For Louise Wrankmore, what started out as an attempt to shift some baby weight ended with a half marathon and an altogether unexpected passion for long-distance running.
A few months after the birth of her second son, the 36-year-old Wrankmore hired a personal trainer to help get her back into shape. "At the time, I couldn't run 300 metres around the park. I was that unfit - and I can't just blame the baby. I hadn't exercised properly in years. We would do various exercises but I hated the running part with a passion. Then one day my trainer paid me the ultimate compliment. She said: 'Stop whingeing, you are actually a natural born runner.' I almost fell out of my trainers. That was a major turning point in my psychology as a runner."
While the trainer ended up leaving the UAE, her words stuck with Wrankmore. "I'm an all-or-nothing kind of girl. So, even though I could barely run 300m, I decided that I wanted to do a half marathon. And I told everyone, so I couldn't back down."
To help her with her quest, Wrankmore enlisted the help of Urban Energy Fitness, a Dubai-based fitness centre that runs a series of dedicated running programmes. Wrankmore remembers the first time she attended one of Urban Energy's sessions in Dubai's Arabian Ranches community. "I ran five kilometres and I can't describe how hot it was. I was exhausted and I am mortified to say that I actually threw up. It was so humiliating. But Laurence [Arca-Bathe], Urban Energy's founder, gave me a hug and said: 'You can do this.' I joined their running group. It was hard every time but it was such a pleasure to be out with such a great group of girls."
Three months later, in December last year, Wrankmore completed her first half marathon, in one hour and 57 minutes. "It was an unbelievable experience. It was hard, even though I had done all the training. I was so happy when I crossed the finish line that I burst into tears. I couldn't believe that the world's most unfit person had managed to do a half marathon."
In discovering this new passion, Wrankmore joined the ranks of an ever-growing community of running enthusiasts in the UAE. "When I started running with the Dubai Creek Striders 10 years ago there would be 20 or 30 people during the cooler months. That number has increased dramatically in recent years," says Keith Thomson, who is now a member of the Striders' committee. "Running as a sport is gaining huge popularity. It's an enjoyable, low-cost, fun and quick way to get fit."
The Dubai Creek Striders, which was founded in 1995 and was one of the UAE's first running associations, meets every Friday morning opposite the Novotel World Trade Centre for a group run. The only prerequisite for taking part is that participants can run 10km without stopping, at any pace. Once the weather cools and the UAE's race season is under way, this weekly group run can attract up to 180 people. The group also organises interval and tempo training on a Tuesday evening.
As the number of runners in the UAE has grown, so too has the number of running clubs they can join and the number of races they can take part in. In addition to the Dubai Creek Striders, the UAE is home to the Dubai Road Runners, ABRaS AC, the Mirdif Milers and the Abu Dhabi Striders.
A cursory glance at www.premiermarathons.com, the go-to site for all running-related activities in the UAE, shows that the racing season will soon be under way in earnest. In the run-up to the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon on January 25, the "big one" for the UAE's serious runners, there are a series of smaller 3km, 5km and 10km races to be run across the UAE, as well as the odd half marathon.
The Johnson Arabia Dubai Creek Striders Half Marathon will take place on December 7 and follows a figure-of-eight route around the Dubai Creek, starting outside the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club. When the half marathon was launched in 2001, around 150 people took part; this year 2,000 runners are expected, which is a testament to the growing popularity of the sport.
The Abu Dhabi Striders' half marathon and 10km, which this year will take place on November 9, is also experiencing rapid growth. In 2009, 300 runners took part; in 2010, this number had grown to 1,170; and this year, some 1,500 people are expected to turn up.
The Abu Dhabi Striders organises a series of running sessions throughout the week and prides itself on being "all-inclusive, all-encompassing and all-encouraging", says events organiser Steve Watson. The group organises interval training sessions on Sundays, predictor runs on Wednesdays and longer runs on Saturdays that start at 5.30am outside the Yas Viceroy Hotel.
Everybody is welcome, says Watson, and anybody is capable of running long distances, given the right mindset and the right training. "It's all about putting one foot in front of the other and going one kilometre farther than you did the day before. It's a combination of mental and physical strength, training and base fitness."
"Anyone can start, it just takes a little bit of perseverance," agrees Thomson, who is 58 years old and still running regularly. "You have to work through the aches and pains. There are no instant results - but they will come."
Robyn James-O'Connor knows this to be true. The mother of two first took up running in late 2010 because she was looking for a new challenge. She now has her sights set on running the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon.
"I found it really hard in the beginning as I did not seem to find my rhythm. This comes - so for all first-time runners, hang in there, it definitely gets easier. Also, I was running with the wrong shoes and battled shin splints for some time. The right shoes are essential for longer distances.
"My first race was the Dubai Women's 5km in 2010. It was hot, humid and I thought I was going to die. I completed the run in 33 minutes - not an amazing time, but I felt an overwhelming sense of achievement as I crossed the finish line."
James-O'Connor also enlisted the help of Urban Energy Fitness to help her achieve her goal. "I have been running with Urban Energy since the company introduced their running programmes in 2010. Laurence inspired me to start and her team's passion and commitment to their runners and their improved performance keeps me going back for more. It was through Urban Energy that I did my first 5km, then progressed on to 10km, then to 21km and this year I aim to reach the 42km mark. Who would have thought this would be possible for someone who found running 3km a huge challenge?"
Both Wrankmore and James-O'Connor highlight the camaraderie and companionship that comes with training with a larger group, and this social element is something that the Striders in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi try to encourage. "It's a great way to make friends and we have social gatherings throughout the year. A number of good friendships have been struck up along the way," says Thomson.
To kick off the new season, Urban Energy Fitness launched a number of new running programmes this month. These range from a beginner's level 5km race challenge to a 42km race challenge that runs for 21 weeks and includes three training sessions per week, an additional fitness class, weekly nutrition, training and injury prevention tips, and a complimentary training shirt and water bottle.
To train for long distances, Arca-Bathe recommends three running sessions, plus one extra strengthening session, per week. The runs should include a 30-minute speed session, or interval training, consisting of fast runs of between 200 and 800 metres. There should be one long run designed to build distance, as well as a mid-distance recovery run at a slower pace, which will help to build mileage while resting the body.
Of course, running in the UAE presents its own set of challenges. The weather, for one, although the Striders run their sessions throughout the year, regardless of the temperature. Traffic is another issue, says Thomson. "You have to keep your eyes open. Stick to the running tracks and pavements if you can. The great thing is that the roads are flat."
Also, while one of the sport's draws is that it requires minimal kit, it is essential that you get the right shoes - and if you're a women, a good, supportive sports bra. And while you might be raring to go and start pounding the pavements with some new-found running buddies, remember to start slow. "Build up your mileage and your pace slowly to avoid injury," Arca-Bathe warns.