x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Yasmin Wadhai, adventurer enjoying a challenge

Yasmin Wadhai has been called crazy, but she tells Chuck Culpepper that nothing will stop her from running.

Yasmin Wadhai trains on the Abu Dhabi Corniche ahead of the Adventure Challenge, which involves, among other disciplines, cycling, running and kayaking.
Yasmin Wadhai trains on the Abu Dhabi Corniche ahead of the Adventure Challenge, which involves, among other disciplines, cycling, running and kayaking.

Certain inhabitants of ancient Arbil in Kurdistan in Iraq noticed an uncommon sight churning through their hills recently, with some succumbing to curiosity enough that they succumbed to gawking.

Hardly could they know, but they had beheld a life force with a tireless inner motor, a 24-year-old Iraqi savouring with all might and depth her first trip to the country where her parents grew up, an ardent runner and triathlete aiming for the six-day gruel that calls itself the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge and courses through desert and water and voluntary hardship, and which starts today.

These Arbil people did not frown. They did qualify as baffled. They did don "weird looks", Yasmin Wadhai said, "because they're not used to a woman running at all."

Into their day-to-day lives for a cameo had burst an Abu Dhabi-born, Abu Dhabi-raised, seldom-motionless sort who had accompanied her mother for a visit, had delighted in Arbil's challenging hills and even had soothed steadily across the trip her mother's initial fears about letting her run alone.

That people looked only enhanced the experience. "That was my goal. Really," she said. "I hoped a lot of women would look at me. Because they need to go out and do things. They have all these hills, all these trails!"

And while it is no excuse, the only thing they might lack is the level of internal combustion apparent from early on - "I would climb the curtains, even" - in a woman who has run competitively since she was 12 and has made the maturing leap from the desire to test herself competitively against others to the desire to test herself individually, to learn just what untold effort she might extract from her body.

That kind of curiosity struck her on a snowy day in Montreal last winter, as she sat in her office after finishing university at Concordia and began reading about this Adventure Challenge until, of course, it came to rank among the reasons she returned to Abu Dhabi, where she landed with her bicycle in a box, surprising her parents.

Of course, now that she will join three male Czech engineers on the ECO-Racers among the 50 teams, her athletic father who walks for two hours every day is in Baghdad apparently unaware of the extent of this Adventure Challenge, while the active mother Wadhai has tried to usher into exercise gusto is, well, of course, worried. Then again, they have grown used to such fretful surprises from the third of their four children.

Even before she entered her teens, she would come home from school and commence running. At Rawafed Private School where she played football, volleyball, basketball and table tennis, she still would tack on a run if after-school practice in, say, volleyball, had afforded insufficient duress.

"At 12 or 13, I was taking it so seriously," she said. "I didn't have a proper teenage social life … I don't know how I was so disciplined." People, of course, talked, sometimes using the word "crazy" .

"But I didn't care," she said. "I knew I loved it and I just kept doing it … I've always been a bit stubborn … If anybody tells me, 'Don't do' something, then I want to do it. No one can stop me.'"

At 12 came her first race, a small 5km and a first glimpse of her parents' support that would manifest in drives all around Abu Dhabi and Dubai for races. She remembers the race as "fun". She says: "It wasn't difficult." Her parents watched and her father extolled the benefits of exercise.

"I remember there were only 10 girls in the whole race," she said. "And I was shocked. Because I went there expecting to see a lot of girls. We were 10 girls. That was it. Was my first time to run that long, and I was in fifth position." So she deemed that positive, but said: "For the race, I was expecting to see at least one more Arab girl."

She soon joined the running group Abu Dhabi Striders, which placed her in the company of long-running women in their 30s, women from the UK, South Africa, the US. She did not know the women so well, but she did know, well: "I just knew when I was that age that I wanted to be like them."

Even after rejoining the Striders as an adult since returning from Canada, she yearns to see more Arab women among the group. "It's me, my sister, and I have another friend who runs with us," she said. "She's Iraqi, too, but that's it, only three Arabs. You can find Arab men, but only, like, two."

