The climb went on and on as the runners ascended into the darkness. Each zig zag of the vertiginous trail, sliced into the sharp limestone, a gaping void looming below. “Bloody terrifying, isn’t it?” a runner said, while trying to squeeze himself against the rock wall. However tempting it would be to quit, scrambling back down would be far worse than going up. Their headlamps illuminated snapshots of rock, then more rock, with an occasional twisted, gnarled tree clinging to the side of the cliff. Then suddenly the trail swerved upward through a gap in the canyon wall, leading into a narrow, steep, boulder-strewn chute. The runners started scrambling.
This was the climb of a mountain called Balal Al-Sayt, a three-quarter-mile vertical gain over two miles, the crux of the 85-mile mountain running race called Oman by UTMB, a new ultramarathon traversing the Al Hajar Mountains of the Sultanate of Oman. Held for the first time in November 2018, Oman by UTMB, with its 26,000 feet of vertical gain, has staked its claim as one of the toughest foot races in the world.
Over the past 20 years, ultramarathons (races longer than 26 miles) have gradually become mainstream as races left the relatively flat asphalt of cities for every environment and climate imaginable—mountains, deserts, and jungle. Some events have grown to more than 100 miles long. Many race organizers scoffed at “runnable” trails, and instead threw their runners into “technical terrain”—topography that most sensible humans would carefully walk through or avoid altogether.
These “ultras,” where bragging rights are measured by “how far” and “how tough,” became the to-do sport for high achievers, amateur adventurers, and world travelers. The number of ultras around the world is now pushing 20,000, more than a 100-fold increase since the turn of the century.
The arid, brittle mountains of Oman are a far cry from the Alps of Chamonix, France, home to the original UTMB, or Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, and many runners participating in the Oman race were surprised to find mountains at all. “I thought Oman was just sand before I saw race promotional videos,” one runner told me.
Oman’s varied geography is indeed far more than just sand. Although classic Arabian desert landscapes are plentiful, the country sees itself as a bastion of traditional, yet tolerant Arab culture, developed, yet unspoiled by petrodollars.
“Oman is authentic—it is not trying to be a Manhattan in the desert. It is a coastal, sea-going nation that traded with China from the 9th century. People are wonderful—hospitable and very tolerant,” enthused Albert Whitley, a retired British Army Major General who has lived in Oman for more than 30 years and now serves as the executive director of Oman Sail, the company in charge of the nation's outdoor tourism development.
The race’s Omani competitors, which included eight privates and Lieutenant Hamdan Al-Khatri from the Omani Army—all new to ultra marathons—were courteous to a fault. Each called out “Salaam alaikum,” an Arabic greeting meaning “peace be upon you,” said each one of the soldiers to my headlamp in the pitch dark of a dry river bed, where we set up a video crew to capture runners mid race. Runners from other countries trudged past silently.
Al-Khatri called Oman by UTMB, where he finished 19th, his “new achievement in life.” Did his men enjoy the race? “Maybe,” he answered. “My dear, they thought it was very long and very hard.”
Running remains something of a novelty to many Omanis. Muscat Road Runners, a running club founded in Oman's capital in 1983 by resident expats, is credited with laying the foundation of amateur running in the country. The club is now led by an Omani and well attended by locals, and the annual Muscat Marathon is pulling in more and more Omani runners every year, including women.
One of them is Nadhira Al-Harthy, a 41-year old civil servant. For Al-Harthy the appeal of running was its relief from the pressures of work and family routine. “I discovered new feeling when I started running. I feel free, free from everything.”
Al-Harthy had already completed in the Muscat Marathon, but at Oman by UTMB she dropped out at 56 miles. “I was not prepared for this much climbing,” she said, but she also regrets dropping out. “Now I want to cry every time I think about not finishing the race.”
More than half of the 415 starters did not finish the race either. Some were ground down by endless ascents and descents on rocky terrain, but others lacking mountain experience retreated from the cliff-side trails, such as the one at Balad Al-Sayt.
“I was crying every time I made it to the top of a climb,” said Gao Xidong, one of just two finishers of the group of 10 Chinese runners in the race. “It was like running through hell sometimes.” The photo of Gao crossing the finish line, Chinese flag aloft, went viral on social media among China's burgeoning running community.
To create an experience that was both physically challenging and culturally authentic to Oman, organizers designed a route that followed ancient paths, now fallen into disuse, that had once connected mountain villages, explained Andy McNae, a former mountaineer now in charge of the event, adding that some of the sections were so remote that Omani Army helicopters supplied race checkpoints.
In the end the harsh terrain helped build esprit among the runners. The joint winner, American professional ultra-runner Jason Schlarb, finished hand in hand with one of his main rivals, Diego Pazos from Switzerland, after more than 20 hours of non-stop running. “Diego and I decided to finish together, otherwise one of us would have to suffer on this race course on his own,” Schlarb said.
Perhaps this is the ultimate appeal of ultras, worth more than a rush of endorphins, a finisher medal, or a viral Facebook post—a human bond born of hours upon hours of “running through hell” together.
Organizers have already opened registration for next year's race.