Miles in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi government requires women to cover in public with a long black cloak called an abaya together with a hijab. During my stay in Saudi, I asked a friend about running outside, and she joked, “If you run in an abaya, you will be a spectacle. If you wear anything else you will get shot. Anyway, who would run in this heat?” It had been averaging 130 degrees Fahrenheit, so we laughed off that crazy thought.

Instead, I resorted to bootacamp. The jumps, squats, and dips felt so fun at the beginning that I looked forward to bootcamp every morning. It made me feel strong and sore in places that running neglected. However, after awhile, I got bored. I would start my day with the snooze button to delay the dreadful 24 minutes, wishing that I could run instead.

Starving for miles, I sought a place where I could run. I found a gym. It was unlike any other gym I have ever seen. This gym catered to women only with all-female staff and cameras prohibited, along with state of the art equipment and amenities: towels and locks for free; private showers with double doors; an outdoor swimming pool; multi-lingual machines in miles and kilometers and Spanish and English; indoor plants; and walls of windows.

I made a membership right away.  After my first workout, the treadmill replaced bootcamp, and the gym became my first destination of the day for the rest of my stay.

Because the gym strictly excluded men, I felt comfortable relaxing my dress code. I ran in a short sleeve technical tee and running tights to the knee topped with an athletic skirt.  Running indoors is a foreign concept to me, and running without hijab is even more foreign.


Running Indoors

  1. Think Positive. The treadmill could be a human sized mouse wheel that measures each step and goes nowhere. Or it could be a magical invention for running. When I thought so, that is what it became; and soon I quit counting statistics and started running.
  2. Play. Even if I tell myself that it is fun, running in place can get boring, so I took steps to reduce the sameness: run the first mile as a warm-up and after that, pick a new challenge for each of the remaining miles. Challenges include increasing speed by 0.2 mph each minute; sprinting the straights and running the curves of the stationary track; and running THE MILE fast.
  3. Goal-setting. When I run outside, I aim to run to a lake, or other desirable place. There is no place to go on a treadmill, so I had to make up places in the form of miles. At the beginning, I aimed for 3 miles, and then successively raised the bar. One day, I broke new ground: 9 miles in place!

Running Without Hijab

  1. Hair in face. Just a few strands on my forehead felt irritating, and I thought about how my hijab-less friends at home manage. A baseball cap? A bandana? I settled with bobby pins.
  2. Sweat. I usually wipe sweat off my face with the edge of my hijab or sleeves of my shirt; the short sleeves ended up being too short to accomplish this task. Free towels from the gym made fine sweat rags.
  3. Self-consciousness. I felt naked on my first run. I am most comfortable covered in public and it felt strange to be uncovered in public. While running as scantily clad as I would ever present in public, I tried to focus on the palm trees outside through the wall-to-wall windows, which only made me more self-conscious. What if a man climbs over the stone fortress around the women’s gym and peaks inside? A few miles later, my irrational fears dissolved and I forgot that I felt naked.
  4. Belonging. Whenever I am at a gym in the U.S., I am the one who looks different in a way that attracts attention, like at the entrance, when I’m asked to show a membership card more than once. Running hijab-less in Saudi made me look like everybody else, and with that came a sense of belonging. The ladies at the desk would accept my membership card from a distance and greet me with a welcome.

I do not agree with many of the ways that the law treats women in Saudi; nevertheless, inside the gym and outside, I found that the people treated me well, and made me feel welcome most of the time.