Interview with Louise Adamson, founder and director of Urban-Ultra A woman who makes things happen
For the trail runners and cyclists amongst you, Louise’s face must be a familiar one. Founder of Urban-Ultra, race director of their series of races in the UAE, multisport athlete, fan of the outdoors and avid adventurer, she has a strong mind and a galvanizing personality, of the kind we want to know more about at Sported.
Louise, tell us first a little about yourself:
I am originally from Yorkshire in the UK. I’m 52 years old. But honestly, I don’t really think about my age. I think about what I’m able to do. People should stop looking at numbers and just concentrate on setting goals and how they are going to achieve them.
I’ve been a Creative Director in the advertising and design industry since leaving college as well as working as a professional photographer/videographer for a number of years. Work brought me to the UAE, originally Abu Dhabi way back in 1989, then after a few years working in the Far East, Australia and traveling the world, I decided to return to set up our own advertising and design agency.
What is your sports background?
I’ve always been into sports since being a young child and later at school. No sport was off limits, I would give anything a go, and love it. Particularly cycling, field athletics, tennis and playing badminton for the county. Coming to the UAE I took up rugby 7s, even managing to win the local competition at the Sevens Tournament back in the day! I then gave up rugby to pursue a bigger passion, triathlon and cycling.
What are your biggest sports achievements?
Every race or sporting adventure has its own merits and although I have completed many races, half and full Ironman races and multiple 100k ultra trail runs, multi stage ultra runs, the Land Rover G4 Challenge, among many other sporting challenges around the world, I couldn’t honestly select one that was my biggest achievement. Each was difficult and posed challenges in it’s own way.
Urban-Ultra is now organising a series of 10 races and events. How did Urban-Ultra come together to become what it is now?
Getting into triathlon very early in Abu Dhabi, I was hooked mainly because of my cycling background. But my swim and run certainly needed work! It became a passion though and soon turned into wanting to organise something a little bigger than the ones I had been participating in locally. Our first event was the very first pro triathlon in the UAE, held in Creek Park, a really unique setting and format where we brought over pro athletes to race with the ‘regular’ triathletes of the UAE. It was a huge success and we could see there was a hunger for more.
Enjoying the outdoors, camping, running and generally soaking up the natural environment had more appeal than the city though and the UAE is also a very unique place, with mountains, desert and seemingly remote wild places virtually on our doorstep. Whilst training for a multi stage ultra running event being held in the USA, I
discovered so many places to get exactly the training I needed to complete the race. We wanted to share these experiences and the special environment that we have in the UAE with the running community (trail running was virtually unheard of in the UAE at the time), so we decided to hold our first trail running race in the desert. It was called the Desert Stinker – a 2 stage run way past where the cycle path has now been built. At that time, there were just oryx and our runners out there! It was so unique and no one had ever done anything like it here before. We could see a definite future for the trail running scene and wanted to do more. Grow the community and see where else we could set up challenging races.
With Pascale de Jong, you are two women at the head of Urban-Ultra. Which are, or have been your biggest challenges in organising sport events?
I can honestly say, as females, we haven’t encountered any specific difficulties business-wise on the basis of gender. The challenges that exist are hurdles for both male and female business owners. That’s not to say that we don’t face challenges with inclusion or rather exclusion. For example, we have tried for many years, finally last year it coming to fruition, to bring pro female road cycling to the UAE. We hope that we played a small part in that happening – and felt very proud to be asked to organise the marking out of the entire route for the inaugural event. We created a women’s cycle league which sadly no longer exists. However, during the 3 years it did, we managed to encourage many women to join forces, form teams and ride together making up a larger percentage of the cycling race participants. It was a huge success, we made sure we were not lumped in with the juniors and we had our own start, and we started to get noticed and we were visible not just by our numbers but by the enormous talent that materialised. We like to think that it encouraged more women to believe in themselves, their ability and their right to have a place on the road – rather than just making up the numbers in a race.
We like to champion women in sports, we believe it gives so much back in terms of confidence, a ‘can do attitude’ and a feeling of nothing being impossible if you just give it a try. Our races have gradually seen an increase in the percentage of women taking part, but not only that, the part that’s really interesting is the fact that women are now ever closer, especially in ultra running, to the finishing times of the men. In fact, two years ago, a female not only took first place in the female category, but first place overall. That was an amazing sight to witness and it won’t be the last.
