Second published piece:
First published piece:
So apparently I will have a chance to mark off a huge goal on my Bucket List: Run an international marathon! Of all places, Saudi was the last place I thought to get this done. By living outside of a compound, it’s an extreme rarity to see a woman 1) running, 2) in an abaya, and 3) in the heat. My whole blog was meant to sum up my struggles adjusting to these restrictions.
In the States, I ran daily with an outstanding group of ladies from “Black Girls Run”, a nationwide movement of long distance runners that has added quite a bit of color to a sport that was predominantly white. When I first joined, 2 years ago, I could barely run 3 minutes without getting totally winded. In elementary, I absolutely dreaded that timed, 1 mile test we were required to do in P.E., and almost always came in last. However, today, it’s an addiction to beat my PR, run extreme distances, and rack up on medals! With one marathon under my belt, I hope to one day qualify for Boston, complete an ultra, and team up in a Ragnar Relay.
Before arriving in Saudi I asked my recruiter about the ease of running in this country. “Oh… it’s no problem! Many people run. They have plenty of parks. It’s just like any other modern city!” .. So I packed my running shoes, hydration belt, energy chews, and every runner’s favorite: Body Glide.
For the 1st few weeks, I just observed my surroundings. Not only did women not run, but I barely saw them rush for anything! Nothing (literally) moved fast in this country, except for impatient drivers. No one even walked around outside for fresh air. People caught cabs to cross the street. There were gyms every two blocks, but none that catered to women. I later found out that the few womens’ “gyms” (more like spas), cost $150-200 per month. Very cruel joke this recruiter played on me..
So on Month 2, I made my first big purchase, a commercial treadmill. Although, I was happy to have some sort of real movement, it did kill the excitement and stamina I had for running. So much to the extent that, when I vacationed in the US this summer, I went from being a marathoner to barely making it 10 minutes. It’s as depressing as having an injury that hinders you from doing the sport you love.
Therefore, my goal for the next 5 months is to get back into the shape that I was pre-Saudi. This past Saturday started my marathon training…mostly by treadmill! I know you’re wondering “How in the world will you practice 20 milers on the ‘dread’mill?”. Well, I may have found one outlet. This past weekend, I …ran… outside! Although pricey in terms of transport, and quite inconvenient, the Diplomatic Quarters is heaven-sent. The DQ is a city of embassies, international schools, parks, and are ‘free-zones’ where most of the cultural Saudi laws do not apply. Therefore, I wasted little time shedding my abaya and hijab; finally being able to be out in my run-gear!
I really didn’t have a plan, not even a place to put my stuff. But after scoping out the area and making sure I wasn’t in a restricted zone, I walked a few dead end paths through boulders and sand, until I found a distinct path. For once in my lifetime of running, I could care less about my run/walk ratio, mileage, or pace. It was so unearthly silent out that I didn’t even want to ruin it with music. Perhaps the silence would have alarmed some, but it was such a peaceful escape that it almost felt Godly. The only sounds I welcomed were the rare songs of birds and the occasional “Hello” of another runner escaping his treadmill. Two hours later, I climbed up as high as I could on a boulder, while eating my energy chews and watching the sunset. I got to use my hydration belt and my Body Glide. Not because any of this stuff was needed, but because it’s as good a time as any. Right in the middle of a dry rocky ravine, was a random cluster palm dates. The contrast was oddly beautiful and kept me for another 30 minutes. As my ride called out from a distance and echoed my name, I made my final 10-minute jog to the car. This time it was effortless ..
Ever been to a country that has no movie theaters, clubs, or bars? This is Saudi Arabia! With about 9 out of 10 workers in this country being expats, we must creatively find ways to have fun. If you happen to make it to the capital city of Riyadh, here’s some tips to make this city feel a little more like home…
1) Hike w/ the Hash
Most major cities around the world have Hash House Harriers (HHH), a group of hikers that get together and explore the local terrain. What makes Hashing in Saudi so special, is the differing landscapes of the desert. With the permission of authorities, it gives foreigners-only the opportunity to mingle freely, sans abaya (black cloak women wear), and build valuable contacts to make life in Riyadh much easier. The best part is stumbling across unique finds, like desert diamonds, hieroglyphics, or desert roses. To seal the memory, end your hike next to a campfire, feet in sand, watching the sunset.
2) Hamam at Direm Beauty Center
Basically, during Hamam, an old lady gives you the best bath of your life! You can find everyone from soon-to-be Saudi brides to curious expats getting this treatment done. It can be compared to the body scrubs of Turkey or the jjimjilbangs of South Korea. The entire treatment is done in a wet sauna, where the woman slathers you with mixtures of soap, oil, and mud. After she removes a layer of your DNA, you may find that you are a shade and a pound lighter. It’s an interesting experience that has you walking away with skin so soft and clean, as if you were just born yesterday.
3) Eat at Najd Village
If you want to experience what ancient Saudi Arabia was like, you must visit this restaurant! When you first walk in, the stone walls encase you like an old fortress. Simple rarities here, like the rich color patterns found in the painted doors, gold Arabic antiques, and plush green grass, are a joy to see. Every group is given a private eating room with wrap-around floor seating. The meal is started off with the traditional Saudi dates and tea. And then you are served huge dishes that meant to be shared. Here’s one of your few chances to try camel!.. Don’t forget your camera. This restaurant is a unique experience that you may want to capture.
4) “Visit another country” at the Diplomatic Quarters
Similar to compounds, but on a grander scale, the Diplomatic Quarters is an expat’s road to freedom. These mini international neighborhoods are neutral grounds, where foreigners can do various activities that may not be available on the outside. Often, different embassies will throw a festival for any given holiday, have outdoor movie showings, or BBQ’s. For runners who are confined to the “dreadmill”, the greenery of trails is a dreamland.
5) Shop and Eat at Al Faisaliya Tower
If you’re looking for a fancy night out on the town, you must pay a visit to The Globe restaurant at the top of Al Faisaliya Tower. Here you can taste a variety of European meals, High Tea, and deserts, at a table that overlooks all of Riyadh. If this doesn’t fit your tastes, step over to Il Terrazo restaurant, an all-you-can eat Brazilian barbeque. This open-air, but misted, restaurant plays music (which is absent in most public places) and is a mixed gender zone. Once the sun sets, step out onto the observation deck for a 360 degree view of the city, with the desert in the background. Then walk off the food, in the expansive mall below.