Back in the summer I signed up to do my first multi-stage desert race; the Oman Desert Marathon. I figured I needed something epic that would scare me enough to keep me training through the hot, humid summer in Oman. As the weeks and months progressed, I realised that it was actually quite an epic undertaking that I’d let myself in for; 165km through the Oman Desert (the Wahiba sands) over the course of 6 days. This included carrying all the food I would need for these six days in my rucksack (to a minimum of 2000kcal per day) in addition to certain mandatory items of safety kit (venom pump, 1st aid kit, safety blanket, whistle, compass etc.).
I met the other competitors at the airport on the Friday morning and after a bit of a wait (which we later found out was to wait for other flights coming in), we headed off on the coach towards the Wahiba sands and the Arabian Oryx Camp; our home for the first night (and last 2 nights after the race). We were greeted with a traditional Omani welcome; dancing, drums and music, followed by dates, coffee and Halwa (an Omani sweet dish made with tapioca starch, ghee, sugar, rosewater, saffron, cardamom and nuts). After a buffet lunch, it was chill-out time, or for those people who had flown in, time to pack their race bags and sort out kit. We had a kit/registration/medical check before dinner, with a chance to weigh our bags. After being told we didn’t need to carry our sleeping bags in the end (they would provide desert bags for us), my rucksack weighed in at bang on 6.0kg without water. If I was to do it again, I reckon I could get it down to about 5.0kg based on what I learnt from this race. Another attack on the buffet, then time to settle down for the night, ready for a 7am depart to the local village of Wasil which is where Stage 1 of the race was to start and finish.
Day 1 – 20km, 180m elevation
Race day came around and after the short trip into the nearby village of Wasil, the race started with an Omani send-off; lots more music, and camels to lead us out of the start. The start for Stage 1 was combined with a 10km fun run which included lots of local Omani children, some even running barefoot. I set out at my normal steady plod and watched as lots of excitable children sprinted past me and off into the distance. After about 300-400m on tarmac we turned off and ran through a plantation before popping out into the sands behind the village. From there on until the end of the stage it was sand; a mixture of deep sand in the dunes and undulating sand tracks. The sand in the tracks was still quite soft, so this was a day where picking your line carefully certainly paid dividends. Coming up to the half-way water point, I had managed to overtake two of the other girls racing – Chrystel and Laetitia, more by chance than by trying to “race”. Those of you who have seen me run, will know that I have one speed and one speed only….. what can only really be described as a steady plod. With the water point in sight, I snuck in front of Silvia and managed to catch up with Riccardo who was refilling his water bottles. Then it was across a set of dunes and a long downhill, then a flat 1.5km or so back into the finish in the village. We were then transported to our camp for the night and after lunch, stretching, napping & a freakish storm before dinner, most of us opted to settle down for the night in the big tents instead of the little single-skin pop-ups.
Day 2 – 29km, 230m elevation
Stage 2 was a long one – we were expecting a 24km route on this day – but when we got to the second water stop at 22km (supposed to be at 20km), we were told we had 7km to go. A bit of an unpleasant surprise, but one that I’d half been expecting given the discrepancies in where the previous water stops had been placed. Having said that, it was a good route; alternating between sand tracks and big dunes, with the last 5km or so being fairly flat, or gentle gradient along a very soft sand track. I also saw two dung beetles rolling balls of camel poo up a hill. This genuinely made my day! Got settled in to the routine of finish, rehydrate, recovery shake, stretch, wash (when we could), eat, stretch some more, nap and then while away the hours until it was acceptable to eat dinner (normally about 5.30-6pm). Once it got dark, it was a good excuse to go to sleep, so on most days I was in my sleeping bag by about 7.30pm (and I was definitely in the majority!). Rumour has it that the last minute course change was due to the fact that we’d had a lot of rain the previous evening and there were concerns amongst the organizers about the safety of being able to get the support vehicles to where they needed to be on large dunes with a top layer of damp sand. Annoying whilst running, but in the long run better to be safe than sorry when it comes to the wellbeing of the runners and the support staff!
