirezaee said the biggest challenges haven’t been technical. They’ve been about organisation and the arrangements needed to make things happen.
One project Alirezaee is most proud of is pulling together the elements for the launch of a Ford Falcon. She was Product Manager for several components required by Ford’s engineers – made by suppliers in different factories around the country – all while pregnant with her second child.
“It was an enormous amount of pressure making sure that I could commission all of these parts in the required quality,” Alirezaee said.
“It was very tight deadlines, and so much of it out of my hands.”
All the elements had to come at the last minute, and Alirezaee managed to pull them together just in time. She gave birth a week before the launch.
For Alirezaee, there’s nothing like the feeling at the end of an ultramarathon, when you’ve pushed yourself to your physical and mental limits and come out the other side.
“I just think ‘I can do anything’ at the end,” Alirezaee said.
“It makes all the pain and suffering worth it.”
This article originally appeared as “Building resilience” in the April 2020 edition of create magazine.