This race required dedication before it even started. The journey from Hawaii felt like an ultramarathon in and of itself. I left Honolulu early Sunday morning and did not touch down in Muscat until Tuesday morning. Shortly after boarding the second flight in Los Angeles, the entire economy class was forced off the plane to fix a refrigeration issue. In London, an additional security screening triggered suspicion, and my meticulously packed bag was ransacked to extract bottles full of energy powder, which had to be swiped for explosives. By the time I boarded the Oman Air flight to Muscat, the overpowering body odor of my seatmate did not even faze me.
I spent the long hours in transit drifting in and out of consciousness, with a high baseline of anxiety over my ability to tackle the cliffs of the Al Hajar mountains. I had trained all year, focusing on climbing, with over a million feet of elevation gain in 2019. But every account I read of this race made me uncomfortable. The “Beast of the Middle East,” they called it. Fewer than half of the competitors crossed the finish line at last year’s inaugural event.
So why was I doing this? There are plenty of races that do not involve flying halfway around the world. The motivation was simple, though arguably not well justified: UTMB. Since its inception in 2003, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc has snowballed in popularity and become the pinnacle ultramarathon race east of the Atlantic. Despite a daunting course that loops around Europe’s highest peak, covering 106 miles (171 km) with over 32,000 ft (10,000 m) of elevation gain, more and more athletes around the world want to participate each year. To offset demand, the race directors have increased qualification requirements and instituted a lottery, and starting in 2018, opened up even tougher franchise races around the world that serve as qualifiers. The Oman 130 is one of those races. All I had to do was cross the finish line. Or so I thought.
The Al Hajar mountain range is the first thing you see as you exit Muscat International. The capital of almost two million people lies sprawled out at its foothills with the Gulf of Oman to the north. Thrust up from the depths of the Indian Ocean millions of years ago, as the Arabian Peninsula smashed into Asia, these rugged mountains reach a height of almost 10,000 ft (3,000 m) above sea level at Jebel Shams. The 170 km version of the race (introduced for the first time this year) would bag that peak too, while the 130 takes a shortcut down to the finish in Al Hamra. I was happy with that shortcut.
The second thing you notice is the white, short boxed bearded face of the Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said on display on street lamps, building facades, and large framed photographs in hotel lobbies and restaurants. The sultan is the longest-serving leader in the Middle East, having seized power from his father in a coup in 1970. While he has done a lot of good for the country over the decades, the political system he established is an absolute monarchy, and his self-aggrandizing nature is on full display. Al Said has even declared his birthday a national holiday.
The race was scheduled to take place over Thanksgiving Day, which I failed to account for when registering. Being far from family on Thanksgiving is frowned upon in America, and budgeting four days for travel along with additional buffer days around the race was a tall order. On top of that, the starting line was in a remote place where I knew no one.
Fortunately, my loving wife, Allison, was understanding and forgave my absence. And not knowing anyone in Oman was a non-issue because the ultrarunners I met turned out to be a friendly bunch. Highly experienced yet humble, their positive energy was contagious. There were others traveling solo (though not as far as I!) and the cumulative pre-race jitters brought us all together.
My hotel, the Noor Majan Camp, was far outside the recommended radius, and while trying to figure out the Omani taxi hailing protocol, I met Emmanuel. Economizing on accommodations, he too was trying to get to Noor Majan, a small set of basic bungalows on a featureless road that few locals in Nizwa had apparently heard of. It probably did not help that neither of us could pronounce it correctly with our American and French accents. At one point the taxi driver pulled over, rolled down his window, shouted over to a pedestrian on the far side of a major thoroughfare, beckoning him over to ask for directions. The driver did not trust my Google Maps guidance.
Over the next few days Emmanuel and I became good friends, sharing stories about training and past races, learning about our families and the few hobbies we have time for outside training. Living in the flat lands of Brittany, Emmanuel has to travel for hills, the kind of topography I take for granted.
