World Health Day: how running is taking off in Saudi Arabia
A series of events organised by Under Armour hopes to bring runners of all levels together
Under Armour is launching its popular Run Series, a number of free-to-attend community runs, in Jeddah this week to celebrate World Health Day, which falls on April 7.
Hejaz Ultra, a trail running and hiking group in the Saudi capital has partnered with the US sports company to organise the event.
The Under Armour Run Series is an initiative that takes part once or twice a month with the aim of bringing runners of all levels together for a run
Nadia Nahhas, Under Armour
“People are excited and all the spots are taken. Participants will gather early so we can check their temperature, their Tawakkalna app to check for Covid-19 infections and to clear them, and then we will head to our location,” Nesreen Samir Ghonaim, a Saudi member of Hejaz Ultra who will also be participating in the run, tells The National.
Fabrice Laborie, a French national who has been living in Saudi Arabia for 20 years, says he formed Hejaz Ultra in 2016, when there was a lack of fitness groups and campaigns in the city. What started with a personal health struggle and journey for Laborie has ended up helping thousands of Saudis and residents living in Jeddah.
He has also seen many changes take place in the kingdom, with it opening up. "We witnessed the creation of [the] General Sports Authority and sports entities. We thank the government, who has helped support us from the very beginning, and companies like Under Armour who carry similar values and have the same vision," Laborie says.
The runs will include two different distances, 3.5 kilometres and 7km, and participants will meet at Dhahban Dunes at 6.15am.
Running during Covid-19
During the stay-at-home period last year, Hejaz Ultra launched virtual challenges to help keep people motivated. "We noticed everyone wanted to stay fit and we didn't give up on people in difficult times," says Laborie.
He hopes to create more opportunities for Saudis who can carry on his Hejaz Ultra initiative. "I want to see this group survive my departure when I leave. I am seeing a lot of commitment with more Saudis involved and hope it creates more opportunities,” he says.
Eisa Faheem, 30, a Saudi chartered public accountant, will be participating in the race. He says he’s excited to run the 7km distance in the dunes, which is twice as difficult as running on a treadmill or open-track.
“I love running. I practise it as a hobby and have been preparing for this race for a while. I heard about it a few months ago from Hejaz Ultra ... they actually got me into trail runs,” Faheem says.
Even though he started running in 2016 for health reasons, these initiatives kept him motivated to continue. “Now I don’t just run for fitness and health it is also a state-of-mind. It helps relieve stress and just makes you feel better as you keep going,” he says.
Interest in fitness in Saudi Arabia
Interest in fitness has picked up over the course of the past five years as the kingdom has opened up and eased restrictions, in line with Saudi Vision 2030.
“The change is just amazing with the way the kingdom has opened up everything. Now you can see women running with their husbands, brothers or friends, which wasn’t possible before. What is really helping us are the great campaigns launched by the the Saudi sports ministry, even during lockdown,” says Ghonaim.
“They are encouraging people to move more and keep pushing with virtual races, people are participating in challenges and are being awarded certificates. Saudi Arabia is booming in many ways and you can tell that the good vibes are contagious as you see more and more people are joining health initiatives.”
She says Under Armour reached out to Hejaz Ultra last year for different races and runs to motivate people to stay active. Nadia Nahhas, marketing manager at Under Armour Middle East, says, when it comes to fitness, the past few years have been “very drastic” for the brand in the region.
World Health Day is “the perfect occasion for Under Armour to push any kind of runner to come out, be active and enjoy a community event, all running under the same objective of raising awareness about staying fit and the importance of health in our daily lives,” Nahhas tells The National.
“Running is one of the most convenient first steps to becoming healthier and leading a good lifestyle. We have seen people running around cities more than ever, especially in Saudi Arabia. With this in mind, we decided to be part of this change and push the community to run further and faster,” she says.
“The Under Armour Run Series is an initiative that takes part once or twice a month with the aim of bringing runners of all levels together for a run. Being in Saudi Arabia is very important to us. We strongly believe in the vision that is taking place in the country and the mindset shift, especially in the fitness world, making it an easy choice for us to push our activity there.”
Each runner will be given an Under Armour T-shirt and running coaches will be there to take care of participants throughout the run.
Nahhas says that the sports brand has a duty to help people stay active every day. “It is actually our mission statement, Under Armour makes you better. To make people better, we need to give them the platform and the opportunity to come out, push their limits and be better,” she says.
Through the Run Series platform, the company hopes to inspire people all around the region to "get moving".
No participation fee is required to register for the Under Armour Run Series in Jeddah; runners can sign up through the MapMyRun app; registration is open to all genders, ages and nationalities
Updated: April 7, 2021 11:50 AM