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“Go to crazy places — you’ll meet crazy people,” says the ever-smiling Italian Dino Bonelli, one of my tent companions and running partners. He’s talking about me, himself and the other 75 or so competitors. The place in question is somewhere in the middle of the desert in Oman. We’re halfway through a six-day race from the village of Bidiyah to the Arabian Sea: 165km (102 miles) across soft sand in heat close to 40C and carrying all our provisions on our backs. It’s hard to deny that it’s a little crazy.
The third Oman Desert Marathon began earlier this month after a ceremonial dance by the villagers of Bidiyah, wearing white robes with swords and iPhones tucked inside their belts. We then shuffled off, laden with our backpacks along 100m of road before we hit the sand. Ten minutes later, leaving the outskirts of the village, we headed into the desert and left all signs of human life behind for the next six days.
The first 10km are fairly steady going. My bag is heavy, but the design of these running packs is so clever they hardly inhibit your movement. I grind my way to the first checkpoint where we get to refill our water bottles.
The sand until now has been the fine sand you get on a beach in the UK. I’d spent weeks telling people it wouldn’t be like this. I’d imagined running along tracks made hard by cars, or on firm, baked, dry earth. I didn’t believe we’d be sent across such soft sand. But then, after the water stop, we head up into the dunes, and it gets a lot, lot harder. Like traversing sand dunes in England, but higher and with the sun much hotter, holding you as if in a vice and slowly squeezing you, wringing you dry, both your body and spirit.
A veteran of six marathons, I had watched with interest as friends took on increasingly extreme challenges. As marathon running has become more popular, almost commonplace, the so-called “ultra” scene has blossomed. The calendar is filling up with outlandish events — 50-mile runs, even 100 miles, or cycle rides and triathlons of even more epic proportions — and a new type of holiday has evolved in which competitors travel across the world to tackle them. Many events employ a lottery system to cope with the deluge of entries. The Oman Desert Marathon is a relatively newcomer, first held in 2013, and a low-key alternative to Morocco’s Marathon des Sables, which now attracts almost 1,500 runners.
I was drawn not just by the athletic trial but by the idea of spending a week crossing the desert, cut off from the world, being flung headfirst into the experience, needing to cope with the environment rather than being carried across it in comfort in a 4x4 or even on a camel. Realising a more direct relationship with the natural world, rather than simply admiring it from afar, is a common motivation, says Dr Eric Brymer, lecturer in exercise and sports science at Manchester Metropolitan University and a researcher into the wellbeing benefits of extreme sports. “People who complete these extreme events tap into something deeper in themselves,” he says. “As a result, they gain a better understanding of who they are.”
I guess I’m also hoping to emerge at the other end a changed person, to learn something about myself from such an extreme challenge. But I still have a lot of running to do.
I keep thinking firmer ground will come, but on the dunes go, up and down, the sand getting ever softer. I’m mostly walking by the end of the first day’s 21km stage, but even this is hard work. No one overtakes me, though, so I presume they’re all walking too.
At the finish, a camp is already set up: large Berber tents with one side open. We share our tent with the same people each day and a camaraderie develops over the week. For many, this is part of the attraction of these races. I find myself in a tent with mostly Italians — one the mother of a Premier League footballer — as well as a Belgian bioengineer, a bubbly South African and a British military man. I flop down in the shade, happy to be finished, hoping for a firmer road tomorrow.
But day two is more of the same. And day three. Every day, in fact, brings the same soft dunes rising up and down. Flags mark the way and are sometimes so far in the distance it seems you will never reach the next one. Then you get there, cresting the dune, to spy the next flag in the distance, and your legs need to move on, running where you can, walking where you can’t. The worst is when the sand appears firm and you start running, only for your legs to give way as you hit more soft sand. It happens again and again.
Slowly, I learn to read the sand, to see which bits are harder. Tiny stones seem to indicate firmer sand. Camel footprints are a good sign, too. The camels seem to know the best routes through the dunes.
The bags get lighter each day as we eat more of the freeze-dried meals and protein bars we are carrying. Packing as much in the way of calories into as little space as possible is the trick, but doesn’t leave much room for taste or variety.
After day four I seem to be adapting. Standing around in the camp before the fifth and longest stage, at 26 miles, 385 yards (42.2km), exactly the length of a marathon, the organisers read out a list of the top 20 runners so far. These 20 get to start two hours after everyone else. My name is on the list.
I’m feeling pretty proud of myself as we sit, the elite group, preparing to hit the long stage. We waved the others off and returned to our tents to finalise our preparations. Water bottles are filled, electrolytes added, blisters treated, sun cream applied, gaiters (to stop the sand getting in our shoes) attached. The air is charged. This is serious now. The leading male runners are Moroccans and Jordanians, people used to the desert, though the women’s race is led by Swedish runner Elisabet Barnes (who also won this year’s Marathon des Sables). She laughs when I ask how she does it. “There is a technique for running on sand,” she says. But it’s too late to learn it now. Day five is off and running.
Being in the fast group has its disadvantages. I’m soon drifting off the back of the race, running on my own. This is also the night stage so, as the last runner, I get my own police escort, driving behind me.
