Tag Archives: trail

Red Hot with Red Bull

Red Hot with Red Bull

Sultan of the Desert Proves Itself a Worthy Title

The start of the run stage, which kicked off the day's racing
The start of the run stage, which kicked off the day’s racing

There are times in one’s life when someone suggests doing something and you find yourself enthusiastically going along with it, only to later question the original sanity of the decision. That was what I found myself doing more than once on Friday 10th October 2014 as I found myself staring up the impossibly steep, rocky face up which I was to carry my mountain bike and, even by that stage, fatigued body and mind. This, ladies and gentleman, was the Red Bull Sultan of the Desert Adventure Race: a three discipline race – trail run, mountain bike, and kayak – that athletes could either complete legs of as part of a team or, like the small band of insane people of which I was a member, race the entire course.

Mountain biking, Red Bull, Sultan of the DesertThe race started, for me at least, a few days earlier as I tapped up friends for the loan of a decent mountain bike, given the fact that I had entered a race that required one and yet had last been on one a year ago in Europe. Bike duly lent (thank you Rachael 🙂 ) I trekked over to Al Ain, where a friend and colleague of mine was kind enough to host me at her and her husband’s place a short distance from the race venue, Wadi Adventure. Pre-race preparations included an awesome braii, continuing my South African vibe from the previous weekend, and firming up last minute team members for a couple of teams suddenly without key members. I felt a bit like a sports agent 🙂
Naomi & I about to start the run stage
Naomi & I about to start the run stage

As with every race I have done to date, the day started incredibly early and we arrived at Wadi Adventure to register as the sun was still very much starting its ascent. Following one bib number change and then another on the day itself, I found myself racing as number 136, got my bike racked, Camel-Pak suitably loaded up with water and nutrition, and waited with the rest of the posse for both the race briefing and then buses out to the start of the first stage of the day: the 15km trail run back into Wadi Adventure.

In hindsight it would have been much better to have had the run kicking off significantly earlier, even right at the crack of dawn, as by the time the starting horn went, following a valiant effort by MC Very Enthusiastic to whip us up into a 300-esque frenzy, the sun was already beating down on us, meaning that even from the start I found my heart-rate shooting up to about 180 and remaining there even as I was forced to slow down my pace. The initial few kilometres seemed to be very short but the going got significantly tougher as we reached our first serious ascent, with running up it simply not something that was going to happen. The key difference between the road and track running that I am used to with triathlon and trail is that there are a lot more opportunities to roll an ankle, slip or otherwise do yourself an injury. On the flip side, as long as you’re careful and don’t do anything too heroic or out of control then trail is far more interesting. Our run route took us through valleys and even through a couple of wadi drains, as we ducked under roads, before emerging the Wadi Adventure side of Jebel Hafeet, and the last few kilometres to base and the start of our bike leg. The placing of water stations at regular intervals was welcome, especially the provision of chilled water, much of which ended up being poured onto and over me as opposed to into me, such was the temperature.
My run time was, in hindsight, a relatively steady 1hr 32min, and would certainly have been faster had I not forced myself to walk sections of it in a bid to bring my heart rate down to a more sustainable level. As I came into Wadi Adventure I took a quick detour via my car in order to change running shoes (wrecking an expensive pair of Zoots on both the trail run and mountain bike seemed wasteful) and a pair of decent cycling shorts, my logic being that I would be sat on my backside for the foreseeable future on both the bike and then the kayak. If I was going to have to suffer then at least it wouldn’t be my arse that bore the brunt!
The course!
The course!

