Oman by UTMB, a race of 134 kms and 7,800m of vertical gain was dubbed ‘the beast’ and, as many ultras claim to be, the ‘worlds toughest ultra’. For once I wouldn’t dispute that. Why? Because of the 326 well-trained athletes who set off, only 135 made it to the finish tape some 44 hours later. That’s a drop out rate of 60%!
The winner, Jason Schlarb said, “it’s the most difficult ultra I have done, it’s a crazy one!” You needed to be on top of both your physical and mental game to succeed on this one.
The original UTMB, and from where this race has its origins, the alpine, Ultra trail du Mont Blanc, is a well established and highly respected event drawing competitors from around the globe. On paper it would seem to be harder with 171km and 10,040m of gain. But it leads competitors over peaks and into valleys along well-trodden paths compacted and shaped by years of use.
By contrast, the hills of Al Hajar are a totally different story. Rarely did the trail follow a well-graded path. Instead we jumped, scrambled and picked our way over boulders, along ridges, and over sharp rugged rock faces. Indeed at one point we were given harness and a helmet as we completed a Via ferrata.
So we have ascertained that this race was going to be tough, even for those most fit athlete. I wasn’t in peak condition due to an operation only a few weeks earlier and which meant I had not been able to run for some considerable time. However, having signed up and having the support of two friends who live over there, I wanted to at least start and be part of this inaugural event. Every mile was a bonus and I was there to enjoy the journey. It’s refreshing to start a race knowing you aren’t there to compete but to complete. I relished the freedom that brought.
As I have come to expect from UTMB branded events, the starting shoot was a lively, noisy and exciting place! At 7.30pm, the Fort at Nizwa was no different and the normally quiet streets were buzzing with runners checking kit, spectators snapping photos and groups of a male dancers brandishing swords and drums, adding some local colour to the spectacle.
The first 4km snaked around the old town where young and old hung out of windows and balconies to cheer you along. The locals had really taken this race to heart and gave a great send off as we swapped the last of the tarmac for the rocky trail. The initial cut off times were quite harsh, so a solid pace was needed from the outset. I settled into an easy early rhythm. The Wadi bed of small stones gave way to large boulders. We clambered from boulder to boulder using both hands and feet for support as we picked our way up to the first of 21 check points. Luckily fresh legs meant the odd gazelle like leap was possible and a sure footing was guaranteed.
I love running at night. Only having the width of the beam to focus on is really meditative. It’s like being in a small bubble. The first part of the night was cloudy so I couldn’t see the moon or the stars but as the hours wore on they came in to view. Looking up without stopping was a fools game. But if you did take a moment, their radiance was utter magic.
Conversation with other runners was limited to a few formalities, particularly in the dark hours. I found myself mostly running alone anyway and I have to confess to liking it that way. It allows me to focus and be present. I was really enjoying myself.
The course directors had done an incredible job with the course markings. Little round green fluorescent markers, not dissimilar to cats eyes guided you round, over and under boulders. They were placed with incredible regularity and it would have been nigh on impossible to miss them. Red markers signalled a hazard, which generally meant a deep ravine or precipice. There was very little room for error.
Everyone holds out for the aid stations on an ultra. Indeed most will break their race down in to manageable chunks by focusing on getting to the next one. On this race they were manned predominantly by Omanis. Big smiles and music greeted your arrival. I would gulp down a cup of chicken noodle soup before grabbing a banana and a handful of biscuits to chomp on as I carried on my way.
Dawn broke to allow us a glimpse of the kind of terrain we were running in. Huge vistas, and long orange shadows were just wonderful. There was a photo opportunity around every corner. Though no time to stop! It was lovely to feel the warmth of the sun on your back and finally discard the head torch. Which by now was beginning to dim on my forehead.
It wasn’t long after this that my body gave me the signs that my race was drawing to a close. Having felt so good and so strong, as expected, my tank started to run dry. I knew it was soon time to wave the white flag.
The race director was keen to point out in the race briefing “you have never been to mountains like this” I couldn’t agree more. They were brutal! The race was brutal! I had such a positive experience, put myself in what I believe will qualify as the hardest ultra in the world and I came out beaming. Pleased with what I had achieved. Sometimes you go out to win, Sometimes you win by going out.