At the end of August each year UTMB fever grips Chamonix Mont Blanc; my mountain escape for the last eighteen years. The race series holds a personal soft spot after I narrowly scrapped through every checkpoint of the CCC in 2008; I then returned nine years later to place 7th lady in the full UTMB. Something I never dreamed possible.
Every year as the mid-December entry point approaches, end of season races are crammed with ultra-runners on the hunt for UTMB points to ensure they can enter the ballot. A quick glance at the UTMB race statistics reveal an exponential increase in participants since Catherine and Michel Poletti founded the race in 2003. The mountain trails around Chamonix only have a finite capacity so the opportunity to create an experience with the same essence, but in a different place, and at a different time of the year helps expand the market and the series globally and makes perfect business sense.
I honestly can’t pin point when or how Oman by UTMB appeared on my radar. I know the promotional images certainly helped lure me in, as did the fond memories that came flooding back of visiting Oman whilst working in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Memories of lazily drifting around the Musandam Peninsula in a wooden Dhow, discovering the seemingly never ending grand canyons of Jebel Akhdar, exploring the underwater delights of the Daymaniyat Islands or marvelling at new born turtles tottering towards the white frothy crashing waves in Al Jinz. Oman is an easy sell.
The race route is 137km long; a magical trail hitting heights of over 2,000m above sea level with 7,800m ascent through the rugged Al Hajar mountains in the Sultanate’s Jebel Al Akhdar region. This race was my chance to weave my running experiences of the French Alps into those memories of the rugged beauty of Oman.
I always aim to scale back everything in the lead up to a big race though saying “no” isn’t my forte. The final few days before flying out to Oman inevitably involve spinning a variety of plates; juggling private coaching client work and co-facilitating a 5-day leadership course whilst pulling together mandatory kit and equipment. Luckily I had the foresight to plan a couple of nights in Muscat for beach time immediately before the race with running buddy Lucja Leonard as a welcome break for the body and mind. Two days of dipping our feet in the crystal blue Gulf of Oman Sea and indulging in Middle Eastern culinary delights. The chance to plot future ultra-running adventures while dunking Arabic flat bread covered in sesame seeds into hummus, baba ganoush and tzatziki. Bliss, or just the calm before the storm!
Respite over we head west into the mountains to the designated race venue: the Golden Tulip Hotel near Nizwa. As the designated start time of 19:30 on Thursday 29thNovember 2018 creeps closer we tick off pre-race activities: registration, race briefing, kit check, final shake out and of course catching up with friends from across the world. Frustratingly sleep evades me; I seem to have lost my British Army skill of being able to sleep anywhere and at any time.
Finally the wait is over, 326 ultrarunners from 52 different countries, including 51 ladies (16% of the field) stand shoulder to shoulder for the final countdown. 3…2…1..Go, Go, Go!!
The first ten kilometres are along wide flat tracks, which in hindsight are the most runnable part of the route. Then I hit the wall, literally not metaphorically! The trail rises vertically above us as my pace practically grinds to a halt as I climb this monstrous wall of rock. In my mind the theme tune from the Wizard of Oz “Follow the yellow brick road” morphs into “Fellow the green dots”. In a nutshell, that’s my sole focus for the next 26 hours 20 minutes and 27 seconds.
Mentally I break the beast down one step at a time, placing one foot in front of another, hopping from rock to rock and boulder to boulder.Most of the time I run alone in the dark bewitched by the ever-changing shadows which emerge and fade beyond the beam of my torchlight. The “running” component is minimal though I grasp every opportunity to trot a few feet appreciating the chance to switch the pace up.
A quick glance at the race profile reminds me of the cheeky sting in the tail of this race – the vertical km at 116km. I had prepared for this on the Chamonix vertical kilometre which passes outside my apartment near the Brevent lift station. The neat alpine switchbacks, which twist and turn under the gondola wires up to Planpraz provided an incredibly convenient location for hill reps but I suspect this Oman version may be in a different league and I would need to hold back something in reserve for when I get to it.
On part of the Lost Villages Trail, just before the Ailia Hotel at 82km we are scooped into harnesses and given helmets as we make our way along a small section of via ferrata, clipping onto the cables as an additional safety precaution. I’ve encountered the odd metal ladder, foot plate or rope during races in the French Alps, but this definitely raises the bar pushing us almost into adventure racing territory. This is not a race for those who dislike exposure or suffer from vertigo!
From the check point at Balad Sayt an enormous hunk of limestone looms overhead and disappears into the distance with no discernable path to the naked eye. This is it, that infamous vertical km section. 116km into the race and I maintain three points of contact as I scramble up the thousand meters of ascent in just 3.4km. As I head ever higher, Isystematically search out the green dots. There’s one, and another, and another. I’m on the right track. I’m glad to be tackling this section during daylight hours though I’m fully conscious a substantial chunk of the field won’t have that luxury and I send up positive vibes into the atmosphere for safe passage. It’s the only race in the world that I’m aware of which has a vertical kilometer (1,116m to be precise) this far into a race. It’s tough.
Finally I am descending, but the gruelling, leg-battering, technical terrain remains until practically the last kilometre. I traverse the high ground around the pretty village of Misfat Al Abriyeen above Al Hamra and I can see, hear and almost touch the finish line. So close, yet still a few kilometres to go. And then, almost magically I am there, eagerly grabbing the finish line tape with both hands. I’ve finished. I’ve won!
Out of the 326 who start, only 142 make it to the finish line (44%). Unsurprisingly general consensus from across the field is that the route is a beast. I can categorically confirm it is much more technical than its French namesake, the UTMB, and even trumps the 107km of the 2017 Gran Trail Courmayeur route which I tackled in the lead up to my successful 2017 UTMB attempt (both 2017 UTMB and 2017 GTC are classified as ten on the ITRA mountain scale classification compared to nine for 2018 Oman by UTMB – do not be fooled!).
The global ultra-running community will undoubtedly watch with interest as the race organizers announce plans for 2019. It’s currently rumored that the route will be extended up to the summit of Jebel Shams (altitude of 2,900m), the highest mountain in Oman, to hit the sacrosanct 100-mile distance and that will be with over 10,000m of ascent. There are also plans to create shorter distances to open up the race series to more participants.
Top tips to tame the beast
Since heading out to Oman to train on the route isn’t a viable option for most people, think about working these three top tips into your training schedule:
Practice rock hopping – With smooth runnable trails only making up roughly 10% of the course, it’s essential to get comfortable jumping over, up, down and across stones of various shapes and sizes. Choosing ones that slip and disappear underfoot with the odd bum slide thrown in for good measure will get you really fine-tuned!
Attach a car head lamp to your head - Maybe not a real one, though think max lumens and battery life as with a 19:30 start time at the end of November you’re going to be spending more time racing at night than during daylight hours. In the lead up to the race, head outdoors in the dark during your training runs and embrace the shadows.
Think vert over distance - Park tracking mileage and focus on quality ascent/descent. This race is all about building your leg strength to manage the ascents and endure the relentless quad busting descents. If you’re a data geek create a separate screen on your Garmin, Sunnto or other device dedicated to ascent, descent, rate of ascent and heart rate (and maybe even running power). Start to familiarise yourself with the data over different terrain so you know what rate of ascent you’re able to maintain.
For the kit geeks:
Shoes: Inov-8 Graphene Grip
Bag: Salomon S-lab 8L
Shirt: WAA ultra-carrier top
Socks: Injini liners
Poles: Black Diamond cardon Z type
Fuel: Veloforte (use the code “rfmcoaching“ for a 20% discount at checkout).
It’s now time to rest, relax & recharge ready for 2019 to unfold.