The Wadi Rum Ultramarathon

5 months of training, research and preparation down and finally the time came to get on a plane to Jordan. In life, I’m always surprised when things comes together. Like, how I’ve actually managed to book the right flights, pack the right things and end up in the right place. But somehow, I seem to manage it. After a stressful Friday night weighing out all my food, making an emergency dash to Go Outdoors for extra food (because, you know, I forgot Sunday was a real day) and going through my packing list for the 20th time, I was in bed by 11pm as ready as I’d ever be.

Two flights, a layover in Istanbul airport and a long coach journey spent laid in the aisle with my face pressed into the damp, musty-smelling carpet later, we got our first bleary-eyed glimpse of the camp we’d call home for the next few days. Slap bang in the middle of the Wadi Rum desert (also known as Valley of the Moon), the sights for miles were sand and rocks; giant wind-blasted formations that looked like something from another planet.

After a few more hours sleep the heat of the sun on the tents forced me to get up or risk drowning in a pool of my own sweat, and Sunday was spent lounging about getting kit and food checked, signing paperwork to give permission to leave me out in the desert at the mercy of vultures if anything happened (just kidding) and getting a tracker attached to my backpack which would let everyone at home see how slow I was my progress (and also had a HELP, GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE button and let the support crew to know where we were at all times so they could drive past and feel smug in their motor-powered vehicles).

The camp was kitted out with more comforts than I had expected: an actual toilet and a shower (well, a trickle of cold water, but still, it was RUNNING WATER). No pooing in the desert needed yet; although we quickly realised that this was sometimes a preferred option with a ratio of one toilet to many people (most of who were runners keen to get everything out before a day’s running – I’m sure you can imagine).

Day one and I woke up slightly more excited than a usual Monday morning, with a healthy dose of trepidation and a what-the-fuck-am-I-doing mantra swirling around my head. At this point I see-sawed between “shit, have I got everything” to utter calm and “let’s get this show on the road”. Gathering all my belongings, I prepared everything in an order that was to become the “lucky order” for each day from which I could not deviate AT ANY COST. You know, just in case it ruined EVERYTHING. And it always started before anything with opening the envelope from Sue, who’d given me a note for every day. So utterly grateful for that morale booster each morning. I’d remember each one the whole day I was running, repeating it to myself in my head or out loud so often it was like I’d got motivational speaking tourettes.

All kitted up we lined up at the start line, all nervous chatter and twitchy legs, itching to just get going and stop the fear of the unknown. And then BOOM, off we go. Everyone pretty much sprints off down the sand, the sound of cow bells trailing behind us. I look at my watch. Too fast. Miles too fast. I know roughly what time I should be running, and it’s not this, so I slow down and watch everyone else disappear into the distance, trying really hard to convince myself it’s OK to come last. That’s pretty much all I think about for the first 20km of this 47km day. I wasn’t there to compete, just to finish and enjoy it, but still, there’s a nagging little part of me that doesn’t want to be the slowest, that doesn’t want people at home to see me as the last little dot on the tracker. I know it doesn’t matter, I tell myself it over and over again. I tell myself a lot of these people have already done the Marathon des Sables, or rowed the Atlantic, or other ultras and that I shouldn’t even put myself in their league.

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And so I just run, at my own pace, in my own world. Slowly. It’s hot. It gets hotter. I’m unsure how much to drink. I eat, but not enough. Just before the 20km checkpoint there is a slight hill, and my legs just lose their energy. I recognise it as not having eaten enough, so I eat half a peanut butter sandwich. It is the driest thing on earth, because I haven’t drank enough and my mouth is mirroring the desert I’m running on. I force it down, chastising myself for not eating and drinking enough.

I run on, hotter and more tired, and have a bit of a walk and a chat with another runner. Grateful for the change in pace, I enjoy the walk but hate that I’m walking already at about 25km. So it turns into a run-a-bit, walk-a-bit shuffle with an inner monologue of annoyance at myself for just being a bit shit, and giving myself far too hard a time about the heat, food and drink. I try to distract myself with the scenery; because it is actually really quite breathtaking. And I see camels. REAL LIFE camels.