On the day of the race we joined another runner, Olivier, also from Brittany, and the three of us toured the old Fort of Nizwa, which is a museum of sorts showcasing the old simple life in Oman. The construction of the fort is impressive in its ability to keep the air reasonably cool in such a hot and unforgiving climate, where outside temperatures in the summer are routinely above 100 °F, even 1,600 ft above sea level.
The morning heat was picking up, and by 11am we were visibly tired from the tour. The guide sensed something amiss.
“You do not like the fort?” He asked.
“It is nice,” I said.
“We are just tired,” Emmanuel added.
The guide nodded, unconvinced. “Where you from?” He inquired.
“It’s a small village, yes?”
I almost laughed out loud. I explained it was an archipelago, also hot, but humid and green. I am not sure he understood.
A stroll through the souq afterwards was a treat for the senses. The maze of shops and stalls with their kaleidoscopic arrangement of colorful spices gave off a complex melange of aromas. My French friends bought some dates to bring home, while I refrained, for Hawaii would not allow me to import fruit of any kind.
We had lunch at an Indian restaurant and tried to order the most bland sounding menu items. With less than six hours until the start, this was not the time to be adventurous with food.
Emmanuel was already outside, almost unrecognizable in full battle gear. Our racing outfits carry unique personal touches that hide an almost superstitious element, often subconscious.
We had made arrangements with a taxi driver earlier in the day to pick us up at the Noor Majan at 4:45pm. The race start in Birkat al Mawz, a 25-minute drive away, was at 7:30. Checking our watches nervously, we scanned the road. No taxis. By 5pm, I felt uneasy. By 5:15 I was worried. We enlisted the help of the hotel staff, who called three taxis, all busy.
The sun fell over the horizon and dusk set in. This would be a first. Arriving at a race start after the gun had gone off. One of the staff managed to hail a taxi, but he was headed in the wrong direction. At 5:30, by some miracle, an unmarked car pulled over and in rapid Arabic the hotel staff negotiated transportation to the race village. Normally I would not dream of getting into an unmarked car in a country where I do not speak a word of the local language, but these were desperate times.
Seeing the Oman by UTMB banners and bright lights, we breathed a sigh of relief. Back in California, my family was waking up to Thanksgiving morning and beginning the preparations for a traditional feast. Words of cheer arrived on my phone. I felt ready.
“Let’s sit down,” Emmanuel said, with thirty minutes to go. “We need to save our legs.”
I agreed. Runners walked by, bibs broadcasting their country flags. I fist bumped a fellow American.
“My wife says I should take pictures of stars,” Emmanual relayed. There were some big names in the race.
A reporter approached with a camera man behind her and pointed a microphone in my face.
“How do you feel?” she asked, and followed up with a few more questions before moving on to find others.
“I guess I should take your picture!” Emmanuel joked.
“Five! Four! Three! Two! One!” Bang.
We were off. The first couple of miles meandered through the village, street lamps lighting the way. The cheers from bystanders and village lights quickly faded, and the course turned onto gravel road, heading into the wadi, a deep channel carved out by water during the rainy seasons. They are found all over Oman, and can be deadly in flash floods. A couple of weeks ago, dozens had perished after a passing rainstorm.
The round pebbles made each step wobbly, but this was nothing compared to what was to come. Last year’s third place female, Meredith Edwards, was a few steps in front of me, and without warning she dropped to the ground. I almost tripped over her. A couple of us stopped to ask if she was okay. She got up, brushing off some dirt, affirmed she was OK, and continued on.
That is one of the things I love about the ultra-running community. There is a strong sense of camaraderie. In a road race, a tumble would hardly be noticed by passing runners. “One fewer competitor,” seems to be the attitude. In a trail race, you stop and help those in need. We are all in it together.
The mile markers ticked off quickly on my watch as the grade was imperceptible. Normally, the pack thins out quickly, but everyone here was a strong runner, and the terrain was still far from technical. I looked behind me a few times. A sea of headlamps.
