Trail Running in the United Arab Emirates

Dubai is located southeast of the Persian Gulf on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula and is one of seven emirates that form the United Arab Emirates. It shares borders with Abu Dhabi to the south, Sharjah to the northeast and the Sultanate of Oman to the southeast. Hatta, a minor exclave of the emirate, is surrounded on three sides by Oman and by the emirates of Ajman to the west and Ras Al Khaimah to the north.

Dubai has fast emerged as a booming global city and a major commercial hub. Although the economy was built on the oil industry, the emirate’s model of business drives its economy, with the effect that its main revenues are now from tourism, real estate and financial services- similar to that of many Western countries. Dubai has recently attracted world attention through a number of innovative large construction projects and sporting events.

Dubai itself lies directly within the Arabian Desert. Its topography, however, differs significantly from that of the southern portion of the UAE in that much of its landscape is characterised by sandy desert patterns while gravel deserts dominate much of the southern region of the country. The sand consists mostly of crushed shell and coral and is fine, clean and white. East of the city, the salt-crusted coastal plains, known as sabkha, give way to a north-south running line of dunes. Farther east, the dunes grow larger and are tinged red with iron oxide.

The flat sandy desert yields to the Western Hajar Mountains, which run alongside Dubai’s border with Oman at Hatta. The Western Hajar chain has an arid, jagged and shattered landscape, whose mountains rise to about 1,300 meters in some places. The base of the Western Al Hajar Mountains is a mosaic of multiple gorges, waterholes, wadis (dried river beds formed by runoff from the mountains during rainstorms) and dams. This is the home of Dubai trail running.

A mere 45-minute car ride from the bustle of downtown Dubai will bring you to the Showka, Manama and Fili regions of the Hajar Mountains. There lies a maze of singletrack trails, forged over the years by local goat herders, wild donkeys and camels.

Showka - UAE trail running

Showka

The terrain is arid and challenging, with the trails mostly being made up of loose rock and gravel. The paths lead you through the gullies and gorges of the mountains, following wild wadis that run down to one of the region’s multiple dams. Although for most of the year the wadis remain dry, there are a few that hold water throughout the year, giving you the chance to cool off in one of the fresh water pools after a long run up through the mountains.

Wadi Wurayah, one of the UAE’s famous and the first officially protected wadis, holds water all year round, with cool pools and picturesque waterfalls.

UAE - Wadi Wurayah

Wadi Wurayah

Temperatures in the UAE during the winter months range from refreshing mornings (8–15 C) to warm afternoons (20-30 C) which makes great running pretty much all day. But the temperatures do soar during the summer months with July and August generally being the hottest time of year with temps reaching 40-plus C during the day and a humid 30-plus C during the mornings and evenings. This doesn’t mean trail running needs stop. Instead an early start allows for slightly cooler temperatures and a chance to watch the sun rise over the mountains and dunes.

The UAE can host a wide variety of running terrains and challenges, from adventure racing to trail running in the mountains… to running asphalt in the concrete jungles of the cities.

Dubai itself has a large running community, with several large road running clubs that train and run throughout the year as well as event organiser, Premier Marathons, which stages events all year including the famous Dubai Marathon. Its fast and flat route attracts runners from all over the world. Dubai is also home to a number of great runners and athletes including “fit chicks and fast women” ultrarunner, writer, all-round adventurer, Adidas-sponsored athlete and co-writer of this article, Tori Leckie.

To date there is only one organised trail event known as Wadi Bih, which has been held every year since 1993 and is the oldest regular expatriate sporting event in the UAE. Teams of five runners compete as a relay, with each member running about 15k to give a total distance of 72k. Each team must include at least one female. A growing number of hardy individuals tackle the entire distance solo as well. The route follows asphalt roads and graded gravel tracks up through the spectacular Hajar Mountains and is an uplifting (literally, with about 1,000m of ascent and descent), therapeutic experience to help escape the UAE’s urban mayhem.

Wadi Bih 2012

Wadi Bih 2012. Photo: Wouter Kingma

Hopefully as the trail running scene grows in the UAE, thanks to the hard work and dedication of co-writer, Lee Harris, with his Dubai Trail Running website and Facebook community, more challenging events like Wadi Bih will be organised and over time, bring the running community of Dubai and the UAE out into the mountains for some seriously challenging fun.

Run easy and enjoy… Lee and Tori J

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

Have you ever you in the UAE? If so, what did you think?

Do deserts give you the urge to run? If so, would you think about taking a long layover in Dubai for a run? Or how about a whole vacation?

[Editor’s Note: Thanks to Tori Leckie of FitChicksAndFastWomen.com and Lee Harris of DubaiTrailRunning.com for contributing this guide to trail running in the UAE.]

There are 6 comments

  1. Jeff Faulkner

    Dubai was an interesting city to visit back in the early 90s (Desert Storm era), I'd love to see it today! Thanks for the heads up about the running scene there, I'd have never guessed it to be as vibrant as it is.

  2. Greg

    Beautiful! I've been to Dubai a few times but haven't ever run there. Countless runs in and around Muscat though give me a personal feel for the area. Summer is oppresive, winter is downright beautiful. I do think many people would be surprised to see how enjoyable running can be in the Middle East. Thanks for the article!

  3. A Fraser

    I ran all the time living in Abu Dhabi- you get used to the heat quickly (I'm from Minnesota). The nature of the ex-pat community meant it was easy to meet people, take part in a running club, race (on the roads while I was there), etc. I've never been a social runner, but finding myself in the desert with little else to do(we were there for my husband's job), I've never done so many miles with other people. As a women, though, you do have to have a tough skin and adjust your wardrobe a little to avoid stares.

  4. Corey

    Looks like a beautiful place! Wadi Wurayah is an awesome picture, I'd love to go to a place like that some time. What are desert trails like? I've been looking to experience trail running in a terrain like that. What kind of shoe would you recommend for a trail like that? I have and LOVE the New Balance Trail Minimus v2 ( http://www.newbalancevancouver.ca/mens/hiking-boo… ) and its great but I'm wondering if I should try a different shoe for this terrain?

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