Running Saudi Arabia || Riyadh Run

Some like it HOT, and some like it even hotter. I thought a long time about sharing this story with you. The running world seems to be becoming or turning into a mainstream Instagram, or social media run map, park runs, marathons everywhere. But there are countries where running is still in its infancy. Where it is not part of tradition or culture, but it is growing with enthusiastic runners’ showing up organizing themselves, planning races, not looking for excuses or reasons not to run.

I honestly must tell you that I had some great moments running in Saudi Arabia.

Yup, that’s what today’s chat is all about. Running in Saudi in Riyadh to be more specific. First off: Don’t think if you run on a hot summer’s day, that you know what hot is. The Saudi weather has those couple of extra degrees and the thing is, the heat, the hot weather lasts a long long time.  

Whether you are destined to go there for work, or perhaps as a tourist you’re your running gear along. Oh maybe you heard or read some negative stories about this great country don’t believe all the negative stories, rather get firsthand experience and you will find many like minded people and a country that surprises you. Quite different to the image the media sometimes portrays. But, I just want to share with you my hot running experience in Saudi. Especially because so many people told me it would be impossible to run there, not only due to the heat but also that it’s not part of the tradition. Short trousers are frowned upon, there are hardly any run events etc.

Join me as I clear some nonsense and fake news and present you some firsthand accounts of what it’s like. And the friendly runners I met

All of them HOT, Ha Ha.

Yes, heat will be a topic throughout this whole blog. Obviously, because just for starters: what do you guess the average annual temperature is for Riyadh, the capital? Come on guess, don’t give me the “I don’t know”  yes I am reading. Chances are you are wrong. 

The average high for Riyadh is. You better hold on to something. Are you ready: 32 degrees Celsius or 90 Fahrenheit. Average 

Now that is impressive. Did you guess correctly? Wow, congrats genius. Well done, clever Trevor.

Readers, I grew up in South Africa, and there are some Hot places, be it Upington, or Oudtshoorn where I spent my National Service time. I lived in Delhi for some years, in Mexico, so I thought I knew heat, or hot weather.

That’s why before I went to Saudi, I didn’t think for a second that I would not be able to run there. But the heat is a different one. 

In Upington on a Hot summers’ day it can be 34 Celsius or 94 Fahrenheit. But that is December January February. 

Riyadh boasts with 5 months of Temperature over 100 Fahrenheit temperatures over 45 are a regular site on your iPhone weather app. And let me be honest, it is a huge difference. Perhaps now as you are reading to it you are thinking “doesn’t sound so much more, does it”?

But it is

There is one benefit though the heat is dry. So for me at least it is much more pleasant than running in the tropics. I am the sort of guy who if I see a video about some researcher in the jungle and he is all sweaty, I need to change the Blog. Humidity is not my thing. Reminds me too much of the time where I had malaria. Yup, your run coach thought he’s going to die, and the next day the pain was so bad I wished I would die. Ha Ha. 

But I digress. Back to Saudi, running and heat. 

As luck would have it, I arrived in Riyadh in February, a cool 23 degrees. 74 degrees. Really nice. Means what, well my Hotel was right in the center of Riyadh. It’s a modern city with some impressive skyscrapers, and the typical hustle and bustle of a capital. 

To those of you who read this blog often (thank you loyal readersers) you know I am impressed with my Suunto. 

To those that hear me mention a product, and are getting all panicky: no, it’s not product placement, nor any form of sponsoring. It’s my watch. I like it. And I am telling you about it, ok?

Suunto, yes it has this function whereby you can view popular routes in any given city. I am sure other watches also have it. So, I clicked on Heatmaps, entered Riyadh and was a bit surprised. Usually if I am in a city in Europe or the states, the heatmaps are very prominent. It is after all common for a nice route, that is frequented by runners, to be shown prominently in the heatmap function. I am sure other apps or watches have the same function anyway you know what I mean. So, I only counted about 10 routes.

Hm. And most were short, less than 2K and always around a city neighborhood, or a loop.

