The Wadi Bih 72km ultramarathon takes place on the Musandam Peninsula in Oman on the first weekend of February, which brings an element of uncertainty to the weather conditions.
Last year, a hurricane washed out the dirt road in the wadi with rain, hail and even snow over the last couple hours, illustrating the need for ultrarunners to be self-sufficient and always be ready for the unpredictable. The 72km solo event is an out and back course, starting at 04:30 on the beach in Dibba and going 11km to the wadi, where things get tough with the unfinished rocky road before another 25km heading up the mountain to the turnaround.
04:30 Start in Darkness
Late Thursday night, I drive to Wadi Bih with my running buddy, Alex (50km solo), and my wife, Olya (30km solo). After sleeping on the beach, we are up for the 04:00 briefing and start promptly at 04:30. We only have two working headlamps among the three of us and for some inexplicable reason, in a moment of solidarity, we all decide to run without headlamps. The key is to ‘buddy up’ with somebody who has a bright headlamp and try to follow them closely, which is how I meet Chris.
How Runners Bond
In the darkness just after the start, Chris and I start running side by side, with me pirating the illumination from his headlamp. As soon as it becomes clear that we are compatible runners, we begin chatting about the usual stuff: running, previous events (Chris and Alex finished one minute apart at last week’s Dubai Marathon), favourite running shoes, recent training runs, next run (Chris, Alex and I all run RAK Half Marathon next week), type of watch, today’s goal – topics which bond runners, regardless of background. Gradually, the stories turn into a series of my mishaps and other random philosophical tidbits with one overriding principle: What is discussed while running on trails, stays on the trails!
Sandals: Not A Brilliant Idea
Until sunrise at 07:00, we run in darkness in the wadi, where the reconstructed rocky road is brutally technical. Storms washed out the old farm road, and the new road was recently put in place. However, the rocks on the road are all loose which causes the feet to twist and turn on every step. Unfortunately I make the wildly bad decision to wear sandals again this year, so my toes and feet are constantly kicking rocks and eventually bleeding. After three hours, I need to ease the pace. My feet are cut up, and my right knee is giving me sharp pains on every step. We push through to Checkpoint 9 at 25km, where we get moleskin to patch up my cuts and Chris uses on his blisters.
Jeremy Curran Runs Somewhat Faster Than Me
After we enjoy a solid breakfast of bananas and Clif Bars at CP9, Chris and I head up the big mountain. The route we follow is a rough dirt road with red cliffs on both sides, where we see Jeremy Curran coming down the mountain. Let’s ignore the ultra-math: in the same amount of time Chris and I run 27km, Jeremy has already hit the turnaround and run back down to 45km, when we intersect each other. Jeremy is running 72km on a mountain rocky trail at about the same pace (4:38/km) that I would struggle to run intervals. His finish time of 5:30 (five hours thirty minutes!) for 72km equates to running 5km at a pace under 23 minutes. That is mind-boggling. Well done, Jeremy.
After Chris and I gawk at Jeremy, we are motivated to attack the hill and run. Unfortunately, every step running is problematic for my right knee. Chris and I stick together, as he runs the flats and I catch him on the uphill. As we make it up the big mountain, we see Cristobal Lopez and some other runners trickling down, always passing along encouraging words to each other. At the turnaround, Chris and I come across Niall McCague, whom we last saw at 17km. I send Chris on his merry way, so I can tend to my feet and right knee. The cuts on my feet stop bleeding, but some blisters rip open creating other issues. To treat my knee, I remember a trick from last fall’s ultra in Nepal and wrap my knee in duct tape which I carry in my first aid kit.
How to Avoid Looking Like a Dork
After enjoying the checkpoint banter, I try running again and am thrilled that my knee doesn’t hurt. All is good, until the tape comes loose. I quickly realize that I can pull my green calf compression sock up high over my right knee – quite a fashion statement – and it will hold the tape in place and even apply more pressure to my knee. To avoid looking like a complete dork, I also pull the green calf compression sock up high over my left knee for symmetry. (For full disclosure, I’ve had seven operations on my left knee and one operation on my right knee. When assessing injury during a run, I ascertain if my injury is serious or just painful, and this was only pain.)
Pickles vs Beet Juice
My duct tape approach alleviates the pain and I am able to run, albeit slowly. As I run down the steep part of the mountain enjoying the scenic views, Jojo runs past. Two weeks earlier, Jojo finished seven minutes behind me at Big Stinker, but he will go on to finish seventeen minutes ahead of me at Wadi Bih. Two hours later, Ajay catches up to me. Wadi Bih is Ajay’s first ultra and he struggles until he gets some electrolytes at the turnaround. We stick together for three hours and even catch up to Jojo as we come out of the Wadi. Jojo and Ajay both experience cramps, which is always a great excuse for me to share the pickles I carry in the red water bottle from my running vest. You may be surprised how well received pickles are after running nine hours, although the beet juice I try sharing with Chris earlier in the day doesn’t go over so well.
Pain and Elation
The last 5km are on a mostly asphalt road in civilization with locals meandering around, and Jojo not too far ahead and Ajay not too far behind. As I begin running faster with the Finish only 5km away, I feel tears down my cheeks. I am struggling to run as I discern if the tears are from pain or from elation. With 2km left, Olya and Alex drive up to give me some Diet Coke and moral support, both of which I desperately need as I am wrecked mentally and way beyond the edge of sound reasoning. It takes me nearly eleven and a half hours to finish, but that it why I love Wadi Bih. Wadi Bih is a test of physical and mental endurance requiring runners to adapt and overcome, which brings me great pleasure. ■
Words + Photos by: David O’Hara