October 17, 2021
It’s taken a week, I don’t know why, well maybe I do know, let’s see. Normally in the 48 hours after a race I have been able to process the race, reflect and the key moments are still fresh in my mind so I start to write. Some may say that’s fast and reflection needs more time. Some can say what they like. I am me, normally it’s fast, this one has taken longer.
I hope it helps, thanks for reading.
A final message to Holly fully conscious that this will be the last time I use my phone for 7 days, that in itself is perhaps one of the things I am most looking forward to as the bus pulls away from the hotel in Amman set for the 4 hour drive to Wadi Rum, the location of “Ultra X Jordan”, a 250km footrace across the sands of this untouched part of the Middle East. Is it this disconnection I am most looking forward to (from Holly no, but from, well really the world) I ask myself, or is it the race, or is it a re-connection with myself in a distraction free environment. At that moment I was not sure but as I sit and write this it is a mixture of all. The last 20 months have been incredible in many ways but we seem to have been on the edge and in a heightened state of emergency for way to long. It’s time to strip things back to participate in a sport that is so natural to us as humans, to, you could say flash back to more simple ways of living, to be in nature. I am excited.
These races are amazing for a number of reasons. One that always fascinates me is the type of people they attract. We are just over 100 people split over 3 coaches and accompanied by 40 support crew. One thing is for sure about the Ultra X guys is that they take a solid set up wherever they go. The first few hours of throwing 100 random humans together that for some the only thing they have in common is running is that it is like a vocal sparing match. I like to listen. Some people mark their territory by stating how many “Ultras” they have done, cool story bro I will be staying well away from you. Whilst I have the utmost respect for peoples achievements I see it as a red light when it’s their lead conversational point. “Hi I’m Marcus and I ran 30 marathons in 30 days.” Imagine if that is how I introduced myself, I would hope you would walk away after punching me in the face. I actually make it a point to never talk about that on these trips. If I want to reference an example I will always say “when I did my marathons” to give it some context.
We seem to have a solid mix bag of humans here. My greatest pleasure is watching and listening. It is not my first rodeo and I feel this way I pick up what I need. I am looking for clues as to the people I want to surround myself with for the next 7 days. It is going to be intense. We will eat together, we will sleep with our heads about 6 inches from each other, we will stink together, fart together, some may even cry together. If you do not have good people around you the trip will be hell without even mixing the running in.
I am not everyone’s cup of tea and I am ok with that, I am not here to make 101 new friends. I will always smile at people and say g’day but I have limits and I am very clear about them with myself and with any that ask me. Our tent is solid: Rob who if you have read a couple of my race reports needs no introduction, Abdel who was with us here in Jordan in 2019 and understands the ultra life, Simon an Irish client that Rob coaches who I immediately connect with as the guy gets it, my old rugby mate “Red” who I have been coaching for two years, and then Red brings us two solid lads that he knows from back home in Kristian (later to be renamed Ivy) and James who does not say a whole load but when he speaks I want to listen. As we arrive at camp 1 we are set. This is going to be good.
“What’s your goal for the week” someone asks me! I like this question as my answer is always the same….”have fun” is my response but normally before I have got it out they have told me theirs, human behavior at it;s best eh! Inside I have other goals but ultimately this is what I am here for. There are various elements that will make the week fun for me such as my running performance, my sleeping performance, things I learn from other people in the camp, how my feet hold up, how my nutrition works for me, the moments I experience in the run, a connection with nature. All these things are factors of fun for me. And yes it is my goal to have fun even when it hurts which if my running goal goes to plan it will certainly hurt from time to time.
Day 1 is a 45km stage. It’s going to be fast. No matter how many times I write in my note book or tell myself to take it easy I know I am going to over cook it, I am not cool with this but I know why this happens and race by race I try to get better. We are like cadged lions for so many reasons on the start line. No multistage race for almost two years, legs fresh, beautiful desert, the list could go on forever as to why we feel so good and want to run fast. The main reason not to is that this is only 45km and when we finish at the end of today we have 205km still to do! The first 30km is just beautiful, Abdel, Rob, Simon and I are running well together for the most part and having the time of our lives. Somewhere around 30km you can see the dynamics change somewhat. I do a scan of my body and have to fast admit to myself that my legs are not feeling quite right. I do not feel like I have another gear, it’s weird. In reflection I was feeling similar in training about 3 weeks out, then I put it down to the heat, today the temps are beautiful. Step one of the Ultra Mindset is to admit you have an issue. In doing so I backed off and lets say had somewhat of an interesting 15km to the end. I am not a seasoned pro but I know these races and I know I will get stronger as the week goes on, this is only small part of the race. I am cool with it, back in camp and recovery mode ON. This mainly consists of food and staying horizontal.