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I catch up with Sean at the last checkpoint and we walk the last bit together. I’m thankful for the distraction and enjoy the company. I take comfort in feeling better towards the end, like I could have run much more, and finish actually feeling pretty good and strong (although still chastising myself, this time for not running when I felt I could have. Own worst enemy. Sigh.).

Later, I learnt that everyone struggled at around 30km, when the sun was fiercely hot and legs were starting to get weary. This made me happier, in the slightly sadistic way that you’re pleased when you realise you’re not the only one. After a dip under the cold water trickle, I laid on the ground in the shade, legs up on a small stool (apparently elevating your legs after running that distance helps, no idea why), closed my eyes and gave myself a talking to. Weary and tired, I reminded myself that I’d just done OVER A BLOODY MARATHON, I actually felt good, I didn’t go to pieces and I didn’t actually finish last. But not that it would have mattered even if I had. Over the course of that first day, I realised just what I was up against with the heat and the sand. I realised that it didn’t matter what people at home thought about whether I was the last dot or not, that every step I did was another achievement FOR ME.

Slept like A LOG that night, after going to bed earlier than my 3 year old niece. Because, you know, sleep and rest is important for this kind of thing. And I was bloody shattered.

Loads of soft sand on the second day, the kind you see at the beach. Tough, but I actually felt better. I drank and ate more (little and often) so never hit that energy wall. Had a poo in the desert which was more pleasant than the camp toilet, and found Andy a small rock while doing it. Multi-tasking like a boss.

At one point I got offered a lift by a chap in a truck. As tempting as it could have been, I declined politely, indicating that I’d much rather continue to shuffle on in the heat with sweat sliding down my face, feeling mildly out of breath and slightly chafing bum cheeks. Running mainly alone, I enjoyed the solitude but can’t deny each 10km checkpoint was like a little oasis – people bearing gifts of water, electrolytes and conversation. At one point Ollie and John had to chivvy me along, otherwise I may have stayed there a while, basking in water and lime electrolytes.

This day felt long. Oh so long. Much longer than the first. Purely psychological, but my confidence was boosted with how much better I felt for pretty much the whole way round. Right then, I realised I might actually have a shot at doing this. I’d adopted a new strategy – run all the bits I could, and walk the soft sand or any uphills if I wanted to, and give myself permission to not feel bad about it.

Regardless of how hot it was, or how tired I might have felt, I was still enjoying every second. Just keep smiling. The views, the vastness, the sense of wonder at this natural beauty. Beats going to work of a morning to sit in front of a computer screen. That delicious feeling of physical exhaustion at the end of a day, where you lay down, get warm and cosy in your sleeping bag, close your eyes and drift off to a solid, deep sleep. Bliss.

And a good job too, for the next morning our wake up call was 3.45am, and a start time of 5.00am, as this was The Long Day. We had 70km to cover, so headtorches at the ready to start in the dark. Yeeeessssss, this meant a cool start, and we got to see the sun rise over the rocks.

I ran this entire day without seeing another runner, and mainly no music or any distractions. Just me and my brain, and all those pretty much non stop inner thoughts. Most of which just come and go, and I couldn’t tell you what I actually thought about, but occasionally thoughts of “how the fuck am I going to keep this up for another X amount of hours/km” would creep in. I’d bat them away, desperately trying to trick myself. Step by step, kilometre by kilometre. It’s the only way to do it. One step further is one step nearer to the finish line.

I ran the first 40km pretty comfortably, enjoying the checkpoint with Lee and Kieran. Not because Kieran relieved my shoulder tension (as this was done with the pokey fingers of pain). Not because I got to eat lunch (a rather delicious tuna and bulgar wheat ready-packed salad, delicious only because it was proper food). No, at this point I was officially over half way of the total distance (I really couldn’t believe this, I felt like I was only just getting going), and over half way of The Long Day. I was ON FIRE. I felt GREAT.

It didn’t last long.

