After Trans-Pecos Ultra, getting to the host town of Muscat for our next race was top priority. With the Oman Desert Marathon being only 5 days away and our World Record Breaking Race, nothing could be left to chance! We began our journey by flying from El Paso to Phoenix; then from Phoenix to New York; then from New York to Baku; then from Baku to Dubai; and finally from Dubai to Muscat. Again, cheap flights played a major role in our 50+hr flying odyssey. Come to think of it, we even lost a day of rest due to the time difference! (I guess this happens when you fly across 13 time zones)
Once we landed at the airport in Muscat, we tried to play it safe by grabbing a taxis through the Official Taxis counter to get to our hotel. Everything seemed fine until we lined up at the Taxis Zone. For some reason, the taxi drivers debated for 15mins as to whom will have the honour to take us. Finally, one driver was ‘persuaded’. He didn’t look happy at all, almost disgruntled in fact. While we tried to load our bags into the trunk, he just stood by with an impatient look on his face. Because we had a lot of luggages, we had to put some in the back seats. Almost immediately, he told us that it is not possible. “Say what?”, I yelled out in disbelief. “You can’t put any bags in the back”, he replied. Since there was no way we could sandwich all our luggages in the trunk, I explained to him that it is the only way. “That’s your problem”, he retorted. At that point, both Eric and I exploded! We exchanged some unpleasant words with the driver, pulled our luggages out of the cab and walked away. In less than 10 seconds, we managed to get another cab. Welcome to Oman!
Before the Race
Prior to coming to Oman, we had never visited a Muslim country before. Of course, we had quite a few preconceptions of what a Muslim country would look like. We couldn’t be more wrong. It turns out that Oman is quite a ‘liberal’ country in the Middle East. Men normally wears a collarless gown called dishdasha that goes all the way to your ankle. Women, similarly, wears a long dress called abaya. Burkas are extremely rare. The whole country is very quiet. You can do whatever you want as long as you follow the local etiquettes and respect the culture. Everywhere you go, people just mind their own business. This is totally not what we expected. As you can gather from reading our last blog, our fatigue level reached a new height after 3 back to back desert races in 5 weeks. To recover from such an ordeal, all we did was eat and sleep for 2 days. There were only 3 types of cuisines near our hotel: Lebanese, Indian, and KFC. Needless to say, falafel, humus, roti, and veggie curry became our favourite pre-race meals. Pine nut humus was especially yummy! We don’t normally have a problem with jet lag, but Oman was the exception! We tried to get a good nite sleep only to wake up in weird hours of the morning. Things being what they are, we can only hope for the best. The day before the race, we were driven to the the Oryx Desert Camp, located 5 hours away from Muscat, where we would stay overnight.
On our way there, we got reacquainted with Sondre Amdahl, whom we first met in Morocco back in April. Sondre is a fantastic athlete, having placed 7th in the 31st edition of the MDS as well as being a top 10 finisher in UTMB. At the time, he thought that we were crazy to be racing in 8 desert races in one year because who really want to suffer that much? I guess two misguided Canadian brothers … hahaha. He was glad that we had made it this far though. Turns out that Sondre, along with Marco Olmo and Rachid El Morabity (4x MDS winner) will be racing in the Oman Desert Marathon! This is some serious competition! On the surface, the 6 day – 165km Oman Desert Marathon should be much “easier” compared to other multistage races that Eric and I have done purely based on distance alone. As we learned later on, however, nothing could be further from the truth.
Stage 1 – Exhaustion
We got up very early in the morning to be bussed to the starting line. Much to our surprise, there was a big ceremony celebrating the start of the race! Although we had no idea what was going on, we knew this was a big deal in Oman given the fanfare. We probably sat for 15-30min before everybody suddenly stood up and walked to the starting line. No one spoke a word so we just followed. We didn’t even know the race commenced until everybody started running! Almost immediately, I knew something was wrong. My legs were shut and I couldn’t run. I have never had this level of fatigue before. Eric took off with the rest of the runners and disappeared. As I fell further and further behind, I was utterly demoralized. Prior to coming to Oman Desert Marathon, I have been able to compete effectively in every race of the #4In6 even with minimal rests. Unfortunately, after almost 700km of continuous racing in the last 5 weeks, my body has been pushed beyond its limit. I no longer have the ability to compete. This has now officially become a struggle just to finish the race. A wave of self-doubt suddenly rushed over me. At slightly over 21km, this is supposed to be the “easiest” stage of the competition . How can I possibly continue if I suffer so badly now? Runners are now passing me in regular intervals as I slowed to a plod. All I could think about was making it through the day. When I finally crossed the finish line, Eric had already waited for me for close to 1 hour. He asked me what went wrong. “My whole body completely shut down”, I confided in him, “I am in deep trouble.” He told me not to panic, but relax for the rest of the day. “Tomorrow is a new day”, he reassured me. Deep down, we both knew that this would be the race of our life.
Stage 2-3 – Survival
True to Eric’s prophetic words, I recovered a little the next 2 days. My legs loosened up and I was able to run for the most part. Unlike other deserts races, we brought hiking poles with us for the first time. We knew that Oman has a lot of sand and this would maximize our chances of success. Eric smartly used his in the first stage and I quickly adapted to the situation. As you would expect, the heat in the Omanian Desert is brutal. There was absolutely no reprieve from the sun aside from our makeshift tents. The locals tell us that we are fortunate not to be running in the summer because temperature can rise over 50C. I guess a comfortable 45C weather is all we can expect from this desert oasis 🙂 Despite the obvious discomfort, the desert is a magical place. Even after 6 desert races, Eric and I are still mesmerized by the beauty of the arid landscape, whether it be the caravan of wondering camels, the sea of towering dunes or the infinite majestic sunset. After each stage, we would spent most of the day either eating or sleeping. We just couldn’t spare any energy to walk around the camp. Sondre even made fun of us, calling us the “sleeping twins” because no one can sleep 14 hours in this dreadful heat. The Oman Desert is truly the Sandiest place on Earth. All around us, there was nothing but miles and miles of sand dunes. Not just any sand mind you, but fine soft sand. This terrain makes it extremely difficult to run on. Day after day, we would check the course profile to see whether it would get any easier and guess what? It only got harder!
Of all the races, Oman Desert Marathon offered something truly unexpected. Showers in the desert! You cannot imagine what it is like to be able to clean after yourself after running hours in the heat day in and day out. On top of that, they had ice-cold water at every checkpoint. This is simply unheard of in a desert race. All these luxuries sound amazing, except for one problem: the lack of hot water. For some reason, the race organizers were able to deliver shower in the desert but no hot water for cooking! Before the race, we were promised hot water just like our other races except for MDS. After the first day, however, things started to fall apart and we were left to our own device to find hot water. Most competitors were extremely resourceful, scouring for branches to start a fire in the middle of the desert. Eric and I, on the other hand, took a different approach. We sneaked into the staff tents for hot water … hahaha. I guess there are different ways to survive in a self-supported race.
Stage 4 – The End Is Near
As expected, the camp greeted the arrival of the long stage with great excitement. Victory is almost guaranteed if we can all conquer this stage. There is only one problem though: we have to start at 3:00pm, the hottest part of the day! Obviously, this news quickly dampened our enthusiasm. To soothe our concern, the race director promised us a “very runnable downhill” 42km course. We desperately wanted to believe it, but based on what we have seen in the past two stages, it is most likely a lie! Apparently what they consider “very runnable” is anything that is not deep sand. The “downhill” course turned out to be a series of rolling hills with a long steady climb at the end. Both Eric and I ran our own race, something we had done since Ultra BOLIVA. After more than 20km, I slowly created a sizeable gap between myself and Eric. He reluctantly fell behind slogging through the relentless sandy terrain.
By the time I reached the next checkpoint, nightfall came and we were all running in complete darkness. I rested a little before taking out my headlight to continue my journey. Out of nowhere, someone shouted at me from behind, ‘Go Canada!” Right away, I knew it was the great Rachid El Morabity. As part of the top 20 field, he started day 2 hours behind us but he has already caught up to me. He looked amazingly relaxed for someone going under 5min/km or 8min/mile pace. Anybody who has done any type of desert racing before knows that this is just insane given the conditions. It was absolutely remarkable to watch the best desert runner in the world in action. He urged me to push on before overtaking me in the never ending trail. With less than 15km to go, Eric suddenly appeared along side me. I guess I had drastically slowed by that point. Working together, we managed to pick up the pace again and finished the stage in a competitive fashion, almost 2 hours before midnight. We thought our struggle is finally over, but in reality it has just begun.
Final Stage – A New World Record
For one reason or another, the race organizers decided that we would start the last stage of the race at 8:00am in the morning. To keep it in perspective, that’s less than 2 hours of rest for some competitors who arrived late in the camp after the long stage. It was pure madness! As we made our final preparations before the start, Eric suddenly pulled me aside to tell me that he wasn’t feeling well. To be precise, he started having diarrhea. Apparently, due to the lack of hot water, he ate an undercooked freeze-dried meal the night before. I couldn’t believe this was happening at the very last stage of our World Record Breaking Race. The story of our life. Obviously, we tried to find him a doctor right away, but there was no one to be found. With no help in sight, Eric had only one objective in mind: survive the next 24km to the finish!
5 mins into the stage, his bouts of diarrhea had gotten a lot more serious. He tried to run only to stop every 10mins or so to go off the trail to relieve himself. Dehydration has sapped his body of strength and the resulting dizziness overwhelmed him. After 9km of pure suffering, he just couldn’t hold it together any longer. Although the next checkpoint was still 1km away, luckily for us a medical van was nearby. At the urging of the paramedic, the event medical doctor was dispatched to treat Eric. When the doctor arrived, it was decided upon closer examination that an IV was the only way to stop the uncontrolled diarrhea. Thankfully, Eric was given assurance that he would not be disqualified from the race. There was no way he would have accepted the IV otherwise. Once Eric started feeling better after the treatment, we departed ASAP and pushed forward nonstop for the next 14km. Nothing could stop us now from our impending victory. When we crossed the finish line, we screamed our hearts out and embraced each other. It was a journey 7 months in the making, filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. There were times when we really questioned whether we could make it to the end. In spite of all the trials and tribulations, Eric and I have survived the 7 toughest deserts in the world to make history.
The Guinness Book of World Records for the “Most Desert Races Ran In One Year” is finally ours!
We Are Coming Home
After spending a better part of the year on the road, Eric and I will finally be heading home. Before we do that though, we would stop by Israel and Jordan to visit their famous cultural sites for a little R&R. Who knows when we will drop by the Middle East again? If you have been following our journey, you will know that this is not the end. The last race of the 8 Deserts Challenge will actually be the Arctic Ice Ultra coming up in Feb 2017. As you learn by now, doing self-supported races is incredibly draining, both mentally and physically. You will surely fail if you don’t give it the respect it deserves. In order to successfully complete the 8 Deserts Challenge, we will need to recharge and re-equip for a race that is unlike any other we have done so far. It is going to be freezing cold!