On March 2, Dubai resident Sean Burgess set off on an epic journey in his quest to claim a Guinness World Record for crossing all seven emirates of the UAE in as many days on foot, in a bid to support disadvantaged children in Uganda in collaboration with Adidas and Gulf for Good.
This involved walking or running for about 16 hours every day to complete a route of nearly 650 kilometres, which left Burgess physically battered, but ultimately triumphant as he became the first person to claim the world record for Fastest Crossing of the United Arab Emirates on Foot.
Here, Burgess shares his rather harrowing experiences exclusively with The National.
Day 1: Strong but humbled
Tuesday, March 2: I drove up with a convoy of seven support vehicles to Al Ghuwaifat on the Saudi border. From here I was to walk or run all the way to the Fujairah corniche in under seven days, and having passed through each emirate at least once.
I planned to do this by moving for eight hours, from 3pm to 11pm, resting for four, and then on again for eight, from 3am to 11am, and so on.
The first 30 kilometres were fantastic. All of the pent-up stress and excitement of the past nine months of planning compounded, and I unleashed it on that first stretch, running most of the way.
This was not the most sensible idea; I spent the next 30km with quite bad stomach issues. I am not going to get into too much detail, but – despite how embarrassing it was – it was the best thing that happened to me, because it helped get rid of my ego.
Instead of thinking I’m going to smash this, and do 120km every day, and finish this thing in four days, I realised the vastness of the space I had to cross. The only way was to take a sensible, sustainable approach.
After that first session, I spent my rest period trying to handle some whole foods, and get some plain rice and chicken in me. I started again at 3am. The next 50km were fairly uneventful, and it was lovely seeing the sun rise over the Empty Quarter.
My aim was to get to more than 100km every day because that gave my team and me a buffer for going into the slower four days at the end. So 110km on that first day, despite my stomach issues, was fantastic and positive.
Day 2: The uh-oh moment
Wednesday, March 3: I started the second afternoon feeling good. I'd only had a half-hour of sleep because of the adrenalin and getting used to the new sleeping pattern, but my mind felt sharp and my body – at that point – felt in good shape. I covered 55km with a combination of walking and running before returning to camp, and it was a solid session.
But it was when I went back out for my second session that I started to break, which I think was down to the hour of day. At 3am, it was misty and pitch black; you could only see about 20 or 30 yards. It was like watching the most boring movie ever, and I also had no concept of whether I was going to be walking uphill or downhill.
It got to a point when, after a difficult three hours, I asked my brother, who is my main support person, to come out and walk with me because, mentally, I was starting to struggle. I was beginning to absorb the distance I had to go, how hard it was going to be on my body. It was the first realisation that this is a tough event.
I ended up getting 103km, which was still above my target, but it was a tough session. It was when I knew I had to be very strong, that there were going to be times when I was going to be alone in my head for hours and hours, and I was going to have to suck it up.
And then the sun rose over the desert and began pinking through the mist, and I realised that, pardon the pun, there is life at the end of the tunnel. When I got back to camp, I had an ice bath, which we were fortunate to have space for in the RV. Although it may seem like a luxury, it was essential to get my body to recover at the end of a 100km day in the limited time I had.
Day 3: Broken
Thursday, March 4: The wheels started to come off on the third day, in the sense that my physical well-being started to massively decline. It was another start with very little sleep, maybe 90 minutes, and knowing that I wasn't even halfway there was tough.
But you strap on your trainers and you get going. By this point my strategy of run-walk was gone. After the second day, we found that the running was damaging to my joints and legs. I started to face shin splints, and calf and hip flexor issues, that would last the rest of the trip.
So from day three, I walked. Again, it was along the Empty Quarter on the hard shoulder of a three-lane highway full of trucks. Having hundreds of lorries pass you, buffet you with air and push you off-balance, hour after hour, sometimes minute after minute, can drive you insane when you're in pain.
But the biggest problem I had was that the road on the hard shoulder is not flat; it tapers up or down slightly. What that means is that one leg was taking a slightly shorter step than the other, constantly, for hundreds of kilometres. I worked out after that I was taking about 113,000 steps every day. A combination like that impacts your body mechanics, and I had an imbalance in my calves, quads, hamstrings, hips – and the pain started to radiate through my body with every step.
It wasn’t bad enough that I couldn’t persevere, though. Mentally I was prepared for this challenge to be hard, but the realisation that my body was getting worse was scary.
It was also incredibly hot that afternoon, and I needed all the support I could get from my team – to keep me hydrated and to keep ice on the go. At one point, all the muscles in my hamstrings seized up, and I had to be stretched out on the side of the road, on the hot tarmac, just so I could carry on for another 5km to reach camp. At that point, I was losing faith that my body was fit enough to survive this challenge.
On a positive note, I did another 95km, which is exactly where I needed to be. At the camp, I sat in the ice bath for 15 minutes to cool down, but ending up getting spasms for half an hour. After that ended, I slept for one hour, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but at that point, any sleep was good sleep.
Day 4: Slow and unsteady
Friday, March 5: Getting to Abu Dhabi city felt good, like hitting a milestone, but suddenly I was on much busier and complex roads. We also got held up for two hours waiting for approval, which is unfortunate when you're under a tight time cap, and can be the difference between success and failure.
Also, by this point, my body had completely broken. Every single thing hurt from the waist down; the shin splits in particular, so every step was painful. But my support team were fantastic and positive, and kept me well fed, hydrated and safe. We also had support from the police across all the Emirates and they were brilliant in making me feel secure, so it was really just up to me to persevere through the pain.
The roads and hold-up ate into my target of 80km, though, and I only did 73km, which was hugely frustrating because that buffer built up over the first three days had been reduced caused by reasons out of our hands.
We were also halfway through the fourth day, but yet to leave Abu Dhabi city. So at this point, everybody from the team was starting to feel a bit low; people were tired and sleep deprived. It felt brutal to think that if we don’t get the record, there was no point to it all.
It was one of those times you have to get to the end of the day and write it off as an outlier and focus on the next three days, in which I had to do 83km on each going through some of the most complex city infrastructure. But it’s something you have to absorb on such challenges, and know you’re going to have good days and bad days.
Day 5: Turning point
Saturday, March 6: I knew if this day didn't go well, the chances of breaking the record were non-existent. At this point, my body had started to adapt, so, while I was not getting any better, I wasn't getting any worse.
Shin splints, as anyone who’s had them will know, are excruciatingly painful. They don’t get better unless you rest, which I wasn’t going to. So, knowing I had 40 or 50 hours and about 400,000 steps ahead of me, each one painful, was mentally tough to absorb.
To keep myself in a positive mindset, I went through an exercise where I’d do 1km and if it was relatively pain-free, I’d do another one until I got to a really bad one, where I was limping. But even if I got 100 metres into a kilometre and wanted to stop, I’d say to myself: “Just get to the end of this kilometre. You can deal with the pain for nine more minutes for 900 metres – and then you can take a break.” Then I’d rest for a minute and do it all over again. The key is not to stop even if you’re going slowly.
So that’s what I did, and I had a really strong afternoon. I walked all the way from the Tulip Inn in Ghantoot to the Last Exit. It felt good to cross into Dubai and be there at the beginning of day five. It gave everyone a new lease of life, and was the turning point.
At Last Exit, I had a couple of slices of pizza as a treat and walked to junction 21. At 3am, Dubai police were escorting us all the way through to Jumeirah Beach Road. The earlier I got there, the more rest I had, so I got in by 1am and slept my longest – 90 minutes.
I woke up and the rest of that day was fantastic, especially walking down the hard shoulder of the outside lane on Sheikh Zayed Road between Marina and JLT at 5am with a police escort, and with cars passing wondering what on earth was happening. It’s an experience I will never forget.
I also got to spend a couple of hours with my wife. Despite some grumbles about distractions from my support team, I insisted she join me and we walked down Jumeirah Beach Road on to Kite Beach and spent some time together.
So I ended day five on a great note and ate into 5km more than the target. I was on a real high – walking through the places in Dubai where I train every day. I felt so positive and told myself I can do this for two more days.
