People often describe life’s journey as a rollercoaster. The same can absolutely be applied to an ultramarathon as one most certainly experiences fabulous highs and descents into lows before almost as quickly ascending to new heights. So it was for my last big athletic push of 2017: the UTX 50, organised and staged by the fantastic Urban Ultra team.
The day started as most do when you’re into weird things like running very very long distances for fun: in the dark and far earlier than most humans would consider sane. With my race pack having been picked up a couple of days before and the requisite bits of mandatory kit acquired, nutrition and the various items of clothing I may well have needed during the day were carefully packed into my car before I started the long, somewhat hazy drive out towards Ras Al Khaimah and the pin-pointed location of the race setting. Thank goodness for Google Maps is all I can say as without it I sincerely doubt i’d have made it to the start line. As I followed the digital line on my phone’s map display off the main highway and onto an altogether narrower, more sandy roadway I soon became grateful for the fact that the organisers had remembered that not everyone in the UAE drives a 4WD. Having said that I reached a point where it became clear that to proceed may well have meant risking getting stuck in the very soft sand that the road had transitioned to, especially as I had already seen one runner do just that after taking the wrong one of two options at a forked junction. The race site, I was informed by a couple who had opted to camp overnight, was just a hundred metres on and thus easily walkable.
One thing that many people find hard to get their heads around, especially after the stifling heat and relentless humidity of the summer months is the fact that in winter it does actually get pretty darned cold, especially out in the desert. As such, getting changed into my running gear was a nippy affair and I was glad to be able to don my snood and Patagonia base layer before grabbing my CamelPak, with nutrition stowed away, and head torch before making my way over to registration. Quite a few people had, it turned out, managed to drive to the main site – the road into camp was actually passable by normal cars; these things often only become apparent after the fact – and when I arrived the music was pumping, lights were on and the inflatable arch of the start and finish line was clearly visable, with registration just to the side of it. Signed in and with at least forty minutes to go until the start I opted to head back to the car and hunker down with a book rather than freeze by standing around idly. I’d have more than enough time to spend on my feet come the actual race!
The trail and ultra scene out here is a relatively small one and so the same faces tend to pop up at most events, which makes for a really nice, familial or collegiate atmosphere. So it was as many of the Dubai Trail Runners, including head honcho, Lee, filtered into the start line huddle, exchanging greetings and comments on how chilly it was, before we were given the briefing and placed under starters orders. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1….FOGHORN!” We were off, with the eventual race winners striking up an impressive pace from the get-go whilst I found myself comfortably towards the front but in no way pushing for any kind of heroic lead. Not in this race and not generally in this sport – I respect the distance too much and recognise my own limits at present. Besides, we first of all had about 3km of sand and dunes to traverse before the more traditional trail running ensued and based on my limited experience of dune running I know how tough it can be and so wished to conserve energy as much as I was able. One thing that fairly rapidly became clear was that I could easily have done without the base layer as within about five minutes of dune-climbing effort I was well and truly ‘warmed up’ and would have jettisoned it early on had I been ok to stop. Instead I elected to push on at a steady pace before making the final breathtakingly beautiful descent down the last big dune, with the sun now making an appearance and illuminating the dunes and mountains of the area, and stopped at the bottom, where the hard track started, in order to pack away my base-layer, sand gaiters and lamp and catch a much needed breath before the main section of the day kicked off.
I can’t really say that I had any real strategy for the day other than to remember not to push it too hard in the early stages as tempting as it may have been, and to remember to remain hydrated and adequately fed, both of which are surprisingly easy to forget to do, especially in cooler conditions. I had intended to listen to some music as a way of ‘zoning out’ during the race but found myself foregoing that option in favour of simply enjoying my surroundings, brief conversations with fellow runners and to pay close attention to both the trail – an important way to reduce the risk of stumbles, falls, ankle twists and all of the other ridiculously simple to occur happenings that can befall a trail runner, especially when tired – and my general surroundings, both of which were beautiful. The first section of trail after the dunes took us out of the ‘countryside’ and into an area of housing, meaning a section of paved road running, where we came upon the first aid station – I elected not to stop at this as still had plenty of water and was feeling in a good flow state so wished to capitalise by continuing on. After that the trail took us into a narrow section of wadi before opening up into a wider, more isolated, or wilder area of proper wadi where we found ourselves for about the next 10 km. I found the initial 20 km to be comfortable and was able to maintain a steady pace that saw me overtake a few people, although I also had several people pass me in turn. My feet were feeling good and I once again thanked good fortune that I had discovered Injinji and their incredible socks as they seemed to be my saving grace as far as looking after my feet was concerned.
After the second aid station, which was positioned in a picturesque little farming village and at which I did make a stop, enjoying the orange slices on offer, I did start to feel my legs a little more and on the steeper sections of short climbing elected to walk. I also stopped for a few minutes, not out of fatigue but because the narrow path that climbed up behind and between some buildings had on one side stables and out of two of the open windows popped the heads of some stunning horses. I couldn’t ignore them and so stopped to say hello, enjoying the interaction with my new equine buddies, only spurred on by the voices of another two runners scaling the path behind me. From there the road wound up and down and around the farming community, with cute little stone buildings surrounding cultivated and terraced fields of lush green crops flanked by the razer tipped peaks of the UAE mountains surrounding us. The start of the final descent of this section was marked by a rusty iron gate and once through it was a knee-pounding run down towards a long, straight, somewhat demoralising stretch of main highway running that seemed to coincide with the start of the day’s heat. I was ok for about the first half of this particular section but then felt myself hitting up against a bit of a wall before caving in to temptation and choosing to walk for a bit. A short walk was soon extended at the next to a longer walk and if it were not for the heroic efforts of one runner, Elliot Lewis, and his words of encouragement as I then ran the next twenty or so kilometres with him, I would have had a truly miserable experience and succumbed to the spectre of walking most of the rest of the race. Ultra marathons mess with your head. They’re long enough that to get through them in one piece does require constant thinking, reassessments, personal pep-talking and it is so easy for those voices of doubt to start creeping into your head before screaming at you to ‘just take it easy for a bit’ that they become hard to ignore. It may have been that some decent, motivational music would have helped at this stage, but I had a better option: another runner to keep me motivated and going. That’s another thing I do love about this sport – very rarely do you encounter a selfish athlete who is just interested in themselves and their own race. Most runners genuinely look out for their fellow race-goers and do what they can if they see someone struggling. Did my companion sacrifice some time in order to run with me? I don’t know but the point is that instead of silently cruising past me and leaving me to trudge the trails alone he made the decision to step up to the mark and be the guardian angel that I needed at that particular moment. For that I humbly thank him.
From the prospect of another thirty kilometres of painfully dull trudging in the heat I was instead in the much better position of finding myself approaching the final aid station, just 10km out from the finish, and at this point I felt strong enough to start to up the ante and pace. With the blessing of my running companion for the last 20km I struck out on my own once more and soon found myself rattling along at a blistering pace. What I should have recognised, however, was that it was too fast to be sustained and crushingly after about 5km I found myself hitting yet another wall and once more reduced to a walk-run regime as I gritted my teeth and willed the final few kilometres to pass. Those final few K’s were tough and there were several moments when I found myself talking out loud, admonishing myself for being arrogant and pushing off too hard from the aid station. If i’d maintained better control then I would have found a steady, sustainable pace and been able to at least run the entire final 10km. Still, one learns with every event. One thing I was determined NOT to do was walk over the finish line. Nah! Not going to happen. I was absolutely going to run that and so with the final 1.5km to go I dug in, willed my aching and leaden legs into action and focused on thoughts of the end. The trail entered an area of dunes and so I knew I was close, in addition to the fact that my Suunto told me the same thing, and then out to the right, in the distance I could see the runner ahead of me, Scott, turning into what I knew must have been the finishing chute, a narrow gully between two rocky outcrops that funnelled us to the end. That was all the motivation I needed to be able to punch the metaphorical biological nitrous button and sprint! It’s always amused and frustrated me in equal measure how no matter how done in you are during a race there always seems to be that small reserve of energy that is kept back especially for sprinting to the finish line. A little like always being able to find space for dessert. I could see Lee up on the rock and gave him a thumbs up as I rounded the final corner, saw the archway and locked in. It was done. 50km of running was over and another ultramarathon notched up. I gratefully took receipt of my wooden medal – a nice environmentally friendly spin on the usual metal offering – and waddled over to the gazebo where I earnestly accepted the offer of Coca Cola and some delicious soup! Just what was needed after nearly six hours of being out pounding the trails.
With some sustenance on board and my pack laid to rest I felt significantly better, joining the other runners to have finished in cheering our fellow racers across the line and enjoying the plentiful photo opportunities. One final group pic snapped, with the Urban Ultra goat taking centre stage, and it was back to the car and ultimately Dubai. My best laid plans of a relaxing evening of movie watching and feet up leisure quickly became a case of falling asleep on the sofa and thus marked the end of yet another fun filled yet tough day out on the athletic scene here in the UAE.
Finished in 5 hours, 38 mins and 9 seconds
17th place overall and 12th in my category.
(The winning time was 4’14”59! Staggeringly speedy!)