Urban Ultra has been the pillar of ultra-running in the Middle East for years, with a deep range of trail running events to include UTX50, Big Stinker, Mount Sana 60, Mleiha Dash, Kalba Kickr, and Hajar.

Urban Ultra has been the pillar of ultra-running in the Middle East for years, with a deep range of trail running events to include UTX50, Big Stinker, Mount Sana 60, Mleiha Dash, Kalba Kickr, and Hajar.

To entice new runners – road runners, novices, and even those tri people – to the trails, Urban Ultra has expanded its repertoire to include shorter distances at their events. The fields are expanding with a couple hundred runners showing up for Hajar 30, Hajar 50, and Hajar 100 in February. The Hajar 100 is the top ultra-trail running event in the region, requiring a balance of fitness, endurance, mental toughness, and preparation.

There are many reasons I don’t do cycling. Aside of the utter lack of cycling ability and coordination, I am completely turned off by all the specialized equipment and kit it requires. I really enjoy the minimalist style of running. However, I must admit that ultra-trail running does require its share of equipment, in addition to the mandatory kit. This year I decided to bring running poles with me – a good decision. The most basic omission of equipment may have unforeseen consequences: socks. When I go through all my kit at the hotel before the start, I notice that I forgot my preferred running socks and have to run in wool socks. No biggie, I figure. Uh huh.

2018 Goat Pack
Last year, I ran Hajar with Pornsak, David T, and Stewart. The four of us ran, laughed, and suffered for hours, and ultimately, we missed the CP5 cut-off at 52km by only a couple minutes. It was a heart-breaking experience, falling into the category of ‘that which does not hurt you, only makes you stronger.’ Over the past year, the four of us have run many ultras together and looked forward to completing some unfinished business at Hajar. Stewart, on the other hand, managed to prioritize some 10km cycle ride over Hajar. Really, Stewart?

Urban Ultra Community
With the exception of my buddy Stewart, all trail runners in the region show up at Hajar. We swap stories of accomplishments and abject failures, new kit to try, latest training plans, obscure nutrition solutions, favourite ‘secret’ trails to run, and a few other topics. We figure out our strategy for the run, and with whom to run. Pornsak’s fitness vastly improved since last year, so he will take off. David T and I ran Dubai Marathon together, so he’s in play. Plus, Hajar takes place on the same day as David T’s birthday and my wife Olya’s birthday – so the three of us expect to celebrate in the mountains. We see Jeremy and his wife Heidi, and so we may run with Heidi – but not Jeremy… he knows why (Hatta Hills Half 2018!).

Chasing Cut-off times
Some people think our goal is “to just finish”, but that isn’t close. We have two goals: we always try to catch the runner in front and don’t let the runner behind catch us. This year, Urban Ultra has introduced strict cut-off times at all checkpoints, to prevent stragglers from faffing about and for the sanity of the volunteers. It’s a great concept which I respect, even after missing the CP5 cut-off by less than four minutes at Hajar 100 in 2018. The cut-off times keep us locked in and focused.

CP1: Running Hajar
Runners for all three distances – 30km, 50km and 100km – start together before sunrise. Olya and I run the first 7km as a simple warmup, adjusting our packs and chatting with everybody before things get serious on the first climb. The first climb is a vigorous single-track goat trail that goes up 1000 metres vertical in 3km to a ridge. When we get to the top, the sun is out, and we enjoy a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains, which is ominous as we know what lies ahead. With the first climb behind us, Olya, Heidi, and I begin to run the ridge with some guy named Robert.

CP2: Why Runners Need a Strong Core
Around 12km, we pick up some momentum running down a rocky goat trail when the inevitable happens. I kick a rock which does not move, causing me to perform a graceful headfirst swan dive with perfect technique, as my body is parallel to the ground. Before landing, I manage to let out one four syllable word (or is it two words?) for what seemed like eternity. I am relatively fortunate that I caught myself with my hand, although less fortunate that the rock punctured my palm. (For non-trail runners: my fall is not more or less spectacular than other people’s falls. They happen.) I writhe in pain, when I realize that I am stuck on a narrow downhill trail on my back like an upside-down turtle: to my left are big rocks and to my right is a beautiful dropoff (similar to the photo on the left, often referred to as a cliff). My options are limited to somersaulting over rocks down the hill or doing a full body extension sit up. Both require a strong core which I lack, so I decide to play to my strengths: I scream like a baby, until that guy Robert comes back and picks me up. Thanks, Robert!

CP3: Running the ridge
The trail follows a ridgeline for 8km, then a dirt road 10km down a mountain. The sun is up with majestic views. Olya, Heidi and I are enjoying the nice weather, which is relatively cool. We come across more people than usual because of the new 30km distance, which is fun – until you do the math (100km – 30km = 70km left to run). At CP3, Dr. Jaouad and Dr. Matt gave me some antiseptic for my punctured hand. Brendan is at the water stop just before the big climb, with his kind words of encouragement.