Day 6: Unknown territory
Sunday, March 7: Day six was always going to be the big unknown because we were going into Sharjah, Ajman and Umm Al Quwain. It would have been great to take Sheikh Zayed Road, but there was no way the police would allow that, so I had to take the back roads, which meant time wasted stood at traffic lights.
Luckily, my coach Rob Jones joined me for this session and – he’s such a legend – he would run ahead to the lights and press the button for me. So, as I was hobbling up, they would normally change and buy me time.
The other issue was walking up and down pavements, around roundabouts, darting in and out of things to avoid cars. And doing that on an already broken body had such a bad effect that, by the time I got to Ajman, I seized up and couldn't walk anymore.
Everything was tight, it was cold coming into 11pm, and all the fears and doubts resurfaced because I just could not move. I had another 150km to go, but stood on the side of the road in Ajman, then, I thought to myself: “This is it, I'm broken. My mind is still there. I want to carry on. Can I crawl?”
Fortunately, a sports physio came out and she was phenomenal. She clicked and pushed and dry-needled me into a state where I could carry on the 15km to the next camp.
But my team could see I was in a really bad way, on the back of five days with four hours sleep collectively, 500 kilometres of movement and constant pain. I’d also been on a massive calorie deficit, burning up to 9,000 calories a day, but only eating 2,500. [Burgess tested himself post-challenge, and had lost 8 per cent of his body fat.]
At the camp, the physio did some acupuncture and then I crashed. Afterwards, my support team told me they didn't think I would carry on because I looked in such a state and wasn't coherent in what I was saying. It was the worst any of them had seen me, but in my head, I knew I was going to get up and move the next day.
I slept for about three hours, the best sleep I had all week, and it was fantastic. I got up at 3am and walked for 55km up to the Umm Al Quwain roundabout.
That was a huge boost and it’s what I wanted from this challenge – to understand who I am as a person. Am I the person who stays in my warm sleeping bag, or the guy who goes: “I'm going to get up and do this, for all the support people, sponsors and everybody else who believed in me, because I'm not gone yet”?
Also, until then I’d been walking north for 530km; now I got a chance to turn east, finally pointing in the direction of Fujairah.
Day 7: Aches and adrenalin
Monday, March 8: The final day was interesting because it really did come down to the wire. I had 90 kilometres to do in 26 hours, so wanted to start earlier. The first stretch was quite flat, through a few small towns, so quite good. But then I got on to a truck road that led me up to Masafi, and suddenly I was back being buffeted by lorries and in a much worse physical state this time.
I only walked 38km before I had to throw in the towel and it really scared me. I had a heart-to-heart conversation with my team and said: “Guys, I'm going to make a decision to stop early, but get up early and do a massive day tomorrow.”
There was a bit of doubt in the camp about me pushing for 50-something kilometres, one of my biggest sessions, on the last day when I was most down physically and mentally.
But I knew my body and myself well enough by that point. I knew I was going to do this.
I woke up for a 1am start, but it did not come easy. I had an 18km, five-hour uphill hike, which was intense. Some sections were so steep that trucks were in their highest gear trying to climb up.
Once I got to the top, I did something I hadn’t before – I lay down and slept for 10 minutes on the floor because I was so broken.
Next I had a 32km descent into Fujairah. Again, it didn't come easy, because my feet were a bit of a mess. I put on a few extra socks, but every step I took downhill it compounded my shin splints. It also started getting hotter, but I knew by this point, no matter what happened, I was going to do this.
I was doing updates every 10km, looking at Instagram, reading the messages of support coming through, speaking to people…
In the end, I came into Fujairah full of beans. In the last 10km, there was no pain, the adrenalin kept me going and I was only focused on getting to the sea. My brother walked the last kilometre with me, and together we stopped the clock two-and-a-half-hours before the deadline for the Guinness World Record for the Fastest Crossing of the UAE on Foot.
I was surrounded by all the people who have sponsored and supported us, the culmination of seven days of stress, excitement, pain and fun was so unique, and the camaraderie was incredible.
So, yeah, that was it. I finished in six days and 21 and a half hours against a seven-day cap – the fastest to do it, a record holder.