Category Archives: Sport & Fun

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 4 – Excited by….. Socks?!

Following on from my previous post where I mentioned that I had placed an order for my very own set of Injinji trail socks, such were the incredibly positive reviews that seemed to be emanating from the wider ultra-marathon community when it came to the subject of blister prevention, I excitedly took delivery of the package that duly arrived from the US, where the company is based, and could not wait to head out for a run and test them out.

Getting in Touch with my Inner Ape

The first thing that really struck me about the Injinjis was the obvious fact that they have individual pockets for each toe, giving them the appearance of literally being a glove for the feet. Once on board and reconciled with the weirdness of their appearance – a simple side-effect of having always used and thus been pre-conditioned to ‘normal’ socks –  I proceeded to don them, finding it a little fiddly to ensure that each toe made it snugly and individually into it’s respective Coolmax polyester, Nylon & Lycra enclave. Given the relative fiddliness and additional time required to make sure they are fitted properly I doubt I’d be reaching for this type of sock for an event such as a triathlon, where my ability to transition quickly is already laughable. They were, however, very comfortable and, in my opinion, looked stylish with their orange and green colour combo!

Did They Work?

Whilst at the time of writing I am yet to really test them to the extreme at full ultra distances, over the shorter training runs that I have been out on the results have been convincing enough. Now maybe my feet have simply toughened up since I wrote last and the introduction of ‘posh performance socks’ has had zero impact but I suspect that protecting each toe individually and preventing that annoying toe-on-toe friction, especially toe-nail on toe that I was prone to, has made a big difference. My feet have exited my running shoes looking unscathed – a far cry from the blistery horror scene that seemed to greet me just a couple of weeks ago. I think if my feet could speak, which I guess technically they can on account of being attached to, well, me, they’d be saying, “good find bro!” So yeah, I guess it’s official: I am, or at least was, excited by socks. Ah, the headonistic rock and roll lifestyles of the ultra runner, eh!
You could say I am impressed
To get your own pair just head over to their website (nb: I am not in any way commercially connected to the company and have written this solely because I a) like their product, b) like writing and ultra-running, and c) like the thought of being able to help even just one other runner if and where I can): https://www.injinji.com/
(However, should anyone at Injinji HQ happen to be reading this and feel like they need a new brand ambassador then I’d throw my hat – or should that be socks – in the ring 🙂 You can, after all, just pay me in socks!)

Eiger 101 Post 3 – Happy Feet

I am on a bit of a rest week on account of being on the night shift. This essentially leaves little time for anything other than ‘work, eat, sleep, work again’ for a full seven days. I have, under instruction from Coach Trace, shoehorned a few very short runs in, which has probably been better for me than I realised at the time on account of ensuring that I at least get a little dose of vitamin D.
One of the perks of being on a less intense training week is that my feet have had a chance to recover, with my toes starting to resemble a normal person’s digits once again. Blisters, something that I never really suffered that badly with in the past, have been a pretty constant and unwelcome companion for the past few weeks, and has seen me scouring the web for advice on how best to reduce the risk of developing them and how to deal with those that do occur. Anyone who has suffered blisters knows full well how much they can scupper a good run and the last thing I want is to face the prospect of 100 km of unhappy feet – prevention is surely way better than a cure in this case.

Blister Treatment:

There are loads of really excellent articles available, many from seasoned ultra runners, that go into incredible detail on how to manage and treat blisters whilst out running and I intend to get myself stocked with the recommended supplies to add to my pack.
BLOG POSTS ON BLISTER/ FOOT CARE – the top 3 Google results for ‘ultra running, blister care’ (30th Nov 2017)

Blister Prevention:

This is what I am more interested in as I would rather not have to deal with pesky foot problems at all if I can help it. One piece of advice that seemed to crop up again and again in all the blog posts and articles I read about ultra-running was to invest in a pair of Injinji socks. The theory is that by encasing each toe in it’s own individual compartment there is less risk of the damaging toe-on-toe rubbing that so often occurs with normal socks. So, with thoughts of content feet I duly punched in the credit card info into their website and am, at the time of writing, awaiting delivery of four pairs of these apparent wonder garments. Lets see if they prove to be as awesome as reports suggest.