But before we start with this little run adventure let me just dive into the dangers of hot weather running. Dehydration, Heat cramps, Heat exhaustion and Heat stroke. Basically you need to drink adequate fluids during the day, not just a glass of water before you head out. A Heat cramp you will feel immediately, it’s a pain like no other. Should you then continue to run you will end up with a heat stroke. Dizziness, heavy sweating, and if you still don’t get out of the heat, you will end up with a Heat stroke. Disorientation, leading to weakness in the less, fainting. So they can just scoop you up from the pavement. What I am saying is, if you haven’t drunk enough during the hot day, don’t go running. Use common sense. If you are running and get a cramp, limp back to your home, get out of the sun. Don’t be a hero. It will get worse. 

If you prepare correctly, wearing one of those snazzy function t-shirts, obviously use sunscreen on all you British runners’, you don’t need to like to get sun burnt. Ha Ha. Make sure you have thin socks, as in the heat feet are prone to swelling, and if you have too thick socks, this might lead to blisters. 

Ok, back to my first run in Riyadh. I made sure I remember some landmarks, as I don’t want to make news headlines. A lost runner was found after 14 days in the city LOL. 

Of course, there was no route in front or near my hotel, the closest route I saw was the King Fahad Medical Hospital. A triangle-shaped route looked good. just around the hospital not far from where I was staying. 

Off I went. The friendly Pilipino receptionist complimented me on my running attire, and I already felt like a champ. The bell boy looked at me in amazement, “good luck Sir”. This is it finally I am getting some respect. LOL

First impression was that the pavement offers extra training, let me explain. The pavement is higher than in most countries I have visited. If I was running on the street, and wanted to get up to the pavement, it took a good effort, you know a jump to get up, not just a little skip. 

I reached the street where the hospital was located and picked up my pace. I remember it clearly, this is it. And all I had to do was run. No navigation necessary as long as the hospital was on my left, I was on track. 

As I was watching the morning traffic go by, so many different makes of cars, the minarets of the mosque visible between the buildings, I suddenly realized  hang on. I have been here before.

How can this be? 

What happened? Well simple, the King Fahd Medical center is huge, really impressive. But the route is still just 3.3 Km long. Means even if you walk, it won’t take you half an hour to complete. So, I ended up running around the hospital 3 times and ran back to my hotel. Bell Boy gave me a “very good Sir”

The Filipino receptionist gave me a thumbs up as I passed dripping with sweat through the lobby.

And then the elevator I will never forget. I jumped in the lift, and it was full of a group of young Saudi men, looking smart wearing their white thawb  smelling fresh, the odor of men’s deodorant filling the elevator. 

A person standing in a roomDescription automatically generated

And there I was in the middle. “7 please”. I was sweating profusely, and from this dry heat, the exhaust fumes, I didn’t smell like a million bucks.

I think everyone was a bit embarrassed So, I turned to the guy next to me and said: I’m sorry, you have to share the lift with me. They all laughed, asked me where I was from, and said “welcome to Riyadh”. What a polite encounter, guys had good humor. As I stumbled out of the elevator.

First few lessons learnt:

  1. When returning to your hotel Take the stairs.
  2. I definitely need to bring more running t-shirts. As once they are dry, you can see the lines of dried sweat uuuugh. 

Running in those temperatures was pleasant. But as I lived in Saudi for some time I knew I would have to prepare myself for some tough temperature run’s.

Yes, it’s true that running in the extreme heat requires precaution, as heat related illnesses are serious. 

Running in the heat causes your body and muscles to heat up internally as you move along. As you heat up, you start to sweat more. As the guys in the elevator could vouch for. In an attempt to cool down your body sends blood to your muscles to the skin to come into contact with the relatively cooler air and sweaty skin. 

But there are three issues.

  1. Your muscles need blood to gain oxygen. And therefore your blood cannot get cooled down at the skin. It leaves your muscles without oxygen.
  2. The blood, which remains in the muscles, which doesn’t rise to get cooled, starts to get even hotter, and the skin doesn’t get cooled as the sweat doesn’t evaporate. Basically, it is a case of air temperature exceeding your body’s release of excessive heat.
  3. And the third point is that your body is trying hard to cool down by producing more and more sweat, so that you might dehydrate. Electrolytes, bye-bye which means that your already tired overworked muscles must work even harder to keep up.

And as we are all unique, science has found that some people are more prone to heat stroke than others. 

You know if you are prone to heat stroke or not. Ok, if you don’t, you will. It’s simple: a heatstroke occurs when the body temperature rises over 105 degrees Fahrenheit. It means you ignored the heat exhaustion, and somehow also ignored you are having cramps.

To sum it up, readers to your body. Just pay attention using common sense.

If you start to cramp up, don’t be a hero. Get out of the sun, drink some sports drink with electrolyte.

But that’s quite obvious. Important is how to prepare for this heat. If you ask google, you will find that you should avoid running in the heat, wear a cap and drink a lot. More or less. Simple advice. Still, not very helpful is it?  

From my own experience I want to share with you that yes, definitely drinking a lot more than you usually do, is vital. And not just water, electrolytes are a must. And then, you need to acclimatize. Don’t rush out and do a 10K yes, I did one but it wasn’t in the midst of summer.

Acclimatization means start easy.. more easy than you would imagine. You need to go to bed early, as you need to get up early, before the sun starts to glow basically, and wait for it: go for a brisk walk, practice drinking more than you ever have. If you follow those two points you are off to a great start.

Yes, I said it was a brisk walk. I know you are a runner. Yes, I understand you tuned into the show for running advice. You go for a walk. And you feel that heat, I promise you it takes a while. It is so powerful, living in Saudi and going about your daily tasks you hardly feel how hot it is. Everything is air conditioned, your room, reception, car, lobby, office, Shopping mall. And I mean really air conditioned. Some shops, you could keep a body there for a week without a whiff of demise. It’s so cold. 

But during your first walk, the heat will sneak up on you. Suddenly you realize, oh my goodness, what is wrong. What is happening?

It feels as though you just walked into a fully heated furnace. I remember as a Kid, we had a school excursion, and we went to some sawmills, I think Sabi paper mills, something like that  where the tour led you past a huge furnace, to dry the wood. And as they opened the doors for us to take a peak. You first went closer, not suspecting anything, and suddenly it hit you. In your face, your chest, your arms. Such a powerful force. That must have been 35 years ago and I recalled that moment during my first time running in Saudi.

Hot as a furnace. 

Plan at least two weeks to get used to that feeling. No, I am not saying not to run during those two weeks. Plan getting used to it. Build up towards your first run.

One rule which I always obeyed: If I didn’t get out and run before 5:00 am, I wouldn’t run. I tell you it is just too hot towards the end. 5:30 sunrise, so you have another 20 minutes before you get into that danger zone. 

Happened to me a few times, I have been hurt before lol. Running later during the day is nearly impossible. The sunlight is too strong, and the reflection of the street, the buildings, everything makes it a losing battle.

So again, start by walking. 4, 6 days. Get your routine in place, get used to drinking more than you ever have in your whole life. If you don’t use a HR monitor, this might be a good time to start, so that you run at a low HR, and that ensures your pace is slower than usual. If you overdo it, because you want to be a hero, you will suffer a setback.

Only when, only IF you are used to that furnace feeling, you start to run short distances. Do a 3K, no not a full speed 3K, a slow one, and work your way up to your usual distance minus 25%. 

Means if usually you do a 10K, don’t exceed 7 or 8K’s. there will be no benefit, but higher risk. If you usually run a 5K, be satisfied with a 3,7K or 4K. And always: Get the run in before the sun comes up. 

And then during those days where the temperature drops, due to a storm, or for whatever reason it cools down sometimes, that is when you can train at a faster pace or longer distance. Rest of the days take it easy.

And second advice: ignore the time. Personal bests are not reached in Hot and tough weather conditions. 

Changing your run times. The city comes alive after sunset, and restaurants open till late, which means there are lots of people out and about. Once you start to run at night, what then happens is you will start to find other runners’, even at midnight. 

