Wadi Rum Ultra 2018: 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.

20 November 2018

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Sitting in the departures lounge of Amman Airport at 2:30am, two days after the last of the runners crossed the finish line of Wadi Rum Ultra 2018 and 24 hours after the competitors bid their farewells to their newfound family of crew and competitors alike, it seems surreal to think that only seven days ago the race had not even started.

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, and the only way to truly realise it is to come out and experience it for yourself, but I think it is important to tell the story of the race and the individuals who made it.

Getting to the start line

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. Despite an array of late drop-outs in the final few weeks, a record number of competitors arrived in Amman for the official race briefing in the Larsa Hotel on Sunday 7th October.

This field included a few familiar faces; local Salameh al Aqra, the former Marathon des Sables champion and two-time winner of the race was back to defend his title, and in the ladies field Marina Ranger (3rd overall and 1st woman in 2017).

Amazingly, 47% of the field were female runners. To the best of my knowledge no other ultra has had a closer ratio in history, and as a director of a company whose aim is to make the sport as accessible as possible this was a dream come true. This was principally made up of a group of young women named “Team Like a Girl”, an inspirational group changing perceptions of what women are capable of.

Sunday included a race briefing in Amman, followed by kit checks and medical assessments by in house doctors and a team of osteopaths.

Dr. Danny Longman from Cambridge University began gathering data to allow runners who were interested to get a full and personalised report of how their body changed during the race. Details included changes to body fat and muscle, core body temperature, testosterone levels and levels of cognitive function.

At midday, coaches and a fleet of Land Rovers collected the participants and crew and drove in convoy down the King Hussein Highway to Wadi Rum village. When the coach could go no further the runners disembarked onto a group of pickup trucks to transport them to their campsite for the very first night in the desert. The vehicles pulled into camp just as the sun set over the rocks.

After settling in runners were given a health and safety briefing from the Safety Officer Lee Fudge and camp rules were reiterated. After this, the race directors gave a final welcome and a quick summary of the week.

Day 1: 45km

The race cannot be won on day one, but it can definitely be lost. Having seen competitors high on adrenaline and tapered legs fly out in the past, we were hoping that this wouldn’t be the case this year.

After enjoying the sunrise and getting a first glimpse of the beautiful valley of the moon, it was time for a final message of good luck. As Credence Clearwater blasted through the air the competitors took their first steps of the race.

Local Jordanian Salameh al Aqra set a blistering pace from the off and within 25 minutes the field was spread. Dave Phillips from the UK, followed closely by three British Army officers from the Royal Lancers also set a fast pace. Charles Henson just pipping fellow officer Toby Free at the 40km mark to finish one minute ahead in third place with Julien Anani-Isaac just behind, with Ironman triathlete Jan Pascal Schudy and Tom Elliott hot on their heels.

The battle for first lady was fierce with Josie Adams and Sarah Thompson pushing hard all day to keep up an incredible pace, with Kate Westcott finishing just 24 minutes behind them.

Team Like A Girl (TLAG) showed great spirit and teamwork throughout the day. They were here in Jordan to show that no matter who you are you can achieve anything with the right preparation and determination and they showed that in full today. Marina Ranger, Lucy Sacarello and Jodie Gauld ran the entire day together and crossed the finish line arm in arm behind the top three women. Amazingly, Jodie Gauld signed up for the race just four days before the start.

The day’s course was undulating with a difficult final 10km stretch made up of heavy sand and a vast open expanse with minimal shade. The pace evidently slowed as the athletes realized the immensity of the challenge ahead. At the final checkpoint, as bodies begun to breakdown, osteopaths Kieran and Alex were on had to ease any pain or niggles.

At the back of the pack Rena Mutaguchi, Kiko Matthews and Ed Parsons soldiered through, finishing late in the day as the sun started to drop. Local runner Youssef Habasa, struggled with an ankle strain, but pushed through the pain to finish the stage.

It was great to see 100% of the field make it through the first stage and the atmosphere at camp was strong. As the local head of tourism came to camp to welcome us to Jordan, competitors refueled and directors talked through the day’s performances as well as what was in store for day two, the sun set over camp and it was evident to see people beginning to relax.

Day 1 Results:

Top 3 Men:
1) Salameh al Aqra: 3:51
2) Dave Phillips: 4.21
3) Charles Henson: 4:24

Top 3 Women:
1) Josie Adams: 5.01
2) Sarah Thompson: 5.14
3) Kate Westcott: 5:38

Day 2: 50km

On day two runners were split into two groups with the first setting off at 06:15 local time, with the second, quicker, group starting one hour later to stagger the race.

The 06:15 start coincided with a beautiful sunrise and the first group enjoyed two hours of cool temperatures before the shadows were overcome by the blazing sun. Despite the cool start though it took just 45 minutes for Salameh to overtake the last competitor in group one.

Matt Tomkins was advised against starting day two due to a stomach bug which had hampered him since day one. It is always a difficult decision to make, but the day’s rest allowed him to rehydrate, recover and have a crack at the long stage which was the following day.

Day two had a lot of heavy sand which was incredibly tough on the competitors, in particular between the 30-40km mark just as the hottest part of the day came around. As the crew kept a close eye on all competitors it must have been a tough mental battle for the competitors to stick at it and avoid the comfort of a support vehicle.

Henson and Free raced hard and managed to beat Phillips, the stage one runner-up in a battle which was becoming more and more exciting to follow.

Sarah Thompson came in sixth overall, despite some serious quad pains. It was amazing to see her get faster and faster as the week went on. Kate Westcott also demonstrated great strength with another steady day, coming in 30 mins later in second place. The day one women’s winner dropped off to 16th overall after a tough day in the sun. Marina Ranger and Lucy Sacarello crossed the finish line in joint third. They only ever moved up in the rankings as the week went on.

A few partnerships had already formed by this point, with Faith Cowell and Rebecca Brennan, Lucy Wheeler and Emily Ball, pairing up to run together, and amazingly completing the remaining four days side-by-side.

Lauren Morton, founder of Team Like a Girl, after a tough first day got stronger and stronger as her competitive nature became evident. It was good to see her working hard to pick off competitors as the checkpoints passed. Mara Avhezari and Mollie Millington showed tremendous perseverance through what was a seriously tough day and in doing so personifying the spirit of the Team Like A Girl athletes.

Ed Parsons picked up his pace and finished six places ahead of his day one ranking after coming to the conclusion that running and getting it over with was less painful than walking. Towards the back of the field was still total newcomer to running, Kiko Matthews, (who had attracted companion Mark Brocklehurst – former Atlantic rower and part of the unofficial group, Team Like A Dad). Rena Mutaguchi, having been struggling with blisters picked up on Day one amazingly made the decision at checkpoint one to remove her trainers and do the remaining 40km in sliders. An amazing testament to her character, with the final 15km spent walking alongside the local Bedouin in charge of picking up the last flags.

Day 2 Results:

Top 3 Men:
1) Salameh al Aqra: 5.38
2) Charles Henson 6.05
3) Toby Free: 6.06

Top 3 Women:
1) Sarah Thompson: 6:45
2) Kate Westcott: 7.15
3) Marina Ranger and Lucy Sacarello: 7.21

Day 3: 70km

Stage three is the ‘Long Day’ of Wadi Rum Ultra and it covers a distance of 70km and starts in total darkness in the early hours of the morning. Only light from the moon and head torches are available to light the way. The stage finishes in the amazing ‘Rock Camp’ – a huge elevated cliff ledge surrounded by towering mountain faces.

The competitors set off in two waves, the first at 04:00 and the elite wave, including only the top 10, at 05:00. For a lot of these runners this was the furthest they had ever covered in one day. When you take into account the searing heat and coming off the back of 2 marathons this was the ultimate test of mind and body.

