Going off the grid

“I don’t think I can do this Dion! It’s too much, this race is too much. I’m not strong enough for a race like this”. It’s 70km into Oman by UTMB and I’m crying uncontrollably into my phone having called my husband in a blind panic. I’m 360 degrees out of my comfort zone and I don’t know how to get out of this situation.

When UTMB announced earlier in 2018 that it was expanding the race family to include Oman and Ushuaia my interest was peaked. Oman had been on my radar as a place to visit as an undiscovered gem of the Middle East but nothing had drawn me there until I read about the inaugural Oman by UTMB. A 137km single stage footrace through the Omani mountains with 7,800m of elevation promising a route of natural beauty and physical challenge.

Dramatic scenery – Misfat Village
©Mark Lloyd images

Arriving in Muscat a few days prior to the race was the perfect opportunity to indulge in some last minute warm weather before the European winter sets in. The airport itself was a sign of things to come; grand, imposing and in pristine condition and I listened eagerly as my super friendly taxi driver turned tourist guide pointed out the stunning must-see Grand Mosque as we whizzed along wide, perfect roads that were the cleanest I’ve ever seen. He proudly tells me that cleanliness is so important in the Sultanate that a fine is issued if your car is dirty.

Enjoying Muscat’s pristine beaches.

Away from the Grand Mosque Muscat feels more modest, with low rise sand coloured buildings where local Arabs walk casually through the streets; men swathed in white or black linen thobes, women in hijab, giving a real sense of an unhurried and relaxed way of life. Crystal clear blue water laps leisurely onto the white sandy beaches that surround the city. People stop to chat and regular greetings of ‘As-salamu alaykum’ resonate as groups of friends and families gather to socialise together over cups of tea and feasting on meze, hummus and falafel.

Majestic beaches give way to otherworldly rugged mountain tops as we make our way to race HQ in Nizwa where around 415 ultra-Trail runners (including only 51 women) representing 57 countries have arrived to take up the challenge of Oman’s mountainous interior, including the 2,200m high Jebel Akhdar known as the ‘Green Mountain’. Little did we know then that this race would earn the nickname of ‘The Beast’ and less than 40% of us would become finishers of this epic race.

Lulled into a false sense of luxury and relaxation as we all enjoyed the divine swimming pool and food on offer at The Golden Tulip Hotel reality was soon upon us as we set out with head torches at the ready for the race start at 7:30pm. The start line was a party atmosphere and the atmosphere was electric with elevated heart rates as we anticipated what lay ahead. Straight into the dark the first 10km were fast with runners making the most of the very runnable and flat start to the race. It wasn’t long though before poles were pulled out and the first long climb of many begun.

Anna-Marie Watson and I ready to start ‘The Beast’

The course was marked within an inch of its life. I’ve never seen anything like it with the most reflective red and green markers absolutely everywhere on the route. Navigating along ridges and plateau edges I have the organisers warnings resonating in my head; green markers mean safe, red markers mean danger! At some points the distance between the two was literally 2 footsteps requiring full concentration. The night was long and the darkness was all encompassing and I found myself looking forward to sunrise so I could enjoy what I’d heard was some of the most spectacular scenery around me.

Sunrise!

As the sun rose I found myself on top of the most unforgiving and exposed mountain with deep cutting canyons to my left. I’m left breathless, humbled by the sheer expanse and natural beauty of this place reminding me how small I am in the middle of this incredibleness. The terrain is rough; harsh and unforgiving; with little to no vegetation unless you count bushes that cut you deep and draw blood should you get to close to them. Everything out here is harsh, designed for self protection over centuries of survival but in its harshness there is an inspiring beauty and I’m filled with a deep level of respect.

Simply jaw dropping scenery.

The climbs are relentless with the technical terrain making them even more so. These aren’t trails that have been regularly trodden and this combined with the now increasing temperature starts to make me doubt my abilities. I’m uncomfortable and petrified and I reach the 70km mark in tears. The previous climb had scared me with its exposure and the vertical drops below and I’m shaking like a leaf. I call Dion. I don’t want to go on but somehow he makes me see sense and assures me I’m stronger than I think but if I’m truly scared and I feel my life is in danger then pull out. But if not….I didn’t travel all this way to eat falafels.

