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December 8, 2015 Comments (0) All Posts, Athlete Stories

The Toughest Multi-Day Sand Ultra In The World?

‘It would be like a hard training week on sand, but with few distractions… or so I thought’ Photo: Oman Desert Marathon

I arrived in Muscat for the Oman Desert Marathon with around ten other runners – including a German couple in their late 60s – at around 1am. We were expecting to be taken straight to a hotel, so when the organiser meeting us said we’d instead be waiting in the airport until 9am, I was a little annoyed.

“Sit in the cafe,” he suggested. “For eight hours?” I was incredulous, but he just shrugged and pretended not to speak English. I turned around to look for support from my fellow runners, but found no one there. While I was stamping my feet and remonstrating, they had all calmly whipped out their sleeping bags and found somewhere to sleep on the airport floor.

It was a moment I thought about a lot during the race, when times got tough and I felt like raging at everyone, complaining that it wasn’t fair to have to run through so much sand, that the course wasn’t well marked, that the sand was too hot (the one time I somewhat stupidly decided to run the last 2km of a stage barefoot). I remembered that moment in the airport and realised that that was how ultra runners rolled – when they came across a problem, they dealt with it. No fuss. By the end of the race I realised that, given the same situation again, I too would now probably have pulled out my bag and grabbed some kip. After a week running across the desert, something had changed.

This was my first ultra marathon and I was unsure what to expect. I had a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach as we lined up at the start. How would I cope with the heat, carrying a rucksack, competing for six days in a row?

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‘I took my time, running carefully in the middle of the pack’ Photo: Oman Desert Marathon

We shuffled off on day one and I took my time, running carefully in the middle of the pack. We were only about 75 runners and the field soon began to spread out. I’d picked this race because it seemed like a manageable ultra. Only 165km over six days. A hard training week, but with few distractions. It would be like a hot-weather training camp, I thought.

‘The sand was difficult to walk up, let alone run’

But after the first water stop on day one, at 10km, I began to glimpse how wrong I was. Although the sand had been fairly soft up until then, in hindsight that first 10km was probably the easiest section of the entire race. Soon after, we began to head up into the dunes. Soft, sloping, wind blown sand that is difficult to walk up, let alone run on – the dunes from Tintin books, made of the fine sand that finds its way into your shoes no matter how tight your gaiters are fixed. Add to this the rising temperature – close to 40C by the end – and my fully loaded pack – six days worth of food squashed in there – and it was a tough first day.

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‘Each day it got harder. The endless sand, the heat, squeezing the life out of me’ Photo: Oman Desert Marathon |Kit: RACE ULTRA 270 / RACE ULTRA GAITER / RACE ULTRA TWIN SHORT / RACE ULTRA 10 / BASE ELITE SSZ / WRAG

I somehow convinced myself, sitting in the Berber-style tents in the camp later that afternoon, that they had run us through dunes on the first leg to give us a sample of what it was like, to get things off to a crazy start – but that the rest of the race would mostly be on the hard-baked earth that ran here and there between the dunes. It must have been what everyone else was thinking too, because at about 4pm a cry went up around the camp. What was it? People were pointing, coming out of their tents, shaking their heads. “No way, it must be a joke,” people, everyone, was saying.

On the very top of the huge dune opposite, rising up like a ski slope (in fact the local tourist camp organises snowboarding rides down it), was the first course marker for the next day’s stage. It wasn’t going to get easier.

‘Each day it got harder. The endless sand, the heat, squeezing the life out of me’

And so it went. Each day I swore that was it. Next time we’d get some respite, but each day was harder than the next. The endless sand, the heat, squeezing the life out of me. I got moments of energy, of inspiration. On day four I realised that I was ranked in the top-20 and I decided to try to do the whole stage without walking at all. It almost worked. Rather than walk, when the sand got soft, I just slowed to a pitter-patter shuffle. It was slow, but easier and quicker than walking. I was getting this, I thought. I wasn’t going to be defeated. “Come on, Mr Finn, you’re a tough guy,” I told myself. Out loud. The sun and isolation does funny things to your brain.

I finished with a fist pump and went to sit among the fastest runners, waiting for the others to complete their weary way. The good thing about running faster was you spent less time out in the heat. It was easier. And next day, day five, the organisers told us, the course would get easier. It would be flatter and the sand firmer to run on. I don’t know why, as they said that every day, but this time I really believed them. I could even picture it in my head, a firm road to the finish. I was going to cruise this.

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‘My bag was getting lighter now, and felt easy to carry. I was going to fly, I told myself’ Photo: Oman Desert Marathon

The next day was the longest stage of the race – exactly a marathon – and was to be run mostly at night. The top-20 runners, the fast guys, got to start two hours after everyone else. We waved off the main group and went back to prepare. My bag was getting lighter now, and felt easy to carry. I was going to fly, I told myself.

‘Five hours, then six, then seven. Would I ever get to the finish?’

But the firmer ground never came. As the night wore on, the endless track of churned up sand got harder and harder to move through. I eventually began to catch people from the slower group, who had started two hours earlier, but by now I was hardly moving any faster than they were. We’d talk as I walked along beside them. And then I’d summon the energy to run on a little. I felt I had to, as one of the supposedly faster runners.

I had to keep re-estimating how long I was going to be out here. Five hours, then six, then seven. Would I ever get to the finish? A few times I stopped and turned my head torch off and looked at the stars. I was out in the desert. Why was I worried about racing? Who cared what time I ran, what position I finished in. It was a relief to realise that no one did. Not even me. I could just walk and take in the majesty of my surroundings.

