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.
It’s Tuesday afternoon and I’m back home in the countryside. It couldn’t be more of a contrast from the week in the desert we have just returned from. I’m still tired (and I didn’t even run the thing), but my heart is full. Ultra X Jordan 2022 was nothing short of life-changing – yes, again, every year!
The 2022 edition welcomed 165 registrants with about 115 making the start line. To help organise the event we had 33 Ultra X crew and a further 15 local. All of whom were brilliant, and I cannot thank enough.
There is always a deep sense of trepidation before heading out to Jordan every September. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it may be something to do with the fact that I know the land of Wadi Rum has the ability to touch people’s souls, and I’m desperate for nothing operational to get in the way of that.
As is always the case, our crew briefing took place at 0900 in the Regency Palace Hotel conference room. It’s at this briefing that we lay out the week’s itinerary, allocate specific roles and take our volunteers through what it is that creates #theultraxperieince. Any old race organiser can mark a course and hand out water but it’s our crew, and our care for the runners, that we like to think, set’s Ultra X apart from the rest.
On Sunday morning at 0900 the race briefing commenced. Every emotion was sat in the room but at the top of the list – excitement, apprehension, and nervousness. It takes a certain level of bravery to get yourself to the start line of a race in Jordan in the first place. After the race briefing, the runners headed back to their rooms to lay out all of their mandatory equipment before inspection. Upon passing, they were issued with their ’22 race wristband and given their bib numbers.
After a 4hour coach journey down the desert highway the runners and crew alike, exited the bus, collected their race packs and jumped onto the back of 30 or so open top Land Cruisers for the short 15 minute desert safari, to camp!
After finding themselves a tent, it was time to take in the sunset for the very first time. And what a sight it was. After a few photos and some camp familiarisation, it wasn’t long before it was time to crawl into their sleeping bags and try to get some sleep. I say ‘try’ because it’s almost impossible to drift off at an acceptable time on the first night. For one, it’s early, about 8pm and two, your mind is racing with the thought of putting months of training and preparation into practice the following day. If you can get 6hrs, you’re already ahead of the game.
Day 1 – 46km – 0730 start. Temperature – high of 37C.
At 7.30am on Monday 3rd October the Class of ’22 set off, headed into the Mars-like abyss. Destination – unknown. Follow the pink flags and try to take it all in was the order of the day. The first section of the course on day 1 is cruelly runnable. For those who simply could not contain their excitement, they burnt through CP1 (8km in), in about 35 minutes – so much for easing yourself in J
By 9am the mercury passed 30 and it would rise further. By noon the day had become unseasonably hot. The highest temperature recorded in the race management vehicle was 37C, but for the unacclimated runner the heat would feel almost unbearable. All they could do was move slower and drink as much electrolyte as possible. Due to the high temperatures, day 1 took a slightly higher number of runners out of the race. Local runner and 5 x Ultra X Jordan champion took the stage win with Kirsten Althoff from Germany taking first, too.
Upon entering camp on day 1, the mood was one of re-adjustment and recovery. Many who arrive in the desert are confident they know what to expect, few have it right and it is only on Tuesday morning that it becomes apparent who has the right game plan. Upon crossing each day’s finish line, the advice is the same – consume, consume, consume – as many calories and as much liquid as possible. Then, sleep. Unsurprisingly, the quality of sleep tends to increase as the week goes on. Funny that.
Top 3 men: Salameh Al Aqra, Brandon Delacote & Robin Fourer.
Top 3 women: Kirsten Altoff, Jarvloo Loona & Sophie Mckimmen.
Day 2 – 50km – 0700 start. Temperature – high of 33C
Day 2 was another loop but with a completely different course and a completely different feel. I mention this because one could be mistaken for thinking that the desert looks the same. You would be wrong to think this about Wadi Rum. It’s rock formations change at every angle.
One of the cruel things about the desert is the illusion of being flat. It is not, and whilst the inclines are relatively short, they are enough to have you longing for some flat or decline.
Robin Fourner from Switzerland and Brandon Delacote from France made up the next fastest men after Al Aqra. The question at the end of day two, was could Salameh hang onto his lead? Only time would tell. In the Women’s field Jarvloo Loona from Estonia and Sophie McKeeman from the UK would make up the top 3.
What we love most about these events are seeing people achieve things they didn’t quite believe were possible. It’s great to have fast participants, but for us, we love seeing those towards the middle and back cross the finish line. These moments bring the widest smiles to our faces. For us, it’s never about what position you come, it’s the adventure you have along the way.
During the evening on day 2 the apprehension of the day to come – the Long Stage, was palpable. For many, this would not only be the furthest they had travelled on foot in a single day, but it would also be one great big step into the unknown. For most, if you can survive the Long Stage, you can survive the race.
Top 3 men: Salameh Al Aqra, Brendan Delacote & Mark Topham.
Top 3 women: Kirsten Altoff, Sophie Mckimmen & Jarvloo Loona.
Day 3 – 69km – 04/05/06 start – high of 34
Day 3 had three start times. Based on their times from days 1 and 2, runners are put into 3 different start pens. The vast majority commence at 0400, guaranteeing them almost 5 hours of pleasant temperatures. Around 10 started at 5am with just 3 starting at 6am. We do this to ensure that our checkpoint teams and their resources are not spread too thin as the day goes on. We operate a bunnyhop system with our checkpoints. Team 1 does Check Point 1 and 5, Team 2 does Check Point 2 to 6 and so on. As the day goes on, the cluster of runners condenses.
