Why Would Anyone Choose to Run 100 Miles Through the Desert?

Adharanand Finn on Striving for the Edges of Human Endurance

The Oman Desert Marathon was my first ultra marathon. It was just over 100 miles (165km) across the baking sand. I didn’t really want to do it. It only came up as an idea when an editor from The Financial Times contacted me and asked if I would write an article about it. My initial response was a firm no.

I’ve always considered myself something of a purist when it comes to running. I would have as much admiration for a person who could run a mile in less than four minutes as I would for someone who has run around the entire world. To run the entire world would take determination, bloody-mindedness, good planning skills, and a lot of spare time. But to be fast, really fast, that took skill, dedication, the careful honing of a precious talent over many years. To watch athletes like Mo Farah, David Rudisha, or Eliud Kipchoge in full flow was to witness something poetic, at once combining the depths of human effort with incredible grace, balance, and power. It was running made beautiful.

Ultra running, on the other hand, was to bludgeon running until it was close to death. Backpacks, poles, food, head torches—they all muddied the water. It became something else. Admirable and courageous, sure. Mad and insane, perhaps. But it was no longer running.

It secretly annoyed me when people who asked about my running were more impressed with how far I ran than how fast. To me, the distance was irrelevant if you didn’t know the speed. In my head, anyone could run far if they jogged, or walked even. There was little merit in that.

One day I was getting a cup of tea in the office in London when a colleague who knew I did some running broached the subject.

“You do triathlons, don’t you?” he asked.

“No,” I replied.

“Oh. Ultra marathons?”

“No,” I said. He looked confused.

“Just marathons?” he said.

To run a marathon used to be a big deal. People used to be impressed. They would sometimes even ask your time, and if you had run under three hours you would get a satisfyingly impressed raise of the eyebrows. But that water-cooler sentiment that wanted to shake its head at how mad some people were, that wanted a quick hit of “bloody hell, that’s crazy, rather you than me,” but didn’t want to get bogged down in the details, had got used to bigger, more extreme things. Marathons were now small fry. It seemed we had entered the age of “just marathons.” Now running had to come with the overblown prefix “ultra.” One hundred miles across the desert? Wow. Everyone could be impressed by that.

Except me, it seemed. Whenever I watched a video on an ultra race website and saw people walking, my heart sank. I read a blog called “The A to Z of UltraRunning” and under W it said: “Walking: A mode of travel rarely acknowledged but commonly used during ultra marathons. We’ve even named it ‘powerhiking’ to save some face.”

To me, in my world of fast 10Ks and Tuesday track sessions with my athletics club, ultra marathons—any race longer than a standard 26.2-mile marathon—only impressed people who didn’t know anything about running. But I did know about running. So I said no to the Oman job.

It was my wife, Marietta, who got me to rethink.

“Don’t people pay a lot of money to do races like that?” she said. “And you’re getting invited to do it. I thought you liked running?”

Yes, these big stage races, set over a number of days, were not cheap. Then you needed the equipment. It was a huge personal investment, with lots of time away from home and work. Why did people do that? It surely wasn’t simply to impress their colleagues at the tea-point.

The idea had suddenly gripped me and was slowly dragging me in. I wanted to feel what it was like to take on such a challenge and make it out the other side.

The more I thought about what it actually entailed, the more I realized that, while perhaps as a runner this wasn’t my kind of race, purely as an experience it would be an amazing adventure: to run across the desert; to sleep under the stars; to cross a hundred miles of wilderness under my own steam. Put like that, it felt suddenly enticing, epic even. I jilted my runner-geek self aside for a moment. This was an opportunity to connect with nature, the planet, to spend some time out in the wild. Who knew what it would be like and what I would discover out there under the baking sun? I might come back a changed person. And besides, I’d hardly lose any fitness for my “real” running. I’d be a lean, mean machine by the time I got home. It was win-win. So I called the editor back.