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‘A few times I stopped and turned my head torch off and looked at the stars’ Photo: Oman Desert Marathon

But then, I’d be out here all night if I didn’t get moving. So I’d try to shuffle on again. This time I talked to myself with less bravado, trying to be kind to myself. “It’s OK,” I said softly. “You can do it.”

Eventually I fell into a sort of trance, listening to the water sloshing around in my bottle, running to it like some sort of drum beat, my breathing synchronised with it, the circle of light on the ground in front was all I could see, a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. I ran on, into the light, over and over, slosh, slosh, slosh.

‘My race had fallen off a cliff. I had crashed into a huge pit, but I had made it out alive’

Finally I got there. 7 hours and 34 minutes. A few months earlier I had run a marathon in Kenya, on a hot day, on soft trails, a hilly course, at an altitude of 5,500m, in 3hrs 15mins. Today it took me 7hrs 34mins. I think that just about sums it up. My race had fallen off a cliff. I had crashed into a huge pit, but I had made it out alive. I had finished.

Until the next morning. It was 1am. The next stage, the final stage of the race, would begin in eight hours. I needed to get some sleep. Lots of people do these races in part for the camaraderie of the other runners. Living and running together for a week, sharing the same experiences, spending time each day hanging out, recovering in the desert, you begin to form bonds. We had a great group in Tent 2, as we became known. Mostly Italians – one the mother of a Premier League football player – a Belgian bioengineer, a bubbly South African and a fellow Brit, Rob, who was in the army.

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‘Living and running together for a week, you begin to form bonds’ Photo: Oman Desert Marathon

I was the last back to the tent that night. I wanted to crawl into my sleeping bag and disappear, but even though they were already tucked up, Rob and one of the Italians, Dino, leapt up to help me prepare a recovery drink, Dino even untying my shoelaces for me as I looked at them in stunned silence. They all, too, had struggled. We didn’t need to say anything, we had all been through the same thing. It was written on our faces.

‘One poor bugger, after ten hours pushing his weary body like a broken tank through the sand, had stepped on a scorpion’

I was just settling down in a clean T-shirt given to me by Rob – mine was drenched in sweat – when we heard a cry from another tent. One poor bugger, after all that, after ten hours pushing his weary body like a broken tank through the sand, had stepped on a scorpion. I don’t know how I would have coped. Amazingly, the medics were on hand to treat him and after a bit of commotion he was calm and in his bed. A few hours later he joined the rest of us on the start line for the final day.

Once more unto the breach, my friend. But this time I had no fight left. After less than 20 paces I knew I couldn’t run. My legs were still shattered. My energy was zero. Yet we still had 22 kilometres of soft sand to the finish. It was the longest slog of my life, but I couldn’t give up after all we had been through. Each step, even walking, was a torment. The sun was up and burning hot. I kept sitting down, stopping. Why rush, my competition was over. But the finish beckoned. The sea. We were finishing at the sea. I could almost smell it.

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‘It was the longest slog of my life, but I couldn’t give up after all we had been through’ Photo: Oman Desert Marathon

At one point I came very close to dropping out. Who cared if I gave up 10km from the end, I began to reason. It would be an act of rebellion. I could do as I pleased. I didn’t need to finish just because that’s what everyone expected.

‘Incredible mountains of sand. I felt like a boy again, racing through the hills’

Then the German couple I’d first met in the airport caught me up. “Come on,” said Hansmartin. “Join us.” It was his 68th birthday that day. I didn’t argue. I got up and filed in behind them. We walked together in single file, Hansmartin picking the best route, while I just followed on, not having to think. It worked. Within a few kilometres I regained my strength. I began to run again. We were now faced, at the end, with incredible mountains of sand. But I felt like a boy again, hiking, racing through the hills.

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‘I felt like a boy again, hiking, racing through the hills’ Photo: Oman Desert Marathon

“It was like the Alps,” said Elisabet Barnes, the winner of the women’s race, later back at the camp. “Except the mountains were made of sand.”

And so I made it. I crossed the finish line and grabbed my medal. Oh, the rush was intense. I pulled off my shoes, threw down my bag and waded into the fresh sea, the gentle waves splashing me playfully. What joy. This, this moment, at the end of such a feat of endurance, is like nothing else. I savoured it, lying bobbing in the waves. Wow.

‘Most thought this, with its endless soft sand, was tougher than Marathon des Sables’

This race was tough. Many of the runners here had also run the Marathon des Sables. Most thought this, with its endless soft sand, was tougher. “The Marathon des Sables is a wellness camp after this,” said Gundrun, now a veteran of both races.

I hadn’t really been prepared to run a race tougher than the self-styled “toughest footrace on Earth”. I had been hoping for something more manageable, a beginner’s ultra. But now it was done, who cared? It was over. I walked back to my tent and shook the hands of my friends in Tent 2. And then I lay down, completely happy, to spend the rest of the day staring out to sea.

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‘I’d been hoping for a manageable, beginner’s ultra. But now it was done, who cared? Photo: Oman Desert Marathon

2015 Oman Desert Marathon results (Adharanand finished in 1 day, 2 hrs, 38 mins and 27 secs)

Related link: A mental and physical battering – man versus Marathon des Sables

Adharanand is the author of The Way of the Runner and Running with the Kenyans

Follow Adharanand on Twitter and Instagram

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