I feel confident the "great" rating of the Wadi Bih 72 km race would be echoed by everyone on our team. Most people in the world are saner and think that getting up on your day off at 3 am to go running out in the mountains, choking on a lot of dust, being smelly and sore, with no chance of winning whatsoever, isn't their idea of fun.
If I had half a brain I would agree. Fortunately there are races for people like me, and this year 150 teams with 5 runners in each agreed that this was definitely the way to spend a day.
So I had company.
The day began after a grand total of 2 or 3 hours of sleep. I was too keyed up to have gotten any sort of good rest. Our boxes of gear were ready to go, I had my passport, and couldn't wait to hit the road. The words most used by my teammates and myself that morning were "nervous" and "excited".
Natalie, Team Captain Graham, Tyler, Cei, and Lynne
Our team was called 'the Wanderers Return', but in truth only Graham and I had come back from our group least year. One of the other gals from then was also going to run, but had shown common sense (and was injured as well, but whatever) and ducked out at the last minute.
Our last minute replacement, then, was newlywed Lynne from Scotland, who ran the Wadi Bih two years ago. I knew her from having been on a team with her last June, a 10K run along the beach, racing teams of kayakers out in the Gulf paddling the same course (the runners won that one) and was pleased to have her lovely self and soft burring accent on our side.
Cei, Lynne, and Natalie
Next was Ceiwen, ("Cei", pronounced Kay ) from Wales, a bubbly personality who had wanted to run last year but had been forbidden to do so by her doctor after falling ill. She is excessively slender, allergic to everything, eats a limited vegan diet, and runs like the wind. Her Welsh exclamations crack us up on a regular basis.
Graham you know, of course, from Southampton , England. Team Captain. He had run the Dubai Marathon with his son in January and last week, thanks to a calf injury that flares up now and then to make him miserable, literally couldn't run the 300 yards to his marshalling station at the ABRaS 10K race. He didn't run at all this week, hoping that gym work and respite from running would have him able for Wadi Bih.
Last was the entrant I was most excited about: Tyler. Mike and I would describe him as "good people". He's a friend from Mike's work, and more importantly, from Montana! For the first time I was getting to run a team race with an American. (Dude! Awesome!) I had high hopes for him, in that not only did I think he would be a good runner, but in that he has the best attitude of anyone I know. Easy going and friendly, a great fit in any situation. He injured his ankle quite badly on the jobsite last fall, but was raring to go now.
I thought we had a combination that, with the atmosphere of the Wadi Bih race, would make for a good time. Not to mention some great accents thrown into the mix.
Here's how the race works: each team has a map, a clipboard and a stopwatch for marking stage and total times. There are thirteen sign markers from the start, and team members run each stage in a relay, taking turns.
Each team has a support car that carries the other members which drives ahead to wait at the sign markers for changing over. Running out and back through rugged, beautiful country, there are 27 portions in all with an impressive elevation ascent and descent of 900m. A challenge to runners pancake flat Dubai. Last year it took our team 6 hours and 27 minutes.
"Boot" of the car, with our gear, toilet paper (aka loo roll, dunny roll, toilet roll, tissue, roll,paper, or, as we Americans call it, TP.) water, snacks and a first aid kit.
Natalie, Tyler, Graham, and Cei
Some maniacs run the entire thing solo, which is nice in that it makes the rest of us look sensible in comparison. (45 miles is far no matter how you spin it.) I believe the two below did so:
Wadi Bih donkey taking a long look at the string of cars and runners. I would love to know what he thought of us.
Our team hit the road as the sun was rising over the Straits of Hormuz, bathing the town of Dibba, its mosques, and mountains beyond in golden light. It's important to get most of the running done in the winter morning while it is still relatively cool.
The asphalt quickly ends and the racers ran through tiny sandy villages, where rocks are stacked up to make homes with tin doors, through the stretch of valley and up into Wadi Bih, the steep walls stretching up overhead, the track winding and cresting.
looking up the sheer Wadi walls
Sometimes the way is only wide enough for one car. Otherwise teams leapfrog along, hooting encouragement and snapping photos. A few locals sat out on rocks, watching us go by, others driving amongst us in their tough little Toyota pickups, either smiling or looking resigned, truckbeds loaded with bags of feed for the long-haired goats that nimbly scamper across the rocksides as if it were nothing, the babies bleating and jumping.
I envy the goats their seemingly effortless travels, as the terrain gets rougher and steeper. Despite the number of teams, the cars and runners spread out quickly, having staggered starts over several hours to begin with.
It was as I remembered it: the excitement of your turn coming up, setting out , the momentary lift of being cheered by your team as they drive by, and then the solitude of running in the mountains. There was nothing but the sound of my pounding steps on the sand and rocks and my breathing. In the morning the Wadi is still shaded, so even my shadow was not along to keep me company.
