ABU DHABI // Farah Barakat has braved the Gulf in a kayak, a rugged bike ride through Liwa and a desert hike so arduous her swollen feet lost a toenail. But she wants more. "I pretty much know what to expect this time," Ms Barakat, 28, the captain of the Tourism Development and Investment Company-sponsored squad, said of next month's Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge. "It's going to be tough and painful."
Ms Barakat, who was raised in the capital, is a gemmologist from a family of Iraqi jewellery designers. She is the only Arab competitor in the six-day, 400km endurance trial. "I've lived here all my life, so when I used to think of Jebel Hafeet, it was just go up the road in the car, maybe go to the restaurant," she said. "With this race, I'm walking up the mountain, rope climbing, seeing things in a different way that was very tough."
Ms Barakat was "always crazy about sports" and regularly trained at her gym in Dubai, where she met her teammate, Greg Antunes, 34, from France. Mr Antunes introduced her to Steve Coutard, 34, and Francois Lhote, 42, the other team members. The team, which tries to train for three hours every day, competed in the inaugural challenge last year and will this year be one of only two squads from the UAE.
"Once I heard it was happening here, we all joined immediately," Ms Barakat said. "So we're doing lots of endurance training, jogging, running and kayaking." The challenge is as much about mental trials as physical. "When you're on the desert and the dunes are just endless, you really need to prepare your mind for that because you're not going to get there in five minutes," Ms Barakat said. This year, mountain biking will be a focus of the team's training regime. Several nasty spills on the Liwa desert last year held up the squad's time.
But one major delay could not be prepared for. A stubborn camel carrying the team's camping gear for the desert hike refused to walk. "We couldn't get it to move, so we were just stuck in the desert under the sun because the teams all had to have a camel," Ms Barakat said. "I'm laughing now but at the time it was really frustrating." Her feet became too swollen to fit into her shoes on the hike, and she lost the toenail.
All the elements conspired against the adventurers in the kayaking challenge in the Gulf, where they broke a paddle. "The wind was against us and the sea was wild," she said. "We all drank I don't know how many litres of saltwater from the waves splashing on us." This time the training schedule has hit minor delays. Mr Antunes, the team organiser, is resting an injured shoulder while Ms Barakat has been told by doctors to reduce the stress on her knees.
Mr Antunes has competed in dozens of adventure races around the world but said there are not many that include long treks through vast deserts. The team members have an edge because they are acclimatised to the region and can have practice runs on courses such as Jebel Hafeet. "We know what the heat is like here," Mr Antunes said. "Even in December last year, there was a guy on another team that was dehydrated."
This year's route will introduce a new course cutting through the Sir Bani Yas Island wildlife sanctuary, and a kayak race to the desert islands. Team co-operation is essential as the squad must finish each event together. An injury could lead to the entire team having to withdraw. "Everybody is tired after different moments, so if one guy is weak at one moment you have to slow down," Mr Antunes said.
While winning would be ideal, Ms Barakat said finishing the race would be enough of an achievement. "My family thinks I'm crazy but it's a nice feeling when you can accomplish this," she said. "I want to see how well we can advance and I think this year people are expecting more from us. It's worth it all for the nice feeling after." The 2008 Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge runs from Dec 12 to 17, with 34 teams competing from around the world for total prize money of 173,000 (Dh800,000).