About another 10km to be precise. When I hit a rather large, very soft sand dune in the fierce sun with no shade, no breeze, no nothing which went on for fucking ages. I’d already got lost and run an extra kilometre, I started to worry about getting sun burnt because I’d been out for ages (although I fashioned a rather attractive arm cover out of my buff – not just for cold climates – top tip: always carry a buff) and I was just so bloody HOT. I walked the last 10km or so, listening to music and singing at the top of my voice (lucky because I was alone, it sounds bad). A surprise checkpoint at 5km to go was like Christmas – John and Lee, like desert angels, offering cool water and funny chat. John walked out to meet me with his green spray bottle, hosing me down like a hot dog.

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A short while after, and many more songs sung, I climbed my way into camp that night; a gigantic rock in the open in the middle of the desert. Wild camping at it’s best! No tents, just mattresses laid with a perfect view of the desert night sky. At this point I’d started to feel the effects of three days running in the desert; heat rash, bum cheek chafing and a blister was starting to form underneath my left big toenail (I’d tripped over a rock that day and pulled the nail back slightly). The after-race ritual had become: get cleaned & changed, eat, tend to any ailments (savlon, plasters, moisturising cream, paracetamol, ibuprofen or anything else medical that might help), massage by Kieran-pointy-fingers-of-pain-Lowe, eat again, prepare kit for next day, sleep.

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After falling asleep under millions and trillions of stars, I woke up to a throbbing in my left toe. I’m surprised I couldn’t see it physically moving, like in an old cartoon. Cue immediate panic that I might not be able to run. Was it all over? I felt so good physically (legs not achy, energy levels were good) that I’d be devastated if what stopped me was a sodding toenail. Decided to just ignore it and see how I got on. Popped some painkillers and slathered a load of savlon on it (because we all know that cures EVERYTHING) and on we went.

Ran with Charlie the first 10km, having a rather nice chat and when the first checkpoint came around I was surprised, as it hadn’t seemed 10 minutes since we set off. This is a Good Sign in races like this – as every 10km is a check off the list as to distance completed. Toe was absolutely fine, so water topped up and anti-chafe gel applied on my bum, we headed off, deciding to run together using Charlie’s strategy of run most of a kilometre, walk the last few metres (repeat ad infinitum). It was a nice change, not just the run/walk but to have some company, especially as the scenery soon turned out to be not the most inspiring, running around a huge fenced compound with lookout towers and guards with guns. It did give way to conversation about what the compound actually was (though still not entirely sure). It was also BLOODY HOT, mainly running on flat, hard ground with nothing in the distance appearing to get closer. Mentally, this was really tough, and we were both glad there was someone else there to help distract / suffer at the same time.

My legs were definitely starting to feel tired by the end of the day, and it became harder to switch from running to walking, and back again. It was a really strange feeling going between to two, and for the first few seconds of going to a run I’d want to walk again, and likewise when going to a walk I’d want to run again. I realised that my body was just getting into a rhythm and would just keep going and going and going until my brain said otherwise (and that’s why they say ultra running is more of a mental thing than a physical).

That night we stayed at what I can only describe as a Desert Butlins. It was a like a holiday camp in middle of the desert. We had proper beds in small tents, and the main area had an entertainment area, complete with stage and disco music pumping out, and Other People. I didn’t like this. I liked the solitude, peace and quiet of the other camps. Where we could finish, and go about the daily routine of run, eat, sleep that had become so normal in our own little bubbles. This felt like an assault on that bubble, especially with it being the last night – I wanted to quietly contemplate the fact that I only had 35km and one day to go. Each day was a massive assault on my senses – my emotions and feelings would be all over the place each night as I came to terms with the fact I managed to finish each day. Each morning I was incredulous that I was actually at that start line, able to keep going. Never once did I take it for granted that I would be able to; things could change in a second out there with dehydration, blisters, sunburn and injury all real risks lurking in the background, ready to strike.

