If you had told me 13 years ago that my next trip to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia would be to run an ultra marathon in Al Ula I would have probably asked you to translate both “ultra marathon” and “AlUla” into English for me.
During my 10 years of business trips to Saudi I had heard from many people that change was on the way. Did I believe them? Hardly! I was wrong, things are changing.
Visa application took less than 10 minutes (a process that used to take 2 weeks and have a 50/50 chance of success in the early 2000’s) and we were welcomed with smiling faces at Al Ula immigration. Ok so change takes time, took an hour to pass immigration and the sole water vendor in the arrivals building had no change for local currency to complete the water purchase. Slowly slowly.
A 30 minute transfer to our accommodation not far from Al Ula old town was showered by a close to full moon lighting up the sky and giving us a taster of the landscapes that awaited us in our 80km Eco Trail Al Ula race that we were here for.
“We have an app like Uber” explained the lady on the hotel front desk. It was in itself amazing to see a lady on the front desk, something that I had never seen before. They may have an app like Uber and yes it does work but again when I handed the Arabic only speaking driver a 50 riyal note for our 32 riyal trip of course he didn’t have change.
80km through incredible desert and canyons ending up in Hegra a UNESCO world heritage site was the menu for the weekend. I had no expectations for the race, I was just happy to be here and my only goal was to have fun. I know 80km may not be everyone’s version of fun, that’s cool.
The early kilometers were easy going with the mercury sitting around 10 degrees, a beautiful start and some decent chat with our Irish contingent Donal and Gareth to keep Rob and I occupied. Luke set off just behind us and had a great day out. At 20km we ran through Ivana who would later win the women’s race with ease. Yup men and women running together. Beautiful right.
When the views are epic, the people relaxed and the underfoot run-able life is pretty sweet. For the most part it was compacted sand. There were some crazy rock sections and a few sprays of deep soft sand to make sure our legs knew we had been in a race.
At 22km the road went up through some wild canyons serving us up a chance to put our climbing training to the test…..things are under control. The greatest thing about climbs are the rewards and as the sun blessed us for another day it’s reflection on the rock delivers a view that almost has a sign on it “for your eyes only” as no camera I had in my race vest was capturing this.
The going was good between Gareth Rob and I. We all found ourselves out front in different sections which makes the job of the guys behind a bit easier route finding wise. What we had though was rhythm and not too much talking. It’s like a perfect mix.
As we left the 54km checkpoint the route took us over about 500m of very soft sand and then a wild tarmac road for about 3km at about 3% gradient. Give it a shot and we speak the same lingo. The tarmac gave way to compacted sand but the gradient remained. 400m up the road we saw a guy walking who we had a feeling was in 3rd place. As we approached him he headed for some shade off the trail, had himself a sit down and we flew right by. Many lessons there!!!
Hitting the next checkpoint we were confirmed we were in 3rd so of course we are asking where second is. Haaaaaaa. Objective to enjoy it becomes objective to hunt down second! Not quite to be fair, as we left from 60km checkpoint we agreed we would run the last 20km together. Everyone had had their ups and downs and now the power of the team would take us home the last 20km.
“Next check point 74km” were the words as we left 66km. No stress. A few KM into the stage a lovely man gave us a bottle of water each. 2 minutes later we caught sight of a runner from the 50km race who had also been given the same bottle. He finished it and threw it on the side of the trail! Of course we picked it up and put it in his hydration vest for him. The amount of litter that was left by runners was disgusting, I love that you are all out there but please this is our playground let’s keep it clean. There are plenty of other dick heads trashing it for us, let’s not join them!
74km rolled over on my watch. I was out of water and the last 4Km had been savage. 74.5km. All day the check points had been bang on, till now when I needed it. Of course it was just round the corner at 75km. Parched and legs excited for the end we walked into the check point & I immediately saw a guy sat down in bad shape with a race bib on from our race. He was number 2! Bingo. Fill water bottles. Eat fast. Sing some songs and head out for our final 5km to the end.
Unplanned Gareth Rob and I linked hands to cross the line and share 2nd place in a time of 8 hours 28 mins. As I write this I’m not sure how I feel about it. We were beaten by 50 minutes by first and kind of hit a nice goal of second that we had not even set. Relaxed about it is probably the best way I could put it which I know is not very descriptive but I guess some days you go out for a good time, cool things happen and you end up with second. Never really been too excited about second. Train harder maybe. Let’s see.
Thanks Rob, Gareth and the entire InnerFight team for amazing support. Watching a dot on a screen move for 8 and a half hours is one way to spend your Saturday. I thought about you guys a lot. I also thought about some friends who are going through a tough time and ran today for them.
Thanks Eco trail Al Ula, next year we bring the full army for you!