'It was extremely scary': UAE ultramarathoner becomes first Arab to conquer coldest Arctic race

Ahmed Husain Al Katheeri endured sleep deprivation, hallucinations, and temperatures as low as -43 degrees Celsius


Ashwani Kumar

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Photos: Supplied
Photos: Supplied

Published: Tue 19 Mar 2024, 2:42 PM

Last updated: Tue 19 Mar 2024, 7:58 PM

In a rare accomplishment, an Emirati ultramarathoner has become the first person from the Arab world to bag top honours at the 120-mile 6633 Arctic Ultra hailed as the “toughest, windiest and coldest ultra-foot race in the world”.

Ahmed Husain Al Katheeri, a seasoned athlete, endured temperatures as low as -43 degrees, sleep deprivation, and hallucinations to finish third at the Yukon edition in icy Canada — one of the most brutal races through the Arctic conditions held in the last week of February.

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Not new to challenges, the 46-year-old Abu Dhabi resident has participated in as many as 10 ultramarathons covering a distance of about 250km across diverse landscapes and temperatures varying from -53 to +45 degrees Celsius.

Al Katheeri got hooked on the Arctic Ultra since the day he learnt about the daunting and physically demanding race. He knew it wasn’t for the faint-hearted and he was determined to raise the UAE flag there.

“I came to know about this race from other runners. It is known in the ultra-marathon world as the toughest ultramarathon to complete,” Al Katheeri told Khaleej Times.

The 6633 Arctic Ultra is open only to elite athletes with a proven track record. Al Katheeri gained eligibility as one of the 16 athletes following his heroics at the ‘Cold Pole Oymyakon’ in Serbia — the coldest marathon in the world in 2022 when he finished second in his age category.

“It was -53 degrees for the 42km race,” he said.

Training started in 2023

Arctic Ultra, a distance of more than 190km, presented a new frontier for Al Katheeri. The long distance was a test of his perseverance. Last year, along with his coach Niall McCarthy, a road map was charted to ensure the desired results.

“We used a reverse engineering method to decide the fitness we needed to be at the finish line in the 6633 and worked our way back to my fitness level on day 1 of training. I completed the Grand to Grand Ultra Marathon in the US in September as it was a good chance to test my mental capacity along with trekking through sand, which can be similar to snow.”

Al Katheeri underwent Vo2 max testing — a maximal exercise on a treadmill to measure overall fitness and cardiovascular levels.

“I could see what heart rate I needed to keep for the 6633, and what my caloric output was at this given heart rate. Along with fitness and mental strength, you need energy in your body to complete.”

Al Katheeri spent long hours hiking in Al Wathba, getting used to racing with his sled, and tuning his body.

“At the gym, we incorporated fitness works like StairMaster, box step-ups, lunges, and lower body strength work with some treadmills and elliptical. We worked on my core and upper body strength to ensure I was strong enough to carry the sled.”

Getting acclimatised to the conditions, he joined a training camp in the Russian city of Ufa.

“I trained in -38 degrees. It allowed me to test my gear and make changes for the 6633.”

Last month, Al Katheeri left for his race by taking three flights from Abu Dhabi to Toronto, then to Vancouver, and finally to Whitehorse City – the capital of Yukon in Northern Canada. The rest of the journey was completed by road.

“I was tired after the long flights. It was stressful with two unplanned nights in Vancouver. But the journey was a massive eye-opener. I never in my wildest dreams imagined how cold but beautiful it could be.”

One bad decision can be fatal

When the race started, Al Katheeri realised why it was touted as one of the toughest.

“It was unimaginably cold. Everything was freezing. If I poured out boiling water, it would turn to ice in seconds. It was extremely scary thinking everything around me was frozen, and one bad decision would be the end of my life.”

Even though he carried a sleeping bag, there was no warm place to find time to relax at night during the race that went on for nearly four days. Al Katheeri faced those challenges with a smile.

“Over three days, I only slept for 15 minutes. It was just too cold, and safer to keep moving forward. I was hallucinating and seeing people, objects, and animals that were not there, and this became scary at times, but I had to keep reminding myself of the reasons why I was doing this.”

Al Katheeri isn’t just an ultra-marathoner but an ambassador for the Hayat Organ Donation Programme.

“As an ultra-marathon runner, I feel passionate to inspire the younger generation of Arab ultra-runners and to raise awareness of organ donation and transplantation as I am one of their ambassadors. I always remind myself that I am setting a pathway for Arabs to turn challenges into opportunities. Becoming the first Arab to complete this extremely challenging race motivated me as there were times when the extreme weather questioned my survival.”

Landing back in Abu Dhabi early this month, Al Katheeri is still recovering from the physical torture his body endured. “Even after two weeks, I am suffering from frostbite on my toes. But it was worth it.”


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