Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Race of a Lifetime - I Just Conquered the Toughest 50K Imaginable in Oman

I don't know how to start, so I'm just going to start. I probably don't ever have to run a race again because I have experienced the true Mecca of running and nothing can top what I did the day after Thanksgiving. <-okay, dramatic, but it was pretty cool. So, settle in. This is about to be a long AF blog post.

On Saturday November 30th I flew 8,000 miles to the heart of the Middle East - the country of Oman to be exact. Don't feel bad if you don't know where Oman is. No one does. Well, at least no one I know, but that could be because we are ignorant Americans. Apparently, most people actually do know where it is and go there. In fact, 50% of people living there are ex-pats!

Image result for oman

Not gonna lie. As I got on the plane, alone mind you, and set off on this 20 hour journey, I asked myself why I didn't just stay home on the couch watching Hallmark movies and eating chili cheese Fritos. Seemed like the more comfortable thing to do.

But, according to memes and shit like that, life is not to be lived in the comfort zone, so bring on another glass of (free) chardonnay and movies I wouldn't normally watch (Book Smart was pretty funny btw).

Cozy spot to spend the next ten hours. I LOVE the middle seat so much.
Side note: I watched a video with Meghan Markle last night (jet lag, still can't sleep) and she said flying was like taking a vacation in the sky because she drinks wine and watches movies. I am guessing Meghan is not slumming it back in coach with some guy farting and snoring next to her (unless it's Prince Harry), but I digress.

Bleary eyed, I landed in the capital of Muscat and looked for my ride. After an hour, he showed up wearing his dishdasha (full length robe) as all of the Omani men typically do. Yea,this doesn't look anything like Longmont, CO.

I got to the Mysk Hotel, super nice and modern-like, and was put into a smoking room, which is ironic for a supposed ultra runner. I reasoned, it's okay if I die from second hand smoke. Then I won't have to run the race on Friday.

Nice hotel pool overlooking the marina leading out to the Gulf of Oman
The next few days were beyond imagination. I guess I should say here that I went to Oman on a media trip to write an article for Women's Running Magazine about the Oman by UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) 50k taking place in Al Hamra (there were also 130k, 170k and shorter race options), Oman on November 29, 2019. I planned to cover the race, but more so discuss the place of women in sport in this country and how it is has evolved over the years.

Start line of the race. Not exactly Denver
So, the next four days took me, 6 other journalists and some elite athletes doing the race on a whirlwind tour of the country (well, not all of it, but some highlights). We saw mosques, went to souks (markets), hiked into wadis (water filled canyons in the desert) and snorkeled in the Daymaniyat Island with sea turtles and eels. I consumed more hummus, schawarma, cardamom laced coffee and dates than you can imagine (and still remained constipated - yay me!). All of this before we headed up 2 1/2 hours into the Al Hajar mountain range to the race venue.
Fantastic traditional Omani lunch. What is missing? WINE! Because there was none to be found!

We took a hike to the Old Town of Muscat.
Got to the top just in time for the sunset Call to Prayer.

Mutrah Souk. Amazing market with frankincense burning everywhere. 

This is a wadi or canyon that fills with water when it rains. We were able to swim
in it to caves and waterfalls.

The cave. So cool

Is this a good look? Grand Mosque/Muscat

Boat ride to the Daymaniyat Islands about an hour from Muscat.

November in Oman

Now is a good time for an intermission to tell you about where we stayed in the mountains prior to the race. We arrived at sunset to the Alila Hotel, built into the side of dramatic mountains cliffs. This place was pure magic. I don't know how else to describe it. I watched the sunset and teared up from the beauty of it all. Also, I have never felt so far away from home tucked into a remote mountain range somewhere in the Middle East. Thanksgiving was tomorrow, but there was nothing around me to remotely suggest that was the case  That was some surreal shit.

Sunset at the Alilah.

My villa

Seriously gorgeous room with views to die for

After seeing off the 130k and 170k runners on Thanksgiving, we transferred to a hotel closer to the start, grabbed our bibs and had a gear inspection of my pack (we had to carry: headlamp, 800 cals food, 2 liters water, water proof coat, whistle, evacuation insurance, emergency blanket, bandages, phone - WTF was going to happen to me out there?).

I had a chance to interview Nadhira Alharthy, the first Omani woman it summit Mt. Everest (May 2019) and who would be running the 130k race.

Given the drastic and rugged landscape I had been observing over the past few days, I anticipated (and was not wrong!) that this race was going to chew me up. I truly had no clue what to expect so I just embraced the unknown and knew I could take whatever was thrown at me. I may not be the fastest chick out there, but I DON'T GIVE UP.

We got to the start around 6am and hung out in the media tent until go time. I stuffed down a Clif Bar, a banana and coffee. I've only done one 50k (last June) and it took 8 hours, 20 minutes. The Oman race would have 8,300 feet of climbing, so about 1,000 more than my previous 50k. I figured I'd finish in 9 hours or so. HAHAHAHAHAHA!! Ignorance is fucking bliss!

