Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Hathor 100

I‘m not sure how I got to it, but I saw a post by @UltraEgypt on Instagram about a multi-stage 100k Ultrarun in the desert of Sinai and decided to join even if I wouldn’t finish. It was supposed to be a 2-day run; 35k on the first day followed by 65k on the second. The longest run I had done was 64.3k a few years back, in a rested state. This was going to be more. But I thought I should have a good level of fitness after having done 3 different races since the end of July, one of which was Ironman Hamburg which I wrote about earlier. It was all about getting my running muscles used to the duration. So, I focused on duration for the last few runs, building up to 18 km and 35 km 7 and 6 days before the race. That should suffice, I hoped. I had no other choice anyway.


The race briefing at the Osana family wellness center in Maadi a few days before the race was helpful. I got to know some of the running mates and, most importantly, I heard for the first time about the app called „GaiaGPS“ that was mandatory to download and use to navigate the course. This app proved to be extremely beneficial later in the race. Hazem, from the organizers, responded patiently to all requests of a dozen of participants who joined the briefing. The cut-off time for the first day was convenient. For the second day (65k), we were supposed to start at 3 am and have 15 hours to complete the distance around sunset. Someone calculated that this meant one could walk slowly and still finish, and folks requested to start later. Hazem agreed to consider it and finalize the starting time after the first day. Little did we know that running in that terrain on tired legs in soft sand and some climbs would prove to be more difficult than we thought.

Travel day:

On Thursday morning, the travel day, we were to meet at the Emirati embassy at 9 am. I had packed the night before and slept only for a few hours. The Alexandria Desert Road was very foggy, but I managed to be at the meeting point 15 minutes ahead of time. This wasn’t the case for a couple of others who came up to an hour and a half late.

We had 2 minibuses; one took foreigners and women and the other mostly male Egyptians. I was in the first one. The idea was that at the checkpoint just before the tunnel to Sinai, the foreigners’ bus wouldn’t get checked. This was true in deed, but we still had to wait for the other bus that got checked thoroughly causing us to separate. The ride was lengthy, but provided ample opportunity to get to know some of the fellow runners. A surprise was to find out that Mena and Deeds were my neighbors in Allegria, our compound in Sheikh Zayed city. They immediately invited me to join their whatsapp group of “serious” Allegria runners. Alina sitting next to me came from Dubai to join the race. She’s a psychologist like my daughter. We concluded that the psychology business is anti-cyclical. The worse the economy, the busier the psychologists, and vice versa. I also learned that Hayam got into trail running when she did her master’s degree in environmental studies in New Zealand. Then there was Nicha who has a massage business in Maadi. Nirvana from Gouna registered last minute for the race. About Neena, I understood later that she runs the Osana wellness center where the briefing took place, and .... let me mention it now.... she’s a beast ... she was the fastest female and 3rd fastest overall. Maria is a Brazilian who fell in love with Egypt and keeps coming back. And finally, Peggy and Trevor from Canada, and some other countries. They are expats in Egypt working for a big Hotel chain (Intercontinental). If I forgot anyone who was on the same bus, I’ll blame on my age. Talking about age .... I did forget someone: Zohra. Zohra is an Algerian lady who grew up in the south of France and is now living in Egypt. I heard she is 69. Unbelievable. 
At Ras Sidr, we had to turn into the desert to take the last 30 minutes to our destination. We waited for the second bus at the beginning of that last part.

A car that belonged to the organizing team stopped with us and Malcolm was in it. Malcolm is a carpenter from Colorado who courageously decided on a short notice to travel to Egypt and join the race. He signed up and flew for the first time to the Middle East, or any non-English speaking country for that matter. I had followed him on instagram, but I had to double-check and, yes, he was “Vegan Ultra-runner”. Throughout the whole weekend, I was trying to see everything through his lenses, wondering what he was thinking. Everything that was new to me and probably tons of other things I took for granted, were in all likelihood totally exciting for him.....or maybe rather surprising or weird?

Finally, we arrived at base camp.