CP4: The Curse
The 12km from CP3 to CP4 are dreadful. We all know it, because this is what makes Hajar epic. David T joins us at this point as we tackle the beast. We all have different strengths, but together we are stronger than if we try on our own. This is a certain pleasure in the brutality of this climb, with so many positive thoughts, and all negativity is focused on the lovely organizers and their cut-off times. We climb for over an hour up a steep trail with no respite, constantly looking for the top. Once we reach the top, the trail continues up a less steep trail that is scattered with rocks. After another hour, we make it to the village which means we have another four hills to climb up and down. The views are awe-inspiring, but also demoralizing because you see the never-ending climb ahead. When David T and I make it to CP4, Heidi is already there, but Olya unfortunately misses the cut-off by two minutes.

In 2018, Urban Ultra added an extra 2km to the route taking us off asphalt to a ‘trail’ that goats find too rocky and steep, which is the source of my ‘Hajar anxiety’. Heidi, David T and I are all within 100 metres of each other on this section, yelling encouragement to make the cut-off on time. At some point after being out on the trail under the sun for over ten hours, my lack of preparation finally catches up with me: my wool socks are sticking to the bottom of my feet causing me a high level of discomfort as I run recklessly down the nasty rocks with constant flashbacks of my fall at 12km bouncing around in my head. I feel blisters but every minute is precious, so I compartmentalize the pain to get to CP5.

CP5: Hyperventilating
I am so ecstatic to get to CP5 under the 12-hour cut-off that I hyperventilate for the first time in my life. Olya is already there to take care of me. Christy the medic has the distinct ‘pleasure’ of bandaging up my blistered toes. My Oman by UTMB buddy Aaron spends the day at CP5 with his two boys and is a hero for the cold Coke Zero, which I cherish. After eating, I get going by myself just before sunset.

CP6: Hallucinating
After running with Olya for the first nine hours and then David T and Heidi to CP5, I find myself running alone in the darkness, which is conducive to hallucinations. I feel fine as I cruise through the wadis and farms with nothing visible except my headtorch. There is nobody in front of me to chase, but there is nobody behind me to outrun. I feel pretty good moving in the dark, until I go around a corner on the wadi and almost bump into a guy wearing a bright blue suit. He somehow appears out of nowhere and scares the crap out of me! Then when I notice that his white shirt is fluorescent white, I realize that he is probably a hallucination. Other than the hallucination guy, I make it to CP6 (66km) without seeing anybody at all.

CP7: Everything is good until it’s not good
At this point, I am no longer chasing cut-off times. I am confident that my challenge is to catch somebody in front of me and not get passed. All is good until I notice that something is wrong with my feet. The bottoms of my feet are getting more and more painful, which I can manage – thinking that I’ve reached my pain threshold and it won’t get worse – until I step on a rock and I feel my foot is all wet. It turns out that my wool socks have managed to create blisters the size of playing cards on both feet. I make it to CP7 without seeing any runners, but Khalid the volunteer gives me a banana and a magical boost of encouragement: Pain is temporary.

CP8: Solitude of the Long-distance Runner
Over the last ten hours of running in darkness, the only people I spoke with apart from the volunteers at the checkpoints took place at somewhere around 80km where an ambulance and Urban Ultra were taking care of another runner. Other than being haunted by the blisters from running 20 hours in hot wool socks, I find the solitude blissful. Running alone in darkness, in agonizing pain from both feet is a time to get philosophical and enjoy the moment, with no outside pressure or concerns beyond nutrition and hydration.

Getting to the Finish
The last little bit of Hajar 100 is the final test of mental toughness and endurance. It’s supposed to be 9km, but is more likely to be around 12km. After 2km of asphalt, the trail goes up and down and around hills, which is fine until you realize where the actual finish is. You see the bright lights. You hear the music. You smell the bonfire. You come to the top of the next hill, when you realize that the trail goes down and away from the finish. And again. Then the trail takes you through a wadi, because using the road would be too easy. When you see the people at the finish and you hear them talking, you are so close, but the trail manages to find sand dunes for the last 2km. The finish is really the finish only once you get across the line and get your medal and Hajar 100 cap.

The Joys and Thrills
Hajar 100 is a great event for so many reasons. It is a more than a personal challenge. It’s a family event for many people – like me and Olya, Jeremy and Heidi, Simon and Liz, and Kimmo and his wife. For us, it’s my romantic approach to celebrate Olya’s birthday along with my buddy David T’s birthday. There is a sense of democracy on the trails – the overall winners of both Hajar 100 (Kat) and Mleiha Dash (Kim) are ladies. So many of life’s lessons are demonstrated on the trail: Be prepared or you may suffer consequences. If you fall, get up. Pain is temporary. Enjoy the moment. Play to your strengths. Sign up for Hajar 100. ■

Written by: David O’Hara
Photos: Brendan Moloney, Pornsak Thongchai and David O’Hara

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this article was published in OutdoorUAE printed magazine issue #94 April – May 2019

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