The food part is key. We have an allowance of 15kg in a bag that is moved from camp to camp and aside from my luxurious lightweight camp chair and the most comfortable portable sleeping mat I have ever come across the remaining 14kg of my bag is food. I have one set of run kit (which I wash when possible) 1 set of chilling gear which yes also stinks by the end of the week. Main meals are what’s called “dehydrated expedition food” which is high cal and if you are not careful high sugar. At some stage in the week you are going to have some pretty interesting bathroom experiences because of what you are doing to your body but I try and keep my food as “clean” as possible. I run on dates, Holly makes me these amazing cookies and ultra bars which I vacuum pack and I have 5 tins of tuna which are a massive win. I drip feed food into my body from when I finish a stage right until I go to bed. For those calorie monkies out there (and yes it is quite important in these races) I try and get in between 3,000-4,000 a day, may sound easy, it’s not!
Just before sunset at the end of day 1 of these races reality seems to set in for a lot of people as they realize how challenging day 1 was and that they have 4 more to go. It’s interesting and I have a foot in both camps here. I firmly believe that there are people entering these races that have no right to be here, some have run their first marathon today, some will fail, some will make it to the end of the weak and endure and inflict some collateral damage. I am old school and I believe you earn the right to take on these races. The other foot I have in the other camps is still connected to my ears and listens to how just 6 months ago people were depressed staring into the bottom of their 15th empty pint glass and as a bet agreed to take on a race like this…..that also takes some very large balls! There are inherent safety risks no matter where you have come from. It is my 2 wishes that A) people stay safe and B) people are not weak. Nothing else for the time being!
Day 2 everyone is always more chilled, unless you are Rob in our tent and you have spent the night shitting yourself. A long day at the office for him today! Two thoughts on most peoples minds bounce around the camp before the 7am start to allow for the hotter weather later in the morning. First is that they all went to hard yesterday and second is that they need to stay fresh today as tomorrow is the long day. I empathize in some ways but also feel nice and fresh as well as secretly excited about the long day. More of that later, today is now and this is where life is happening as we set off for another 47km of the beautiful Wadi Rum. It’s not long into the stage where Abdel, Simon and I are joined by Robin who is a tall well spoken English gentleman that actually passed Abdel and I in the closing stages of yesterday to finish up 3rd for the day. He has great energy and this 4 ball is something I am cool with being a part of. After check point 2 at 20km the sand gets even softer and my 90kg load goes into my version of 4×4. I take each section of the sand on it’s merits, there is no strict plan aside from when you can run you run and when running starts destroying the legs too much you walk. Lots of people try and program themselves with a set amount of time running and then a quick walk break but for me it simply does not work. What if your run time is when the sand is over your shoes? Are you going to keep on and burn your legs? Only if you are a bit thick. Ultra for the most part is a game of logic. Logic is a skill that is hard to exercise when under extreme mental and physical stress. Therefore ultra becomes challenging for people in actually some of the most simple scenarios, that’s what makes it beautiful.
Robin and Abdel leave me and I am cool with it. We have just under 20km to go to the end. I like being on my own. I prefer being on my own ahead of other competitors but you have to play the hand you are dealt and I will keep to my simple plan and keep trucking it up. Just after 12 I am back in camp and the wait for 4am tomorrow morning and the 72km stage kicks off. Same rules as always, food and horizontal. During both we hang out, we talk, we ask each other questions, we search for answers, we make up theories, we laugh, it’s amazing, it’s the ultra life.
“Hot water two hours before the start” is the standard camp rules, this means people rustle just before 2am. Why? Who knows. We all deal with situations differently. Rob and I chose to sleep out of the tent under the stars last night. Even with mask on and ear plugs in and a really solid fight I crawl out of my sleeping bag just before 3. The same as I practice at home every night before I go to bed I had prepared all my kit the night before. All I need to do is make my coffee, have a feed and slip into my run kit, fresh socks for the long day, what a treat. I am excited for what’s ahead today. I know the course and I know this is my jam. I know people are in pain. I know it will get too hot for people. Yes I am taking energy from others to feel even better about what lay ahead. Sly you could say. The game I say. I came here to be on the podium, I need to use all the tools in the tool kit.