By the end of the run I was craving some sugar and, more pressing, salts, having stupidly forgotten to pack my electrolyte tablets for the one race where it seemed I was definitely going to be wanting them. Although it was a Red Bull sponsored event, offering athletes only Red Bull or water seemed a little silly. As much as I really didn’t need to be guzzling down the copious amounts of caffeine in the aforementioned beverage, my craving for additional sugar to fuel the next stage was greater and so a can was consumed before I was off on the bike, heading out along the initial straight. It might have been a straight, flat line but it was also predominantly thick sand – not the easiest to cycle in, thats for sure! Pushing the bike – a repeated exercise over the next 15km – was necessary for much of the first section, before the drinks station and just before entering the really technical stage of the ride. The MTB course had apparently been designed by a Red Bull sponsored downhill champion and it showed! Rocky, impossibly narrow on sections, with some serious drop offs and fast sections, and an area where we literally had to carry our bikes up a steep face. This relatively short section of more technical riding, which I believe was only about 4km, took most of us a considerable amount of time to navigate our way around and I certainly wasn’t the only person who felt a real attachment to their intact collar bones and thus walked a sizeable portion of the route. The final 8km of the course were flat, taking in the outskirts of the Wadi Adventure park and then taking us over the main road to the hotel and the kayak transition. I am not ashamed to say that I was pretty well cooked by the time I arrived and the sight of athletes further up the field carrying their kayaks back towards Wadi Adventure did little to rejuvenate my flagging energy levels.

A slight moment of the ‘whites’ once off the bike, followed swiftly by a hastily guzzled down Race Food bar, led me into the kayak for the three loops around the artificial lake, this being the first stage of the kayak event. Although I have had the privilege of doing a bit of paddling recently around the Palm, it was clear that my paddling technique still required some honing as I received helpful pointers from much faster fellow athletes, especially as on several occasions I found the kayak spinning to face the wrong way, a frustrating occurrence when all I now wanted was to see the finish line. Anyway, through a combination of stubborn determination, crap technique interspersed with moments of correct technique, and a strong desire to finish the race already, I ploughed on, exiting the water, I believe, in last place. A quick check of the rules to see if there was any reason why I could not place my kayak on my bike for the return to Wadi Adventure – I couldn’t sadly. Thankfully, a fellow individual competitor, Mark, was also at the same stage as me and so we teamed up, taking either end of the kayaks and walking the 2km (plus) back, flanked by the marshals who had stayed back to usher us stragglers in. 20 minutes later and we arrived at the white water course, eager to finish our short but fun rapids stage prior to the finish line, but were met with the rather annoying advice that as they had run out of time for the event (Jeez! Were we really THAT slow and behind everyone else?!) we would just have to drop the kayaks and run to the finish line. As much as I was glad to see the back of those kayaks and was eager to be done, I was also bitterly disappointed to not at least be able to finish ALL of the race. I couldn’t help myself as I asked the organiser, with an unavoidable hint of annoyance in my voice, why, if they were running out of time for us, did they feel it was ok to allow us to lug the kayaks all the way back when we could have been given a bit of a helping lift in order that we at least got to finish the race properly?! Obviously the kayak carrying was still part of the race but I’m sure most would agree that given the choice of which bit could feasibly be ‘cut out’ from the race in favour of doing the really fun bit (the white water), it would have been lugging 22kg kayaks the best part of 2km! Still, the fact remained: we were last, time was against us and so Mark and I ran to the finish, crossing together to close out the day’s efforts. Nearly 6 hours after starting it was over.
Finally finished
Finally finished

As fun as the race was in hindsight, and an epic achievement, especially given the fact that there were actually several DNFs, I would opt to run a half Ironman distance race any day! It was a tough, tough race and I am sure if I work on my specific discipline fitness (trail run, mountain bike and paddling), all of which I really haven’t done much of at all, then a return to the race next year (lol – see what I’m already doing?! Mentally signing up already! We are gluttons for punishment!) would, I am certain, see a much faster time. In the meantime, I plan to stick to triathlon 🙂

The race winners: teams & individuals
The race winners: teams & individuals

 

The Long Way Around

“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.

training shoes, pack for runThe 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.

Khatt hot SpringsA 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.

Urban Ultra – organisers of the Urban Stinker race