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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Riyadh: Nezar Al-Tuwaijri’s bucket list from 13 years ago had, in his own words today, a “trillion” items on it.
Among them were learning “three or four languages” and running a marathon.
“They were basically just the wild dreams,” the 31-year-old Riyadh resident told Arab News.
But one of them has come true, many times over, albeit inspired by a traumatic event.
As a university student in Boston from 2010, Al-Tuwaijri came across the city’s famous annual marathon.
He said: “I would only find out on the day of the marathon. I’d basically see the runners passing and cheer them on. This happened in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, the Boston Marathon bombings happened.”
A year earlier, Al-Tuwaijri had torn his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and underwent surgery on his knee at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The following year, in the aftermath of the bombing, the hospital took in many of the injured.
“In order to support the hospital, I decided I would run on their Boston Marathon team (in 2024). They had a campaign called Life Getting Breakthroughs, which is basically research in the medical field. I decided to run on their team and fundraise for the hospital,” he added.
Al-Tuwaijri was born in Virginia and had moved to Saudi Arabia with his parents at the age of eight, before returning to the US to study at Northeastern University.
He said: “The bombing was like a catalyst event for me. A city that I had grown to love and appreciate was attacked at a sports event. I basically registered to support the hospital, to support the city.”
The Dubai and Berlin marathons, among others, would follow.
But back in Riyadh in 2016, Al-Tuwaijri had no one to run with so he took to running alone in Wadi Hanifa.
It was while on his solo runs that he would meet Abdulwahed Al-Murshidi and Mohammed Al-Malik, the three going on to launch R7 Run Club one year later.
“(Launching the club) wasn’t a solo endeavor, that’s 100 percent for sure. I think the first step was finding out that there were other runners around me in Riyadh, when we registered for the Berlin Marathon.
“It was that spirit that helped grow the club, from a four-person group to 20, within, I think, two months,” Al-Tuwaijri added.
By 2018 the club had more of a structure and membership has steadily grown since, with an increasing number of female runners joining each year.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the club remained an outlet for its members.
“We started doing stairs training sessions, and physical challenges. And then we had core strength training sessions online with a coach, stability training, and then we had drills,” he said.
Membership spiked from 700 to more than 1,000 in that period. The club currently holds 10 organized runs a week; six every morning and four in the evening (Sunday to Wednesday) with Saturday as a day off.
The club has even come to the attention of Japanese sportswear brand ASICS, whose community engagement with running clubs in Saudi Arabia included R7, as well as several others.
“When we first started, we developed a reputation that we were too serious, where it was kind of intimidating for people to join us. So, we worked really hard to shift that narrative and try to be more welcoming to beginners,” Al-Tuwaijri added.
The change in culture saw the likes Mohammed Al-Yahya join the club. The Riyadh resident had begun his running journey in 2019 while studying for his master’s degree in genomic medicine at the University of Manchester.
He noted that the pandemic had an impact on his mental health.
The 31-year-old Saudi said: “I started to take running seriously as stress relief during the pandemic period. I’d been in the UK doing a master’s degree and the lockdown had impacted my studies and my personal life.”
On his return to Riyadh in 2020, a friend introduced him to R7 Run Club, and he has been a member ever since.
Al-Yahya, now a lab specialist at the Saudi Ministry of Health, added: “At the beginning, it was hard for me because my level of fitness and level of knowledge about running was little.
“When I joined the group I found different levels of knowledge, levels of fitness, of ages. But I continued to push myself until I became one of the best runners within the club.”
He now runs six days a week.
Initially, with many members training for marathons, Al-Yahya found himself on the periphery, preferring to train with an online app than with the group. He then worked with a personal trainer who helped him run a sub-three-hour Valencia Marathon last year.
He said: “I knew I was going to finish it. I knew deep down I would break the three-hour timing because I was confident about the training, I was confident about myself, my abilities. It’s a mental thing more than physical thing. If you believe that you can do it, you will do it.”
Al-Yahya is now planning to run the 2024 Paris Marathon in April.
But he pointed out that there was often an unrealistic pressure on runners to look like professional athletes.
He said: “When I came back in Saudi Arabia, I was like a potato. Alhamdulillah today is totally different. Still, I want to keep my shape normal, not like a professional athlete.”
And he believes that beginners should not be shy to lean on experienced runners.
“Even when changing your diet, building your new habits, or doing something extra, like strengthening and conditioning sessions, being with those people who know more than you is very important. And it’s free, you can just ask people. That’s it,” he added.
