All in for 100km? Well not quite but as close as possible!
For the most part Ultra’s throw up such a mixed bag of circumstances that it actually often makes sense to have no or very little plan at all (aside from winning the eating competition that Ultra often boils down to) I went into this race with a different approach and mindset.
I guess there are two ways you can approach these races. Many people enter with the sole desire of “completing” the grueling courses, and in completion are many signs to celebrate, in doing so you will have ridden one of the wildest roller coaster rides of your life. The second option is to “Race” sometimes against the others in the race but often (and in my case) against myself. Having “completed” around 15 ultra marathons to date I made a decision that I needed to “race”. A different mindset and a different approach.
The Hajar 100, perfectly organized by Urban Ultra (http://www.urbanultra.com/) is well known as being the hardest single stage race in the region. It is literally a race of 2 halves where the first 50km serves up over 2,500m of elevation and plenty of technical trail, the second 50km boasts a mere 500m of elevation and little technical trail making it 100% runnable. Of course the danger is if you go too hard in the first 50km you cook yourself for the second 50km leading to a long and painful day at the office.
As my previous goal for ultras was “completion” my fueling strategy was built around this. Yes as I noted above Ultra is very much an eating completion, get your food right (and provided you have trained well) and you get enough energy to “make it happen”. This race was to be different. I had recently been testing out “race nutrition” from Secret Training (https://secret-traininguae.com/) in some training camps and the week before the race signed as an ambassador for the brand…..perhaps creating some additional pressure to deliver in the Hajar.
Timings on Ultras only adds to the fun of the whole experience. A 3am equipment check at the hotel followed up with a 4am bus departure to the start with over 150 like minded weirdos was the perfect kick off to this years Hajar 100. It’s geek central as you can imagine, people talking about kit, nutrition, the course and of course the weather. What makes me laugh is actually the amount that people complain and in doing so bring negative energy not only to those around them but also to themselves. I personally was super excited to be on that bus to the start line, it was a choice………if you want to complain maybe choose not to get on the bus.
5:30am and the race is underway in pitch black. I love it. Excited. Ready and already thinking about my nutrition which for the first half of the race was strictly, every hour: Real Fruit bar, Juice bar, Training mix, Smith St Paleo ball. The reason why so many people do not get their nutrition right in these races is that they leave it too long. Of course we are not hungry for the first few hours but we have to keep on eating and drinking, many don’t and pay for it big time later in the day. I was all in from the start on my food as I always am. Pace wise I wanted to start out steady as you clearly do not win a 100km race in the first 1km but many people seem to think that you do, it was a pleasure passing a number of them on the first climb.
That first climb came after 7km and this is where you can tell if people just run or also incorporate strength work into their program. Having strong legs is the key to running long and also to climbing. I am heavier than your average ultra runner but on the climbs have no issues at all. Stay tuned for my new “Run Strong” program which is to help runners get stronger and not suffer on the climbs. As day broke on this first climb with it a huge amount of energy comes, I love starting in the dark to take advantage of this energy and as we reached the top 17km I was feeling awesome, climb 1 of the day done.
What makes the Hajar course so brutal is that the descents are manic, sections of big hard trail or roads that you can actually run at speed, this is genius from the race organizers as people go too hard and totally smoke their legs, yep on the downhill. The race was young so we sat back and cruised into check point 3 at 30km where some would have been done for the day as there were 3 races going on at once here. Check point 3 gave way to the second and really last climb of the day, don’t be fooled it was a monster with 15% gradients, farms and goat track all leading to another section of hard, wide and fast descending to be done before a final drop onto some very technical trail into the 50km mark where yet another batch of runners would end their race.
At the 50km point Rob and I were back together and we got some updates on how many runners where up the road from us which just adds a little bit of motivation, there were 6 males and a female. A further 16km to check point 6 and we had already run through 2 of the males leaving us 4 to chase down. We were informed at check point 6 that the guy in 4th was 25 minutes ahead of us which is a solid amount of time but there were 33km left in the race and I was feeling good. That feeling good took a large smash in the face as we left from check point 6 onto a winding tarmac road of around 3% gradient for the next 11km. Strong headwind, heat and adjusting to this long stretch on the road welcomed me to the pain cave. I was down to 2.5km run 500m walk for most of this stint, by far the hardest part of my race.
