The Travelling Runner
Travelling magazines whets palates with articles espousing nice hotels, shopping malls and photographs of breathtaking armchair scenery. Running magazines talk about personal best times (PBs), new shoes and compression tights. But if you are an average person with average legs, limited physical abilities and a limited purse - those sub 3 hour marathons and luxurious hotels are not to be experienced in this lifetime. For me, I travel to see the world through my own eyes. I run so that I can be fit on my feet. I travel to run the routes that take you to places where the normal tourist has no access.
So for me , the raison d’etre behind choosing any run is simple . It has to be in a country or place that I want to visit. The longer the route the better for there is more to see. Egypt was one such place.
The Pharaonic Race
The 10th running of the pharaonic race was on the 26th Nov 2010. It is said that this race is based on an inscription on a stone found within an army camp. The inscription described a training run by the pharaoh’s soldiers during the reign of King Taharqa (690 B.C to 660 BC ) . The race was set for a 100k, in the area between Fayum and Sakkara . Apparently the first winner took all of 8 hours.
Well obviously I was not going anywhere near 100k in 8 hours. I was told the limit was 12 hours., and given my singular lack of speed I thought I might just squeeze 100k into 12 hours or 12.5 hours especially if the wind blew in the correct direction. So I started drawing running schedules. There was a minor hiccup in my preparation though - I had to have surgery in July and was told not to stress the sutures for 8 to 12 weeks. That was a major setback as I had already paid in full for the whole trip. Anyway, I dutifully stopped everything for 10 weeks ( compromise) and prepared as best I could, and happily boarded SQ492 for Cairo on Sunday 22nd Nov.
On arrival there was a brief meeting with the race organiser. Imagine my alarm when on arrival I was told that cut off was 11 hours because it was too dangerous to run after sundown! Hisham, the event organiser also advised against bringing any money or valuables as they could not guarantee safety. So I spent the afternoon trying to print out a pace band for a 100k in 11.15 hopeful hours. Even the hotel printer had its doubts because it steadfastly refused to print out Roman numerals and delivered pace bands using Arabic numerals.
Anyway whilst the printer was throwing a fit, I found a friendly taxi driver and hoofed around the museum in Cairo and the library and the citadel in Alexandria,.
26 November 2010
The event schedule said to gather at 3am at the Pyramids Hotel lobby. So at 3am, dark and early I arrived at the hotel lobby – to witness a general riot – or so it seemed. I am sure the race organisers knew exactly what was happening, but to me, at that point of time, there were so many people yelling and milling around, it was a bit daunting.
As the run does not have any water stations all support is mobile. Each individual runner and each relay team is assigned a gleaming white minivan. Each minivan has the runner’s number pasted on the front windscreen and has a driver and an armed escort (the tourist police). That morning, it was noisy because vehicles would screech up to the hotel entrance in a seemingly random fashion. Then there would be a ( routine) heated exchange between organisers holding check lists and the van drivers, with other bystanders chiming in. Then the van might be loaded with a few bottles of water and several bananas or the water and bananas would be removed. Numbers would be pasted onto the window, or ripped off and other numbers pasted. Then the vehicle would drive off again. All the while, in the background confusion there would be runners and support crews trying to make off with cartons of water and bananas.
There were only about 10 individual runners for the 100k distance but quite a few teams of 5 runners. About 100 to 110 numbers were allocated. Some groups were obviously well organised with cartons of isotonic drinks, chillers and food. There were even a few support mountain bikers. I think I was the only solo solo with no backup plan. And the only female solo runner.
Finally at 4.30 I found my minivan and we went off in one huge convoy to Hawara 100k away where the race was to start. Was I car sick (I’m infamous for suffering from motion sickness) – yes – and barely made it to Hawara with my stomach contents intact inside of me. At Hawara, we saw a lonely little arch marking the start line in the middle of the sandy desert. A small oasis was nearby and all the runners made a beeline for the trees. You can forget the portaloo experience here.
On return from visiting the bushes – I found that my van had shifted position – and ran frantically around looking for the one marked “97″. It was already 6am, and flag off was at 6am. The last thing I wanted after coming so far was to miss the race. The next most horrible thing , as any slow runner will tell you – is to start behind everybody else. Whilst some look at PBs, I look at cut offs
Luckily some of the competitor vans were late, having lost their way. I managed to make the start line in time, armed with a little 500 ml handheld bottle and some gels. Camera, money, phone and other supplies were left in the van. About 30-40minutes after 6am, the race started with little fuss. There was a bang and off we trotted. The ground beneath was sand, asphalt and sand. As we ran, I realised that the soles of my Newtons had become absolutely rock hard in the cool morning temperatures. My poor feet could feel every notch in the sole. With what must have been less than 100 runners – actually it felt more like 50 starters – there was no crowding. Soon I was the only one on the road with glimpses of one in front or behind. A solitary runner, alone in vast never-ending plains of sand with blue skies above. The yellows and browns and oranges were spectacular.
But – there was also no sign of my van.
That , in truth was the secret to my running faster than usual – no van, no money, no phone, limited gels and limited water!
Occasionally, I would see a runner with a van. Sometimes I saw the support bikes and sometimes official cars. The road was marked every 5k. I met my van with driver and guard after the 30k mark. I’m not sure if they knew I was looking for them or whether this was their plan, but they followed me dutifully after that.
Somewhere after 40k we ran along canals and farmland. It was almost exactly like Sunday School picture books come alive. Vignettes of life in the land where time stands still. Running streams with bulrushes, quiet moments with birds chirping in trees. Passing donkeys laden with goods. Riders in long robes with legs hanging out . Women washing clothes by the river.
I completed about 38k on time. Then as the sun grew, I started to lose the schedule. I had to stop the van for water and each time I stopped the van to rummage for drinks and electrolyte powders and whatnot, I fell further and further behind the pace schedule. Each stop - brief as it may have seemed – must have cost me about 500m to 1k! I remember my shock when I looked up after one such stop. The runner that I had overtaken 500m behind was now far in front . And all I had done was to wave the van down, open the door , top off my flask and wave the van off.
As the sun came up, so did the temperatures, so too the more frequent refuelling stops. The road then took us through little townships full of people and potholes. Here the streets were lined by armed men in uniform, men with long gowns carrying sticks and whips, hordes of little children and lots of people shaking their heads at a female runner in tights. There were also lots of donkeys, horses and carts. There was a man who tried to squeeze inbetween me and some vehicles, but as he tried to canter his donkey, the animal rebelled and threw him off. Poor guy.
Err and obviously no toilet stops were possible.
By this time I was crawling 100 paces and shuffling 100 paces. Focus and will power being nonexistent. I had one stretch whereby a vehicle stayed stubbornly in between me and my white van. It was then that my brain pulled out all the stored images of races past where thousands of bums encased in worn out salt encrusted tights flashed past my eyes in never-ending line. Anyway a police car and motorbike soon appeared and all order was restored. I continued my shuffle.
As the sun set, the temperatures fell, and it felt good to run again. But by about 4.00pm it was so dark that the only light I had to illuminate the road was the van’s lights behind me. As the last rays whispered away, the lonely road sprang to life. Hundreds of cars with blaring horns materialised out of nowhere. Maybe it was a daily occurrence or maybe it was a pre-election mode exodus, but on this 2-way road back into Cairo, the traffic in both directions seemed to think of it as a one way road in their favour. ( No one talks about speed limit here). The van and me were reduced to creeping and bumping along the road shoulder. A car whizzed by and its inhabitants waved their arms at us. “Stop stop. Too dangerous”. Some time later, another came by and someone actually came down ” Stop. Back into Van. Finish” Not wanting to be a heroic oil slick on the ground, I thought it best to follow instructions. My faithful van driver was also gesticulating by then. So my Egyptian adventure had come to an end after 85k and 10h 30m. And yes, I got car sick on the way back into Cairo and threw up into the plant boxes in the hotel lobby
The next day
The next day, Hisham said ” Road very dangerous. I have something for you - 85 k 10.5 hours. “, and handed me the certificate and medal. “Write 100k, 12 hours” , he told me . It may be a discounted 100k but its the fastest 85k for me and I am insanely proud of it. It carries with it memories of a beautiful run and the lingering dusty taste of the vanishing van.
As for the run it is well worth running. The route is undeniably historical and culturally rich. The logistics and coordination of the whole thing must have been horrendous – the placing and transporting and the feeding all the men , police and guns along the route. I really must commend the organisers as it was a really huge undertaking, and all little quirks aside , it was well done and smooth. Everybody was safe.