The Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon is an international event that draws elite runners from all over the world. Local national participation in the marathon has traditionally lagged far behind Dubai’s diverse resident population, which brings its own international flavor to the region’s premier road race. The 2017 installment of the Dubai Marathon saw 42 UAE nationals cross the finish line. This may seem like an exceedingly low level of local participation for the biggest running event in the Dubai racing calendar, but it is a massive step forward for a country that has no history of long distance running, let alone marathoning. Distance running has been steadily on the rise with the local population and increasing numbers of Emiratis are joining local running clubs to find motivation and social cohesion in the robust running community of the UAE. The unique story of four Emirati men at this year’s Dubai Marathon may provide a glimpse of the future for marathon running in Dubai and the UAE more broadly.
Their story begins not with an Emirati, however, but with a Syrian. Last November, Damascus-born Mohamed Hasan Aljijakli was frustrated by a plateau in his running performance and decided to change his approach. He adopted a new training program with the goal of running a Boston Qualifying time at the Dubai Marathon in January. His new program required training six or seven days per week with a mix of intensities and included one weekly long run of 25 to 35 kilometers. This was going to be challenging work for Hasan to do by himself, especially the long runs, so he wisely sought the help of some friends. Emirati runners Ali Amiri, Abbas Juma, and Aref Abdulrazaq had never run a marathon before, but they were keen 5K and 10K runners and were willing to give it a shot with Hasan’s training plan.
The foursome formed a new training group within the Desert Road Runners Club (DRR) and began logging miles throughout November and December. They were joined by Yousuf Al Rustamani, who had previous marathon experience and was steadily improving his times over the last year.
Week by week, this group could be seen training all over Dubai - Monday nights with the DRR at the 400m track at Dubai Sports City, Wednesday nights at the Dubai Autodrome, Thursdays at the hidden training hill in Jebel Ali Village, and on Friday mornings the group would head out to the Meadows or the Jumeirah Beach running track for their weekly long run. It was hard not to be inspired by the enthusiasm and camaraderie of this group. They worked hard and worked together, completing some epic marathon pace workouts that would have been difficult for any one of them to complete solo. Some long runs would require each runner to take over the lead to make sure the group as a whole did not fall behind the prescribed pace. If the leader would start to falter on a tough 3-hour effort, another member of the group would jump to the front and maintain the momentum for the rest. They had figured out a simple but highly effective training strategy: train together as a group and you can spur yourself to greater results than you could achieve alone. Perhaps this is not surprising given the background that Aref, Ali, and Abbas have in the UAE military and police forces, where the importance of teamwork is instilled early on.
In his book How Bad Do You Want It?, endurance sports writer Matt Fitzgerald discusses the power of the “group effect” in both training and racing. According to Fitzgerald, the group effect can take place on a micro or macro level in a sport like running: “One situation (micro) is any type of group workout or team competition in which a number of individuals work together. The other situation (macro) is a broader sport culture in which numerous groups of athletes train and race together often.” We see the micro group effect all the time in our local running clubs or on our school sports teams. Athletes can typically push themselves harder and longer when training together as a group than they could ever manage by themselves. Each runner is motivated and inspired by the achievements of the other runners in his or her training group, and this mix of support and healthy competition fuels the group’s efforts, making it faster and faster. Where a runner on his own might skip a session after a discouraging performance in a key race or workout, the group effect would encourage that runner to come back to training in the knowledge that the other members of the squad are expecting him. Also, if he does not show up, he knows that he may start to fall behind the other members of his training group, which provides further motivation to keep at it. Fitzgerald cites the group effect to explain the successes of Finnish track runners in the 1920s (the "Flying Finns"), American marathoners training in the Boston area in the mid-1970s, and the Kenyan distance runners of today. In a humorous but telling anecdote, Fitzgerald highlights the running fever in late-1970s Boston, when a full-time postman like Dick Mahoney would find time to squeeze in 120 miles of training per week and then run 2:14:36 at the Boston marathon, finishing 10th. When ordinary people do such things, it is often the result of a much wider cultural phenomenon that can drive individuals beyond expected limits. One common catalyst for the group effect in sports is the breakout performance of a star national athlete. People look up to the new athlete as a role model, someone of whom an entire city or nation is incredibly proud, and then young men and women begin training like mad to become as great as their hero. Think of Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, Seb Coe, or Kipchoge Keino, to name only a few.
On January 20, first time marathoners Aref and Ali finished as the first and third Emirati nationals in the Dubai Marathon. Aref clocked an impressive 3:09:12 in his debut performance, and Ali was not far behind at 3:17:46. Abbas, also running his first marathon and with knee problems to boot, was fourth Emirati in 3:19:11. Yousuf finished with a new personal best in 3:49:11 and is planning to close the gap with his compatriots before next year's Dubai Marathon. And Hasan, the spark that lit the fire under this training group, chopped his best time by 7 minutes to finish in 3:06:58. He missed his BQ, but he smashed through the plateau that had limited his running for over two years. The group as a whole exceeded all expectations, including their own. When I saw Ali at the finish, he was still in a state of shock at what he had just accomplished. More than any training plan or diet, it was the cohesion of this group that helped propel them to their incredible results, results which few would have expected when they began training as a group in November.
After reflecting on the achievement of my Emirati friends, I thought to myself, if the group effect can produce this much success at the micro level, for just one small training group of mostly new marathoners, one wonders what could happen if there were a broader effort to create a marathon running culture among UAE nationals. What if young men and women in the Emirates began to find role models in the sport of marathoning and began to take up distance running with a passion? It is not as far-fetched as it may sound. The Finns were not pre-destined to dominate running for a decade in the 1920s. There was little reason to believe that they would. It happened because young boys in Finland were inspired to run by a Finnish bricklayer named Hannes Kolehmainen who won three gold medals at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. One such Finnish boy, aged 15, was named Paavo Nurmi. A few days after the Olympics, he bought himself a pair of trainers and went to work. He would go on to win nine Olympic gold medals in the 1920s and become the greatest distance runner of the first half of the twentieth century. What would happen in the UAE? If Aref, Ali, Abbas, and Yousuf are any indication, the results of a macro group effect here could be very interesting.