A man who challenged Division 1 track and field athlete Alahna Sabbakhan to a foot race was swiftly defeated in a viral video that illustrates why female athletes should never be underestimated.
The University of Virginia runner raced a friend of her boyfriend's who "refused to believe that a woman could beat him in a race," as she explained in the video, shared Dec. 17 with more than one million likes.
During the first half of the 400-meter race, she kept pace with her challenger, who "does not run" regularly, she said in the video. But after the first 200 meters passed, she picked up the pace to "finish hard, because that's what you do as a track runner."
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In the clip, she surges to the lead, as the man who challenged her quickly falls behind.
Sabbakhan, 22, tells TODAY.com that when she first heard murmurings that her boyfriend's friend thought he could outrun her, she found it "ridiculous." But when she was already set to work out at a nearby track, she asked if he wanted to join.
"He didn't really know what to challenge me in," she says. "He was like, 'Yeah, I could beat her in the 400' — not realizing that that was one of the hardest track events and that was one of my secondary events."
The challenger ended up bringing his parents and friends to the track for the event. She says the outcome of the race was predictable early on once the group saw her warm up, which typically consists of drills and running a mile.
"He just kind of showed up," she says. "I don't know what he was expecting."
The race actually occurred nearly a year ago, in January 2023, Sabbakhan says. But she stumbled upon the video recently and thought it was perfect for her growing TikTok page, where she posts exercise, diet and day-in-the-life content for her more than 12,000 followers.
Sabbakhan, whose main event is the 800-meter race, finished the 400m in 57 seconds, which was "pretty good for practice," she said in the video. Her personal best times are 53 seconds from a 400m leg of a relay and 54 seconds in an open race.
"It was a successful workout, I think," she says.
The man who challenged her, who she's now "cool" with, took the loss well, she says.
"He wasn't like, 'Oh, that wasn't fair.' He was like, 'Yeah, that was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life,'" she says. "I feel like it was just a really good learning experience. It showed people that they need to stop underestimating us — as in track athletes, female athletes."
A 'universal experience'
It was far from the first time Sabbakhan, who started running when she was 5 years old, had been challenged to a race by a man.
"Ever since I was younger, a lot of guys would want to race me on the playground because they thought they could beat me," she says.
Early reactions to the video suggested to Sabbakhan that this was a "universal experience."
"A lot of women were saying that they experienced that a lot, mainly men trying to challenge them in their sport or talent, or whatever they do," she says.
In fact, 12% of men in Great Britain think they could score a point playing tennis against Serena Williams, according to a 2019 poll conducted by YouGov UK, which sampled 1,732 adults.
Sabbakhan eventually turned off comments on the TikTok page after it stirred “controversy,” with some turning it into a debate over whether men or women are better athletes.
"They were saying, 'You barely beat him, that just shows how slow you are. Now race one of your male teammates.' Like, 'Men are still stronger,'" she says with a laugh. "I never said any of that."
"(People) kind of just made it what they wanted to make it," she adds.
Sabbakhan has her own theory for why some male non-athletes think they can beat female athletes.
"We make it look so easy," she says. "People who sit on their couch ... it's so easy for them to just sit there and say, 'Oh, I could do that, too, if I tried, if I trained for a little bit' — not realizing how hard it actually is."
Why she normally doesn't entertain challenges
At the outset of the initial challenge, Sabbakhan's attitude toward the race was relaxed, confident in her abilities and aware that the challenge was "ridiculous," she recalls.
It's a confidence that she says she developed over time with the help of family and coaches.
"Coaches tell me racing other people is just kind of ridiculous because we don't really have anything to prove. We've already earned this status for a reason," she says. "I just feel like I don't have anything to prove."
"My mom tells me this all the time: You already won. You already got your college scholarship, earned your athlete status," she continues. "So I don't think me racing some random guy at the track is really going to determine anything for me."
Sabbakhan's advice for building up confidence in one's athletic abilities is simple:
Don't compare yourself. "Focus on your journey and your progress and where you used to be and where you want to be, because it's just going to waste your time and drain your energy to be focused on everyone else," she says.
Keep realistic, motivating goals top of mind. "If you're writing them down and reminding yourself of (your goals) every day, then that really helps block out that extra noise," she says. "That's been helping me not care about the negative things people are saying to me because of that video. I'm just reminding myself about how I have bigger goals."
This story first appeared on TODAY.com. More from TODAY: