Did I really just run 72km?
Yes. Really. I did. The Wadi Bih Solo 72 started on the beach at Dibba, Oman at 4:30am Friday, 3 February 2017, before winding its way up 36km of beautiful but barren mountain landscape to a height of 1,000 metres, then turning and retracing the route back to the beach.
The event is something of an adventure, with many participants spending the weekend camping on the beach and swapping stories over a barbeque. That's how it started for me, when I entered the relay event in 2016 as part of a team of five. It was fantastic: beautiful weather, great company, fun camping and around 15km of running thrown in, being my share of the relay distance. As we chatted over a few drinks in the evening, I was inspired by those that had completed the solo event, the full 72km alone. The seed was sown to return in 2017 to run the Solo 72 myself.
Roll forward nine months and I was entered, and after twelve months I was in the car on route to Dibba. The two hour journey from Dubai was made against a backdrop of an overcast sky, a precursor to the weather that would test us during the run the next day. I was one of the first to arrive at the beach at Dibba, although there was a smattering of tents already on the beach and so I proceeded to set up in the same spot. The overcast sky of the drive had now been joined by a strong gusting wind, and putting up the tent was quite a challenge. Tent pegs and beach sand are not a good match, and so the tent got tied to the car and shopping bags filled with sand anchored the tent to the ground. Tent up, it was time to wait for the rest of the group of around 12 that I knew, a number of whom had been delayed at the border crossing.
Eventually everyone had arrived, whether having been delayed at work or at the border. By now, the gusting wind was quite fierce, and after some false starts trying to erect tents on the beach, the remaining campers found a more sheltered spot in the adjacent hotel grounds. We had a barbeque, and then went to bed early, to be ready for an early start to our run the next morning.
My alarm clock sounded at 3:30am, although I was already awake - the wind and the rain had put paid to any chance of substantial sleep. I ate a cereal bar, some Frosties from the box, a "meal" bar, had some water and then got dressed. Race number attached, head torch on, energy gels stowed, drop bag ready, I went off to meet up with the rest of the group and huddle against the wind and the cold. Race briefing was at 4:15am, of which all I remember was being told that winds were gusting between 30kmh and 60kmh, rain was possible and that it was around 5ºC at the top of the mountain. I was glad for the extra long sleeve top that I had put on over my running shirt, and I decided to keep it on for the start of the run. And then we were off.
Being a 4:30am start, the first two hours are in the dark, and a head torch is essential. There is a short section on asphalt before moving onto the gravel of the Wadi. Two of our group, Grant and Diarmuid, had specific targets in mind and set off quickly, while the rest of the Desert Road Runner group kept a steady pace, knowing that going too fast at the start can return to bite you later. This being my first 72km run (my previously longest being 50km), I was glad to have some experienced heads in the group to help guide me. The wind was horrendous and generally was against us in the early stages. Not only did it make the running hard, the sand and grit that it whipped up and threw at us was physically painful, and played havoc with our eyes.
We got to the first checkpoint together at 12km, and I topped up my water bottle and grabbed a bar of chocolate. I had taken an energy gel slightly before, as my plan was a gel every 10km, which is what I stuck to (so 6 gels in total, the last being at 60km). As this first stop was only 12km in, we didn't hang around and were back running within a minute or two. I made a quick mental check of how I was feeling, and was a bit concerned that I was finding it tougher than I wished given that we still had nearly 60km to go. It was therefore good to still be running in a group as the chat, although a little muted as we continued to battle the wind, took my mind away from negative thoughts.
Given the terrain and the wind, there was little point in checking my Garmin to see what pace we were doing, but I did look occasionally to see how far we were from the next checkpoint. That came at around 26km and was an important one, it was now getting light and my sunglasses were in my drop bag at the checkpoint. I didn't need them for the sun (which wasn't there) but to give my eyes some protection from the sand and grit that was assaulting us. Our group had split a little during that second section, and so we spent a bit longer, maybe six minutes, to let the group reform, before heading off for the next section up to half way and therefore the turn point.
Our group split again, and I found myself running with Lewis and Hassan. At times, the steep sides of the Wadi gave us some shelter from the wind but, on other occasions, they served to concentrate the wind into an even greater force. It is no exaggeration that there were moments when the wind physically stopped us in our tracks, and we were running hard to either make just a few metres progess or to even stand still. This section took us to the highpoint of the course at 1,000 metres, and is the hardest running section. My Garmin shows a total elevation of 1,589 metres for the whole event, with the three kilometers from 30km to 33km being at an average gradient of 10%, with kilometer 32 being 15% alone. Those in the know tell you to walk these sections, and I was glad that we listened. Anyway, I think running them in the wind would have been nigh on impossible, and the effort expended would mean that the marginal savings in time would be lost many times over later in the run. It was during this section that we started to see the leaders come past us in the opposite direction on their return leg. The leader must have been over 10km ahead of us, and looked astonishingly fresh. We then saw Grant, from our club, who was in an incredible second place (which he would hold to the end), the effort etched on his face. Diarmuid also went past on his return leg, perhaps 1.5km ahead of me. I was feeling quite good, and had stretched away a little from Lewis and Hassan as we arrived at the check point which was where we turned for home. But 36km by myself seemed like a long way so while I waited for Lewis I picked up some more gels from Massi and Carine who were driving our support car, ate a chocolate bar and drank some coke. Lewis had arrived and I was ready to get on with it, I had an idea at the back of my mind that maybe we could catch Diarmuid.
We set off, now benefitting from downhill sections and mostly with a tailwind, although that made it quite tricky to control the pace and not go too fast too soon (and pay for it later) or end up falling. Again, I found myself stretching away from Lewis who, although normally a faster runner than me, had recently come back from an ankle injury and was therefore being a little cautious. Despite the distance still to go, I had found a good rhythm and decided to continue with it. It was nice to wave and say hi to the runners still coming up the hill, including Hassan, Duncan, Hazim, Harvey and also Jan who must have run the first sections behind us. I also saw Tia coming up the hill doing the Solo 50km race, which she would win, and which is just a short run for her! We now had a bit of rain to mix with the wind, but it didn't make much difference. More importantly, as I rounded a corner, I saw a flash of orange a little way in the distance - was that Diarmuid, would I really catch him? I kept going, indeed it was Diarmuid, and I caught him just as we entered the next checkpoint.
More water, more coke, half an orange, and maybe some chocolate, and I was on my way again. About 26km to go. In my mind I broke this down to 7km to get to under 20km, another 7km to get to the last checkpoint, and surely from there I could battle through to the finish. Diarmuid had snuck out of the previous checkpoint while I wasn't looking, so I had to catch him again. I still felt OK, starting to feel it in my knees a little, but overall far better than I had expected. It was good to have some encouragement from our support car with about 18km to go, Massi yelled that I could start to push, which surely must have been some sort of Italian joke if he didn't think that I was already trying! Gerda was also in the car shouting encouragement, having already won the Solo 30km race as she was "taking it easy" given her focus is on the epic Comrades race in South Africa.
I caught and passed another runner which is always something that gives you a boost, and then approached the final checkpoint where Matt was waiting. I didn't stay long, just 12km to go, and I didn't know if those that I had overtaken had been pacing themselves better than me, so I wanted to be on my way. Matt asked if he could bring something to me and I said some water would be great halfway to the finish. And it was great, it meant that I could break that final section down to run to get my water from Matt and then a final push to the finish. That he brought me some orange segments too was an added bonus. So just 6km to the finish, it was getting harder but I knew I would do it. It perhaps sounds strange, but it can get quite emotional, you've put a huge amount of effort in, you're exhausted, it's not all rational, but it's great. I could see the beach, virtually there, try to put a spring in the step to look good (less bad) approaching the finish line. As I ran the final 50 metres, Graham (leader of the Desert Road Runners club) launches out of the timing booth shouting that I'm third male in a time of 7 hours and 12 minutes. I can't believe it, I just aimed to finish, my time is perhaps an hour quicker than I thought, and third is ridiculous, but it's true.
I can honestly recommend the Wadi Bih event. This year was testing because of the weather, not just for the runners but for the organisers as well. There will be some who will make a judgement on the more difficult experience of this year, but I hope that they don't. I enjoyed it, the adverse weather made it a different type of adventure, but the 2016 event in glorious sunshine is far more typical. There are events to suit different abilities from relay to different solo runs. And the camaraderie is great. If you're in the UAE, or GCC, it's worth putting on your to do list.