The Force In Dubai – Film Festival Premiere of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Wednesday 8th December 2017 finally saw the culmination of a good week’s worth of personal effort as I finally got to don my Sith cloak, fire up the lightsabre and walk the red carpet with plenty of other local Star Wars fans here in Dubai. The 14th annual Dubai Film Festival closed this year with the regional premiere of the much anticipated latest instalment of Star Wars, with this year’s hot release being The Last Jedi, that picked up from precisely where The Force Awakens left off.
As soon as I saw that they were screening it at the festival I knew that I wanted tickets but had every expectation of it already being sold out, such is the usual demand for not only a Star Wars release but also a closing night gala screening. To my incredible excitement and surprise there were tickets up for grabs and grab a couple I did. To add to the sense of anticipation and occasion the organisers stated that they were encouraging fans to attend in fancy dress: magic words for me. I love fancy dress and if it’s a theme that involves a sword, whether standard or laser, as in Star Wars, then I am all over it! This was demonstrated clearly back in my uni days when I actually spent two weeks working closely with the head of the physics department workshop to create a real set of Trojan armour, including authentic brush helmet and sword, for a veterinary party weekend. That’s how into fancy dress I get.
So, with a little under a week to get a costume together, and with the stakes elevated by the announcement that there would be prizes on offer for the best, I set to thinking of what to go as and how to piece it all together, including the major question of what to do regarding a lightsabre. My first decision was to go as a Sith, as I tend to think that the darker characters are usually the most interesting and seem to have the best costumes. But who? Kylo Ren was the obvious choice and I figured that loads of people would be opting for him, in addition to his costume not actually being that interesting. Sure he has a badass helmet and a slightly more interesting lightsabre but there just wasn’t that ‘wow’ factor that I wanted. I then considered Anakin Skywalker, as he embraced the dark side. The costume looked simple enough, with the base looking to be a black, or very dark brown, martial arts suit, paired with a large central belt, some fancy looking leather strips that hung down over the shoulders and, of course, a Sith cloak and hood. I would also be needing boots, or be able to fashion something that looked like boots. Some intial sketching and web research revealed the basic design and I even considered a wacky idea to augment the costume, and add to the overall theatric effect, by rigging up a small Yoda soft toy on the end of a clear length of plastic tubing, or the like, and attach it to my wrist somehow so as to appear as though I was making Yoda levitate by way of the force! I imagined the effect would be quite striking as well as being relatively simple to pull off.
As is often the case with creative pursuits one tends to tumble down the rabbit hole and new and more interesting ideas sometimes spring up where the previous ones were fulminating. So it was that as I was researching ‘sith costumes’ online I came across an image of Darth Revan, from the Old Republic series. In an instant I knew that he was the character I wanted to replicate: a bad ass, mask-wearing ninja-style warrior complete with his awesome cloak and lightsabre. Done! Now I just needed to figure out what to get in order to achieve the most authentic look possible.
Darth Revan (middle)

MASK:

Darth Revan’s mask is quite unique, as can be seen from the pictures. Whilst everything I needed could, in principle, be ordered online I simply didn’t have the time to wait and, besides, there is way more pride to be gained from actually making something as opposed to simply buying it. Several video tutorials ran through how to construct a costume version and so equipped with a supply of craft foam, spray paint, elastic (recycled from an old Emirates airlines eye mask), a hot glue gun, superglue, black plastic and imagination I managed a pretty decent job if I do say so myself. The only thing I would change were I do make another is to either find some less opaque pastic for the visor or cut some very thin spaces through it so I could see more than just shadows. The visual effect was awesome but I couldn’t really see a damned thing!

