In Jordan, the Wadi Rum is a place ‘where the mountains and the desert make poetry’. Stunning in its natural beauty, with towering rock structures, sandstone and granite rock formations, it covers roughly 720 square kilometres of dramatic desert wilderness. But despite all its beauty, the desert landscape is a gruelling terrain for anyone who wants to experience it on foot. Midday temperatures here can hover around 40°C. The extreme conditions can test even the most resilient. To add to this, there are very few habitats in the wadi save for a few scattered Bedouin settlements.

Not an easy place for a marathon runner who’s never trained in this harsh landscape to attempt to cross this region, you’d think.

[Exercise educates the mind: run your way to better mental health]

Not for Haysam Eid. The Dubai-based 35-year-old entrepreneur completed the Ultra X Jordan, a 250-kilometre ultramarathon across the Jordanian desert, in five days in October, grabbing seventh position in the overall challenge. No mean feat for someone who had only four months to train. Eid took on his competitors in the land of Lawrence of Arabia with rock-solid motivation, training his mind to show zero weakness as he crossed the dramatic Wadi, racing over magnificent sand dunes, sleeping under the stars and walking only when required.

‘It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever done in my life,’ says Haysam, visibly excited, when I meet him at his office on Shaikh Zayed Road. ‘The sense of achievement you get out of such a life-changing trip is like nothing I’ve experienced before. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone, so I trained hard, believed in my coach, endured five days without a shower, bed or a proper toilet and yet felt the best and fittest in my life.’

No Plan B

There were 73 runners who started out with Haysam for the Ultra X Jordan (also known as the Wadi Rum Ultra). Only 45 completed the challenge. ‘Quitting was never an option for me. Even though this was my first ultramarathon, I had only one goal: to reach the finish line. There was no Plan B,’ says Haysam.

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So despite having made a not-so-great start on Day One, he rewired his brain to motivate himself. ‘That first day did not go as planned. There was a deviation of 3km on the road, I went too fast and started cramping too early. I had to walk to the finish line, feeling quite bad about it. But then I remembered why I was there in the first place. I was running for the charity Justworld International that worked for children, so I visualised those kids, their hopes and smiles at the finish line and picked myself up. It kept me going.’  

The race would start at 6am. Participants would follow a planned route and there were checkpoints every 10km. You could get hydrated and if needed, a physiotherapist to check on you. At the end of the day, you rested at a camp inside a sleeping bag.

Mind games in the sand

‘The desert teaches you to show no weakness. You have to constantly push yourself so that you don’t stop. More than a physical game, it’s the battle of nerves,’ says Haysam.

On the second day of the race, Haysam worked on his speed and finished sixth in the line. ‘I was now in good position, but I wanted to finish better. It didn’t matter that I had only trained for four months. It didn’t matter that a lot of participants were veteran runners. All that mattered was that when you start something, you need to finish strong.’

Despite his busy schedule, sports and fitness always featured strong in Haysam’s life
Anas Thacharpadikkal

Looking back, Haysam says he adapted to the unfamiliar terrain better than expected. ‘I loved the fact that I was fully disconnected from the outside world. It gave me time to introspect and realise my potential.’

Pushing the limits

For Haysam, who left his comfortable life in Beirut as a hairstylist to start afresh in Dubai, rising up to a challenge is not new. ‘My life in Beirut was good. I initially managed and worked in my dad’s salon for five years and was a successful hairstylist before starting my own salon in 2008,’ he says. But not satisfied with the scope of business in Beirut, Haysam moved to Dubai in 2010 for better business opportunities and a good lifestyle. ‘Dubai gave me the best of everything. The market was growing and setting up a home here was affordable in those days. So I applied for a licence and opened shop in Deira.’ Fast forward 10 years and Haysam now successfully manages Eideal, the hair care brand popular with celebrities such as Kendall Jenner and the Hadid sisters.

Despite his busy schedule, sports and fitness always featured strong in Haysam’s life. He started horse riding when he was nine. ‘It all began during a school trip to France and I was hooked. Shortly after, I started competing on the national level in Lebanon until I reached university and then I took a few years off. I got back to showjumping when I moved to the UAE where I am extremely fortunate to be able to train with top Emirati international show jumper Abdullah Al Marri.’