It was evident that for some runners the early start was a huge aid. Jack Jervoise, who was in the first start, came through checkpoint two in first place declaring his intention was to hold off Salameh (who had started an hour later) until at least the 30km mark, which he managed by just 30 seconds, finishing in an impressive eigth overall for the day.

In the men’s race it was a familiar story with Phillips and Henson battling for second and third, whilst Jan Pascal crept up behind them. In the women’s Thompson pulled off a phenomenal feat finishing in fifth overall despite going through some difficult stomach issues which limited her ability to take on fuel. At checkpoints it was through gritted teeth that she would declare that she needed to get it over with as soon as possible. Kate Westcott finished only five minutes behind.

Dr Danny was monitoring the athlete’s core body temperatures throughout the day, and it was Dave Philips who topped the charts with 40.5°C. Heat exhaustion is supposed to be evident at 39… so it was fair to say that they were pushing themselves!

“Rock Camp”, where the stage culminates, 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 truly unique vista. It’s the perfect reward for a massive effort.

Unfortunately, Yousef Habassa and Rena Mutaguchi were forced to drop out before the 30km mark as they were unable to make the two hour per 10km cut-off times. It is a difficult decision to have to make as a director, particularly for such strong individuals who would have probably just kept going until they made it. However, for the safety of everyone we cannot have competitors spread too widely across the course that it becomes difficult to monitor.

The rest of the pack plugged away impressively, with the final two competitors, Kiko Matthews and Alan Wilson crossing the finish line shortly after sunset to a huge crowd of competitors and Bedouins blowing horns and beating drums across the valley. Matt Tomkin also came back from the brink to complete the stage in just under 13 hours.

Day 3 Results:

Top 3 Men:
1) Salameh al Aqra: 7.07
2) Dave Phillips: 8.17
3) Charles Henson: 8.26

Top 3 Women:
1) Sarah Thompson: 8.54
2) Kate Westcott: 8.59
3) Lucy Sacarello and Marina Ranger: 9:55

Day 4: 50km

Day four offered some of the most beautiful valleys and canyons of the region, many made famous by Lawrence of Arabia. Competitors had to pass through a huge course and clamber down a steep rocky pass with huge boulders either side.

This was Jan Pascal Tschudy’s day, a Swiss triathlete and absolute gentlemen, who had hardly looked out of breath all week, and seemed remarkably comfortable in his first multi-day race. Jan came through only 20 minutes behind Salameh, and well ahead of third place, setting up an epic battle for places in the final day, the likes of which had not been seen before.

Peter Schleider and Simon Wergen who had been extremely strong and steady all week had very fast days, finishing in fifth and ninth overall respectively.

In the women’s field, Thompson once again pushed herself to the absolute limit, coming through in sixth place overall only to collapse and be forced onto an IV drip by the medical team back in camp. Wescott held second, and a good day from Asics Frontrunner Hannah Leith, who was one of the most consistent performers in the week came in just under the eight hour mark.

Unfortunately, there were two competitors, Lisa Sammons and Ed Parsons who had to drop out at checkpoint two. Matthias Ehrhardt was unfortunately unable to start due to a prohibitive knee issue. Massive credit must go to each of them for making it through the long stage despite serious injuries.

It was great to see Rena and Youssef back in action and finishing this day, after having been forced to stop the previous day.

Josie Adams, who flew off on the first day, was evidently feeling the heat after pushing so hard early on in the race. Thoughts of quitting are easy to have, and the crew were concerned over her health and monitoring her throughout, there were times when it seemed like she was considering throwing in the towel. As such, seeing her cross the line, being jogged in by two of the doctors, George and Gareth, was one of the most emotional moments of the week and reduced several of the crew to tears. An amazing demonstration of guts and determination.

