Quite what I'd expected when I signed up for Abu Dhabi Striders' Mafraq Hotel Cross Country 10km event, I'm not sure. It was my first foray into 'cross country' running, which previously I had associated with lush green meadows, refreshing breezes, the odd cow or two, etc. But it struck me there wasn't much in the way of green pasture out Mafraq way. Just sand really. Plenty of that. Race day arrived, the mercury passed the 100°F mark, and dreams of refreshing breezes disappeared as I broke into a sweat tying my shoelaces. Finding the hotel had seemed challenging enough; looking at my fellow competitors I knew this would be tougher. To a man (and woman), they were as lithe and nimble as gazelles, able to leap small buildings in a bound.
I tried to focus on the hints I'd been given. Point your toes, check. Smaller strides, check. Try and run in someone else's footprints, check. Within seconds of the start each was forgotten. My gait was that of a man without leg bones and pointing my toes would probably have broken something. My strides could not get any smaller, and the rare times I was near enough to anyone to attempt running in their footprints I just sank even deeper.
The sand had its own rhythm - or rather, lack of one. In this race, there were no iPods. There was no 'getting into the zone'. There was only pain and misery and a fading consciousness of the need to put one foot in front of the next. The truly gut-wrenching part came at the half-way point. The course is a double loop, and most of the knowing souls who had participated before had decided 5km would be punishment enough. Thus, reaching my half-way point I looked up to see an assembled group of gazelle-like athletes already warming down and high-fiving each other. Confused, I stumbled on with only a vague idea of the route. Soon the sand was back upon me, and all hope began to fade.
Much of what followed is too painful to remember, but a little under the hour mark and far in excess of the 10k times I'm used to, I began to come to. A race marker rose out of the distance like a mirage pointing me back to the tarmac and salvation. Racing to the finish I saved just enough oxygen to gasp that I wouldn't be making that mistake again. Later, listening to people reflect on how laughably brutal the whole experience had been, I took a different view. There had been something refreshing about being on such unfamiliar terrain. I realised that while I had been busy concentrating on the pain, something else was happening - all the stresses of everyday life were slowly being forgotten, left in the sand.
Andrew Raine is the Front Page editor at The National and part-time runner