ABHA: For the 10 Saudi athletes specially chosen to take part in a three-week triathlon training event, endurance is the key to success in a sporting challenge that few of their compatriots have ever attempted.
The first-ever training camp organized by the Saudi Triathlon Federation took place from May 8 to 27 in Abha, the capital city of Asir Province, with the aim of improving the conditioning and fitness levels of the six male and four female triathletes, as well as building a strong team spirit among them.
In a triathlon, a multi-sport event that is still in its infancy in the Kingdom, the participants must swim, cycle and run set distances with no break in between. The athlete who completes the three stages in the fastest combined time is the winner and so the transitions between the disciplines — in which the competitors must quickly switch from swimming to cycling, and from cycling to running — are a unique element of the sport.
The camp in Abha was supervised by three coaches: one Saudi and two foreigners. In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Mohamed Hafiz, a federation coach with five years of experience in the sport, explained the criteria based on which the team members were selected.
“We pick them based on their experience in the sport, their age, which should be below 30 years old, how well and fast they can swim, and also their cycling and running experience,” he said.
To be considered, the athletes had to excel in at least two of the three disciplines, and they needed to be able to maintain certain cycling and running speeds and be able to swim 100 meters in 90 seconds.
“(Cycling) requires somebody with experience and who can generate 3.5 or up to 4 watts per kilogram and … in running, somebody who can run 5 km in under 23-to-24 minutes,” said Hafiz. The final stage of a triathlon is where the action really heats up, he added.
“The race starts when they go into transition, drop their bikes and put the running shoes on — that’s when the real race starts,” he said.
There are three levels of triathlon: sprint, Olympic, and middle and long course triathlon. They each have different set distances to cover but all are extremely challenging for the athletes at that particular level.
The federation team was training for the sprint triathlon, which typically includes a 750-meter swim, often in open water such as a lake, sea or river, a 20 km bike ride and a 5 km run.
Abha’s unique terrain and weather mean it is a city like no other. At 2,200m above sea level, it is the major city with the highest elevation in Saudi Arabia and the lower oxygen levels at that altitude increase the challenge for the athletes and, ultimately, their fitness levels.
“We decided to come here and to (work on) physiological adaptation because of the high altitude and, because of this, I think they can have good performance in the future at World Triathlon Organization races around the world, and maybe even the next, or future, Olympic Games.”
The 21-day training camp included eight workshops and regular training sessions at various venues across the city. Some of them were government-run facilities, such as the running track and swimming pools at Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Stadium, while some running sessions were also held in a hotel gym near Abha airport and cycling endurance training took place outdoors at locations such as "Monkey Road".
In recent years, growing numbers of women in the Kingdom have taken up and excelled in a variety of sports at the national and international levels. In the triathlon, Dina Al-Tayeb in 2018 became one of the first Saudi and Arab women to qualify for the most advanced level of the sport, the Ironman.
“One of the major goals of this camp is to bring more ladies to the sport,” Hafiz said.
The Saudi federation’s female team aspires to reach the level of Olympic qualification. The youngest member is 24-year-old Yasmeen Shaaban, who joined recently and has been training for the triathlon for 18 months.
“Triathlon is a sport for the crazy, as they say, because it’s crazy distances and it’s three different sports,” she said. “I believe it takes a lot in a person to get into the sport but once you get into it, it’s like an addiction — you just cannot stop.”
Last year, Shaaban participated in Ironman 70.3 Oceanside in San Diego, California, and two weeks later she competed in Ironman 70.3 Egypt. The 70.3 refers to the total distance in miles that the competitors cover in the three stages. Her ultimate goal, she said, is to qualify for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Another member of the women’s team, Madhawi Mitwalli, a doctor from Jeddah, said she has participated in sports for her whole life and became interested in the triathlon when she was looking for a new challenge.
“I get distracted a lot as I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.,” she said. “However, triathlon helped me to focus more because the training is different; like when we run, when we cycle, swimming and sprints, I never get bored.”
Mitwalli said that the sport complements her professional life, and she had a message for all women in her country.
“I would like to inspire Saudi women to get into the sport and not really limit themselves by their profession, their job and what they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to do,” she said. “Try something new and just get out there and you’ll find yourself.”
While the triathlon is still considered a bit of novelty among the Saudi sporting community, the federation aims to produce athletes capable of competing in the sport at Gulf, regional and, eventually, Olympic levels.
Abdullah Alireza, one of the most experienced members of the men’s team, who has more than nine years of experience in the sport, quit his job to launch a sports business and become a full-time athlete.
“We are just starting,” he told Arab News. “The sport is new in Saudi Arabia in general and a lot of the time we compare ourselves only to our neighboring countries, which I don’t think is fair to us.
“I think we are capable of a lot more; we are capable of participating for gold medals in the Olympics, in any major tournament.”
“I left my corporate job a few years ago and started my own performance studio. What I wish to do personally is less about becoming an athlete, and more someone who can actually build grassroots systems and bring the triathlon and sports in general into schools and clubs.”
Alireza believes that one of the attractions of the triathlon is that there is always something to look forward to that keeps participants engaged, and there are always new goals to work toward.
“What I enjoy most about the sport is the journey,” he said. “It is learning, practicing and competing, with the day-to-day hardship.”
The Saudi Triathlon Federation team will officially represent the Kingdom for the first time during the World Triathlon Championship Finals at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island from Nov 23 to 26 this year.
The federation is also keen to raise awareness of the sport and boost its popularity by recruiting younger athletes, from 12 years old, particularly those who can help improve the standards of swimming and cycling.
“For the past eight months we have been contacting schools and arranging races, and we have been giving some educational seminars about the sport to teachers, schools and colleges around the Kingdom,” said Hafiz.
“You really need to be a good swimmer to be able to compete in the world of triathlon.”