As a way of thanking Olga my Wife for volunteering at Checkpoint 3 at the Hajar Ultramarathon, I decide to take her to Riyadh for a long weekend. My ulterior motive – to the shock of absolutely nobody who knows me – is that during our Riyadh weekend on Friday there is a half marathon for men and women, and on Saturday there is a half marathon for men. I figure a nice touristy weekend in Riyadh would be a great gift to Olga for International Women’s Day, because deep down I am a romantic at heart.

Riyadh Half Marathon finish

Sangcom Half Marathon on Friday
Friday’s Half Marathon takes place in a compound in Riyadh, with six loops of about 3.5km each. The course has some easy rolling hills, with the unusual distractions of chickens, goats and deer along the route. The runners comprise mainly foreigners and their families, with about 150 runners (120 men and 30 women) participating in the half marathon, all wearing running gear. Olga and I start the first lap together, but it’s clear to me that today she is ready to push it more than I am.

Showing off the Hardware

Olga’s Podium Finish
After the first 3.5km loop at a 5:15/km pace, Olga drops me like a ton of bricks and takes off, and naturally, I slow down to my realistic pace. Because of the open spaces along the course, I see Olga gap me and speed up. By the third loop, she is way too far for me to see her. Olga continues her push and finishes in 1:49. About four minutes later in 1:53, I gasp across the finish line and see Olga smiling: she earned the second place among the ladies!

My running story

Saudi General Sports Authority Half Marathon on Saturday
Saturday’s Half Marathon is the first major running event in Riyadh hosted by the General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia, a government organization. The event is a major undertaking with 10,000 men running three distances: 4km, 8km and 21km. The organizers have invited international elites to Riyadh to participate and compete for the 1,000,000 riyals first place prize. Some international runners like me have invited themselves to participate in the event to compete for the glory of the event itself.

Awards Ceremony

A Woman Watching a Men’s Event
As this is Olga’s first visit to Saudi Arabia, she notices some cultural differences – for example, separate entrances and seating areas for Men and Families at restaurants. Olga has some uncertainty about what she would do while I run the half marathon. It quickly becomes clear that there is critical mass among women in Riyadh: when a group of women wants to sit down on the tribunal at the Finish, that section becomes a ‘Family’ section. There are not many women spectating, and even fewer foreign women. A Saudi television crew films an interview with Olga, asking her opinion of the event. The atmosphere is similar to most major running events, lots of waiting for the first runners to finish, then lots of cheering when the masses cross the finish line – I finish in 1:54, a full five minutes slower than Olga’s time the previous day!

Riyadh is Becoming a Running City
The event is held in northern Riyadh on the campus of a major university, with the course traversing up and down the hills outside the city. Considering that this is the first public running event that I am aware of in Riyadh with thousands of participants, it is well-organized: bibs with timer chips, water stations every 2km, ambulances, and a well-marked course. It probably rains five days a year in Riyadh and before the Start, it rains – the organizers even had the forethought of handing out branded umbrellas! From a runner’s perspective, the course itself is beautiful, and hopefully next year the event will be extended another 21km to become The Riyadh Marathon. ■

Words + Photos by: David O’Hara