Okay, so this one is a little late – but hey it’s better late than never. The race took part way back in February. Oops! Enjoy anyway…
The challenge was set -Wadi Bih Solo Ultra – 72km – 1000m climb up a pretty big hill in Oman and back down again. What could possibly go wrong?
This was my big single stage race of the year. It was the one I’d been pounding away for and the reason why I knocked out a stubborn 50km on Christmas Day followed by a tasty 30km on Boxing Day. And it was the reason why I ran a pretty handy marathon a few days after a 35km. Yep, the training had been tidy.
The stage was therefore set for my epic trot out on the tracks. I’d done the event last year, but as part of a relay team, so I knew the route (despite going the wrong way then) and I’d been lucky enough to train with and pick the brains of Qatar’s most highly-regarded Wadi Bih expert (a previous podium finisher in consecutive years).
The Thursday before Friday’s race started early. The border crossing to Dibba in a Sultanate of Oman, where the race is held, is via UAE, and is notoriously tricky. The countries don’t get on so well but we were supposed to be clear as Qatar has nothing to do with the ongoing discussions – or so we thought.
So, after a less than smooth flight from Doha to Dubai…we were an hour late leaving and flew through a shamal (sandstorm), which is not to be recommended, on landing. Fighting our way through Dubai airport’s passport control where the computer system was down and so the border control officials were filling in forms by hand and photographing passports on their mobiles; we were approximately two hours’ behind schedule.
After collecting our bags, yes we took hold luggage as I would be using run poles in the race, we set out in search of our hire car. Another 30 minutes passed and we were on the road heading out into Thursday lunchtime traffic – not to be recommended in Dubai as people tend to head home early for the weekend – and on our way to Oman.
Following a couple of pit stops and a visit to a roadside fruit stall to fill up on food and drinks, we were at a large supermarket on the UAE side of the border. Prior knowledge taught us that this would be the best place to stock up on ultra run supplies … salted crisps, cola, chocolate, nuts, dried fruit and the like. We’d brought the stuff you can never get away from home but it’s always good to have options. One minor crisis – they had no Marmite. We’d definitely bought it there the year before so hadn’t packed any. We ended up with Nutella instead. Definitely not the same, but hey, sometimes you have to wing it, particularly in the Middle East.
In an attempt to make the border crossing a smoother experience, the race organizers had compiled a list of all the names of those who would be requiring entry and supplied it to the police, along with posting their own team at the border. In theory this should have worked, but in practice it didn’t quite pan out. To be fair we had a fairly easy crossing, just a 30 minutes or so wait, lots of ‘non-resident’ shout-outs to make sure the border officials knew that we weren’t resident in UAE and we got through at around 4pm. Pity for those guys coming later. The border was only to get busier, with some waiting five hours to cross and some just giving up and heading back to Dubai.
Arriving at the race HQ at the Golden Tulip hotel was quite a relief. We settled into our room, made instant noodles, and packed our two drop bags for the following day. Yes, I know, instant noodles – but we’d struggled to get food earlier and these are at least carbs.
My drop bags contained food, and lots of it, and water – again lots of it. In the past, solo Wadi runners had to provide all their own supplies and so I wanted to make sure I would have water, just in case.
After registering for the race at 6pm, we headed to dinner before getting to bed early. Unfortunately, sleep didn’t come easier. I have issues with my back and so find it difficult to sleep away from home, and we got attacked by mosquitoes in the night.Following several hours tossing and turning and slapping at mozzies we decided to get up at 2.30am. The solo 72km started at 4.30am anyway, with a race briefing at the start line on the beach at 4am, so the extra 30 minutes would fly by. Tucking into instant porridge, bananas and dark chocolate, we donned our race gear, picked up our drop bags and headed out into the darkness.
Dumping the drop bags, we gathered around the organizers’ table, shocked at the number of relay team batons still to be collected. A role call was taken during the briefing, as it was explained that several runners had turned back at the border with other soloists only just making it over or one their way to the race now, and as a result they were delaying the start for a few minutes. That gave more time for the nerves to kick in as we stood around in the darkness making cheery conversation and last minute kit checks. Eyeballing the competition there were plenty of professionally clad runners in trail shoes, smart compression kit, and carrying all the latest nutrition bars and gels. Eek, we had road shoes, cheapo socks and basic sports wear.