LIGHTSABRE:

This was one of my proudest creations and whilst I could very easily have purchased a toy I wanted something that felt more realistic. Again, there were loads of online videos providing detailed instructions of how to make your own but all of them required a fully functioning workshop, electronics and more time than I had available. I didn’t need my lightsabre to make any noise or be so closely replicant of the ones in the films – all I really needed and wanted was something that lit up red and looked badass!
The answer came to me as I was browsing in Deira and a guy tried to upsell me on a torch that I really didn’t need. The shape of it – long, thin and black – suddenly looked to me like a pretty convincing lightsabre handle and when I inspected it, removing the head to discover that it had a powerful single bright LED at the end I knew that I had my base. All I needed to do was add a length of acrylic tubing and somehow create a red light instead of the bright white of the torch, and I would have a very convincing laser sword. But where to get the materials? My first thought was Ace Hardware in Dubai but after a previous visit to source some basic materials that did not leave me impressed I looked for alternatives. The answer came in the form of a company called Accurate Acrylics LLC based in Al Quoz. Seeing that they were open at 8am I popped over one Saturday morning before I was due to start work and was introduced to the manager, Sadyajit, who humored me as he listened to my mad cap request – the fact that I had the torch and pictures of what I was aiming to achieve surely helped. Lo and behold they were able to help and so an order was placed for a single length of 35mm diameter clear acrylic plus an end piece to seal the far end of the lightsabre. The cost? A mere 100AED. Sadyajit also arranged for it to be cut so that it would, in theory, slide snugly into place over the end of the torch base.
The basic design for my Sith lightsabre.
The piece was perfect, although I later discovered that I also needed to create a small hole on the reverse to enable the torch to be recharged once it was all put together, a minor roadblock that was overcome though application of a gas hob, a pointy-ended knife and time enough to slowly melt a hole where it was needed. For the color effect I used red packing film that I rolled several times and slid inside the entire length of the tubing, so as to diffuse the light produced by the LED into the desired level of red. A neat hint I gleaned from the online tutorials was to back the end disc with a reflective material, such as tin foil, so as to reflect back the light travelling up the tube, thus ensuring a realistic lightsabre effect. This was certainly a key design feature and really helped create the desired outcome. The final touch was to embellish the power button with some red craft foam, raising it such that I could switch the lightsabre on and off easily and adding some more color to the design. One of the advantages of constructing it the way I did was that it had a weight to it that really added to the impression of it being a real device, very similar to the Trojan sword that made part of my costume all those years before.

BOOTS:

I don’t own boots and couldn’t find anything that was either in my size or that wasn’t for women in Deira. What I did do was to pair a relatively cheap pair of black men’s zipped shoes with my horseriding calf-chaps. The latter I had to fabric paint black, a step that saw me go through an entire can of black fabric spray paint – leather, it seems, really does soak up paint well – and required a few solid days of drying before they could be worn.

BASE LAYER:

Most of the pictures I had seen of Darth Revan showed him wearing a dark full length tunic and I imagined that a very dark grey or black kandura would have substituted for the same perfectly. However, finding one in Deira proved to be incredibly difficult and after the umpteenth “no” and shake of the head from the vendors I spoke with I did start to wonder whether the reason they were claiming it wasn’t possible was that it might be somehow considered disrepectful to use one as part of a costume(?). My second thought, that being that an abaya would actually be even better, was quickly resigned to the mental “no way” file and so I decided to slightly alter the Darth Revan base by going a bit more Anakin Skywalker for that part. This essentially meant a trouser-tunic combo as the base, with the rest of the costume built around that.
I found a great Indian-style long sleeved top in Deira that had the classic look I was after and simply paired it with a loose pair of athletic training bottoms to give that combat effect. Darth Revan wears armour and if I had more time then I am certain that I would have found a way to create both the breast plate and wrist plates out of metal. Given the time constraints, however, I once again turned to the craft foam for their construction. The centrepiece of the costume was a central ring, that hangs from the main belt and that in turn has both a red length of silky fabric cascading towards the floor and a black length of similar material that wraps around the body. As I said before, the overall look is one of an ornately battle-dressed ninja, even down to the absence of any skin showing. This effect was achieved by wearing gloves and my black snood, that I wore up over my head such that when the mask was worn there was nothing but black showing. Very Sith indeed! In terms of where to get the central ring from I had initially thought to head to a plumbing store to buy a towel rack ring, as I imagined it would be about the right size. As it turned out what I actually found was actually a large seal for a a valve in an oil rig, or at least that’s what the guy in Al Quoz who looked very confused as he sold it to me said. Being bright red also added to its appeal as the flashes of red in my costume really contrasted brilliantly with the overall sense of black and paired brilliantly with the red glow of the lightsabre.

