It’s 38C in Fujairah as I am plodding along behind my buddy Alex going up a boulder field in the mountains. I have dry heaves and can’t see any shade to find a place to vomit.
For the past nine hours, Alex and I have been running, walking, climbing, trekking over 46km – and the wheels have come off. Alex guides me to a rock ledge to sit for a few minutes, but we cannot stay long – we are already beyond the next cutoff and know the only way out of the canyon is to climb the rocks up the next wadi. It’s an incredible struggle, which upon reflection afterwards makes Mount Sana 60 such a thrilling experience.
“A Bit Technical”
This situation at the Mount Sana 60 is the result of two bad decisions I made: switching from water to a sugary electrolyte drink and consuming gels instead of real food like potatoes, dates and nuts. Experimenting during ultras is an exciting endeavour which sometimes enhances physical challenges, and Urban Ultra’s latest (and greatest!) challenge for ultramarathons in the Middle East is the Mount Sana 60. Mount Sana 60 is special with three sections spread out over 60km that are “a bit technical” and somewhat hilly. We often speak in code, so allow me to enlighten you. “A bit technical” means “unbelievably difficult terrain that is barely walkable much less runnable and usually requires the use of hands to climb up and down boulders.” Hopefully you get a sense of technical terrain in some of the photos, but bear in mind two details: each technical section with dodgy rocks and hills covers over 3km, and the really nasty sections are too iffy to photograph.
The Mount Sana 60
The inaugural Mount Sana 60 starts as a mystery, as the 60km event is announced only a month before the start with no details or specifics. This type of event attracts the diehard ultrarunners, so the atmosphere at the Start is like a reunion of sorts – everybody knows almost everybody. Alex and I are running together as we always do, plus I meet up with my new buddies from last month’s Hajar – Stewart, Pornsak and David. In the spirit of eccentric ultrarunners, Stewart decides that we (he, Pornsak, David and me, along with Alex) are called the “Goat Pack”. Since the Wolf Pack moniker is taken, I assume this reflects our uncanny resemblance to wild goats gracefully running and jumping on rocks along the mountain cliffs.
Rock Climbing in Darkness
With a 05:00 Start, 41 runners start in darkness along a well-marked but unknown trail across rural Fujairah. After 5km, one of the volunteers warns us that the next section is “a bit technical”. Running on rocks wearing headlamps in darkness is a good challenge, but we are now rock climbing along the side of a cliff with an abyss to the right. Climbing the rocks in darkness isn’t physically difficult, but the adrenaline rush kicks in when we realize these rocks continue up and down for another hour. We reach the first checkpoint at sunrise, and the volunteers promise us the next section is a smooth 10km.
The Goat Pack Returns
Alex and I enjoy the leisurely run to the next checkpoint, where we bump into the Stewart, Pornsak, and David who leave about five minutes ahead of us. At 20km, we catch up to the guys again on some nasty rocky slopes, so the Goat Pack is reunited. Together we continue up and down the mountains on manageable terrain, and hit the third checkpoint at 30km under five hours. We feel the heat, and I make a seriously bad decision and fill my camelbak with that sugary electrolyte drink simply because it is ice cold, and I think it would make me feel better than the warm water, even though I know it always makes me nauseous. (I came to regret this decision later when I am retching at 46km.)
Too Tough to Run
A strange thing happens when we leave CP3: none of us can really run on a relatively smooth and almost level dirt track. Temperatures are in the high 30’s, so maybe the sun is having an effect. This should’ve been a simple section to run, but after the first technical section and the last uphill, we are reduced to a fast walk as we approach the Boulder Field. It seems that our legs muscles are burned out from the climbing and dancing over smaller rock fields.
The Boulder Field
The Boulder Field is the highlight of Mount Sana 60. This is the toughest 3km that we must endure – can you imagine crawling up, down, over and around boulders the size of cars as you climb up and down a mountain in the heat after running over five hours? We go through the boulders as a group, which makes the suffering hilarious (except for another runner who was almost passed out in the shade near the top and required coaxing to get moving). We push and pull each other, and try to find the humour in the colourful names we attribute to Louise and Pascale, the diabolical ladies of Urban Ultra – none of which are suitable to print. This section goes beyond burning our leg muscles with the jumping and hopping around the boulders, and requires characteristics which I obviously lack: coordination and gracefulness.
Rocky Cliffs and Mountains
The next 6km section is supposedly runnable, but I start out by spitting up the last gel I consumed. This makes food simply unpalatable for me and I cannot stomach anything. Somewhere in a village, Alex and I stop for some cold water by the side of a farm. That water feels mind-numbingly cold over our heads and it tastes great, as sanitation is a low priority at this stage. During this section, the rest of the Goat Pack gaps Alex and me as we meander to the next checkpoint. At CP5 and 44km in, I try to avoid talking to the volunteers, because I know I am close to the edge, but optimistically I think I should be fine with only 16km to go. Oops.
We enter the last technical section and climb down boulders, which gives me a false sense of security because it is not that difficult in my current state. Then I see David up on top of some high rocky peak ahead and realize what lies ahead and where the path leads. After a second climb, I call up to Alex and tell him I may have a little problem – which he already knows because it’s blatantly obvious that I am stumbling all over the place. Alex takes care of me – as running buddies do! – and makes it abundantly clear that the only way out is for me to get up and move forward through these rocky mountains. After two hours of stumbling over the rocks, we make it to the road and call it a day. The Mount Sana 60 beat me this time, but I will definitely be back next time.
Of the 41 starters, only 24 finish, including Stewart and Pornsak coming in under eleven hours, with David just over twelve hours. Excellent effort by all the runners and volunteers! Mount Sana 60 may be considered “a bit technical,” but that’s what makes it the best trail event in the Middle East. Thanks to everybody at Urban Ultra for putting together such a great event! ■
Words + Photos by: David O’Hara