They call him the Bucket Man. For Abdullah Alblooshi, owner of Desert Shield, the UAE’s first Spartan-style obstacle course gym, the nickname is a hard-earned badge of pride.
It was bestowed upon him when he represented the UAE in the Spartan World Championship in Lake Tahoe, California. A famously grueling obstacle course race, one of the components involves carrying a heavy bucket filled with 60 to 70 pounds (27kg to 31kg) of sand 400 meters up a hill and down again. At the end of the task, if any light is visible through holes drilled at the top of the sides of the bucket, it means the bucket was not as full as it should have been and the competitor must either repeat the exercise or be disqualified.
When Alblooshi reached the finish line, one of the judges noticed sunlight coming through one of the holes in his bucket. “Some sand must have fallen out as I was running uphill,” he says.
The judge told him he could either redo the task or quit.
“I said to myself, ‘You did not travel all the way from the UAE to get disqualified,’” Alblooshi recalls. “I went for a redo.”
On his second attempt, he fell over, spilling sand from his bucket. Again, he went back. By this time, people were starting to take notice and a crowd was gathering to watch him.
“I had tears in my eyes and my back was killing me. But as I crossed the finish line, people were clapping and calling me Bucket Man!”
That, says Alblooshi, is what makes him love the sport of obstacle racing.
“It’s the support of the community – that’s what keeps you going and it’s what we’re missing from our day-to-day lives. We get into arguments, we get into what divides us. In a race, you have total strangers encouraging you and supporting you. The mentality begins to grow that if you have problems in the office, you can get over it.The more races I attend, the more my mindset becomes more tolerant, more understanding and more resilient.
“I have held hands running with a blind guy. I’ve run with guys with no legs, going over the mountains on their hands. I’ve met a woman who celebrates her birthday by taking part in the Spartan World Champion race. God bless her, she’s 82.
“If people like them can do it, what’s my excuse for stopping half way and saying I’m tired?”
It is this belief in fitness as a force for good – for society as well as health – that led Alblooshi to launch Desert Shield with two friends.
Born in 1977 in Al Ain, his childhood sounds pretty idyllic.
“We ran up and down a mountain near our home. We played football barefoot in the dirt. Food was home-made, whatever my mother cooked. If I didn’t like what she had made, I would run to my grandparents. If I didn’t like what they were having, I’d go to my auntie’s.”
But the main feature of his childhood, says Alblooshi, is that he spent a great deal of time outdoors, in nature. “It was the reverse of today,” he recalls. “Our parents used to want us to sit still and do homework. Now it’s the other way around – it’s hard to get kids outdoors.”
In 2016, he went to London with his father, who was getting medical treatment there for heart problems and diabetes.
“Sitting in hospital with my dad I realized that his medical condition could have been avoided with better diet and lifestyle. That trip made me realize that I needed to go back to how I was raised, to playing sport and being outdoors.”
Back in Abu Dhabi, he took part in a race on the Corniche with two friends, the three of them wearing T-shirts they’d had made with the logo: “Body Mechanics.”
People seemed to think they were a team of trainers, he says, but it got them thinking and that same evening, they came up with the idea of Desert Shield to promote outdoor obstacle course racing.
“Our mission was to pick a different outdoor location every weekend and promote it in the local neighborhood and encourage the local community to join in. There’s a beautiful 3.5km running track outside Sheikh Zayed Mosque that not many people know about and it has one of the best sights in Abu Dhabi. The city has a lot to offer and it’s up to us to take advantage of it.”
Desert Shield now has hundreds of athletes of all ages, nationalities and abilities running races throughout the UAE, the GCC and, like Alblooshi himself, qualifying for the obstacle course world championships.
Lake Tahoe presented Alblooshi with conditions he had never experienced before: high winds and extreme cold, all at an elevation of more than 2,440m.
“I couldn’t train for those conditions but it proved to me that physical preparation is only a minor part of the journey and the adventure. If you’re mentally prepared, you can meet the challenge.”
Alblooshi readily admits he is addicted to obstacle courses, but adds, “It’s an addiction we should all get into because you get such a positive energy and it keeps growing into your soul.”
Challenging the body, even with something as simple as having a cold shower, also strengthens the immune system, which is particularly pertinent right now.
“You start appreciating nature. My first time in Lake Tahoe, all I saw were my footsteps. The next year, I made sure I enjoyed the beauty of the mountains. Collectively, all those elements play into the immune system.”
Most of all, however, Alblooshi believes obstacle course racing brings out the best in people and strengthens human connection.
“We live in societies, with families. We work with colleagues. Most of our life is spent with others. In racing, it’s never about me. I plan and prepare for races but one time I miscalculated and ran out of food. But there was a guy who saw me struggling and shared his protein bar with me.
“That’s the beauty of it. He’s only half way through the race himself but he knows that if he runs out of snacks down the line, someone else will help him. Now I really don’t worry about getting hungry or thirsty because I know others will help me and I will help others.”
Obstacle course racing is becoming more and more popular in the UAE, but opening a gym never entered Alblooshi’s mind until last year when the management at Abu Dhabi cruise terminal – where he and his partners had been holding community training sessions – suggested it.
Help was forthcoming from the Khalifa Fund and Abu Dhabi Sports Council and the arrival of Covid-19 convinced them the time was right, “because if it has proved one thing, it’s that we should take care of our health and fitness.”
The country’s first obstacle course gym also has a youth program for 12- to 16-year-olds and Alblooshi hopes to offer classes for even younger children in the future. His next project is to work with children with disabilities by offering them free training classes.
For Alblooshi, obstacle racing is a metaphor for life itself.
“Life is a journey of ups and downs and obstacles. It’s about how we maneuver through them. Obstacle course racing has taught me how to go through life.”
Abdullah Alblooshi was a guest on the Livehealthy.ae podcast on October 4, 2020.
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.