The agony and ecstasy of walking the UAE in seven days
Words by Rob Chilton
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British expat Sean Burgess went to some terrifyingly dark places in his head as he attempted a world record attempt to cross the seven emirates on foot
If you think you’ve had a tough week, spare a thought for Sean Burgess. The British HR software manager spent seven days crossing all seven emirates of the UAE by foot to break a world record. “I gave everything and left nothing out there,” says Burgess.
Burgess started his 650km journey at Al Ghuwaifat on the Saudi Arabian border, travelling through Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al-Khaimah, and then over the Hajar mountains to finish in Fujairah.
The Brit, who has lived in the UAE for seven years, ran and walked for up to 18 hours a day to cross the country and now holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest crossing of the United Arab Emirates on foot.
Burgess, 33, tackled the feat to raise money for Soft Power Education, a Ugandan charity aiming to help children of determination in some of the country’s poorest areas.
Now back in his office in Dubai, Burgess spoke to EDGAR about what he learned on his epic journey but we began by asking him how his body was feeling.
My feet are held up really well, actually. The biggest issue I had was shin splints, which I had from day three. I’ve never had them before so it was an interesting thing to pop up!
Excruciating – I wanted to scream. We tried strapping, compression socks and a physio did some dry needling in my calves. The physio explained that I wasn’t walking with a full stride, I was shuffling and heel striking which expanded my calves so I had no flexibility in the front of my shin. The physio had never seen anything like it before. At the end of the challenge, my legs were so swollen you couldn’t see the bones in my feet or ankles, my calf and foot were like one big sausage.
I still can’t sleep properly. I’m having one-hour sleep blocks and waking up in pool of sweat thinking I have 100km to go. Then I remember I’m at home and I’ve finished.
I’d walk from 3pm to 11pm, sleep a few hours and then start again. I found it hard to sleep because I had so much adrenaline and my mind is very analytical, calculating the distances and my pace. I was so tired I could barely speak.
On a mattress in the back of the support car and, looking back, that’s one thing I’d change. I had three support people who had to sleep at the same time as me so four people sleeping in the same car was not great. My feet were pushing against the back door, which hurt my hips. My body was not recovering. I had a diva moment on the fifth night where I got out of the car and slept on the side of the road in a sleeping bag and had the best sleep.
I’d probably take my ego out of it and walk the whole thing. The impact from running damaged my body. Looking back, I made loads of mistakes.
I look slimmer now but I lost no body weight. I started at 88.5kg and weighed 88.2kg at the end. I was in the fat-burning zone for most of the time so my body fat went from 18.8 per cent to 10.4 per cent, which is amazing. I lost 8kg of body fat and gained 2kg of muscle in each leg.
My body broke down quicker than I thought. By day three I thought I can’t go the distance and felt the record slipping away. But I rang my running coach who told me to persevere because my body will fix it itself.
I’m aware now of how much I can endure. Being in pain day after day is something I wasn’t aware I could do so it was a good test and I’m quite proud of that.
I was motivated by my own stubbornness. Plus, I didn’t want to be embarrassed by failing after telling people about this challenge for the last nine months. Then it became about not letting down my support team. I think we all have this strength inside ourselves, we just have to bring out our motivation to do it.
My core team was my brother Carlo; Jay, an endurance runner who’s done incredible challenges; and John who handled my nutrition and hydration. My brother knows me the best and gave me emotional support when I was weak or in pain. When things got really tough he’d jump out of the car and walk with me.
On the third day, I woke up and the pain was quite scary. It brought up lots of doubts. I thought, if I’m this broken now, how do I get to day seven? It was misty, 3am, darkness all around me. I walked on a truck road for three hours just looking at the approaching lampposts with negative thoughts churning through my mind. Then the sun came up and I was a whole new man.
I had the easiest job. The support team got me there, without them I would not have made it. One member of the team lost her sister to Covid, another lost his brother to cancer so we all had our motivation for being there. At the finish on the beach in Fujairah we got emotional and some people broke down. It was hugely demanding mentally and we all felt a massive release as well as a sense of achievement.
Yeah, I think it’s a beautiful country – the Empty Quarter, Liwa, the coastline and mountains. I felt the unity of the seven Emirates and coming into Fujairah, seeing police waving to me and locals honking car horns, I saw a community. One night I was sleeping in Umm Al Quwain and a man came out of his house, offered me a meal and a bed – it was a nice gesture.
I’m quite introverted so I’m okay with my own thoughts. People assume I would have listened to podcasts or audiobooks but I spent most of my time analysing my numbers, which I know sounds boring [laughs]. Often I had to tell myself to stop being so analytical. Lee Ryan [UAE-based marathon runner] gave me some good advice: ‘Think about what you’re doing, look around you and remember why you’re here having this incredible experience.’ That helped me reset.
My wife asked me that, but then said, ‘Stop, I don’t I want to know’ [laughs]. I’d like to try a self-supported challenge, maybe a big trek in the Gobi desert. In my head, I wonder how I would have coped on my own during the seven-day UAE journey. Would I have finished it? Would I have survived?
Sean Burgess was supported on his journey by Adidas
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