Race to the lowest point on earth

When I decided to run 12 Half Marathons (HM) in 12 months, I had no plans of doing the races in different cities but with a career in the travel industry it is easier for me to juggle my runs around my travel schedule rather than juggle my travel around my races. But from time to time, I do that too!  

My travel buddy and I have a deal – we discover at least one new place together every year. Jordan was her choice for this year but with my constant and packed travel schedule I was non-committal. Then, sometime in March I received an email from the Jordan Tourism Board. It was an update on their April events - one of them was the Dead Sea Ultra run. It was a no-brainer really – I was getting to kill two birds with one stone! In two hours I had registered for the run and booked our flights. So, now you know that mass promotional emailers can actually work!  

Inside a bedouin tent
I took four days off from work and  combining the Easter weekend, we toured around this little country for a week before the race. We visited Amman, Bethany, Petra, Jerash, Karak, Mt. Nebo, Dead Sea (which is not a sea at all actually), Wadi Rum (it’s a desert and not a drink I’d like to add – pun intended) and Aqaba  

As always, I had a sleepless night before the run. I have tried to analyze why I get nervous before a race. It’s not the race itself – I know I can run 21.1 kms and I have run that distance many times before. As with early morning flights, my fear is always oversleeping - and missing the flight or race as the case may be! And this is also why I am tired before every race. In the case of the Dead Sea Marathon, there is something else that further cuts down your sleep time!

Let me explain. The race is not on a loop that brings you back to the start point. It starts in Amman and ends at the Dead Sea! There are 5 categories – the 50Km ultra, the full marathon at 42.2Km, the half marathon at 21Km (and not 21.1), a 10Km fun run and a junior run of 4.2Km. And because of the course (the highway from Amman to the Dead Sea) the starting point is at 5 different places for the 5 distances! To make it convenient for the participants, all runners gather at the sports centre and are then transported to the start point of their respective race. All this logistical coordination means that you leave the hotel at 5.30 am or earlier. The buses leave the sports centre at 6 am and then you wait for your race to start.

The start point of the Half Marathon
To enjoy the race, it's best to have the same attitude you have touring the country – take it for what it is! Jordan is a small country and one of the poorer ones in the region. So it wasn’t strange that the runners reached there before the banners were fixed at the HM start point - which was really just a place in the middle of no-where on the highway.    

The start time for the half marathon was 7.45 am – by then most most HM races in India are half done! The route had no trees and not a spot of shade. Luckily I had the chance to see the route during my touring adventures and invested in a cap. This was the smartest thing I had done because the organisers later said that sun had never been as sharp on the day of the race since this race had started 19 years ago. Having said that the first hour was not so bad (the sun is strong but the temperature is not very high) and what made it a comfortable run was the downhill trail – for the most part.

Though I don’t know the exact numbers, my guess is that there were not more than 40 runners in the 50K category, around 60 for the FM and not over 150 for the HM category. There were some Jordanians but more expatriates from other parts of the Middle East. I met an Australian and a Swede who had flown in just for the race and I was the only Indian in the HM category. I was also the ONLY one running in VFFs. Someone actually asked me - are these shoes or socks? There was so much curiosity around my footwear – frankly it is a great conversation starter - though, with very few runners on the course, the first 10 km is rather quiet and lonely.

Then, suddenly you hit a sea of people. Like everywhere else in the world, the 10K and 4.2K categories are the most popular categories. So from not over 300 runners in the longer distances, after the 11th km, I suddenly had thousands of people ahead of me! These were mostly young Jordanian boys and girls. Many were just walking, chatting and having fun and it was difficult to run straight ahead as the course was pretty jam-packed. Ah, and there was another thing – the uphills that come after the 16km mark! By this point though, the view became scenic as we started to approach the very blue Dead Sea. On the far side, I could see Israel pretty clearly.    

There was enough water supply throughout the course and each runner got an apple and a medal at the end of the race. There was a digital timing strip for every runner – including for the 4.2km but it doesn’t look like the results get updated quickly. Well, it’s over a week and I am still waiting but like I said – take it for what it is - it is all part of the experience and fun!

At the finish point - notice the uphill behind me
For me the toughest part of this entire experience was actually the journey back. After running hard, I found it painful to look for the bus back and sit in it for an hour to get back to the sports centre from where I had to look for a cab back to the hotel! So if you ever intend to run this race, my recommendation is that settle for a night at a resort at the Dead Sea after the race. The organizers offer the service of bringing your bags and having them delivered to your hotel while you are running.  

Another important tip I’d give to anyone planning to run this race is on the travel agent. Of course you can book your travel with anyone but not booking through Yolla Tours would be a mistake. They are the designated agency for handling travel arrangements of international participants for the race. Nelly is the boss-woman and she is superb with her services, communication, prices and attention to detail. She will give you exactly what you want – be it 5 star or budget. She will have your registration kit delivered to your hotel room, ensure you get early breakfast and put you on the right bus!

Remember that hotel standards in Jordan are rather low, so expect a 2 star if you are paying for a 4 star and if you are a fussy traveler just go for the top end. A package to Jordan may not be expensive but once you get there everything else is! Beware of drivers who will take you to the most expensive restaurants to eat and the priciest places to shop. And women - be prepared for Jordanian men - they have the gift of the gab and love to flirt - it's not a complaint, just information!

I also missed the pasta party the evening before the race but I was told that it was very good – the venue, the organisation and the food in particular!        

All in all, running the Dead Sea Ultra – a race to the lowest point on earth is a unique experience – I would recommend it at least once in a lifetime – even if just for fun! I was gunning for a sub 2:20 finish and all was going well till the 15K mark but I lost the plot somewhere after that. But I am not whining – my Garmin closed 21.05 kms at 2:22:53 it is still my personal best. Plus, I crossed the 10K mark at 1:01:31 – something I never thought I could achieve just 2 months ago!

At the Citadel in Amman
Most of all, under the pretext of making it the 4th of my 12 Half marathons in 2012, I saw another wonder of the world at Petra, ate a lot of humus, learnt to ride a motor boat, stayed in a Bedouin tent, visited a Jordanian home, sat in a bus with labourers, floated in the Dead Sea, dipped my feet in the Red Sea and ran a record breaking half marathon. What else does a girl need?  

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