The Ultra Trail of Mont Blanc (UTMB®) is a prestigious international brand, well-known for its single-stage mountain ultramarathon race originated in France and has been gaining popularity significantly since 2003 among a growing number of trail runners.
Staring at my inbox on 4th May that read “Oman by UTMB® Open for registration” – a little blush with excitement as to the prospect of Oman in the trail running scene. Can it match or stack up to other leading international races within the quality parameter that trail runners aspire and dream to complete? Can Oman one day be the trail running community hub in the Middle East?
The Premier in Sultanate Of Oman
Oman by UTMB® bring trail running that reflects Oman’s prime jewel – history, culture, and natural environment on top of its warmth and hospitality unparalleled in the Arabian Gulf.
The Oman Ministry Of Tourism selected trail running to increase sports tourism activities as it meets the 5 criteria: promote natural beauty, become sustainable, has an infrastructure in place, deliver in-country value and capable of living a legacy to the community.
The 137km distance took place in Jebel Akhdar (translates as Green Mountain) with a total elevation gain of 7,800m. While I’ve been to the stunning mountain years ago as a tourist who looked to escape Dubai life by wandering around the village at Sayq Plateau and braving the cold night in the back of our Jeep Grand Cherokee at Diana’s viewpoint (called so due to the visit of the late Princess Diana in 1986), little that I knew about the trail located deep within its beautiful and rugged landscape.
Weather-wise, Oman’s winter is ideal for running with temperatures varying from 25 degrees Celcius during the day at lower levels to 10 degrees Celcius. Much colder during the night and in the mountains over 2,000m. Can be hotter during the daytime too with the Mediterranean like weather.
The vegetation at Jebel Akhdar is abrasive with tough grasses and harsh thorny bushes.
Oman by UTMB® is hosted by Oman Sail, a leading body that brought Sultanate of Oman on the global of adventure sporting map and supported by the team from UTMB® in term of organisation. The event was a successful one and well-organised on general.
Below are interesting statistics experienced at first-ever Oman by UTMB®.
* 22,000 green dots on the course were clearly marked. Virtually all done by Andy Whitaker, the Trail Manager. It was a big challenge for organisation to build the 80km course out of 137km from scratch in 5 months before the race.
* 170 volunteers assisted the event, with over 100 people from the immediate race area in Jebel Akhdar whom all deserved a big applaud.
* 15,000 litres of water available to runners. The helicopter from Oman Ministry Of Defence brought water to the remote and off-road checkpoints.
* Over 50 four-wheel drive vehicles were needed to move people around the course and bring back runners from checkpoints. It was more than anticipated given the dropped out rate.
Minor teething points that surely will be ironed out. One to point out is due to the sparse location between finishing line and accommodation, it wasn’t most convenient to cheer and turn up any time at the finishing line to support the finishers.
Solidarity & Trail Racing Spirit
The special perk to finishers had motivated runners to sign up for this new race. Finishers received 6 qualifying ITRA points that valid for 3 years instead of 2 and gained the advantage in the lottery to run UTMB® Mont-Blanc in 2019 edition.
57 nationalities accepted Oman by UTMB® challenge from a total of 326 runners (with only 44 female) at the historic town of Birkat Al Mawz where the race started at 7:30 pm in a lively atmosphere. Runners carried all mandatory gears that include a mobile phone with power pack, proof of insurance, and minimum 2 litres of water. Runners passed by very welcoming villages where kids chanting and waving at them.
The majority were French followed by a good size of Omani and UK contingent. A small group travelled from the neighbourhood countries such as Qatar, India and also from trail community of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
While there’s no show of Jim Walmsley who was expected to be there, there were 27 International Trail Running Association (ITRA) favourite runners which included 2 local runners Sami Al Saidi and Saleh Al Saidi. Team Altra from the United States represented by couple Jason Schlarb and Meredith Edwards, Compressport’s Diego Pazos, Vibram’s Gediminas Grinius, and WAA’s Anna-Marie Watson were among notable elite runners thrilled to taste the Omani adventure.
The Course & Technicality
Oman by UTMB® offered an extraordinary terrain above 1500m, along top ridges, through villages trail, steep stone staircase, abandoned villages, deep wadis, and narrow gorges. Due to rugged, edge cliff nature and rocky terrain at Jebel Akhdar, a limited amount of running is possible.
A friendly chat before the race with both Schlarb and Edwards gave some insight into the couple mindset. They have been in Oman for a few days prior to the race exploring the country and culture which is captured and to be aired soon in the upcoming Run The World film.
Humble Schlarb estimated to finish within 21 to 22 hours and coming under 20 would be a bit of stretch especially the terrain of Jebel Akhdar that is “very steep climb and vertical, technical and loose rocks section.