“I know it looks a bit mental,” he said. “It’s over six days, but you could just do two or three if you preferred.”

No, I now wanted the full experience. The idea had suddenly gripped me and was slowly dragging me in. I wanted to feel what it was like to take on such a challenge and make it out the other side. It couldn’t be too difficult, I reasoned, for a real runner like me.

*

I arrived in Muscat at one o’clock in the morning on a flight with around ten other runners—including the German couple Gudrun and Hansmartin, whom I had met on the plane. We were expecting to be taken straight to a hotel, so when the organizer meeting us said that instead we would be waiting in the airport until the bus came at 9 am, I got a little annoyed.

“Sit in the café,” he suggested flippantly, as though he was brushing away a child. His English wasn’t great and I wondered if perhaps I was misunderstanding him.

“Sit in the café? For eight hours?” I asked, my voice rising a little too much. Surely he wasn’t serious. We were about to run 100 miles across the desert. We needed our rest. But he just shrugged and pulled down his cap, pretending not to understand.

I was on the point of telling him that I was from The Financial Times and that this just wasn’t good enough. I turned around to look for support from my fellow runners. But there was no one there. It was just the empty arrivals hall. Where had they all gone?

As I skulked away, I realized that while I had been stamping my feet and remonstrating, the other runners, on hearing of the delay, had all calmly whipped out their roll mats and sleeping bags and found somewhere to sleep on the airport floor. For a moment I stood there confused. Did they know something I didn’t? Or was this somehow an ultra running thing?

In the event, the bus arrived three hours early and we were all shipped off to a comfortable hotel oasis in a narrow valley between mountainous sand dunes. But the reaction of the other runners to this small setback was something I would think about many times over the next few years as I went on to tackle one crazy ultra race after another.

*

At the hotel oasis, the dunes were so high that you could hire snowboards for racing down them, although the locals seemed to prefer driving up and down in their shiny 4x4s. The runners, of course, used their legs, with everyone from the race walking up to the top of the dune that evening, having emerged from our rooms one by one, to catch the sunset. We stood in small awkward groups, still getting to know each other, the sky big and clear, the air warm on our skin. Then we raced back down in the dark laughing and tumbling through the sand.

Tomorrow we would be doing it for real, for hours, in the heat of the day, with everything we needed for six days strapped across our backs.

This was not a race, but an adventure. For the first time in my running life I wasn’t worrying about my speed.

I’d been sold this race by the organizers—via the FT editor—as a “manageable” first ultra marathon. It was like a shorter, easier version of the famous Marathon des Sables, they told me. The MdS was one of the most famous races in the world, 156 miles across the Sahara desert. It billed itself as the Toughest Footrace on Earth, though I had it on good authority from a number of ultra runners that it was no such thing. But regardless of the hyperbole, the MdS was a serious undertaking. It wasn’t the kind of thing I was planning to go anywhere near, so I was pleased to hear that this race in Oman was an easier option—‘MdS-lite’, as I heard someone describe it. It was in the desert, sure, but we would not be running on soft sand, the organizers told me, but on hard-baked earth. And 100 miles over six days, well, that wasn’t too bad either. It would be like a hot-weather training camp.

So, standing on the start line in the small town of Bidiyah, I felt fairly relaxed. This was not a race, but an adventure. For the first time in my running life I wasn’t worrying about my speed. I was just here to enjoy the experience. This took the pressure off. Without the need to push the pace, I could just jog, and part of me seemed to believe I could jog forever. Really, how hard could it be just to keep your feet churning over gently? I was a little worried about the heat, and at the back of my mind I was concerned that the required kit for the race included an anti-venom pump, a knife, and a signaling mirror. While I had been enjoying telling people, in the weeks leading up to the race, that I was off to run across the desert, as though I was some sort of action hero, the thought suddenly hit me that I may actually have to deal with a dangerous situation. Would I be able to cope if something happened?

