When 2012 rolled in, I did the same thing as I do every year. I threw down the various intoxicants left over from the previous night’s frivolities, and vowed to live a cleaner, healthier lifestyle. No longer would I treat my body like a battered jalopy – from now on it was regular valet services and super-grade fuel.
A month later, and I’ve done little except switch from regular Red Bull to sugar-free. Oh, and I joined a running club. Sporting leviathan Nike holds regular early-morning sessions in Dubai, with personal trainers on hand to dish out free advice. Encouraged by my much-fitter fiancee Bec, I’ve been dragging myself out of bed at ridonculous hours on a Friday morning to pant my way around town before collapsing back on the sofa by 9.30am. It’s safe to say that the athletes of the world have little to fear from my paltry attempts at a 5k stagger.
But the fiancee appears to be rather good at it. So good in fact, that Nike asked her to join a team it was putting together for an annual running event held in Oman’s Musandam peninsular, just over the border from the UAE. The Wadi Bih run is a long-established relay that covers 72km from Dibba, up a 1000m climb in the rocky coastal mountains, and back down again. It looks, and is, pretty far removed from pattering around the park on a weekend.
Instead of cowering behind a treadmill like any sensible person, Bec accepted the challenge and, being her faithful husband-to-be, I volunteered to go along and support her in her efforts. In fact, I did more than that – I called Nissan Middle East and asked if they could supply me with a support vehicle. The least I could do while the five-strong team strode up cliff faces was drive them around and carry the Gatorade.
Nissan came through in style, delivering to the C&P office a latest generation Patrol. This was surely the ideal vehicle for such an endeavour – it’s huge, with room for seven occupants and luggage, and has a long-established history of off-road performance. Which it’ll need with rocks, gravel tracks and steep climbs to negotiate. Only one vehicle per team was allowed to race between baton change points, so the Patrol had to do everything without a hitch.
And so, after driving late at night from Dubai with a Nissan full of bananas and cool boxes, I find myself in a campsite at 5.30am one February morning. As well as tired, I feel incredibly unfit thanks to the company I’m keeping. In Bec’s team – one of three being fielded by Nike – is Greg, the far-too-enthusiastic PR man; Julian, a newspaper reporter who’s Facebook page suggests he runs 10km when he’s bored; Sach, another member of the running club; and Heather, a bona-fide triathlete. Another Nike team features an unassuming chap who turns out to be an Ironman athlete. Ironman events are super-triathlons that involve a 3.86km swim, 180km bike ride and then a full 42km marathon, one after the other. I feel sick at the thought of it.
But we head to the beach next to Dibba’s Golden Tulip hotel, and I watch as the whole team starts on the symbolic 900m opening leg. It’s 6.30am and some 200 teams are gathered, setting off at regular intervals much like a rally. After some swift photography I sprint to the Patrol and drive down the road, taking Sach with me ready for him to take over the baton and run the second leg.
The quartet, all smiles and neon running vests, are with us in minutes and Sach sets off while the rest of the team settles into the Patrol. They’re all suitably impressed, and note the serious jump in luxury from the previous generation Patrol. Leather seats and multi-zone air conditioning abound, but while we’re still on coastal roads for now, the going will get more serious shortly. Hopefully the Patrol is still an off-road legend, or there’ll be more running for these guys than they anticipated.
Sach runs his leg through the town, and so far it’s all flat tarmac. So far so easy, but as Bec takes over the third leg we drive on ahead and discover a sizable hill. Although it falls back down to sea level in less than a kilometre, I’m already very pleased with my decision to drive rather than run. We park up at the bottom of the hill to wait for Bec and the team discovers the stretching benefits of a large SUV. This will be the last trace of asphalt until the team passes back this way at the end of the event – from now on, it’s gravel-ahoy.
As soon as Greg heads off into the gravel, it’s immediately apparent that as well as the loose surface, the major issue here will be dust. With each team rocking a 4×4, there’s a huge cloud of debris being kicked up, and the runners have to pant straight through it. I try and drive a bit more slowly to help them, but there’s no avoiding it. I feel bad. But on the plus side, the Patrol’s music system is awesome, so I play motivational music to the rest of the gang.
The wide open plains we’ve seen so far reach the start of the mountainous region in the distance, and the track heads into Wadi Bih itself – a dried up river bed at the base of a canyon, walls looming overhead and cutting out the gradually rising sun.
Progress so far has been good – the team is overtaking others and we soon learn how our competitors are doing by seeing when their vehicles arrive at the checkpoints. Most are rocking 4x4s, ranging from a Mitsubishi L200 to a fleet of Toyota Land Cruisers and Mitsubishi Pajeros. However, one daring team has pressed a Mercedes B-Class into service, and another is cooped up in a Toyota Previa. How those will fare at the summit of the mountain, I have no idea.