It was Easter 2009 when I discovered, after 41 years of living on planet Earth, that Easter isn't actually on the same weekend in every place on Earth! But that's another story. It was also the Easter that I found myself taking part in one of my most bizarre races to date.
My chosen sport has meant that hills, running and mud have featured large in my life for quite a few years. However, never before has it involved starting at the top of a hill and putting the mud ON after crossing the finish line – but such is the uniqueness of the Dead Sea Ultra Marathon which occupied my Easter weekend this year.
The lure of a country I’d not visited before, the novelty of running to the ‘lowest point on earth’ and the ability to tick a swim in the dead sea off the life time ‘to do’ list all contributed to the decision to have a crack at this very different and somewhat surreal race.
After being addressed by royalty, in the form of HRH Prince Raad bin Zeid, at the pre-race pasta party and rubbing shoulders with elite Ethiopian athletes and the female winner of the (allegedly toughest race on earth) Badwater Ultramarathon in 2007, Noora Alidina, en-route to the start line, it all felt quite high profile.
We were brought down to earth with a thump though when the bus off loaded the 100 or so multi-national competitors brave enough to tackle the full 50km distance at a seemingly random spot at the side of the highway at 6am the next morning.
Being 900m above sea level the temperature was in single figures and the only other company we had was heavily armed soldiers and two guys with an angle grinder still in the process of making the start line. Oh and the toilet facilities consisted of 2 (his and hers) portaloos which were still in the back of a truck. (You had to wedge the door OPEN to see anything.)
When the advertised start time of 6.30 eventually arrived we were already turning into brass monkeys so were dismayed when we were told of a 30 minute delay. The little cluster of British runners which included Dubai based Naomi Ferguson, Sara (‘I’m going to be slow as this is just training for Comrades’) Connor and Chris Little, a couple of ‘first time in the middle east’ tourists from Leeds, and 12th time competitor / former runner up, Scott, were therefore itching to get moving and warm up when 7 o’clock arrived.
I’d like to say I resisted the temptation to go off fast from the start, but in actual fact bettering 5min/km pace didn’t feel particularly easy for the first 2-3km anyway. Despite the course undulating with some relatively stiff hills during the first 8km, the field quickly started to spread out and it wasn’t long before the front runners were going out of sight. I kept my pace conservative although, as I warmed up, I found myself pulling away from Naomi, who had also been very modest about her chances, and Noora.
I knew that we were to lose around 1300 metres in altitude during the race but, having heard varying accounts from previous competitors, hadn’t really got a feel for how steep the downhill gradients would be. And with little opportunity to run down steep hills at home in Dubai I was very uncertain and apprehensive about the hills and how my legs might react.
At around the 42km to go point the road plunged downwards as it started its twisty turny journey towards the dead sea. Quickly the seduction of gravity became hard to resist for many of my adversaries and, with ignorance about what lay ahead, discombobulating for my unaccustomed body. Those in front of me were disappearing quickly into the distance and many were appearing from behind and then doing the same, including Scott, Ed from Leeds and the leading lady from Germany.
The views of the road twisting its way down between the mountains ahead of me were spectacular but also revealed the fact that the gradient was likely to be relentless for quite some time and distance to come.
It didn’t take long before I could feel the downhill pounding already starting to reverberate through my quads and spine, so I decided that my best approach was to concentrate on running smoothly; taking advantage of the free wheeling effect of the gravity whilst maintaining a good shock absorbing posture. Despite the strange sensation of running with un-laboured lungs and the temptation that it created to go faster, I knew that sprinting down the hill was suicidal for me, and likely to be for others too. So I’d hold my nerve and see how many would come back to me once the gradient flattened out.
For the next hour and a half or so I tried to relax and enjoy the spectacular views of the valleys below and the mountains of Israel in the distance. The level of support by the police and military that appeared to be present at almost every corner, and the cheers from the bus loads of locals that were taking advantage of the free buses to the finish line, kept my spirits high as I enjoyed the unique experience.
Passing the half way point I glanced at my watch for the first time in a while and was happy to note that, provided I did nothing stupid, my target time of 4 hours was do-able – so just try and hold the pace.
Except for gaining on a few of those ahead when they stopped for water my position remained largely unaltered during this time. I ran alone, overtaking nobody except the back markers of the marathon enjoying the walk down the hill, and got used to the solitude.
I’m not sure if it’s just me or whether any of you other runners out there suffer from this; but in a long race I’m often happy in my mind to have passed half way and be on the inward leg, only to have to fight off head demons soon after, who want to kill my positive vibe by telling me that it’s still a long way to go! Well, at around the 22km to go I was trying to fight off the first such demon invasion when I was snapped out of it by a familiar voice right behind me asking ‘how are you doing Andy?’.