Day 3 – 18km, 210m elevation
Due to the distance change from the previous day, this stage was dropped down to 18km, and proved to be a very fast (for the fast people anyway!) run, with lots of rolling hills in the middle section. I had some trouble with my right Achilles tendon on this day – it was incredibly tight and sore whilst running. After icing it (yes there was ice in the coolboxes of water bottles!!!! Whoop!) and plenty of stretching, a quick trip to the doc’s tent to get some anti-inflammatories meant that it was at least possible to run on it the following day. It remained a niggle for the rest of the event, but a huge amount of stretching and wearing my calf-guards during the actual running seemed to keep it from getting any worse. A quick check of the overall standings after the 3rd stage meant that Aziza’s lead over me had increased to nearly 50 minutes, but at the same time, the 3rd placed lady (closely fought at this point between Silvia and Laetitia) was now over an hour behind me. By the time it got to late afternoon, from the camp we could see the course flags set up along the top of the dunes waaay above us. A few of us climbed up to watch the sun set across the dunes on the other side of the camp, but I stupidly forgot to take my phone up with me to take photos.
Day 4 – 24km, 354m elevation
Stage 4 started with about 50m of flat, before heading straight up into the dunes. When I say straight up I really do mean straight up! The official photos are quite cool – a little snaking line of us all climbing up the dune in each other’s footsteps trying to make it easier on ourselves. Watching the sun come up over the top of the dunes was incredible though and made for some awesome shadows of us running along the top of the dunes. By this stage of the race, we were starting to get to know who was running around the same pace as us and making more of an effort to stay with each other for long stretches to alleviate any chance of boredom. For most days I ran the start of each leg with Jean-Luc, a Frenchman running in a beret :) or with Hamood, one of my friends from Muscat Road Runners. Even if we weren’t talking much, it was nice to have company whilst you ran and it helped to keep us to a steady pace. There was genuine excitement in the camp that night when a stack of newspapers was delivered by one of the organisers, with some coverage of the race and photos…. even though it was one of the Arabic editions, plus a few copies of some English-language Oman newspapers too. Nice to catch up on what was happening outside the desert! We were also treated to some traditional Bedouin music and dancing that night, including Omani bagpipes (still not sure how bagpipes managed to make their way to Oman!) and a campfire with lots of singing (in a multitude of different languages!).
Day 5 – 41km, 408m elevation
The long stage was always going to be a bit scary, but I was slightly gutted when the revised stage details were given to us at the start of the race and I discovered that it wasn’t quite going to be marathon distance….. is that weird? I was tempted to run around the finish area for another km just so my Garmin would tick over to 42km, but by the time I got to the finish that seemed a ridiculous idea. I did not chose a good day to take an accidental detour. One of the signs had blown round and seemed to be pointing up into the dunes; I knew we had to cross those dunes at some point on the day’s route, so I stupidly just followed what I thought were the footprints of other runners in front of me without paying a huge amount of attention. All of a sudden I realised that I wasn’t actually following footprints anymore, but headed to where I could see more footprints a little way ahead of me, up on top of the dunes. Camel and goat footprints, with the odd goat-herder footprint thrown in for good measure. Genius. Back down the dunes it was then! Fortunately I don’t think the detour actually cost me (or Tommaso, who decided to come with me!) too much time, just a bit of extra energy I could have done with later There were some nasty dunes between the 24-32km mark and although he was a bit faster than me, I managed to keep Hamood in my sights until the last 2km of the route. Always a bit easier for me to keep pushing myself if I can see someone in the distance (and even more so if there’s someone closing in behind me!). The last 9km or so seemed to be relentlessly uphill….. only mildly, but enough to make it pretty soul destroying. My knees were beginning to feel a little sore by the end, but I was pretty chuffed to come in on this stage under 4 and a half hours considering the stupid detour I’d taken up into the dunes.