The collective mindset is what turned the Lebanese daughter-mother duo of Ouhoud and Afaf Kaddour into avid runners.
Riyadh-born Ouhoud, a chief operations officer at a medical research company, said: “A couple of years back, I wanted to lose weight, and I lost a lot of weight. And then at the end of that year, I wanted to do something as a milestone.”
She registered for the 2021 Tuwaiq Trail Race 20 km run, not quite grasping just how difficult a task it would be.
“Obviously, it was a disaster. I wasn’t trained well, it was just really, really overwhelming. I was the last one in the race at the bottom of the mountain, everybody had already left,” she added.
However, a group of runners insisted on taking her by car or escort to the finish line. She chose the latter, and a race that was meant to last four hours, took her six-and-a-half hours to complete.
“And then at the end, it was so welcoming, so I didn’t feel wrong. They told me, if you really actually want to improve your running, there’s a training club you can join. And it’s that welcoming spirit that made me want to try this community out.”
Ouhoud joined the club in April 2022, at first taking part in short runs of 2 km and moving on to 5 km. She now runs four days a week, as well as doing strength training.
Her mother Afaf’s first involvement was similarly challenging.
The 63-year-old, who has lived in Riyadh for 50 years, said: “It wasn’t that we were underestimating running, we just were not educated enough about it. To us it sounded simple, you run, you come and go, it doesn’t take much.
“But then you get out there and do 20 kilometers. Honestly, I got an injury that I needed treatment for three months. That’s the lack of education on running. We hadn’t trained, we thought it would be easy.”
For mother and daughter, it would take hours of training and financial investment to get up to speed. Ouhoud suggested her mother join the club on their Wadi Hanifa runs.
“From the beginning it was a great experience. Training is great and now we are educated about running. From the smallest detail to the biggest, it all needs studying.
“Thankfully, I always win the 5 km or 10 km race in my age group. This year I tried to progress to the 20 km, but there weren’t enough training opportunities to do the Tuwaiq 20 km run. But hopefully I can do that in AlUla (in January),” Afaf added.
Ouhoud remains incredibly forthright about her experience.
She said: “I was obese. Now I’m overweight, I’m losing weight, obviously, but I don’t look like a runner. I don’t have a background of sports; I always say I have a couch background. And so, my fitness is very, very low, compared to everybody else.
“Now I know when a person that is super-fast, would purposely run slowly with me, just so I don’t feel out of place. It really encouraged me to keep coming.”
R7 Run Club often posts Instagram interviews with members and one in which Ouhoud opened up about her experience caught the public’s attention.
“A couple of weeks later, we had an event and three people came to me and told me that I had inspired them to come and join because we don’t have to be very fast” she added.
Other messages of support flooded her Instagram account. Ouhoud highlighted how much club members had supported her mother’s journey too.
“One day we came, and it was a surprise there were over 100 people and all of them just brought her a cake just to say thank you for being here. Just out of the blue, for nothing,” she said.
Afaf noted that having gained the knowledge of how to warm up, train, run, and warm down, it was now her turn to “pass on this knowledge to beginners.”
The physical well-being gained from running has spilled over into Ouhoud’s work and social life.
“Someone said that running is like reverse drugs. When you do drugs, you’ll feel great in the moment and really bad afterwards. Running, you feel really bad while you’re doing it because it’s straining, and really great afterwards. So, running and this club specifically really changed my life 180 degrees,” she added.
The days of being dragged into an unhealthy lifestyle disappeared.
Ouhoud said: “Now I’m a disciplined person. But now I have the space to be disciplined, where I don’t have peer pressure.
“Running is 80 percent mental. Physical is easy, your train, you will do well. Mentally, especially with me, with the challenges of me being overweight and not a great sports person, every step, it’s like why am I here? And I show up every day.
“Somebody told me that I inspire her because I look like someone who shouldn’t show up every day,” she added.
Community, it would seem, is what has united all the runners from different backgrounds.
Al-Tuwaijri said: “That community aspect is extremely important for everyone. You’ll see the evening group doing barbecues, we go on group breakfasts every Friday. So, it’s not just about the run, it’s all about the side conversations, the relationships that you’re creating.
“If it was only about the run, it wouldn’t be as popular as it is. The community aspect is 100 percent a pillar of the club. I’d say it’s the main one, the one holding it up.”
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