Ultra X Sri Lanka 2019 — Director’s report

Tak­ing on an inaug­ur­al event always rep­res­ents a massive oppor­tun­ity. A new race in a new coun­try will nev­er be easy, com­pet­it­ors do not know exactly what to expect, nor how to pre­pare for the cli­mate and ter­rain. A new race means they are not able to learn from the advice of pre­vi­ous run­ners. Ultra X Sri Lanka 2019 proved this no end. Soar­ing tem­per­at­ures, much hot­ter than is usu­al in Sri Lanka in April, 80%+ humid­ity 24 hours a day and a course which was as chal­len­ging as it was beau­ti­ful meant that this race was a ser­i­ous test to even the most seasoned of ultrar­unners. Ultra X Sri Lanka was an adven­ture like no oth­er, those who were part of it exper­i­enced a jour­ney that will not be for­got­ten, formed new friend­ships and will forever be able to say — “I was there for the first edi­tion!”.


Com­pet­it­ors and crew arrived into Sri Lanka in waves with the form­al launch of the event on Sunday 14th April. Some arrived sev­er­al days before to accli­mat­ise to the con­di­tions, oth­ers late the night before, met by a con­voy of Land Rovers and fer­ried to the race HQ in Negombo, where Ultra X ban­ners adorned the front façade.

After the offi­cial race wel­come, man­dat­ory kit checks took place. Then came the med­ic­al assess­ments by the in-house doc­tors and a team of osteo­paths. Bibs, chips and mobile phones were then alloc­ated. As Sri Lanka has excel­lent mobile phone sig­nal, even in the remote parts of the coun­try, all run­ners were issued with a phone and loc­al sim which has dir­ect dials to import­ant con­tacts in case of an emer­gency.

Next up was the turn of Danny Long­man from Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity who began gath­er­ing data which would give the run­ners a full and per­son­al­ized report of how their body changed dur­ing the race, includ­ing what hap­pens to body fat and muscle, core body tem­per­at­ure, testoster­one levels and levels of cog­nit­ive func­tion. Going for­ward Ultra X are delighted to be able to offer this to all their ath­letes to aid their event pre­par­a­tion and sub­sequent eval­u­ation. More inform­a­tion can be found here.

At 11 am a coach col­lec­ted the par­ti­cipants from the hotel and star­ted the drive to Embil­ipitiya. Here run­ners dis­em­barked into Land Rovers and trucks for the short ride to camp and the very first night in the jungle. Due to heavy rains, run­ners were dropped 100 metres from the camp­site for a short walk. Com­pet­it­ors were greeted by hoards of loc­al chil­dren, fas­cin­ated by the amaz­ing blue camp­site which had sprung up on the banks of their loc­al river.

After set­tling in and being provided with hot water to make the first of the weeks self-sup­por­ted meals, com­pet­it­ors were giv­en a health and safety brief­ing under torch­light. The camp rules were reit­er­ated before the dir­ect­ors gave a quick sum­mary of what was to come. Many of these indi­vidu­als had nev­er ran a mara­thon before, let alone six in 5 days.

The field con­tained some ser­i­ous ath­letes from across the world, and it was evid­ent that a few were begin­ning to size one anoth­er up. The first stage would mark the cul­min­a­tion of months of hard work, research and pre­par­a­tion for this epic jour­ney.

Day 1
Hav­ing been awoken by the crew two hours before race com­mence­ment the com­pet­it­ors pre­pared them­selves for stage 1 whilst huge fruit bats circled over­head. The tower­ing blue start line had been raised in the early hours of the morn­ing and could be seen mark­ing the way only 100 yards up the trail from camp­site. The first sec­tion was made of nar­row earth trails wind­ing beneath over­grown veget­a­tion and farm­land, this meant that each bend in the road marked a new sec­tion of the road and a new sur­prise. After a couple of kilo­metres under shade it broke out to weave through the stun­ning sug­ar plant­a­tions and canals that the agri­cul­tur­al centre of Embil­ipitiya is famed for. Com­pet­it­ors wound along a well-defined dirt path through the rice pad­dies which passed by the amaz­ing Sev­engala Sug­ar Fact­ory, one of the old­est sug­ar factor­ies still in action in the coun­try. The flat and hard ground served to tempt the fresh legs of the com­pet­it­ors and as expec­ted the front run­ners set off at a blis­ter­ing pace. The first 10 km was covered in 40 minutes by the front five!

Day 1 is a time where the race can­not be won, but it can def­in­itely be lost. Hav­ing seen com­pet­it­ors high on adren­aline and tapered legs in the past fly out and ruin their week, we were hop­ing that this was not to be the case for any of this year’s group, how­ever it was clear that there were sev­er­al, in the men’s field in par­tic­u­lar, who wanted to make a state­ment from the off. Whilst the stage was flat and on hard, fast ground, it had exten­ded sec­tions with no cov­er from the unre­lent­ing sun, and hav­ing passed through check­point 1, the real­isa­tion that there were 4.5 days to go became clear and the pack began to split.

This day will be remembered for coin­cid­ing with the Sin­hala and Hindu New Year. This meant that many loc­al chil­dren were on the course to sup­port as the com­pet­it­ors raced through the small vil­lages, spray­ing water and hand­ing out coconut water to the run­ners com­ing through. Giv­en the heat, being watered down was some­thing the run­ners star­ted to look for­ward to each time they neared a small vil­lage.

It was great to see all start­ing run­ners back in the camp­site at the end of the day, and there were a couple of early sur­prises in the rank­ings. Anna-Mar­ie Wat­son, the women’s favour­ite, was just pipped to the top spot by Katie Sloane from Dubai, whilst Edson Kum­wamba, our Malawian ath­lete, blew Salameh Al Aqra, the former MDS Cham­pi­on, away with a state­ment of intent, fin­ish­ing five minutes ahead of the Jord­ani­an. Behind them in the men’s field were Thomas Joly de Lot­bin­iere, in a fast 3rd, and the exper­i­enced Sam Weir just behind. Sam, our Aus­trali­an ath­lete, had barely 24 hours to accli­mat­ise fol­low­ing a late flight on Sat­urday night and, whilst he man­aged a strong 4th pos­i­tion, spent the after­noon in an air con­di­tioned Land Rover with a saline drip to nurse him back to full strength. Out­side of the lead­ers, Amer­ic­an, Bri­an Macar­thur had a fast day 1, the former pro triath­lete, who until five months ago had sworn he would nev­er attempt an ultra, came in 5th. He was here to race.

With the first stage out of the way it was evid­ent that people were begin­ning to relax. Com­pet­it­ors were able to cool off in the rock pools adja­cent to the camp­site. The shortest stage was com­pleted but how bod­ies would cope when the dis­tances star­ted to increase was to be seen.

Day 1 stand­ings

1. Edson Kumb­wamba 2:18
2. Salameh Al Aqra 2:23
3. Thomas Joly de Lot­bin­iere 2:24

1. Katie Sloane 2:43
2. Anna-Mar­ie Wat­son 2:44
3. Helen Moss 3:15

Day 2
The first stage was an oppor­tun­ity for run­ners to use the short­er dis­tance to try and get used to the heat before the dis­tances began to increase. Whilst all made it through day 1, the 2nd day marked the first ser­i­ous chal­lenge. Par­ti­cipants were set off earli­er, at 0630 to enable more dis­tance to be covered in the slightly cool­er morn­ing before the sun was dir­ectly over­head. This was, how­ever, a bru­tal 2nd day in blis­ter­ing heat; the stage com­prised of 55km on gen­er­ally flat trails where com­pet­it­ors passed through old vil­lages as they made their way up to Thanamal­wila to camp on the edge of Lunugam­we­hera Nation­al Park and Sri Lanka’s Cul­tur­al Tri­angle. The con­di­tions star­ted to take their toll and unfor­tu­nately we had vari­ous drop outs dur­ing the stage due to the heat. With high humid­ity, reg­u­lat­ing body tem­per­at­ure became a top pri­or­ity for the field and the crew care­fully mon­itored com­pet­it­ors as they came through check­points.

Former MDS cham­pi­on Salameh Al Aqra was obvi­ously out to prove a point hav­ing been beaten on day 1 by Kumb­wamba, and fin­ished the 55km in a blis­ter­ing 4:40! Edson and Tom opted to hold back know­ing that there was still a lot of racing to be had and both fin­ished 20 mins behind. It was a good day for Sam Weir, who respon­ded from a tough first day to come just behind Tom in a sol­id 4th. In the women’s field Katie Sloane built on her lead with an out­stand­ing 5:44. A full 20 mins ahead of elite ath­lete Anna-Mar­ie Wat­son.

The last of our run­ners were grate­ful for an early after­noon down­pour as they approached camp­site, Emily Like and boy­friend Ant Hyde were in good spir­its and were cheered into camp as the final fin­ish­ers of the day with Jacques Pot­gi­er, part of the team ‘Trail­Blazers’ push­ing hard when his body wanted to stop. Jacques showed tre­mend­ous resi­li­ence all week and was always in high spir­its.

As com­pet­it­ors settled into camp, queues formed around the osteo beds the while dir­ect­ors briefed the field on the plan for the next day. There would be two starts; the elite, which com­prised of the top sev­en head­ing off at 0700, whilst every­one else would begin at 0600. Fol­low­ing the with­draw­als dur­ing the stage it was pos­it­ive to see all run­ners being nursed back to health with the major­ity being deemed fit to begin day 3.

Day 2 stand­ings

1. Salameh Al Aqra 4.37
2. Edson Kumb­wamba 4:59
3. Thomas Joly de Lot­bin­iere 5:03
1. Katie Sloane 5:44
2. Anna-Mar­ie Wat­son 6:03
3. Helen Moss 7:18


Day 3
Day 3 is sup­posedly the lull. It is the day before the “long stage” and as such the 51 kilo­metres is to be spent keep­ing as much in reserve for day 4. How­ever, the bru­tal con­di­tions and after effects of a tough 2nd day meant that sev­er­al struggled in the heat and were forced out of the race. Run­ners B. Macar­thur, A. Wilson, S. Mould­ing and A. Flynn did not fin­ish the stage.

For­tu­nately for the run­ners who were able to per­severe, the stage was char­ac­ter­ised by vari­ous river cross­ings which offered oppor­tun­it­ies to cool off from the extreme heat. Day 3’s fin­ish line was unfor­get­table and required com­pet­it­ors to scramble down a thick sec­tion of deep under­growth, before wad­ing through a deep river sec­tion. The recog­nis­able SUUNTO flags were a wel­come site to all.

The men’s field con­tin­ued to be an epic battle, Edson beat­ing Al Aqra to the fin­ish line by 2 minutes, and Weir mak­ing his way onto the podi­um for the first time in the week after a mem­or­able sprint fin­ish with Joly through the river, who fin­ished only moments behind.

Katie Sloane con­tin­ued to impress and was undoubtedly the sur­prise pack­age of the week hav­ing exten­ded her lead on Wat­son to over an hour. Helen Moss, in her first multi-stage race, also showed impress­ive form, com­ing in just behind Anna-Mar­ie. Moss’ was a per­form­ance to study and in many ways she executed the per­fect race.

In the middle of the pack, trends began to emerge, the Inner­fight crew from Dubai led by insa­ti­able front­man Mar­cus Smith were con­sist­ent per­formers, whilst Huw Jack Brass­ing­ton, fin­ish­er of gruelling races like the Dragons­back in Wales, appeared determ­ined to crack on as usu­al. Our only remain­ing Sri Lankan com­pet­it­or, Shaki, also looked strong and was a huge crew favour­ite thanks to his unceas­ing good nature and smile. Jacques Pot­gi­eter refused to give in and crossed the fin­ish line after anoth­er tough day.

Thun­der­storms in the even­ing meant that com­pet­it­ors sought shel­ter in the Ultra X gazebo’s whilst the crew pre­pared for the next day — the long stage. Most would be set­ting off at first light to under­take what was very likely the fur­thest they had ever gone in one go. The elites would again be set­ting off one hour later to chase them down.

Day 3 stand­ings

1. Edson Kumb­wamba 4:43
2. Salameh Al Aqra 4:46
3. Sam Weir 4:57

1. Katie Sloane 7:10
2. Anna-Mar­ie Wat­son 8:01
3. Helen Moss 8:10

Day 4

The long stage on Thursday meant 67 km across a long stretch of log­ging road which rolled gently uphill through beau­ti­ful pad­dies up towards the moun­tain­ous area of Hor­ton Plains. The long stage is the defin­ing day in the week and is often the dif­fer­ence between suc­cess and fail­ure. It was evid­ent that some of the field had been wait­ing for this and none more so than Mar­cus Smith, who, hav­ing star­ted one hour before lead­ers Al Aqra and Kumb­wamba, was only just pipped to the fin­ish line by the front two. Smith’s vast exper­i­ence begun to show on this stage and just as the major­ity of the field began to with­er, he got stronger and stronger. This is how the best multi-stage run­ners play their cards.

Helen Moss goes from strength to strength and for the first time in the week fin­ishes first female, just ahead of Sloane — an epic achieve­ment. Alise Miksta rounds off the women’s podi­um push­ing Wat­son off the top three for the first time in the week.

These events are all about the con­nec­tions formed between com­pet­it­ors and see­ing Edson and Salameh run­ning the whole stage togeth­er, cross­ing the fin­ish line arm in arm and chat­ting like old friends at camp­site was bril­liant to see.

Sev­er­al com­pet­it­ors who were feel­ing the heat from the strains of the last couple of days made the decision not to start the stage. One, Alan Wilson, former Ultra X Jordan fin­ish­er, had to drop out, a wise decision con­sid­er­ing the cir­cum­stances. He is a much loved char­ac­ter in camp.

For those cross­ing the fin­ish line on Thursday, the end was almost in sight. The final night of the race was spent at the edge of the rain­forest, camp­ing under­neath Hor­ton Plains Nation­al Park.

Day 4 stand­ings


  1. Salameh Al Aqra and Edson Kumb­wamba 5:34
  2. Thomas Joly de Lot­bin­iere 5:44


  1. Helen Moss 7:38
  2. Katie Sloane 7:44
  3. Alise Miksta 8:22

Day 5

As is always the case with Ultra X events, these are as much adven­tures as they are races. This was proved so on the final day where a wild ele­phant on the course meant that the route required a last minute alter­a­tion and a 30 minute delay to the start. The course was also reduced to 36km. Des­pite the delayed start it was won­der­ful to see the major­ity of com­pet­it­ors out on course to start the final day and attempt to make it to the blue arches and final fin­ish line in great spir­its!

Huge com­mis­er­a­tions to Katie Sloane, our women’s lead­er through­out the week, who was forced to pull out of the final stage on doctor’s orders due to an infec­tion. This is some­thing that we hate to see as dir­ect­ors, and it is always a dif­fi­cult decision. How­ever, doc­tors calls must be final in order to pro­tect our com­pet­it­ors. A huge amount of cred­it goes out to Katie, firstly for her amaz­ing per­form­ance over the first four days, but then for the gra­cious­ness she took being told that she was out of the race.

As a res­ult Anna-Mar­ie Wat­son, an ultra vet­er­an and one of the best run­ners on the scene, took the women’s field, Moss tak­ing second and Miksta, third.

In the men’s, Salameh took 1st pos­i­tion at the end of the week, thanks to a blis­ter­ing day 2 which gave him an unas­sail­able lead. Hav­ing spent the final 2 days run­ning in lock­step, Edson did use the final kilo­metre to show that he still had fuel in the tank and sprin­ted the final sec­tion to be the first across the fin­ish line.

As fin­ish­ers came in over the course of the day, gazebo’s lined with chairs were setup and every­one stuck around to sup­port each oth­er reach­ing the fin­ish line. As always the emo­tion on dis­play makes this few hours a high­light of the week and 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.

There were some short shuttles to take run­ners to the last night’s camp where loc­al chefs had pre­pared an enorm­ous Sri Lankan BBQ and for the first time in a week com­pet­it­ors had access to hot water, showers, prop­er toi­lets and cold beers. As the group settled in for the even­ing they regaled stor­ies of the week; col­li­sions with pea­cocks, gory blisters, deep river cross­ings and unbear­able heat. The next morn­ing the run­ners were awoken to a loc­al break­fast — a won­der­ful sight after days of rising to a pot of hot water. Later, fol­lowed a jour­ney back to Negombo for the prize giv­ing and a final din­ner.

Day 5 stand­ings
1. Edson Kumb­wamba 3:11
2. Salameh Al Aqra 3:12
3. Thomas Joly de Lot­bin­iere 3:21
1. Anna- Mar­ie Wat­son 3:50
2. Helen Moss 3:50
3. Lucja Leonard and Alise Miksta 3:51

Final stand­ings
1. Salameh Al Aqra 20:32
2. Edson Kumb­wamba 20:45
3. Thomas Joly de Lot­bin­iere 21:29
1. Anna- Mar­ie Wat­son 29:53
2. Helen Moss 31:03
3. Alise Miksta 32.51

Full res­ults can be found here.

Post race

After the coach ride back to Negombo, com­pet­it­ors had some much needed time to rest up and pre­pare them­selves for the Sat­urday even­ing prize giv­ing, loc­al enter­tain­ment (includ­ing a fire breath­ing dis­play) and an amaz­ing feast to cel­eb­rate everyone’s incred­ible achieve­ments. Just 7 days ago total strangers were form­ing in the same hotel, but now they were friends.

It was a pleas­ure to wit­ness such an inspir­ing group go through such a dif­fi­cult event and come out on top. Well done, thank you and con­grat­u­la­tions to all.

Next up is Ultra X Jordan (pre­vi­ously the Wadi Rum Ultra) in 6 months’ time. We are hugely excited to announce that both Al Aqra and Kumb­wamba will be back in the desert to reignite their dual! Can Salameh’s undefeated crown in Jordan be taken?! We shall see in Octo­ber. Stay tuned for #theUl­traX­per­i­ence

The after­math of Ultra X Sri Lanka was over­shad­owed by the hor­rif­ic chain of events which com­menced on Sunday 28th April 2019. We love Sri Lanka as a coun­try and we love the people who live there and our thoughts are with every­one affected by the attacks at this dif­fi­cult time.

As race organ­isers, the safety of our com­pet­it­ors is para­mount and we are mon­it­or­ing the situ­ation closely for our 2020 event.

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