The ultrarun in the scorching hot Oman is mountainous and 137 km long with a vertical gain of 7800 (!) metres. What makes it even more difficult is the thin air at the altitude of 1600-2300 metres. This run is epic, technical and difficult. Maybe even too much so, as almost half of all contestants quit or are unable to finish the race in the 44-hour time limit. Of all the ultrarunners from Estonia, Leivo Sepp (29:15), who came 4th in his age group and 21st in the overall ranking, and Martin Sokk (42:24) finished the race successfully. https://omanbyutmb.com/
Start: straight to social media
The start is at 7.30PM. It’s pitch-black but it is still 28 degrees outside.
Since this is the first ultrarun in Oman, there are over 70 excited Omanis in the 419 registered runners who seem to think that they have a home-field advantage. Spoiler alert, only 6 of them finish the race. Nevertheless, at this moment the first two rows of the starting corridor are filled with euphoric and clapping people taking selfies and videos. A minute before the start and they still have their phones out, they are rapidly writing messages and giving out likes on Facebook. You can see the real runners in the third and the fourth row, standing there focused and with no emotion on their faces.
The start is like in the Estonian movie “Malev” where the elder Lembitu gives the command to charge and the biggest braggarts make 100 metres before they collapse, breathing heavily. By the first ascent, the euphoria is long gone.
21+8 km. Where are my poles?
The first 21 kilometres pass by as a light stable ascent and you can advance at a pace of 5-6 min/km on a road that even bigger off-road vehicles can get through. After this half-marathon, the Oman run literally ends. In the next 8 kilometres, you need to gain 1000 metres vertically and reach the mountainous region.
This is a tough trek and I condemn myself every step I take for deciding not to take my poles with me. I am like a post: people are overtaking me from the left and the right with the clicking of the poles. I try to make the journey a little bit easier by supporting my hands on my knees.
65 km. The great silence of the wadis is taking my breath away.
A wadi is a dry riverbed. Wadis are mentioned in the guide for each part of the trail but I do not know what to think of that. In the mindset of an Estonian, a wadi is the dried-up riverbed of Emajõgi.
Wadis, however, have formed when the rock surface has split and the cliffs are the size of multistory buildings. The smaller wadis are like sharp-edged cliff rivers that have rocks of all sizes thrown about. The large ones though… a suitable comparison for comprehending what a large wadi is, is the Great Canyon in the US and its smaller counterparts. The wadi more so resembled the canyon of the region of Gorges du Verdon in France (albeit, without the water), but only those who have been there understand that reference.
The trail continues through the rocky mess of the wadis. It looks more like jumping from one rock to another, you can hardly call it running. This is called coastaleering and in Estonia you can practice it by the beach, for example, under the cliff of Paldiski.
Do it in the dark. With a headlamp.
When you are descending in the dark, with the trail getting steeper and steeper, and out-of-the-blue your own voice and breathing start to echo eerily, you realise that you are descending into the bottom of a proper wadi.
I first realise this when I am finally in the bottom of one. But what is important is not that you are in the bottom of the wadi, it is the fact that you have to start ascending on the other side.
The hue of the sky makes you realise that the steep, almost-half-a-kilometre-high cliffs towering on both sides of you are to blame for the ghastly silence and the heat of the wadi. Every stumbling stone, clicking of the pole, sigh and snap echos back to you multiple times. The air stands still and you are soaked in a second.
I start to comprehend what the organisers meant by “deep wadi”.
In some larger wadis, the trail goes through the abandoned villages that had been built inside the cliffs. The surreal imagery reminds me of the desert people in Star Wars who lived in sand caves. The only road leading out of the village is a goat trail on a cliff wall that requires a couple of hours of climbing.
The further I go, the less frequently I remember that poles could be useful. You do not need them when descending or on a stretch and the ascents are climbs where you need to grab onto the cliff at each step. One wadi is so steep that it is obligatory to wear a helmet and a climbing harness and you have to have fixed protection to move on the steel cable that has been mounted on the cliffs.
105 km. Woman - the master of running down a mountain
Before reaching the last 1700m ascent there is a 10 km segment on the trail where you lose 1000m of altitude.
It is the only place after the start where it is possible to run, not just jump from rock to rock. The descending mountain trail is again fit for Land Cruisers, just put the pedal to the metal and go.
But you do not master mountain running on Estonia’s flat ground. I learn to do it when an Omani man comes up from behind, overtakes you easily and I can only watch how his back gets smaller in the distance. Of course… he is a local and has been running on mountains for his whole life.
But then a woman shows up. Not an Omani, but a Spanish woman.
