As we propel ourselves forward through familiar and unchartered terrain, the exhilaration that comes with running reminds us that we are just a tiny part of this world, but we are also entirely at one with it.
It’s the most natural form of exercise, programmed into our DNA from our time spent as cavemen both hunting, and escaping as hunted prey. It costs nothing to practice and in countries like Africa, it’s often performed, barefoot with all but the slightest equipment needed to participate. One memorable example is Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, who shoeless, coach-less and with very little experience, won the marathon during the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.
In spite of its ease and inherent sense of freedom, for many women running is not a granted gift. Females in Saudi Arabia, while undoubtedly making progress in participating in sports, are still up against some serious constraints. During the 2016 Rio Olympics four women represented their country, an improvement from the two who competed in 2012, but inside KSA, societal restrictions still hamper access to sports for its female inhabitants.
Until August 1 2016, women were not allowed to attend or participate in national tournaments or state-organised sports. However, in a positive move, the General Authority for Sports announced a new female department and appointed the widely respected Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud as its head. Yet, in spite of this, Saudi’s women remain restricted from sports infrastructure; the Saudi National Olympic Committee does not have a women’s section, and females still cannot participate in national tournaments. Born out of a desire to level the score, a bold new movement is rapidly gaining momentum in the Kingdom and seeks to overcome these gender obstacles, one run at a time. “I came across a post on Instagram highlighting a group called the Jeddah Running Collective. It was inviting and encouraging people to join the ‘Hustle Tuesday’,” explains certified trainer, Raghad Almarzouki who balances a career in finance with her passion for outdoor pursuits like hiking and climbing. “I didn’t believe that they were a real thing, but I was so excited by the idea of a group of people running in Jeddah, that I decided to check it out. I was curious.”
An unorthodox running crew, meeting three times a week for the aforementioned ‘Hustle Tuesday’ – a session otherwise known as beginner’s night, Ladies Night Sunday and Longshot Saturday, that starts with a long distance stint and culminates with coffee at Jeddah’s Medd Café, the profile of its members spans all different backgrounds, ethnicities, genders and levels of experience. “We are not a running club,” explains its director, Nesreen Ghonaim who recently completed her first triathlon in Muscat and finished in second place. “We started JRC to create a place to share our infatuation with running and its transformative powers.” The Collective doesn’t break any state laws per se, but they have faced opposition from the religious police and more conservative members of the community. Weaving their way across the region’s mountainous terrain, pounding the desert sand or city streets, for the JRC, Jeddah has become an urban playground, its expansive open spaces and concrete pathways become race tracks for mixed groups – something its inhabitants haven’t experienced before.
Indeed there’s a meditative quality associated with putting one foot in front of the other and hearing the soles hit the pavement, but there’s also an element of subversion. When you suspend the rules of running on the street there’s something poetic in the notion of senses being freed up and let loose, considering Saudi Arabia’s stringent rules. “Hejaz Ultra has been one of the most challenging courses with its hills, rocks, sand, heat, and never-ending trail,” says Al-Batool Baroom who ran her first half marathon just 10 days after joining JRC. “There was one time we went for a training run and I found myself with the fast group, I guess I got a little excited and didn’t pace myself, after a while I couldn’t keep up. At that point the other group was too far behind and I couldn’t see them. The fear of getting lost somewhere in the desert forced me to push myself to keep up to reach the first checkpoint. It was probably one of the toughest runs I had to endure.”
Born out of a desire to level the score, a bold new movement is rapidly gaining momentum in the Kingdom and seeks to overcome these gender obstacles, one run at a time
While open to both genders, JRC encourages women, in particular, to get moving, but for them the challenges far exceed the typical physical demands associated with the sport. Saudi’s female runners must be prepared to sweat.
“Running in an Abaya with the intense summer temperatures and humidity is very challenging,” says Arwa Alamoudi another runner who first picked up her trainers while she was studying in Illinois and went on to participate in races across the state. But in Saudi, running in an Abaya has become a symbol for both personal and social change with the hashtag #RunningInAbaya propelled across the JRC social media accounts. And the positive momentum they have generated is building fast. JRC was founded in 2013 followed by collectives in Riyadh (2016) and Medina and Khobar in 2017. “The scene is rapidly evolving,” says Baroom. “There are more people joining every day. It’s amazing to see how many women have joined us at JRC alone. It started with less than a handful but last month we announced that we were organising a female race, and more than 700 women signed up in Jeddah!”
A catalyst for connectivity between its members and offering them the chance to explore their city anew, the existence of a group like the JRC might seem unremarkable to most other cities, but in Saudi Arabia’s conservative climate its socially contagious appeal helps women to contest their status quo. “I strongly believe that we are making huge strides as a nation,” enthuses Baroom. “The JRC helps to cultivate that culture. We may be small, but we are game changers and pioneers, we hope to inspire women everywhere. If we, your average public, can do it in a very restrictive environment, then others have no excuse.”