In the town square, the local people had come out to wave us off. We were given a ceremonial dance and the village bustled happily with men in long, white robes, expensive daggers, and iPhones tucked into their belts. Among the hullabaloo, a Swedish woman, Elisabet Barnes, stood not watching the dancers, but serious, with the air of someone focused on the job at hand. I had befriended Elisabet in the oasis hotel the evening before. She lived in England and had recently won the famous MdS. I asked her for some tips as we sat on cushions eating couscous and grilled vegetables at low tables.

“Have you stitched or glued your gaiters to your shoes?” she asked. Elisabet owned a specialist ultra running shop in Essex. She knew her stuff. My gaiters clipped onto my shoes. Wasn’t that enough? They came like that. I thought it was quite nifty.

“Oh,” she said, trying her best not to look concerned. “You’ll probably be OK. How much sand running have you done?”

Er . . . none. But the race was on mostly hard-baked earth, that’s what I was told.

She was smiling like she was not sure. “Maybe,” she said. “How much does your bag weigh?”

I had no idea. She took a deep breath. I told her the organizer had tried to scare me by telling me not to bring any pictures of my family. “You’ll end up burying them in the sand,” he had said. “People even trim their toothbrushes to save weight.” She didn’t say anything, but carried on eating.

“That’s not true?” I said. “That’s ridiculous. Right?” But the look on her face told me that she didn’t think so. I suddenly felt way out of my depth. “Of course, it’s not necessary,” she said. “It’s as much about getting in the right frame of mind, knowing you have done everything possible to be light, that you have left no stone unturned. It helps you mentally to feel ready.”

On Day Four I realized I was ranked in the top 20 and, suddenly inspired to compete, I decided to try to do the whole stage without walking. It almost worked.

So I hadn’t trained on sand, my gaiters were useless, and my bag was probably too heavy. And I hadn’t trimmed my toothbrush. But how hard could this be? Gudrun and Hansmartin were in their sixties, and there was a blind Frenchwoman in her late fifties in the race. As long as I controlled my pace, kept jogging, shuffling along, I would be fine.

*

And so we trotted off out of Bidiyah, past the waving children and the last trees we would see for six days. I was careful to take it slowly, running in the middle of all the bobbing backpacks. It was barely running. I watched my shadow, the pillow I’d snaffled off the flight strapped on to the top of my bag. That was a stroke of genius. It weighed almost nothing, but it would help me sleep. I may only have clip-on gaiters, but I had a pillow.

There were only about 75 runners in total and the field soon began to spread out. For the first hour we made our way along a flat, sandy plain until, after the first water stop, the route headed up into the sand dunes. Here the sand was soft, sloping, wind-blown. It was difficult to walk through it, let alone run. These were the dunes of Tintin books, made of the fine sand that finds its way into your shoes no matter how tight your gaiters are fixed. And mine were not tightly fixed at all.

The temperature was also rising—getting close to 40°C by the time we were up in the dunes. I struggled on, sinking with each heavy step, getting slower and slower. I kept expecting the more experienced runners to come by me, but no one appeared. They must have been having similar difficulties.

With relief, after a few hours of trudging and cursing, we rolled down one long final dune and on to a flat section to the finish. But it had been a tougher first day than I had expected.

I somehow convinced myself, sitting in the Berber-style tents in the camp that afternoon, that they had sent us through the dunes on the first day to give us a sample of what it was like, to get things off to a crazy start, but that the rest of the race would be mostly on the promised hard-baked earth that ran here and there between the dunes.

It must have been what everyone else was thinking too, because at about 4 pm a cry went up around the camp. What was it? People were pointing, coming out of their tents, shaking their heads. “It must be a joke,” someone said. “Impossible,” said another.

On top of the highest dune opposite, sat the first course marker for the next stage. We were going to have to start Day Two by running straight up there. This wasn’t going to get easier.