The last morning, the camp was in high spirits, everyone’s excited and keen to get going. After a rather pleasant night’s sleep in a proper bed (TREAT!), the final kit preparation done we were ready to go. Part of me couldn’t wait, but I felt a twinge of sadness as I read Sue’s final message, as I realised that this was the last time I’d do this and after today it would all be over.

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I ran the entire 35km, just taking my time and enjoying it. The scenery was immense, all big rocks, sweeping dunes and wide open plains.

After about 7km and feeling strong I had a sudden realisation that “I might actually bloody do this!”, which got me a bit emotional. You know, the kind of stabby, choking feeling in your throat where you try not to cry. Each day I’d not allowed myself to think any further ahead than each step, but today I did. I still didn’t think of myself as someone who did this kind of thing, and thought back to when I signed up and was wondering just how the hell I was actually going to do it. But I had, I realised. I had. Little by little, step by step with a lot of training, research and preparation.

I listened to the messages/songs/jokes people had left me through trialling a service for I Think Sport which had me laughing out loud, so utterly grateful for the support. I can’t tell you what it means to have everybody behind you, willing you on. So fabulous to hear so many familiar voices, and a wonderful surprise to hear some I hadn’t heard in years.

And as soon as I’d began, all of a sudden I was on the last kilometre. Subconsciously, I’d sped up and I felt like I was flying! (In reality I was doing 6:45/km, not fast at all, haha) I could see the finish line, and – BOOM – I was over it, cheers and whistles ringing in my ears. I’D DONE IT! I’d only bloody gone and done it. All 260km and 5 days of it.

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I wish I’d thought about a more inventive finish line photo pose, but I’d never much thought about finishing or what I’d do. I should have asked Dave D for tips.

Finishing was a weird feeling; almost an anti climax. Once the initial euphoria had worn off, it was back to normal. Eat, get out of trainers, chat with others and wait for the next guys to come in. I was over the moon that I’d finished, and finished with no injury (well apart from the blister under my toenail which Kieran helpfully popped by squishing my nail just after I’d finished – I’ve honestly never felt pain like it). And I was glad I didn’t have to get up and run again the next day. But I was sad that it was all over. Sad that the adventure was nearly at an end.

After one of the Best Showers In The World (not the actual shower, it was a dribble and it was in the dark because there was no light bulb), we hopped on a bus for a few hours to take us away from Desert Butlins to our hotel in Petra. Discovering the bus had wifi was probably akin to James Marshall finding gold in America. Cue a silent bus journey, everyone catching up with family and friends, lost in their thoughts of finishing and contemplating their achievement. I’d not taken my phone off aeroplane mode for a week, and as I scrolled through all my notifications, messages and saw all the chatter about my run over the last week, I got a bit overwhelmed. It hadn’t really sunk in, and I suspected it wouldn’t for a while.

A couple of beers, some proper food and a small presentation ceremony where we got our medals rounded off the day, and I sunk into bed by 10pm, my body battered with grazes from chafing from my sports bra, a manky toenail and heat rash and absolutely shattered but so very wearily happy. This was one occasion where I wasn’t the last person standing, recovering by drinking my body weight in beer. Nope, I owed my body more than that this time.

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A lazy morning and an attempt at a giant breakfast (I couldn’t eat that much food, think my stomach had shrunk) gave us some energy to walk about 16km around Petra (active recovery anyone?). Beautiful place and a great day with lots of laughs, followed by a campfire out in the desert and a little nap. A perfect way to end the trip.

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Thanks to all the support crew: Jamie, Lee, Kieran, Lucy, Michael, Thor, Ben & Ben and all the others who made this such a well run, fun and safe event.

Thanks to all the other runners for being such a great bunch of people, it was a pleasure to take part in this with you all.

Thanks to all my friends and family for all their support, donations and well wishes, including my unicorn-tastic celebrations straight from the airport. It’s not just the event, but all the training over the summer, all the £2 training plan runs and putting up with my moans and groans. Turns out it was all worth it.

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£2,319.50 was raised for NMO-UK Research Foundation which is just awesome, THANK YOU SO MUCH.

Video clips of the run, a bit long and disjointed but you get the picture:

 

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