She overtakes us both like we are statues. You can see the serpentine for kilometres and I watch with envy as she leaves everyone behind. As my pace is circa 10 min/km and hers is 7-8, she gains at least a 20-minute lead on me.
117 km. Rock climbing 101.
My watch has stopped working due to some technical issue so I have two indicators for time: the sun rises at 6.30AM and sets at 5.30PM. I track my time on the trail according to this.
When the sun sets, I need to put my lamp back on to start trudging towards the last mountain.
But it is not trudging. It is not climbing either. It is full on rock climbing.
On a sheer vertical wall.
You must gain 1200m vertically.
The whole trail is marked with well-noticeable green reflectors and the danger areas are marked with red ones. There is an abundance of devilish red eyes here and putting your hand or your foot in the wrong place can take you down to the black abyss.
Ahead of me, by about 15 minutes, is a girl whose lamp I see a glimpse of above me. From time to time, I hear a clicking noise - is she really using poles here? I do not know but I start to think of her as the girl on a bike. Whenever I see another flash of light, it is still the girl on a bike.
122 km. A mirage of a double mountain
I know from the trail’s description that there is some flat ground at the altitude of 2000m and then there is last hill that has a radio mast.
The road starts to ascend once again and I see glimpses of the girl on a bikealways being somewhere above. When the trail starts to descend, I am a little bit perplexed as to how I got past the mast without noticing it but nonetheless, I am glad that I am on my way home.
But then the truth comes out.
There is a ginormous black mountain ahead that has four lights barging up its conical side. And there is a long way there.
Had my watch still worked or had there been daylight, I would have known already on top of the first hill that there was more to come but you lose track of time in the dark and the feel of altitude is not really developed in a person coming from a flat land.
134 km. The race
When the tough ascent is over, you must descend 1700m on the most typical Omani mountain trail: rock to rock, along a wadi or on a beautifully broken down cliff surface.
3 kilometres before the finish line and a Spaniard is breathing down my neck. We have been together quite often on the trail and I know that he is better at descending than I am.
Athletic will, anger and the decision that although I have to descend 400m during the last 3 kilometres, I will not give my place up.
I turn the lamp on full power and I hit the gas.
I stop stumbling and thinking where to put my foot on the cliff to be safe and not to slip. My feet find where it is best to make contact with the ground on full speed and on their own. Every rock, crack, ledge and hole is suitable, the sole texture of my running shoes grips perfectly and my balance is superb. It is like my body had been waiting for 134 km to finally run. Where were these resources before? Where? In my head!
The Spaniard gives up after he realises what power I am tapping into. I am confident in myself and will not slow down before the finish line.
137 km. The finish line.
I enter the finish corridor with a light stride to cross the finish line in the elegant and energetic pace of a run in the park. My time of 29 hours and 15 minutes places me 4th in my age group, overall I come 21st.
I achieved the best I could after training on the flat surfaces of Estonia. For a better result I would have to start going to training camps in the mountains; to reach the TOP5, I would have to live in the mountains. But I like a technical and difficult trail. I am good at it!
For official results, go to:
State of being
I felt great during the whole competition. My clothes were comfortable, the soles of my brand-new Salomon S-Lab Sense 6 SG shoes were a bit too thin but they had a great texture underneath and gripped well which turned out to be the critical factor of a quick running descent.
I got to eat everything that I wanted; rice, eggs, noodle soup, mashed potatoes, watermelon, bananas, bars and gels were offered. For drinks: plain water.
Oman by UTMB is an epic, technical and difficult run where nearly half of the contestants either quit or were unable to finish the race within the time limit.
The hottest time of day is at 2PM and, depending on the altitude, the temperatures can reach up to 28-30 degrees. It only starts to get cooler after midnight. There is the heat of the wadis inside the wadis and up in the mountains there is wind and it might be chilly and cold (5-6 degrees).
You could run most of the time in short-sleeved clothes but it was windy on the second night at 2300m of altitude so I wore a long-sleeved middle layer to keep warm. The rest of the time, I wore short sleeves.
Next time, I am bringing my poles. I would not have been able to use them in Oman for many of the ascents but there were plenty of places where they would have come in handy.
What is the UTMB series?
UTMB aka Ultra Trail Mont Blanc is the world’s most popular ultrarun that takes place around the mountain of Mont Blanc. To get there, the contestants have to qualify and then there is a raffle since there are 5-6 times more contestants than there are places.
UTMB has now decided to use their brand more broadly in the world. The first ultrarun in this series is Oman by UTMB, Ushuaia by UTMB will be held in South America in 2019 and Gaoligong by UTMB will be held in China in 2020.
Right before the start
Estonian contestants: Martin Sokk, Erik Jõgi, Alvar Lumberg, Leivo Sepp.