Nicky, a Scottish runner I had met a couple of days ago pulled up alongside me, and we chatted for a few more miles. The air was warm and still, and I went through my water quickly. As the canyon walls narrowed, large boulders put an end to the running. Nicky took the lead, scrambling over the rocks. Crossing the stream a few times, I lost his headlamp in the distance.
The first big climb started at Mile 15. It was a dirt road, which although steep, was runnable. Maintaining a jogging gait, I passed a number of runners on this section. My legs felt great, and I was drinking well. But I was starting to think my energy powder mix strategy was poorly thought out. At each aid station, it was a tedious process of unscrewing lids, pouring powder into (often not completely empty) flasks and resealing. This was my first time not using gels in a race, and the calories I was getting were a mystery.
Aid station volunteers are typically runners, and they know what other runners need. I am used to what probably seems like VIP treatment to road runners, where on approach a volunteer shouts: “what do you need?” Then grabs bottles and flasks and starts refilling, freeing the runner’s hands to feed, make adjustments, and take care of things. These volunteers were different. Many seemed sullen and detached, sitting back in their chairs, hoods over their heads and arms crossed. Everything on display was self-service.
A brief descent, and the climb continued along a narrow trail dominated by sharp ophiolite rocks that would torment us for the rest of the race. They came in various flavors: big, small, dark, light, sturdy, unstable, and everything in between. What they all had in common was a cheese grater like surface eager to draw blood.
No climb lasts indefinitely, and eventually we reached 6,000 ft, above which we would remain for the next fifteen miles. A tiresome series of ups and downs followed. While the field had dispersed a bit by now, I often ran in a cluster of headlamps. The reflective green dots marking the route were superbly placed, but when following headlamps, a herd like mentality takes over, and it becomes easy to stop verifying the route. A group of us missed a turn at Mile 25, naturally lured by the smooth surface of a dirt road. I realized it had been some time without seeing green, so I called out to the runners ahead, and we backtracked getting some confused looks from those behind us. One of those confused faces was Nicky’s, who had taken another wrong turn earlier. That was the last time I saw him. He would go on to finish the race in 26 hours.
Five miles later, I could tell by the red markings signifying danger that we were running along a cliff face. It was still pitch dark and impossible to know how far below the bottom lay. My headlamp beam could not penetrate the depths of the chasm. Keeping as close to the green and far from the red as possible, I pressed on.
A Polish runner, Jakub, shared some miles with me here, and the conversation helped us cover the rocky ground more quickly. Nighttime is always the hardest part of these longer ultramarathons. I heard a text message arrive on my phone, and even though the concentration required with every step was too intense to read it, I knew my family was with me in the darkness.
The remaining hours to sunrise ticked down slowly. A two thousand foot climb near Mile 40 allowed me to pass a number of people. A strong runner with trekking poles was right behind me the entire way. I asked several times if he wanted to pass, but he declined. I think he was happy with the pace, and I was happy not to trace his trekking poles.
At the top, the trail opened up onto a road along the ridge at 7,000 feet. The welcoming lights and white tents of Checkpoint 7 appeared. The wind picked up as a number of us huddled for warmth, a cup of warm soup in hand. I chatted briefly with Meredith, who did not linger. She pressed on, while I struggled with my awkward flask refilling procedure.
People often ask me what I think about when running for this long a time. A journey of a hundred miles can seem insurmountable if one thinks about the enormity of the task. To make things manageable, it must be broken down into bite-sized pieces. One segment, and even one step at a time. Where do I put my foot down next? How do I get over this boulder? When I get to the next aid station, what do I need to do? Am I drinking enough water? Electrolytes? Food?
Rarely in our modern, fast-paced lives are we afforded the freedom to spend such an extended period of time living in the present. In the Netflix series Lilyhammer, Trond Fausa’s character, Torgeir, recalls his ski jump coach advise him that there are three kinds of jumps: the bad, where you think about the outcome; the good, where you think about the task at hand, and the fantastic, when you do not think about a damned thing, and God grabs you by the neck and carries you through the air. I suspect this wisdom can be applied to ultramarathons, where I am still striving for the fantastic one.
