Races are a tool. They are there to work for you, not against you. They are an opportunity not a threat. They make you better. But like everything they need the right mindset, they deserve proactive energy opposed to reactive energy.
In 2018 I had the honor of watching 3 good friends take part in a race which very quickly became absolutely fascinating to watch unfold. Sitting at the halfway check point of the 140km race I watched runners arrive swearing and cursing, ripping their race numbers off their running shirts and quitting the race. They were furious as to its difficulty. The climbs were insanely steep. The trail hard to find as though there really wasn’t one at all. And the descents, which runners expected to provide some respite and a chance to elevate their average speed, were far too technical to welcome either, quite the opposite as the average paces dropped further.
Welcome to some of the most beautiful but brutal terrain to run on in the Arabian Peninsula, welcome to the Hajar Mountain range of Oman. And welcome to what is now the Himam Ultra race. An annual event offering varying distances, suitable for the novice trail runner, all the way up to 115km for the more seasoned or those that want to find out some new things about themselves!
I made it back to the race in 2019 again to support friends and clients and was again privy to some unreal displays of human resilience across a course that had become harder than in its first year of 2018. My interest was in watching the race rather than doing it for many different reasons.
Oman has always been a place I have loved visiting for trail running, for riding bikes and for taking in the vast and open landscapes. It is a place that gives me a feeling of exploration. It always leaves me with more questions than answers and most importantly it always puts a smile on my face and fullness in my heart.
There is no out and out reason why I entered the 55km Himam race this time around, outside of Rob and I thought it would be a fun race to do, we had some clients racing and we could turn it into a fun trip with some mountain biking thrown in. The distance is clearly quite appealing as it is all done in less than a day and with a start time of 6:30am you get to take on the course in a beautiful time of the day, also at the end of November a beautiful time of the year.
I guess you could say another motivation was that it was to be my final race of the year. Not that I judge my year by races nor have a target for how many or which type I will do but if it is right in the gut then I am good to go and this felt right. Coming off the back of Amsterdam marathon and then a week training camp in Iten Kenya, logic would say that my running legs should deliver some good form on this course at this time. What good form is and expectations around ultra is probably another story for another day.
An easy 5km through the start town of Izki led us to the bottom of the first climb and the beginning of our 2,100m of elevation for the day. Up, straight up, that was the medicine for the next 2 hours, 8km, and spat us out 1,500m higher than where we started. I love climbing mountains. I love the grind and it is the rhythm of the grind that I can get into and maintain which normally and in this case saw me moving past people that had all but PR’d their 5km at the start of the race. Ha ha. Welcome to Ultra! I think a lot when I am climbing about the strength work I do in my training. I try and create connections between my mind and my muscles to keep them firing. I remember all the strength sessions and all the mountains I have climbed up and it gives me power to keep going. It is of course a knifes edge that you dance on as to if you are pushing too hard too early. I think that and then remind myself this race is 55km. It will be over before I have time to really find out…..I hope!
The next section is a beautiful 15km bobbing around 2,000m above sea level, passing through small contour farms, small dips, small rises, smiling faces, bemused tourists, bright sun, cold winds. There was plenty to keep me entertained that is for sure. Sneakily there was another 500m elevation which chewed up the next 2 hours of my fun day out on this course. And just like that there was just 20km to go, on paper it looked very simple but as I alluded to earlier the descents in Oman can be more technical and slower than the climbs, they are often harder on the legs too. Descending is where Rob normally makes up the time that I take from him on the climbs. I am therefore always waiting for him to come screeching over my shoulder as I navigate the downhills. Today sadly this doesn’t happen and as I enter the canyon with about 15km to go I am still all alone, a state I have spent a large part of the race in which I do not mind at all.
This was perhaps one of the most, shall we say, interesting parts of the course. 5km over boulders, up one side of the canyon, down the other side. We must have crossed a stream of water 3 or 4 times which was welcome relief as I absolutely did not have enough water in my bottles for this section. It was, you could say, a nice test as once you are inside the last 15km of the race you can smell the finish but my moving speed was hugely variable based on the terrain, I knew I still had work to do.
That work became what I can only really describe as feral as I exited the guts of the canyon and started along a jeep track that started to snake its way toward the finish. Fully exposed to the sun. Head wind. Slight gradients. Corrugated jeep track that was never even. All factors resisting any chance of building rhythm when all you yearn for is rhythm to bash out the final sector of the race. In simple terms it’s a total mind f**k but in reality it is exactly what I am here for. Thus far the race has been pretty easy and fun, now the game has changed. I call upon the experiences that I have had in races and I guess in life. I know I have a virtual toolkit of everything I need to get me to the finish and get me there as fast as possible. I keep the map on my watch so I can not see pace or distance. I have never done this before but I see an opportunity to train my mind a bit, or play with my own mind you could say. I can see no one ahead of me and no one behind me. It is me. Me against me you could say but there is no fight, I am here for the experience. I am here for the feral, the feral is good, the feral is in full flow.
4km to go and I see Jeff and Carlin at the final check point. They have been at various points of the course all day cheering us on and I thank them for their energy. I see their faces and I know what I see is a reflection of what they see in mine. They can see I am having to use special gears. They can see the savage combo of the heat, the headwind and the underfoot are testing me. I like what I see in their faces. I am less jovial than I was at the other check points and they are too, ha ha, but seeing them lifts me as I fill a water bottle, smash some orange pieces in the aid station and get back to work for the final stretch.
“Hard” was the most used word by the runners as we sat and chatted at the end of the race. Hard was used to describe many parts of the race and its conditions. I smiled. I knew before the gun went off at 6:30am it was going to be hard. I had seen in 2018 how hard the race was. In reality that was probably why I was there. But hard is good. Hard makes us harder. Not just in running but in life and right now my life demands hard so I need to know I have the tools to deal with it, and keep smiling.
Thanks Himam, thanks Oman. Maybe next year, maybe not. Either way we will be feral together again. You are the version of hard I like.
(Thanks to my friend Carlin for the images)