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Petra Desert Marathon 2019 by Steve Brooks

There are certain places on mine and Sarah’s bucket list; Machu Pichu, Antarctica (well for me anyway), Nepal, Japan, but top of the list was Petra in Jordan. So, when I spotted the Petra Desert Marathon on a Facebook page, I thought I’d push my luck and tagged Sarah.

“Oh yeah, and how much does that cost? Because you’re not going there on your own!” was the response. Luckily in the meantime I’d done a bit of homework…

“Five days, one day at the Dead Sea, then transfer to Petra. Race day followed by Petra at Night (candle lit walk down The Siq to the Treasury Building), a full day to visit Petra and then a farewell dinner in the desert. How much do you think?”

Sarah came out with a figure… “What if I was able to say it was half of that? (Plus flights in a whisper). It’s our fiftieth birthdays, it could be our present to ourselves”.

“DO IT!” she said. So I did before either of us could change our mind.

In September 2019, we drove down to Heathrow and got the first flight out to Amman, Jordan, via a transfer in Vienna and were met at the airport by Jesper our guide from Albatross Adventure Marathons. It was HOT!

It took about an hour or so to transfer to our hotel at the Dead Sea. About half an hour into the journey we started heading down a valley and didn’t stop going down until we could see the sea. Our ears popped about three or four times on the way down. When we got to our hotel, we stepped out of the coach…. Jeez!!! It was now PROPER HOT!! And incredibly humid. As my t-shirt rapidly began to stick to me, all I could think of was “I can’t run in this!”

The following morning, I got up early to have a quick run before it got too hot. The opportunity to run at 420m below sea-level had to be ticked off! At 6:21am it was 29° and the sun hadn’t come up over the valley edge at this point!

After breakfast we headed down to the water for a float in the Dead Sea. One of the most surreal experiences ever. As we got there, someone decided to try to swim and the lifeguards had to jump in to help them out. The water is so dense that your legs are super buoyant, if you try to swim conventionally your legs are almost lifted out of the water and your face is pushed under. Even floating on your back takes a little getting used to and getting a splash of water in your eye is like the worst sweat in your eyes experience x10!

After lunch we packed up and transferred through a barren and rocky desert to our hotel at Wadi Musa, literally 200m from the Museum and Visitor Centre for Petra. It was a relief to exit the bus and find that at a thousand metres of elevation, things were cooler and less humid than at the Dead Sea. It was still hot, but much more bearable.

In the early evening we had a pre-race briefing at the finish point, picking up numbers, timing chips and shirts, an introduction to the route marking system (essentially something like an orange surgical mask tied around a rock – apparently the Bedouins nick any signs that are put out), distance markers count down to the finish in kilometres, how to deal with the Bedouin dogs (don’t panic they are trained to bark but won’t chase or bite) and most importantly, don’t try to run a PB. With 1,074m of elevation gain, most of which is in the last third, when the race would be at its hottest. As far as I was concerned this was an Ultra, both due to the heat and the terrain, and would be run as such. There would also, no doubt, be many photo stops on the route. This was one to savour.

Race Day and at 4am my alarm went off. Those of a tender disposition might want to skip to the next paragraph. I made my way to the bathroom, and promptly “the world fell out of my bottom”. Not the best start to the day. Where’s the Imodium?!

On a positive note after a few more trips to the toilet, I was fairly confident that I weighed as little as I possibly could, and hopefully by the time I reached the start the Imodium might have started to work! At 5:15am we all met at the visitors centre in the pre-dawn darkness and started the half a mile walk to the start of The Siq, the narrow slot-canyon that leads down for approximately a kilometre to ancient city of Petra. As we walked, our eyes became accustomed to the light and the sky slowly brightened revealing more detail of The Siq. I walked in silence taking in the experience but after around 10 minutes I heard a hubbub ahead and realised that we must be approaching the end of The Siq and the entrance to Petra. It was time to take out the phone and record some video. I could see the way ahead becoming brighter as I rounded the last few corners of The Siq and gradually gained glimpses of the Treasury carved into the cliff face. Stepping out into the Street of Facades and the wonder of The Treasury was truly a magical experience. After a few photographs we walked down the Street of Facades to the start line and at 6:30am just before the dawn, we were off.

