In a weekly series leading up to the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon 2010 on January 22, we speak to those in training for the race.
'Life didn't end with my wheelchair'
When Hani Mohamed Yousif told his colleagues he would be participating in the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon 2010 10km road race, they were apprehensive about the distance involved but not surprised. The 27-year-old Abu Dhabi Finance (ADF) employee, who is Sudanese but born and raised in Abu Dhabi, has embraced every challenge he has encountered since suffering spinal damage in a car accident 14 years ago.
He has used a wheelchair ever since. "Generally, I like to challenge myself a lot," he says. "When I saw the internal company notice from marketing about the marathon, I was interested to do it. "Some people advised me to do the 3km, because it is easier, but I don't see the point in doing something if it does not challenge you. Unfortunately 42km was too far." Despite having a regular exercise routine which involves some upper-body strengthening - important to ensure that he is fit and flexible "so I can move around" - Yousif's goal is not to race the distance but simply to finish.
As he travels independently on a daily basis, using his upper-body strength and a manual chair to negotiate the capital's high pavements and busy roads, pushing himself over a distance of 10km is not such a daunting task. He just needs to work on his endurance. "For me, it's nothing new," he says. "I am used to going long distances but I have to keep it up now. During the week we are a bit busy at work and so I am not going to the gym every day. Now that has to change."
Yousif has measured the route from his house to Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall, which is around 8.5km, and is now building up to completing that distance as part of his training. "I already made my schedule and I train along the Corniche," he said. "It's nice. I play music on my iPod and start moving." Yousif was 11 when the family car he and his parents were travelling in hit a traffic signal on their way home from Saudi Arabia.
"It was 5.30am on May 15, 1995 - all the fives," he says, as he calmly recounts the immediate aftermath of the accident. Initially, the spinal damage he suffered left him only able to move his head. But three months of intensive physiotherapy at London's Devonshire Hospital saw him regain movement in his upper body. "I faced a lot of difficulties from that time, but thankfully they taught me to be as independent as possible - that life doesn't stop here," he says. "I have strong faith. Everything comes from God for a reason, you just have to work that reason out and accept it.
"The first day I was just lying on my back, only able to move my head. On my last day in London I was able to go down five flights of stairs in my wheelchair." The 10km race is not Yousif's only sporting interest. Frustrated at not being able to 10-pin bowl with his friends at the local mall he found a way to overcome the obstacle - combining advice from members of the UAE's national bowling team and his own experience of what is possible in a wheelchair.
He has perfected a way to release the ball which doesn't rely on speed but more a certain angle of release. He regularly beats his able-bodied friends. Last year two wheelchair users completed the race. Organisers do not yet know how many intend to participate in 2010 as registration is ongoing. This year 24 Abu Dhabi Finance employees will take to Dubai's pavements en masse to complete the marathon and raise money for The Future Centre for Special Needs - an NGO that provides special education and therapy-based services to young people with disabilities.
As with most marathon participants, the most difficult aspect of the training for Yousif, he says, is not the physical part but the mental motivation to get up off the sofa and get outside. But participating for a cause, he says, spurs him on. "Of course there are days when maybe work has been tiring or you don't want to go but once you get started it is OK," he explains. "You just have to enjoy it. I enjoy going around and playing my music. That gets me through it."