2021 was a breakthrough year with respect to the amount of training I have done. For the first time ever, I have reached an average weekly training volume of 10 hours. This might still be relatively low for the type of events I usually join, especially for Ultra marathon runs, but it is an increase of more than 17.5% versus last year and I’m not sure I will be able to repeat this in 2022, or ever for that matter.
Most of the training hours that I’ve added went into cycling and resulted in an annual kilometer increase of close to 50%. This wasn’t by choice but by necessity. I had suffered from knee pain that increased steadily after each run until one day, I had just arrived in Germany for a few days off from work, I went out running and had to end the run abruptly after 3 and a half kilometers only, with so much pain that I could barely walk back home. An MRI revealed a meniscus tear that should have required surgery. I stopped running (and exercising) completely for 2 weeks, then I started again with reduced volume and speed for quite a long time. I was planning to undergo surgery, but didn’t know when to do it, especially since I had already signed up for 3 challenges I would have really hated to forgo. I remembered that I had a similar situation with my other knee a few years back. The pain was very similar and the MRI as well. It took one and a half years back then before the pain disappeared completely to the point that I wasn’t even sure anymore on which side it had been. Based on that experience, I decided to at least delay the surgery and see.
The Covid-19 pandemic continues to have a positive impact on the amount of training I’m able to do. For one, there is virtually no business travel at all. The virtual connects with remote team members and colleagues all over the world have become very efficient and our new normality that will remain post covid. Eliminating interruptions by business trips to my training plan meant more consistency which is crucial for performance improvements. Secondly, the 80% work-from-home arrangement that I have been following for about one and a half years has also helped to save commuting time and re-invest it into training. Very often, I would finish my last virtual meeting or conference call of the day and 10 minutes later I’d be running outside or sitting on my bike in the basement to start a Zwift ride. While, like everyone else, I hope that the pandemic will end soon, I sure hope also that some of the new approaches of doing things will remain and enable us to integrate personal interests with work appropriately.
The 3 challenges I had committed myself to were Ironman 70.3 Egypt (November 2021), Hathor100 Ultra Trail run in Sinai (December 2021) and Qarun66 Ultra Trail run (coming up in February 2022). My knee had to work for these. I had also signed up for the Galala 140k cycling challenge (October 2021), but that was not impacted by my knee pain. Cycling somehow even helped alleviate the pain, even after a run.
The Galala challenge motivated me to do several long bike rides ranging from 100 km to 130 km in the weeks leading to the event. Given that Ironman 70.3 Egypt was exactly 4 weeks after Galala, I took it as a nice long training ride. As the elevation profile shows, the first 90 kilometers were pretty smooth and easy, especially when you’re working together in a group. Then the challenge starts with the strong incline between 90 and 120 kilometers, where you’re mostly on your own. I was indeed literally on my own as I had suffered 2 consecutive punctures at around 87 kilometers and had to ride and finish on my own as of that point. I was faster than last year, and it felt easier. Higher training volume seems to have had a positive impact, though not as much as I had hoped.
Ironman 70.3 Egypt:
Four weeks later, I was with my long-term support crew, my wife, in Sahl el Hasheesh for the half-ironman event. A lot of hype and publicity was created around that event as it was the first one organized under the global Ironman Brand name, while past events were organized by local “Trifactory”. While I liked the professional level of organization, I would always prefer to support a local company over any near monopolist. I do not understand the excitement of participants who didn’t care to join Half-ironman events when they were organized by Trifactory, nor do I understand why officials from the ministry of sports seemed to give this branded event preferential treatment over locally (and also professionally) organized events. Anyway, the event was very nice.
I usually try to compete with and beat my previous self, but in Triathlon, it is difficult to compare with previous events. The courses, weather, and other conditions are usually different and have a greater impact on results than the slight physical improvement (or the opposite) that one hopes to see based on training. Indications come from how one feels and from references to other participants you know from similar previous events. Both were pointing in the right direction. I did feel stronger, although on the first 45 kilometers or so on the bike, heading out from Sahl el Hasheesh to Hurghada, fighting headwinds of 36 km/hr, almost caused me to cramp. Race officials driving back and forth on motorcycles and warning cyclists very frequently to abide by the non-drafting rules made me worry continuously whether I was too close to the rider in front or not. I think I never was, but I was often reluctant to overtake in an unclear situation. I still appreciate the rigor of the officials though. Some participants honestly need to be disciplined. I started the run strong; stronger than I should have. It made me slow down later, but it wasn’t too bad. The run course along the beach of the Red Sea was enjoyable and I was engaging with volunteers and other runners. When you follow people on social media for a while, you develop a feeling of knowing them at least if not even one of friendship, due to your similar interests, potentially compounded by the fact that they liked a post or comment of yours here or there. I always need to remind myself that this is not necessarily the case. I passed by a Saudi runner, whom I know from social media. He had slowed down for some reason, so I said: “good Job, Ali”. Ali was written on his tri-suit. When he picked up speed again and was going to pass me, he cheered me too. Then I asked: “You’re Ali Magboul, right?” He confirmed. I had read that he had recently been appointed Head of the Saudi Triathlon federation, so I congratulated him for that, wished him success and expressed my hope to hear good news and see great activities coming soon from their side. Then I told him to feel free to follow his own pace, and he sped away. I finished the last 1 kilometer of the run walking, not because I couldn’t run, but I felt I needed to soak in the enjoyable atmosphere, which I did.
