I promised myself if I ever got through this race, I would write about the experience, so here goes:
About the Cross Island Classic
This is a race in Bahrain that takes place every year some time in December when temperatures cool to a mere 20 degrees Celsius or thereabouts. It is organized by the Bahrain Road Runners with support from various local/international corporations. The race takes runners across the Island of Bahrain from coast to coast, covering a span of 17 to 18 kilometres. The trail begins on the east coast and leads through the desert with a gamut of terrains to finish at the west coast. The trail differs from one year to another. This year they said was the toughest. Since this was my first participation, naturally, I agreed!
Cross Island Classic Route
Like any proper novice, I began googling desert running. I was already nervous about the race, it being the longest run I would have participated in, along with a totally different surface for running - the desert. Plus, I did not have time to train as much as I wanted since we went for a holiday in Malaysia for 3 weeks prior to the race.
I came upon blogs of previous races that did not shed much on how the race was to be. So I continued looking for answers and chanced upon pages about the Sahara and Gobi desert races. That scared the socks off me. I went running 10 km that day just to ease my fears ;p Aside from that I added extraordinary amounts of tomatoes (for electrolytes) and spinach (obvious benefits) into my diet with plenty of protein. I started hydrating well before the event (as in 3 days before), all that while working up my nerves to the point of mania.
The BRR committee gave us some tips to ready ourselves as well. Hydrate plenty (despite it being cold because we sweat anyway), wear old shoes just in case you destroy the new ones (it was going to be messy), don’t layer up on running clothes (weather is cold but the body temp increases from the exertion) and plenty more. Dominique, Nada and Hisham, a BIG thank you lovelies!!!
The race day
Bopspeed and Chay.
We beginners tend to go overboard on gadgets I tell you. I had my iPhone strapped to the arm, earphones at the ready, the waist pouch with water bottle strapped on, the sunnies hanging by strings around my neck and the trusty Buell cap (of course), and my Suunto watch. (The art of paranoia - also had some panadols, aspirin, ventolin, band aids, ORS, gum, power juice tucked into the waist pouch). “Just in case”.
We were all transported to the starting line by bus . This year, 200 people signed up (for this tiny island of Bahrain, that’s plenty!), but 177 turned up. As soon as we disembarked about half an hour later, everyone made a mad dash for piles of rocks or sand dunes scattered around for cover to relieve our bladders. I managed to pull down my shorts but alas not a drop in sight. Performance anxiety.
At about 2 pm the race kicked off from the coastal road off Ad-Dur, climbing towards a bridge that crosses over a main arterial highway and down to where pavement hits sand. All along the route were orange flags, marshals and volunteers to guide our path and keep us hydrated. I was among the last though I psyched myself enough to be convinced it was going to be a breeze. *chuckles* . 2 kilometres in, we hit desert sand. It was so soft, as soon as the foot hits ground, it sinks in. If you have run along the beach in soft sand, you’ll know what I mean.
By the 5th km of the race, I thought to myself amidst accelerated heart rate, “What the F*^% were you thinking of you Fool!”. Also “Oh no, I’m going to take 4 hours to complete this 17km race”, “You know what, forget it – I’ll just walk all the way”, “Urghhhh”, “Owww…my thighs, my back, my calves”. Of course it was all internal. Would not want anyone to know I’m a wimp do I?
Some of the surfaces we ran on
With all the jiggling and maneuvering in the desert, I felt the first gentle pressure on my bladder. From then on, all I could think about was finding cover and cursing myself for not being able to do it with everyone else in the beginning. Shyness has no place in the open desert. I thank my lucky stars when I saw a tiny little hut right at the foot of a mount we were to climb and made a dash for it. What a relief!! (but that set me back a few minutes – as if that would matter in the grander scheme of things).
The Mountain of Smoke (Jabal Al Dukhan)
Thankfully, after about 5 kilometres of soft sand, climbing over gas pipelines, going up and down mounds of rocky sand, we actually came to pavement. And there I happily pounded away at the ground, once again elated to be a runner. That didn’t last. With every metre I got more anxious with the prospect of having to run in sand again. By that time, my wide toed Brooks shoes were filled with fine (as in puny and light as opposed to fine and dandy) sand and I was already dragging my feet. We were hardly half way into the race.
Not minutes later, we came upon a group of ATV riders. They were a friendly bunch spurring us on or just waving a cheerful hello. However, these quad bikes kicked up a dust storm and I could hardly see my running buddies ahead. Then we hit traffic and I was about ready to explode in fury. The dust kicked up by all those vehicles (cars, quad bikes, motorcycles, trucks, lorries) were akin to a scene from some nightmarish movie where fog descends onto the land and hampered your view of your fingers much less 5 feet away. By that time with heart pounding in my chest to the rhythm of the run, I was inhaling fistful of dust at every breath. I thought “good thing I warned hubby I might just die at the race”. (I’m exaggerating but I do deserve my title of drama queen). Thank God the marshals from Bahrain Road Runners came to the rescue and physically pulled our hands and brought us to safety.
Then we hit the desert sand again but this time, it was not as soft as the first leg of the race, albeit a bit more rocky. So I trudged on faster than before. As we climbed an incline, I felt my ankle give and a sharp pain travelled from the inside of my right calve right up the thigh. I stopped running yet again and walked. The most comforting thought at that time was that the finishing line is a mere 5 km away. No reason to stop now. I saw my running buddies begin their descent at warp speed ready to burn their reserve energy for the last leg…and there I was hobbling along. Then I told me “Get a grip, it’s just a tiny bit of pain. So what if I’m injured, it’s probably nothing. I’ll recover in a couple of weeks, enough time to train for the upcoming half marathon. No biggie. I can do it!” And I did it. I ran and ran until the pain became a steady throbbing, until I saw a grove of palm trees up ahead in the distance, until my feet reached pavement again, until I was a mere 2 km away from the finish, until I felt no pain at all, until I dropped my water bottle from exhaustion, until I saw the Bahrain Road Runners committee cheering us on…Until I finished!!
I wanted to cry but I smiled instead. 2 hours 15 minutes and 26 seconds, finishing at 171st place out of 176. I finished. We did!!
Chay, Bopspeed, Mun Ching
Looking back, this must’ve been the highlight of my stay in Bahrain in 2012. In the midst of it, the race seemed endless and I questioned myself at every turn. I almost gave up at least 3 times in the course of the run. Words cannot express the jubilation I felt at the end. We all could push past the barriers we set for ourselves. For us beginners, physical training and strength is not the end all. It takes great will and determination, mind over matter to carry us to the finish line.
Would I do it again next year? If you asked me right after the race, I would have said no because the emotions were still raw. But few days on, it’s a resounding YES!
P.S. What I didn’t write earlier on (just adding this as I edit), is that the view was absolutely amazing. Some moments during the run despite the pain, I just wanted to savor the horizon where earth meets sea meets sky. We were running while the sun was setting, need I say more.