Runners are a strange breed. It doesn’t matter where I live, it seems we unintentionally are drawn to each other.
It starts with a sleepy nod in the early morning as you pass a fellow runner in silence during your pre-dawn training. It then extends to “likes” on Instagram and local Facebook running groups as you start to recognize familiar faces posting photos from their runs or complaining (which is really a form of bragging in the runners’ world) of sore muscles and cramped hamstrings after attempting a new PR or trail.
Where we connect is at the races. All those mornings or late night runs you may think there are only a handful of runners living in the area, but on race day, it changes. Suddenly a 100 people show up out of the shadows with headlamps, camelbacks full of water and pockets full of gels. We are a tribe connected by passion – and the crazy urge to run.
In Saudi Arabia, Fabrice is our fearless leader. He scouts our routes, sets up flags and then sets the date for the tribe to rally from around the region to conquer whatever challenge he has prepared for us. The tribe has followed him over sand dunes, vertical 1 km killer climbs and into dust storms (I was not there that weekend).
This past weekend his challenge for us was the Hejaz 50km – an ultra challenge for runners and mountain bikers.
We started at 3:30 a.m. and after driving nearly 90 minutes, we turned down a dirt road leading seemingly nowhere. Nothing but desert and rocky hills on either side. It was still dark so our only guide was the taillights of the car in front of us which would disappear occasionally from the dust. We would then slow down, wait for the sand to settle and then drive off in the direction we saw them again.
When we arrived, registration was in full swing. Tents were set up, and the 100 runners and few mountain bikers attempting the 50 km ultra were milling about. Even though people were talking in whispers, you could feel the energy in the air. We were ready, but maybe not as ready as we thought we were.
The course was hard. Really hard. When Fabrice tells you that all runners must carry 1.5 liters of water and to expect the race to take on average 8 hours to complete, you believe him. When he tells you it’s harder than the last year’s Hejaz, you believe him.
I didn’t believe him. But I do now. I thought there is no way 50 km would take all day. It’s just a little more than a marathon and that takes only a few hours. But marathons aren’t Fabrice’s Hejaz. The Hejaz is desert trail running with lose gravel and sand, steep 25% grade hills and intense heat. There is no shade in the desert. There is only sand, rocks and the occasional crunchy shrub.
The scenery is beautiful in its own way. It’s rugged and untouched. There are miles where you see no other runners, which makes you run even harder in hopes of finishing faster because you don’t want to die in the desert – or be accidentally left behind. This is my fear. Not only am I a slow runner, but I am directionally challenged. Getting lost is my norm and there is no mobile service where we run.
I’m also not equipped to survive in the desert. In Canada, you learn how to survive in the woods or in an avalanche, but not sand. I remember this whenever I’m worried I won’t make it back to the camp, and it pushes me on.
My favorite part are the camels. I think it’s good luck to see some because it means there is civilization somewhere. Plus, they always make me feel calm. I think it’s because they look so chill in the heat and move like they aren’t in a hurry to get places. Unlike me, they don’t look lost.
I did the Hejaz as a three-person relay and was glad I didn’t commit to doing it solo. Even as a team, it took us over 8 hours to complete and the few friends who did it solo, took over 9 hours. They probably hurt more than I do today and I’m feeling it everywhere: butt, ankles, upper back (from carrying the camelback). Even my arms hurt. I have no idea why. I didn’t crawl up the hills – although there were times it was close.
The Hejaz 50 km is done, and the tribe has gone back into the shadows – until the next challenge, when we will gather to run again.