Ultra X Jordan 2019: Race Director’s Report

Written By Jamie Sparks

Jamie is one of the Ultra X Co-Founders. He enjoys rambling on about a variety of topics; motorbikes, cycling, adventure, and, of course, ultra running.

19 October 2019

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How can so much happen in one week? A part of me feels like no words or pictures will ever do justice to the actual experience had by those who were out in the desert for those few days of Ultra X Jordan 2019. The only way to truly realise it, is to come out and experience it for yourself; but it is important to tell the story of the race and the individuals who made it.

Briefing day

Just getting to the start of this event is an adventure in itself, both for the runners and the crew, this marks the culmination of months of hard work, research and preparation.

The race briefing welcomed 73 competitors from 23 different countries with an average age of 37 and four competitors over the age of 60 proving with certainty, that age is just a number. During this, the race regulations were highlighted and the itinerary reiterated. It was stressed that, whilst this is a race, it is also a holiday. Our main goal as organisers, is to ensure that participants get as much as possible out of the experience.

This field included a few familiar faces, local Salameh al Aqra, the former Marathon des Sables champion, three time winner of the race and course record holder was back to defend his title. Salameh has never lost a stage in this race, but there were plenty fancying their chances in this record breaking edition.

We were delighted to also welcome back Alise Miksta in the ladies field (third female in Ultra X Sri Lanka 2019) and Matteo Pedrini who ran this course before back in 2017. To cope with this record breaking field, the Ultra X team had a crew of 40+, which included 10 doctors from Exile Medics, seven osteopaths from Osteo Adventures, various amazing volunteers plus Jordanian logistics staff to assist with campsite setup, take down and route marking.

At 11am, coaches collected the participants and crew and drove in convoy down the King Hussein Highway to Rum Village, where the coach can go no further. Here, runners disembarked onto a batch of pickup trucks to transport them to their campsite for the very first night in the desert.

They arrived into the Wadi Rum National Park just as the sun was setting. Everyone was in bed by 20:00. It is obvious that the challenge was deep in their minds, many of whom have never run a marathon before, let alone more than five in as many days. Where the asphalt stops is also where competitors must bid farewell to phone signal, Instagram and emails — for the next five days they live in the bubble that a desert race creates.

Stage 1

Day one is a time where the race cannot be won, but it can definitely be lost. Having seen competitors in the past, high on adrenaline, with tapered legs  fly out too hard at the detriment to the rest of the week, we were hoping that this would not be the case for any of this year’s group. The first 10km are on fairly hard packed ground tempting the tapered athletes to stretch their legs. It was good to get started. Salameh, Tommy Chen, from Taiwan and British Rahil Sachak-Patwa came through first as the lead pack, in just under 50 minutes.

All competitors passed through the 10km mark in under 1 hour 20. This was the usual unsustainable fast start, which we have come to expect in these events. For many, this would be the fastest 10km of the week! The final 35km of the stage are tougher with the heat rising and sand getting softer. The final checkpoint is situated within viewpoint of the finish line and camp, but it’s a good hours running in the heat to get there. If runners needed a reminder of how tough this week was going to be, this day gave it to them.

Day 1 Standings

Female
1. Jordan Foster
2. Estelle Geerkens
3. Alise Miksta

Male
1. Salameh al Aqra
2. Tommy Chen
3. Rahil Sachak-Patwa

Stage 2

Day two starts a little earlier than the first stage. A 06:30 kick off, as the sun rises and first light falls on the desert. The first 10km is a gentle downhill stretch, meandering over some soft sand before dropping into a vast valley. It’s obvious that some people went too quick yesterday and are paying the price now, with the field becoming much more staggered. Out of checkpoint one there is a steady long climb up to around 32km before an undulating section in the heat as competitors come back to camp.

Jordan Foster once again puts in an impressive performance to finish 20 minutes ahead of second placed woman Toni Metcalfe, whilst in the men’s race Tommy Chen, newcomer to the Wadi Rum, is taking the fight to the undefeated Salameh al Aqra. Two days in and there is only six minutes in it.

Tomorrow is the “long day” however, which is the real defining point in the race. It is this day which will make or break peoples weeks. Starting in the early hours of the morning, led by nothing but the light of the moon, head torches and a line of glow sticks as far as the eye can see. Running below the stars in Wadi Rum is a truly unique experience and the 70km stage will finish in rock camp; a huge, elevated cliff ledge surrounded by towering mountain faces.

The long day in multi-stage racing is all about endurance, perseverance and mental strength. Surviving the longest stage means breaking the back of the whole race; so nerve levels in camp were probably at their highest since arriving in the desert. The sensible competitors have spent the first 2 days holding off for this challenge. However, such is the competitive nature of this field, there are already bodies that are having to be pieced together by the incredible team of osteopaths and doctors who are working around the clock to get the runners to that finish line.

Day 2 Standings

Female
1. Jordan Foster
2. Toni Metcalfe
3. Giulia Ranzuglia

Male
1. Salameh al Aqra
2. Tommy Chen
3. Rahil Sachak-Patwa

Stage 3

The competitors set off in two waves today, the first at 04:00 and the elite wave, including only the top three overall, at 05:00. The early start allows participants to make as much headway before the sun rises and the heat creeps up, whilst also allowing all to have the once in a lifetime experience of running through the night in the Wadi Rum.

The first 20km takes runners winding up sandy tracks with a few hundred metres of soft sand before dropping into a series of valleys and dried up river beds, where the sand is harder packed and more runnable. The last stretch into base camp “Rock Camp” where the stage culminates, is within sight from the last check point 10km out. It entails a horrible gradual incline in heavy sand to the finish. By this point, even the top end of the field have been slowed to a march as they come in.