The sky went from black to deep, dark blue. Barely noticeable at first, and then the hint of dawn transitioned to full-on dawn. The surge of emotion that comes with the anticipation of sunrise after running all night is difficult to describe. An elation that numbs all soreness and fatigue. Immense gratitude, only magnified by the significance of the Thanksgiving holiday.
My phone chimed a few times, and even though the descent was too gnarly for me to read the screen, I knew who it was. That added to the joy.
More and more of the approaching sun’s rays scattered in the upper atmosphere and the veil of darkness lifted. It was the first opportunity we got to see the landscape we had been immersed in for the past ten hours. It was ruggedly beautiful. I turned off my headlamp with a satisfying click, and stashed it away.
For a brief moment, the markers led us to a paved road, a luxury we had not experienced since leaving Birkat. I used the opportunity of the reduced mental load to call Allison. She answered on the first ring. My eyes welled up. Ultramarathons have a way of dismantling all emotional surge protectors.
“I made it through the night portion,” I said, my voice faltering. “I can do this!”
“Your dad projected the live tracking site on the living room TV,” Allison said excitedly, “and we have been following you all along!”
The time difference between Oman and California was twelve hours, and even though it would soon be bedtime there, I knew my family would not sleep soundly until I had crossed the finish line. And I was not even halfway there yet. Remember, one step at a time.
The pavement did not last long, and the descent continued for another 2,000 feet over the usual cheese grater terrain, only steeper and more exposed, deep into the canyon. I could see Meredith and another runner ahead, their voices echoing against the canyon walls. I tried to catch up but was too careful not to stumble. By the time I reached the bottom and started the next climb out of the wadi, I had lost them.
Splash! Rounding a giant boulder with a narrow ledge, I lost my balance and fell into a pool of cold water. At first it seemed as though only one foot would get submerged, but that foot slid, and a split second later, I found myself in a sitting position, water up to my waist. It was a comical loss of control. Fortunately, my vest and all electronics remained dry, but this was not good.
The temperatures were a lot lower in the wadi, and with the wind channeling through, I quickly got cold. Fortunately, there was more climbing to do, and that raises core temperature. The next aid station, the Alila Hotel, propitiously situated at the top of the cliff had my drop bag, with a change of clothes, dry socks, and shoes.
But first, I had to get past the via ferrata. In the race summary video and from personal accounts I read of last year’s finishers, this section sounded unnervingly exposed. In reality, it was rather tame. The term via ferrata is Italian for “iron road” and refers to metal brackets and cables drilled into rock to aid in climbing nearly vertical terrain. One typically wears a harness with two carabiner attachments, one of which is connected for safety to a runner cable along the rock face at all times. If you fall, the carabiner is your lifeline. Via ferrata has its roots in Italy during the First World War when it was used to get troops up steep faces quickly. Compared to my daily runs on Oahu, this climb to the Alila Hotel felt like a walk in the park.
At the hotel, I retrieved my drop bag, sat under a heat lamp to warm up and put on some dry gear. For one runner, this was the end of the road. He was not doing well, and I heard him throw in the towel, supported by his wife. I thought about what his next steps might be. A shower, warm meal, a long nap. All that sounded tempting. But I had sat too long and was losing valuable time. I had to march on.
And march I did, for suddenly I had lost all energy to run. My calorie deficiency and likely electrolyte imbalance was catching up to me. Most aid stations were sugar loaded and were missing savory staples like potato chips, pretzels, and cheese, as well as fruit like bananas. Sodium and potassium levels: low.
The sun was moving up in the sky and the temperatures were rising. That slowed the pace even further. By mile 60, after an exhausting climb up to 7,500 ft above sea level the thought of quitting was planting firm roots in my head. “Who cares about UTMB?” I asked myself. “I cannot take these rocks anymore!” That thought helped me get through the next four miles of descending. I started passing 50k runners too, for many of whom this was probably their first ultra. It does not matter how low you feel, passing a runner is a big psychological boost.
