HATTA // To a degree unique among sports, cross-country dwells at climate's mercy. Its reliance upon taxing terrain makes moving it indoors pretty much unthinkable.
That makes cross-country in the UAE - training for it, coaching it, conducting it - a grind against the March to September heat. Or, as Jodi O'Reilly, the Dubai American Academy athletics director, summarised: "The weather kills us totally."
The former heptathlete in her native Australia continued: "If you want to run distance in Dubai over six months of the year, you don't have much of an option. You either get up early or you're running indoors."
In using the word "early" she cited one of her school's coaches, the top-level runner Bethany McChesney, who achieves an outlandish level of earliness by running at 4am.
The high school cross-country season, then, operates in a smallish window.
It begins in late November, O'Reilly said, and would have ended two weeks ago in Egypt had that event not been postponed.
Joe Byles, the cross-country coach at the American School of Dubai, said that for most runners, it holds up the middle part of a three-sport school year that begins with the swimming team for endurance purposes and winds up with track and field.
And while Byles accurately said: "Weather-wise, you can't beat the conditions this time of the year," the inland heat began its insistence by late morning on the last Saturday in February.
"By 11am or 11.30am, to run 5Ks, that's hard," O'Reilly said.
Still, with limitations sometimes severe, the game is picking up.
"We've got some great young talent," Byles said. "Generally it's still pretty raw. It's grassroots. It's expanding, with things like the Dubai Road Runners."
"In this country," O'Reilly said, "I think fun runs are picking up from what I've seen.
"The Dubai Marathon has definitely improved … I think it is one of those things where we are finally seeing kids who are willing to work really, really hard, and it's coming through."
At the second leg of the Middle East South Asia Conference meet at Hatta Fort Lodge in the hills near the Oman border, the students' participation seemed entrenched.
Personal strategy and team camaraderie helped carry the morning.
There seemed a deeply felt appreciation for the game, even if the 17-year-old runner from the American School of Dubai, Daniel Oswald, did finish a grinding run and quip soon thereafter, "I guess I love it - when I'm not doing it."