At check point 7 (77km) I did two things that seemed to make a change, I wet my hat which immediately cooled my head and I ate half an organ from the aid station. I also reminded myself that I only had 23km left in the race and it was time to hunt the guy in 4th down who coincidentally I knew! In committing to that I left check point 7 just as Rob arrived and took his blessing on my way as we said we would see each other at the end. It is always great to run with someone in a race like this and Rob and I have run a lot together so have an unwritten code of how to behave that just works, we had not been together the whole day as sometimes its good to be alone but had spent a fair chunk of time making each other laugh.
Much to my surprise a few KM after I left from check point 7 I rounded a corner and in doing so saw the guy in 4th who was the 2018 winner of the race and a strong athlete I had known for sometime. I had pulled that 25 minutes back and we were into 20km left in this race. Wow! As I ran up to him he told me he was “cooked” and that I “looked strong”. For the second half of the race I had started introducing caffeine gels into my hourly routine with a noticeable effect, I had also moved from the training mix to the energy mix in one of my bottles. Maybe it was this that was giving off the vibe that I was strong! I told Simon that I had not chased him down just to pass him and that he should come with me which he duly did through a km or so of technical trail. Once we hit the hard and wide trail again he seemed to get a new lease of life and over the next KM ran about 500m into me. I had mixed thoughts at this stage in that I had essentially dragged him out of a hole when he had admitted to me that he was “cooked” and he was now running time into me, but that is how racing goes and the next 18km was going to be every part of “race” I had come for, not only with Simon but also with myself.
I knew that having 18KM left on this course was not to be taken lightly but I also knew that I had enough nutrition in me to engage “murder mode”. As I literally inhaled another caffeine gel I dropped my pace by about 30 seconds a KM and locked my sights on Simon, I was not only going to run up to him but I was going to run through him at pace. The increase in my speed had an obvious increase on my heart rate and it motivated me even more seeing that go up. Ultra is strange in that at certain times in races your legs are so smashed that you literally can not run hard enough to increase your heart rate, today was not that day for me. Simon was looking back over his shoulder to me with increased frequency which confirmed to me that he was getting into a deeper hole and as I was about 20m out he was bent over double, I increased my pace and he tipped his hat, I smiled as I passed.
The reality was that he had given out one final hard push to get away from me and in doing so had depleted everything that he had left and therefore the chances of him ever catching me again were slim to non but my mind was thinking different. 15km to go and I entered into a complete state of flow, my head was totally clear, my body felt amazing and I was going to run as hard as I possibly could and put as much time into Simon as possible. Not because I wanted to be mean to him but because at that point of the race he was the benchmark and a visible target for me. Earlier he had told me that the guy in 3rd was another 40 minutes ahead of him, that rung in my mind and I started to think if I could catch him.
Checkpoint 8, 8.5km to go was my quickest pit stop as I refilled my water bottles, ditched any excess food I had, saved 3 more caffeine gels for the last leg (overkill) and left the aid station with an orange in one hand and a gel ready to wash down the orange with! This was the last bit of work for me for the day and I was going to let it all come out. Tarmac road became technical trail, became sand. I didn’t care, I was all in and loving it.
13 hours 27 minutes after the start I crossed the finish line. There were 3 males sat there already which landed me with 4th place. Not really even worth taking about when you come 4th so I won’t. However my goal was to “race” and I had “raced”. I had had a fun battle with Simon, I had felt super strong on the climbs and my nutrition had worked. It was a good day at the office and I think what made it a bit more special was the state I was able to reach at 85Km with 15km of the race to go, a state of flow during an ultra is something very unique and something I always long for. You feel like you can run forever and that nothing else matters.
Rob came across the line an hour later and claimed 6th place with Sean crossing a further 30 minutes after that collecting 7th. Monumental efforts from both of these guys and topping off a solid day out for InnerFight Endurance as we had 7 people competing across the 3 different distances and they all did us proud.
Another Ultra done, more learnings and a great day out. Onto the next one.
By: Marcus Smith, (Innerfight Founder)