Right before race start. This is Raul from Spain and Katie from the UK.
I have no clue what I'm in for

My plan was to eat a lot, drink a lot and pace myself for a long day. I wanted to talk to people, take pictures and soak up the experience. And I'd prefer to not shit my pants. Goals.

And, we were off. The first few climbs weren't that bad. Single track and technical, but do-able and somewhat runnable.

Ok, so maybe not super runable

After we hit about 10 miles, it started getting interesting. The terrain turned from loose rock to slabs of granite and sharp volcanic rock. The climbing was relentless, and there was not a moment when you did not have to be concentrating on each and every step so as to not face plant or fall off of the mountain. Guys, there were no parts of just nice, smooth trail. Because most of the course had no "real" trail, the route was marked by green dots painted on rocks every 5-10 feet. Oh, and there were also red dots which meant, "Stay the fuck away or you will plunge to your death." Had it not been for those markers, I would now be adopted by a Bedouin family and living in the Omani desert.

Follow the green dots or else
After one especially tough climb, an Omani guy came up beside me and was mumbling, "shit, shit." I asked if he was okay and he told me, "All the food in my stomach!? It just came out my mouth!" Christ. Well, if read this blog you know I have total and complete vomit phobia. Although I was tired I could not run away quickly enough from the Omani puker.

The climbing is no joke, friends
I trudged on, sometimes talking to people, sometimes completely alone for miles at a time. I reached the halfway mark (about 16 miles) in about 4 1/2 hours at 7,808 feet. This was the highest vertical point of the race, so I assumed the rest was downhill and would be fast. HAHAHAHAHA! The sun was relentless (yes, it is the desert) and there was not ONE ounce of shade. Not even some little frankincense tree I could huddle under. I was starting to feel somewhat nauseous so when I was handed a cup of chicken noodle soup being cooked over a fire I gladly accepted. It was like the nectar of the gods (or Mohammed).

Hello and thank you for the soup guys
Welp, the terrain just kept throwing stuff at me. I kept thinking that this is what running on Mars must be like. Unforgiving, jagged, uneven rock. We had some nice vertical descents, but it was impossible to go fast given the fact you had to crawl over boulders and traverse slabs of granite, tilted at some ridiculous angles. I never forgot to stop and look around because the scenery was stunningly gorgeous and even though I was starting to feel like shit, I was pinching myself that I WAS HERE, DOING THIS.

photo cred: ©Oman Sail/Lloyd Images.
7 hours in and I was doing about 19 minute miles. I got so discouraged I stopped looking at my watch because it was too frustrating how slowly the miles were clicking by. On one especially daunting and relentless climb, I sat down in the middle of the trail (the first time I had sat down since the start). Hassan from France (who I had leap frogged with most of the race) asked if I was okay. I told him, "I JUST NEED A FUCKING MINUTE!" He told me we had about 10k to go until we had our frosty beer in our hands (which was a lie because Oman is a dry country and there would NEVER be any beer at the finish). I knew I would do the final 10k, but it also seemed impossible. I know this sounds dramatic, but I was SO spent at this point. I had long ago decided this was the toughest race I'd ever done including my two Ironman races. It was taking a lot of will power to keep moving forward. Everything hurt and I was sick of jumping off rocks and sliding down granite.

No big deal just passing through abandoned villages that were thousands of years old.

The final part of the race you actually go through an oasis of sorts - a 300 year old village called Misfah. It's wasn't a rock trail anymore, just slick limestone and lots of stairs. It was incredibly scenic and I wanted to be less tired so I could appreciate it more.

Image result for misfah oman
Yes I ran on those. Nothing like having a concrete balance beam at mile 30 of a race.
Finally I came to the top of the last hill and saw the town of Al Hamra below.  I could hear the finish line although it was still a few miles away. The sun was setting and I could not believe I had been out here more than ten hours. As I made my way down the final single track towards the town, the Muslim call to prayer began as it does every evening at dusk. The voices of the iman worship leaders from various minarets echoed around me as the sky changed from orange to dark. It was one of those moments in life that was pure magic. Suddenly every step of the past ten hours had been fully worth it.

Then in 10 hours and 46 minutes I was DONE! Turns out I was the first in my 50-59 division as well as the first American woman to cross the line!

This was taken the next day. These men were not in my division but agreed to pose with me.
How to summarize this day. Brutal. Unforgettable. Challenging. Eye opening. Fantastic.

This is only the second year UTMB has had this race in Oman (last year they only offered the 130k distance but they have grown the race from about 350 to 1,600 people! Considering the harsh and remote landscape they did a phenomenal job of marking the course and keeping everyone safe. I can't say enough about the race and the country, itself. It truly is an adventure destination chock full of something for anyone and everyone. Sandy beaches, rugged mountains, sand dunes, city life. And, the most amazing food. It's a long journey, but one well worth the time you have to spend watching movies, drinking wine and sleeping upright next to farting strangers. Trust me.

Oh, and you just might see a camel on the road.

These two - Ellie and Morgan were our hosts and kept everyone organized. They were amazing and I love them.

Thanks to Oman Sail for hosting us and showing off the country, its people and the race course. I hope to back one day. That is, once I recover and actually want to do another race!