“If you can’t complete this then really you have no place competing in an Ironman in September.” These words were uttered by a good friend and triathlon mentor of mine, referring to a race called the Urban Stinker. Run over a mountain in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) and a total of 36km in length, with about a mile of total climb involved, this was pitched as a test of my base level of preparedness for the challenge of taking on an Ironman, especially given that the furthest I have ever run is the half marathon distance of 21km. With the Ironman seeing triathletes tackle a full marathon (42km) after swimming and cycling heady distances, the prospect is still a daunting one.
The other reason that it was keenly suggested that I sign up for the Stinker was that my upcoming Ironman takes place at altitude and the run apparently does involve undulation, as you’d expect up in the mountains. This race, therefore, promised to be perfect preparation and a great way to “get the miles into my legs,” as my friend put it. It certainly did achieve that and as I write this, a few days after the event, my quads are still screaming at me and I still look and feel like an old man each time I get up from a chair and walk.
The Urban Stinker is a race run by a group called Urban Ultra, who also organise other long distance races here in the UAE, typically involving getting hot, sweaty and sandy. The venue for this particular race was in the emirate of RAK, at the base of the Golden Tulip hotel, a classically castle keep-esque structure perched atop a hill with views over the small mountains that border the UAE and Oman. Following a long and often stationary drive up from Dubai, and a pre-race beer at the bar in which we were entertained by a Russian belly dancer, the alarm went off to signal the start of a long day during which I would find myself tested.
There were a few unknowns at play with this race, not only the distance. We had to carry a number of pieces of equipment and provisions with us and so I had been out to purchase among other things, a small running backpack and bladder, which I had tested out on a very short local run a few days before. I was worried, based on that experience, that the pack was going to rub my shoulders over the course of 36km and that it would be really uncomfortable. As it turned out, the pack was perfect and one of my better purchases, causing no discomfort in the slightest and the bladder volume of 2litres proving spot on for the length of race. Nutrition was the second major concern as a race of such length requires athletes to take on additional energy and fluids, something that I only had limited experience of with short triathlons. I had consulted with a former vet school friend of mine, Nick Weston, who has in the past completed a number of Ironman races and now regularly competes at a high level in ultra marathons. Based on his advice I took along several gels, dried fruit, sweets and a cereal bar, as well as adding electrolyte tablets to the fluid in my pack. In the end the kit and nutrition worked seamlessly, and I performed well using just the energy gels and fluid, which literally ran out as I was descending the final leg.
The start of the race was relatively flat, taking us through an area of scrubland before reaching the start of the climb, with a small cluster of houses, complete with many goats of varying ages running around. The start of the climb was relatively gentle and I felt confident as I repeated the mantra “just keep moving” to myself as I kept up a good technique and passed a good number of runners who had elected to walk very early into the race. I always find that the hardest thing to do in any race is start running again once you have started to walk or, worse still, stop. However, my determination to “keep running” was severely tested and ultimately defeated as we hit the seriously steep sections of the climb, which were very very steep. Running up them would have been impressive for mountain goats, let alone us mere mortals, and so I did walk sections of the higher course. The turnaround at the top was marked by the organiser’s tent and cries of encouragement from spectators as we breathed a sigh of relief and headed into the lengthy downhill part of the course. The main risk during this part of the race was to keep a safe footing as the rocks were, at times, really quite loose under foot and it would have been easy to take a tumble. Committing to the slopes and keeping more of a forward stance, as well as carefully balancing seemed to be the key and I thankfully avoided any issues. Keeping up a good level of awareness and safe technique on the final leg, however, when the legs were screaming was a challenge, and I am aware that it is normally at such times, when you are tired and inattentive, that most injuries occur. As such the race really did keep participants mentally focused and engaged.
One of the nice aspects of the course, apart from the breathtaking views out over RAK toward the Arabian Gulf, was the fact that we passed by and through resident dwellings, with a group of local men working on a house near the top of the climb looking on amused as the bunch of nutters that we so clearly were repeatedly ran past, each time looking more fatigued than before. The waves, cheers and general friendly exchanges between the villagers, including the group of enthusiastic and animated children, in the village at the base of the race, was really nice and a great way of feeling more connected to the UAE, especially as limiting your time to Dubai can offer a very blinkered and skewed version of what the UAE is and stands for.
With the first lap being taken relatively steadily, owing to the fact that I had no idea what lay in store for us further along the course, I felt relatively fresh as I set off on the second lap. The climb, however, did get tougher second time around and I ended up ascending a little slower, or so it felt, before having something really kick into gear on the descent as I felt like I literally flew down. The third lap was when it really got tough with the climb being much much harder and really needing some mental grit to resist the real temptation just to stop. There was a sense of real ‘in it together’ as I slowly caught up with and eventually pulled away from another young runner who was finding the climb tough. It’s one of the great features of sport and events like this: knowing that when you really want it, there are reserves of energy and determination to tap into that will help you push on beyond that which you previously thought yourself capable of. I felt totally elated as I came in to the finish in a time of 4 hours and 14 minutes. The sense of achievement was wonderful and I feel so much more confident about the upcoming Ironman race now that I have this race under my belt. After all, with the climbing it is widely accepted that running this race very much signals that I should be capable of tackling the marathon on the day.
A well deserved post-race dip in the Khatt Springs, a natural hot water spring at the race finish, was the best way to ease tired muscles, followed by lunch at the hotel and thoughts of returning to the hustle and bustle of Dubai.
I would thoroughly recommend the Urban Stinker race to anyone and may well do it again next year.