A round, kind of open hut with a pillar in the center and a thatched roof was our bedroom.....a 26-person bedroom. I chose a mattress and had M. Ayman and Omar Elgalla to my left and right respectively. I’m sorry guys if my snoring kept you awake and impacted your race results. This was my strategy... psychological warfare (just joking).

I started preparing my backpack, filling the bottles with electrolytes and packing nutrition, mainly snickers of which I had brought 20 bars with me, 40g or about 200 kcal each. I counted and packed a few Calcium and a few Sodium Bicarbonate pills, counted again, took a few out, counted, put a few back in, and so on. I fixed the bib and tested carrying the trail poles, which I was not planning to use, but thought I had to carry them since they were mandatory. And, by the way, I neither used them on the first day, nor even carried them anymore on the second day, just because I’m not used to them. After dinner in the dark, we went to bed.

The night was freezing cold. Everybody seemed to have brought a sleeping bag with them except me. I expected blankets to be there, but none were to be found. I slept with 3 layers plus a Jacket on top and I put on a hat. In the middle of the night I decided to put my running leggings on top of my pants, which was a bit tight. Then an hour later, I put a second pair of socks on. I survived the night to find out during the day that they were giving sleeping bags and blankets to those who wanted. I know of at least one more person who shivered throughout the night without a blanket too, Amr who also came to the race from Dubai. I was happy the night was over and it was time to wake up .... or... just stand up.

Day 1:

At 4:30 am, I woke up, completed preparations and we had breakfast around the fire place. The run started 20 minutes later than scheduled, at 6:20 am. The sun had just risen. 35 km were planned for the first day.

There were some uphills, sandy sections, and technical descents, even very steep ones ... a good mix. My objective was to race smart, conserve energy on the first day as the second day was going to be decisive with respect to finishing or DNF-ing. Finishing the race was my sole goal.

I finished the first day in 5 hours. That was ok, but the problem was that my toes hurt from the sand that entered my shoes. First lesson learned: sand gaiters are a must-have for desert runs. I also had sore muscles. I thought I could only hope to recover over night, but then I had a massage by the accompanying physiotherapists. It hurt so much. They almost killed me. But, when they were done, I felt immediately the difference. I knew I was going to be ready for the next day. The only problem was my headache. I came to the race not having fully recovered from a cold I caught while traveling to India and the cold night with little sleep didn’t help. An ibuprofen 400 pill and then another one a few hours later and the dinner helped.

And I got a blanket. In bed, I prepared my backpack for the next day counted the salt pills and the snickers bars, filled the water bottles with electrolyte powder, and this time I also filled the 1.5 liter bladder with electrolytes. I only needed to add water in the morning.

Day 2:

I woke up before 4 am on the second day. We were going to start the race at 5 am. Several people took a relatively long time to finish the 35 km on day 1 and the group negotiated an extension of the cut-off time to the old duration, i.e. 15 hours, finishing in the dark at 8 pm. As a compromise, runners were expected to pass the 44k mark within 11 hours to demonstrate that there was a chance for them to finish the total distance in time. I had worn my Adidas trail shoes on the first day and because of my hurting toes decided to wear the Salomon ones on the second day. I was hoping the pressure would be on different areas of my toes. I tested the water bladder and it didn’t work. The electrolyte powder had combined with the little remaining droplets of water and solidified, blocking the valve. Everybody was already walking to the start line when I made 2 quick decisions; I removed the bladder and carried an additional bottle in my hand and I changed my shoes again to the same ones as on the first day. These were the right decisions.Then we started the 65 km day.
When we arrived at the base camp on day zero, we were told that the military authorities made a last minute modification to the course, citing security reasons, thus cutting it by 14 km down to 51 km. Malcolm had suggested though to add 14 km at the end of the race going the same route for 7 km out and back. We were joking about it the night before and about how difficult it is going to be to arrive at the finish line after 51 km only to continue for another 14 km. I called it the “The Malcolm 14”. That name stuck and everyone wanted it to be part of future races as well such that it becomes a tradition. Luckily, the organizers decided to have the Malcolm 14 at the beginning of the race, i.e. 7 km out and back and then out again for 51 km. This sounded much better than doing it at the end of the run. Little did we know that these were the sandiest 7 km. Almost everybody was just walking uphill in soft sand in the dark with headlights on.
My toes continued hurting and I stopped at least 3 times during the day, took my shoes off, emptied them and brushed the sand off my socks. I ran partially with Sherief, a Director at Oracle living in Dubai and one of the ambassadors of this race. He had done some of the sections before and helped navigating the climbing section. At some point I had to slow down and lost him. I ran alone.

