The Wadi Bih race is officially the longest running expat sporting event held in the UAE, started as it was in 1992, and sees runners take on the trails through Wadi Bih, nestled in the top right corner of the peninsula and requiring a crossover into Oman.
I had heard much of the beauty of the views afforded competitors during this race and in spite of also hearing tales of caution relating to extremely lengthy waits at the border crossing, I felt compelled to get involved myself this year. This was the first year that the event was to be staged over two days, with the addition of a few new races, including the solo 50 and 30 kilometre events. Given that the team 72 kilometre relay – the main event of the weekend – was due to be held on Saturday, I was not in a position to put a team together or join another, although finding a last minute fill-in spot would not have been difficult, and so signed up for the solo 30 race. Why did I not go longer? I have the big race of the current season coming up at the end of February – Challenge Dubai – and so as much as I wanted to take part this weekend I certainly didn’t wish to sacrifice good quality training over the next crucial few weeks on account of having broken myself at the longer distances. Plus, to be honest, I have never run further than 36km and am not very experienced at trail running. As such, I know that although I’m sure I could have completed the longer races it would not have been the experience that I would have liked. Ultimately sport has to be fun – after all, I am not a professional and do this for leisure not a living. The price paid for signing on to the shorter distance was that I did not get to fully experience and appreciate the epic views that I know longer competitors did. Oh well…. theres always next year or a separate trip altogether.
With a tent kindly loaned to me by friend and colleague Adri and her husband Emile, and a relatively lightly (by my usual ‘hopeless packer’ standards) packed car, I made the most of having Thursday off and set off for the east coast early, determined to miss the queues at the border. A pleasant journey via Masafi – one of my favourite drives so far in the UAE – with a quick stop off at Lulu for some last minute food items and a spur of the moment camp chair purchase (I soon discovered at the beach that I had in fact purchased a child-size chair!) I pressed on to collect my border papers, only spotting the direction sign by fluke and at the very last minute, before waiting no more than ten minutes whilst my papers were verified and the car searched for alcohol – none was found incidentally.
The Golden Tulip hotel, nestled at the northern end of the large Dibba bay, was our base for the weekend and I set about swiftly commandeering a prime pitch for my little tent and even smaller chair, sheltered by the beach wall, looking back at the hotel and race finish chute, and situated picturesquely beneath a classic palm tree, making the whole scene look like one straight out of Robinson Crusoe. The first significant difference between beach camping and traditional UK camping that I had formerly experienced as a Boy Scout was the fact that pegs are pretty much useless in sand! A solution, thankfully, was on hand as I spotted several large rocks close to my pitch and with the two larger ones placed inside the tent itself at opposite ends, and then the guy ropes secured with the help of two more sizeable slabs, my tent was up and the scene set.
The evening before my race was a fairly relaxed affair, as it should have been, and after a brief exploration of the hotel – it didn’t take long on account of actually being pretty small – I made friends with a group of team 50 relay runners from Doha, Qatar (the ‘Not so dashing expats’) and joined them for a couple of beers. One of them, it was soon pointed out, bore an uncannily striking resemblance to a certain President of Russia, which provided some mirth. Fellow Dubai athlete, Chops Potter, and friend Marcus Smith, who is currently preparing for the epic Marathon des Sables in April, arrived later in the evening and I joined them at their camp for a quiet nightcap before everyone retired for an early start in the morning. The solo 72’ers were all due to set off at the early hour of 0430 and I did poke my head out of the tent to see them off before catching another hour of much needed sleep. My race wasn’t due to start until 0900, although I would have much preferred to start earlier in order to miss the real heat of the day. Still, at least I wasn’t having to run 72km!
Even more members of the Dubai scene arrived, with Doris taking part in the 50km solo and Taka and Tyrone joining me on the 30km race. When they both suggested that I should be aiming for a podium place I dismissed their vociferations as fanciful niceties, especially given that I am not a seasoned trail runner and was sure that the field for our race was playing host to many very fast runners. With that in mind, and a plan to just enjoy myself, I set off finding myself leading the charge and quickly remembering to focus on keeping my heart rate at a sensible and sustainable level, especially with the fact that it was to be a long race. Within about 2km the eventual race winner, Doha-based athlete Stephen Gurr, passed and was soon very much in the distance, with a couple of other runners catching me and so it was that we stayed together for about the first 5km. The funny thing about races is that regardless of what your intentions or objectives for the event, a race is still a race and we are all naturally competitive people. As such, it wasn’t long before you could feel the pace quickening and the temptation to match the renewed speed, knowing full well that to do so may well result in problems later down the line. I therefore made a decision to stick to my plan, keeping my heart rate below 180bpm and essentially allowing the two guys with me to charge ahead. My thoughts were that they were either significantly fitter than me, in which case bravo and good race, or they were making a strategic error and I would be passing them later in the race. It seems I chose wisely as it wasn’t long before I duly passed both runners. Who’d have thunk it – plans do usually work!