Just 3 weeks later, Hathor100 was on the agenda; the hardest challenge for the year. I had joined the first 2 editions of this 2-day 100 km desert trail run in Sinai in the last 2 years. This year, Ultraegypt offered 3 different formats: a 1-day 50k run, a 2-day 100k (50+50), and a 2-day 130k (50+80). I signed up for 130k, because … ummm … why not? Shortly after registering, my knee problem worsened extremely as mentioned and I was not sure for a long time whether I would be able to join or not. Luckily, things improved just enough to allow me to join.
We left Cairo on Thursday morning by van and arrived at Serabit El Khadem camp in Sinai early afternoon. The Bedouin tribe that owns the place seemed to have made further slight improvements compared to the last 2 years. But, otherwise, it was still basically the same. Like last year, I had brought my own tent with me and set it up next to the only other tent which was Samuel’s whom I knew from last year. All others stayed in the 2 big common quarters; one for women only and the other mixed. We were 27 participants in total; 5 were signed up for the 50k distance, 13 for 100k, and 9 for 130k including me.
Day 1 was a common course for all of us. We started at dawn and I ran different parts of the route with different people. At some point, I found myself running with Ra’id. We were joined by Ben for some part, who shot a nice video of his race (100k). I recommend to everyone contemplating to join Hathor100 in the future to watch it for an excellent impression of what one could expect to see and go through (Hathor 100 - YouTube). I think it was just after CP2 (20k) when Ra’id and I caught up with Khames and ran together for a while before he slowed down. CP3 (30k) was at the site of the temple of Hathor, namesake of the race and one of the highlights. Heading towards it, Melissa from Colorado joined us for a while. I would’ve got lost there, but Ra’id led the way to the temple. There, we caught up with Omar. When Omar left CP3 I followed him and we ran a steep section down on steps and rocks. Ra’id seemed to be doing very well running down after he caught up and overtook us. I lost sight of him for a while. Omar started slowing down, so I went on my own and caught up with Ra’id again. From there on, we stayed together till the end of day 1, arriving hand in hand at the finish line.
Day 2 was going to be my longest single day run distance yet. Nominally, it was supposed to be 80k, however, the downloaded GPS route showed 76k. It ended up being 74 km on my watch; still my longest run ever. We started with head torches in pre-dawn darkness, an hour earlier than the previous day. Ra’id was going to do the 100k version, so I was expecting a lonely run for most of the day. I ran with Amr from Dubai until CP1 (10k) where we had to separate as he was doing the 100k version. Approaching CP2 (20k) I saw a runner had already left and I barely recognized him as Nawasany. I took my time at CP2 as I felt tension in my right calf. The physiotherapists from Physique, who have been supporting Ultraegypt races since their inception, did a great job making me feel refreshed. I had met Yahia from Physique on day 1 at the temple of Hathor and learned that he’s from Syria.
Yahia took good care of me at 3 different CPs on day 2 when a real professional deep tissue massage was badly needed. Already in previous races, Physique had proven to be real life savers. Shortly after I departed CP2, I started seeing Nawasany far away. I couldn’t hope to catch him, but after a few kilometers of following the Orange dot, i.e. Nawasany in his orange color Wadi Ibex team t-shirt, he stopped for some reason. I reached him and signaled to continue together. It must have been around kilometer 25 when we started running shoulder to shoulder for the next 50 km until the finish line.
Finding one out of nine 130k runners with a similar pace on that day was not an obvious expectation. Here and there, I felt I could go faster. But, then again at some CPs, Nawasany was the one pulling. When we left CP7, sunset was getting closer and it was clear that we would have to run for the last hour or so in the dark. When I stopped being able to recognize the data on my watch, I decided to get my head torch out of the backpack. A couple of minutes after I switched it on, it went off again. It kept doing that for a few times until it stopped working completely. It had run out of charge. It must have been on while in the backpack. Complete darkness covered us. Without the head torch of Nawasany, I would not have been able to continue. Light of head torches is relatively focused and the illuminated area relatively small. I followed Nawasany as closely as I could, often not even seeing where my feet were landing in the sandy, rocky, and steep areas. Twisting an ankle seemed to be more likely than not, and I was mentally getting ready for it. After a last turn to the right, we started seeing the lights of the camp. We made it together to the finish line where we were received by a few people including Tamer, race director, and Omar Samra, head of Ultraegypt.
What an experience! When Ultra runners are asked about the reason they run extreme distances, they often reply with explanations related to discovering their physical or mental limits. Honestly, I haven’t yet discovered my reason. But, on that day, I know I got pretty close to discovering my limits.
I will leave my thoughts about plans for 2022 for a future post. Do you have any recommendations? Also, let me know if you have any questions or would like to join some of the events.
Happy New Year, everyone!