Day 6 – 31km, 338m elevation
The sixth stage started with a 12km flat-ish run out along the valley; I was running with the Italian Riccardo, who I’d run with on a few of the previous days too. I decided to take it nice and steady, as my knees were grumbling a bit from the previous day. At the 12km water stop, I looked up and wondered where the people in front of me had disappeared to….. until I looked left and saw the route flags climbing straight up into the dunes again. Going up into the dunes was nasty, but my real problem was coming down them on the other side; I was really beginning to feel it in my knees. This pattern continued into the next dune system; up into the dunes, down and up, up and down in the dunes, with a mammoth descent on the other side. I fell over about 3 times on the way down those dunes, covering myself in sand. A quick squirt from the water bottle washed most of it off (whilst hoping desperately that the water stops would be where they’d said they would be!) and a long stretch along a bumpy sand road lay ahead. With about 2km to go I saw the final water stop; “oh good I thought, nearly there”. Until I realised that they were at the bottom of yet another sand dune system and I could see those dammed flags again weaving their way up the dune. I managed to catch up with Tommaso, who had gone out at a much quicker pace than me on this stage and together we walked/shuffled/ran the last 1km over the dunes. Reaching the final lip of the dunes we could suddenly see the finish line below us. A long way below us. As a parting shot from the race organisers, we had the longest and steepest downhill dune of the race to contend with! My knees slowed me down on this descent, but fortunately no more tumbles. 200m later and I was across the finish line, as 2nd placed female overall and on every stage.
Total – 163km, 1720m elevation
Back into our little tents at the camp from the first night, and reunited with our pre/post-race bags, a proper shower never felt so good! Watching the rest of the runners come in was fantastic – especially to watch Odile and Michele, the two blind French runners, finish with their temporary guides (their original guide had to pull out of the race on day 2). Then the buffet lunch opened – I don’t think the other tourists who were at the camp knew what was happening, as a whirlwind of tired, hungry runners descended on the food tables and disappeared with plates piled high with food. My first plate of food lasted about 90 seconds before I’d cleared it and was back for more! That night after dinner we were driven into the town for the prize-giving and thanks ceremony. Awards were given for all those who had contributed to helping the race; volunteers, organisers, sponsors etc., plus the prize-giving for the runners. I came home with a cracking trophy for 2nd place, in addition to some prize-money. Back at the camp we all fell into our beds and were mostly glad of a peaceful night’s sleep away from Joe’s snoring :)
Friday was a relaxed sight-seeing day, with a trip to a Bedouin camp and then on to Wadi Bani Khalid to see the pools and have lunch. I was keen for a swim, until I saw some of the biggest leeches ever sliding and leeching around in the shallows. I restricted myself to getting my feet wet and watching the others swim (or sleep in Hamood’s case). Before dinner a large group of us climbed back up the final dune (by far the hardest dune I’d had to climb all week!) to admire the spectacular desert view and to watch the sun set. What an ending to a fantastic week. An early breakfast the next morning and we were back on the coach to Muscat airport, where I said goodbye to my new running buddies; what a group – 15 different nationalities and multiple languages flying around!
Overall thoughts on the race; I had a fantastic time, I think the organisers did a cracking job (although a bit more communication wouldn’t have gone amiss on a few occasions) and I always felt that there was enough support from the race crew to keep us safe and on course. The course was really well marked (unless you’re an idiot like me and aren’t paying attention) and not having to worry about setting up camp every night was great. The presence of toilets and hot water every evening was an added bonus – we weren’t expecting them, but it made life that much easier. As a first timer to these sort of events I think it did a great job of combining an epic race and fantastic scenery with the hospitality that Oman is renowned for. Speaking to those who had previously run events like the Marathon Des Sables, they said the most useful part for them was the speed of the race; much quicker than MDS due to the shorter stages, but fantastic training for speed in the dunes. For those of us like me who haven’t done MDS before, the race acted as a fantastic eye-opener to what we would need to do differently (and also what we did right) in terms of kit, food, hydration etc., and for me, provided a sense that actually races like MDS would be perfectly feasible for me to enter (and hopefully complete!) one day with the right preparation.
Thanks Oman Desert Marathon for a hugely enjoyable experience – hopefully see you again next time!