Alfie Pearce-Higgins, 31, competed in the inaugural Oman by UTMB race in November 2018, a trail race of 137 kilometres through the heart-pounding and jaw-droppingly spectacular landscape of Jebel Akhdar at the eastern edge of the Arabian peninsular. The course covered rock-strewn wadis (dry river beds), fertile clefts filled with date palms, massive stretches of bare rock and even cliffsides, where runners clipped in to a via ferrata. He completed the non-stop event in around 23 hours.
Oman by UTMB is one of a series of ultra-distance trail runs organised by UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc – their original race is approx 170km around Mont Blanc) and the 2019 edition of Oman by UTMB will take place in late November (this year with 50km, 140km and 160km courses). In 2020 they will also stage runs in Yunnan in China (March), Ushuaia in Argentina (April) and Val D’Aran in the Spanish Pyrenees.
See more about UTMB by Oman, and more about UTMB World. Alfie Pearce-Higgins, CFO of a motorbike-hailing company in Uganda, SafeBoda, can be followed on Instagram @jogonalfie. Photos courtesy of Sail Oman / Franck Oddoux and /Anthony Lloyd
What was Oman by UTMB 2019 like?
Alfie Pearce-Higgins: Any inaugural race is a journey into the unknown. There are no veterans to ask for advice, results for reference or photos for inspiration. And as my plane touched down in Muscat I realised that it wasn’t just the race that was novel – my knowledge of the Sultanate of Oman itself was embarrassingly limited. On both counts I was in for a treat.
We had heard rumours that the course would be tough, but surely this was just pre-race hype? In truth nothing could have prepared us for this unforgiving terrain of the Jebel Akhdar. From the first ascent (of more than 7500m in total), it became clear that the race would be a battle of attrition – for 137km we scrambled in and out of wadis , over rocky mountains and around precarious cliff edges.
Fortunately the evening start meant that we tackled most of the more terrifying sections in darkness; innocuous luminous red dots being the only indication of potentially fatal precipices. As a nervous and clumsy runner, I was barely conscious of time as I searched for secure footing on the ever-changing ground in front of me.
By the time the sun came up we had been running for nearly 12 hours and my muscles were past the point of aching, but even in that state my mind could appreciate the panoramic views of jagged mountains bathed in golden light. It turned out to be a temporary relief - soon it was replaced by a desperate desire for shade as the midday sun beat down on us. It came as no surprise to discover that many runners didn’t last through the night.
In fact, the only reliable feature of the race was the organisation. UTMB’s proven formula of world-class race management intertwined with local culture was evident from the start. In Oman we were waved off by villagers in ankle-length white dishdasha with a combination of dancing and sword-fighting, along the way we were sustained by delicious local dates, and at the finish line we were welcomed home by an entire community of recently converted ultramarathon fans.
How did it go?
My own race was something of an experiment. Inspired by Professor Tim Noakes, the controversial South African sports scientist, I had spent two months before the event minimising carbs and attempting to switch my body to ‘fat-burning mode’. I enjoyed the experience and was surprised by the ease with which I ditched my sugar-heavy diet, but would it be enough to see me through a real physical challenge…?
I spent much of the race waiting for an energy ‘bonk’ that never came. Eating a fraction of my usual race fuel I was amazed to discover that I could sustain a steady pace. As the race wore on I had the satisfying experience of gradually reeling in many better, more qualified runners. I ended up around 23 hours as I recall, in 5th position, but a couple of hours behind the joint winners (Schlarb and Pazos).
Were you as well prepared as you could be?
UTMB Oman turned out to be even more of a psychological battle than other mountain ultramarathons I have done. The unparalleled difficulty of the terrain meant that Oman by UTMB was particularly brutal as a mental challenge and any forward planning was a mistake. Physical preparation was the easy part – the tough bit was learning to take one step at a time as the terrain is constantly surprising and punishes anyone who get carries away with planning the future. I fared well when I focussed in the moment. The time I nearly came unstuck was when I start calculating potential speeds, arrival times and final positions.
What was the most painful moment?
There are few places where one can fit 1100 metres of climbing into just three kilometres. Add to this the fact that we were more than 100km into the race and that the afternoon sun was merciless – well, you can imagine how it felt as I dragged my wretched legs up the cliff-face. The intermittent sight of a solitary runner ahead was all that kept me going.
And your favourite moment?
Set at more than 2000m above sea level and with superb views over spectacular cliffs, the Alila Hotel in Jabal Akhdar is a magnificent blend of architecture, luxury and nature. It also marks the 80km point in the race. We had been privileged to spend the night before the race as guests of the hotel, indulging ourselves and wondering if this running thing was really necessary.
Fast forward 24 hours and I was hooking in to a via ferrata to shimmy up the final sections of the very same cliffs. Much to the amusement of the staff I doused my head in the hotel’s ornate fountains before tucking into coffee and breakfast, and then heading back out onto the trail.
And for more details about via ferratas (used for pleasure rather than under race circumstances), see here.