Dubai is not really the first place that comes to one’s mind when talking about outdoor sports. What do you think of how trail running and off road cycling has evolved in the UAE? In which area have you witnessed the biggest changes? When I first arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1989, I think I was the first person ever to cycle to work! I bought a steel Raleigh bike from the souq and got quite the looks around town. I was certainly the only female riding a bike in the capital! When I returned a few years later, my first purchase was a new bike, a better one this time, ordering from overseas due to the lack of any shops selling reasonable bikes or sports equipment. We were able to ride on and off road virtually anywhere, making our own way and pioneering routes that were only accessible on foot or 4WD. Things have certainly changed since then. And wow, we now have some of the world’s best cycling track, events and bike
shops (if you have the money!) you can find anywhere. I have never seen so many triathletes and cyclists in one city, I think these two sports have just snowballed beyond what anyone thought imaginable, but the UAE offers such easy access to be able to enjoy them safely and all through the year. Yes, it gets hot, but we have alarm clocks!
Your races in the UAE have a reputation of excellence regarding the organisation and the course profiles. What are you the proudest of in everything you have achieved with Urban-Ultra?
That’s nice to hear. I think, what makes us different, is that Urban -Ultra was born out of a passion for trail running and cycling. I hope that is what people see when they participate in one of our events. Our hearts and souls have been put into making them challenging, inclusive, unique and exciting. As race organisers we design the course, we run the course, we mark the course and feel a close connection with every race we have created. All the routes are unique and expose runners to some amazing parts of the UAE.
What is very special is when we arrive in remote villages year after year, and the locals who know us well there by now and they wave, welcome us in for tea, bring food and local produce for us and our Urban-Ultra family (this is our devoted crew!). They know that we love and take care of their back garden as if it were our own, leaving only foot steps when we leave.
Which are the biggest adjustments you had to put in place in your races to fulfill the Covid-19 requirements? Which new rules and processes can we expect when racing?
Living and owning a company in the UAE for almost 25 years has had its challenges – if you are unable to diversify and move with the times, then you don’t last very long. Our ability to accept, adapt and move on has been a working mantra for a very long time, it’s what we do. So although we have had to make changes to the race format, and the way the events are organised, we like to think that we are innovative in the way we deal with it and take it in our stride. All of the changes to the race formats can be found on our website events pages and in the Athlete Guides for each race. We encourage participants to be as flexible and understanding as possible and take into account that any changes to the formats have been made for their own and our staff’s safety as well as being in accordance with the government guidelines for Covid safety.
Where else do you want to take Urban-Ultra in the next 10 years?
We already have set up a connected brand, LPSV Experience, which hopefully will be fed from our trail running and active community here in the UAE, who we invite to visit our location in Provence, France. There we hold week-long experiences in trail running, women’s wellness, mind and soul, yoga and more, with experts in their fields, again in a unique setting, the Gorges du Verdon, a breathtaking location with a multitude of outdoor activities on offer – hence why we chose it to base LPSV Experience.
Locally for Urban-Ultra, we hope to keep growing the trail running community by holding regular events and also introducing new ones to keep them coming back for more.
Can you tell us more about your LPSV Women Wellness Experience in Provence?
We have known Julie Lewis for many years now and we thought it would be an amazing collaboration. I am certainly not done with having an active life at my age, and I know that many other women feel the same. This wellness experience is not an extreme sports event by any means, but we aim to challenge guests mentally and physically with her unique approach, healthy eating and being with like-minded women wanting to know where they are headed in the coming years and how to get there.
Which race or event would you dream to take part in as an athlete?
Funny you say that. Just recently the Eco-Challenge returned to our screens as the World’s Toughest Race. I used to watch it many years ago and could only dream of being a participant. Now it is a possibility! Who though, would I choose as my team mates!!?? That would be a harder question.
Which personality (alive or dead) would you dream to have lunch with?
I’m really not very good at choosing a single favourite thing, be it food, a colour, song or a person! I always have a list of at least 10, for many different reasons and moods.
But I’m going to go with people who are funny and make me laugh, like French & Saunders or Victoria Wood & Julie Walters. Being pioneers in the male-dominated art of comedy, I feel a similarity in the many things we have achieved here in the male-dominated field of sport.
And having them all at the same table would make for a very amusing lunch!
This year again, Sported is partner of Urban-Ultra as prize sponsor. With our brand Secret Training, we are the official nutrition partner of the Coast to Coast Cycle Challenge on Nov 20th, 2020.
Credits for all photos in this article to © Louise Adamson PHISHFOTOZ
Follow Louise @urbanultra
For more information about the Urban-Ultra race series: http://www.urbanultra.com/
For more information about the LPSV Women Wellness Experience: