Champion athlete Youssef Rochdi only set foot in Abu Dhabi to walk down the aisle – but his passion for running has made him go the distance.
The super-fit American, a winner of a host of international titles, moved to the capital in 2016 to marry his partner, who lived in the emirate.
He intended to switch back to the US soon after, but quickly felt at home in the UAE.
Something was missing, however, as he explored the city and found a distinct lack of "running vibes".
He discovered the Zayed Sports City running track, where he ran alone for two weeks.
“There was no one there, just a few people on the football pitch,” said Rochdi, 37.
“This made me sad back then, how people do not run in this city. So I had an idea to develop and promote training in the community.
“I started making small announcements on my Facebook page: 'I am running at this time in this place who wants to join me?'”
He soon found many willing to follow in his footsteps as a one-man band steadily grew.
As more people joined the ranks, Rochdi received support from community and sporting groups that helped him to organise runs and training sessions.
Spurred on by the backing, he founded Abu Dhabi Running Team.
The club now boasts 2,000 members and is the official training group for the Adnoc Abu Dhabi Marathon.
On any given weekday, Rochdi is joined by dozens of residents – adults, teens and children – for free training sessions that start with warm-up laps, stretches and interval runs.
Runners divide themselves into groups based on skill levels, so they can complete sessions at a comfortable speed.
Every Friday morning the team also goes out from the start of dawn to run long distances that range between 10 kilometres and a half marathon.
Rochdi likes to take a scenic route – often gliding past the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque on to the Arabian Gulf track leading to Al Hudayriat Island, or along the Abu Dhabi Corniche – to attract more enthusiasts to join in.
“The Abu Dhabi Running Team has helped a lot of people in the community, including heavy smokers and obese people who could barely run two kilometres when they started, and now they are running half marathons,” he said.
Running transforms lives
One of those members is Rania Abbas, a mother of three, who has set her sights on running the full distance of 42km at the upcoming Adnoc Abu Dhabi Marathon in November.
It is a far cry from when she first laced up her running boots.
"I was a heavy smoker and I did not have a healthy lifestyle," said the Egyptian, who works for the Singaporean ambassador to the UAE.
“But since I started running I adopted a different lifestyle.”
Her first motivation was to run 10km at the Adnoc Marathon in 2019.
“I heard about the Abu Dhabi Running Team through social media. I could not finish 400 metres during my first training with them.
“But Coach Youssef believed in me and told me I could do more, so I kept pushing myself and learning from the team.”
Ms Abbas, 42, managed to run the 10km distance in 2019.
“I was amazed by the result. It was the first 10km run in my whole life.”
Since then she has participated in 25 races of different distances, and quit smoking,
"I had been smoking since I was 22, but when I started to achieve in running, I did not want anything to tamper with my performance."
Chef finds ingredients for a healthier life
Another success story is Imad Al Shaar, a chef from Syria.
Since tasting the food that he prepares is part of his job, the 33-year-old found it tough not to pile on weight.
“But when I joined the running group eight months go, I started to see a change in my body and my life.
"In eight months, I lost more than 11 kilograms."
A long and winding journey to fulfilment
Rochdi knows only too well the value of having a mentor when pursuing sporting goals.
He embarked on his own path to success in his early teens in his home city of Casablanca.
He was 15 when he took part in first “serious run", a 6km cross country qualifications race for a national championship.
“I won third place in the qualifications, and I was nominated to represent my school at the championship," he said.
However, when it came to the big championship race, he “did not do well”.
“So I was disappointed and I quit running and stuck to kickboxing – until I broke my nose," he said.
His brother was a running champion at the time, so he decided to go to him for guidance.
“There is a five-year age gap between us, and he was very serious about running, so he gave me tips and I started to focus more on the sport.”
In 2000, he qualified to represent Morocco in the World Schools Cross Country Championship in Boston.
“After that I entered a lot of competitions in the US and enrolling in runs every weekend; so we had the chance to shine," he said.
“First I was just competing for my club, Westchester Road Runner, until I got the US citizenship in 2007 and started presenting New Jersey in state competitions.”
Personal achievement now takes a back seat to watching others achieve their ambitions as Abu Dhabi Running Team continues to pick up pace.