As is the case the last 2 days everyone is ready in their kit with half an hour to go, slow learners you could say. Our tent not so much, they asked the guys who have raced multistage before and they listened, we are chilled, cracking jokes, enjoying the star filled sky.
Race organizer Jamie gives a quick but very clear speech with 2 minutes to go explaining to people that this may be the hardest day of their life. Rather than watch him talk I try and catch the eyes of those around me through their headlamps. I want to see fear, excitement, emotion and all the other things that transcend peoples eye balls on the start line. It once again gives me energy, makes me feel alive. This is a race, we are going to race each other for the coming 72 KM which for the fastest runner will take just over 7 hours and the slowest around 18. My goal is simple, get to the next camp as quick as I can…..under 9 hours would be cool.
It is truly a beautiful day to go for a run, even the first 2 hours in darkness are beautiful. You can get freaked out about not being able to see of you can just cruise over the top of the sand the best you can. Those that know, know that there is free energy on the way and as day breaks and the sun starts to rise we pass through the 20km check point and welcome a descent after the last 15km of steady incline. Wadi Rum is rarely flat, you are either going up at about 2-4% of going down at the same, nothing more nothing less. The mental challenging of seeing 10km in front of you at this steady incline across soft sand is beautiful for many and absolutely soul destroying for others. Robin and Abdel take off down the descent, little be known but I would not see them again today until the end. As I said above I like being alone, it gives me time for many things and I enjoy the next 35km, my thoughts, my running, my visions and at times my songs. What else would I rather be doing on a day like today…….nothing. I am totally at peace with where I am and the job at hand. The 50km check point brings two things not available at the other check points. No matter the race my strategy on check points is the same, arrive, take what you need from them and leave. Too many people use them to hang out, complain, be weak. I have no time for that, it’s in and out. This one however I quickly change my shorts to under shorts and in doing so avoid a potential chaffe issue but also realize that the compartment to hold my old fella in is designed in such a way for an over short to be worn with them, this luxury is not available to me but I proceed with the change anyway. No idea if anyone noticed, I know I didn’t care either way. Then as I am set to go they offer me a cold drink “pepsi?” the thought of it makes me want to spew. “Fanta, it’s ice cold”, ah go on then I thought trying to recall the last time in my life I had a fanta as with one large slurp it’s in my guts and I am on my way.
My nutrition today has been “odd”. Trying to eat breakfast at 3am is not something I would normally try and do outside of a race and it did not sit too well for me. Since then I have had a third of a bar and 2 dates washed down with plenty of water and electrolytes which has carried me quite nicely over the last 50km. One thing that I am not super happy about though is my pissing, I am pissing often but as the stage progresses it is more painful to piss and the colour becomes darker. Hmmmmm
Just after the 60km check point Simon runs up to me which brings me great energy, he has had a great day and I want him to go on and finish strong. We play some cat and mouse for a few KM and as we see a water station with 7km to go agree that we will drag each other the remaining distance up another 3% incline to the end. We talk, we laugh and I enjoy every step to the end. 72km, check, day 3, check, legs check, overall position 4th……….not where I want to be.
Watching people come in from the long stage of a race like this is always fun, you once again learn and I am always looking for different physical as well as spoken hints to gauge what sort of state they are in. For a lot of people this will be the longest they have ever run in a single stage, they may be fine physically but emotionally it will destroy them as it is new territory and they have no idea how to act. The course itself is no more challenging than the 2 days they have done but the distance plays with your emotions if you let it. The fact that this is only day 3 and you have 2 more back to back marathons in the coming 2 days also plays on peoples minds. You can read all the books you want, listen to all the teachings but when you see human beings going through these things in the flesh it takes your awareness to another level. It’s not long before Rob arrives followed some time after by Red and in dribs and drabs the other lads from our tent. They are all home and safe and looking stronger today than at the end of yesterday, fascinating!
