He smoked, was obese and lacked stamina - but six years later a Seha doctor is taking part in a triathlon and persuading others to join him on the starting line.
Physician healed himself
ABU DHABI // For most participants, the kilometres have been logged on the bike, and the hours spent training on the road, but for one physician the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon is only a new phase of his challenge.
Dr Mohammed Al Karoukli, 51, has not only beaten his two-packets-a-day smoking habit and dropped 42kg, but he has also persuaded 30 colleagues at the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (Seha) to take part in the gruelling endurance race tomorrow.
"The work is hard, but you learn after you do the exercise, you feel happy inside and can stand up and then say: 'The work is hard, so what'?"
He will participate in the short course as part of a relay team. Dr Al Karoukli will swim 1.5km, and two colleagues will compete in the 100km bike ride and the 10km run.
The Syrian physician has not looked back since he started his transformation in 2006.
The turnabout came when his six-year-old son became ill and needed to be carried to the car so he could be taken to hospital. Dr Al Karoukli could not lift the boy.
"I was just wondering that he is at this age and I can't provide him with the needed support, and five years from now where will I be, and decided that's it," he said.
The next day, he said, he began his transformation and started walking Abu Dhabi's Corniche. A month later he quit smoking.
"I was sweating, with pain in my knees," Dr Al Karoukli said of his early workouts. "I knew I had to do it. There was no other way. It took me one year to even start thinking of running."
He walked his first 5k race in 2008. "Eventually I was able to do the course and my dreams got bigger," he said. He signed up to walk the 2009 Dubai Marathon but suffered a setback with ligament damage in his knee that affected him for two months yet did not keep him from completing the RAK Half Marathon a few weeks later.
Later the same year he completed his first triathlon.
"I was determined to make a difference in my life," he said.
His passed on his newfound fitness regime to one of his colleagues.
"He was also a smoker and was overweight. He was one of my converted people and it was successful. I started giving lectures on transformation and how to get a healthy body."
This year, Dr Al Karoukli focused on his colleagues, trying to convince them to take part. He travelled the country telling other Seha employees how they, too, could change their lifestyles. He is now chairman of the "active committee" at Seha.
Mohammed Al Mehairbi, a 26-year-old Emirati, jumped at the chance to join the Seha relay team. He will participate in the 100km biking leg.
"It's a dream come true," said Mr Al Mehairbi, a purchasing agent. "I've dreamt of doing something like this. I heard about it and went running to him and said I wanted in."
No stranger to competition - Mr Al Mehairbi is a champion jet skier - he said he has not been training as much as he would have liked.
"I'm just going to see how it goes. To be honest, I've only been training for two weeks. Cycling was one of my main training sports. I needed it for racing jet skis because 75 per cent of the body work is on the legs when racing jet skis," he said.
The only Emirati at Seha to take part, he would have liked to see more of his compatriots in the office in tomorrow's race.
"It's a difficult race for someone who's got a normal working life. It's a good challenge and good motivation to keep healthy and fit. For a first-time trier its a big achievement," Mr Al Mehairbi said.
Another colleague, Raul Lopez, has been offering advice to his fellow competitors all week. A former Ironman participant in South Africa and a veteran of the Abu Dhabi triathlon, Mr Lopez said he was trying to calm everyone down as there is a lot of adrenalin shooting around the office.
Mr Lopez, a physiotherapist from Canada, is in the taper phase this week, which he likes to call "licking my wounds".
Last year he completed the triathlon's short course in 6 hours and 5 minutes and the year before in 6hr 16min.
"Each year I prepare much better. It's too hot and the wind is strong. Its going to be a tough race. The natural elements don't help you," said Mr Lopez, 56.
For those doing the race the first time, his advice is to enjoy it and be careful not to blow all their energy during the first few hundred metres of the swim.
"It's a high rush getting in the water," he said. "It's the shortest leg of the race but you could die on it. They should enjoy the crowd around them cheering them on and enjoy the day. I always say: 'I'm not competing but participating'."
As for Dr Al Karoukli, he has embarked on another triathlon of sorts: putting together a dragon boat team, a football team and a bowling team.