The first few kilometres were on sand and gravel trails as we headed down through the Petra Archaeological Park, before picking up a road that headed to up the village of Umm Sdyhoun. And when I say up, it was a proper lump of a hill, that worryingly hadn’t even stood out on the elevation profile! We continued for a couple more kilometres before heading out onto the Bedouin trails of the desert. Thankfully these weren’t soft wind-blown sand but were generally fairly solid and decent to run on. The sun was now up but the temperature was generally in the mid-twenties and fairly nice to run in. Strangely there was no sweat on my face and only the back of my running vest felt wet, any moisture on my front immediately evaporated in the dry air.

At around 12km we re-joined the Half-Marvers and hit the hot tarmac road and at 13.5km, as we approached a junction where we would again split from the Halfers, I could see a massive range of hills in the distance and realised that was the last-third bump in the elevation profile. Ouch! But in the meantime, I had a 17km stretch of out and back tarmac, that generally headed down to the turnaround and therefore up on the way back. As I approached 21k, the front-runners started to come back the other way. Thinking that the turnaround was at halfway (forgetting about an extra loop of desert we’d done compared to the Half) I figured the turnaround must be just around the corner. Unfortunately, it was at 22k and involved a series of hairpin bends down a steep hillside where I would collect my orange wristband and a banana, before starting the climb back up and out of the ravine.

The climb back up was proper Ultra-mode head down, walk as strongly as possible and don’t stop even if your legs want to. I got to the top stopped turned and took a photo to remind myself later and started to head back along the road. As Matey at the turnaround had predicted the heat was building and it was now into the 30s, but still no sweat in the eyes, just the feeling of becoming crusty! Since we’d entered the desert, I’d been spotting weird shapes in the wind-eroded rock formations, but now every time I spotted a shape it was a skull staring back at me! Luckily the water stops were frequent, about every 3k, so they were nicely spaced, and it wasn’t necessary to carry loads of water between stops to stay reasonably hydrated.

We re-joined the Half Marathon route at 30.5k and turned east towards the hills through Amdrin village. As I reached the next water station, I caught two other runners and we started the climb up towards the range of hills in front of us. It was too steep to run in the heat that had reached 35° and we marched together up the scorching tarmac looking at the roadkill skeletons at the side of the road. Ahead I could see a strange complex of white domes that looked like some kind of lunar base on a bend in the road and made the commitment that I wasn’t stopping until I got there. As I approached the hairpin bend and looked over my shoulder, I could see runners above me, who were thankfully heading off onto a trail along the hillside, instead of going completely up and over the top. The next drink stop was as we left the tarmac and headed back onto gravelly trails which wound a more relaxed route up to the top of the ridge at about 36k. The top of the last hill is my favourite point of any route. From there I know I can pick up the pace as I head for home, and despite a few cramps my stomach had behaved. It was time to target runners in the distance and reel them in.

At some point on the run in, I rounded a corner or crested a rise and I could see Wadi Musa below on the valley side and found myself singing “What’s that coming over the Hill? Is it a Monster? Is it a Monster?!” The last few kilometres were steeply downhill on baking tarmac, but I’d just passed someone, so had to go with the flow and race it in. I finished in 4:44 but it was never about the time. Sarah and Edie were waiting for me at the finish and we walked back to the hotel and spent the afternoon around the pool.

In the evening the runners and families had the privilege of a private Petra by Night experience where The Siq and the Treasury building were lit by torch light and we walked down to listen to Bedouin stories of the formation of Petra, another truly magical experience. Edie and I lay on the sand looking up into the desert night sky, listening to the piper and story-teller.

Overall a stunning trip, brilliantly organised with Albatross Adventure Marathons. Next stop Santorini with Rat Race, for our 30th Wedding Anniversary. I know how to pick a race!!

Steve Brooks

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