Also, there’s only 1 drop bag location”. Edwards said positively “this trip to Oman was already a success” despite the outcome of her race but will give her utmost best.
The elevation course graph mapped out for runners did not fully demonstrate the reality of the course difficulties – for instance, what looked like a relatively flat 5 km section did not translate into 30 to 40 minutes trail run due to undulating terrain.
At the race briefing Glyn Broomberg, the Race Director strictly advised on the 4 areas to be cautious and asked runners to put lots of focus due to the areas that close to a cliff edge, the exposed section at the top, and some scrambling required. “Stay on your course at all time. Caution when you see red markers. Careful with the sharp rock,were some of his important instruction.
Spoken to a few runners, there were 2 challenging sections that were strenuous, severely testing both endurance and technical skills:
* Al Mihaybis (Checkpoint 11) to Alila (Checkpoint 12) going to 82km: Thanks’s to the 50m of cables which was provided part of safety protocol at the exposed cliff, the way up to the prestigious AlilaHotel wasn’t as technical but the tough part was before the cable zone that requires lots of scrambling.
* BaladSayt (Checkpoint 17) to Top W8 (Checkpoint 18) going to 119.5km: The most talked about section not only because it’s the highest point at 2,300m above sea level and the most remote part of the course, but because it is deemed risky and daunting. “About 45 degrees angle climb of 1,100m ascent with a very exposed section”, Pazos briefly mentioned to me after he finished his race and that “it was the most difficult part”. While leaders tackled in admirable 1 hour 37 minutes, most managed in between 2 hours 30 minutes to 3 hours 3 minutes. The Runners’ Guide plainly described this section as “it evokes an overwhelming feeling of pleasant surprise that such steep terrain can be climbed with relative ease”.
20 Hours to 45 Hours Of Grit
The race was a joined won by Jason Schlarb and Diego Pazos, whom after 20 hours 45 minutes entered Al Hamra finisher village to the rhythm of Omani dance and music. Inspirational indeed.
They were tired and exhausted, but lending smiles to the crowd who were eagerly waiting to meet their first champions. From Checkpoint 10, they took the lead and the margin got wider between them and the third placeholder, AlekseiTolstenko from Russia (21:27 hour).
An hour 39 minutes later, GediminasGrinius arrived (22:25 hour) and followed by talented Alfred Pearce-Higgins from UK (23:07 hour).
The leading lady was Anna-Marie Watson who came in 9th overall (26:20 hour) showed us an even level playing field between male and female competitors the longer the race distance.
The next day, I chatted with Meghan Hicks, the Managing Editor of I Run Far while she was enjoying her well-earned lunch. She shared her finished story with the first Omani finisher, HamdanAlkhatri, the donkey that brought supplies at Checkpoint 18, and how she was the first person to tackle the long steep ascent at night.
I met Jean-Charles Perrin from Run For You (the Eco Trail organiser in Paris) and impressed with the creative arrangement in tackling this tough race as a team of 3. “We just want to test the trail”, he said.
The last runner, Andrew O Reilly from Ireland traversed across the dramatic terrain in 45 hours and 27 minutes. Just like the rocky barren land of Jebel Akhdar which produced an abundance of bounties like peach, almond, pomegranate, olive, and walnut – the ‘hardship’ in trail running produced amazing sheer of determination, willpower and perseverance which drive success.
Dropped Out Stories
It’s no surprise to see the significant drop out rate of 56% (184 runners). 115 runners voluntarily withdrew where the majority stopped as early as Checkpoint 3 (Sallut 25.6km) and at Checkpoint 12 (Alila Hotel 82km), the first of the hot food stop. Given this is an inaugural event, the no pre-requisite to enter this race, coupled with lack of preparation tailored to the rough terrain and misguided expectation was among of the reason of high withdrawal rate. Catherine Poletti, co-founder of UTMB® said the “European runners may expect a desert race, not a mountainous race like this, hence not prepared adequately”. The rest of 68 runners were timed out during various stages of the checkpoints – myself included, unfortunately.
It was sad to know, speedy Al Saidi had to pull out due to foot incident during the race and he got to be treated in a hospital. He mentioned to me that he has been training hard in the Jebel Akhdar area up to 140 hours every week for the past 3 months.
Next Year & Thoughts
The technical, tough and steep terrain yet with breath-taking landscape come with ‘suffering’ that softens only with confidence and determination to cope in difficult situations. The harder the terrain, the finer the trail runner.
When asked how he conquered the ‘beast’ at the post-race event and after party, Schlarb said, “there’s 2 part, one is to go out there to have fun, and the other is to get a coach”.