FINISHING TOUCHES:

As much as I had initially wanted to create my own Sith cloak and hood, even purchasing a decent amount of material in the process, the fact is I ran out of time to get anything tailored and so I bit the bullet and purchased a costume version. It did the trick and I attached it to my armor with the use of tiny climbing clips in much the same way that I saw it was in all of the pictures I saw of Darth Revan.
I knew that I was not going to wear the mask the entire night and so in the interests of paying attention to detail I decided to apply some dark side of the force inspired eye makeup, blacking them up and smearing it down my face. This lent me a haunted, dark look that was absolutely in keeping with the entire ethos of the costume.
Sith eye makeup added to the dark effect when the mask was not worn
The overall effect was, in my own estimation, pretty awesome and when I first switched on the lightsabre and saw it’s deep red, eery glow in combination with the entire costume I felt that thrill of excitement and satisfaction that comes from putting something awesome together.

The Show Itself

I really enjoy the Dubai Film Festival and have been fortunate enough to attend gala screenings on more than one occasion. The venue – just adjacent to Souk Madinat – is superbly glitzy and they always do a fantastic job of setting up the screening room, with this year being no different as the room sparkled, literally, and treated film goers to extremely comfortable seats.
I arrived relatively early and chose to jump out of my cab just before the venue, meaning that those driving along Beach Road were the first to see my costume in all it’s Sith glory. One thing I did discover quite early on was that I had to be careful walking, as the red sash was very easy to step on and I nearly went A over T a couple of times. If I walked a little like John Wayne then it seemed to be ok though. I caught sight of a few other cosplayers on the way in, with a guy in a tux and a Darth Vader mask one standout, as well as a couple of Jedis, a couple of Kylo Rens – obviously – and a few girls channeling Rey. Rather than go straight through and soak up the red carpet atmosphere immediately I waited a while for my friend, Kaiya, to join me, although when it became apparent that she was delayed made the decision to meet her inside rather than miss the big walk through.
I did realise fairly quickly just how little I could actually see through my mask’s visor as I trod the carpet and suspect I may have missed a few more interview and photo requests than I actually received. One guy, from Gulf News I believe, stopped me early into the walk to ask where I was from and who I had come as, in addition to taking a photo, which I took the opportunity to brandish my lightsabre for. I found the corresponding Twitter post a couple of days later, although it turned out that he seemed to have gotten his guys from the UK and Star Wars characters well and truly mixed up as I was reported to have been “Rob” from the UK and to have come as “Darth Vader.” Err….no, not quite mate.
One thing that I did end up feeling a bit bummed about was that because I was a bit late into the gala I ended up missing, or being missed, by those who were judging the costumes. This I surmised from the fact that shortly after the introduction speeches were given they announced the winners and not being arrogant or ‘owt but my costume was significantly more impressive than most of those that won, especially the eventual winner who – surprise, surprise – came as Kylo Ren. As much as it wasn’t all about the competition – just getting to attend and enjoy both the film and dressing up was awesome enough – the prizes were pretty great, with the top four or five each getting one of those awesome little Sphero BB8 programmable robots. Nice. Still, you win some, you lose some 🙂
The film itself, screened in 3D, which was actually brilliant, was one of the best Star Wars episodes so far and suffice to say that it was very well received, with the 2.5 hours running time flying by like a Poe Damaron piloted X-Wing. I won’t run into a full blown review of the film though as there are about a zillion online already and, to be honest, you’re better off just going to watch it yourself. Do make sure that you’ve seen The Force Awakens first though as it follows on immediately from that one.
One of the most fun moments of the evening was actually the slow walk out, as it was then that both Kaiya and I got to feel like film stars as we were asked to pose in various photos. Whilst I am an introvert in spirit, when I get a decent character costume on I am happy to enthusiatically play a role 🙂 We even got to be interviewed by a movie channel as our very final act before hopping in a taxi and bringing the evening to an end. The lightsabre, mask and cloak are now hung up for a year when I hope to dust them off, re-channel the force and tread the red carpet once again as a Sith.

