It’s 6.30am on a Friday morning, and I’m standing on a beach in Dibba. The sun isn’t even up, yet I’m shivering in shorts and an eye-searing neon pink T-shirt; all around me, groups of scarily athletic-looking runners are warming up, talking tactics and readying themselves for the 72km run that lies ahead.
This is the challenge I’ve been preparing for during the past month: a daunting five-man relay race through one of Musandam’s longest wadis. The route winds its way from the Golden Tulip Hotel to the top of Wadi Khab Shamsi, through rocky terrain that climbs, gently but mercilessly, to a peak more than 900m above sea level. This is the event’s 20th year, with more than 1,000 runners in 200 teams taking on the challenge. Joining me on this ridiculous quest are fellow media hacks and members of Nike Run Club Dubai. Our task: to make it back in one piece, then document our pain and suffering for the world to read.
The course is divided into 26 stages – 13 on the ascent, and 13 on the descent – each measuring between 2km and 4.2km. The rules are simple: at least four team members must run the first and last stages simultaneously, each runner must complete at least 10km of the course, and we must make sure our baton makes it back to the finish line. We have a rugged Nissan Patrolto ferry us between each stage, which we’ve stocked with plenty of water, Pocari Sweat and Snickers bars (the essential consumables of any elite athlete, presumably), and as the clock ticks towards 6.35am we take our place at our allotted time on the start line.
After hastily dreaming up a team name (we decide to call ourselves the ‘Nike Run Club Novices’, hoping to manage expectations from the outset), we pose for a couple of snaps. This is it: no going back. The marshal yells an order; team captain Greg gives us the thumbs up and we take our first strides across the sand.
The first stage is over pretty quickly, and 900m down the road we hand the baton to Sach ‘The Strider’ Holden, whose long legs carry us ever closer to the dreaded ascent. He manages to overtake a few rival teams during the first kilometre, which gives us plenty of confidence – at least we won’t be finishing last! – and I start to limber up for my maiden stretch, iPod at the ready, sunglasses poised. As Sach comes into view, my team-mates give a few whoops of encouragement; I take a deep breath, grab the baton and set off resolutely down the road.
Most of my 3km leg passes without incident as I stride onwards, enjoying the early-morning light as the sun edges over the horizon. I get my first taste of what the mountain has to offer when I turn a corner and see an evil-looking hill: half-way up I curse under my breath, wondering what the hell I’ve got myself into. But I’m determined not to give up this early, if only to save face in front of my team-mates. Thank heavens for my iPod: The Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabotage’ carries me over the crest of the hill and I see a row of 4x4s parked up at the changeover spot. I plod towards them and hurl the baton into the hands of Greg ‘Mr Stamina’ Moore: 7km down, 65 to go.
The next few stages pass in a blur of sand, dust and rocky terrain as we vie with our rivals for position. As first-timers, we’re soon picking up a few tricks from more experienced teams: several have mounted amusing inflatables on the roofs of their 4x4s to make the vehicles easier to spot, while one ingenious team is equipped with a spray can of water to douse runners as they pass. Our main enemy is proving to be the dust kicked up by passing 4x4s, which sticks in the lungs and throat, making breathing almost impossible. But we soldier on, buoyed by tunes blasting from the Patrol’s sound system.
We pass the time between stages compiling the ideal running playlist: an early favourite is Eminem’s 8 Mile soundtrack (multiply that by five and you might get close). Iron Maiden’s scarily appropriate ‘Run to the Hills’ also gets several votes, followed by ‘I’m Still Standing’ by Elton John – when the opening bars fire up on my iPod, it feels as though I’m sticking two fingers up at the mountain.
As we reach stage 11, everything seems to be going smoothly. Heather ‘Superwoman’ Mackenzie continues to dispatch the opposition during some searing uphill stints (her triathlon and half-marathon experience is starting to pay dividends for the team), and as Julian ‘King of the Mountain’ Pletts takes the baton to start stage 12, we’re feeling confident. But the mountain hasn’t finished with us yet. As we follow Julian in the 4x4, we turn the corner to be confronted by what can only be described as the hill from hell. Zigzagging its way up the side of the mountain, it continues to climb out of sight, with a gradient that looks as though it would challenge even the hardiest Jeep. My thoughts veer between terror for Julian, and sheer relief that I hadn’t drawn the short straw to run the nightmare stint.
Yet the King of the Mountain lives up to his name, shuffling steadily up the slope, refusing to give in. We overtake him in the 4x4, screaming encouragement and willing him on; with a grimace, he manages to plod past several walkers who have already admitted defeat. The road eventually levels out and Julian emerges over the crest of the hill victorious, baton in hand, grin on face, ready for Heather to run the final uphill leg to the summit.
The turning point at the top provides some spectacular photo opportunities, many involving – of all things – a wild donkey that has somehow found its way to the summit. We stop for a few snaps as Greg starts the downhill stint, then jump in the 4x4, only to get stuck in a traffic snarl-up as we try to descend. These tracks weren’t built for two-way traffic, yet we seem to have arrived at the narrowest point at rush hour, horns blaring, as runners dodge 4x4s in the race to reach the next stage. It’s 6km and at least 30 minutes before we catch up with Greg, who’s been forced to run three stages back to back. Luckily, he seems to have endless stamina, and merely shrugs it off as ‘taking one for the team’ before thrusting the baton in my direction and telling me to get a move-on.
It’s almost all downhill from here, and I find it exhilarating running down the slopes: it’s impossible to keep tabs on my pace, so I just go with the flow and let gravity give me a helping hand. By this point the elite runners are starting to catch us and I’m overtaken by some scarily buff-looking men (at least the view gives me something to take my mind off the ache in my right calf). I’m finding the running manageable: the biggest challenge is the stopping and starting between each stint, giving just enough time for my muscles to seize up before I have to hit the road again. I’m in awe of the hardcore ultra-marathon runners that are completing the course solo: every so often we spot a weary-looking athlete sporting a CamelBak and plenty of pro gear. Seeing these elite competitors is a humbling experience that quickly puts my slightly aching legs in perspective.
As the road starts to flatten out and we mark off the miles, our thoughts turn to predicted finishing times: could we cross the line in less than six hours? A few hasty calculations rule this out, but we set our sights on 6:30. Everyone’s starting to feel the burn now, our feeble stretches failing to undo the damage of repetitive pounding over the rocky terrain. But with the end in sight, spirits are high, and as we send Julian off on the penultimate leg, we’re already making plans for next year’s race.
The Golden Tulip hotel appears on the horizon as we prepare for the final stint: a short 900m dash over the sand. After travelling 72km, this tiny jog should feel like a cinch, but everyone’s muscles are screaming and lungs gasping as we stagger arm in arm across the line, to be met by our photographer and a friendly marshal who thrusts a medal into my hand. The clock cements our achievement at six hours and 19 minutes. I’m elated, yet exhausted, and a glance at my team-mates suggests they feel the same. But we’ve done it: we took on the wadi, and survived to tell the tale.