Omani at Walk of the World

August 08, 2019

Mawada al Ismaily, 23, stamped Oman’s mark in the world’s most historic walking event held in the Netherlands last month. Also called the Walk of the World, the International Four Day Marches Nijmegen or Vierdaagse (Dutch for ‘the four days’) is an annual walk that has taken place since 1909. Being based in a city called Nijmegen since 1916, the event was listed as the world’s biggest walking event in the Guinness Book of Records in 1975.

Over four days, participants walk predetermined distances – 30km, 40km, 50km or 55km – every day in and around Nijmegen and its beautiful wooded surroundings, a city 120km from Amsterdam close to the Netherlands’ border with Germany. The oldest city in the country, Nijmegen celebrated its 2,000th anniversary in 2005.

On the third Tuesday of July every year, thousands of walkers descend on Nijmegen to take part in a tradition started more than a century ago to promote sports and exercise. Each day of the four-day march is named after the biggest town it goes through. The route can change every year; this year, Tuesday – July 16 - was The Day of Elst, followed by The Day of Wijchen, The Day of Groesbeek and The Day of Cuijk.

Participants include several walkers who have taken part in 50, and even 60, of these annual marches. Bert van der Lans, 86, who completed his 71st march last year, holds the current record for the maximum number of participations in the coveted event.

A test of endurance rather than speed, those who complete the walk are presented the Cross for the Four Day Marches - an official Dutch decoration that can be worn on a Dutch military uniform.  

This year marked the 103rd edition of the event, and saw 44,702 walkers representing 77 countries, flagged off on July 16. Four days later, 41,235 walkers successfully stepped over the finish line. Mawada, the first Omani woman, was one among them.

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But she isn’t the first Omani to successfully cross that line. In 2018, Aziz al Riyami – a businessman – claimed that distinction. Strangely, his feat went unnoticed. A friend of her father Nasser al Ismaily, Riyami talked him into taking part in the walk this year. A fitness enthusiast who encourages his family to be physically active, Ismaily and Riyami have been hiking in Oman for many years. When Ismaily told his family about the walk, Mawada decided to join him. The father-daughter duo signed up for 160km - 40km a day - while Aziz opted for 50km X four days. Ismaily, however, dropped out on Day 1.

“This kind of walk requires proper training, and I did a lot of preparations and felt I was ready. However, on the first day of the walk, I walked so fast that towards the end I was exhausted, and decided not to continue,” Ismaily said.

Describing the event further, he said, “The walk takes you through small villages and scenic routes around Nijmegen. It is amazing to see families and small children out on the street welcoming total strangers as they walk by their houses. Families offer food, water and fruits and cheer the participants, even as there is great merrymaking with song and dance. People cheered, shouting ‘Oman, Oman!’ when we passed by. The encouragement and support of the public takes away the pain and exhaustion of the effort while walking through the villages.”

 Mawada graduated in architecture and urban planning from GUtech in 2018 and is currently travelling around Europe recuperating after the four-day walk. Asked how she trained for it, Ismaily said, “She has been active since she was a kid. She has a black belt in karate and has been hiking here regularly. For this event, she did not train hard enough or seriously, that’s why she found it very hard.”

Mawada described the event as ‘very tough’. “It requires not just physical, but mental preparedness. You need a lot of motivation to finish the walk. There’s barely any time to recover. You just get to sleep and wake up the next day and walk four days in a row. But the help of loved ones and the crowd support made it a little better.”

 While she had many memorable moments, one stands out. “On one of the days when I was really very tired, a girl ran out from the crowd towards me and asked for my name. Then she went back to her bunch of friends in the crowd and started shouting in unison, ‘Go Mawada go! Go Mawada go!’ I’ll never forget that.” That support helped her complete the walk that day.

Asked what’s next, she said she has Mt Fuji in her sight – a target that would fit in perfectly with the Ismaily family’s adventurous nature and athleticism. In 2016, Mawada’s younger brother Said Nasser was just 15 when he scaled Mt Kilimanjaro accompanied by his father Ismaily, uncle and cousin. A family outing atop Mt Fuji, this time around perhaps? Ismaily is quick to correct us. He’s currently looking at Adam's Peak in Sri Lanka. Asked which of his children will join him, he said whoever finds it interesting could.