Portrait of a Nation: Emirati runner shows there's no fast track to health but change can be achieved

With more than 4,000km under his belt, Khaled Al Suwaidi hopes to inspire others to hit the road

Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., June 1, 2018.  STORY BRIEF: Just three years after first pulling on his running shoes, when he still weighed more than 120 kilograms, Khaled Al Suwaidi is preparing to run 327 kilometres to help his father’s cancer charity. Now a rather more lightweight 72kg, the 34-year-old Emirati will run from Fujairah to Port Zayed in Abu Dhabi next month – in only three days
Victor Besa / The National
Reporter:  Nick Webster
Section:  National
The biog

Age: 35

Inspiration: Wife and kids 

Favourite book: Changes all the time but my new favourite is Thinking, Fast and Slow  by Daniel Kahneman

Best Travel Destination: Bora Bora , French Polynesia 

Favourite run: Jabel Hafeet, I also enjoy running the 30km loop in Al Wathba cycling track

Once obese and heading towards an old age plagued with health problems, life is very different now for Emirati Khaled Al Suwaidi who wants to show others what can be done with a little determination.

In just three years, Mr Al Suwaidi, an executive director of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi, has shed almost 50kg and has run every day since October, clocking up more than 4,000km.

Cutting out meat and reverting to a largely plant-based diet, accompanied with a daily run before work, his weight has dropped from 120kg to just 70kg.

“Before October 2017 when I started my ultra-marathon training, I wasn’t in great shape,” he said.

“I was fit, but not healthy and was into power lifting, bulking up to 100kg and eating whatever I wanted. My food intake wasn’t smart.

“I’ve cut out all soft drinks, and since October I’ve cut out bread but I still have sugars with the occasional pancakes or cake as my body needs it. I’m training for about 27 hours a week.”

An ultra-marathon of 327km from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi to promote the cancer charity founded by his sister, Nora, has given Mr Al Suwaidi a taste for the extreme.

While that endurance feat was completed in less than 80 hours, he’s now planning an even greater mental and physical test — a 2,070km run in just 38 days.

His diet has changed drastically, but to maintain the complete nutrition his body requires to keep pace with such a gruelling schedule, Mr Al Suwaidi has turned to ancient natural health supplements.

One secret in his dietary arsenal that powers him along his daily runs is yerba mate, a South American herbal tea rich in minerals that some claim metabolises fat and increases alertness.

Another is amaranth seeds, similar to quinoa the grain is high in protein, gluten free and loaded with amino acids. It can be cooked like rice or served as a breakfast cereal.

Since his 327km run in January, Mr Al Suwaidi has delivered 21 lectures around the UAE to universities and government institutions about the importance of healthy living.

“I believe that the only way we can learn things about ourselves is if we push through our difficulties and face them in order to grow,” he said.

“I want to show how your life can change from leading a healthy lifestyle.

“Obesity and diabetes is a big problem in this country, and it is being addressed. It is not a quick fix, but it needs lifestyle change.

“For me, as a flat footed person, it’s not easy to run — so I speak in my lectures about the importance of mental strength and how we can learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

“Once you have a mindset, a goal or some kind of target to work towards — then nothing phases you.”

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On an average day, he’ll do a two hour run before work at 5am, then go to work and have a cryotherapy session afterwards to help his body recover.

Just a few minutes in an ice cold chamber helps repair damaged muscle fibres and improves blood flow. He’ll then train for two hours or so in the gym, go home and have dinner and spend time with his wife and children.

“I’m working on my research projects and also writing a book about my ultra-run in the UAE. I learnt more from the first three days of that run than 13 years of working in academia.

“I realised I could rely on no one else but myself. After 180km I was in a remote area and exhausted, wanting to sleep.

“I slept for one hour, and wanted to push myself to the extreme limits. I realised that once you can control your mind, you can control your body.

“It was the best experience of my life and shows anything is possible with the right preparation.

“Attitudes towards food are starting to change, and that has been driven by the expat community.

“Exercise is also becoming more common among Emiratis, but it is happening slowly.

“There are so many ways to get fit. Reducing obesity is so important, the future of our nation depends on it.”

The biog

Age: 35

Inspiration: Wife and kids 

Favourite book: Changes all the time but my new favourite is Thinking, Fast and Slow  by Daniel Kahneman

Best Travel Destination: Bora Bora , French Polynesia 

Favourite run: Jabel Hafeet, I also enjoy running the 30km loop in Al Wathba cycling track

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