Change does seem nigh, but only in its budging pace and still lacking peer pressure as a nudging force. "It's still not enough," she said. "In schools here, they don't really encourage it. They do for boys, but not for girls." Women, she said, "basically start exercising when they're sick or need to lose weight. They start when it's late. But definitely my generation, they do research, they look at magazines, they're more aware."

As for her dear mother, Shukria, whose offspring include another daughter taking up triathlons and a son who excels at skateboarding, the life force in her midst has resulted in her possession of dumbbells and a yoga mattress, at least. "I've tried," Wadhai said. "I've tried to train her. But it's not so easy. But she's active. But I still push her a lot. She's so used to it by now."

She's so used to seeing her daughter find new paradigms, the first triathlon having come at age 16 at Al Raha Beach in Abu Dhabi. There, the bustling Wadhai turned up as part of a team but, upon being asked, "Team or individual?" naturally blurted, "Individual" which left her suddenly individual teammates, naturally, "scared", she said.

Thereby did she find a new height of self-testing, as well as finding the Under 18 distances, well, insufficiently testing.

"It was nothing," she said. The cycling: "Only 10K. Easy." The running: "Just 3.5K." The swimming: "My swim wasn't so great but wasn't so bad. There was a current against us, and it was raining," a fact she relished.

Her second triathlon would not come until her Canada days, in the summer of 2009 in Ottawa, well after she tore an anterior cruciate ligament at 17 as a football midfielder for Rawafed, whereupon she went semi-depressingly idle for six months yet learned to master the art of mobility on crutches. ("Your whole body starts depending on one leg. The leg gets so strong. You become fast.")

Canada, and university at Concordia in Montreal, would bring her the joys of running on black ice, of running in four real seasons especially in the autumn leaves in a park that overlooks the city, and even of falling down which she finds excellent. ("You have to! You have to fall!") Even this past summer in Abu Dhabi, she said: "I was missing the snow. The wind chills."

Yet as she tempered her exercise to concentrate on her studies, her Ottawa triathlon represented something of a reminder of the thrill of the push. "I remember I was smiling the whole way," she said. "And they take your picture in the race. And in all the pictures, I was smiling, I think. It's a happy sport. If you go to a triathlon, everyone is happy. Before and after."

In fact, even while working in human resources at ADNOC, she dreams of travelling the world, seeking triathlon happiness, thinking of May, for example, on the Spanish island of Mallorca. So it figures that once she caught wind of something that actually trumps a triathlon for sheer, beautiful agony, she went gaga for that.

The Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge includes canoeing, running, swimming, mountain biking, kayaking and the traumatic pursuit of desert orienteering. It leaves the teams out there for nights, makes them haul tents, measures their adeptness at self-sufficiency.

Said Wadhai, who will team with Milan Seman, Jaroslav Prokop and Jiri Vystein in the co-ed event: "I want to see how far I can push my body. Going against the wind. Going against the sand dunes. They're making us go up the soft sand, instead of going down."

And: "You feel like you're going to barf your heart."

And as these barf-your-heart brigades get going, the challenges will include nutrition. "You have to constantly eat," she said, later adding: "Fuel, basically."

They will include camaraderie. "They're hardcore," she said of her teammates. "They've done similar things. They have a lot of experiences. They've climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I guess I picked good teammates."

The challenges for Wadhai will not include hauling gear as the team does not find this prudent. "They understand," she said. "If I carry anything I'm going to go slower."

The challenges will be abundant: "I'm excited, but at the same time scared. I've never done something like this. I just have to stay focused. Stay sane, I guess."

And then, the challenges for other Wadhais will lurk in the corridors of the mind that trade in fret, so save a spot in your heart these next six days for the mother of a life force with one profound inner furnace. "She thinks the challenge is going to drive her crazy," Wadhai said. "Six days, not knowing where I am."

But hey, mercy appears! The Challenge website updates locations every 10 minutes! Said the vibrant woman who stoked curiosity in Kurdistan: "She can know whether I'm alive every 10 minutes."

cculpepper@thenational.ae