Off the beaten path: The rise in popularity of trail running in the UAE

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Trail running is exhilarating, cheap and easy to take up (picture courtesy of Urban-Ultra).

The thought of going for a long walk or jog in the scorching UAE heat can make many feel uneasy. Running around Dubai Marina, or even a short stroll on Kite Beach, can be enough for even the most committed runners out there.

However, there are other options besides monotonously meandering around the Marina or pounding Dubai’s pavements.

Throughout the country, runners are venturing off the roads and onto the trails for a new experience. The transition from road running to trail running is simple, using a lot of the same techniques as running on roads.

Trail running consists simply of running and hiking over sandy and stony terrain, pushing runners to their limits amid some of the Emirates’ most beautiful backdrops.

And with its serene landscape, the UAE has emerged as a standout destination for the many trails on offer, such as Fossil Rock and Showka.

There are weekly group runs and regular competitive events – such as the Urban-Ultra Kalba Kickr and the Reebok Wadi Bih – but these have only started in recent years.

Local fitness coach Lee Harris was pivotal in building the UAE’s trail running scene back in 2012. The Englishman, who works in the oil and gas industry, founded the Dubai Trail Runners and until recently completed up to 50km each weekend with the group.

“My aim with the trail running scene in the UAE was always to build a community where people are running every weekend in groups and helping each other enjoy the trails, whether for fun or competitively,” said Harris.

“I think having the opportunity to spend the last two years basically working full-time as a trail running coach, I’ve been able to see that evolve to where it is now and finally seeing a proper trail running community established.”

Having tentatively trod into the unknown, Harris has since developed Desert Trail Runners into a group that boasts a Facebook page of more than 1,600 members, many of whom run every weekend together and regularly take on mammoth races around the world.

“Trail running in the UAE is awesome. We have such diverse and rugged terrain,” added Harris.

“The mountains and wadis are tough and spectacular, and change constantly throughout the year, especially during the winter months, so it never gets boring.”

The great thing about trail running is you don’t need to be a star athlete or a seasoned endurance runner to hit the trails. Everyone starts as a beginner and there are no age barriers to stop novices from enjoying the sport.

And with trail run races gathering steam worldwide, you have to feel sorry for the person looking for praise for completing a 10km race or half-marathon, where an impressive feat now – in some instances – has to involve something longer or more extreme.

But why on earth is trail running popular in the UAE? As one of the hottest countries in the world, why not just run inside on a treadmill instead?

Well, trail running adds excitement to an activity that while beneficial for your health, can be a little hard to find the motivation for. Running the same route or staring at the same view in the gym ad nauseum is suffocating, but beautiful surroundings in a place that so many people from across the world now call home is right on the doorstep.

The trails are easy to access, the landscape is striking and the experience is spectacular. It certainly beats training indoors.

“I think the rise in trail running in the UAE is actually down to the rise in trail running worldwide itself. Now, people are seeing more of it through social media and therefore looking for it wherever they are,” added Harris.

“Naturally, when they search for it in the UAE they find either myself or the Desert Trail Runners group. Seeing an established trail running community helps people a lot when trying it for the first time.

“We also have the Urban-Ultra to thank as well for building such great trail races. We now have an awesome trail running race season in the UAE thanks to them. This attracts more people from outside the UAE and gives everyone a goal to aim for as well.”

Urban-Ultra, the company which organise many of the top trail runs and ultra-marathons around the UAE, have seen a significant rise in competitors for their 10km, 20km and 30km courses over the past five years.

In 2013, a meagre 150 runners competed in the Urban-Ultra Night Rebel and Urban-Ultra Wadi Race events with 50 per cent registered for the 10km, 30 per cent tackling the 20km and 20 per cent entering the 30k.

Just five years on, numbers have almost doubled, with 270 now signed up and the percentage completely flipped, with just 20 per cent doing the shorter 10km, 30 per cent taking on the 20km and a whopping 50 per cent tackling the arduous 30km distance.

In longer distances like the gruelling Urban-Ultra Hajar 50 & 100 event, there has been a staggering 270 per cent rise in competitors since 2015.

Fifty six runners signed up three years ago with an average of 150 runners registering in the 2017 and 2018 editions. Remarkably, 60 runners have tackled the full 100km in comparison to just 15 in 2015 – a 400 per cent rise.

On a global scale, the Run Ultra website, a leading authority on trail running worldwide which catalogues the globe’s biggest ultra-marathons, has seen an increase of more than 1,000 per cent of races added to its lists since the site was set up 12 years ago.

Now, there are 1,800 races listed globally, in comparison to just 160 in 2006. This includes two UAE-based runs – the Big Stinker and Urban-Ultra Hajar 100.

That is no surprise considering the increasing importance attached to health and fitness around the world. The UAE certainly promotes a healthy lifestyle with many community events held throughout the season, from fun runs to duathlons or triathlons.

Another reason for why trail running’s participation and popularity has increased in the UAE is due to the many routes available. Runners are not short of options.

A 45 minute drive from Dubai offers some of the most scenic areas to escape the suffocating city life and gives you a nature experience that road running simply doesn’t offer.

If you want to test yourself there is no shortage of challenges either. Showka, near Ras al Khaimah, Fossil Rock and Hatta Hills are all popular destinations for weekend runners seeking sanctuary after a mentally exhausting working week.

The trails are demanding and take several visits to allow your body to adapt, with standard runners struggling initially on the challenging terrain, but at the same time, it’s not about speed or time and it’s a great way to clear your mind.

“Trail running is about self-sufficiency, challenging yourself, pushing the envelope and experiencing nature. It’s not about pace – the terrain and elevation dictates pace on the trails,” said Dave O’Hara, who travels from Riyadh to Dubai most weekends to navigate the trails at Showka and Fossil Rock.

The American is an effervescent presence at events around the UAE and is currently training for the Oman by UTMB 137km in November. For him, trail running is not about the long distances, but more about the freedom, adventure and camaraderie.

“I love the self-sufficiency concept, knowing that my success and suffering are both under my control. I experience so many beautiful places around the UAE which are otherwise inaccessible,” he said.

“Also, the sense of accomplishment is on another level. There is an unusual level of camaraderie on the trails, whereas I sense a level of competition while road running. Conquering a trail ultra is not really about how fast you are – it’s about your mental toughness.”

Harris agrees. “The thing I love about trail running is it’s both physically and mentally challenging. You can never switch off the mind and my mind needs to be challenged as much as my body,” he added.

“I like the freedom, being able to explore new unpredictable and constantly changing environments, where it’s not just about pace or speed and how fast you can run but physical skill and strategy. Road running just doesn’t hold that for me.”

It makes sense. Trail running is exhilarating, cheap and requires nothing more than a half decent pair of runners and a back pack for hydration, food and medical supplies.

As Harris and O’Hara have explained, the main advantage is it makes you mentally tough. A run around the hills of Hatta works wonders and is the perfect remedy to clear the mind and switch off, without having to look at your mobile phone every second or respond to an email.

Running freely with a light backpack of water and energy bars for company is a thrilling prospect for some.

It may seem a little daunting, an almost impossible test of the human body and spirit, but it has proven to help relieve stress and alleviate depression, while also offering a totally different running experience.

And while the UAE can be a stressful place with the demands of work life leaving its mark on you, trail running provides you with a fresh new arena to step into.

A challenge, an escape, an adventure, a chance to meet new people and an opportunity to shake up your old, simplistic routine.

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