Few panoramas stir the soul quite like the view from atop Jebel Akhdar, the rugged, resplendent tip of the Al Hajar mountain range that clamps onto Oman’s northern border.
But beware. A monster has been unearthed from these mountains.
It is a landscape that offered the right amount of extreme for UTMB, the organisation that stages Europe’s foremost ultramarathon on Mont Blanc, to collaborate with Oman Sail and concoct an Arabian odyssey.
Odysseus himself may not have completed this one. While ultramarathons are unfathomable for most mortals, this jaunt has immediately proven itself as one of the hardest on the calendar.
The 137 kilometre trail swooped and soared across ridges and ravines, plateaus and peaks, the verdant and the vast, at a cumulative vertical gain of 7,800 metres.
Much of the trail was hammered out in just five months ahead of the start last November, meaning the feeling underfoot lacked the smoothness of age.
So treacherous was one section that harnesses were used to safely ferry competitors across and then tantalisingly through the Alila Jebel Akhdar, a tranquil retreat after a first night in the mountains that for most had been anything but.
How about the final climb? A 3km scrabble, more than half of which ascends at a fiendish rate – the frontrunners under the naked sun, the rest feeling their way up, up and up with just a headtorch for company.
There were 21 checkpoints at regular intervals – supplying refreshments and on occasion even a place to nap – but cut-throat cutoff times meant little more than catching a breather for most.
Indeed ‘The Beast’, as the Oman by UTMB was quickly christened, forced 182 of the 324 to drop out, many of whom had waved the white flag by the first sunrise.
Unsurprising, then, that this animal took a team to tame it.
Twenty hours, 45 minutes and 37 seconds since the grand departure from the mouth of the mountains at Birkat Al Mawz, Jason Schlarb and Diego Pazos emerged from the belly of the Beast in faraway Al Hamra.
It was never the plan. But Colarado native Schlarb, as slick as a freshly filled wadi, and Swiss-born Pazos, a bundle of energy wearing a bow tie, found union on a course that broke so many.
“We didn’t talk about running together until about 120km in, right before the last climb, thinking ‘how should we proceed with this?’” admitted Schlarb, the top US finisher at the 2014 UTMB Mont Blanc classic. “We both agreed that it felt right to finish the race together.”
Spare a thought to those who followed. It took a further 25 hours before brave Andrew O’Reilly, of Bahrain Triathlon Club, found his way to Al Hamra as the final finisher after nearly two whole days out in the wilderness.
The first ever OMAN by UTMB®️ event has drawn to a close as the final runners crossed the Al Hamra finish line at the end of their 137km adventure across the heights of Jebel Akhdar, Oman. Here are some highlights of this iconic event!#oman #ultratrail pic.twitter.com/x4r3W2430q— Oman by UTMB® (@OmanbyUTMB) December 1, 2018
O’Reilly and the rest of the 142 men and women, the attrition rate was eye-wateringly high.
“I think you can keep the DNA of this race, but you have to add – especially in the last climb – some ropes, or maybe four or five guys to keep checking the person is OK, not afraid, or wants to come back,” says the 34-year-old Pazos, who took up the sport in 2011 after exchanging his football boots for running shoes.
“This year I think a lot of people have discovered the track in Oman without knowing about it and they were very surprised.”
There are however plans to open a more user-friendly 50km route and even a relay event for its second edition in 2019. At the other end of the spectrum a planned 100-miler incorporating Oman’s highest mountain, Jebel Shams, is set to make things a notch crazier.
Promisingly, 70 Omani runners – including two female athletes – braved the inaugural race and going by both the raucous sendoff and reception, hundreds more locals have been inspired. Interest has been piqued – now the challenge is to get more natives on the peaks.
“We should never forget to stay authentic,” says Catherine Poletti, who co-founded UTMB with her husband, Michel, in 2003. “As it is a trail run in Oman, the trail runners want to know they are in Oman. mIf it is like anywhere in the world, others wouldn’t travel here.
“I was so happy to see the locals, the traditional drums … it is so authentic. This is the spirit of trail running.”
Beautiful and bold, it also captured the spirit of Oman.
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