Written By Guy Carpenter
Guy is Race Director of Ultra X Sri Lanka, Ultra X Jordan and Ultra X Wales. A former Jordan finisher and army officer, he knows a thing or two about how to create a great event.
What a way to kick start our 2022 season! This race had it all. First timers on the podium, heated competition across the field, time penalties, extreme weather, cancelled race days, tears and a lot of joy.
In a 5-day race with so many moving parts, as the Race Director, I felt the need to confirm aspects of our planning the week prior to welcoming our participants. A short trip to Uva Province with co-founder Sam Heward confirmed we had covered everything beforehand. Despite the electricity blackouts and the food and fuel shortages, everything looked well set up for the race. Planning had gone well, we were optimistic for a smooth and well-run race.
ARRIVAL INTO SRI LANKA
As is the case with all 250km events, competitors convene before the race week begins in country at a race hotel where registration, kit checks and the race briefing is held before they transfer to campsite 1. As such, on Sunday the 20th March our crew with 54 competiros in tow travelled down from the beautiful beach setting of the Goldi Sands Hotel in Negombo, to the also beautiful, camp 1, Passi Ella
On arrival, a flurry of colours representing our partners SriLankan Airlines dazzled us all. All competitors were shortly greeted by our wonderful local crew preparing fresh coconuts in quick succession. We had mentioned this would be a holiday for our runners, but I’m not sure everyone believed us!
With the sun coming down following their evening briefing and butterflies in their stomachs, our runners tried to settle for the night before the start at 8 am the following day.
Despite the repeated warnings to all competitors to not go out too quickly and emphasising “you can’t win the race on Day 1, but you can certainly lose it” the runners set off at a blistering pace, managing to overtake our media vehicle as they set off for 41km in the scorching Sri Lankan sun. The humidity and high temperatures (approximately 37 degrees celsius) remained a constant for the rest of the week and tempered the efforts of some.
To ensure the safety of all competitors, our crew consisting of osteopaths, medics and general volunteers were supplemented by a local crew of motorbike riders to patrol the entire course. I patrolled the 2nd half of the peloton, as I would come to do every day, to reassure the runners continually exposed to the elements.
Perennial Ultra X Jordan winner Salameh Al-Aqra finished in first place on Day 1 followed shortly by Jess Furness in the women’s category. Salameh was subsequently given a time penalty for missing an item on the mandatory kit list – something he would not do again.
Many of our competitors felt the effects of the heat, in particular Libby Simpson, a wonderful runner who unfortunately had to be taken to a local hospital at the end of the day. She has made a full recovery and we hope to see her again at a future event!
With the repeated message to take it easy on Day 2, reapply sunscreen and force down their electrolytes, our competitors set off on a relatively long stage covering 57km. Despite leaving at 6am and allowing 2 hours to cover 10km to the first checkpoint, we had our first enforced withdrawal. This was the start of a trend on Day 2 where we had a further 7 withdrawals due to either injury or missing the cut-offs. The Ultra X checkpoint teams are known for their boisterous encouragement and never-ending energy as they endeavour to provide not just a literal lifeline to our runners, but also a morale boost to the get to the finish. Despite this, and starting with 54 competitors on Day 1, 44 runners presented themselves at the evening briefing.
This spectacular new camp setting and possibly the knowledge that Stage 3 was a shorter day, led to a tangible buzz amongst our competitors. In an attempt to avoid the mid-afternoon sun, the stage start time was brought forward to 6am, having been planned for 7am. Despite the slightly cooler temperatures and the shaded route leading into Checkpoint 1, we had a further two withdrawals at the 10km mark. These were to be the last on Day 3. A couple of our competitors choose either voluntarily or by mistake (who knows…) to do an extra 5km loop before reaching Checkpoint 2. A thankfully uneventful remainder of the stage finished back at Dambeara Reservoir where our race would take an unexpected turn.
While some of our competitors and crew enjoyed a quick shower in the Sri Lankan rain, the wind picked up, and the water levels started to rise. The conditions deteriorated quickly and before too long; I gave the order to evacuate camp. Thankfully our crew and runners were receptive to this and moved quickly. A suitable alternative for overnight accommodation was found a mere 10-minute drive away in a local Buddhist temple. With our equipment in a state unknown, rivers rising rapidly and the terrain uncertain, the difficult decision to cancel Day 4 was made and communicated to the runners.
Day 4 would now be replaced with a rest day at our third base location at Thuduwa Camp. Did we mention this was meant to be a holiday for the runners? On arrival, they were greeted not only by coconuts once again but also by a 15-metre infinity pool looking over another reservoir (one less likely to flood our camp!).
Up until this point, Salameh Al-Aqra and Jess Furness had won each stage in their respective categories, but that didn’t mean Stage 5 would be without a twist! Two competitors had to withdraw due to medical reasons by the 20km mark, but thankfully these would be the final withdrawals of the race.
Ready for some drama? Despite following a police escort at the front of the pack on Day 5, Salameh took a wrong turn which led to him doing a further 5km before re-joining the route. Knowing Mike Wardian, currently sitting in second place, would be within touching distance of the overall win, Salameh charged through the peloton to make up time and looked comfortable to take yet another stage win. Rahil Sachak-Patwa, podium finisher in Ultra X Jordan 2019, saw an opportunity to pip Salameh for the stage win and in quite spectacular fashion dived through the finish line banner in first place – much to the amazement of co-founder Sam Heward.
With never ending smiles and a few tears, the remaining runners of our Ultra X Sri Lanka Class of 22’ finished the final day amazed at what they had all just achieved. The lasting feeling after a multiday ultramarathon is that you can do so much more than you previously believed – this will stay with our competitors for a long time.
As the sun set on our final evening, the awards ceremony started. First overall Female, no surprise to anyone, was Jessica Furness, and for the second time, Salameh Al-Aqra won First Male, having previously won it in 2019.
Our races are so much more than who finishes on the podium, and to reinforce this, some “Special Awards” were handed out to select individuals. These included Best Dressed, Best Navigated, Most Energy on Course, Most Poorly Paced, Most Dramatic Finish, Best Duo and Most Caffeinated Runner awards. Our Crew get to know each and every one of our participants throughout the week – we call this the Bubble. We cherish it and there is nothing else like it.
As a final surprise and to put the cherry on top of their Ultra X Sri Lanka “Holiday”, our local partners Walkers Tours surprised our runners to a dawn Elephant Safari ride the following day. This is what we mean when we say #theultraXperience.
Full Race Results are available here
World Championship Qualifiers are available here
Images from the event are available here
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