The next section is more runnable and descending into a Wadi I pass through historical 400 year old mud houses and a multitude of caves that until now were concealed by the wall of mountains now surrounding me. I can see the Alila Hotel on the top of the other side of the canyon, teasing me knowing this is the big life station with hot food and my drop bag, so close yet so very far. An oasis of water stops me in my tracks, remote and breathtaking, and I wonder if it’s real or am I already starting to hallucinate. It is real of course and so are the rocks that I need all fours to climb up before reaching the start of the via ferrata. 80km into this technical race we are being strapped up in harnesses, helmets on and ascending a rock wall. I know the oasis of the life base is at the top and this spurs me on.

Deep in the wadi.

It’s my first ever via ferrata and I’m overcome with emotion as a smiling and encouraging volunteer takes my harness off me and I’m in tears again. My emotions are running higher than normal in this race as I am way out of my comfort zone and everything is becoming an emotional effort. The tears come again as I reach the life base and see the familiar face of Marina Ranger waiting for me with a big smile and a hug. The life base doesn’t disappoint and I wolf down a huge bowl of Dal and rice and with freshly squeezed orange juice on offer I replace fluids with a over a litre of this golden goodness. I come across fellow running friend Jakob here and we decide to head out together for a bit of company.

My 1st ever via feratta!

Feeling refreshed and energised after a good break we make good use of the next runnable 5km before we are again reduced to a relentless forward motion using whatever means possible; run, walk, shuffle. We push forward as the sun begins to set onto our 2nd night out on the course as we head towards a highly anticipated downhill, but even the downhills on this course are brutal and we implement downhill ski style for our descent to try and reduce the impact of the sheer steepness of it.

The long dusty downhill finally ends and we’re directed through dense shrubbery to reach what can only be described as a fairytale secret entrance. Tree roots wind their way up century old stairs built from limestone rocks and we ascend through ancient ruins of an, even now, impressive building, perhaps a mosque or fortress in its day. A labyrinth of pathways lead us to the aid station before the final climb nicknamed ‘The Wall’ as reading the elevation profile of the race would suggest with a 1,240m ascent in around 3km it was going to be just that. More than a vertical kilometre this was literally a wall that we had to use our 116km used legs to climb over before we were even in sniffing distance of finishing this beast of a race.

Dauntingly we are informed that the organisation are unable to get help to us during the next section so we are to make sure we can get from this point to the next without assistance otherwise we should not proceed, and to put our poles away as we are going to need all fours to reach the top! I’ve never climbed properly in my life and to take on this ascent in the dark whilst having to maintain 3 points of contact at all times has gone down as the hardest and most petrifying experience of my racing experience to date. Add to this challenge some hallucinations of cats on rocks and you start to get the picture. At least they were friendly hallucinations. With my life depending on to my strength I clamber my way to the top hanging on to the near vertical rock face, panic breathing and sobbing all the way up.

Dripping in sweat and now freezing as reaching the summit in full force winds meant putting on every layer I had to try and keep warm. Fatigue was starting to really set in now and I hoped I could hang on until daybreak as I’d started having little sleep walking style nod offs. I ate skittles, salt tablets and paracetamol and then the sun finally rose again and filled me with a renewed energy, with now less than 15km to go I knew that medal would be mine. But as with the rest of the race, the forthcoming downhill and final push to the finish line would not be an easy one and would continue to take much longer than anticipated. Reluctantly I had to reapply sunscreen and put my hat and sunglasses back on as I could feel myself starting to burn. I had certainly not planned on seeing a 2nd sunrise!

We could hear the finish line before we saw it, hearing our names being announced as we approached, and both Jakob and I breathed a big sigh of relief when it finally came into view and through gritted teeth with each step becoming excruciatingly more painful we finally descended and found ourselves running, it felt like we were running, along the red carpet to be greeted with that richly deserved medal around our necks.

The finish line!

Dazed, dumbfounded and exhausted beyond all belief I was speechless and could barely utter an inaudible grunt as the race MC tried to probe me for what I thought of the race. I was just so glad to be finished I just stood there grinning like a dazed fool before I was guided away to a chair and given food and drink.

‘The Beast’, ‘The Wall’, ‘The race that just kept giving’, ‘The 137km Sky race’, ‘The new Barkley Marathon’……the nicknames for this experience were coming out from everyone and it seemed all the runners from the winners to those that didn’t finish were shocked in equal measures of awe and disbelief as to how tough this race really was. Had I known how tough it was beforehand I might not have entered and then never had the opportunity to test myself in this way so in away I’m glad I didn’t know. Fulfilling its promise of a physical challenge, this race is set to expand and become renowned for its brutality and toughness with a full schedule of 4 races planned for next year ranging from 50km to 100 miles, which one will you be choosing?

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