BEIRUT: Ali Wehbi is locked in a freezer of Spinney’s supermarket, running at top speed on a treadmill with a high-powered fan blowing in his face. No, this isn’t some sort of cruel or unusual punishment.
Wehbi had to get special permission to have the privilege of experiencing subzero temperatures (around -25 Celsius) on the roof of a supermarket parking lot.
He is training for a marathon next month at the North Pole, where the temperatures will be even colder than the frosty room that keeps fries and pizzas hard and frozen.
“I’ve learned from some of the mistakes I made in the Antarctic,” says Wehbi, who has been doing extreme sports for the past 10 years.
This upcoming race in the Arctic, which will take place on April 9, will complete his marathon tour of all seven continents and the Arctic.
Right now, he’s concentrating on doing his best to recreate the conditions that he will be facing at the North Pole. “In the freezer, on the treadmill I’m all alone. I’m just thinking about the race,” he says.
This is just one day in a strict schedule of daily workouts he gives himself to prepare for the treacherous climate he will endure next month.
On other days he is on the empty slopes of Faraya at 5 a.m. or on the sandy beaches of Ramlet al-Baida in Beirut to accustom his feet to the soft ground they will hit in the Arctic. And when he has more time, usually on weekends (after playing basketball with his two children), he runs along the coast from Beirut to Tyre.
He likes to emphasize his ordinary life that he leads outside of sports, which he thinks could be inspiration for others from humble backgrounds who want to challenge themselves with a new feat.
“I think it’s important generally that normal, everyday people show that anything is possible with some imagination and determination,” said Richard Donovan, who established the North Pole marathon in 2002 after winning the South Pole marathon on the other end of the earth.
Luckily for this Beiruti extreme sportsman, Lebanon has a variety of climates that will allow him to prepare for the harsh weather and uneven ground at the North Pole.
“This is one of the hardest marathons in the world,” says Wehbi, sitting at the Spinney’s restaurant during a break from running stationary in the freezer.
The ice shelves “are always moving, and you can only see it with a GPS. In 2011 [an ice shelf broke up and] the race had to be postponed.”
The UVU North Pole Marathon, an annual race that takes runners through just over 42 kilometers of harsh but breathtaking landscape, will be bringing together 28 competitors from 20 different countries this year.
The event is organized by Donovan, who runs Polar Running Adventures, with the title sponsor UVU (You Versus Yourself), a firm for extreme sports apparels. According to the North Pole Marathon website, it is one of a kind in that it is held entirely “on water,” the frozen Arctic Ocean; it holds the Guinness record as being the northernmost marathon on Earth, and so far 255 people from 38 nations have completed the race. When Wehbi crosses the finish line he will be the first Arab to do so.
With the North Pole in international waters, notes Donovan, “Nobody owns the Pole and it’s nice to be able to demonstrate its international status by having as many nationalities as possible take part.”
Aware that he is an anomaly in his country and in the region, Wehbi says that one of his aims in the competition is to raise awareness of sports among Arab youths as well as governments.
“We still don’t have a sports culture here,” he says, noting ironically that at Spinney’s the only option is for customers to take the elevator, with the nearby stairs only reserved for emergencies. “The Beirut Marathon started to change things, but we still don’t have the attitude or the infrastructure.”
He is now getting ready to write a book about the challenges of being an athlete in the developing world, which he hopes will inspire people to take up sports and show leaders the importance of supporting athletes in their countries.
Right now, he says, it is very difficult for someone in the developing world to be a professional athlete. If they’re lucky like him they will find a sponsor (his is BankMed) and a regular place to train (Lifestyle gym is generously letting him use their facilities) but they will continue to work full-time, devoting much of their income to their sport. Still, he wants people to know that if they are dedicated, they too can be an athlete.
With his tight schedule of fitting in his training around his full-time job as a computer consultant for the EU, he doesn’t expect that he will win the race, although he aims to finish in the top 10.
Referring to the harsh weather that he’ll be facing up north, Wehbi says, “I’ll be happy to cross the finish line with all my fingers and toes intact.”