I glanced around to see Naomi who, unbeknown to me, had been hot on my heels all the way down the hill. We ran together for a while chatting about our race experiences so far and, as we ran past a ‘sea level’ sign, noted how surreal it was that the finish line was still 400 metres lower than us.
With 20km to go the road flattened out somewhat and the race’s ‘men from the boys’ moment arrived as the runners gradually discovered whether they’d taken too much out of their legs on the descent. For me my body was telling me I’d got it right as, continuing at the same pace, I found myself pulling away from Naomi and a number of familiar figures from earlier were coming back to me, including Scott, Ed from Leeds and the leading lady who’d been way out of sight on the hill.
I cruised past the first lady and, seeing that she’d slowed significantly, realised that if Naomi could hold on she stood a great chance of winning. This added to my positive mood as I pressed on to catch up with ultra virgin Ed as we entered the last third of the race. He was still running strong though and latched on to me for the next few km. I was glad of the company on the now very straight flat road and having someone to race kept my motivation high.
With 10km to go I knew that my 4 hour target was in the bag and could perhaps make 3.50 if I could keep the pace up. This wasn’t going to be an easy proposition though. The coldness of the early morning at the top of the hill was long gone with the temperature now pushing 30C and the undulations were back, with each hill seeming to be steeper than the last.
Overtaking many marathon and half marathon distance competitors along this part of the road was a welcome distraction, although I was wishing I’d brought my sunglasses to protect my eyes from the dazzle of a Mirdiff Miler’s vest when I passed Dominic Pilkington with around 4km to go. He was heading for a respectable marathon time but I felt for him as he was clearly suffering over the last few kilometres.
I was beginning to hurt now but, as I passed 3km to go, drew strength from the knowledge that there was less than the equivalent of 1 lap of Safa Park to go. And I smiled to myself when offered Gatorade with 2km to go. With only water on the course prior to this point it seemed a little late for an energy drink!
Despite the sting in the tail provided by an uphill section in the last kilometre the euphoria of approaching the finish line kicked in, assisted by the support from the growing crowds now lining the course. Although the road was busy with runners in the shorter distance events, the crowd seemed to recognise that the colour of my number indicated an Ultramarathon competitor.
As I crossed the line the clock showed that I was almost 2 minutes inside of my revised target of 3hr 50m, so I was extremely happy with my run. And also of my position of 11th overall.
After treating myself to a brief sit down and a drink I tried to find a vantage point to see the finish of the ladies’ race which shouldn’t be far behind. Could Naomi snatch victory from the German late in the race? I was sure she could although was glad that they don’t have penalty shoot outs in this sport!!
With the clock showing 4hr 4min the noise of the crowd at the entrance to the finish area rose and I watched the corner in anxious anticipation of the leader appearing in a Creek Striders vest. But I was to be dazzled again and somewhat gob smacked when it was neither the blue of DCS or the black of the German girl’s vest that came around the corner. Victory went to the girl in the Mirdiff Milers vest as Sara cruised over the finish line to take the $2000 first prize.
The look on her face was priceless and her words unrepeatable on a family show when she was told she’d won. She had no idea and still wasn’t convinced until a couple of hours later when she had the trophy and the cash in her hands. Naomi was less than a minute behind and took second place to give the Dubai based British ladies a fantastic double. The German girl jogged in 7 mins later in third place.
A dip in the dead sea to cool off was followed by some very welcome cold beers whilst we awaited the prize giving ceremony. When it eventually came it was, like many other aspects of the race, quite surreal.
A team of serious looking, machine gun wielding, police provided very robust security and prevented anyone who wasn’t a designated VIP or official press entering the area. Even our first and second placed ladies weren’t allowed in until their names were called! And the fact that it was all conducted in Arabic added to the confusion about what on earth was going on.
Eventually Sara had her victory confirmed though and the girls were invited onto the podium to collect their bounties.
Congratulations to the other Dubai runners who I haven’t already mentioned: Chris Little in the 50k, Tony Maguire in the Marathon, Natalie Van Cleave in the Half Marathon and Tom Connor in the 10k. Unfortunately I don’t have your times or positions as, at the time of writing, the full results aren’t yet available.
All in all a great day and, although there is scope for a few minor improvements in organisation, it’s a great and unique event and we were made to feel very welcome by the Jordanians throughout the weekend.
If you’ve ever considered giving it a go, or are inspired by the above, do so – you wont regret it! I’ll just give you three tips to consider:
Do some downhill training
Take good anti-chaffing precautions before the race – the dead sea is VERY VERY salty
Incorporate a trip to Petra into your itinerary but BEFORE race day – there are 850 steps up to the monastery; painful with post Ultra quads!
There are choices of 50km, marathon, half marathon, 10km and 4.2km. More information can be found at http://www.deadseamarathon.com/
Andy Brooks April 2009