Mahmud Kamel Ahmed has endured war, family tragedy and moral disdain on the road to becoming an international athlete but, undeterred by such obstacles, he is finally reaching his physical peak.
The steeplechase runner, like so many of his countrymen, has overcome much bigger hurdles than those that line the running track where he trains in south Baghdad. But the true challenge of his life may yet lie ahead.
A Sunni Arab from the restive province of Diyala, northeast of the Iraqi capital, his talent was spotted and encouraged by one of his teachers 10 years ago. Yet the path to becoming a sportsman has been a solitary one.
"One of the teachers noticed I was a good runner, he encouraged me and so in 2000 I started to train," says Ahmed, wearing the green-colored vest of the Iraq national team.
His father, however, was not keen on athletics.
"Running conflicted with his conservative values and he thought it would affect my behavior, so I stopped for a while. He burned my running clothes," recalls the 27-year-old.
After resuming training, in secret, Ahmed managed to represent the national team at a competition in Jordan in 2002, by which time Iraq was headed for war. The subsequent invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein was to have a dramatic impact on Ahmed's family and his sporting goals.
Al-Qaeda formed bases in Sunni strongholds like Diyala, where the movement's fanatics considered wearing shorts in public to be an offence, for which people were killed, eventually prompting Ahmed to move to Baghdad in 2004.
A terrifying call
The sectarian killings that took the country's Sunnis and Shiites close to civil war peaked in 2006 and 2007, the year Ahmed's life changed.
"I got a telephone call to say that my family had been attacked but that everyone was alright," Ahmed says, but the hesitation in the voice of the friend who told him the news left doubt in his mind.
Three days later he learned the truth.
"I called a driver from my town who works in Baghdad. He told me that my parents, five brothers, two of their wives, an aunt and three nephews had been killed," he says, managing not to burst into tears.
They were murdered by insurgents because, being Sunnis, al-Qaeda considered them traitors since some family members worked for the Shiite-led government which came to power following the ouster of Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime.
"They were accused of being infidels. Only two people survived," he says.
Since moving to Baghdad, Ahmed had run for a series of athletics clubs, which in Iraq are all sponsored by government ministries.
He now runs for Al-Shurta (Police) Club, which is funded by the interior ministry, trains at a track in the capital's Jadhiriyah district every morning and afternoon, and is paid around 600 dollars a month to cover his expenses.
He has competed in countries including Lebanon, Poland, Greece and Egypt, and the highlight was winning the bronze medal in the 3,000-metre steeplechase at the Arab Games in Jordan last year.
While he is proud of the achievement, he remains miserable about the state of sport in his country.
"I am really close to my best fitness now but if I stay in Iraq, I will achieve nothing," Ahmed says, with an almost naive honesty and obvious sadness about his plight.
Tempted to flee
He admits he was tempted to flee to Germany, where an uncle lives, after competing at a recent event in Poland. A fellow athlete did so, as have many Iraqi sportsmen in recent years, but the 85,000-dollar bond that a friend paid to allow Ahmed's trip abroad stopped him.
"My friend begged me to come back and I had to because he would have lost his money. I couldn't just run away," he says.
He is now torn between pursuing his dream of becoming a world class athlete and finding the personal reconciliation that will restore his happiness. But it appears he has little choice but to keep running.
Although levels of violence have dropped overall, upbeat talk about improving security from those who rule Iraq seven years after the invasion ring hollow for Ahmed.
He cannot return to Diyala because there are still people in the province who would like to kill him. Even the prospect of competing in the 2012 Olympics in London seems unable to erase the blackness of his recent past.
"It's impossible for me to go home to Diyala but, if I stay in Iraq, I will achieve nothing," Ahmed says again, but quickly extricates himself from the apparent hopelessness of his words.
"I have to go to training now," he adds.