Better late than never…… After a rather busy autumn season of being away a lot, and not training as much as I should, at the beginning of October I found myself at the start line of the 2017 Wadi Rum Ultra; a 5-day, 260km race through the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan (the perils of talking to someone adventurous when you’ve just come back off a big adventure and you’re not sure what you should do next!). Training was nowhere near as good as I would have liked it to be (I had my prep for the 2014 Oman Desert Marathon to compare it to), but I knew that I could at least complete the distances, and sheer bloody-mindedness if nothing else, would get me through. Oh, and the fact that my desert trainers (the ones with the Velcro for my gaiters still sewn on) appeared to have shrunk in the course of 3 years sitting in a cupboard, meaning I was fearing for the state of my poor little feet before I even started running.
After meeting in arrivals at the airport (or randomly in the queue for the loo on the plane for myself and Marina) and piling into a coach, we arrived at our desert camp at around 5am, with the rest of the day to nap, prepare kit for scrutineering (I’m a pro at this now after the Atlantic row), be allocated our trackers, have a bit of an explore, and get to know the other competitors.
There were quite a few familiar faces for me on the support team; Jamie Sparks (organizing the event) was on one of the support yachts during last year’s Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, Lee Fudge (Race officer) was one of our Duty Officers during the TWAC, Thor (Medic) was our TWAC on-call medic, Ben Kent (Videographer) was our TWAC videographer. In addition to this, there was a large handful of people who had rowed the Atlantic (or another ocean for that matter), so always plenty of non-running chat to be had.
Accommodation was foam mats in desert tents, with the added bonus of an actual loo (which I mostly didn’t use – the desert smells less, and you get better views!), and after a cracking sunset and a little bit of stargazing, we settled in for an early night, prior to the first stage.
Day 1: (The wake-up call one) 45 km. After a 06:00 wake-up call (“Hot water will be ready in 15 minutes”), we set off at 07:30 into the desert for our first day before it got too hot outside. Things were going relatively well until I reached about 27 km and I steadily began to find the whole idea less and less amusing, and more and more painful with the unfamiliar running movement on soft sand. After a good half an hour of walk/shuffling, I finally got some painkillers down the hatch, had a stern word with myself and carried on shuffling to the finish in just over 6 hours. Pretty pleased to be done with the first day, but genuinely quite worried that I’d bitten off more than I could chew, and had underestimated my lack of training. I struggled to get any food in whilst I was running on day 1, didn’t feel sick, just couldn’t eat, so made sure I piled in the food once I hit camp. To put the course in perspective, I ran an off-road marathon (White Star Running’s East Farm marathon) in 4 hours 23 in August, compared to a 6hr10, 45km on the first day in the desert!
Day 2: (The acclimatizing one) 55 km (1,123m ascent). Managing to get some more food down during the run on this day helped immensely, although a fairly severe nosebleed after about 15 km enforced a walking stint (as dictated by the race doc) – apparently quite common due to the dryness of the air. I was totally keen to press on and just walk when it first happened, but after about 5 minutes of it getting worse and worse, I panicked a bit and decided that a stop was probably the right thing to do (fortunately this coincided with one of the support vehicles with Thor in it passing me at the time!). For the majority of the day I was in sight of Tara, at first chasing, then being chased, which was a nice little incentive to keep running where I could, and restrict my walking a little. All in all, not as stressful or as unpleasant as the first day, and I wasn’t struggling too much with the heat (around 30 ‘C), finishing in a little under 8 hours.
Day 3: (The long one) 70 km (2,084m ascent). A 0330 wake-up call for a 0500 start; headtorches on, and glowsticks tied to us, and all the course flags with their little glowsticks flickering off into the darkness. Quite surreal to run off into the desert in the dark, following little glowing lights into the distance. Had a really solid run for the first 50 km, again just staying ahead of Tara until around the 30 km checkpoint where I managed to pull away and out of sight. A little prodding from our osteopath Kieran at the 40km checkpoint was gratefully received with shoulders and upper back getting tight due to running with a pack. I ran the first 20km, then for the next 35km employed a strict walk/run strategy to keep me moving (walk 250m, run 750m), and a nice way to tick off the kilometres. The last 15km of the day were absolutely savage; deep, deep, loose sand that went on for what seemed like ever, and the heat becoming almost unbearable when you had to walk and it took longer to get between the shade at each checkpoint (10km).
A bit of a sense of humour failure on this one, but after 11 hours in the desert, I was in to camp before sundown; a beautiful wild camp on a rocky platform at the head of a hill. Treat for the day was my one and only packet of beef jerky – such a nice savoury change to the dates and nuts that are my standard endurance fuel. Trying to cram lunch and dinner and a recovery shake into the space of two hours before I wanted to try and sleep was challenging though! A quick leg prod and poke from Kieran post-supper was great for the recovery, not so much for trying to keep my dinner down with the pain of it!!
Day 4: (The seemingly flat one) 55 km (1,337m ascent). I teamed up with Tara for this day for a bit of company (she was the one normally chasing me), and we enforced the walk/run strategy again, with a lot of success. The course was long stretches of hard, flat, dried up lakes, making it quite painful on the feet in comparison to the sand, and monotonous in terms of what you could see; you could see the checkpoints from around 4km away, and it took them FOREVER to get closer. Very, very hot on the flat pan sections, water over the head at each checkpoint would cool you down briefly, until you headed out on the course again. A long flat salt-pan crossing to finish, before a quick truck ride to our desert camp that night (with proper beds and a proper shower – bliss!).
Day 5: (The glorious one) 35 km (961m ascent). Knowing I only had to run 35km was the kick up the backside I needed, for a really solid last day, running everything except the monster sand hills, with just over 4 and a half hours on my feet, evening managing to pick up the pace for the last 2km! The scenery was great – LOTS of sand, and even treated to the sight of a hot air balloon drifting over the dunes.
I managed to finish one place higher on the last day – no-one got slower, I just finally got my backside in gear and ran at a decent pace – knowing that if something went wrong, I at least wouldn’t have to run the following day! The finish was very welcome! A quick shower, then watching the remaining runners come through the finish was a great way to finish.
The following day we all had a gentle shuffle around the ancient city of Petra (it really is stunning – I can’t wait to go back), and a traditional Bedouin dinner before piling back onto the coach to the airport. Overall I finished as the 2nd lady (of 4!), and somewhere between 9-11th out of 20 runners (missing some of the daily times to be summed for overall results). It was an absolutely brutal week of running, but the stunning scenery, the support crew (including our physio Lucy and osteopath Kieran who picked up the pieces and put us all back together again each evening, doctors Thor and Michael, race director Jamie, race officer Lee, cameraman Ben and videographer Ben and all the locals) and the other athletes made it totally worthwhile. And on the plus side, only two relatively small blisters and all toenails still intact!
If I was to do it again? I’d put in some proper training!! I knew going in to it that my training hadn’t been up to scratch when compared to my prep for the ODM in 2014, where I was SO much faster in the dunes. Part of that I know was that I was acclimatised to it back then as I was living in the Middle East and training regularly in the head and the sand, but I’m still a little pissed with myself that I hadn’t managed to get in more training prior to heading out to Jordan! I also would have taken more luxuries (aka food) and possibly another change of running clothes! I went light on luggage, and basically just took the same as I used during the ODM (where I had to carry all my kit for the week!). Not having to carry kit made such a difference, but I definitely should have thought about it and added more exciting food treats seeing as I didn’t have to worry about carrying them.
All in all, a cracking race, and one that I would definitely recommend.