For some, Wednesday’s stage was the first time they had run in the dark with their head torch. For us, the organisers, it’s a mesmerising sight to see – hundreds of headtorches lighting up the pitch black desert in a single trail. It’s beautiful. Sat in our vehicles along the course with the engine off you can hear the footsteps and heavy breathing from the runners over 100 metres away. Sound travels in the desert like nowhere else.
For the faster runners, Wednesday offers a chance to engage their competitive spirit – the goal – how long can you go until you are hunted down by the first 5am runner and then the first 6am runner. Sebastien Vaillant held the 4am lead for the majority of the day. It wasn’t until the 55km point that UK runner Mark Topham passed him. Topham would get to experience the same feeling just 2hrs later when Salameh Al Aqra, a 6am starter would pass him just 1km from the stage finish line.
For most of the field, the Long Stage represents the mother of all struggles. Checkpoint to checkpoint – gel after gel. It’s amazing to see people’s inner drive in action.
Unique to our races are the presence of therapists (osteopaths, physios and chiropractors) at check points. For many, the 69km stage would have been too much for their bodies was it not for the therapists taping them back together every 8km.
Some runners were on their feet for an agonising 17hrs, not only starting in darkness but finishing in it too. I say again, it was so impressive to see these runners stick at it. A special mention must go out to David Gee from the UK who pressed on through enormous pain to finish just 5 minutes before the cut-off.
The Long stage is a point to point finishing at Rock Camp – an enormous boulder protruding into the desert from a cliff. It’s empty, without any comfort and for the runners, it’s an opportunity to sleep out under the stars, although after the long stage they can do little more than crawl into their sleeping bags and pass out.
Top 3 men: Salameh Al Aqra, Mark Topham & Robin Fourer.
Top 3 women: Kirsten Altoff, Jarvloo Loona & Lauren Daniell.
Day 4 – 43km – 0700 – high of 35C
Day 4, for those not too broken from the day before, would represent light at the end of the tunnel. Just 2 stages to go, and both of them shorter than the day before.
The first few KM were down hill on hard packed sand again offering an opportunity to open up the legs. The course passed through two canyons, both of which offered shade to all. Shade equals cool and cool equals speed – an opportunity to get distance under the belt before the temperatures once more begin to soar.
The course was another point to point. Starting at Rock Camp they would head North back towards Rum Village where their busses had departed 4 days prior, to the final camp of the week. For Topham and Fourner and Delacote it was time to risk going into the red. For Althoff (by this point with a highly convincing lead) it was time for more of the same. The consistency shown by Althoff throughout the week was right up there with the best we have ever seen. Never once did she appear to faulter.
It was back to the local Bivouacs for the penultimate night in the desert.
Top 3 men: Salameh Al Aqra, Robin Fourer & Brendan Delacote.
Top 3 women: Kirsten Altoff, Jarvloo Loona & Sophie Mckimmen.
Day 5 – 41km – 0700hrs – high of 36
With ACDC blasting off the cliff walls and down the desert valley it was time to start the Class of ’22 for the final time. Time for the last dance. Time to empty the tank. Time to see how long you could hold your hand in the fire. For those whose bodies were broken, day 5 represented the final slog.
On the Friday it’s not unusual to see a completely different order of finishers. The reason being that for many still in half decent shape, they don’t have to worry about going the next day. In just 3hrs and 42 minutes, Salameh Al Aqra took his crown for the 6th successive time. Just 3 minutes behind him came Fourner and 2 minutes behind him, Delacote. It’s fair to say that the men’s race was probably the closest we had ever had in the desert. For Althoff, she would claim gold in a total time of 25hrs and 56 minutes, making her the first female Black Ribbon winner we have ever had. Congratulations Kirsten.
A special shout out to Sam King who finished stage 5 in an impressive 4th position – an example of that final stage “give it your all” strength.
For many more hours we welcomed Ultra X heroes across the finish line. There was many a hug and many a tear. It’s only once they cross the finish line that we as crew can visibly see what this event has meant to the runners. It’s emotional and we love it.
Within 10 minutes of the last runner finishing, cold beers from giant cool boxes were being drunk under the afternoon desert sun. It was time to let the hair down and have some fun. Type 1, this time.
As darkness fell for the final time a huge BBQ appeared. Not 5, not 10 but 20 different plates of food arrived, spread across 8 physio tables. Mountains of salad, rice, goat, vegetables and fruit fed almost 200 people who for the last 5 days had eaten nothing but dehydrated food. After having eaten it was time for prize giving and some final words from the crew. The beers continued, as did the dancing and then, finally, some sleep.
As the sun rose the following morning, it was time to return from whence we came – another 30 open top 4x4s whisked the tour group back to the tarmac before busses departed for Petra and Amman. Another year, done.
Top 3 men: Salameh Al Aqra, Robin Fourer & Brandon Delacote.
Top 3 women: Kirsten Altoff, Sophie Mckimmen & Lauren Daniell.
Special mention: Rory Coleman returned to Ultra X Jordan, the serial ultra marathoner brought a big team with him and we loved getting to know them all.
Special mention: Anastassiya Siner quickly cemented herself as one of the biggest smilers on the course. Whenever the Management vehicle would pass her she always seemed so happy and in control.
Special mention: Lewis Robling has now completed all of this year’s Ultra X full distance races. He has done so whilst raising a great amount of money for charity. Many congratulations, Lewis.
Special mention: Anna and Nicola Heslop were, as far as I’m aware the first mother and daughter to complete Ultra X Jordan. Another example of a fantastic pair who brought tremendous positivity to camp.
Thank you to all of the incredible runners and crew who made this year possible. We could not have done it without you. Until next time.
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