Jump back to 2016.
I visited Dubai often. My daughter was living there, and, being the ‘forever beach-bum,’ I was happy to visit and visit often! Amongst the glitz and glam that is Dubai, the ‘beach’ experience can still be found. Sun that warms the bones, soft white sand and the smell of Hawaiian Tropic sun lotion is definitely my kind of living. It’s second nature as I grew up by beaches in New York.
In the early evening on one of my visits in January 2016, I listened to a podcast about the Marathon Des Sables (MDS). Not my usual go-to type of podcast, as I always consider ‘other people’ do those things, but because I vaguely knew someone who had completed the MDS, I wanted to hear more about it. The information that centred my attention was the participants. Out of approximately 1100 participants in 2016, just 165 of those were women. Right then and there, I knew I wanted to be one of those women! I have no idea why I just did. By the end of the evening, I was on the waiting list for Marathon Des Sables 2017.
In early February, having returned home to the UK, I received the news that I had got a place! I was speechless; speechless with excitement, speechless with the unknowing of what I had really signed up for, and speechless with the reminder of how life changes from moment to moment, and I was now going to run 250k in the Sahara Desert with a pack on my back! “OH, MY WORD!!!”
Once all this speechlessness subsided and I knew what my April 2017 holiday was going to be, it occurred to me I should probably train in a desert and thought how fortunate I was to be able to go back and forth to Dubai and amongst the glitz and glamour, the desert MUST be accessible??
To this day, the best thing I ever asked Google was ‘How do I run in the desert in Dubai’. Instantly, up popped up a video of a few men in the middle of a desert, wearing backpacks, tight shorts, caps, long sleeves and white fabric things attached to their footwear that wrapped their ankles I learned were called gaitors. They were climbing up a sand dune, sliding down a bit, standing still to rest a few seconds, then continuing up the sand dune until they reached the top looking exhausted and proud. Then the best bit, they got to run down! I wanted to do that too!! They were part of a group called the Desert Trail Runners (DTR’s) and had weekly runs in the desert! Fantastic!
The second-best thing I ever asked Google was how to get in contact with the Desert Trail Runners. A month later I was in Dubai. I woke up at 2:45 am to meet with Lee, the DTR running coach at a taxi rank in central Dubai for 4:45 where we also met 7 other runners. We then travelled an hours’ drive to Fossil Rock in the Emirate of Sharjah where I started my desert training for Marathon Des Sables 2017.
Arriving at a car park at the crack of dawn, with no one you know, surrounded by sand dunes and mountains wearing my usual run shorts and sleeveless top, no-frills road sneakers, an ill-fitting backpack containing small loose bottles of water and thinking you’re prepared, is a little surreal. After the initial shock of seeing the towering golden sand dunes which you think only exist in movies, I was told you’ll be climbing that, I gulped, crossed my fingers and started following the others across the sand as fast as I could, I didn’t want to hold anyone up!!
Having somehow managed to get myself up the ‘ginormous’ dune that led to Fossil Rock, stunned at what I had just done, I then continued to heave myself up two further dunes; Devil’s Plunge and then The Bowl. A total elevation of 350m and the shock at what I had just achieved, rendered me speechless yet again. Two to three hours later and I was done, back in the car park, eating watermelon pondering what I had just achieved. If I had known what was going to be presented to me that day, I may have thought twice. Sometimes, ignorance really is bliss!
Fossil Rock will always be a special place to me as it was my introduction to desert running. The preparation for MDS also introduced me to the outstanding sights of the UAE’s desert terrain. Fossil Rock, officially known as Jebel Maleihah, wasn’t the only place I was fortunate enough to train in. I raced at Wadi Najab in Ras Al Khaimah which shares its borders with the beautiful Hajar Mountains of Oman and tried to run in Rub’ al Khali, the desert in Abu Dhabi only to realise those picture-perfect sand dunes were actually blocked off by barbed wire, so I took to a blistering hot car park of a hotel at mid-day instead. It seemed like a good idea at the time!
In my running adventures through the harsh and daunting Hajar mountains, I discovered the relentless terrain of Jebel Shams, known locally as the ‘Grand Canyon of Oman’ and rightfully so, it’s near 10,000ft elevation makes it both the highest peak in the Hajar Mountains and in Oman! The 70 million-year-old landscape was a pleasant 30 degrees cooler than the coastal areas in July. On one of my journeys here, I climbed to a pool of water at the bottom of the canyon where I sat and listened to the sounds of the birds circling above. Along my way, I found pomegranate trees, darkly coloured butterflies, mountain goats climbing somewhat bare trees to forage whatever they could and stone buildings from how long ago I wondered.
In the deserts of the Middle East, I’ve discovered another life really does exist. It is a different adventure every time. I’m forever fascinated by the Bedouins that really do live in these terrains and how much of our ‘real life’ they partake of if any. I’m also forever fascinated by the camel farms and how camels feature in everyday desert life. I am amazed by the trails that seem to just exist, and, always ponder how difficult it was to get the very well-spaced out electric pylons in the middle of all this sand.
These different experiences provided me with a variety of emotions every time; the deserts true vastness was breath-taking and awe-inspiring. At the same time, it could be intimidating because you inevitably become ‘misplaced’ when all your landmarks look the same. The terrains made me truly understand the wonder of Mother Nature. The brutal weather with its intense heat, sandstorms, wind and welcomed cloud coverage was grounding and real! You cannot fight Mother Nature. You work with what it gives you, you do your best and build resilience and strategy.
All my training in the UAE’s desert certainly provided me with the experience I needed to run and complete the MDS. I did fall in love with the Sahara as well, particularly at night and of course, now I’m wondering if deserts everywhere else would provide the same kind of adventure for me as those of the Middle East. Will they give me the same sense of history? Will they give me the same sense of awe? The same sense of realness and grounding? I keep uncovering just how many countries the desert in this region encompass and I’ll make sure to get back to Abu Dhabi, not just for its car parks but to run those dunes! I do love a desert.