The camp at the end of day 3 is missing the tents which is epic. It is way to beautiful to need tents, we set up to sleep on the sand and it is the best night sleep I have had this week. Cooler and as you roll over in the middle of the night you can take a moment to appreciate the amazing stars of Wadi Rum, like nothing I have seen anywhere else in the world. With this great nights sleep in my legs today is going to have to be the day I make a move on the leader board if I am going to sit on the podium by Friday night. Day 4 will expose those that pushed too hard on the long day, it will also expose those who have not done enough training. If you have trained well you will appear to be getting stronger today which is a huge mental boost. A pattern is emerging as we set off at 7am as very quickly the pack of Robin, Abdel, Simon and I forms for what becomes a nice 50 minute hill rep into check point 1 at 10km. We keep the pace and the chat for the next 20km until I once again find myself without the gears I need to run away from Robin and Abdel, quite the reverse as just before check point 3 they leave me. I work what felt like incredibly hard from check point 3 and catch them up but there is no way my legs are letting me run away from them and I finish the day another 5 minutes down as we close out with just over 40km in the legs.
I have been beaten fair and square. Salameh is in first place around 2 hours ahead of Robin who sits in second and Abdel (who I have been coaching for the last 2 years) is in 3rd just a few minutes back but around 35 minutes ahead of me. I am super pumped for all 3 of them, they have raced hard and smiled the whole way. It’s the first time someone whom I coach has beaten me and contrary to what I thought I would feel I feel immensely satisfied and very proud of Abdel. I have put more thought into this in the time between the race and writing this and it would have been very egotistical of me to react in any other way. He trained hard, he ran well, he beat me and he deserves to sit on the podium.
The mood in camp on the night before the final stage is always different, people look somewhat relieved that all they have to do is a casual marathon tomorrow and they have hit their goal. Sadly the commentary that normally goes with this is something to the effect of “I can not wait for this to be over.” This somewhat disappoints me as I and a few of the guys in our tent feel a bit the opposite, we are happy but also somehow sad that tomorrow is our last day. I feel that if that is your reaction that maybe you have not fully embraced the power and the learning of ultra. I personally do not want it to end because each day it gives me so much, I learn so much, I laugh so much, I live so much.
The final day is a bit like the final day of a Tour De France where the leader-board is normally set so the top runners just keep running consistently but it’s the random ones from the field who may feel they have some extra energy left over or maybe want to “have a crack” for the last day that you see up near the front at the start. Some of them stay out front till the end, some crash and burn, they have all rolled the dice which is cool and hopefully come home with an empty tank. I personally want to get my overall time under 27 hours as this is a benchmark for the race. With the help of Robin and Abdel this becomes quite a breeze as we spend the first 30km together, having fun and running well across the never ending sands of Wadi Rum. I tell Abdel to go at the 30km check point but humbly he asks me “what for” and says we will run the last stretch together, what a champion.
The course for today ends up being 37km and the last 6km take a small piece of me, maybe it’s a reminder from the ultra gods that we are only visitors in these races and that they somehow control us, I do not know but what should have been a very straight forward run home is one littered with hardship. I smile and ask myself if I would want it any other way, I know the answer and as I cross the finish line I take a seat in the shade and let the moments sink in. It’s not an emotion that brings anger, nor one that makes you want to cry for happy nor sad but you can feel the emotion, it’s special and I savor it. I check in on myself and why I do these things and I think about Holly, Mum and Dad and all the people that support me to be able to be here right now experiencing the end of another ultra, I silently thank them all one by one. I scan my body and my mind and quickly reflect on what it has done for me over the last 5 days and I give it my appreciation.
These races are special and these moments are special, finish lines are crazy places but if you can create some silence in the mayhem you somehow create a moment that makes it even more special, a true, undistracted, unfiltered appreciation for life, the planet we get to live that life on and the moments in our lives that ultimately define us. I hope by reading this you will search for these moments and live the best life you can in the way that makes you the happiest.
Returning to the world in the days after a race and living in the bubble of the ultra life are hard. You care less about things that are stressing people out. It’s like you are somehow “high” and maybe you are somehow. You notice things that perhaps you do not notice so often, sadly a lot of the things are quite negative such as peoples poor ability to communicate in a humane way, peoples pursuit of things that are so glaringly obviously not going to make them happy, the amount of distractions we have in our life that only confuse us and stress us out and so the list goes on. I always schedule more time to sit, to think, to be. It is increasingly one of my goal takeaways from these races to have this heightened self awareness for as long as possible after the race as I truly believe it is where we operate optimally rather than being dragged into the way that the world seems to want to make humans work but to work how humans are designed to work. Call me old school, call me caveman, call me what you like, this is the reality. Think about it. Thank you