And so it went. Each day I was sure that was it, that the next day we would get some respite. But each day was harder than the last; the endless sand, the heat squeezing the life out of me. I got moments of energy, of inspiration. On Day Four I realized I was ranked in the top 20 and, suddenly inspired to compete, I decided to try to do the whole stage without walking. It almost worked. Rather than walk, when the sand got really soft I just slowed to a pitter-patter shuffle. It was slow, but easier and quicker than walking. Less sinking in. As the dunes rolled, I rolled with them. I was getting this. I wasn’t going to be defeated.

I finished Day Four with a fist pump and went to sit among the fastest runners, waiting for the others to complete their weary way. The good thing about running faster was that you spent less time out in the stranglehold of the heat. It was, in some ways, easier to go faster. And the next day, the organizers told us, the course would be flatter and the sand would be firmer. I don’t know why, as they said this every day, but this time I really believed them. I could even picture it in my head, a firm road to the finish. I was going to cruise this.

“You go to the crazy places, you meet the crazy people.” I don’t know if he meant me or him, or both, but I liked that.

Day Five was the longest stage of the race—exactly a marathon—and was to be run mostly at night. The top 20 runners were to start two hours after everyone else. That afternoon we all gathered around and they did a roll call, reading out the names of the top 20. I was on it, number 17. Tough guy Finn. Don’t mess. I tried not to look too chuffed with myself as we went back to our tents. Seasoned ultra runners were talking about how hard this race was. But, half prepared, I was still going strong. Lots of people do these races in part for the camaraderie of the other competitors. Running together through the desert for a week, you begin to form close bonds. In Tent Two, as we became known, we were a group mainly of Italians—one the mother of a Premier League football player—as well as a Belgian bioengineer, a bubbly South African woman, and a fellow Brit, Rob, who was in the army.

A couple of the others in Tent Two were also in the top 20, but my buddy Dino had just missed out. He seemed happy, though. He didn’t care about his position, he was there for the experience, to chat, and to take photographs. He held court in our tent most afternoons, once we had all settled down to rest, telling us about all the places he had been—over 200 countries in all, he said, often listing them—and usually for crazy ultra races. He had stories about scrapes with bandits in Mexico, close calls with crocodiles in Botswana, falling down crevices in Iceland. He told them all with verve, good humor and a generous dollop of pantomime.

Months later Dino sent me a clip of an interview he did about the Oman race on Italian Sky Sports television—this guy was always being interviewed by someone. In the clip, he tells the story of how in his tent there was the Italian mother of a Liverpool football player and an English guy from Liverpool. That was me. I wasn’t from Liverpool, but I had lived there for three years as a student and I liked the football team. Anyway, he talked about how we spent those long afternoons reminiscing about the Liverpool football legends, the great games, and about the Liverpool anthem, which the fans always sing on match days, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Then, on one of the race stages he found himself alone and tiring, the sun beating down with full force. He had begun walking and humming this song quietly to himself, becoming lost in his own world, so much so that he didn’t notice that I had caught him up. Hearing what he was humming, I joined in. He looked across at me through his mirrored sunglasses with a big grin and together we walked on singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at the tops of our voices like two merry football fans.

“You know,” he said to the interviewer. “You go to the crazy places, you meet the crazy people.” I don’t know if he meant me or him, or both, but I liked that. Ultra running and the places it took you were indeed crazy, and I was beginning to realize that it attracted a certain type of person. Unhinged, perhaps, but also open, friendly, and warm. At least, that’s what Dino said.

__________________________________

Excerpted from The Rise of the Ultra Runners by Adharanand Finn. Published by Pegasus Books. © Adharanand Finn. Reprinted with permission.

Adharanand Finn
Adharanand Finn
Adharanand Finn is the author of The Rise of the Ultra Runners and Running With the Kenyans, which was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Award. He is an editor at the Guardian and a freelance journalist. He currently competes with the Torbay Athletic Club in Devon, U.K., where he lives with his family. Follow him on Twitter at @adharanand.





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