Rock Camp is an enormous ledge overhanging a vast valley, which is surrounded by mountains and jebels. Competitors sleep in the open and can enjoy a night with the stars above them, which are unlike anything anywhere else. It’s the perfect reward for a massive effort.

There were a few competitors who were forced to drop out during the day, but the vast majority made it through and the reactions upon arriving were phenomenal. Last home was Tess Montagna, having started and finished in the dark, with an epic 17 hour effort. She was walked in by a troop of Ultra X crew and received the hero’s celebration that she deserved upon arrival at base camp.

In the battle for positions on the podium, it was the similar faces making up the top spots. Having battled it out with Tommy over the first couple of days, Salameh was intent on putting a marker down on this stage. By the midway point he had built an hour lead, and whilst the pace couldn’t be sustained over the whole 70km, the final gap was 30 minutes. As such it looks like the king of the desert had once again built up a lead that was going to be difficult to come back from with just two shorter days to go.

Day 3 Standings

Female
1. Jordan Foster
2. Toni Metcalfe and Estelle Geerkens

Male
1. Salameh al Aqra
2. Tommy Chen
3. Rahil Sachak- Patwa

Stage 4

Day four is a funny one. Despite starting at 07:00, only a matter of hours having crossed the finish line of what was undoubtedly one of the hardest days of many of the competitors lives, runners begin with high spirits, buoyed by the fact that they broke the back of this race yesterday and it is (at least mentally) the home straight.

People are hobbling and limping with cumulative blisters, strapping up the calves and aching muscles, however they are moving, and that is what is important at this stage. If they have made it this far, they know that they can make it to the end.

Day four’s route offers up some of the most beautiful valleys and canyons of the region made famous by Lawrence of Arabia as competitors follow the Pilgrim Caravan Trail, going through some canyons so narrow that vehicles must go around, meanwhile competitors had to clamber.

It was obvious that even the measured participants over the first few stages, were looking to let loose and empty the tank. Chris Taylor, a consistent performer over the first couple of days, showed us what he is capable of with an outstanding performance to finish second overall just five minutes behind men’s leader al Aqra.

In the women’s field Jordan Foster has all but wrapped up first place with another outstanding run. Behind her is fellow Brit Toni Metcalfe with Estelle Geerkens rounding up the top three.

Day 4 Standings

Female
1. Jordan Foster
2. Toni Metcalfe
3. Estelle Geerkens

Male
1. Salameh al Aqra
2. Chris Taylor
3. Tommy Chen

Stage 5

Today is no stroll in the park, there is lots of soft track, the biggest dune section in the Wadi Rum and after clambering through a rocky canyon, competitors must still wind through several sandy valleys towards camp and the last finish line. The final day is the shortest of the race and involves a loop from basecamp. The end is in sight and this day is just a matter of getting home and celebrating for most.

Barring a huge upset on the final stage, the podium positions look to be sewn up. However, for six guys there is an opportunity to grab a “sub-30” white ribbon medal which means that there is no relaxing just yet!

Whether stimulated by the idea of a medal, cold beers, or the last finish line, many showed their strongest performances of the week today, picking up the pace to charge through the finish line. Beers and soft drinks were provided at the finish line to all competitors, the first chilled drinks available all week.

As the runners come in, everyone remains cheering finishers until the last few were home safely. Each person home was welcomed with open arms to the extent that directors and staff were often amongst the last to be able to congratulate those crossing the line.

Every final stage at an Ultra X race is special, however this one was even more so. Having run the last 10km together, Shaun Hopper dropped to one knee at the finish line and Kayte said yes! Our first Ultra X proposal!

It was wonderful to see, after some drop outs early in the week (just under 20% of the field), everyone who had made it through the long stage crossed the finish line on Friday. Six white ribbon medals were awarded; Salameh al Aqra, Tommy Chen, Rahil Sachak-Patwa, Rob Jones, Rob Wenzel and Chris Taylor.

Day 5 Standings

Female
1. Jordan Foster
2. Toni Metcalfe and Estelle Geerkens

Male
1. Salameh al Aqra
2. Rahil Sachak-Patwa
3. Chris Taylor

Ultra X Jordan competitors running across Wadi Rum desert

Afterthought

Once the finish line festivities have concluded, the Ultra X team host an intimate prize giving ceremony announcing the top female and male finishers, whilst a Bedouin barbecue feast and afterparty is prepared at the desert camp.

The following morning everyone was picked up in 4*4’s to transport them to the edge of the sand, into coaches and on to Petra — one of the remaining wonders of the world. It was genuinely a pleasure to witness such an inspiring group go through such lows and come out on top. Having been at checkpoint one each day of the week and seeing the runners come through, knowing how far they had to go and then seeing them cross the finish line hours and hours later was truly remarkable.

Whilst ultra running can be seen as a solitary sport anyone who was a part of Ultra X Jordan 2019 will bear witness to the fact that this is not an  ‘individual’ endurance challenge. 103 individuals arrived into Amman on Saturday 5th October and returned a family only one week later. My abiding memory of week was one of teams, companionship and community between crew and competitors, embracing the hostile environment and coming through it together.

Each individual, whether competing, or simply looking to complete became a part of something bigger than themselves in the week, and it was evident in the emotional farewells, that this was much more than a race, or even a holiday, this was an exhibition of human potential and ability.

As one competitor beautifully put it: “Whilst the remarkable wilfulness of my fellow competitors made a long-lasting impression, now that the chafing and blisters have all but disappeared, the memories that remain most vivid are those of selfless, indefatigable volunteers, working day and night to ensure the aforementioned crazy bunch of strangers could continue their self-destructive pursuit as healthily and happily as possible.”

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who played a part in creating Ultra X Jordan 2019, osteopaths, doctors, volunteers and runners, this truly could not have happened without you.

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