Later, I caught up and passed him when he was taking a shirt off. It had started to get warm. I was now following Neena and Zohra who were a couple of hundred meters ahead of me, a distance that I liked to have between me an the runners ahead because it allowed me to run a straight line to their position, ensuring that I took the most efficient route. I caught up with them at an aid station 34 kilometers into the race. Sherief joined us there too. Then all of them left while I enjoyed a break of 15 minutes receiving a great massage by the magicians of physiotherapy ( I filled my bottles, had some of the refreshing carrot juice, and a strengthening bowl of lentil soup.

I ran alone for the rest of the day. At the last aid station at kilometer 55, I caught up with Sherief and M. Ayman who seemed to be having a longer break and enjoying massage. I only stopped for a short while and left before them after another bowl of lentil soup and some orange slices. I only had a 10k run remaining. Running slowly, I tried to do some math in my head and decided that I had a chance to finish below 10 hours. So, I sped up. A kilometer or so after that aid station, I was shocked by someone calling my name from the left side. I turned to the voice and to my surprise I saw Zohra coming from the side. She had gotten lost a bit and found back to the trail. I apologized and explained that I had a chance to finish within 10 hours and I wanted to take that chance. I sped up again. After another kilometer or so I heard people shouting from the left side again. It seemed to be a military building where 2 soldiers were standing on something like a tower, waving and saying something I could not hear clearly. It looked like they wanted me to stop. I waved back innocently and ignored their continued calls. I was thinking what if they shot? Or, what if they took a car and came after me. None of that happened. I took a last turn left onto a paved street for the last 2 km. I knew that base camp was on the left side somewhere at the end of the road, and I didn’t want to run past it like I’d almost done the day before. But, I missed it again. Luckily, someone was waiting at the entrance to the camp which was the finish line as well. They saw me and shouted. I turned around and was only thinking I have to finish within 10 hours. I entered the gate to the base camp and stopped my Garmin watch. 9 hours, 59 minutes and 34 seconds.
Omar Samra, founder of the race organizing company was there. Malcolm, Amr Ismail, and Neena had already arrived. I was 4th overall, 3rd male.

I couldn’t believe it and I didn’t really care. I was so happy just to have arrived. I was very surprised to hear from Amr that he had caught up with Malcolm at the last aid station, 10 km before the finish line. He said when he saw Malcolm, all emotions came up in him and he cried. Malcolm had bonked a bit and reenergized at the aid station. Running the last 10k with Amr helped pushing him and he started gaining again when they hit the asphalt road for the last 2 km. Amr had started to cramp. Finally, both finished in under 8 hours, Amr only a couple of minutes behind. What a great race by Amr. He had started the race 15-20 minutes late because he needed to wait for the morning prayers time. This is not to say that he would have won though, because Malcolm could have adjusted his speed earlier to counter the challenge. Either way, a great performance by both. And Neena? Simply impressive. My true hero though was Zohra. Had she not gotten lost, she would’ve certainly “chicked” me, if I can use this expression for a 69-year-old lady.

The aftermath:

I felt quite good except for a swollen, very hurting big toe of my right foot, with a blister that had lifted the whole nail. I could only wear slides on the way back home the next day. A day later I had to travel to Germany and I had to find a solution other than slides. I took my oldest pair of adidas running shoes which I like very much and cut the toe box off. No one seemed to notice on my way from Egypt to Germany.

This was a unique experience. I learned a lot. I know I could do better and that is why I cannot wait to join the 2nd edition next year. I hope I will meet again all the friends I made. In less than 3 days we became a family.

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