UAE’s first ultra-marathon in Northern Emirates this weekend

The race, which begins and ends in Ras Al Khaimah, will take participants over 140 kilometres of varying terrain.

First-time ultra-marathoner Toby Gregory in desert racing gear and ready to tackle the UAE's first ultra-marathon. Courtesy Toby Gregory
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DUBAI // The UAE’s first ultra-marathon will be held this weekend, with athletes tackling a 140-kilometre cross-country course in the Northern Emirates.

Usually, competitive runners would have to travel abroad to participate in such a competition, such as the Comrades ultra-marathon in South Africa, or the Dead Sea ultra.

Zuzana Laukova, 33, is one of the runners at the event, which begins and ends in Ras Al Khaimah, starting on Thursday and ending on Saturday. A conference manager and fitness trainer, Ms Laukova ran her first ultra at Wadi Bih this month, where she completed 50km. To be classified an ultra, a race must exceed the 42km of a traditional marathon in one day.

“This Urban Ultra is my first self-supported race and I’ve never run such a distance in my life,” she said. “I’m feeling very excited but at the same time nervous.”

Racing just an hour from home makes the event accessible, although she is prepared for a huge mental challenge.

“Hitting the wall and convincing my body to keep going even when you feel like you can’t go on anymore will be the biggest challenge and hopefully I won’t get lost while running in the dark,” she said.

Wouter Kingma, 39, a photographer from the Netherlands, has been involved in adventure sports his whole life but picked up running when he moved to Dubai 12 years ago, starting with 10km races and marathons.

After having competed in triathlons and Ironman events, he completed his first ultra in 2011 at the Gobi March, a 250km self-supported race in remote western China.

He hopes the UAE’s latest race will grow, much like the popular Wadi Bih between the UAE and Oman, and over time attract an international crowd. There are 25 participants registered this year but organisers say interest has been such that they expect triple the number next year.

“From experience I’ve learnt that people from all walks of life enter these races,” Mr Kingma said. “The great thing is that you don’t need to be a super athlete ... there is so much more to completing the race than just fitness level. As the race evolves it becomes more a mental mind game. I’ve seen the strongest athletes drop out as well as guys with average fitness levels doing extraordinary stuff to finish. For many it’s crossing the finish line that counts.”

Absolute Adventure will provide the support crew, all of whom are first-aid certified, in addition to a roaming medic and nurse, quad bikes with first-aid kits and a medical tent at base camp.

The routes include mountains, jeep tracks, goat trails, boulder scrambles and wadis. Day One’s 50km starts at 3pm and continues well into the night. At 8am on Friday the 35km run continues, ending with a gruelling final 55km.

“Some areas are very remote and little-visited so the areas remain pristine with some spectacular views and surroundings,” said Pascale De Jong, from the organising team.

Toby Gregory, 35, from the UK, is an ultra-marathon first timer and said it would be “a real test, especially over this sort of terrain”.

In two years, he has run two full marathons. While some might say the cumulative distance, the heat or the mountain inclines and deep dunes are the real challenge, or even the snakes and scorpions, Mr Gregory agrees that an ultra is more mental than physical.

“I’ve learnt that finishing a marathon isn’t just an athletic achievement. It’s a state of mind; a state of mind that says anything is possible.”

He said this event’s creation reflects the standards among the growing running community.

“A lot of these local runners push the boundaries as far as they can be stretched, taking part in marathons and ultra races all over the world. To have an ultra on our own doorstep is amazing. It’s going to be brutal but the geography in the UAE is made for it.”