Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 October 2019

Meet the Emirati athletes training for Al Marmoom - the world's longest desert ultramarathon

The 300km race will come to Dubai in December

Ayesha Ahmed Foolad and Ahmed Al Kathiri trying the new routes for Al Marmoon Ultramarathon at Al Qudra. Ruel Pableo for The National 
Ayesha Ahmed Foolad and Ahmed Al Kathiri trying the new routes for Al Marmoon Ultramarathon at Al Qudra. Ruel Pableo for The National 

Following on from Dubai’s ultra­marathon debut last year, Al Marmoom race is back with another first to its name for 2019: this year, it will be the world’s longest desert ultra at a distance of 300 kilometres, up from 270km. Although 30km may not seem like that much longer, 270 is already a gargantuan number – and every kilometre counts. The ultramarathon will be held from Monday, December 9, over five days for individual athletes, and two for teams. It’ll vary between 50km and 110km per stage as athletes take on the emirate’s topography, dealing with tough terrain, extreme weather and even wildlife.

New routes for Al Marmoom racers

Organisers have introduced three new courses. Al Qudra Lakes, on day one, which has a distance of 60km; Love Lakes, day five’s route, extends across 50km; and Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park – a whopping 110km – that runners will traverse on days three and four.

Ruth Dickinson, one of the event’s organisers, says the team chose the new routes for a number of reasons: the degree of difficulty for elite runners as well as adaptability for those less experienced; the beauty of the landscape and desert terrain; adding landmarks in Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve; and offering new challenges for runners who took part last year.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates- Ayesha Ahmed Foolad trying the new routes for the longest ultra Marathon at Last Exit Al Qudra in December. Ruel Pableo for The National for Melanie Swan's story
Ayesha Ahmed Foolad at Love Lakes, Dubai. Photo: Ruel Pableo for The National

“The hardest part of the race is running the 24-hour continuous 110km stretch, especially through the night, for days three and four,” she says, as night running in pitch-black darkness comes with its own obstacles. Each stage offers different degrees of difficulty and mixed terrain, such that runners will take on high-rolling dunes as well as hard sand tracks on each route. “Running in the heat of the day over relentless high dunes of shifting sand is no doubt the hardest part of any route,” Dickinson says.

Last year’s race attracted 240 hardy participants, including 47 Emiratis, nine of whom were women. Despite the longer distance and new routes, organisers expect 350 participants.

Putting the ultra in a marathon

Rob Jones, a coach and an ultra-­runner himself, is training two athletes. The endurance specialist, who works at InnerFight gym in Al Quoz, says consistency and preparation for race time are essential. “To run these long single-stage races and even the longer multi-stage races require a lot of training, more than you would think, if you want to run successfully. Your lifestyle will have to change. You will have to say no to nights out and social events because you are up at 2am to go and run.”

Distance-wise, a marathon that spans more than the traditional 42.2km qualifies for the “ultra” tag – from the UK’s gruelling Spine Race at 431km to the world’s longest foot race, Self-Transcendence, at 4,989km. Al Marmoom Ultramarathon is divided into three races, at 300km, 110km and 50km.

Jones says that as a sport, an ultramarathon can be very lonely, with long days and nights training, and sacrifices along the way. For many, mental hurdles during the race can be tougher than physical tiredness. “Let’s say you run for seven, 10, maybe 20 hours, something is bound to go wrong. You need to be mentally prepared for that to happen, and understand there are things you can control and get right – training, fuel, hydration – but also things you can’t, like stomach issues or weather changes, to name a few.” The highs and lows can be unbearable, with one minute feeling like an hour, possible hallucinations and agonising physical pain, followed by bursts of energy.

Ahmed Al Kathiri, 43, knows this all too well, having done some brutal ultra-races including the 251km Marathon des Sables, in Morocco. Last year’s Al Marmoom was the first triple-digit ultra Al Kathiri experienced – and, he says, his worst, dubbing it “the biggest nightmare I ever had”. He says: “I had pain everywhere – in my stomach, blisters, bone pain. I had to take many painkillers. I did that race, really, with zero experience or expert preparation. I just read articles and watched athletes on YouTube.”

Pride of performance

However, the Emirati is quick to add that there is something magical about the conquest of an ultra: “It takes me over the limit each time. The pain is unbearable, but overcoming that desire to quit, the suffering, being in the middle of nowhere, gives you a satisfaction you can’t describe. You feel you can touch the clouds. It takes extraordinary determination and resolve.”

Dubai, United Arab Emirates- Ahmed Alkathiri trying the new routes for the longest ultra Marathon at Last Exit Al Qudra in December. Ruel Pableo for The National for Melanie Swan's story
Ahmed Al Kathiri. Photo: Ruel Pableo for The National

Also taking on the adventure is Ayesha Ahmed Foolad, 30, a paramedic. Last year her team took first place in the 50km category, which motivated her to join this year, for the 110km event. She will be on a mixed team of eight, taking on the two-day exploit.

Foolad is training twice a day, six days a week, including a day on the dunes and sand. In addition, she goes to the gym for strength training and can rack up 50km a week. She says healthy food is a must to stay fuelled, but it’s not muscle fatigue she is worried about. “Because I am preparing well for this race with diverse training constantly, I don’t think that the physical strength and stamina will be the difficult part. It is more likely that the heat and sun in the afternoon will be the challenging factor ahead.”

As an Emirati, she is proud to be taking on the feat at a time when more women from the UAE are coming to the fore in sports. “I hope to send a message that the Emirati woman is able to do these types of races and any other sport she chooses.”

Updated: October 6, 2019 09:51 AM

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