I’d started the stage at 2pm, by 6pm it was pitch black. My head torch was my only source of light guiding me across the dunes. I was on day five of the 165km self sustained Oman Desert Marathon, 26km into the 42km night stage. I had been passed by every other runner, my feet were in excruciating pain, I stopped, slumped down on a small sand dune and started thinking of excuses to quit the race. A way of telling my friends, wife and children that I’d done my best but come up short….
Six days earlier I had left Hong Kong with my friend and running partner Steve on CX 701 to Bangkok and then switched planes to Oman Air 816 to Muscat. The trip was uneventful but for a 2 hour delay in Bangkok and an annoyingly constant knot of apprehension in my stomach. On paper I knew what lay ahead, however, I also knew the reality is always a little different. I’d packed and repacked my RaidLight 20L backpack ten times the night before. It was bursting at the seams, this was my first multi stage endurance race, I knew none of the tricks of the trade when it comes to packing.
The race started 45 mins south of Nizwa with rather a lot of pomp and ceremony as stage one coincided with Oman National Day which recognised Oman independence from Portugal in 1650. After this relatively easy stage we were transferred by coach and then 4 wheel drive into the desert, a drive of 200km, to our first camp. From this day forward we camped where we finished the day’s run as we made a beeline to the coast and the Arabian sea.
We quickly settled into the life of a multistage race. Eat, sleep, run with the occasional wash where we could. Talk became very much about calorie intake, how horrible the food was, blisters and the varying consistencies of sand.
One thing that became immediately obvious to me was that there were some VERY good runners in the race. There were 101 total participants including Mohammed Almorabity from Morocco and Natalia Sedykh running out of Dubai for Adidas Running Moscow and female winner of MDS 2016. It took me very little time to work out that the race I was running would be against myself, the leaderboard didn’t matter and finishing the challenge was going to be my own personal battle.
Things started to hot up on day four. The stage was entitled “The Virgin Dunes” and it certainly delivered. It was 28km of beautiful dunes that punished my legs on an incredibly hot day.
I experienced a feeling for the first time whereby I felt incredibly nauseous to the extent I couldn’t drink water whilst been acutely aware I was dehydrated and needed to take on water. This feeling accompanied me for the last 5km of the stage and made crossing the finish line and dousing myself in water in the shade of a truck welcome relief (photo above).
On the positive side stage five didn’t start until 2pm the next day giving me 24 hours to rest up and recover as best I could. Speaking to the Doctor during some down time that evening she advised that if I ever felt that way again I would need intravenous fluids and to potentially withdraw from the race.
Whilst sleep was always a little disturbed – to be expected when you’re sharing an open fronted tent in the middle of the desert with 9 other people – the next morning was relatively relaxing. The slowest runners were to start at 2pm, the next group at 3pm and the elite runners at 4pm. I’d never covered the distance of a marathon before so I was apprehensive – other mitigating factors included that the desert went pitch black at 6pm and the race was starting to take its toll on my body which all meant I knew I was in for a tough day/night.
On the other stages we had all started together and I saw all the runners ahead of me until they disappeared into the distance. With these start times it was amazing as the faster runners caught up with and overtook me. For a brief moment I was along side them and I could see and feel their speed and power first hand.
As darkness fell I enjoyed a brief moment of the novelty of running along with my head torch on but soon a combination of factors caused me to stop, sit down and work out how to exit the race in the most graceful way possible. Whilst the leaderboard shouldn’t matter, the two runners I was ahead of on the leaderboard to date we’re ahead of me, the pain on the sole of my right foot was equivalent to driving a rusty nail in with every step, I was hungry and tired – I was really suffering.
It was at that moment, sitting on my own in the the darkness of the Oman desert that I had an epiphany of sorts. Not a grand one to do with my place in the universe, what it takes to overcome adversity or anything like it. What I realised was that sitting there feeling sorry for myself was getting me nowhere (literally). If I stood up and started moving every painful step would move me closer to my destination. Whilst it seems pretty obvious I was in a bit of a state so do cut me a little slack.
I got up and started moving. I made it to the finish line at 1:45am and actually overtook a few other runners getting there. I was too tired to find my tent. I slept on the floor of the blister treatment tent situated in the middle of the camp. I made a cold “hot” chocolate in order to try and get some calories in my body. I feel asleep around 2:30am having had two sips of the ghastly drink. With the final stage starting at 7am the next morning I got up 3:30hrs later and went again.
Even as I write this a week after I finished I’m not totally sure how I got through stage 6 which comprised 23km of high, soft sand dunes. I crossed the finish line 95th out of the 101 starters (5 did not finish). One active runner finished behind me. I had accumulated a time of 45 hours and 27 mins during the 6 stages. Putting that in some sort of context the winner clocked 13 hours 56 mins. Steve finished in 52nd place with an amazing time of 26hours 54 mins.
I will forever be grateful to my partner in crime, Steve Williamson, who went above and beyond helping me through this experience. We enjoyed one of the greatest beers in history at the end of our week in the desert.
If I learnt anything it was probably the simple affirmation that you can overcome adversity and achieve things that you and others might not have thought possible. Believe in yourself and surround yourself with positive people. As the author John Bingham said
“The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”
Whether in your professional or personal life, the important thing is to start. See you on the next one x