Monday, October 17, 2011

Running in Arabia

It promised to be hot, and hot it has been. I'm not even back to California yet but, for what it is worth as we are in the Fall, I managed to log quite a few miles of good heat training. 13 miles upon my arrival in Dubai, 16 miles just before leaving to Riyad, 23 miles in Riyadh on Friday (which is their only "week-end" day but I still managed to work 10 hours with Europe and the US for another long and busy day until 3 AM...), an 8-mile tour of the city at midnight upon my arrival in Bahrain, and 16 miles again in Riyadh. Between the 11 and 10-hour jet lags over the past 2 weeks, the work on Saturday and Sunday, the multiple visas to hop back and forth between these three countries in Arabia, the three different currencies, the 8 immigration control points, the traveling in coach with the pilgrims to Saudi Arabia or travelers to India in particular, I must admit that I'm on one hand completely disoriented and exhausted and, and the other hand, glad and excited about this business opportunity to discover new countries and cultures.
Speaking of cultures, what a difference between so close countries! Dubai reminded me of Singapore while you can feel Riyadh is closer to Africa... Oh well, we have our own interesting diversity for instance in Europe between Germany and Italy to pick only two, or San Francisco and New York in the US. The main similarities between these three places are the language and some sky-scraper competition although Dubai easily wins in this area. Here is my preferred one: the twisted Infinity Tower (still growing... ;-):
So, I'm tired but not from running, which provides such a stress relief. I was excited to blog on tips about running in these three countries but I'll be frank, these aren't the best places on the planet to run. Beyond the heat and humidity, the locals even discourage you to go out given the associated dangers of running either close to the traffic or to make bad encounters. I did check the web for some local runner tips or experiences and couldn't find much up to date. Yet, few cities "resist" to my eager to discover them with my Brooks running shoes and, for the lucky readers who have the opportunity to visit one of all these three places, here are a few tips. To your own risk...
  1. Follow the main arteries. The maps you can find on the Internet or at hotels are rarely in English and rather simplified anyway, focusing on highlighting the largest roads for cars. Indeed, here, given the hot weather and cheap gas, everything is designed around and for cars, so you need to get along, especially in the new Jumeira suburb of Dubai. Of course, as always, or like the salmons coming back to their breeding place which I saw in Issaquah 2 weeks ago, run against the traffic so you see cars coming.
  2. Don't be ashamed to appear like a zombie. As I could see, and that was confirmed to me by a few locals, nobody runs here so you'll appear like an alien. Many drivers will use their horn, and I'm not sure if it's in a nice or bad way (I hate it anyway...). You'll also get a weird look from people in the street. Keep going...
  3. Keep a low profile. Both in Riyadh and Bahrain, I ran into areas patrolled by the army (like the Ministry of Interior in Riyadh, but in Bahrain too next to the Pearl Monument). I asked where they wanted me to go, I can tell you they were quite surprised to see a runner so close. In retrospective, colleagues told me it was really dangerous to play around such places in the Saudi Kingdom in particular. Watch your steps... And, oh ladies, I can't imagine how locals would take seeing you in running shorts or skirt, or a sport bra...
  4. Carry your own water. Don't count on finding drinking fountains! Actually, you will see quite a few at the entrance of the many mosques, but I'm not sure the water is meant to be drunk, rather used for ablutions (like men use the lavatory sinks at the airports to wash their feet... which isn't so elegant...). For my long run in Riyadh, I carried 2 bottles which wasn't even enough for 3 hours in 100F/38C temperatures. On my way back to Olaya, I stopped by a very large and modern supermarket and, with assurance, got in before a security guy pulled me out because I was wearing shorts in a muslim place. I know it wasn't appropriate for a mosque but a supermarket... Several others guards arrived and I made the case that I was going to pass out (not really although I was definitely very thirsty and I had lost a lot of salt again on my shirt), that was enough to get an exception (and weird looks again from shoppers, both women and men, oops).
  5. Day or night. On this one, I don't have a clear cut. Late night is better in terms of traffic (less of it) and lower temperatures. But you aren't visible from drivers in certain dark places and this is less picturesque too. By the day, you will see more but suffer from the heat. For instance, in Riyadh, it was 29C at night, 38C at mid day. And October is the nice season, temperature goes up to 55C in summer... But, pick either late night or the day, avoid the end of the day where drivers are tired and not accustomed with the dimming light.
In Dubai, I was staying at the Marina in Jumeira and ran on Al Sufouh Road, a wide avenue parallel to the sea. A few sandy sections, a few with nice grass along luxurious hotels, but mostly sidewalks otherwise. See a few pictures in my Picasa album.
In Riyadh, I was staying in the Olaya district and decided to run South, the most difficult being to cross the huge highway interchange next to the hotel (Holiday Inn Olaya which I don't recommend between the super noisy rooms and some mean personnel at the front desk). It took me 8 miles of not so pleasant run along the busy King Fahd Road to reach Wadu Hanifah, but that was really worth the pain. There, I found a river and ran 3 miles along it on a nice trail, plus 3 miles back, far away from the car traffic. I could have gone further, beyond Fath Makkah Road but I had to come back to the hotel to deliver a web presentation to our European team. From 5 pm on my day off, I went on with emails and calls until 3 am... Here is a link to my photo album.
In Manama (Bahrain's capital), I went around the city, starting South on Lulu Avenue, left on Salmaniya Avenue, right on Shaik Daij Avenue toward the Gulf, left on Al Fateh Highway (there is a boardwalk on the other side but you have to cross eight lanes before the interchanges of the highways going to the airport and the Muharraq island). Another alternative is to take Exhibition Avenue then Government Avenue. This circuit was fine at midnight as the traffic was light and I barely stopped to cross the main intersections, but that must be another story during the day. Since I ran at midnight, I didn't carry my camera, just took a few pictures from my hotel room and from the cab the next day.
Hope that gave you a flavor of these Arabian places and some insights in case you have the opportunity to visit and plan on running. Talk to you next time from sunny and ideally-temperated Bay Area!
PS: tonight, I was invited by the local team to a traditional Saudi restaurant in Riyadh and, to stay on the running tips topic, two colleagues indicated to me a 6-km loop around and across the Prince Sultan National College (close to crossing of King Abdullahbin Abdul Aziz and Abi Bakr As Siddiq Roads). If you know or discover other places to run in Riyadh or Dubai, please leave a comment!

PS: for some reasons (connectivity bandwidth?) Sporttracks didn't download the maps when I uploaded my GPS information while I was in the Gulf. Here are three of them to give you more insights about the places I ran.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates:

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia:

Manama, Bahrain:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Toutes ces photos sont fascinantes.
Merci; par contre pas extra pour courir!