Meet the Lebanese athlete running across the UAE this summer

The wellness expert and founder of Longevity Hub explains how he is readying himself for the 153km desert run from Ras Al Khaimah to Dubai

Dani Afiouni has been an endurance athlete for 15 years. Photo: Dani Afiouni
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When Dubai resident Dani Afiouni couldn't fulfil his dreams of being a pilot, he learnt how to skydive instead. When being in the special forces didn't work out, he trained to become an endurance athlete. And the pivot to extreme sports, he tells The National, is one of the best decisions he's ever made.

The penchant for adrenalin is a family thing, says the Lebanese wellness entrepreneur. “I come from a family of military people,” says Afiouni, who eventually also took on a corporate job. “But I committed myself from a passion perspective, to both fly in terms of skydiving, as well as be adventurous by becoming an endurance athlete and expedition explorer.

“The first mountain I climbed was in Africa, and then I started climbing around the world,” he says, adding there's something “addictive” about the rush he feels.

Afiouni has climbed six of the highest mountains in the world. He has also participated in dozens of other endurance challenges, including the World Marathon Challenge in 2015. That involves running seven marathons in seven days across all seven continents. The following year, he joined the North Pole marathon, running over hard snow and frozen ice in the Arctic Ocean.

He has run in the Himalayas and the Amazon forest, too – so Afiouni's upcoming feat, a 153km desert run from Jebel Jais mountain in Ras Al Khaimah to Al Qudra in Dubai should be a walk in the park, albeit a rather hot one as the temperature inches towards the late 30s.

While the physical rewards of such activities are immediately apparent – he says he's stronger in his 40s than he's ever been – Afiouni's biggest takeaway is more abstract.

“When you get to spend so much time with yourself, you get to reflect on life and that brings about a lot of self-discoveries,” he says. “It brings about this culture of achievement, hard work and compassion.

“When you go around nature, you really feel a sense of humility and realise your place in life and nature. This has given me a lot of perspective. And it's given me a lot of compassion towards myself and others.”

Most of Afiouni's endurance challenges are tied to a cause, such as raising funds for a cancer advocacy group or championing awareness about other illnesses. The run on Sunday will benefit the Emirates Society of Child Mental Health, which is dedicated to advancing clinical services, research and education to child and adolescent mental well-being in the UAE.

Afiouni is also inviting people to join him at any point during the run, which he estimates will last about four days. For each participant, his company Longevity Hub will donate Dh100 to the organisation.

Asked why he chose children's mental health as the focus of his next marathon, Afiouni says: “My wife and I are expecting a baby girl very soon and I've always taken a lot of passion in wanting to be fully integrated with my children's lives.

“It hurts to see that a lot of children today are either bullied or not properly cared for when it comes to their mental well-being at a very young age.”

How to prepare for endurance challenges

Afiouni has fully transitioned from his corporate job to being a full-time wellness entrepreneur for Longevity Hub, a clinic that offers high-tech well-being solutions such as red light therapy rooms, a hyperbaric chamber and ice bath pods.

He understands that a hyper-active lifestyle requires a lot of physical strength, especially when embarking on endurance challenges in extreme conditions, such as the upcoming Ras Al Khaimah to Dubai run.

“The body requires a lot of preparation. When you say hard work in this context, it's not only about being persistent and resilient,” he says. “It's also about properly preparing your body so that you can go and do things the right way, and you're not cutting corners.”

Situational awareness

Before the actual physical training starts, Afiouni says researching the course is key.

“You need to put yourself in the mindset of knowing exactly the stages, the terrain and the environment you're running in. You need to be curious about the temperatures and the environmental conditions. Navigation is very important.”

He adds that more often that not, endurance challenges are not done in a straight line and “that's where the challenge is when it comes to the terrain and navigation”.

In cases of extreme heat, Afiouni says the body needs to acclimatise, so planning nutrition and replenishment is crucial.

“As long as the body replenishes, even if you are in a heated environment, you can still function,” he explains. Other practical things help too, such as knowing how to breathe properly.

“In cases of endurance challenges that run through days, you have to research about daytime and night-time strategies and plot them smartly,” adds Afiouni.

For his upcoming challenge, he has chosen full moon days and nights. He says he'll rest when the sun is highest in the sky, but run at a faster pace with the moon is out.

“The more you research, the more you are able to do simulations on different scenarios,” he says.

Physical conditioning

Once there is good knowledge of the course, Afiouni says the next thing to do is to tailor a physical training routine accordingly.

“Today I'm running on uneven surfaces, for example. Or I'll do some climbing or running on deep sand. I need to make sure that my lower body can accept all the wear and tear.”

Although physical endurance will be different for each athlete, Afiouni says he trains every day. “Five of these days, I go explosive, meaning high-intensity training as well as isometric exercises and functional training for my lower and upper body,” he says.

One day is dedicated to Pilates and yoga, and the last involves running a long distance, between 20km to 25km on a technical environment like sand, says Afiouni.

For those specifically training for a marathon, Afiouni says: “You actually need to do a long distance run during your preparation and build up your distance gradually. You have to do the distance up to as much as 40 kilometres.”

'Mind over mountain'

While physical training is paramount in endurance challenges, Afiouni says training the mind actually takes precedence. “It's 60 per cent a mind game, 40 per cent a physical game,” he quips.

“The body will do what the mind decides. If you programme your mind to break the challenge into small pieces and then go through the journey from a technical perspective, your body will follow.”

After an intense marathon of expedition, the first thing Afiouni does to cool down is sound meditation inside a hyperbaric chamber, where the air pressure is two to three times higher than normal and so helps the lungs gather more oxygen.

“Basically I'm going to be breathing pure oxygen to help with my recovery and my inflammations,” he explains. He also does light meditation as well as acupuncture and deep tissue therapy.

Afiouni says it's also important to still maintain physical training but on a low threshold until he can return to his normal levels. Another crucial recovery element is food, he adds. “I'm going to eat the food that I missed during the run.”

The Dubai athlete says he would wait for at least three months before doing another intense endurance challenge. “I need to preserve my body, to treat it mechanically and professionally, so that I can keep doing this even in my 70s.”

Updated: May 25, 2024, 3:55 AM