Day 4 Results:

Top 3 Men:
1) Salameh al Aqra: 4.45
2) Jan Pascal: 5.05
3) Charles Henson: 5.26

Top 3 Women:
1) Sarah Thompson: 5.43
2) Kate Westcott: 6.22
3) Lucy Sacarello and Marina Ranger: 6.45

Day 5: 35km

The final day is the shortest of the race and involves a loop from the Oasis Desert camp. For all, the end is in sight and this day is just a matter of getting home and celebrating the end of a huge week of effort. However, given the race for second, third and fourth position had just 14 minutes in it, Dave Philips, Jan Tschudy and Charles Henson were never going to be taking it easy.

The circuit entailed a 10km dune section before crossing a long valley in heavy sand where competitors can see the field for miles ahead, there is then a final energy sapping climb to the final checkpoint of the week before the final stretch, an opportunity to see what is left in the legs where flat salt plains allow the opportunity for a little speed.

A last minute change to the route, due to the production of a Hollywood movie (also supposedly having been granted a permit in the area), added a little curveball to the day, as organisers were only able to communicate this to runners mid-stage. The news was taken well by everyone.

At checkpoint two there was nothing between the leaders, Charles and Jan, with Dave pushing hard from behind. All three were evidently in pain in what was the hottest day of the week (reaching 37°C for the first time).

It was only in the final 5km of the race where the gap started to open, with Charles Henson finding something in the tank and blitzing the last section to finish an amazing two minutes behind Salameh and clinching the much coveted second place overall and winning a free place to an Ultra X race of his choice in 2019.

Jan Tschudy was unable to keep up the pace and dropped off to finish five minutes behind, with Dave Philips right on his tail.

Outside of the podium, there were a few who were obviously not going to leave anything on the field, with Toby Free, Peter Schlieder and Simon Wergan all having good days. Steven Platts, who, as many had, seemed to get stronger each day of the race, finished with a sprint across the line finishing seventh for the day.

Kiko Matthews, who herself confessed to only doing a maximum run of nine miles in training for the event led the last day with a highly amusing 100m sprint. Sadly she was unable to keep up this blistering pace for much longer but still did incredibly well to finish the event when not even she thought she would. An unbelievable achievement and testament to her willpower, having spent a ridiculous 52 hours on her feet.

Day 5 Results:

Top 3 Men:
1) Salameh al Aqra: 3.12
2) Charles Henson: 3.14
3) Jan Pascal: 3.20

Top 3 Women:
1) Sarah Thompson: 3.57
2) Kate Westcott: 3.21
3) Jodie Gauld: 4.15

Man Hugging Woman At Finish Line of Wadi Rum Ultra

Post-race

Beers and soft drinks were provided at the finish line to all competitors – the first chilled drinks available all week. 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.

The night’s venue was a desert camp close to the finish line, where there were beds, hot water, showers, proper toilets and a huge Bedouin barbeque available to the ravenous party.

The barbeque was followed by a prize giving ceremony, finishing places were announced and competitors were called up to the stage one by one to receive cheers from competitors and crew alike, hugs from the two directors and their limited edition finishers t-shirts.

The evening was a chance for competitors to unwind and exchange their experiences. Amazingly many of the competitors refused to take advantage of the beds on offer and instead decided to spend one more night sharing each other’s company underneath the stars. To us this summed up the spirit of the 2018 group. One of companionship 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 during the week, and it was evident in the emotional farewells the following day, that this was much more than a race, or even a holiday, this was an exhibition of human potential and ability.

The following morning a coach transported the group to Petra to see the Lost City – one of the few remaining wonders of the ancient world before heading back to Amman for the final night in Jordan.

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

In less than six months the directors will be hosting the next race, this time in Sri Lanka, under Ultra X (the Wadi Rum Ultra rebrand). If it turns out to be anything like this it is going to be another special week. We cannot wait.

Final Results:

Men
1) Salameh al Aqra: 24.33
2) Charles Henson: 27.30
3) Dave Phillips: 27.31

Women
1) Sarah Thompson: 30.33
2) Kate Westcott: 32:355
3) Marina Ranger and Lucy Sacarello: 34.44

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