There were a few hilly sections on the 30km race, which did really test the lungs, legs and technique. I personally find it much easier to go up hills by pretending that I am holding poles and using my arms in such a fashion as if I am using said fictional poles. The turnaround at 15km coincided with the second aid station and following a swift downing of some electrolytes and a dousing with cold water, I set off towards the hotel and finish, in hot pursuit of the two runners between me and a second place slot. As seems to be the story of my racing career to date, the turn towards home saw me suddenly tap into an additional energy reserve and I felt great as I locked onto my targets, quickly closing the gap and moving into third. The runner now in second had put a reasonable distance between us and the next 3km saw that gap gradually close as I quickened my pace and he slowed his. Eventually I caught him and found myself in the position of having to defend my hard fought second position – my first podium slot – which is basically where the race really started for me.
Not wishing to upset the rhythm that I had established, I chose not to look behind me until the last large hill, when I found a need to walk briefly, expecting my closest rival to pass me. He didn’t and so I glanced back to see that I had actually put a decent gap between us. That gave me the encouragement to dig in, push up the hill and focus on keeping my lead for the closing kilometres of the race, knowing full well that a race is not won until the line is crossed. This is where mental reserves were called on as by this stage the temperature had peaked and I was feeling the heat. I don’t believe I broke any records over those final kilometres, slow as they were, although the pace acutely increased as I turned onto the main road near the hotel, and the 2km left mark, to glance back and see the runner who would eventually take third rapidly catching me up. “Nooooo!” was all I could think. “I have NOT battled this far to let it slip now!” As such, I dug in and was determined to push it as hard as I could right until the end. The first problem I hit upon was the fact that the signposting back to the race start was awful, or rather non-existent, which was an issue given that I could not for the life of me recall which side-street we had emerged from. A pitiful look back to Mr Third Place with a shrugged question of “Which way?” was met, very sportingly I might add, with instructions to keep going and then directions on where to actually turn. If he was set on taking second over me at any cost then he could have stitched me right up and sent me the wrong way easily. But he didn’t. Cos he is a sportsman, and I genuinely applaud and respect him for that fact. So, the final straight entered, the hotel in sight, tantalisingly close yet still far enough to hurt. I was absolutely convinced that it would be in these final hundreds of metres that I would be passed and so I gritted my teeth and just locked on to the finish. Still in second as I reached the sand. Still in second at the start of the finish chute. “Yes!” Second place as I crossed the line and brought this race to a close. I’d done it! I had secured my first UAE podium. It felt great. Well, it actually felt like my legs were about to seize up but the feeling of achievement was wonderful.
Heeding the advice of coach, Trace, I duly hopped – or rather collapsed into – the cool waters of the hotel pool, determined to loosen the legs up, before donning the trusty compression tights and gobbling down some protein and cool drinks. The short siesta I took in my tent – complete with prime views out of the open door to the finish – was serene, and as I dozed I allowed my thoughts to wander back over the race. I’d intended to listen to music, even wearing my ear buds the whole way round. However, as it turned out I actually ran without any music, and so was able to really listen to my body, and focus on my race strategy, which I suspect helped a great deal.
My initial plan has been to pack up and head back to Dubai after the race. However, given the fact that a) I knew the traffic was going to be hellish on a Friday afternoon, and b) it was a great chance to kick back with some friends and enjoy the post-race hospitality, I opted to hang around for the rest of the day, joining in with a few well-deserved beers and making a decent dent in the race buffet on offer. After a demonstration of several Omani songs and dances from a local group we got on to the presentation and I soon found myself shaking hands with the local dignitaries and race organiser, John Young, before accepting my prize for second: a new pair of Saloman running shoes, which were exactly in my size as well. A great result from a really great day’s event. I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a fun trail running race and I would definitely like to return to take part in the full distance, albeit as part of a relay, perhaps even taking up the option of doing it in fancy dress!