100 Km. It’s difficult to even just mention them. I still remember when, about a year ago, I gave myself the goal to run a marathon in the desert within 2/3 years and at least one ultramarathon of 50km. Less than 6 months ago, instead, I met Max Calderan, founder of the Desert Academy. And today I have under my belt: a marathon in the desert (a few days after our meeting and with no planning), several training sessions in the desert of the Rub Al Khali, 50 km solo run at night with a 10kg backpack and a 100 km run.
100 km. I still struggle to believe it. Added value to this article I am writing will be the realization of what I actually did. It was a challenge that Max gave me after the first 42 km in the desert; the “Big Jump” he called it. First the marathon, then 50, then 70, then 80…NO
Let’s shoot for 100 right away. By the end of the year. You can do it. You must do it.
So the preparation started; not just training, but also nutrition, advices, tips to reduce thirst, hunger and sleep deprivation (needed for such a long race). We looked for the right itinerary and the right date.
In the beginning, we thought of the Rub Al Khali, where many training sessions were staged. The Rub Al Khali, “the fourth empty,” the second largest sand desert in the world. It covers a third of the Arab Peninsula and touches, in part, the Abu Dhabi Emirate. We thought about running the distance in the middle of November, as soon as temperatures became easier, at least for this first attempt. In July I trained for 40 km with temperatures as high as 52 degrees, but 100 km is a different story…it’s a lot of kilometers.
Then a series of meeting and situations shaped the idea into a project: running 100 km for the 44th UAE National Day. December 2nd marks the celebration of the unification of the seven emirates in 1971. This date is celebrated annually and allows the United Arab Emirates to think about its past, present and future. The date commemorates the rich heritage, the civilization and perseverance of UAE to progress in all sectors. This is a special day for all UAE residents.
The Meydan Hotel assists us in our effort by offering logistic support at start and finish. We decide to start on the 1st of December at midday from the Meydan Hotel and racecourse, a prestigious location that also hosted the Dubai World Cup (the richest horse competition in the world). Arrival was expected on the following day, December 2nd – National Day, at the Bab Al Shams, fantastic desert resort, after 20-24 hours. Both I and Max like the course: from the present (hotel, facilities, city) to the origins (desert), to celebrate where it all began.
Days go by and the moment arrives. A few pictures, then I am on my way: it’s 12 o’clock sharp. I decided to leave in the warmest hours thinking it will take me about 20/24 hours; this way the hardest part will be challenged while still full of energy. And, in fact, the beginning was the hardest, especially for the motivation: leaving the city means crossing streets and highways, not the greatest landscape at times. Within 10/15 km the road begins to be surrounded by sand. It’s getting more difficult for the articulations in a way, especially on long distances. The first few hours were the hottest, so it became essential to manage the energy expenditure and prevent dehydration and early tiredness. Kilometers go by, slowly. More and more sand…less asphalt. After approximately 8 hours I am half way, almost easily. Two bottles of water, some dates and a couple of refilling along the route. Better than I expected.
The 50-km mark is at Inflight Dubai where we planned a rest stop. Some food, water and rest for the muscles, the articulations and the mind. Forty-five, sixty minutes later, wearing my night gear, we leave again.
The break helped. I breeze through the next 10 kilometers to the next checkpoint (the night is the most critical moment, therefore checkpoints are set every hour or 10 km; I also have car support) in less than 55 minutes. I am no longer on paved roads and I am now well into the Al Lisali area. A quick stop and off I go again. Ten more kilometers go by quickly…I am now at 70 km; I can’t believe it! I am starting to feel tired (above all mentally). It’s a better landscape compared to the city, but it’s dark, and I can’t see anything but the rare headlights of a few cars stopping to see if I need help. Some just say hi or “Salaaaam.” There are a lot of horse-riding schools around here, and I can hear the horses neighing. It’s dark, really dark and the road seems to go forever. The moon helps in not having to use a light but my rhytm is slowing down and I am agetting tired. I alternate fast walking to running.
With effort, I make it to the Al Qudra roundabout, where I bend towards the desert and then down to Bab al Shams, final destination. Seventeen hours and 40 minutes have gone by, and I am 10 kilometers to the end. I am elated. I will be arriving sooner than expected.
But the last 10 kilometers are endless. A long file of lights that are now off due to the hour of the day is separating me from the end. Sometimes I stop for a few minutes leaning on a palm tree or a rock to rest legs and back, even just for a few seconds. I am not cramping, but my back hurts everywhere. When end is in sight, you always try to run, but my mind is not letting me as I am not sure how far I really am. I continue walking for a few hundreds meters, and I stop again briefly. And the times go by; I am at 20 hours. Some trucks and cars go by; they are all travelling to Bab Al Shams or towards the horse-riding center. I almost asked for a ride.
I have no points of reference. I don’t know how far I am. But suddenly a car driven by Willem Duplooy, sports and recreation manager of the resort, who had come looking for me, arrived and honking, reached me and screamed “ You almost made it, don’t give up!”
My mind gave me the signal, and I began running again for the last 2/3 kilometers. The round about, the side street, the entrance to the resort, the security man that welcomes me and asks if I am the man from the Maydan, the indications for loading and unloading…the final street is uphill, but I finally see the sign to the reception a few meters away. I made it. 100 km. 20 hours and 10 minutes. I can’t help crying.
I am in pieces. Next few hours go by with breakfast, spa, rest, lunch with friends. Everything seems surreal. I still haven’t realized that I really made it, but I start focusing in on some aspects of this feat, thanks to the questions I start getting (some of the people around me were sports professionals): I drank less than 4 liters of water; I didn’t struggle to stay awake, thanks to the microcycles at fairly regular intervals; hour after hour I regained my normal motor functions and, although tired, I can almost walk effortlessly. I have breakfast and lunch regularly without too many metabolic problems.
I spend the afternoon at the Bab Al Sham resort that has organized a small celebration. I wear my runnning gear again and re-run the last kilometer for the official ribbon cutting. Incredibly, I feel almost no pain and I can still run up and down the dunes around the resort. One hundred meters to the end, I hear the speakers announcing my arrival, and I hear people clapping…a nice feeling for a non-professional athlete. I felt emotional when Willem presented me with the the Emirates flag.
I believe I deserve some rest now. I would like to thank all those who have been close to me before, during and after the event, including the Meydan chain and the Bab Al Shams resort for the logistical support and the celebration; I would like to thank also Renia for videos and pictures during the competition.
And although he mentioned it wasn’t necessary, I would like to conclude the article thanking Max Calderan, my coach and the Desert Academy. It’s true that I was a solo runner for 100 km, but it wouldn’t have been possible without him. Just a few months ago, my goal was to run 42 km in the desert within two years…
Keep calm and stay tuned for next challenge!