x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

They run 72km for a T-shirt and some stew

140 teams and 16 solo diehards show up for camping, camaraderie and the Wadi Bih Run endurance race that has preserved the charm of its early days.

The 2011 Wadi Bhi run, Wadi Bhi, Oman. 11th Feb 2011.
The 2011 Wadi Bhi run, Wadi Bhi, Oman. 11th Feb 2011.

DIBBA, OMAN // For some, the Wadi Bih Run is about the challenge. For most, it is about the company.

No one knows this better than John Gregory, the man who founded the run in 1993 with a small group of friends ready for a little conversation, some overnight camping and the adventure of racing over a mountain from Ras al Khaimah to Dibba, Oman.

"The idea was that you got up a bit smelly," said Mr Gregory. "Just to be out in the open and get away from the sanitised events which are high profile with big prizes. Just do something as rough as you could possible make it and as natural as you could possibly make it."

The 72-kilometre race, which took place yesterday, was the first mountain race in the UAE and has become a classic. It had 140 five-member teams and 16 solo runners this year. It has come a long way from a its humble beginnings with a few volunteers and 14 teams, who make the 900-metre ascent to the top of Wadi al Baih and down through Wadi Khab al Shamsi to be rewarded with a home cooked stew.

"The idea was that there would be no prizes for winning teams," said Mr Gregory. "It was more of an Olympic idea of non-competition but obviously everybody tries to run the fastest they can."

Today the race draws competitive athletes across the Gulf and this year's fastest team, the Abra Striders Experiment, completed the run in four hours and 27 minutes. The fastest solo runner, Darryl Chiles, finished in 6 hours and 35 minutes.

The run now begins and ends in Dibba, Oman because of tighter border controls. Of course, it was difficult to pass over the mountain in the early days because roads would often be washed out by heavy rainfall.

The grit of the race is part of its charm and the route meanders through boulder strewn valleys with verdant hanging plants and mountain walls graffitied in the name of teenagers who live in the wadi.

Runners share the road with bearded farmers, canes raised in friendly salute, and goats destined for a biryani dinner.

Essential to the experience is a night camping on Dibba beach before the run, though now runners are so competitive that some turn their nose up at fire-roasted potatoes lest they affect their performance the next day.

"Basically the whole idea was that you would have a group of like-minded people to come and camp together, meet new people," said Mr Gregory. "I mean life's moved on a bit from there."

For about 11 years, Mr Gregory managed the run. As the event grew through word of mouth, he secured sponsorship from Sun and Sand Sports for the run's coveted T-shirts, designed by a friend. To feed the growing number of runners, Mr Gregory would load up his three-ton work pickup with curry from RAK's Taj Mahal Restaurant and await runners on the other side of the mountain.

The post-race buffet has been held at the Golden Tulip hotel since it opened on Dibba Beach a few years ago, adding a little glamour to the run.

Mr Gregory, originally from Britain, has lived in RAK since 1981 though intended to stay two years "only". Now past retirement age, he holds the community's respect as a prolific rock climber, a passion that started in England when he was 18 and led him to alpine mountaineering.

He was on the team that made the first ascent of the Fortress in Chile in 1968, an ice-choked mountain of about 2,400 metres. In the UAE, he has made the first ascent of about 300 climbing routes and can still be found on the rocks most weekends, even in summer.

"He's a classy and humble guy," said Andrew LaBonte, 24, a RAK-based climber. "He's not the sort of person that sings his own praise despite being extremely accomplished. He does whatever he can to build the rock climbing and outdoor community in general, Wadi Bih is just one thing he does."

Mr Gregory has run the race about four times and biked it three times. This year, he did a little of both. He had support from his son Ian, 32, who drove from Dubai at 9pm after playing rugby for the Hurricanes against Muscat.

The Wadi Bih Run is now managed by John Young, who lives in Dubai and worked on the run since its beginning.

azacharias@thenational.ae