Some more photos from the event:

We were interviewed on our walk along the red carpet
One of the joys of the premiere was getting to walk the red carpet

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.

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.

Winter is for Jumping. Again & again.

One of the very best parts of living out here in Dubai is the opportunity to engage in a plethora of incredible sports, enabled in large part by the reliable weather – warm, sunny and generally perfect during the winter months; less so in the summer! The other main factor that drives the opportunities for adventurous leisure pursuits is the fact that Dubai invests and does so in a big way if it is something that they take a keen interest in. Skydive Dubai is one such example and the truth is that it has very much made a mark for itself as one of the premier skydiving destinations on the planet, a truth that was evident during the recent Winter Festival.

I love the fact that my days off get to start with questions of the nature,”what fun outdoor pursuit shall I engage in today?” Should I scuba dive? Climb? Trail run? Maybe kitesurf? Or what about skydiving? So many options and all within a sensible distance of the city itself. One of my key activities is skydiving. I have loved the sport ever since giving my mother grey hairs by signing up for a tandem when I was an 18 year old Gap Year student travelling in New Zealand. Fast forward 12 years and I had the pleasure of gaining my solo skydiving licence in the US, training at Skydive San Diego, and putting my new found skills to use at various drop zones in the state of California. It was, truth be told, the promise of skydiving at Skydive Dubai and jumping over the Palm that finally made my mind up as to whether to accept a position in the Middle East and to make the move to become an expat. I was seduced by the sky! I had experienced the sport in the UK and came to the conclusion pretty swiftly that I was very much a fair-weather skydiver – sunnier, hotter climes and bluer skies beckoned.

Skydive Dubai Winter Festival

One of the highlights of the skydiving calendar here in Dubai is the annual Winter Festival, that generally runs from Boxing Day (26th December) through to New Year’s Day, with full on days of epic jumping with a plethora of visiting skydivers from all over the planet. I was able to jump for just two out of the seven days this year but really made the most out of that time, with back to back loads each day that saw me focus on formation belly jumps and the ultimate goal of nailing a two-point 8-way, one of the required skills for the USPA C-licence, and something that a number of my fellow sky-buddies had their sights set on too. One of the key advantages of attending the Winter Festival is that we get to jump repeatedly with coaches, something that would normally cost significantly more during normal weeks. This not only offers a really fun way to get to know the professional skydivers here and hang out with them as friends but also leads to some seriously accelerated improvement in our skills in the sky. Planning a jump, doing it, reviewing it with a coach who really knows their stuff and then going back out and doing it again and again leads to exponential improvements and was, I am sure, the prime driver of us collectively achieving our goal of securing 8-way success.

Winter Festival, Skydive Dubai, 8 way group
8 way team rocking it at Skydive Dubai Winter Festival

In addition to getting to do loads of really fun jumps with interesting, vibrant friends, both new and existing, there were plenty of other reasons to hang out at the drop zone during the festival. Each day ended with dinner, a great opportunity to review the day’s jumps and think ahead to the next, followed by the ‘video of the day’ screened around the desert campfire. I even had a win in one of the daily raffle draws, thrilled as I was to receive a voucher for five free jump tickets. The glider was a feature during the festival as well, going up again and again to give others the same incredible thrill of being ejected as I had experienced previously and one that everyone raved about.

