Running 270kms through the UAE Desert:
So how did I end up in Dubai at the start line of the worlds longest desert Ultra stage race? Well, after running the North Face endurance challenge 100 miler (162Km) race in the Andes mountains (just behind Santiago in Chile), I decided that was gonna be my last big race of the year. A day or two after this race, I was checking my messages, and I saw one from the organisers of the Al Marmoom ultra marathon, asking if I was interested in coming to their inaugural race… After a bit of a chat with them, and wondering about how I could recover/train in time (it was only about 7 weeks away!) I threw caution to the wind and said I’m In…Now, I have never run a desert stage race, I had very little experience running on sand, and my body was pretty beaten up after the 100 miler due to a fall I had during that race… But I also love a challenge, and I’ve never grown as a runner or a person by staying in my comfort zone. So began my next big adventure.
After chatting with my coach about how to get ready in time (Well, as prepared as I could be anyway), I followed his advice on building strength and practicing a bit of sand running down at Frans beach house…There was quite a technique to it, and after a few hours running in the soft sand dunes, I knew this was gonna be tough on my body…I must admit, at this stage I really didn’t have the skill set needed, but I’ve always been a more of a “learn by doing It” kinda guy… So strength was the name of the game, I spent most of my training time focusing on climbing and building up my glutei/ hips/ lower back strength (I must admit, these are all areas where I’m a little weak)…During this time I also studied up a bit about desert running and the kind of gear I would need to help me run in all that sand. And I found out there are a couple of essential items of kit you just gotta have for this type of race…
My Top Gear Tip:
I was on a steep learning curve with this one, but the one piece of gear I really recommend above all else is Sand Gaiters (I used the Raidlight branded ones). They are absolutely essential when you’re running on soft sand for any length of time. Dry hot sand in your shoes, mixed with sweat and soft skin equals a whole lot of foot problems when running such long distances… They’re super easy to use, lightweight, breathable, and most importantly of all keep out sand.
NOTE: I will do a seperate Blog post with more detail on the gear (Hoka, Black Diamond, LED Lenser, Rockay, Tifosi, Salomon etc) and nutrition (tailwind and GU) I used for this race.
Firstly a quick mention of the days leading up to the race. After a 20 hour flight from Santiago to Dubai, I found my way to the athletes hotel ( Zabeel House Mini by Jumeirah) located next to “Dubai Creek”( a river that runs through the city).
I was met by the race organisers and the other athletes, and we all got to know each other a bit better. Some of the worlds best desert runners were running here, and it was great to meet them and see what they did to prepare for a race like this. We spent the next few days hanging out at the hotel, going on shakeout runs, eating, and generally having a blast.
Also I gotta make a special mention about my buddy Marcus Smith. He met me and took me to get my shoes fitted out for sand gaiters, organised some amazing pre prepared meals from “Smith St Paleo” and squeezed in a podcast interview with me at the same time. this guy is a legend (And has an amazing comeback story of his own). Check out the links below for more info.
We also visited the Dubai sports council for an athlete meet and greet / press conference, and met His Excellency Saeed Hareb, (the Secretary General of the Dubai sports council).
On Monday afternoon we headed out into the desert to our camp. This would become our “home” for the next 5 days and serve as our base camp for the duration of the race. I gotta say, in my own personal experience, that this was the most well organised “base camp” I have ever seen. The facilities were amazing, and it was obvious a lot of thought was put into thinking about the welfare of the athletes. Monday evening we picked up our race bibs and had the compulsory gear checks. After a few last minute we were ready. The race started on Tuesday morning and we were all ready to get this party started.
The race was broken down into 4 stages; Day 1- 50km…Day 2- 70km…Day 3/4- 100km…Day 5- 50km.
Day 1: 50 km
We lined up at the start line and there was a buzz of excitement, this was unlike any other race start, as we were joined by camels and horses with riders, who would run out with us for the first few hundred meters.
3..2..1 and just like that we were off! the first day of 270 kms of heat, sand, wind, and one heck of an adventure…Everything was going well for the first 20kms or so as everyone settled into their paces, I was still carrying a bit of a knee injury from the 100 miler I had run 7 weeks previously, and by the 35 km mark it was starting to play up a bit. I decided the best thing to do was ease off the pace a bit and jog it in to the finish as this was only the first day, and I still had a pretty long way to go. the wind picked up a bit and I ran the last part of the 50 kms pretty slowly. the goal was to get across the finish line and get day one done. After getting there, I headed back to base camp and got a massage to help with my knee, refuelled, and got my gear ready for day 2.