It's almost lonely, an intense solitude in the place known as the Grand Canyon of the Middle East, and like all places of great natural beauty and scope, makes you aware of your oneness and smallness in the world.
Each leg of the race is between 1.5 and 4.2 kilometers, so you're never alone for long. You also get to rest maybe an hour between stages going up into the mountains as your teamates take their turns. (Coming back is faster, or at least seems so.) This is where the camaraderie comes in, and it is wonderful. Camaraderie between team members, and cheering others as you drive by, rolling down the windows to yell encouragement to the solitary runners, then quickly rolling them back up to reduce the amount of sand dust you inhale.
Oman Police patrolling the mountains. They do not like it when you take their photo.
Lynne and Tyler in a great moment
I was deeply, heavily conscious of saving my legs for stage 11. I had insisted that I would run it again. The steepest, nastiest, most soul-killing portion of the run. 2.4 kilometers of vertical climb up heart-pounding switchbacks to the top of the mountain. Last year it had just about killed me. This year I swore it would be my gift to the team to sacrifice myself to it, saving our faster runners.
This is exactly what I did. My leg muscles were soon burning, screaming at me, sweat streaming into my eyes and dripping down onto the track, some 1000 feet of sheer, psychologically damaging up. This time, though, I was wiser. I didn't try to run the steepest parts, which was most of it. Instead I race walked, taking long strides, pumping my arms to push myself up the mountain. I had trained on the much-hated treadmill, setting it on the highest incline and bullying myself to do the distance. Going up that jebel my heart was pounding so hard I could barely hear, my throat was raw with each ragged breath and every second was completely and utterly worth it.
That's a good feeling.
Normally I wouldn't have felt so good about seeing, more than once, some of the other teams stopping their cars halfway up the hill to switch out their runners for fresh replacements. This is cheating. According to the rules, each leg should be run by one person, otherwise how can it be fair? At the time I didn't have any energy to waste on being irritated, being far too busy surviving and concentrating on doing my best. Later, of course, our team and friends' teams had a great time gossiping about and condemning such unsportsmanlike behavior.
A long, long 23 minutes in, near the top, I forced myself into a run, managing to pass two other competators, up and over, and down to my waiting team.
Few things have felt so bad or so damned good at the same time.
Wanderers Return team spirit! Cei and Lynne at a changeover
After the dreaded stage, I spent a lot of time coughing and hacking, but other than that miniscule detail, enjoying myself thoroughly. We hit the turnaround at 13 and had the utter joy of making our way back, past the huffing, puffing teams on their way up. Graham's legs were holding up great, the girls were eating up the miles, and Tyler was kicking, er, arse.
He flew down the mountain I had worked so hard to come up, Graham burning up our brakes not rear-ending another car between us, Cei gagging into a cloth at the black rubber smell. At one point coming down the slope we watched him put on his brakes like a cartoon character before making a turn, fast feet fast feet, and I wondered for a second if he would end up missing the turn and going over the side. He didn't and ended up beating us to the bottom, running the next stage as well. Tyler was the only one of us to do two back to back, solidifying himself as a total stud.
Here at one of the last stages, back on asphalt, showing typical Tyler spirit...eating up some other competitors shortly thereafter. Graham was tickled.
For me, the last half of the race was sheer joy of giving it my all each time, running without fear of that Jebel, moving out, loving the downhill slopes and cursing the occasional up, but making each part my best effort. It was getting hot and dry, but even so, with movement the air was still relatively cool on our skins until the last few stages.
I was undoubtedly the slowest member of my team. I was certainly the most unfit, though the bar was set pretty high, but despite that, for most of the time it didn't matter. I couldn't run a 4 minute kilometer, but I was pleased with myself, thrilled to be with the team, and at the finish line when we all ran in together, it was a moment well earned and all the more wonderful for it.
We were medaled and congratulated with a finishing time of 6 hours and 19 minutes. Tyler had thrown a six-pack of beer beneath the water bottles in the cooler and he and I each sucked one down in victory while Cei giggled at us and herself over her soy milk.
We sat on rugs beneath Arabic style canopies, watching the awards, eating a light lunch, clapping for the winners, and enjoying our accomplishment. The gathering had a real community feel to it, something we expats cherish.
Despite being tired, during the long drive back to Dubai though the desert the car was full of chatter and laughing.
At home, I made the mistake of sitting down. When I finally staggered back up to a relatively vertical position, announcing my intentions to go take a shower, Mike said, in all seriousness, "please do, you really stink."
Ah, the rewards of being an athlete.
[A special big thanks to all my teamates for sharing both their great day and photos with me!]