Have you ever imagined that as a middle-of-the-pack ultrarunner that you would be ahead of some of the top local athletes forty minutes into a race? Forty minutes into the Kalba Kickr, somehow I was ahead of ultrarunners like Lee Harris, Simon Dury and Elliot Lewis.
Expect the Unexpected
To ensure that nobody has a sense of complacency, Urban Ultra introduced this season the Kalba Kickr, a 45km ultra trail event with a seven-hour cut off through the Hajar Mountains around Kalba. Runners often get lulled into a false sense of security that anything is possible: just work harder and take electrolytes. However, Louise and Pascal mark the route with precision and care, to ensure that no boulder is bypassed, that no section is too level, and that when faced with the choice between a rock and a hard place – we climb over the rock and then through the hard place. What all UAE trail runners should know about Urban Ultra: expect the unexpected.
Foreboding Sense of Impending Happiness
Olga and I head out to Kalba the night before to enjoy camping out under the stars and avoid the very early morning drive. The temperature before sunrise is warm, which means things are gonna get toasty in a few hours. When morning comes, we get a sense of foreboding when we see that we are surrounded by very rocky mountains with no trees or trails. The route for the 45km is two ‘lollipops’ which should be 22.5km each. However, even the best plans often go awry.
Follow the Pink Dots
The run starts out up a steep rocky farm road, then crosses a rocky field with a rocky trail in between. At the briefing, UU told us that they installed a rope to help guide safely up some rocks around 3km. But the beauty of running mountain trails is the freedom of nature and the simplicity of the surroundings. The rocks were so mesmerizing that all the runners stopped following the pink dots that mark the route and ran up a long rocky road, missing a turn. Consequently, every runner in front of me was off the course running up a dead-end hill and I obediently followed, until somebody whistled for the pack to turn around and find the turn we missed.
Those Damn Pink Dots
There are about 100 runners and I’m in the middle of the pack. So after the missed turn when we get turned around, the fast fifty are now behind me, which adds a little zip into my step. We climb up the rope to a ledge and go up another rocky trail. Much to my surprise, there was a bottleneck of about 15 runners scrambling along a ledge waiting to climb rocks. At any point during this climb, my mind avoided two important questions: Would Urban Ultra mark a route this dangerous? Where are the pink dots? You may be thinking that nobody is stupid enough to miss pink dots and to run off the trail twice in a matter of minutes, but I would conclude that you’ve never run with me.
After scrambling up a rocky couloir with a microwave-sized boulder smashing into two toaster-sized boulders just meters above me, I get to the top of the ridge. From here, three things are clear: I see pink dots (just to clarify, the entire trail was clearly marked with pink dots, but the primal herd mentality takes over sometimes); the pink dots are on a rocky trail; and the leaders are behind me still. So after the leaders missed the first turn and went about 2km farther than necessary, I managed to go off the trail but not as far, so I ended up ahead of Lee, Simon and Elliot at forty minutes into the Kalba Kickr, much to their chagrin and my pleasure.
Things went downhill from there. When I reached Checkpoint 3 at 16km, the leaders were a paltry 30 minutes ahead of me. It was getting a bit warm with temperatures over 40C and no shade. While cramping was a factor for many runners, the rocky trail was much more of a hindrance than the heat. By my estimate, only 20% of the trail was somewhat runnable, and the rest was too rocky to run. Consequently, finishing within the seven-hour cutoff was beyond me on this day.
Nobody Promised an Easy Day
Of the 23 runners who started the 45km, only 6 made the cutoff for the second loop. But with the high temperatures and extreme rocky trail conditions, the second loop was shortened for safety. Let me clarify: this run was so tough that just over 25% were allowed to try a second loop, and they were instructed to only run 12km. It’s not supposed to be easy. No excuses. So it was hot, the trail was rocky, and the mountains were steep. It was a true test of one’s character: how do you react in the face of adversity? While I did not make the cutoff and am listed as DNF (“did not finish”), I consider the Kalba Kickr as a complete success. One of the six finishers, Elliot, said afterwards that at Manuel Schmidt’s checkpoint, he was “Done!” Somehow, Elliot dug deep and found the energy to come around and finish. True ultra-endurance at its finest. How cool is that? ■
Words + Photos by: David O’Hara