Oman by UTMB 2019

Oman by UTMB 2019

In November 2019 I participated in the inaugural 170km of Oman by UTMB. Though the 170km was a new event, the actual organization returned for its second year after hosting a successful series of events in 2018, the longest race being 130 km. Spoiler alert, I only completed the 130km race for reasons described in the following report.

Before delving into the details of my race report, I would like to emphasize how proud I am/was that the race organizers involved the local Omani population at all levels of race preparation and execution. I was amazed and inspired that the checkpoints were staffed by locals. This included the aid stations, medical facilities (mostly), and life bases along the course, from the lowest points in the valleys to the tops of the summits. The Omani sense of hospitality and enthusiasm permeated the race atmosphere and made this an event true to the host culture and its beautiful natural surroundings.

يشتهر العمانيون بحسن الضيافة وحسن الضيافة من شيم العرب.

In short, I was offered so many dates (from palm trees) that I could have filled my race pack with nothing more. 

Another note I feel necessary to mention at the beginning of this report is that my phone camera malfunctioned leaving me with rather few photos of the event. This misfortune saddens me as the scenery in the deep valleys and high mountains was absolutely stunning. Therefore, this lack of photos serves as ,at least in part, the reason for composing this detailed race report. I want to record some of my meaningful memories that will likely soon fade with the passing of time. Fortunately, I have found some photos and videos from other runners and I have listed a few at the end of this report.

I arrived in Oman late Wednesday evening on November 27, 2019. After buying a local Omani SIM card for 5 Omani Riyals (OMR) with 4GB of data, I waited a few hours for a shuttle to take participants to the event center in Nizwa, Oman, some two hours away to the west. As for Muscat itself, I do enjoy spending time in its ancient port and mesmerizing souq (market), but I was seeking raw adventure and the mountainous interior beckoned. I was keen to answer their call.

The next morning I enjoyed tasty waffles at a buffet breakfast in the Golden Tulip Hotel, just outside of the ancient city, Nizwa. The importance of a good breakfast on race day can’t be overstated. Feeling refreshed and refueled, I then suited up for the adventure. I lubed my feet and my body. I packed my drop bags. I found my way to the race’s main event center about 5 kilometers down the road in Birkat al-Mouz (place blessed with bananas). As the name suggests, this small village once produced an abundance of bananas, though these days it seems palm trees have taken over most of the arable land. Such small oases dot the otherwise barren landscape in Oman and offer cool respite from the sun and heat of the day. These refreshing verdant wadis (valleys) are hidden around Oman and are often far from the beaten path. I was lucky enough to find several such gems as a part of the official race course.

And so the clock slowly progressed to 13.00 on November 28, 2019, the official start of the first 170 km race in Oman. But first I had affairs to attend to and more preparations to make. After my running vest was carefully checked (see photo), I delivered my two drop bags to the organizers and ordered chicken biryani from a modest pop-up tent. Biryani is delicious and if you don’t know what it is, I highly recommend correcting such an egregious oversight. Having eaten one of my favorite dishes, I felt well nourished and prepared for the coming challenge. I stepped outside the event center to inspect the starting line arrangements. I found nothing but heat and the blazing sun so I quickly returned to sit on a rocky bench with strangers. Though we were unacquainted, we shared nervous glances and watchful expressions. Others kept their eyes closed and appeared to be in peaceful meditation. Eventually someone from the race entered and asked that we all make our way to the starting line; I get the sense that the lack of runners outside was becoming a concern to the organizers. Pro-tip for the organizers: add some sun shades at the starting line if you want runners to gather there before absolutely necessary.

And so we lined up like bulls in a pen, panting in the heat, waiting for our master to release the gate. At the sound of a gun, we set off into the heat and brightness of the early afternoon.

The first 12.8 kilometers wound through the local village of Birkat al-Mouz where we were greeted by many locals, especially children, wanting to exchange high fives and offering words of encouragement and applause. This beginning section contained some asphalt roads as well as dirt paths that snaked through green farms bursting with palm trees and other plant life. Something I distinctly remember – at one point I saw some beautiful purple morning glory vines that brought back memories of early runs near our home in Sharjah. I used to really enjoy planting flowers and vegetables in our small plot of land in Sharjah, when we lived for 5 years in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These same morning glories climbed up a column of our carport and cascaded along its rim. True to their name, the flowers bloomed in the morning and disappeared by evening. Luckily, it was still early afternoon in Oman.

