Cross-country running UAE style

Whether it is running on the plush Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, or on the undulating terrain around Hatta, the sport is a grind, but it is growing in popularity.

Abdulla Arjomand, 13, from the Universal American School, makes his way down the home straight to win the Under 14 race of the first leg of the regional Middle East South Asia Conference (MESAC) cross country meet at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi on Friday.
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One runner crossed the finish, staggered up to a reporter he had never met and said, “Oh goodness gracious. Give me a hug, man.”

One runner finished, plopped on a chair and threw off his shirt, shoes and socks as if they had been some kind of overbearing armour.

One runner was overheard saying, “I died out there, and my soul is going to be wandering around for ages.”

Foam gathered around lips. Eye-black streaked. Sides and shins wailed. At least one stomach forfeited its contents.

When 80 cross-country runners of four high schools and an informally tabulated 23 nationalities in two divisions had finished five kilometres last Saturday morning, they had endured not just the merciless terrain around the Hatta Fort Resort.

These junior varsity and varsity gamers had completed a weekend of two 5Ks on back-to-back days on wildly varying courses on opposite sides of the country.

They had run on Friday near the Gulf on the flat track at Yas Marina Circuit, around and around, and they had navigated Saturday near the Oman border through one of Mother Nature’s undulating passages, around twice, meaning the eyeballs got a dreadful second look at a final uphill tilt that might turn up in future nightmares.

“The terrain was a lot worse, and also we were really tired from yesterday,” said Robert Howle, an American School of Dubai student nearly 15 years old and clearly excellent in his Friday-Saturday times of 17mins 28secs and 19.15.22.

“Normally after a race you wouldn’t have a race for maybe a whole two weeks afterward.”

Mid-interview, he broke off to go and cheer home fellow runners, a practice chronic enough to become the soundtrack at this Middle East South Asia Conference meeting, and a practice for which some runners creatively brought bongo drums.

With teams from one school in Abu Dhabi, two in Dubai and one in Doha, the race wound past the brown hills and the resilient vegetation and the haughty peacocks and the occasional camel.

It had intended to wind through Cairo two weekends prior, but Egypt’s recent unrest caused rescheduling, relocating and regrets from fellow conference member Cairo American College, its students uncommonly scattered these days.

Still, the entries from American Community School (Abu Dhabi), Dubai American Academy, American School of Dubai and American School of Doha left plenty of exertion’s signals strewn around. No Saturday morning slouches, these.

A half-empty tube of Deep Heat rub lay amid the dozens of duffel bags left beneath a shading canopy.

The bonded Abu Dhabi runners posed for a photograph and crooned along with the Owl City song coming from an iPod: “I try to make myself believe ...” One talented South African runner, 18-year-old William Higgo of Dubai American Academy, got needed lifts on the benevolent shoulders of his 21-year-old brother, Alex.

“I could barely breathe,” said the engaging William, who finished first at Yas Island and second at Hatta Fort. “I was almost blacking out.”

Managing the two-pronged weekend had been part of the test, asking more eating-sleeping calculation than the usual Friday night and mandating some carbo-loading.

Natasha Topolski, a multi-task 16-year-old at the American Community School in Abu Dhabi, said she fell asleep at 8.30pm after some pasta. “I’m really behind in homework,” she said just after a friend handed her a camera as a reminder she also edits the yearbook.

Howle fell asleep at 9.30pm when normally he would see 11.30pm.

Daniel Oswald, a personality-rich 17-year-old from the American School of Dubai, managed to reach 10pm at a friend’s house after some macaroni and cheese he counted as pasta.

“I’m going to say yes because there’s noodles in it,” he said.

Higgo, whose time at Hatta Fort improved from 19.23 to 18.57 from his first try on a course the schools have used for five years, sat up with some friends until maybe 10 watching the American sitcom How I Met Your Mother. He woke on Saturday and primed himself for battle with “a slice of toast and a glass of water”.

“This is rugged terrain,” said Joe Byles, a coach at the American School of Dubai.

“It’s an intermediate to advanced course for cross-country runners.”

"Today has really tested the kids," said Jodi O'Reilly, the athletics director at Dubai American Academy. "They came back two days in a row, with a mentally tough course. The hill is really hard."
Repeatedly they spoke of the late-course hill as if having run up the back of Godzilla.

“Oh, that’s hard,” Howle said. “That hurts you the most mentally, because that’s where everyone wants to give up. That’s where you want to walk.”

So while Higgo spoke of the strategic challenges of the “riverbeds” and “tight corners that make you slow down and lose momentum,” he cited a strain on the brain related to the horror hill.

With the course looping around twice, he said, scaling the hill the first time left the brain immediately freighted with a sense of dread: Oh, wait, I'm going to have to do that again …
"Yes!" he said. "By the time I came off the first time, I couldn't even think about going back again."

Topolski, who spent the weekend attempting diverging strategies – hanging back on Friday, blasting out on Saturday and later deeming that a learning experience – used the it’s-almost-over tack: “You’re just keeping your motivation going by saying, ‘This is the last one I have to do, the last one’.”

Oswald referred to “the crazy uphill” and utilised some strategy from an unlikely source: the late, great American football running back Walter Payton.

Hailing from Chicago where Payton remains revered almost 12 years after his death at 45 from a rare liver disease, Oswald said: “I heard Walter Payton would have friends over and challenge them and see who could run up hills the fastest.”

In those unusual acts of questionable hospitality, Payton would stress using “quick steps on uphills and huge strides on downhills”, Oswald said. “It’s an advantage on the hills, because some people don’t know how to do it.”

Still, he reached the 400-metres-to-go mark feeling, well … “Yesterday [at Yas] I came in and it was like, Whatever,” he said. “Today I get in and I was, like, dead. I couldn’t breathe. I already couldn’t breathe there and then” – at 400 metres – “my coach is just standing there and just saying, ‘Sprint!’”

And still, the runners relished both the progression through the two courses and what it asked of them tactically. “It’s different everywhere, so you don’t get bored,” Howle said of Hatta Fort.

Higgo liked the way it tested his thinking, evident in his improvement from his too-brisk start on his first try.

“Oh, this is a true cross-country,” O’Reilly said. “It really is. It has it all.”

“The kind of nice thing about this one,” Byles said, “is there’s peacocks and camels and birds.”

Indeed, about the only being who seemed to find a lounging Saturday morning would be the camel back at the corner near the starting line, and whom an adult could ride for Dh20 (Dh10 for a child).

That majestic being spent the morning all dressed up but reposing beneath a tree, while young human athletes hammered at their own outer margins and often found exhilaration.

After hobbling graciously over to a chair for questioning indoors at the awards banquet, Higgo said: "The feeling 10 minutes after a race is incredible. You feel on top of the world" – and maybe you are, once you surmount that wretched hill.