Qiyut, Checkpoint 10, felt like a good place to DNF. The sun was blisteringly hot, and I felt in no shape to confront another 8,000 ft or more of climbing. I sat down on a rock, under limited shade to contemplate my decision. My phone had accumulated more loving messages from my sweet family. I did not want to wake them to tell them it is over. I texted my friends Jon and Rowena who were in a nearby timezone. They responded right away with words of encouragement. And then Jakub, the Polish runner, checked in.
This was the first time I saw him in daylight. He wore a white shirt and red shorts, the embodiment of his country’s flag.
“Come oooon!” Jakub said, with a look of sheer revulsion when I told him my intention. “There is no way you are quitting now. You can walk the rest of the way, like I probably will, and you would still make the cut offs. There is no excuse.”
Jakub was right, of course. I had no excuse. I thought about my coworkers battling cancer, still in the prime years of their lives. Especially Bert. Athletic all his life and now with Stage 4 cancer, he would probably have given anything to be in nature. Unlike them, I had a choice. I had to keep going.
“OK, let’s go.” I said, resolved to finish this.
Even in our overtired state, we managed to pass many 50k runners. The heat was starting to abate as the sun moved closer to the horizon, and the downhill helped the pace. After a while, Jakub started trailing farther behind. The soup I had in Qiyut was doing me good. At Checkpoint 11, a few miles down, I had another. Had I known soup was on the menu, I would have requested it much earlier in the race.
For a brief time we were treated to another luxuriously paved road segment, and that was it for pavement. The 12 km descent down to Balad Sayt was on a dusty, dirt road restricted to 4x4 vehicles. It was refreshingly non-technical, but relentlessly steep. Each foot of descending, meant another to be made up in the vertical kilometer, the biggest test of endurance of the whole race. Every time a 4x4 roared uphill toward me, a fresh cloud of dust hit me in the face. My buff filtered out most of it, but after a while my lungs felt scratchy. One vehicle’s passenger rolled down her window and cheered, “U.S.A.!” upon seeing my bib as the engine whined on. That felt nice.
Balad Sayt was a place of reckoning for many, an opportunity to enjoy some real food, while contemplating the climb. It felt good to sit down and be waited on. Many of the 170k runners chose to take a short nap here, for they would certainly be moving the entirety of the second night. I was expecting to see Jakub come in any moment. Fed well, and feeling a little restored, I decided to get a move on before dusk rolled in. Climbing a cliff seemed a lot safer under natural light.
It sure looked intimidating standing at its base. But as with the rest of the race, just by putting one foot in front of the other, an insurmountable obstacle slowly became manageable. A French trio followed in my footsteps.
“Ten percent!” I shouted down to them as my Garmin showed 300 ft climbed. Did they think my exclamation was sanguine or demoralizing? I wondered.
It got steeper with each step. And each step felt like a colossal effort. Pretty soon I was on all fours, trying to maintain three points of contact at all times. Holding on to the abrasive rocks required care.
Only goats could find this terrain natural, and they had left evidence. Goat droppings peppered the entire escarpment. Avoiding them only made finding a good handhold that much harder. If my body had not been trashed, I would have loved this climb. It was what I train to do. But it was so late in the game.
The light dwindled as the evening call to prayer echoed down below. The headlamp returned. Looking up, I saw other beams, impossibly high. I had to pause a few times to regain strength. What a beast.
At the eventual top of the cliff, a simple beverage station offered some relief. A dozen or so runners had gathered around trying to regroup after the monster of a climb. Jakub snuck up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, and said:
“I thought you wanted to quit?”
“It’s your fault I’m still here,” I smiled back. I was happy to see him.
Up on the ridge, the wind was strong, and the temperatures fell. Everyone put on jackets and pushed on, single file along the same godforsaken rocks we were all sick of by this point.