Gliding to Freefall

One of the really incredible features of pursuing adrenaline sports as a pastime is that pretty much all domains become big playgrounds. From playing at being a fish and exploring the other-worldliness of being a scuba diver to the sheer thrill and exhilaration of freefall as a skydiver, I love the constant stream of ‘new’ that such endeavours present.
glider dubai skydive
When I saw that there was an aerobatic glider parked on the runway at Skydive Dubai’s desert campus, and knowing that they were offering something special as advertised on social media, I was intrigued but otherwise didn’t think too much more about it. That was until we were all sat around chatting after a couple of early morning jumps and the topic of the ‘glider jumps’ came up. As fun as it sounded I still wasn’t especially sold on the idea, especially given that the one and only previous time I had been in a glider was a couple of year’s ago when I ended up feeling really quite queasy whilst crammed in next to my dad. The price also seemed a little steep, representing several standard jumps – ones that would get me closer to my current goal of 200 – and so I somewhat mentally parked the whole idea. That was until Shunka, one of the most experienced instructors at the dropzone described how even after 15,000 jumps under his belt, his glider experience was among his top three jumps of all time! SOLD! I trust what he says and if he was saying that it was an awesome experience then I had to see what the fuss was all about….
Cash handed over, I was summoned to manifest where I met Tony, our glider pilot, and was taken through the briefing of what to expect, what to do and all I could think was “wow!” The description of the anticipated experience was intense enough and that was whilst standing safely on terra firma! When it came to my turn I strapped in and just started grinning from the moment we started rolling. I was going to do this crazy thing and I didn’t even fully know what that thing was even going to be!
As we climbed, higher and higher, towed by the plane just up in front of us, I appreciated the intense sense of freedom and presence that being in an uncovered seat on a glider that is flying affords someone. The view out over the desert, the dropzone and the surrounding properties and landscape was crisp, detailed and in full technicolor. I was able to appreciate features of the area surrounding the desert campus that I just hadn’t really ever been able to closely notice in the main skydive plane. The ride up alone was worth taking up the challenge!
At 4,500 feet we detached from the plane and started truly gliding, swooping in and out of the isolated banks of cloud that were our companions and spotting the current load of skydivers as their canopies popped sequentially into view. We completed a few fairground-worthy manoeuvres, including a full inversion to leave me dangling in my strap, head pointed directly towards earth, and the ‘practice runs’ of the main move in which we dived steeply before banking sharply skyward, placing us on a fully vertical steep ascent. After the second of these trial runs I was given the nod to do several things in sequence: a) undo my seat-strap – something that emphasised the reality of what was about to go down and the fact that I was putting my full trust in Tony; b) bring legs forward, with knees clearing the console positioned directly in front; and c) place my hands on the side of the glider, both in anticipation of the main event and also to ensure that it went as smoothly as possible. Only one thing left to do and that was grin from ear to ear as we dived one last time before pulling up into our steep, vertical climb. When the glider shifted it was the strangest feeling, even though I was fully expecting it to happen: the glider and I simply parted ways!
“I felt myself continue to move up!”
Whilst climbing at 100mph, Tony simply moved the glider in a quick fluid motion away from my relative position, the effect being to essentially eject me from my seat and the aircraft entirely. As I did so I felt myself continue to move up! The completely wrong direction! All whilst still moving in synch with the glider itself. The effect was one of simulating complete and utter weightlessness – a very powerful and difficult to fully imagine sensation. As both myself and the glider reached the apex of the ascent, the rush of air quietened to complete silence as we both sort of hovered in place for a split second before starting the downward phase of the arc, driven of course by gravity. After all, what goes up generally must come down. As I started to fall back to earth I remembered the advice I was given not to rush deployment but to a) continue to enjoy this most bizarre of experiences and b) to wait until I had sufficient speed with which to establish normal stability for correct pilot chute deployment. So it was and as I felt the rush of terminal velocity return – by now a familiar feeling – I waved off, threw out the pilot and waited for my parachute to open before surveying my airspace for the glider as it started to swoop and circle me whilst I flew under canopy. Being buzzed by an aircraft, especially one that makes little to no sound other than a rapid swoosh as it soars past, was akin to sharing the sky with a giant bird and the next few minutes of flight were like something out of an extreme sports movie.
Every piece of GoPro footage I have seen to date from those who have completed the same experience ends the same way: landing followed by a holler of delight at how utterly awesome the jump was. I was no different! I touched down, was buzzed at practically touching distance by the glider one final time – a pass-by that I was not expecting – and proceeded to whoop and holler like a man possessed. The entire experience was electrifying and had it not been for needing to get back to Dubai I would have been very very tempted to sign straight back up for another go. Wow! Every skydiver has to try this out. It was nuts!