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ALULA
March 21, 2022

ALULA

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!

 

 

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Suleman March 21, 2022 AT 04 amReply

Awesome and inspiring. Really glad to read your perspective on Alula. I did the 25km and had friends doing the 50km and 80km.. (first placed guy in the 80km is a good friend 🙂
Each one of them had an epic experience.
Hope to see you and the Innerfight team join some of the trail challenges with HejazUltra in Jeddah some time. Keep well.

Ross March 21, 2022 AT 09 amReply

Loved the blog thanks for sharing!

You guys smashed it, really hard to stay together at the distance and come in second place!

I ran the same 80km but blew up at 61km mostly due to my poor preparation i really underestimated the distance and difficulty, defo kicked me down a level or 2 I won’t make that mistake again.

Will look forward to next year running with you guys and making it across the line all going well.

    admin April 13, 2022 AT 10 amReply

    Thanks for the kind words Ross and hope to catch you next year.

Tina March 21, 2022 AT 10 amReply

Wow … what an amazing place to run an ultra
Thanks for sharing! And putting this video together!
Absolutely mindblowing sceneries! Parts look so similar like Moab
I hope in 2023 I can join the IF squad!!!
Big congrats to you and the team!!! Everyone smashed it

MAHMOUD ALSAOUDI March 22, 2022 AT 05 amReply

Inspiring champions for how you guys went all the way together.
Course was really challenging, I can tell as I did 50km race
Missed to meet you guys. And happy that you say the good changes in Saudi Arabia, looking forward to have another good race here and more athletes to join