After this first aid station, al-Mu’aydin, the course began to climb from about 500 meters to a height eventually reaching over 2,000 meters. This is where the actual race began as we left the comfort and ease of jeep tracks and roads. I remember thinking to myself several times that we were now moving too quickly on this newer, rougher terrain. But we were excited to start our ascent to the cooler climes of the mountains, and so we burned valuable energy as we climbed over, around, and below small to medium sized boulders that had, at some point in the past, fallen from the surrounding massive rock walls scaling hundreds of meters above. And in these deep valleys among the boulders, a surprise awaits the unsuspecting traveler – water! Though Oman lacks any major open-air rivers and inland natural bodies of water, the country is blessed with secret springs and hidden water sources that find their way down the mountains through long wadis and collect in pools. These lovely places create splendid oases that are otherwise concealed in the deep recesses and shadows of the mountains. At one rather picturesque pool, I saw something out of place – I truly thought my eyes were deceiving me – but no, we did in fact pass an older foreign couple who had stopped to bathe in one of these natural pools. The scene brought back many memories of hiking and swimming with my family in the extraordinary Wadi Shab, Oman, only a few hours away. I later saw a video of these same people, I presume, sitting by a campfire in the dark and cheering for the runners in the 130 km event. What a magical evening for them though I wonder if they welcomed the crowds or whether they had retreated to the mountains for solitude. Whatever the response, they were taking it all in stride.

And so we strode…. Or climbed and jumped from rock to pool while following the green dots of paint that served as the course markers. At one point we crossed a narrow bridge made of stacked tree logs that left an impression of ferality and wildness. We were quite removed from civilization and I wondered who could have built such this bridge in such an untamed environment. But this wild environment, or so it seemed to me, has actually been part of daily Omani life for generations. In fact, the mountains and valleys are filled with ancient trails that both human and beast have trodden since time immemorial. Certainly, some of these trails are less-used today than they were several hundred years ago, but the number of stone cairns and other rock formations reveal considerable human activity.   

I distinctly remember increasing my pace for the last kilometer or so before we exited the tight confines of a long valley. This particular valley was filled with boulders and pools of water. That type of wild environment tends to drain one’s energy as the close proximity of steep and jarring rocky walls seem to continue endlessly. Being lost in these deep wadis feels something akin to a time warp; so I fought against complacency and pushed myself to the next checkpoint in Sallut, about 25km from the start line.

It was here at Sallut that I had my first lengthy conversation in Arabic with the local Omani volunteers and army soldiers. “Peace be upon you. And upon you. How are things? Alumuur Tayyeba – things are good. Where are you from? USA but I live in Finland. Why do you speak Arabic? What, not everyone here speaks Arabic? (me looking at the other runners). No, are you laughing at them? No, I like them and I hope they learn Arabic soon, God willing. God willing.”

السلام عليكم

وعليكم السلام ورحمة الله

كيف الحال؟

الحمد لله الأمور طيبة

من وين وكيف تعرف عربي؟

انا أمريكي ولكن اسكن في فنلندا. ليش اتكلم عربي؟ شو هدول \ هؤلاء الرياضيون ما يتكلمون عربي؟

ها، تضحك عليهم؟

لا، احبهم واتمنى انهم يدرسون العربية في المستقبل ان شاء الله.

ان شاء الله

I had many a conversation similar to this throughout my race experience and time in Oman. Including, for example, several hours when I ran with a notably fit Danish Palestian named Ramez who also speaks Arabic. We bantered back and forth in Arabic with the volunteers at some checkpoints. At one point I said in Arabic “Hey, a Palestinian is chasing an American and I am afraid” which brougt many smiles and laughs all around.

واحد فلسطيني يطارد واحد امريكي – انا الامريكي وانا اخاف! ههههه، امزح!

I must admit that it feels good to obviously be of Western origin, but to be a Western who speaks Arabic fairly well. Sometimes the words leaving my mouth lead to a bit of cognitive dissonance on the part of my interlocutor, but more often than not, my use of Arabic is nothing short of an immediate invitation to friendship. If only everyone in the world were so welcoming and friendly when foreigners try to speak their language.  🙂

Omani hospitality is truly amazing, but I must mention a simple experience that could lead to potential misunderstandings among the runners and the locals. In Oman, the people practice unconditional sharing of food and water with kith and kin, and even strangers. So at one point in the race when I was hot and tired, a local family in a truck pulled up next to me offering me chocolate. Unfortunately, I had to refuse because the race instructions prohibit assistance – other than in emergencies – from anyone not directly working for the event. But something inside of me knew that refusing the chocolate was wrong. Nevertheless, I simply waved politely and continued running down the road. On a related note, I later heard from a different competitor that some Omanis were offering rides to runners! Luckily few road sections crossed paths with the actual race route, so this situation was rare. What an odd cultural experience for everyone involved – the Omanis offering refreshment and transportation, as is their custom, and the stubborn(?) foreigners refusing hospitality, either because they knew the race prohibitions, or because they would have done the same in their own country. I think everyone was a bit confused at these times, but luckily kindness and humanity have a way of erasing unspoken rules; a simple smile or a wave reminds us that we are grateful to be alive and sharing a moment in time, awkward though it be.

سبحان الله

One more anecdote about Omani hospitality that occurred in the cool night while I stopped and sat in a chair for a few minutes at a checkpoint, sipping some warm soup. After several minutes of sitting my body temperature dropped and I began to shiver uncontrollably. I was, afterall, wearing only a t-shirt and shorts; the locals were wearing winter coats, long clothing and headcovers. It was then that an older Omani man approached me offering to remove his own coat for my benefit. I felt so grateful for the volunteers at that moment, although honestly I am unsure that man was affiliated with the race. I think he may have just been watching the nocturnal comings and goings in his small village that night.

From that checkpoint high in the mountains until the first life base at a luxury hotel, I covered tens of kilometers, though I remember few of them. In fact, I really only recall the wadi and steep ascent up to the checkpoint at Alila Hotel. The ascent included suiting up in harness and helmet for a traverse along cliffs while connected to a steel cable, or via ferrata. That’s where I met several Brits and one Irish climbing expert who were there to ensure the via ferrata section moved smoothly and safely. Yes, I did in fact ask the Irish lad if he had seen the Netflix series Derry Girls, to which he responded in the affirmative. We laughed out loud and exchanged quotes from the series as I slowly ascended a rock face while sliding my carabiner clips along the cable. “It’s a state of mind!”

Speaking of the Irish, I had more brushes with their kind during my trip. The winner of the entire 170km Oman by UTMB event was Eoin Keith (he uses the British ‘Ian’ pronunciation rather than the Irish Yu’en) a 51 year old Irish man of diminutive stature but indomitable fortitude. Previously unknown to me, Eoin is an expert of long distance endurance races. Feel free to Google stalk him as I did. And note that a few years ago Eoin finished the original UTMB 170km 10,000+ meters of elevation gain in 24 hours and 24 minutes. But Oman by UTMB at the same distance and elevation gain, took him 36 hours. This is insane! I was lucky enough to meet him on Saturday and chat with him for 10 minutes or so. I was wearing my Finnish Rogaining Championship t-shirt and at first he thought I was Finnish. I must lift my hat to the Finns and their navigation skills, because even Eoin mentioned that at a certain long navigation event, Eoin told his team to make sure they could keep up with the Finns, the only competitors who might be able to read a complicated and technical map. During our short conversation I asked Eoin how he could explain the 11+ hour difference between UTMB France and UTMB Oman. His response was something I already expected – the rocky technicality of the course itself. Yes, the course was a beast and required constant leaping from rock to rock and human legs can only absorb such impact for so long.

Since I am already name-dropping, I am happy to report that I met Jason Schlarb in Oman, a professional American runner who won the 130 km last year. This time he wasn’t running, but rather was there to support his partner Meredeth in her 130km (2nd place!). I chatted with him a few times before and after the race. He is a really nice guy. He told me that the 130km runs like a 100 miler and that the 170km is something between a 150-200 miler race – and he would know.

 Another person I would like to mention is a Frenchman named Etienne, whose name I struggled to pronounce for many hours. I honestly don’t have many French friends so it was an honor to meet Etienne, a sincere and thoughtful runner with whom I ran for many hours during the event. I think we met around kilometer 75 or so and stayed together on and off until the trail split at 116 kilometers. Etienne did just a little more training than me and has more experience with longer ultras, so I was happy to run with him to learn from his wisdom. With Etienne I was motivated to keep moving and finish the enormous race ahead of us. Unfortunately, he and I were forced to split ways at the Col Trail Spli at 116km.

And thus we come to the reason I only completed the 130km race and not the full 170km as I initially planned. Well, I started the 170km event on Thursday at 13.00 and hoped to finish early Saturday morning. As an important side note, the 130km event began 6.5 hours later on Thursday evening. Interestingly, these two races follow the exact same course until a checkpoint called Col Trail Split at 116 km located high in the Hajar mountains (yet still remarkably lower than the imposing Jebel Shams that reaches to 3,000 meters). At this particular checkpoint, the course splits and runners competing in the 130 km event are free to continue to the left after stopping for any needed nutritional refuelling. Their route descends a rough mountain face and slowly leads runners to the finish line in al-Hamra. Any runners participating in the 170 km event, however, are subject to a medical assessment before being allowed to continue and turn right, to continue up to the highest peak in the country, Jebel Shams. And so it happened that in the late afternoon on Friday, two exhausted runners, an American and a Frenchman, slowly made our way down a ridge and stumbled into the Col Trail Split. At this point, we had already been on the move for over 24hours and I was suffering from massive blisters on both of my feet, the combined result of staggering heat and sun with liquid socks from the wadi pools. These were the worst blisters I have ever had, and that is really saying something. Upon our unceremonious arrival, the checkpoint woke from what seemed to be an ethereal slumber in the late afternoon sun. In the mountains, time works differently; it slows to a crawl and can even stop without the slightest care or concern for the mortals wandering therein. I made my way to an inviting lawn chair where several French women, medics by profession, asked me about my general condition, bodily functions, and whether I hoped to continue on the 170km course. One of them conducted a basic eye coordination test. I responded in the affirmative that, yes, I wanted to continue, but could they please check the blisters on my feet? Yes, they could, but first I had to remove my shoes and socks, an unbearable feat. But I did it, and one of the nurses injected a red medicine into my many blisters. At one point my leg jolted in pain and frightened the nurse. “Sorry, just a reflex”. She understood. This same angelic nurse then gently wrapped my feet with so many bandages that I must have appeared to be wearing hotel slippers. She asked if I had any clean socks. Um, no… so I had to somehow manage to shod me feet again with toxic socks. At this point things were going as well as could be hoped. It appeared that I would be cleared to continue on the 170km route. I even told Etienne that he should start without me and I would soon catch up to him, as we had done over the past many hours – one of us would leave a checkpoint alone and soon thereafter the other would rejoin the fellowship. But then the nurse asked me if I had taken any medicine. Yes, I had. I have been running these long races for over 5 years and at times I take pain medication to survive. She asked the amount and I said I had taken 600 milligrams of ibuprofen recently, but I had consumed even more earlier in the race. Keep in mind we had already passed the 24 hour mark, so I didn’t think this should be a problem. The nurse wanted exact details, which I couldn’t remember, so I said it would have to be under 2,000 milligrams but I had also had some aspirin – which was incorrect, I had actually taken two acetomenphine pills (paracetamol). The nurse told me that aspirin and ibuprofen have the same level of toxicity and can be dangerous for runners. She was impressed that I knew about the dangers for kidneys and the term rhabdomyolysis. I thank my Candian friend James McDonald for this knowledge (poor soul). In truth, she is correct about the dangers of pain medication, but I complicated the issue by confusing aspirin with acetaminophen. And soon a radio frenzy ensued between the nurses and their “big boss” about my situation. In the end, the nurse said she could not let me continue the 170km. Yes, I unfortunately had failed the medical assessment and was forced to switch to the 130 km event, forced to turn left when all I wanted to do was turn right. But left was my direction. So down the mountain I slowly retreated. At the time I was in such pain that I accepted my fate with sadness and without argument. It almost seemed like a blessing in disguise. Yes, I was going to sleep in a bed Friday night! But soon the reality of the situation ruptured through my body’s natural defense against pain and tore a hole in my soul. I wept. I walked. I mentally and physically gave up. Many people passed me now. I even walked to the finish line until someone told me I should always run at the actual finish line. They were right, and so I ran with something of a smile on my face. Inside I knew that at least I had accomplished my main objective of spending time in the mountains of Oman and time with the Omani people. Yes, I was disappointed that I could not finish the race, though I would have spent at least another 15 hours ‘out there’.  In particular, I was crestfallen that I could not tread the same paths on Jebel Shams that I had some 6 or 7 years earlier with Rhabdo man himself, James – we had camped near the summit, and I was looking forward to the pleasant memories exploring my past while suffering in the present. But alas my fate was set, the dice had been rolled, and my adventure was over.

But adventures have a way of cheating finality…and this trip to Oman was only a chapter in my book. I will return and attempt the 170km again. I will not take pain medication next time, which I wouldn’t have done this time if I had known the outcome, and I will be prepared more mentally, and hopefully physically. I hope to return in 2021 or 2022 for the 170km. at minute 20:20 it depicts a wadi I passed through at about 2.00 am and then the via feratta. The terrain was fairly difficult. from 1:56 to see some of the technical route. At 2:50 you can see an abandoned ancient village.

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