No one had the energy to run anymore even though it was flat. We chatted a bit, and spirits lifted somewhat. We were not far from the 24-hour mark, and someone entertained the thought that we might be able to cover the remaining mostly downhill 20 km in a couple of hours. That was delusional.
“I think I’m hallucinating,” a French guy in front said. “I’m seeing people where there aren’t any.”
“Those stone pillars with the trail markers have looked like imams to me for a while now,” I responded.
What one experiences after 40 hours without sleep is not really hallucination, but the imagination does begin to get a lot more creative.
The terrain up here was even more technical than anything that came before. An excruciating series of ups and downs tracing the ridge. A few headlamps flickered high up in the distance.
“We can’t possibly be going up there, can we?” Someone in the group asked.
We checked the cumulative ascent on our watches. Each reported less climbing than the race had promised.
“There’s no way I can do that,” Jakub said dejectedly. “Maybe you were right, Louka, we should have quit way back there.”
Thirty minutes later, it became clear what we had been seeing. The headlamps belonged to the brave souls who were tackling the 170k. At the col split, the 170k group would go up, while the rest of us went down.
“Just twenty kilometers left,” A volunteer said to us. “Mostly downhill.”
The mostly part was perturbing.
Those 12 km were the longest 12 km of my life. Jakub and I walked them together. It was embarrassing to be descending and not running, but each step was so awkward, and the rocks so unpredictably unstable, our fatigued bodies could not handle missteps.
It was exciting to see the city lights of Al Hamra down below, though they remained elusively distant for hours. As far as the headlamp could reach, it was the same fractal pattern of dark ophiolite. Heads down, we kept marching. Like a bad nightmare, each time we looked up, Al Hamra did not appear any closer.
How long could it possibly take to finish 12 km? The clock time ticked on… 26 hours, 27 hours… A pair of volunteers appeared, huddling next to a fire. It was not a hallucination, but what they told us was a lie: “just a few kilometers to go!”
Jakub let out an expletive now and then as he took turns rolling one ankle then another. One outburst was louder than the rest. He had fallen on his trekking pole and broken it. It became instant deadweight.
What seemed like an eternity later, we came into civilization. The irrigation canals of Al Hamra, lined with date palms came into view. Picturesque from the photos I had seen, I failed to appreciate them in the dark.
Asphalt! At last!
“Just 2 km left!” A volunteer exclaimed. I was not amused.
“That’s what they said 2 km ago!” I responded.
Then in a sadistic twist, the course took us off-road again, onto the same dreadful rocks we thought we had left behind, down into another wadi. This had to end, and it did, 29 hours and 34 minutes after we left Birkat.
To underscore that this was not a running race, Jakub and I walked side by side to the finish line. The few spectators who were still awake at this hour appeared bemused.
We were met by some race organizers holding up a ribbon.
“And the champion of one of the most grueling races in the world…” The announcer went on.
Jakub and I exchanged confused looks. We were far from being champions.
The organizers hurried us over the ribbon, annoyance across their faces.
We turned around, and with a surge of realization, saw Eoin Keith running towards the finish to win the 170 km race. Everyone was clapping. Jakub and I joined. We felt both happy for Eoin and sorry for him. We heard him say to a reporter that the Jebel Shams climb was even crazier than anything on the 130 km course.
“I owe you a beer,” I said to Jakub. “I could not have done this without you.”
Jakub was grateful too. But beers would have to wait. Oman, like much of the Arab world, is a dry country. I would not be able to enjoy one until the airport lounge in Muscat a couple of days later.
“Chin-chin!” Emmanuel said, holding a glass of Heineken.
We each took a satisfying gulp.
“So, UTMB 2020?” I asked Emmanuel. He had run the race twice already.
“Jamais deux sans trois!” he replied with a twinkle in his eye.
I did not know this then, but even after finishing Oman, I still lacked the points needed to register. UTMB would have to wait until 2021. And that’s ok. One step at a time.