This is the picture-book desert of your imagination, with scorpions, snakes and camels, jutting, windblown dunes and shimmering heat. The only mirages, however, are the words of the organisers, who each day tell us the course will be easier, when, in fact, every day it gets harder. Before the fifth stage, they had told us the sand would get firmer after 10km, but instead it becomes even softer, like leg-sucking quicksand. As darkness falls I find myself struggling to move. With only the small circle of light from my headtorch to follow, it grows hard to tell if I’m going uphill or down. The slower I go, the more I curse the organisers for their misinformation. I get angry at everything — the bush that scrapes my leg, the solar-powered lights marking the course that have dimmed to almost nothing.
If I’m going to make it, I need to stay positive. I try talking to myself, coaxing myself to keep moving. But it’s no use. In my head a switch has gone off. The desire to continue has expired. Yet this is the point of greatest challenge — the reason, in many ways, all of us are here. I stop and look up at the dazzling night sky, gathering myself, listening to my breath.
Only by staying in the present, by forgetting my time, my position, the finish even, can I get moving again. One step at a time. Before I know it, I’m back up and running, focusing intently on the bobbing circle of light from my headtorch. The sloshing of the water in my bottle becomes a drum beating a rhythm to run to. Eventually, I get there.
When I get back to my tent, long past midnight, Dino and Rob, the Briton, realising how shattered I am, untie my shoes and make up my recovery drink for me before returning to their sleeping bags. I can’t thank them enough.
In Kenya I recently ran a marathon on dusty trails, in hot temperatures and at an altitude of 5,500ft, in three hours, 17 minutes. Today, the same distance took me seven hours, 35 minutes.
After 10 hours out on the course, one Italian runner suffers the added misfortune of stepping on a scorpion when he finally gets back to his tent. Luckily the medics are on hand to treat him and he is back running the final stage of the race the next morning.
Why do we do this? It’s a question that returns repeatedly during my six days of running. Nick Mead, a veteran of many ultra marathons, says he runs because modern life is too easy, too comfortable, and he craves something more challenging.
“Once I’d done a marathon in under three hours,” he says, “I needed a new challenge. Getting faster didn’t seem as interesting. Ultra running is more of an adventure, running through the night, alone. It’s a far more intense experience.”
Ian Corless, who produces the Talk Ultra podcast, says he graduated to ultra marathons from triathlons and Ironman races. “When people asked me why I stopped competing in Ironmans,” he says, “I told them: ‘I wasn’t frightened any more.’ I knew I could finish. I needed to feel I was pushing myself beyond my limits. I love going into the unknown, and then getting to the finish and feeling, wow, I did it. All those feelings you got when you first finished a marathon come back, but with bells on.”
One of my fellow competitors in Oman, 65-year-old Gudrun Dautel from Germany, looks broken when I see her after one day’s racing. I ask her why she does these races. “I don’t know,” she says. “I have such a nice home.”
Her husband, Hansmartin, 68, chips in: “Because we have a nice home.”
In fact, everyone I speak to has the same reason at heart: the need to reach beyond the realms of their everyday existence. To reach deep inside themselves. To be challenged.
“It’s still nice to get back home,” says Mead. “That first night back in a bed, with clean sheets, a shower — it feels like luxury. You appreciate everything so much more.”
The Oman race finishes at the beach. After six days of ploughing through the sand, it is a joy beyond words to cast off my backpack and run into the gentle waves and just float there, knowing I’ll never have to run through sand ever again . . . unless I’m crazy enough to do another race like this again one day. Back in the tent, Dino has a long list and is already planning.
Adharanand Finn is the author of ‘The Way of the Runner’ (Faber & Faber)
Next year’s Oman Desert Marathon runs from November 4 to 12; for details see lawrenceofarabia.com. The €1,200 entry fee is refunded for those who raise £2,500 for Facing Africa (facingafrica.org), a charity providing surgery for children disfigured by noma, a facial disease
Beyond the marathon: more ‘ultra’ challenges
Western States Endurance Run, US Billing itself as the “world’s oldest 100-mile race”, the WSER grew out of an annual horseriding event called the Tevis Cup. In 1974 Gordy Ainsleigh, a veteran competitor, decided to see whether he could complete the 100-mile course on foot. He did — in 23 hours, 42 minutes — and soon more and more runners were coming to attempt to emulate his feat. Today the course runs from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California, and more than 2,500 people apply for the 369 places available. wser.org
IGO N60º, Norway Taking place for the first time in March 2016, the IGO N60º is a four-day race between Hemsedal and Geilo, with a different sport each day. A full marathon run of 26.2 miles over snow on day one is followed on day two by the same distance on “fat bike”. Day three is another 26.2 miles, of cross-country skiing, while stage four comprises a 15-mile touring ski. Competitors sleep each night in traditional Nordic lavvu tents. igoadventures.com
Tour de Mont Blanc, France There has been a boom in amateur cycle races in recent years, but no single-day event is harder than the Tour de Mont Blanc. Competitors start in the early-morning July darkness in the ski resort of Les Saisies, then cycle a circular route of 205 miles, nonstop, looping around Mont Blanc into Switzerland, then Italy and back into France. The real challenge, though, is the climbing: the seven mountain passes covered together add up to an elevation gain of 8,000m (26,246ft) — the equivalent of climbing from base camp to the summit of Everest twice. A separate running event in August, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, circles closer to the mountain, giving it a shorter distance of 103 miles but an even greater climb of 9,600m (31,496ft). Most of the 2,300 starters take between 30 and 45 hours to finish. sportcommunication.info; ultratrailmb.com
Slideshow photographs: Dino Bonelli
Letter in response to this article
Ultra events should be made more metropolitan / Ultan Ó Broin