Oman by UTMB® sets its standard as a technically very difficult race – in fact, the most difficult as the joined winners claimed. Nevertheless, Poletti promoted “it’s a must-do race that is iconic and authentic to experience once in a lifetime”. She was very adamant that next year runners will come better prepared.
The ambitious co-founder also mentioned the proposal to extend the course to 100 milers covering summit of Jebel Shams 2,900m, option for shorter distance like 50km and also relay – watch out for the announcement.
The race will appeal to a certain breed of trail runners – the masochists, the adventurous and curious mountain lovers who enjoy long steep technical climb with minimal running, not scared of height, wants rough, rugged, raw and challenging remote terrain. Also, the regional trail runners in the Gulf who used to this terrain, European trail runners seeking to escape from the cold winter and muddy course, South East Asian trail runners seeking a different landscape that’s not wildly jungle and humid – should give it a good go!
If you are not keen on doing one go like we the ultra-runner do, simply enjoy the spectacular mountainous section at a time when your next visit to Jebel Akhdar:
* The traditional paths built out of this race connect mountain village of Jebel Akhdar can be walked and hiked by following markers especially at Sayq Plateau, WadiBani Habib, and Lost Villages Trail around Alila Hotel.
* Alila Hotel also offers an adrenalin holiday experience via ferrata where you can be exposed on a high rope over the canyon.
Insights From Participants
Mabrook! Huge congratulations to everyone who bravely entered and competed whether you finished or not. Finally, leaving you with some insights I’ve gathered to share and spread some trail love.
Hamdan Al Khatri, Oman – Finished 19th overall in 29:04 hour
“I live in Alawbi. I did long distance and train on hills – but not at Jebel Akhdar. Oman by UTMB is more difficult than the recent race, Oman Desert Marathon. The best moment was seeing my friend, Ahmed at the finishing line. Being the first Omani finisher is a huge achievement for me, family and friends”.
Filipe Mallet, Brazil, Qatar based – Finished in 41:34 hour.
“I rested for 30 minutes before the vertical climb (BaladSayt 1,200m) and began climbing at 4 am. It took me 2 hours to do the vertical ascent, and it was bad when sunrise because I could see down. It was quite dangerous as it was exposed. I saw other runners scarier than me and they looked like lizards sticking on the wall. It was an adventure, not a trail race. The front part of my shoes was torn. I enjoyed it but sometimes I was a bit trembling. The next section took me 3 hours to do 6k. Food was amazing especially the soup. Omani volunteers were really nice taking care of everyone.”
Mila Marlina, Indonesia – Finished in 43:14 hour
“Oman By UTMB® is beyond my expectation, much more technical, dangerous and brutal in almost every part. It is a test of our physical, mental, courage and determination. It requires not just a runner, but also a climber. Even if we have enough points to register Oman By UTMB®, the points might not represent that we are qualified for this race. Grandslam Ultra Indonesia (GUI)* is tough, in terms of elevation, but I think is still quite safe and less technical. If we finish GUI, I think we are physically ready for Oman. However, the beauty of Oman, really worth the struggle.”
*GUI is made up of 4 tough races in Indonesia – Gede Pangrango100, Mesastila Peak Challenge Ultra, BromoTenggerSemeru 100, and Rinjani 100.
Xavier Nunes, Portugal, Dubai based – Withdrew at Checkpoint 17
“Jason Schlarb described the race very accurately: it’s an extreme sky-race but 3 to 4 times longer! This was my first ultramarathon experience after doing my first 42km marathon in Berlin 2017. Oman By UTMB® is a brutal race where I fight physically and emotionally between checkpoints. Due to high elevation gain, most of the route is between rocks, loose stones, climbing vertically, big and sharp rocks and when you think it’s almost over, you will find more rocks on the downhills! It’s critical you train in very technical terrain every single week. Start thinking on how much time of feet you plan during training and how much elevation gain you reach with your weekly long runs if you want to sign up next year.”
NadhiraAlharthy, Oman – Withdrew at Checkpoint 13
I raced in Oman By UTMB® because it brought elements that I love doing – running, hiking and climbing. It challenged my ability, given the opportunity to discover my potential and learned how to deal with difficult situations. The course was difficult despite I’ve trained on some of the tracks. It was a motivation to continue and listened to the beauty of Oman through villages, farms, and valleys. It needed fitness and mental strength to end it. I withdrew as my pace was slowing down and didn’t manage to keep up with planned distance. I want to participate again next year, insyaAllah. I hope to inspire other Omani women to enter this race by sharing my experience and showing the aspects that can be utilised from such participation. ■
Disclaimer: This is a sponsored trip – words are my own and based on references as quoted above. Thank you Oman Sail, Alila Hotel, and Oman by UTMB®.
Words by: Aida Othman
Photos by: Oman by UTMB® (Antony Jones and Franck Oddoux)