x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Fahad bin Breik's race against time for the London Olympics

The Emirati is hoping to qualify to run in the 10,000 metres in London 2012, but the clock is ticking on the time he has to qualify.

Fahad bin Breik is dreaming of running in the 10,000 metres at the Olympic Games in London this summer.
Fahad bin Breik is dreaming of running in the 10,000 metres at the Olympic Games in London this summer.

Fahad bin Breik does not want to be left asking that most cursed human question: "What if?" He is 32. He has been running since he was young. The Olympics are coming. He has a reasonable shot at qualifying for the 10,000-metres event.

But obstacles are in his path. He may not get leave from his job as an electronics specialist to undergo intensive training; if he does, he needs to fund that period; and finally he must record an Olympic qualifying time of 28 minutes, 10 seconds.

It is truly an Olympian dilemma, not in size but in echoing a spirit of forgotten amateur striving.

Bin Breik simply wants to know whether he is good enough to run among the world's best. The worst thing would be to never find out.

"If I don't make it, I will quit running," he said. "It is a challenge for me. I have to make it. If they release me, then I know if I can make it or not."

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It is true that the greatest modern long-distance runners have run as a product of circumstance, as need, because it is all they know or all that will sustain them. Samuel Wanjiru, the Kenyan Olympic gold-medal winner and celebrated marathon runner who died in strange circumstances last year, ran 12 miles everyday to go to school. His is not a unique case.

There is something equally admirable in running from desire, because you want to.

Bin Breik did not have to be a runner. There is no tradition of sports in his family and even when he first joined the Al Nasr club in Dubai, he was playing football, as well.

"I started running in school," he said. "I was winning most of the school races around the UAE and then one of the coaches chose me for Al Nasr. That year, when I was 15, I was chosen by the UAE national team. I was playing football and football is what everyone wants you to do. No one wants you to run."

But he grew into it - "I was chosen for the UAE and everybody wants to represent his country" - to the extent that he used to run 12km from where he lived, in Rashidiya, in Dubai, to the club to train.

Since then, everything seems to have been funnelled into this critical juncture. He started running the 10km seriously seven years ago. In 2008 he met and befriended Wanjiru after the Kenyan won the Zayed Half Marathon and that began an important association with the ground zero of long-distance running.

If you close your eyes, you could mistake bin Breik's elongated accent to be that of a Kenyan. Over the past few years he has taken leave to train a month at a time, on his own expense, in Kenya's famed high-altitude camps in Iten and Eldoret, where the world's top runners go.

At first, he said, he chanced his luck to see if he could improve. He was duly invited to a race on the Mombasa coast. "I won the race, the first Arab to win it. I was also fasting that day. They were surprised but told me 'Fahad, you can make it.'"

Since then he has met, learnt and benefited, building a unique, endearing and unlikely bond with men such as Wanjiru and Micah Kogo, a former world-record holder in the 10km road race. The training camps he attended are famously intense and spartan.

As the Kenyan writer Jackie Lebo, who has examined the country's running culture, recognises, it is not just that Kenyans are blessed with attributes of nature and environment. The work they undergo, she writes, is "all-consuming".

Days begin and nights end the same: very early. Each morning starts with an hour-long run and then the main training after breakfast: depending on the day, this could be long runs, hill-work, arduous sprint training or gym work. Sunday is the only day off.

"It's difficult," bin Breik said of the experiences. "You have to eat the food which is there, you have to … it's like someone putting you in a desert and saying, make it or not. You have to train, because you have nothing else. If you are serious, if you want to make it, that is the best place. If you train with Kogo and those people, at the end of the day, you will make it."

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So, the obstacles. It is a peculiar situation. Bin Breik decided only last month to try for the Olympics, after a training stint in Kenya. He now has the renowned Italian running coach Renato Canova on board. He has been sent a meticulous training schedule.

Bin Breik calculates he needs four months full training. If his employers tell him soon that they are releasing him, he will begin training here "because the weather is nice", he said. "At the end of January I will travel to Kenya, stay there February and March, then run some races in Europe at a little lower altitude. Then, return to Iten for training and go for the trials."

Running is not a team discipline organised on national lines. It allows for individuals to do what they can, loosely watched over by national federations. "The running attitude is you have to take care of yourself," bin Breik said.

Finances - sponsors preferably - are needed to fund his time training. Employers will be asked to accommodate his schedule.

As a first step, the UAE Athletics Federation (UAEAF) is willing to look at the matter. It is from them, and then his employers, that permission will come.

"There is a Government order, an instruction to keep an athlete who will represent the country according to the rules and regulations of the federation," said Ahmed Al Kamali, himself a former distance runner and now the UAEAF president.

"Being an athlete myself for a long time I know qualification for the Olympics is not easy. However, if he is confident, I'm ready to give him leave from tomorrow.

"But, for qualification we have to look at a few things. What is his history, age, who is his coach, where is he going to train, so on. What is the guarantee at the end of the day?"

This is the reasonable crux. Is bin Breik good enough, if he does get leave and financing? His personal best is just outside the qualifying time of 28:10. There is promise, if those around him are to be believed.

Jeff Yorke, his New York-based manager, reckons it possible. "I'm not entirely sure how good Fahad is," he said. "He's run sub-29 minutes, so with proper training it's possible for him to get to the Olympic standard. He has a very good attitude and is determined to put in the work to realise his full potential, so it would be great to see him get the chance."

Yorke's introduction to bin Breik is itself a clue. He was told of him by a Kenyan runner he manages, Shadrack Kosgei.

"Shadrack met Fahad in 2010 in Nyahururu, Kenya, where Fahad had come for altitude training," Yorke said. "Shadrack told me Fahad was a good guy who could 'hang' with the group, meaning he could stay with them when the pace picked up. Generally, group runs start slow and get progressively faster, so the ability to stay in contact late in the run means the athlete has some ability."

Hanging with the Kenyans is genuine endorsement, and there's more. Lornah Kiplagat, the Kenya-born Dutch runner and former world-record holder, runs a training centre in Iten and has told bin Breik he is good enough. "I for sure believe he can make it because he is determined and has the talent," her husband and coach Pieter Langerhorst, who has worked with bin Breik, said. "He can be a sub-28-minute runner and that means he can be a good Olympics contender."

Finally, it is the assessment of the world-beating contemporary, Kogo, who was in Dubai recently to visit bin Breik that is significant.

"He is good enough to qualify but the training is more important," Kogo said. "He should go somewhere high altitude, if not in Kenya then maybe to Arizona state. He should be in training now, putting mileage in the body. It's not too late, but it is getting to that time."

Not for the first time in bin Breik's career, he's running against time.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae