Category Archives: Travel & International

Vetty content from around the globe.

Eiger 101 Post 7 – The City of Runners: Boston

I love to run in new places as it is often one of the very best ways to get to explore a new location and observe those little details that make it fascinating. I have already had the pleasure of running in Spain recently and so it was with excitement that I packed up my running gear once again, including the much needed cold-weather layers, and jetted off to Boston, USA. My primary purpose for a visit to the city was to speak at a Virtual Reality conference, specifically on the subject of VR in Veterinary, but I extended my stay for the week in order to explore it fully. It has long been on my list of places to visit, appealing as it does to my inner nerd, what with such prestigious landmarks as Harvard and MIT representing the epitome of geeky culture. It is, of course, also the setting for one of the premier running events of the calendar, namely the Boston Marathon. As such I knew that it was bound to be a runners’ city and I was not disappointed.
During the planning phase of the trip I looked into both suggested runs in the city, with the classic Charles River loop coming out on top, and also sought out some groups that I might be able to join for one or two runs, thus injecting a little social experience into my pavement pounding. The group that caught my attention was the Heartbreak Hill Runners, an enthusiastic and, as I soon discovered, large group of runners of all levels that meet for regular sessions, congregating out of one of the group’s several shops. The session I joined in with was their weekly Saturday morning long run, which happened to coincide nicely with my own training schedule mandated long run. Bonus! Getting out to the start point was a bit of a mission as it was located in the suburbs of Boston, specifically Newton, and for some reason the metro that morning was on super duper slow mode, with a replacement bus having to be used for part of the journey. Instead of being super early, as had been my intention, I ended up having to jog from the final metro station to the shop, although we didn’t actually set off for a little while longer.
Situated on a corner, the Heartbreak Hill Runners shop was modest in size but packed with not only an impressive array of running merchandise but was crammed with people! I had not expected there to be quite so many in attendance and was even more impressed when I was given a wristband after registering – this apparently entitled me to make use of the aid stations that were put on – and had the option to leave my bag in a secure part of the store while we all ran. All very organised indeed. After a briefing from head coach and owner Dan – most people there were in the final weeks of training for the Boston marathon – we were encouraged to shuffle outside, find our respective pacers and to get going. I was expecting just a casual small group run but what it seemed to be was a very well organised mass event – this truly did seem to be the city of runners, an impression that was further reinforced by the fact that there were clearly lots of other groups out training as well, in addition to loads of other aid stations, complete with cheering spectators and supplies. I couldn’t help smiling at the thought that even the supporters seemed to train for the Boston marathon!
The looped course took us up Heartbreak Hill, along the edge of the nearby reservoir and past Boston College, before taking in another long, steady climb and a relatively flat, fast return to the shop. Many of those running were due to do 3 hours of continuous running, meaning multiple loops. As tempted as I was to join them in this pursuit I only had a half marathon distance pencilled in and so after scaling Heartbreak Hill and reaching Boston College for the second time I about-turned and returned to the shop. Feeling buoyed by my efforts and loving the general atmosphere of the shop, the team and the whole morning I felt compelled to purchase a couple of awesome T-shirts, designed there in Boston by a couple of runners, snapped a couple of pics and even had the honour of making it onto their famous wall of mugshots 🙂
Having experienced the feeling of being a runner in Boston on a normal week I can only begin to imagine how electric the atmosphere must be for the annual marathon. Who knows: perhaps I shall be back someday to find out first-hand.

Eiger 101 Post 6 – Running In The New Year

The beauty of running is that it is possible to pretty much do it anywhere. The equipment requirements are essentially very simple: a pair of decent running shoes and some suitable athletic apparel, because lets be honest no one is going to be heading out for a training run wearing their travel suit, are they?! When preparing for a race such as the Eiger 101 it is important to keep up the training regardless of where I find myself and whether or not I am on holiday. So it was the case at Christmas as I headed out of Dubai and flew to Spain – specifically Granada to start – for the week encompassing Christmas itself and including my dad’s birthday. With triathlon I would have fretted about the logistics of being able to get in some bike training and finding the closest pool so as to keep up the swim programme. Not so with running. All I needed to pack were my runners, including my trail shoes because, who knows, perhaps I’d find some good off-road options, and a couple of slightly warmer layers more than I’d normally don for Dubai-based training. Simple and it meant that the ‘athletic endeavours’ compartment of my packing took up a tiny corner of my suitcase as opposed to needing to lug around a bike box!
Worth the climbing. Epic views in Granada, Spain
So what of the running in Spain itself? Given that it was December and we were up in the mountains, on the fringes of the Sierra Nevada range, it was cold. There were, however, just two days when one could describe conditions as wet and so the bulk of my running was conducted in chilly crisp air with bright blue skies and sunlight, making me very grateful that I packed the trusty Oakleys alongside leggings. Granada offered a feast of options, both visually and physically as I had the option to run flat, following the river in both directions, with landscape painting quality views of the distant snow-capped peaks as a backdrop, or take to the steep climbs up into historic neighbourhoods, or barrios, like Albaícin or the climb up to the famous landmark of la Alhambra, the medieval hilltop fort that is Granada’s enduring image. With steps, pedestrians, narrow streets and generally lots of little features of interest to pay close attention to, road running in Granada did have more in common with a true trail run than a plodding, steady road run, with the need to vary pacing, stride length and effort regularly. This made for both physically and mentally rewarding runs. Being able to head out at any time of the day due to high temperatures not being a concern was also a welcome blessing.
Snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains made for an epic backdrop
One of the most memorable runs I completed was towards the end of my stay in the city as I struck out along the river, following the path as it left the main city, becoming more and more rural and eventually transitioning to a narrow trail. I opted to turn back once the path became both too narrow and too muddy, retracing my steps into Granada before taking a right that led me through the centre, weaving between strolling pedestrians on their morning commute, before climbing steadily toward Albaícin. I love those runs when you just feel so good that the thought of sticking to ‘the programme’ and bringing that feeling of flow to a premature end seems wrong, disrespectful almost, and so it was this thought that drove my legs and body up and up right to the top of the hill on which the small church of Ermita de San Miguel Alto was situated. Due to it being a fairly cold and damp morning I was one of only three people present and so was able to enjoy the panoramic view out over the city unobstructed and in peace. Well worth the climb up!
From Granada I parted with my parents at Malaga airport, them returning to the UK whilst I flew up to Madrid, where I spent New Years with my girlfriend and other Madrid-based amigos. The running in Madrid is as good as that in Granada, and once again, I was blessed to be able to run at any time of the day without the fear of heat exhaustion or sun stroke, and with both the city to explore and the expanses of the various parks, such as Parque del Retiro, and the huge Casa de Campo, I was in runners’ nirvana!

Eiger 101 Post 5 – UTX 50: Running out of 2017

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.
FINAL RESULT:
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!)
Team photo at the finish
Left: Elliot & I / Right: Louise, Pascal & I

Eiger 101 Post 2 – Let The Training Commence

The slot is secured and the target set. So what now? What path will see me go from being a competent yet not outstanding runner to one who finishes a monumental endurance challenge like the Eiger 101 in a decent time?

 

The first important step, as was the case when preparing for my Ironman races, was to enlist the advice, guidance and self-pressure application that comes from having a professional coach on your side. I wasn’t certain if Trace, who expertly guided me to becoming an Ironman, would want to take on the tangenital task of training an ultra-runner, being a triathlon coach with a busy client-load and a packed race calendar, but was pleasantly surprised when she reacted really positively to the idea of taking on something new. It looks as though this experience will see both of us push our respective boundaries and learn something new.

 

Having an interim goal in the form of an earlier race is always a sound idea for any long-term training plan and so we looked at the upcoming races here in the Middle East and opted to focus immediate efforts on the Urban Ultra UTX-50, a mixed trail race on the 8th December that will see runners cover 50km of sand, trail and wadis, with some climbs thrown in for good measure. As a test of where my endurance running is and how my training is progressing this should be a telling event. The distance no longer scares me after doing the 72km Wadi Bih race earlier this year, although I feel as though I should be going into this race significantly fitter and better prepared than I was in February. As such, I am hoping to record a decent time and enjoy the day. The mainstay of my preparation has been to head out to Wadi Showka each Friday morning in order to hit the trails and steadily increase the mileage, with 28km being the furthest I have run this season, a significant way off the 101km of the Eiger but a decent start to my campaign.

 

Camels, UAE, trail running
The company on the trails is inquisitive.

With the temperatures finally dropping as we emphatically move from the oppressive heat and humidity of summer into winter (aka the ‘pleasant season’), there is less imperative to start runs at stupid o’clock as running in daylight no longer coincides with guaranteed heat exhaustion as it does in the summer months. There is, however, something incredibly exciting and satisfying about witnessing dawn whilst out on the trails, in addition to it actually being excellent training in head-torch use and running with just the light from several LEDs to illuminate the path. That was one of my most recent purchases: a new head-torch, as my previous one was quite frankly feckless, barely lighting the way ahead. My new lamp, in contrast, practically recreates daylight such are the number of lumens that it hurls out. Lovely!

Eiger Ultra – It’s On… What the Actual F Have I Let Myself In For?!

Anyone who has ever put themselves through an endurance event, such as an Ironman race or a marathon, will recognise the description of the (often) many moments during the event when thoughts inevitably turn a little dark and take the form of “why, oh why, do I do this to myself?! What made me sign up for this hell?! That’s it! This is the last time…. never again!” Then, as one crosses the finish line, how those very thoughts pretty much instantly transform into ones of elated euphoria and a wry smile as you tell anyone who asks if you’ll do another, “well, never say never, eh,” meaning “yes, almost certainly yes.” It is the biological shot in the arm and natural high from endorphins and the incredible sense of achievement that follows completion of a really tough athletic challenge that sees us return to the endurance pantheon and continue to push ourselves on and on, higher and higher, harder and harder. Time and time again.

 

I’m no exception to this apparent rule and so it seemed almost inevitable that following the completion of two iron distance races, and two solid years of equally relentless training, my thoughts turned once again to event options. I had tried the whole ‘training just to keep fit for fitness sake’ thing and it really didn’t work – I NEED a specific goal and that invariably means an event to train for. One thing I realised from long course triathlon was that I was neither a natural nor an enthusiastic cyclist whereas the running I did enjoy – a fact that really saved both of my iron distance races given that the run came at the end. As such I decided that I wanted to focus more on running as I moved forward and in probably a very cliched way I looked to endurance options, namely ultra-marathons.

 

I first heard the term ‘ultra-marathon’ whilst at vet school as one of the farm residents, a great guy by the name of Ben, was known for running them. The prospect at that stage of running even a normal marathon seemed extreme and so I considered those who went well beyond that to be, well, a bit mental. Fast forward many years and having become well and truly initiated into the endurance sport world the idea of ‘going long’ was no longer an alien concept. In fact, it sort of felt like the natural progression.

 

Having made the decision to focus on running, and specifically trail, last season I got involved by joining Dubai’s Desert Trail Runners, headed up by running machine, Lee Harris, and closed out my first winter by taking on the famed Wadi Bih 72km race, which you can read more about here. As with most races, the lingering thought following completion of the event was “I wonder what I could have done were I to train harder?” It was this thought that drove me to look at race options and to find a really special event for which to train. The Eiger 101 was that race.

 

As soon as I found out about the Eiger I was smitten. For a start I love the mountains, a fact that was a major draw for me doing the Lake Tahoe Ironman in 2015, and the views that runners are blessed with during the Eiger 101 are legendary. Secondly, it is regarded as a tough race. A very tough race. Who wants easy, right? The difficulty factor applies not only to the actual course but also to actually getting a slot, with only 600 starts available for the 101km race, all of which sell out very quickly. I had tried to register last year in 2016, for the 2017 race, but was too late and so this year I was determined to do all I could to maximise my chances of a slot.

 

With the 31st October firmly penciled into my calendar and my credit card details at the ready, I was sat at my computer as the clock crept towards the 10am (Swiss time) mark. Tick. Tock. Open. Cue the kind of frantic clicking and typing that is normally reserved for efforts to secure Glastonbury tickets, coupled with the intense frustration that came with getting repeatedly booted out of the reservation page and/ or having the page fail as I was headed into the final payment screen. Twenty fruitless minutes later and I was no closer to being registered AND was now expected to actually start some work, having cheekily blocked out my first appointment of the day so as to be able to focus on the race booking. I was convinced that once again my efforts had been thwarted as I was presented with a screen that said something akin to “you’re in a digital queue,” before that became, “sorry but booking is now closed.” Grr! Twenty minutes of my life, nada to show for it and the prospect of the very race I had started training hard for having moved firmly out of reach. Needless to say I was peeved.

 

That was until an email pinged into my account that seemed to be telling me in no uncertain terms that I had, in fact, secured a place and I was duly invited to pay for it. So I did. How a day can about face and turn 180-degrees in a moment! So that was it….. I was in. I AM in. Awesome! But wait……that means I now have to run it. 101 kilometres. Up and down serious mountains. Holy s*$t! What have I let myself in for?!

 

The Eiger 101 – What Exactly Is It?

A run. A very, very long run. Up and down some of the most majestic mountains in the world. The first event was held in 2013 so it is still a relatively young race, with options for shorter distances on offer alongside the 101 km event. The route takes runners on a roughly – very roughly – circular route starting in the Swiss village of Grindelwald, high up in the Alps, returning after taking in the best of the surrounding mountains, meadows and forests.

 

From what I can glean from the various blogs (see below) I have scoured since securing my slot in 2018’s race, the fastest times for the full distance come in at about 12 hours, with the cutoff being 26 hours. It would seem from what I have read that a fit amateur could be very happy with a time of around 20 hours. That’s a long time out on your feet and up in the mountains – certainly a lot longer than anything I would expect to face in an Ironman race. As such, I look forward to a very different approach to training for this event – this will be as much a cerebral challenge as a physical one. Bring it on!

 

Click here to visit the Eiger Ultra website & learn more about this epic event.

 

Some of the great blog posts I have had the pleasure to find & read since signing up to the Eiger 101, with some of the key take-aways summarised:

 

 

http://martin.criminale.com/2016/07/eiger-ultra-trail-101k.html#.WgllRIZx25c

  • Felt long – closer to 120km based on his watch
  • Very vertical!
  • Use poles
  • Don’t go in with any mental baggage
  • Did it in about 18 hours
  • Views are just breathtaking!
  • Tough race – a full THIRD of the 600 runners who started DNF’d!
  • Lots & lots of mental toughness required!
  • Injinji socks – NO BLISTERS
  • Take a camera

 

http://www.dromeus.com/the-eiger-ultra-trail-a-human-experience/

  • A real sense of ‘togetherness’
  • Lots of concentration required – high alpine trails & not well groomed
  • Electrolytes important
  • Harder than the UTMB!

 

The First Ever Eiger Ultra Trail

 

Race Report – The Eiger Ultra Trail e101

http://paleo-runner.blogspot.ae/2014/07/eiger-ultra-trail-101km-2014-rr.html

 

http://dgjury.me/p/02388045-eiger-ultra-trail-e101

Hungary for Freefall

 

 

With the Skydive Dubai desert dropzone closed for the scorching summer months and being a relative fledgling in the sport with insufficient jumps to be a Palm-bird I had to consider dropzones further afield in order to obtain my freefall fix. Yes, skydiving, as anyone who does it for fun will confess, is an addiction. A powerful one at that. The lure of open skies and thousands of feet of void to flip, slide, track and fly through is a tough one to resist.

 

Cue the search for potential skydiving holiday destinations. A few web searches, blogs and a Facebook Messenger conversation later I had my selection: Skydive Balaton, just outside the lakeside town of Siofok in Hungary. The main draw of this dropzone, other than the fact that the pictures and videos I had seen were amazing, was the fact that they jump from helicopters. Not just any heli though. No. Decommissioned military Mi8 choppers! After confirming that the forecast for my intended week was good – Eastern Europe, it seemed, was enjoying a very well timed heatwave – tickets were booked to fly to Budapest, the night shift finished and my bags duly packed. Freefall here I come!

tracking, skydive balaton

Budapest, which I chose to spend a few days exploring at the start of the trip, was stunning and despite having an unfortunate start to the week after my laptop was stolen I found the city to be charming, full of history and, much like Prague, where I had been fortunate enough to visit with my father a few weeks prior, had incredible views at each and every turn. With my tourist mental checklist satisfied and hire car secured, I left the urban confines of the city and struck out into Hungary’s countryside, driving the one and a half hours out to Lake Balaton and the skydive complex, nestled at the Southern end of the runway.

I was immediately impressed with the set up there. Manifest was well organised, with my first point of contact, Krsytina, running it like the tight ship this place clearly was, and a great system whereby newly registered skydivers were issued a personal card, with this being used to self-manifest electronically, scanning in and collecting a paper ticket from an automatic machine just prior to the jump itself. Seamless, easy and sophisticated. So far so impressed. The complex itself was superbly serviced, with a number of individual hangars that groups of jumpers could make use of to pack and hang out in, a fantastic cafe and outdoor seating with panoramic views over the landing area. Skydive Balaton also has a range of really great accommodation options, from small two bed cabins, to more extensive lodgings, and, of course, the option to camp, with clean, serviceable showers and other facilities. The on-site restaurant, Aviator, served amazingly delicious food and, of course, refreshing local beer! It was easy to see why the centre played host to a number of boogies during the summer, with one actually coming to an end as I arrived.

One of the beauties of the sport is that it is wonderfully social and it wasn’t long before I was introduced to a great group of guys and girls, making the hangar in which they’d spent the boogie week in my base for the few days I was there. Welcoming, generous and fun they made my time jumping there even more awesome than I knew it was going to be and although several of my jumps were solo affairs – great for quiet contemplation and time to enjoy the expansive views of the lake and beyond – I was also able to do several jumps with other people, which is always more fun! The options for fun that come from jumping out of the back of a helicopter are almost limitless. The choice of HOW to exit is just the start. Run out? Fall backwards? Hanging drop? If you can think of it then you can pretty much do it from a helicopter. One of the funniest exits I was able to do was to hang from the rope out the back by my feet before dropping towards the earth below head first. The group jumps were hilarious, from a nine-way ‘Hot Dog’ jump to celebrate Luke’s 200th jump, to the ‘Cat’ jump that I got to do with Chris and Kim, in which we linked end to end before tracking, Chris then dipping his head to the ground causing me to fly up and over, catapulting across the sky! Epic jumps every single one. Even the journey to altitude was magical and I couldn’t help but feel as though I was in some kind of epic action movie, sitting with my legs dangling from the rear of this master of the skies as we hurtled across the grass before climbing like a colossal metallic dragonfly and revealing the lake and surrounding country far below.

Talking of generosity, I was extremely grateful to the guys, especially Aaron and Paul, who took the time to help refresh my memory of how to pack my own rig, a skill that I had long neglected in favour of simply paying for pack jobs in Dubai. There was a part of me that didn’t really feel like a complete skydiver not knowing how to pack myself and I ended the weekend confidently packing myself and living to tell the tale! In fact, I am pleased to report that my chute opened seamlessly on every pack that I did on my own, which is always reassuring! That’s another element of this sport I love: there are very few airs and graces, with most of the people you meet being down-to-earth (ironically) sorts with a sense of humour and a generous spirit. We all look out for one another and you’re guaranteed to have friends wherever you choose to go in the world. For that I am super grateful!

The weather gods were certainly smiling on us during our time there, as the day I left the winds picked up. As I drove away, back towards Budapest and my flight home, I had the satisfied grin and the aching muscles that signal a great few days of jumping, already plotting my return. If you’re looking for an amazing dropzone to visit then this is one for your list.

Smartly: Where the Magic Happens

So this is where the magic happens?” These were my words as I stepped over the threshold of Pedago’s office and got to see for myself where the Smartly online MBA is created and run from, in addition to getting to meet members of the team who are responsible for not only me, but many many others, being able to study for and achieve a top-class MBA education without having to cripple ourselves with life-altering debt.

 

As I found myself in Washington DC for a speaking engagement I took the opportunity to pop over to Pedago’s Georgetown offices and say hi. I didn’t expect to see that most of the office had opted to stay back late in order to meet me and so was honoured and a little taken aback when I was met outside by Alexie and then welcomed into a conference room where the team were assembled, including more joining by video. Quite the welcome!

 

Thanks to:

  • Alexie Harper
  • Allison Harper
  • Valentina Navarro
  • Tiffany Chen
  • Matt Schenck
  • Brent Dearth
  • Daniel Mintz
  • John Pella
  • Skylar Neil
  • Ellie Di Berardino
  • Oli Ratner

A Flurry of VR & AR Activity

Where can you both be present and absent at the exact same time? No, this isn’t a deep philosophical question on the meaning of existence but rather a description of virtual reality (VR), something that I have had a rich helping of over the past month. In my ongoing effort to learn all I can about this hugely exciting and developing technology, and the industry that is blossoming around both it and it’s related cousin, Augmented Reality (AR), I have been doing the conference circuit recently, traveling from Dubai to the US and back again.

iOTX

The first of the events I attended was iOTX right here in Dubai where I was fortunate enough to be a VIP guest of VR/AR Association Dubai Chapter Chairman, Shujat Mirza, at the VR and AR Start-up zone. Tucked away in a corner of the huge Dubai World Trade Centre, there was an impressive array of local companies working in the fields of VR, AR and related technologies. This included Hyperloop, who were at the time of the conference about to present the results of their feasibility study into building a hyper loop between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, with the projected travel time being a mere 12 minutes! They had a Vive system with them to give people an idea of what it would be like to sit in one of their capsules and showcased the ‘window screens’ that will show passengers a view rather than the dark inside of the tube in which the capsules obviously have to run. The technology behind the hyper loop theory is fascinating, using passive magnets and actuators on the capsule that generate the initial thrust that propels the capsule forward. I really see the value in the technology and look forward to it’s eventual implementation. It makes far more sense for a desert environment such as the Gulf than high speed railway on account of being encased within a tube thus protecting the capsules and mechanisms from the harsh effects of the climate and conditions, including sand, which would play havoc with a standard railway were it to drift and build up on tracks.
Another company present was Candy Lab AR, a US company founded and run by Andrew Couch. Their location-based augmented reality platform uses beacons positioned in sites as diverse as airports, shopping malls etc that enable vendors to deliver real-time AR content to users, thus enhancing their experience in those locations. Great technology and a great team behind it! In addition to being present with a company stand, Andrew was a speaker during the event.

What a great day checking out the VR/AR Association startup zone at #IOTX in Dubai. Great ideas, great products, great people, such as Shujat Mirza (VR/AR Association Dubai Chapter President) & Clyde DeSouza (VR Filmmaker) – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA

Whilst small in overall size compared to the VR and AR industry in other parts of the world, especially the US and Europe, there is real potential for VR and AR to take off in the Middle East, especially somewhere with futuristic ambitions like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I am already looking forward to seeing how the industry develops over the next few months and years.

AWE (Augmented World Expo)

Undoubtedly the largest industry show dedicated to both Virtual and Augmented Reality, I was excited to be heading back over to the US and Silicon Valley for the third year in a row, this time as a speaker. I always enjoy visiting the Bay Area and spent a day in San Francisco before heading down to Santa Clara, via both Facebook’s incredible HQ and Stanford University. Due to another speaking commitment the following day I was ultimately only able to attend AWE for the first day and so did not get to experience first-hand the fun and intrigue of the main Expo. There are reports aplenty online about the various companies showcasing their VR and AR wares so I didn’t feel as though i’d missed out on too much. The highlights for me during the first day were:
  1. Seeing how much bigger the event has become, even over the last three years. One could really get a sense of VR and AR starting to be embraced by the mainstream and the energy during the event certainly felt like it had been etched up a notch from the previous year.
  1. Getting to speak. I was one of several speakers who took to the stage on the Life track and thoroughly enjoyed being able to deliver my vision of where I see VR in Veterinary currently standing and where I see it going in the future. I believe I am correct when I say that I might have been the first veterinary surgeon to speak at the event so representing the veterinary profession in such an exciting and rapidly advancing industry was truly an honour.
My talk from the event can be viewed below, with a link to the rest of the AWE presentations being found here.
  1. Checking out Lllama Zoo’s HoloLens dissection experience. Charles and Kevin from the company had made the journey down from Canada and both my friend, Deborah, and I were privileged enough to be given a live demo of their augmented reality canine dissection tool, using the Microsoft HoloLens. With each of us wearing a headset, we were both able to see a high resolution holographic image of a set of lungs and heart floating in midair and move around it viewing it from different angles, remove layers and learn about the specific anatomy of this part of the body. The image quality was superb and I was not aware of there being any flicker or issues with the hologram staying fixed in position. A very compelling demonstration and a real glimpse at the future of anatomy teaching in vet and medical schools.
AWE 2017
A full day of VR & AR demonstrations and fascinating talks.
The day came to what felt like a rapid close and after lugging my suitcase up to the afterparty, which in previous years had always been in the adjacent hotel and was a lot of fun but this year had moved and, well, wasn’t quite the same, I hailed an Uber and hot-footed it up to the airport for my red-eye over to Washington DC and the second of my US VR events, and the third overall.

VR in Healthcare Symposium (VR Voice)

Touching down at Baltimore International airport having not really had any sleep whatsover I duly made my way down to Washington DC on the main commuter train, then transferring to the metro in order to arrive at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, part of George Washington University, by 8.30am. This, combined with the welcome discovery of there being a shower at the school, mercifully, gave me time to refresh from the previous day and the flight over, donning my suit before grabbing some breakfast and getting my head into the right space for another day of talks and discussion about virtual, and augmented, reality.
Organised by Robert Fine, of VR Voice, the one-day VR in Healthcare Symposium brought together several speakers and delegates both working in and interested in the use of spatial computing in healthcare, a much more specifically focused event than AWE and one that my talk was perfectly pitched for. In addition to being a great opportunity for me to introduce both myself and the work already being done in veterinary with VR, the day was a wonderful chance to meet a plethora of people, some already very active in the space, such as Dr Brady Evans, whose company OssoVR trains orthopaedic surgeons using virtual reality, and many who were there to learn about this exciting and rapidly changing technology and it’s application to healthcare.
Whilst my talk itself suffered from some degree of annoying technological hitch, I was still very pleased to be able to present and whilst not as high-brow as that presented by the neurosurgeon before me, it went down well – after all, what’s ultimately not to love about a dog wearing a VR headset?!
The full version of the talk can be viewed here:
In addition to enjoying a day of truly fascinating talks, including seeing how neurosurgeons are using VR to better plan and rehearse complex brain surgery, I finished the day with a win, having my ticket be one of those drawn to receive a Merge VR headset – a really great way to round out the day and kickstart my short break exploring the city itself.
VR in Healthcare, Washington DC
A great city & an equally great event.

72km of Extreme – Salomon Wadi Bih 2017

The Salomon Wadi Bih run is a UAE sporting institution, having started 25 years ago, and that sees athletes take on a variety of distances, both in a solo capacity and as teams. Having had my first taste of this event in 2015 I was seduced back, this time to take on the full 72km distance.

Comfortable ‘Camping’

I camped the last time, finding the experience really enjoyable and part of the entire Wadi Bih package. My intention had been to do the same this year but I ended up booking a room at the Golden Tulip on account of a friend, who was due to accompany me but ultimately decided not to come along. It transpired, however,  that in spite of the insanely inflated price, the weather that weekend made it such that having a room was an absolute blessing! I still made the obligatory stop off at Lulu Hypermarket in Dibba though in order to pick up supplies, determined as I was NOT to rely on eating at the hotel. Hint for anyone looking to stay at the Golden Tulip on the weekend of Wadi Bih: dig deep as they charge a FORTUNE that weekend! My room was 280 OR for two nights, which ultimately worked out, with taxes, to about 3000 AED, or $700! Ouch!
Lulu hypermarket, Dibba
Great place to stock up on supplies before the crossing at Dibba. Great schwarmas for one thing!

Paperwork. Oh The Joy.

Wadi Bih pass collection
The first part of the Wadi Bih challenge. My advice is arrive early.

I knew from previous experience of the border at Dibba that it can take a little while to get through, and with the weekend and Wadi Bih event taking place it was important to arrive early in order to pick up my papers and get to the hotel before things got too busy. In spite of arriving in good time what I found was sadly a scene of disorganisation, with several people having failed to find their papers, which were to be found in a multitude of lever-arch files and that we were to search through ourselves. With no real apparent order to the papers – we had been told they were organised initially by country and then in alphabetical order, the latter did not appear to be case. Coupled with the very high winds that were gusting in from all sides of the open pagoda, and the threat of rain, the entire process didn’t strike me as being very well thought out. In spite of having submitted my documents over a month ago I was unable to find my pass and so had to join a pretty big group of runners in a similar position as we had to wait for our passport and visa details to be resubmitted and our papers reissued. Cue over 2 hours of waiting, during which time I entertained myself by consulting for them on the optimal construction of a wind barrier 🙂  and taking a stroll down to the fish market. Eventually, they brought a computer and printer to the site so they were able to expedite the process and by 6.30pm I had my papers and was able to continue my journey. Thankfully there was no delay at the border gate and so I sailed through with no issue. I was, at that point, very grateful that I was not camping after all on account of it now being dark and very, very windy! Quite the contrast to my last Wadi Bih experience.

First Time – Clueless

Given that I had never run this kind of ultra distance before and was thus pretty clueless I sought out some friendly advice. Chops, a friend who had run the 72km a couple of years before, was forthcoming with several absolute pearls of wisdom on a number of matters, including what to pack/ take with me on the run, and what to expect. 72km is a long way to run in one go, especially with some of the meaty climbs that Wadi Bih has. The kind of gems he proferred included packing some wet wipes in case of an emergency loo break, something that would only seem obvious if and when the need arose. Thankfully my day passed without any gastrointestinal upsets and I was able to focus solely on the running.
Knowing what to wear for an ultra marathon was another consideration that I hadn’t really had to ponder before. I was advised not to wear lycra tights on account of them getting very hot later in the day, although given the day we ended up with they may have been a great option after all. I ultimately opted for a pretty standard get-up, choosing to sacrifice toasty legs in the morning for the freedom to move unencumbered, wearing race shorts and calve compression socks. Taking along a spare, dry pair of socks, which I swapped into at the halfway point was an idea I was glad I went with, as the feeling of fresh feet after five hours of trudging did wonders for my energy levels. One of the absolute essential elements of an ultra-runner’s ‘outfit’ however is lubrication and so I ensured I was well greased up with the trusty 3B cream and had absolutely no chafing issues for the entire 9 hours that I was out and active.
I decided at the start line to don my Patagonia base layer and was sooooooo glad I did. However, I only put it on after one of the spectators commented on the fact that I was going to be “really cold” and after I experienced the howling wind that I met on turning the corner to the bag drop. Rather than leave the layer in my half-way bag, as had been my initial plan, I decided to wear it from the start after all and soon thanked my lucky stars I did! A number of runners were heading out on the course wearing just singlets and not carrying any nutrition, which I found either extremely brave or utterly misguided – I couldn’t quite decide!
From the very start the winds were relentless and as we exited the Golden Tulip in the dark we hit a wall of wind. I was so happy that I was wearing my Oakley transitional lenses, base layer and snood as not only did I feel protected from the wind chill but also from the sporadic flying debris and dust that was whipped up and flung at us at regular intervals. At a number of points the wind was so strong that it physically stopped forward progress and we had to fight in order to stop actually going backwards. Given that we started the race at 4.30am it was pitch black and as we left the lamp-lit glow of the housing areas and joined the road leading up into the wadi itself, the only light available was that from our own, individual head lamps and the occasional car, both support and police, that passed. Hearing the howl, like a jumbo jet coming in to land, of the wind as it hurtled in gusts down the wadi towards us, was a surreal experience and were it not for the fact that there were a whole group of like-minded nutters out on the course experiencing the same, it could have been terrifying. There were umpteen moments whilst I was being pummelled by a particularly savage gust that I chuckled to myself and wondered out loud what it was that I was actually doing. I mean, really?! I signed up for this?! I was voluntarily subjecting myself to these horrendous conditions, on a course I did not know, over a distance that I wasn’t even sure I would be able to complete in one go and all for what? Bragging rights? Personal achievement? I honestly didn’t know. I guess I just needed to know I could do it, or at the least that I had tried. I knew from having gone the distance in Ironman races that I could cope with being out on course for extended periods of time but what I didn’t know was whether I had the physical fitness and mental toughness to run not only an ultra marathon but one that ascended over 1000 feet. Especially in the kind of conditions we were being dealt. The severity of the conditions were driven home even more by the briefing from the organisers that said they may even need to shorten the course or put an early end to the race should the conditions worsen and especially if rain were to fall higher up the wadi, such was the real risk of flash flooding taking place.

Fit Enough?

As much as I had really intended to train a lot more for the event I ultimately fell way short of the recommended volume and there is no way I arrived at the start line having run as much as I should have. As such, I was feeling pretty apprehensive as the race approached and had even contemplated asking if I could drop out of the 72km distance and perhaps run the 50km or 30km again. However, I rationalised my decision to stick with the full distance by telling myself that the very worst that could happen was that I simply did not finish the race. That was it. I wanted to see the top of Wadi Bih, as I was denied two years ago by running the 30km distance, and so I vowed to do my best and see where and how far that took me. That is how I found myself lining up at the start of the Wadi Bih 72km race 2017.
“Ultramarathons are eating events with some running thrown in.” This was the advice I was given by an experienced trail runner and coach and chimed with my knowledge and experience from iron distance triathlon. As such I knew that I needed to go into Wadi Bih with some decent nutrition planned. The trouble was that I had never run an ultra marathon before so wasn’t certain as to what would ultimately work best. Race entirely on gels? Good way to get the shits was my thought on that. What solids should I take then? Dates and fruit seemed a good bet, as did chewy/ gummy sweets – simple to guzzle down, carry and packed full of energy. One thing I also remembered from Ironman was how good it was to get some protein down at some point during the race. As such I ended up packing a small packet of beef jerky in addition to a smaller, beef jerky stick, the latter proving to be the better option for an on-the-run snack. In the end I found that I took way too much food, returning with most of what I took, especially given that the two aid stations en-route had a good selection of snacks, such as chocolate bars, which I ended up relying on for the second half of the race. In addition to my 2 litre Camelpak containing Aqualyte and which I topped up with water only once, I also took a handheld Amphipod, with water, honey and those oh-so-amazing little wonder-seeds that are chia. I figured that if they’re good enough for the famed Tarahumara ultra-runners then they should be good for me. It was sipping on that solution that saw me right for the first third of the race before I started drawing on the other resources I brought along. A friend, David, who was also out on the course and who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to ultra-running said several times during the day that it was vital to maintain good nutrition and to drink more than you feel like drinking. The latter was good advice indeed especially as I noticed that my urine was getting more and more concentrated, in spite of not really feeling particularly thirsty. His words and the feedback from my own body drove me to start increasing my fluid intake, a move that I am certain held off any cramp during the race. In previous years, the latter hours of the race are usually run in hot, sunny conditions, with keeping cool and well hydrated the main concerns. This year, however, the emphasis was on keeping warm, which meant adequately fueling, whilst actively remembering to drink enough.
As the countdown to the start commenced I started telling myself that the best thing I could do was avoid the temptation to charge off with many of the other runners, including the eventual winner, who raced off as though it were a 10km sprint we were undertaking. In some regards it was actually quite comforting to be snug and safe inside my base layer, snood pulled up over my mouth and nose and wraparound lenses protecting my eyes from the elements. Keeping the pace to one at which I could have easily talked was my approach, slowed at regular intervals by sudden hurricane-strength gusts of wind thundering into us. I was pleasantly surprised as I found myself on a short hill ascent and descent that I recognised as being close to the 15km turnaround point from the 30km race I came second in two years before – I was feeling good and had covered the first 15km feeling strong with plenty remaining in the tank. Shortly after that point the sun started to rise and the rugged beauty of the wadi, with towering cliffs either side, began to come into view. A less welcome change was that I started to experience sporadic twinges of pain across my left knee, which I recognised as being ITB discomfort. I was initially able to ignore it, continuing to jog in spite of it, but as the kilometres ticked up the discomfort became pain and I was forced to walk more often than I really would have liked.
Wadi Bih race
A rough overview of the route of the 72km Wadi Bih race – out & back.

At about the 28km mark I paused for a few moments in order to dig out some food and saw the eventual race winner run past, back toward Dibba, looking flushed but in good form. How he had managed to comfortably scale the wadi still wearing a road-running singlet was anyone’s guess but it was an impressive feat nonetheless. Resigned to the fact that I was certainly not in the running for a podium spot I pushed on, soon being caught up by fellow Dubai Trail Runners, Sam and David, and stayed with Sam and a runner from Bahrain, Toby, for the 3km super ascent, which was absolutely taken at a walk. As we neared the top a descending runner breathily informed us that the “worst was yet to come,” which initially seemed like a bit of a negative thing to tell us until we heard the ominous roar of the wind tearing across the electricity pylons at the top of the slope before we turned the final corner and were hit head on by the full force of what felt like a force 5 hurricane! Cue a further few kilometres of bone-chattering wind-chill and stop-in-your-tracks headwinds before the 36km mark and the hallowed turnaround came into view. This marked an important psychological milestone for me as I had told myself that as long as I reached the halfway point then I was going to finish the distance, even if I ended up walking it. Knowing that I had made it that far and through the worst of the ascent was fortifying and after snapping an obligatory photo and topping up on fluids and food I started out on the second, final half, determined to avoid the seriously dark clouds rapidly encroaching on the horizon – the same clouds that were responsible for dumping snow on the top of Jebel Jais that very day and that had the ominous air of a fast-approaching, hostile army set on unleashing mayhem.

Wadi Bih 2017 turnaround
The sweetest sight (after the finish) of the day: the 36km turnaround.

Breathtakingly Beautiful

The scenery in this part of the gulf really was worth the effort of reaching, with the expansive yet intricately patterned rockscapes looking like something directly out of a Wild West set in the badlands of Utah. Despite the fact that I took a photo, even trying to capture some of the atmosphere with the 360-degree camera, the fact remains that the only way to truly appreciate the wonder of this area is to visit it in person. Standing atop the wadi and looking out over the surrounding mountain-tops to the distance drove home just how far from the urban, modern comforts of Dubai we really were, and it was refreshing and exhilirating in equal measure.
As much as the thought of running downhill seems infinitely better than the opposite, if the gradient is particularly steep then it can be just as uncomfortable to descend as it is to climb. I found that one tactic for the steeper sections of the course was to pretend I was skiing on a steep piste, carving from one side to the other in a zig-zag pattern down the slope. This did draw some quizzical looks from fellow runners but the important thing was that it seemed to actually work, significantly reducing the strain on my knees. By the time I got to the bottom of the main climb I felt as though I had discovered my second wind and even felt confident enough in my pace to remove the base layer and run the rest of the distance in my training top, although I did come close to digging it out again as the rain eventually caught up with me and the temperature fell through the floor close to the end.
It certainly did wind up being a race of two halves for me, with the first seeing me arrive at the turnaround in pain and feeling as though I was destined to hobble my way back to the finish, whilst the second remarkably saw me rediscover my running legs and enabled me to keep up a great pace for the last 30km, ultimately coming home in 22nd place, with a time of 8hrs 43 mins, out of a total of 39 finishers and about 77 who started out at 4.30 that morning. I found the entire experience to be a real rollercoaster of emotions, from humoured bemusement in the morning, as we found ourselves heading out in atrocious conditions to take on a challenge that most sane people would consider insane, to pained amazement at the stunning, rugged, expansive raw beauty of the wadi and the surrounding mountains, made all the more wild and spectacular by the raging of Mother Nature. To have the second half of the experience transform so completely as I found my legs and ran the final 30kms in excellent form, only to hit a wall again in the closing stages, all the while pushing myself on, willing my tired, aching, wind-and-rain battered and chilled body towards the end, I have to confess that this day made both of the Ironman races I have undertaken feel like walks-in-the-park in comparison. I laughed, I (very nearly) cried; I was in pain, I was flying; I was fatigued and broken, I was energised and motivated. I truly experienced everything I could in one monumental day. I am so glad that I stuck with the full distance and exposed myself to what was ultimately a huge personal challenge. I now know, once more, that I am capable of more than I initially imagined and my first thoughts after crossing the finish line were, “hmm, if I was really race fit then I wonder how much faster I could have gone?!” That is the joy and curse combined of athletic and personal challenges – they’re never really complete.
Wadi Bih 2017
72km of running and my first ultra-marathon done.

Climate Chaos

Arriving back at the Golden Tulip that afternoon, the entire outside area looked like a war zone, with debris everywhere and reports of several tents having actually been blown into the ocean! It seemed that in spite of feeling royally robbed in terms of the price being charged for a room, I was among the lucky runners to have the sanctuary of a warm, dry, draft-free and comfortable room in which to kick back in. Camping, after all, would NOT have been such fun. I joined the rest of the day’s runners and assorted family and supporters for well-earned and much appreciated food and enjoyed the presentation of prizes to the day’s various race winners – the prizes, incidentally, were awesome with each winner receiving, among other treats, a brand new Suunto multi-sport watch! Some of the times for each distance were truly incredible and it drove home just how talented some of our local amateur athletes really are – they’re literal superhumans!
In spite of having every intention to enjoy a cool, refreshing post-race beer whilst swapping tales of the day with other 72’ers, I simply ended up collapsing on my bed where I stayed until Saturday morning, when I woke to a very different scene outside and legs that felt as though they had been roughly detached from my body, put through a rusty mangle and hapharzardly re-sutured in place. Lets just say I was walking – nay, hobbling – like an old man and am still hearing complaints from my legs nearly a week later. As uncomfortable as my legs were, it was ultimately that good kind of pain; the one that reminds you of how hard you’ve worked and how much you’ve achieved.
Donning my Saloman Wadi Bih T-shirt, I joined the crowd of returning team runners as they continued to pour in to the Golden Tulip, basking in the glorious sunshine and the picture-postcard setting of the hotel and adjacent beach – a far cry from the same location just the day before. Having caught up with friends running the shortened and altered route team race (the wadi had been thoroughly washed out by rain the night before and was impassable) I checked out and started the journey back over to Dubai, but not before a good two hour wait in a line of traffic in order to traverse the border crossing back into the UAE. I hear that some people endured a five hour wait, so I guess I was one of the fortunate ones.
Golden Tulip, Dibba
Saturday was in stark contrast to the day before! Calm skies & sunshine after the howling winds & freezing rain of Friday.
All in all it was a great weekend, complete with high drama, spectacular scenery and a massive sense of personal and collective achievement. The event celebrated it’s 25th anniversary this year and long may it continue, enjoying a further quarter century of challenging runners.
For more information on the Wadi Bih race, head to the website here.

Liwa & the Dunes Extraordinaire


Everyone says that the beauty and allure of the desert eventually ensnares you and it is perfectly natural to arrive in the Middle East for the first time and imagine that the desert, with it’s seemingly endless, barren landscape of sand dunes and not much else, is completely devoid of any beauty or charm. Spend sufficient time out here, however, and this opinion gradually shifts as you start to notice the features that make the desert such a beguiling environment.

 

I had heard talk of Liwa, with it’s huge sand dunes, from friends here in Dubai and knew that it was meant to be a particularly stunning part of the Arabian Peninsula, nestled on the edge of the vast area of wilderness that constitutes the Empty Quarter, straddling the border between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. I had imagined a solitary hotel appearing from the sands like a mirage and surrounded by towering dunes – a far cry from the towering glass and concrete that has fast come to define the main cityscapes of this part of the world. A trip to Liwa is simpler than one initially imagines it might be, with this desert oasis town easily reachable by a well serviced highway directly from Abu Dhabi.

 

Wanting to make the most of one of my post-night shift weeks off I opted to finally head to Liwa in order to see if my imaginings of the place matched the reality and so set about doing some basic research. Liwa is actually an oasis town sitting along the edge of the Rub al’Khali desert, with many farms growing crops including dates, for which it is famous, and is the historical birthplace of the ruling families of both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It is easy to get to from Dubai via a 3 hour drive down the E11 highway, sticking with the same road as it passes Abu Dhabi and heads towards the Saudi border. The only issues one has to contend with during the latter part of this drive include the fact that the road from Abu Dhabi to the turn off towards Liwa is chock-full of lorries, meaning the journey ends up feeling like a high-speeds, high-stakes game of hopscotch as you’re forced to swiftly hop between trucks, narrowly avoiding the constant stream of wannabe Dominic Torettos as they hurtle along the fast lane as though they’re racing the Earth itself, flashing their lights like deranged watchmen. Survive that gauntlet and it is onto the main E45 highway inland towards the town of Madinat Zayed, the last main population centre before Liwa, a further hour away. It is vital to ensure that you have sufficient fuel before moving away from Abu Dhabi, with no fuel stations between the capital and Madinat Zayed.

 

I opted to stay at the Tilal Liwa Hotel, approximately twenty minutes outside of Madinat Zayed and a short drive inland from the main road, past the camel track and in the same section of desert as the royal desert camp, which I could see clearly in the distance from the hotel itself. A beautiful four-star hotel, it had pretty much everything a weekend desert warrior might need, with an inviting infinity pool overlooking the desert and views of camels and dunes, a fitness centre, a couple of well stocked and pricey bars, and a decent dining options. The list of available activities was also plentiful, from dune bashing and boarding, to camel rides and a desert horse trek. The only activities I really had in mind for the two days I was around were to visit the huge dunes outside Liwa and get some desert running in, both of which I ticked off during the stay.

 

Early Rise for an Epic Climb

Determined to make the most of my visit I had heard that a trip to the huge dune at Tal Mireb, otherwise known as Moreeb dune, was best at either dusk or dawn, when the light was at it’s most magical. As such I set the alarm for ridiculously early the next morning and headed out in the thick fog towards Liwa. The road from Liwa to the dunes snaked its way through and into the desert, at times forcing me to literally crawl along on account of there being so much thick fog. Eventually I arrived, just as the light was starting to illuminate the sky and the towering presence of Tal Mireb revealed itself. The Liwa festival, during which scores of four-wheel drives power up and down the dune racing one another, had finished just the week before and so there was still plenty of evidence of the event having been staged including, sadly, trash on the sand. With nobody else around I felt like I had the entire area to myself and set off on the lengthy trek to the top of the steep and lofty dune. The effort was certainly worth it, with panoramic views across the surrounding desert the reward and a stunning sunrise to welcome me. Were I someone who could actually sit stationary for five minutes I would have found the experience almost meditative. Once I had drunk in the incredible atmosphere and realising that if I left soon then I could still make it back to the hotel in time for breakfast, I ran down the dune, feeling like a cosmonaut bouncing across the surface of a giant marshmallow, and made the breathtakingly beautiful drive back out the way I came, stopping at several points to immortalise the view with my iPhone.

It is at this point that I reckon images definitely speak louder than words, so feel free to check out the short video I made at the dune.

TOP TIPS for a visit to Liwa & Tal Mireb:

1. Fill up with fuel before leaving Abu Dhabi – the next petrol station is about 160km (1hr 45mins) away in Madinat Zayed with very little other than sand dunes along the way.
2. Book early – there are three main hotels to choose from in the Liwa area: 1. Liwa Hotel, in Liwa itself, which is a three star establishment; 2. Tilal Liwa Hotel, just outside Madinat Zayed; and the Qasr al Sarab desert resort, a five star paradise about 90km, or an hour, outside of Liwa. If a hotel is not your thing and you have the necessary kit then camping in the desert is another option.
3. Visit Tal Mireb at either dusk or dawn – the light as the sun is rising and setting over this vast swathe of desert is breathtaking and well worth the effort it takes to get there. Scaling the dune, which rises over 100m from base to peak, is energy sapping and hot work so giving yourself the helping hand of doing so during the cooler parts of the day is recommended. I found the main advantage of a morning visit was the distinct absence of other people, making it feel as though I had the entire desert to myself.