Dubai: Braveheart athletes beat heart failure, organ donation to endure toughest triathlons

The community of endurance sportspersons is growing in the Emirate thanks to the world-class facilities it has to offer

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Anjana Sankar

Published: Fri 29 Apr 2022, 4:57 PM

Last updated: Tue 3 May 2022, 11:46 AM

At the crack of dawn on Thursday, when the rest of Dubai is snuggling in bed, a group of around ten men and women assembled on the Umm Suqeim beach set against the towering beauty of Burj Al Arab hotel. Coach Rob Foster rattles out the day’s session outline - a short warm-up with pulse-raising jogging, hand on hips, high knees, ankle grab with upward reach - followed by an hour long-tempo run keeping a half marathon pace.

This team run that occurs thrice weekly is probably the easiest part of their endurance training. On other days, their sneakers are pounding the tracks covering marathon distances or power-pedalling along the windy Al Qudra bike track for hours.

This is the growing community of endurance athletes in Dubai who have their eyes on the next big ultra-marathon or a soul-crushing Ironman race. Coming from highly diverse backgrounds, cutting across all professions and nationalities, they are united in their fitness goals. And they are willing to push the human limits of endurance and strength.

“It is the challenge that is exhilarating. Knowing what my body can do and how much more I can push,” says Raghad Gomaa, 25, a human resource professional from Egypt.

Gomaa is just weeks away from doing the most gruelling triathlon – the Ironman in Hamburg, Germany, on June 5.

“I have been training for this for the last two years with utmost dedication every day. It is a big goal, and it feels amazing,” said Gomaa, who wanted a new challenge after the Covid-induced uncertainty and lockdowns.

Rob Foster
Rob Foster

Like Gomaa, many people have taken to endurance training to snap out of the Covid flux and take stock of their life. The appetite to gain fitness, fun and community through running and endurance has soared since the pandemic, says Foster, who has been a fitness coach for the last ten years.

“I think if you look at the number of runners and running clubs in the city compared to even two years ago, you’ll see a massive increase,” he said.

And it is not fitness enthusiasts that get hooked to endurance training.

“Running is no longer just a tick box. People not only see running and endurance as a way to stay fit, but they also appreciate what it brings to their life, be it social, psychological, or being a better role model for their kids. The list is endless, but it essentially comes down to self-improvement and a feeling of fulfilment,” said Foster.

Meet the endurance athletes

Veronika Bracke
Veronika Bracke

It was February 7, 2020, and Veronika Bracke, 54, was set to debut in her first half Ironman (70.3), a muscle-wrecking triathlon comprising a 1.9Km swim 90Km bike and 21.1km run. The mother of four from Germany has been training for the big day for a year. But within minutes of her hitting the cold waves on the Umm Suqeim beach, she felt her limps were going weak. Bracke, an avid athlete,​ kept vigorously flapping and kicking with all her might. But it was getting harder to breathe, and her body refused to float. She had a heart attack.

“I had to be rushed to the Rashid Hospital, and luckily doctors saved my life from what could have been a fatal accident,” Bracke told Khaleej Times. She spent a week in the ICU. But two months later, she was back into training. She is eyeing her Ironman 70.3 next year and is training 10 to 15 hours a week.

“I do not want to give up because of a setback. I started off with yoga and light exercises. Doctors allowed me to climb stairs, and later I started long-distance biking,” said

Bracke moved to Dubai with her family in 2017. The support from her husband, Dr Edgar, a dentist in Abu Dhabi, and her four children, aged 25, 23, 21 and 12, she said, played a big role in helping her get up and start over.

An avid runner since her childhood, Bracke said she took up triathlon after she relocated to the UAE.

“It is amazing here. Even during summer, we can train. There are great running and biking tracks, and there is a great community that you can ride or run with.”

But what keeps her going even after surviving a heart attack? “Passion and her competitive spirit,” she says. “But I am anxious now. I keep watching for any signs that my body gives of weakness or fatigue. I listen to my body carefully, and I try not to push the limits of my endurance. Having said that, there is no giving up. I love it too much to give up that easily,” said Bracke.

Doug Cutchins
Doug Cutchins

Doug Cutchins is a man with an iron will. It takes nothing less than seamless stamina and single-minded determination to finish six marathons, three half ironman (70.3) and train for an upcoming full Ironman where he will have to swim 3.8 kms, bike 180 kms and 42.2m run - all of this with a single kidney.

A kidney donor at the age of 32, American national Cutchins, who works as a scholarship advisor at New York University Abu Dhabi, says his organ donation has never hindered his athletic ambitions. “I don’t think about myself as a kidney donor ever when training. I have to be a little more careful than others about hydration,” said Cutchins.

He said he wears a jersey with a ‘kidney donor athlete’ emblem to put out a message. “Even if one person notices and considers donating an organ and understands that he or she can still lead an active life, it is a big step.”

A returned Peace Corps volunteer who served in Suriname for two years, Cutchins says running has always been part of his life. “It is a big part of my identity. I ran my first marathon when I was 22. I love setting big goals, following them up every day, and feeling accomplishment.”

After completing a Half Ironman when he turned 40, and with his family responsibilities easing up in the next years, he set his eyes on the big goal of doing an Ironman. “ I did the math. When I turn 50, my daughters will be 20 and 18, and I know I will have time for the relentless training that is required for this triathlon,” said Cutchins, who will be racing the Ironman in Des Moines, Iowa, in the US in June this year. “The biggest challenge is to remain motivated, wake up at 4am every day, and get on to your bike or hit the tracks. I have to ask for huge sacrifices from my loved ones too, as I train for four to five hours on weekends. If you are motivated, then there is nothing stopping you,” he said.

Walid Elarabi.
Walid Elarabi.

Walid Elarabi could hardly run a 5K race. He used to play occasional sports and did not even own a bike. But all that changed when he went to cheer his cousin who was running a Half ironman (70.3) in Dubai in 2021. “The atmosphere was electrifying. There were mixed emotions. People from all walks of life were participating. I decided then and there that I am doing the next Ironman,” Elarabi, 45, from Egypt, told Khaleej Times.

He started from scratch. It took months and months of ruthless training under a professional coach. A year later, he completed the triathlon in seven hours, 33 minutes.

“It is one of the proudest days of my life. My biggest achievement. It took real hard work and months of dedication,” said Elarabi, a father of three girls aged 15, 8 and 2.

Elarabi, who has set his eyes on a full Ironman next year, says he has started a small group to motivate his friends and colleagues to push their boundaries and take up endurance training.

“If I can do it, anybody can. Being an endurance athlete is understanding that your body can go as far as your mind decides. It is all in the mind. But it takes a lot of discipline too,” he said.

Beyond the achievements on the track, Elarabi says the training helps him take better decisions in life and deal with challenges in professional life too.

“It is a battle within ourselves. A long bike ride clears your head. I cannot tell you how many good decisions I have taken while biking or running a long course,” he said.

What does it take to be an endurance athlete?

A biker’s haven

Within Dubai, investing big to make the city bike and pedestrian-friendly and promote sports and fitness, athletes are spoilt for choice. There is a growing network of cycling and running tracks in the UAE. Dubai alone has over 22 dedicated cycling tracks suitable for short to long distances.

The sports infrastructure – both indoors and outdoors – is world-class, and expats moving to the country no longer see the extreme weather conditions as a hindrance to outdoor life.

The Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) says the construction of new cycling tracks aims to provide “suitable and attractive options for residents and tourists of Dubai and encourage them to practice the sport of biking.”

Photo: Visit Dubai
Photo: Visit Dubai


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