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.
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 personalised 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 11am, 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 five 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: 41km
Having been awoken by the crew two hours before race commencement the competitors prepared themselves for stage one 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 10km was covered in 40 minutes by the front five!
Day one 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 away Salameh al Aqra, the former MDS Champion, 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 third, 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 fourth 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, a former pro triathlete, who until five months ago had sworn he would never attempt an ultra, had a fast day one and came in fifth. 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 Results:
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: 55km
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 one, the second day marked the first serious challenge. Participants were set off earlier, at 06:30 to enable more distance to be covered in the slightly cooler morning before the sun was directly overhead.
This was, however, a brutal second 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 one 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 fourth. 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 07:00, whilst everyone else would begin at 06:00. 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 three.
Day 2 Results:
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: 51km
Day 3 is supposedly the lull. It is the day before the “long stage” and as such the 51km is to be spent keeping as much in reserve for day four. However, the brutal conditions and after effects of a tough second 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 three’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 Results:
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: 67km
The long stage on Thursday meant 67km 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, a 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 Results:
1. Edson Kumbwamba 5:34
2. Salameh al Aqra 5:34
3. Thomas Joly de Lotbiniere 5:44
1. Helen Moss 7:38
2. Katie Sloane 7:44
3. Alise Miksta 8:22
Day 5: 36km
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 first position at the end of the week, thanks to a blistering day two which gave him an unassailable lead. Having spent the final two 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 Results:
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
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.
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 seven 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 six month’s 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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