One thing led to the other and on the showjumping circuit Haysam met three-time UAE National Champion and Olympian Shaikha Latifah Al Maktoum, who introduced him to InnerFight and extreme athlete and coach Marcus Smith. That was when life took a turn for Haysam.

Meeting Marcus

In Dubai’s crossfit and extreme endurance circuits, Smith has a name for being tough and relentless. He survived a near-fatal accident in the UAE to run 30 marathons in 30 days, and expects the same tenacity and grit from his clients. When Haysam joined InnerFight, Smith worked on both his mental and physical weaknesses. ‘I never actually thought I’m a good runner until I met Marcus. He pushed me beyond my limits and in 2018 I went on to run three marathons with him during the Dubai 30x30 challenge. Those were 42km-runs, but I had clearly made a beginning.’

Training for the big run

In June 2019 Haysam decided to go for his first ultramarathon, to raise money for Justworld International as its ambassador. ‘I spoke to Marcus about it. He had just one answer for me: four runs in a week and I was good to go. I trusted the process, never questioned it and never skipped a scheduled run no matter where I was.’

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An ultramarathon is a multi-stage run where you cover long distances over several days. In Jordan it was a distance of 250km. Haysam started his training in June with an app where his coach would set his running schedule and monitor it regardless of where he was in the world. ‘In summer I travelled to Dakar in Senegal and then Beirut in Lebanon. But nothing would interrupt my training. Marcus planned my schedule in detail where I had to clock a certain distance at a particular speed and interval every week. I remained focused and worked on not just my body, but my mind as well.’

Haysam still remembers a target of 107km that Marcus set for him over four days. The first run was a 25km one. ‘I remember getting off the flight, coming home from the airport, changing and going for the run at 3am. I trusted the whole process because I wanted to stretch myself to get out of my comfort zone.’

In Dubai Haysam has trained in Al Qudra, at the Khatt Springs, on mountain trails, crossing wadis and tough terrains.

“I am incredibly proud of my family for supporting me throughout this journey,” says Haysam. “There’s a lot of compromise on quality time with family and kids. Last summer when we were traveling, my wife and I had to cut short our evenings as I had to wake up early the next day for my scheduled race. My alarm almost always used to go off at 3am as I needed to train. My wife, Alia, never complained and has been very supportive. With two growing kids, it’s hasn’t been easy on her, but she has encouraged me all throughout this phase and I can’t thank her enough.”

‘Sleep and the right diet are vital to your performance,’ he says. ‘I eat healthy and constantly monitor my diet as food affects my training. I love my protein and my carbs, but everything is balanced and no overeating. So for breakfast I generally eat some eggs and sweet potato, for lunch and dinner it is either chicken, beef or fish with some pasta and veggies, while snacks is almost always fruits.’

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Haysam admits that he went from zero to becoming the Ultra X man because he wanted to test his endurance. ‘I’m someone who appreciates luxury, and am used to a certain standard of living. So to get myself in the middle of the desert without basic elements of comfort was challenge enough.  On top of that I had the 250km goal and the promise I had made to the children of Justworld International, who didn’t have access to the comforts that I had grown up with. I did this for them. I just remembered that the faster I moved, the earlier I would recover. So I worked at my speed and finished my days early in order to recuperate and start the next day well.

‘I was tired and exhausted but there was no giving up. At the end of it all, I just felt my aching body. Now, of course, it has all sunk in.’

But there is no time to rest. Haysam has qualified for the 2021 Ultra World Championship.

Haysam’s seven pillars of wisdom

• Running an ultramarathon is a lot like life, there will be ups and downs. There will be times during the run where you will want to give up and quit. There will also be times when you’ll be feeling on top of the world. Remember, it’s a long race so a setback doesn’t mean that you can’t get to the finish line.

• Have fun!

• Chat with your fellow runners because as much as we can learn about ourselves, we can also learn a lot from others.

• Get yourself a good coach, and trust him. Nothing is impossible if you train properly! For me it was Marcus Smith of InnerFight, who pushed me hard.

• Finish what you start. Not finishing the race was non-negotiable and for this I knew I had to work hard.

• Never forget the incredible people behind the scenes who take care of you and treat your injuries when you take up such a challenge.

• Be thankful to those who have stood by you. I am grateful to my wife Alia Saleh Eid for being patient enough to understand my vision, my two boys, who I hope will look back one day and see me as an example; my family who supported me no matter what and the donors who trusted me.