The first ever Wadi Rum Ultra was held this year with a small group of competitors challenged to race each other for 242km through the deserts of Jordan. We caught up with Fergus Scholes who finished runner up
2nd pace! You must be happy with that!
Yes, very happy indeed with coming second place, particularly given Salameh Al Aqra, who won the Marathon des Sables in 2012, was the only athlete to beat me! I was putting very little expectation or pressure on myself in terms of an overall placing. For a race as tough as this, in conditions as extreme as this, my primary focus was on finding a sensible pace, and one which I would be able to maintain over the duration of the five-day event. Having never done a multi day ultra marathon before I was unsure of my limits, and the last thing I wanted to do was to bolt out of the starting blocks and then have to pull out on Day 3 from bad blisters, dehydration or exhaustion. But now having completed this ultra, I have much a better understanding of my capability and all those elements involved with a desert ultra marathon, and I probably would be slightly more aggressive on my pacing next time.
Talk us through what’s involved in the race…
So it’s a five-day event, totaling 242km. Day 1 50km, Day 2 70km, Day 3 50km, Day 4 42km and Day 5 30km. It was actually meant to be 300km (with a whopping 100km day) but after a couple of the competitors ended up in hospital, the race organiser decided for safety reasons to reduce Day 4 from 100km down to a marathon (42km) to make sure nothing more serious happened to anyone else. We would start each day very early to avoid as much of the heat of the day as possible, with the longest day (the 70km), starting at 3am, meaning three hours of running in the dark with head torches and glow sticks.
The course is laid out by local Bedouin guides who go ahead in a 4×4 and put little flags marking the route every 30m or so, and for the very early day in the dark they used glow sticks. Every 10km there would be a checkpoint, where the race organisers would have a vehicle, check you were OK , and top you up with water. We would typically be wrapped up by around 2 pm each day, so then we would try to stay off our feet as much as possible, and recover, eat and re-hydrate. You can do all the training you wish, but if you’re not replacing lost salts and re-fueling, you’ll be in the next ambulance out of there to hospital.
Can you describe the conditions you faced?
Conditions on the whole were quite favourable, other than it being very hot, I would say into the mid 30s. There was no particularly adverse wind. One of the days had very soft sand, and this was so very draining. On the 70km day, I was feeling right as rain at the 60km checkpoint, but the last 10km (in the hottest part of the day, around 1 pm) suddenly hit me hard, and I walked a considerable amount of this. This was a particular lesson that respect for a challenge and a location like this was not to be underestimated at any moment, On Day 4, the 42km day, the surface was almost entirely baked hard salt flat, akin to running on tarmac, this was quite hard on the joints.
What kind of training did you need to do beforehand to make sure you were suitably prepared?
I firmly committed to the race only around two and a half months before it, around mid June, so my preparation was by no means textbook! I had a good base level of fitness to build from though – probably at around 3:15 marathon level at the point I signed up – and my focus was then to start upping the mileage from my usual 10-20km runs ASAP! Over the months of July and August (the race being the beginning of September), I would be clocking a minimum of 100km per week. This would be comprised of running both before and after work 6 days a week. My peak week was at the beginning of August totaling 175km, including my longest training run of 60km. It was a complete change in mindset for marathon training, which was a lot of tempo and speed work. This was all about getting as many hours on the feet as possible, even if some of it was walking.
What kind of stuff did you carry with you? Did all your kit perform?
We actually only had to carry what we needed for the day’s running, so unlike Marathon des Sables we didn’t have to carry all our food and sleeping equipment. This no doubt made life much easier and meant we just had a small mandatory kit list (first aid kit, compass, windproof jacket for example), and food, gels and bars for the day, and that was all. So, fully loaded with water (2.5litres) I would imagine the pack weighed in at around 4kg.
Footwear-wise, after much deliberation I opted for New Balance Leadvilles, which were just fantastic. While other competitors were hobbling around and visiting the doctor each night with blisters, my feet were in prime condition and were perfect!
Would you do it again?
In the blink of an eye I would do it again. No hesitation whatsoever. I have already been eyeing up my next challenge, and cannot wait to crack on with my next ultra as soon as I can.
Click here for Fergus’s Youtube channel.