Oman was the setting for a dramatic new chapter in the world of UTMB® trail running this evening when hundreds of athletes set off on the breakthrough OMAN by UTMB® event.
|Head torches bobbed through the early evening darkness as the runners set out on the ground-breaking 137km course which puts Oman and the Middle East on the international UTMB® calendar for the first time ever.
No fewer than 415 ultra-trail runners representing 57 countries accepted the challenge of Oman’s mountainous interior, including the 2,200m high Jebel Akhdar, the Green Mountain, on a course described as “tough but wonderful” by UTMB® Mont-Blanc Race Director Michel Poletti.
Taking advantage of a prestigious international event on their doorstep, 70 Omani athletes joined large contingents from France, the UK, Italy, the US, China, India and Qatar. The field included 51 women, including two from Oman – Nadhira Al Harthi and Hamida Al Jabri.
The crowded assembly area at Birkat Al Mawz, near Nizwa, had been a hive of activity in the countdown to the 19:30 start as runners made final preparations for the testing hours ahead.
Anticipation and excitement about the unknown were among the mixed emotions before the start. “The 30 minutes before is always the scariest, but as soon as the gun goes I am sure I am going to feel great,” said leading US runner Jason Schlarb. “The exciting part of this race is that it is rougher than I am used to, rougher than any race in Europe, so I have absolutely got to check it out.”
Swiss athlete Diego ‘Zpeedy’ Pazos agreed: “I can’t wait to be in the mountains and discover this route, I think we are going to enjoy it. It is going to be very, very hard and hopefully I will manage it. I will be giving it my all.”
Samantha Chan, one of the best-known female runners in Hong Kong, added: “I am super-excited, though I guess it will be difficult, but I look forward to that… and the ice cream when I finish!”
Having started in 25 degrees C the runners will face colder temperatures overnight, along with some technical challenges. On the section known as the Lost Villages Trail, they face a tricky section of steep and at some points exposed rock face with cables provided for assistance.
The leaders will reach this stage just before dawn, still with over 55km to race across the stunning and unique Arabian landscape which is central to the OMAN by UTMB® event.
“To have a race in search a perfect place, to run and to enjoy nature and have a big adventure, I am sure it will be a wonderful experience for all the runners,” said Michel Poletti.
“They will discover incredible landscapes, something you cannot see anywhere else in the world. They will encounter some technical trails as well. Five or six months ago there were no trails and the team from Oman Sail has done an unbelievable job in making them.
“I am sure the runners will say that it is really tough, but it is also wonderful.”
Preparing the route and creating a legacy for both the local community and beyond was a key part of the planning, said Salma Al Hashmi, Chief Marketing Officer at event organiser Oman Sail, speaking shortly before the start.
“We have done a lot of preparation for this event. It is showcasing the beauty of the country through trail running to the outside world, and we are using it as a platform to build the trail that will be a legacy left behind for local and also international visitors.
“It will be challenging but a very beautiful route. The runners will pass through a lot of old, traditional villages and a lot of challenging parts with high elevations – I am sure they will come back and say it is the best of the best in the trail running world.”
The leading runners are expected to finish the course in around 20 hours, crossing the finish line at Al Hamra at some point on Friday.
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