What a great alternative. Now before you get all excited. There are a couple of points however that make your midnight run tricky. If you can sleep till ten the next day, great. But if you work at a normal office, and need to be there at 8:30 running at midnight, then shower, then settle down.. it might be 3:00 am before you get to sleep. How should I be able to be at work at 8:30? LOL. 

Plus, don’t expect that at midnight the heat is MUUUUUCH more tolerable. readers, it’s still hot. Very hot. Plus, it’s dark, and crossing a street reminds me of an ABBA song. Take a chance on me.. as drivers of SUVs or Trucks tend to be the stronger species so sometimes it’s a bit of a risk. But yes, better than not running at all. 

Ultimately, I found another route that I really enjoyed, and this was downtown, around the King Fahad National Library, the Holiday Inn and the Haraj computer shopping area.  Benefit of running there is that there are few “high risk” streets to cross. And you will meet other runners around the National Library. A stunning series of skyscrapers, buildings, surrounded by King Fahad National Library the Riyad Tower, a very impressive skyline.

After a couple of runs around the area, you tend to see the same runners, and it wasn’t long before I spotted a runner wearing an orange Comrades T-Shirt. I couldn’t believe it. I caught up with him and had to chat: Congratulations on your Comrades. He was most surprised, as it turned out he was one of two Saudi runners to have completed the race. A difficult run to prepare for, as there are very few hills in Riyadh plus of course the heat. That wasn’t a problem for him as he was used to extreme conditions.

Who would’ve figured that? And the nice part is, I hardly spoke any Arabic, a greeting, some courtesy, and obviously English wasn’t his mother tongue, but the enthusiasm to talk about running, that is something unique and builds that instant connection.

Of course, there are some running routes in the diplomatic area, but running there is not for me. That’s what it must be like running in a prison. Strange but a lot of negative vibe in that community, living in great conditions, but lots of moaning and groaning. 

For another nice track go to the Prince Sultan University, or Nahda Park. Except Fridays, as it is a popular BBQ place, and it’s then not suitable for a run.

King Abdullah Park, another great location, with many runners from beginners to more serious looking athletes. 

In Riyadh there is a run club that I know of there might be others, but I only can comment on this one as I haven’t joined another one. The Riyad Road Runners.    

Nice bunch of runners. For the last 5 years they have even organized a marathon just in the outskirts of Riyadh, a tough course, with some climbs, and it draws a lot of runners also from the expat community. It’s hosted by the Riyad Road Runners, and have a look at their website, they have a 5K series, 8K, 10, 16 even a Ultra which is planned to be held in March 2020. You should join, as these events take a lot of effort to organize, and every entrant helps make it a better run event.

In some Facebook forums, they even had photos of the club in its heydays. Women also wearing shorts and t-shirts were participating in the running events. I saw a lot of women that took part in walking events, and there are some groups of female runners’ that meet up for their regular events. The group was started by a local company that designs running clothes exclusively for women and reached some fame for their marketing and promotion thereof.

Ah the final point: why on earth would you want to run in hot weather? Because surely it cannot be good to you. Sorry, another myth buster coming up: Actually running in Hot weather has some huge advantages.

If you have a couple of excess pounds, and you follow through on this advice and go outside walking building up to running, you will lose any excess weight you have in no time. Other benefits are that your blood volume will increase, and you will learn how to control your temperature so you adapt and can stay cooler for longer time periods. Your sweat also becomes less salty and this happens sooner as it is a cooling process. But the best part is, you will learn to endure uncomfortable running environments, or running conditions. And this is something that you will benefit from in any race scenario, or run event that challenges you. Being comfortable with the uncomfortable, priceless conditioning. 

And I can honestly say that I met some of the friendliest runners’ in the streets of Riyadh. So, whenever you head over to Riyadh, pack your running gear and go for a run.

Next time do join me as I will share with you my Jeddah run experience. A totally different city, different vibe, one of my favorites, as its still original

Thanks for joining me. 

Till then take it easy.

Heiko

Take it easy.

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