As the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge kicks off today, one contestant will be hoping his exploits in the gruelling six-day race will help inspire the country's youngsters to get more involved in sport and, perhaps, achieve great things themselves. When Faris al Sultan was a slightly pudgy teenager he looked for a role model. He found one in Thomas Hellriegel, a German athlete who had just won the 1997 Hawaii Ironman triathlon competition, one of the toughest endurance races in the world.
Eight years later, that inspiration culminated in al Sultan winning the same race. Today he will set off on the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge, a six-day, roughly 400km team race that involves running, kayaking, mountain biking and swimming in some of the emirate's most diverse environments. And he is hoping his exploits will inspire UAE teenagers to achieve great things in sport. "We like to encourage more locals to take up sport. More and more Arabs from all over the world are doing multi-sport," he said.
"It's always easier to encourage someone to do something when they can relate in some way. "Of course, we have friends who are locals in the UAE. I was doing some sport with some locals but they were younger, some kids doing triathlon. Having someone to inspire and someone to follow means something." Al Sultan's experience neatly captures the dual aims of the adventure challenge. Since the first race in 2007, it has showcased Abu Dhabi's deserts, mountains and coastal areas and has inspired people across the country to get involved in sport.
The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority launched the race, which has become the richest adventure race in the world. It has confirmed that its three-year contract with the organisers, France-based The Adventure Race Company, will be extended for next year. Some 160 athletes from 20 nations will join al Sultan, whose nickname is the "Sultan of Sweat", on the starting line on the Abu Dhabi Corniche. Among them will be the golden couple of adventure racing, the New Zealand-based athletes Richard Ussher and his Finnish wife, Elina, both 33, who won the first two Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenges.
They have won numerous other multi-sport competitions around the world. Together with Marcel Hagener, 35, and Nathan Fa'ave, 37, they form Team Qasr al Sarab. The quartet is sponsored by the newly opened Qasr al Sarab hotel, situated in the Empty Quarter, the world's largest stretch of uninterrupted desert. They are hot favourites to win again. Ussher said the Abu Dhabi race continued to attract him despite his decision to concentrate more on the lucrative Ironman events.
"This is a sport where even the people at the top are making barely any money. "Basically, our income is derived almost solely from prize money and if you split it four ways, it doesn't go far," he said. "We're extremely grateful for the sponsorship, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to afford to come back and try to defend our title." The winning team will receive US$40,000 (Dh147,000) from a total purse of $206,500.
"I think Abu Dhabi will remain one of the pre-eminent races on the calendar, if not the pre-eminent race in the world," Ussher said. "Within the adventure racing community, it's definitely regarded as a highlight. "This sort of race requires you to be really fast, while traditional adventure races involve skills like navigation. It's raised the whole athletic level of effort. It's a very hard race and a very, very fast race."
The UAE has six teams entered in the competition, including Saadiyat Island, captained by the British athlete John Hoyle, 30, and Al Masar Salomon, captained by a Frenchman, Eric Jeanne, 42. The Dubai-based adventurer Adrian Hayes is the captain of Abu Dhabi Falcons. For him, the race might seem almost easy compared to his previous exploits. In 2007 Hayes, 45, completed the "Three Poles" - visiting the North and South Poles and the summit of Everest - in just over 19 months, beating the previous record by five months. He followed that last year by completing the longest unassisted Arctic journey in history.
But he said the Abu Dhabi Challenge would be the longest adventure race he had ever done and he was taking nothing for granted. "Reaching the poles ... is not racing, it's like you're a tractor pulling an enormous weight for 15 hours a day," he said. "This is racing over a shorter distance and over shorter periods of time. But I'm not underestimating it at all. This is a tough race. "What I bring from Everest and what I bring from all my expeditions is my ability to keep going when you're down, with little food and little water."
For al Sultan, the Germany-based captain of Team Abu Dhabi Triathlon, fitness is not a problem. However, for this event, his first foray into adventure racing, he has had to acquire a different set of skills than those he uses in triathlons. "The tough part is kayaking. I live in Munich so I can't train in the sea. "For the past couple of weeks we've been getting some time on lakes and rivers. "I think the swim will suit us. But the kayaking is 10 hours and the swim is only 10 minutes.
"The desert run is the other big obstacle. We can't train on sand so we're just running in our regular training sessions and that's it. "We will suffer but it's not impossible. I'm pretty sure we'll survive." firstname.lastname@example.org