Day 2: 70 km
Day 2 and it was time to pick things up a bit, the course was more runnable on this day and the temperature was forecast to get quite high. once again everything started well and I found a good pace and settled into it. I spent most of the first 40 kms or so running with a few different runners, (also bumped into Marcus Smith and a few of his mates as I ran beside a cycle path). I spent a bit of time running with Magda Boulet (An elite athlete, and the eventual womens winner of this event). it was great to settle into a rhythm and chat while we pushed on through the desert heat. Unfortunately, once again, my knee started to play up and I had to start jogging and even walking for most of the last 20-30kms. This was a little concerning as i knew the biggest day was still ahead. However, I also know that in Ultra running, you just gotta keep it in the moment and work with what you have. I crossed the finish line on day 2, cleaned up, refuelled, took care of my knee, and crashed as the effort of the day really took it out of me.
Day 3/4: 100 km
This day was always gonna be a tough one, most of the race was in the big sand dunes, so we all knew that we would be pushing our bodies hard. I ran this stage with Magda, and we made a loose plan to take it easy on the big dunes, and push a little harder on the more runnable sections.To our surprise, the other women runners decided to push hard on this day, and caught up to us about 20-30 kms in. This certainly made the race more interesting, as a game of push and chase ensued between the top 3 women for the reamainder of the 100 kms. I would like to say the highlight of this day was the incredible sunset and sunrise, but honestly, the best part was running at different points with many of the other competitors. Once again my knee started to play up and I spent most of the last 10 kms walking/jogging in the dark. I can”t thank Magda and Aziza enough for staying with me over these last few kms, and keeping my spirits up. One thing that i will always remember was when we all joined hands, and crossed the finish line together…a tough day, but one which brought out the best in everyone. A special mention to all the race organisers and support crew who did an amazing job keeping us all on track and well supplied.
After a good(and painful) sleep we had the remainder of the day to recover and attend to our various aches and pains, as we waited for the other runners to finish this stage. it was great to spend this time getting to know the others athletes as we were now joined by the 100km and 50km runners for the shorter distance events.
Day 5: 50 km
The last day dawned and we lined up. Bodies were strapped up, tapped up, toenails were missing, and we were ready to get this done. The race had taken its toll with quite a few athletes dropping due to various injuries. this was hard for them as most had pushed so hard to get this far, but thats ultra racing for you. Off we went, heading out into the desert one last time. Once again it was a a course made up of sand dunes, but we knew that whatever we had left, we could give it everything as this was our last day…I’m not sure why, but i felt much better physically and mentally on this day, Thats also the way it goes in ultra running. Once again, i ran this stage with Magda, we seemed to pace and push each other well, and it was great to have such a positive and experienced athlete to run with. the last few sand dunes were a bit of a challenge, but as we crested the last one and saw the finish line we knew it was done… Running across that last flat plain to the finish line was an experience that will stay with me. Days of sand, heat, a body that was breaking down, and pushing through with an uncooperative knee all caught up with me and i was a little overwhelmed.
(i must mention that Magda insisted I should go ahead and run across the finish line first, I’ve met many race winners in my time, but not many true champions, and she definitely falls into both categories.)
And just like that it was done! After the medal/awards ceremony we got on the bus and headed back to the city and the hotel for a well needed shower and sleep.now i could go into all the details about my gear, my nutrition, and my race planning and strategy…But I will cover that in another Blog.
I could talk about the amazing people I met, and the friendships we formed. Or how awesome the race organisers, the Dubai sports council, and support crew were.
However, this race had a profound effect on me…was it the early morning sunrises as the sun cast its rays across the endless dunes? or was it the night sky full of a thousand stars that seemed to go on forever? Who really knows?
I believe that when you give yourself fully to an experience in life, you sacrifice a part of your very essence to it (some call it your spirit/soul/ or energy)…For a few weeks after the race I felt that loss, its almost like I left a part of me out in that vast and wild desert. I guess we all experience ultra running (and life) in different ways.
And ultimately, It’s for each of us to decide what we give of ourselves, and what we are willing to lose, in the pursuit of the things we love…
Happy Running Everyone
Here are a few links associated with some of the things mentioned in this blog: