Hajar, ahhh Hajar. The Hajar 50km and 100km are the ultimate ultramarathon events in the Middle East, taking runners up and down and back up and back down the Hajar Mountains on a warm February morning. Hajar is tough and is supposed to be tough. You come to Hajar to test your physical fitness and your mental strength. If you do not focus at Hajar, you will fall or fail. It’s a test of endurance and self-sufficiency, which creates camaraderie among those who accept the challenge.

Hajar Ultramarathon start

Race briefing

Race check in with Alex

Running Buddies
Hajar starts at 05:30 in the darkness somewhere in rural Ras Al Khaimah at the foot of the Hajar Mountains. Like most of the local ultramarathons, I start toward the back of the pack with my buddy Alex and a couple other guys I’ve met at previous events. I am pleasantly surprised to see Steve – the guy with whom I ran the first half of Wadi Bih in 2017 – and we stay together until we reach the foot of the mountains. Steve has a secret, which I will test later: trekking poles. When Steve takes out his poles at the first hill, it is the last I see of him. Mental note and lesson learned: use trekking poles.

First Miscalculation
Alex and I run together casually in the darkness, sharing one dim headlamp between the two of us. We figure it’s only 8km in the darkness before sunrise and the first part of the trail isn’t technical, so we decide to embrace the dark trail. After 3km, we unexpectedly see about 100 headlamps blasting down a hill from the right. For some inexplicable reason, the leaders turn off the flat main trail because one trail marker appears to point them astray – surprising mistake as there were many Hajar veterans who know that the first turn is at 7km. I ponder how runners with so much ultra experience can make such a fundamental miscalculation, as opposed to the miscalculation I make later.

Running is easy, until it gets really hard

Stunning Views on the Ridgeline
After sunrise, the trail warms up and it becomes clear that dehydration will take its toll today. The trail goes 1000 meters vertical up the first hill, which seems steep to the rookies, because they do not know what rocky mountain trail lies ahead after Checkpoint 3. At the top of the first hill, there is a nice breeze and a great picnic spot, where a bunch of us enjoy our morning gels and pickles for an ultra brekkie. The next 10km are up and down a rocky ridgeline, with stunning mountain views on both sides – just don’t focus on the cliffs and the loose rocks by your feet. Once we make it to Checkpoint 2, we have about 12km down a long winding farm road, and this is where I start running with Stewart.

My new Hajar buddies – David, Stewart and Pornsak

New Running Buddies
Stewart is training for Marathon des Sables, but hasn’t done technical trails so this is a new experience for him. Going up and down the hills, we come across David, who decided to run Hajar on a whim. David is a good road marathoner, who wants to spice things up a little and signs up for Hajar as his first ultra. Since the first hill, a Thai runner named Pornsak who ran Big Stinker with me in January, has been running behind us a little and finally sticks with our little group. The four of us all hit Checkpoint 3 comfortably ahead of the five and a half hour cutoff. Checkpoint 3 is significant, because this is the last water stop before the big, bad mountain, and we all fill up with three liters of water each.

CP3 taking care of runners before the rocky climb

The Girls at Checkpoint 3

Yann cruising into CP3

Checkpoint 3 Rocks!
Full disclosure: I’m biased about Checkpoint 3, because my wife Olya was volunteering there with Louise – Louise, is it true you were riding a donkey around Checkpoint 3? Stewart, David, Pornsak and I leave Checkpoint 3 and power trek the mountain, it’s just after 11:00 when the temperature is well over 30C and the sun is starting to heat things up. We are very careful about nutrition, electrolytes and water, but still feel the mountain on our calves and quads. We decide to push ourselves to various landmarks, then stop and drink before continuing. We are all pushing ourselves pretty hard, but the suffering is somehow minimalized when we share it among each other. There is no bitching or whining, but a sense of immense satisfaction after each section we conquer.

Emergency water stop in a village

By the time we get to the top of the first section of the mountain, we are down to a half liter of water between the four of us. We go house to house, when I come across a local villager and ask for water. Obviously we were not the first geniuses today to need water. We fill our packs and bottles from his water tank, when he offers me some hot tea. At this point, refusing his kind gesture would be offensive so I gladly burn my mouth with his scalding tea, which is served in a dirty mug with oily thumbprints and crud inside the cup. We thank the guy profusely and continue our adventure.

Sunrise in the Hajar Mountains

No More Stunning Views
Climbing the Hajar mountains on such rugged rocks involves more trekking than actual running, even though our heart rates are pounding as if we are doing intervals or wind sprints. Because earlier we had been on the edge with dwindling water supplies, we are careful about our hydration and nutrition in the exposed sun. While physically we may have been suffering a bit, the rapport we share is engaging, as we entertain each other with a wide variety of Brilliant Ideas that are not particularly appropriate to discuss unless running the trails. Over the first few hours of running together, we discuss the usual: kit, races, times, shoes. After 7-8 hours, we become much more philosophical and the discussion embodies what ultrarunning is about – we run for Happiness and Love.

Enjoying the moment with Stewart

Second Miscalculation
We are in good spirits as we leave Checkpoint 4 and have 9km to Checkpoint 5. We cruise up and down the mountains on a smooth road, until this year’s detour throws a wrench in my calculation: the last 3km before Checkpoint 5 are on a very technical rocky path, which probably takes more than an hour despite our high effort. There are no stunning views, as the sun is already setting. We are pushing each other hard enough that each of us is stumbling and tripping on the sides of cliffs and down the mountain. Unfortunately, my rookie miscalculation causes us to reach Checkpoint 5 literally less than five minutes too late, which means we missed the cutoff this time. (Sorry guys!) Oh well – we learn from this experience and relish in the camaraderie of the ultra trail. We will be back, and we will conquer Hajar!

Blasting down technical terrain after sunset

Lessons Learned
1. Love and respect the volunteers at the checkpoints.
2. Prepare: train, run, get the right equipment (poles!), study the route and bring food.
3. Follow the trail, not the herd of runners in front of you.
4. The sun in UAE plays a significant role.
5. Bring extra water.
6. Respect the mountains – they are steep, rocky and have serious cliffs.
7. Don’t underestimate the challenge of technical trails.
8. Run with strangers and enjoy each other’s experiences.
9. Pickles, potatoes and beet juice taste better than gels after running ten hours.
10. If a villager gives you water when you really need water and then offers you tea, drink the damn tea. ■

Thrills of the mountains

Words + Photos by: David O’Hara