At last, it was headtorches on and we were off. I’d reckoned that I needed to get some distance in under the cover of darkness as the sun could potentially make things hot later and I wanted to notch up some kms before the team relay runners started with their support cars crowding the trail. Following the pack, we made good progress on the easy tarmac road surface. Steve ran alongside me, pooling our light resources. There was, however, one blip as the forward runners missed a left turn (with me stating ‘why aren’t they turning’ and Steve not believing me) until the organizers pulled up and started shouting to them. This meant we were in the lead for a km or so, until the fast guys caught and passed us. That wasn’t going to happen again!
Eight km in or so and the offroad starts before the first manned checkpoint at around 10km. A quick water top-up, time to grab my poles and drop my top layer, and we were off again. I’d decided to carry poles up and down the steepest hill and to be honest I’d miscalculated the route, I could have picked up my poles at the next drop bag checkpoint but never mind, they are light and easy to manage. We continued making steady progress under the stars. I was wearing clear glasses as the track can get dusty with vehicles passing and being a contact user I didn’t want gritty eyes for 60km.
A cheery ‘salam’ (hello) to the Wadi border guards and plenty of ‘yalla, yalla’ (go, go) from them and we trotted on.
Chit-chatting with other runners, Steve decided to back off as lightness reached the gorge and I was on my own – 23 odd km in and I wasn’t having a great time. The route was starting to climb and yet El Diablo, the infamous devil’s back of a track hadn’t materialized. With just a few goats for company, I decided my best course of action was to hunker down, steady the pace and get some food on board. Passing through the next manned checkpoint, I turned the corner and there he was – the infamous steep switch-back. Poles at the ready I strode on up. Another runner trotted past and another first time ultra runner wisely dug in behind me, asking if we should try to run up too. A further two km up and he understood why I said: “You can do if you want, but I won’t be.”
As we neared the top of Diablo the first teams started to catch us up with their cheery shouts and waves. Pushing on we trotted to the turn point, met the first soloists on their way back, and I bade my companion goodbye. It was my plan to now get down Old Nick’s back as quickly as I could. I knew the trail was about to be swamped with relay runners coming up and team support cars struggling to pass on the narrow steep track. I just wanted to get myself outta there.
Team runners and 50km soloists heading the other way started telling me I was the first woman. I fairly soon met the second women, a fellow Doha runner, still heading up but only about 1.5km behind me. To stay ahead, I would have to motor on. Passing the guy, who’d run past us going up Diablo, I knew that patience had been my savior.
Poles ready to dig into the gravel, I skittled down the trail, hopscotching across stones and rocks, dodging cars. The poles came in handy to yield at 4X4s, forcing them to stop as I skidded to a halt in front of them.
Yep, I was determined not to hang around up there. Passing my other half marching his way up Diablo, I slip-slided my way on and back through checkpoint 10, which was now packed with relay cars queuing to escort their runners up the hill. The traffic thinned and I was able to take a breather as the first Doha team overtook me. Getting a quick update on the position of the next lady, I eased the pace and enjoyed another pack of sarnies before trotting over the speed humps of the Wadi border crossing. Getting some more ‘yala’ cries, I shouted back that there was no yala left in these legs!
Tit-for-tat running with a few other soloists through the 50km point, I was glad of sipping the flat coke in my drop bag on my return to checkpoint 4. Heading back out to countdown the last few clicks, the teams started to come past thick and fast. Their halloos and hoots were most welcome. One car offered to take my poles but I was hanging on to them, as the climb over the dam beckoned. The trail was now hot and dusty and I was grateful to get back onto the tarmac. An Omani pulled up, waved and started snapping away on his camera as I pushed my lead-like legs up the last hill. I’m guessing he was more interested in photographing the team runners sprinting past me but it was a boost.
Tootling over the last few kms on the road, I latched onto different team runners as I instigated a run five minutes, walk one minute plan. Yes, I was tired and I was delighted to finally hear the noisy hum of the power station at 1km out. I was very nearly there!
Passing the last checkpoint, there were about four teams lined up awaiting their last runner to pass the baton before they sprinted over the last km to the finish line. As I passed, they burst into spontaneous applause and so with tears misting my vision, they ran alongside me as I tagged them home at a 4 min 30 sec per km, back over the strength-sapping sand of the Golden Tulip’s beach and over the line.
First women – 72 km – 7 hours and 16 minutes.
Here’s a link to my hubby’s video of the event. Enjoy!