Backed by the space port of Mos Espa (Star Wars Episode 1) the 2nd edition of UMED ( Ultra Mirage© El Djerid) got underway with the morning glow of a strong orange sun after it had tipped over the summits of the surrounding high dunes.
Over 130 runners from 23 nations stepped forward to undertake a circular 100km route through the Tunisian desert. Heat, sand, mixed terrain, palm groves, oasis all providing a stunning backdrop to an ultimate running challenge. The calm and quiet of the Sahara broken only by the sound of birds.
Any running journey can be a lonely one, but the desert really does provide isolation, only a snake or a camel providing any company. Of course, the sun only leaves the runner with darkness and as the rest from intense heat may be welcome, the complete darkness of the desert provides its own challenges as the runners navigate via reflective strips all the way back to where they started, the lunar landscape of Mos Espa and the bulbous film set village made famous by Star Wars.
The 2017 champion, Mohamed El Morabity had returned to defend his title, however, the desert king (Mohamed’s elder brother) Rachid El Morabity was also on the start line looking to upset the 2017 champions dreams. In the women’s field, two-time MDS champion, Elisabet Barnes was returning to racing after an almost year-long hiatus – what would the day hold for all of them?
On the stroke of 0700 the runners were released. They had 20-hours to complete the desert journey via marked route and 5 checkpoints placed at 20km, 35km, 50km, 65km, 80km and the finish providing an end to an epic journey.
With no wind, the 30-degree temperatures seemed intense. From the start, the experienced runners reigned in their pace but at the front, Marwen Kahil from Tunisia dictated the pace followed by fellow Tunisian, Mohamed Mnsari – the duo no doubt wanting to put on a good show on home ground. All the main contenders followed some way back, they were in no rush to push the pace and Rachid, Mohamed and Sondre Amdahl maintained a close eye on each other.
In the women’s race, Elisabet Barnes dictated the pace, shadowed by Tunisian, Shefia Hendaoui. Behind, Orianne Dujardin from France followed looking relaxed and in control.
At 20km, the positions had hardly changed. However, Elisabet had broken away from her shadow and was now dictating the pace at the front. With 80km to go, it was a brave move, but she looked strong and in control. For the men, there was little but the front of the race was starting to fragment with runners either forming small groups or running alone seconds and minutes apart.
By CP2, it was all change. The desert king Rachid had gently pressed on his accelerator pedal and in doing so he had split the men’s race apart. The early protagonists were left to struggle with the only runners able to follow the Moroccan’s pace coming from his brother, Mohamed and Tunisian, Emir Grairi. The duo looked strong and in control and then minutes later it was the arrival of Sondre Amdahl.
For the women, Elisabet was now pulling away from Shefia and Oriane and her pace was starting to impact on the men’s race with the Swedish runner placing well in the top 10.
With 50% of the race covered and the arrival of the first Oasis the race was taking shape. Rachid and Elisabet had opened huge gaps and were looking strong for victory, but behind them both the race was changing.
The 2nd male to arrive was the Tunisian Emir looking strong. Then Sondre arrived. What had happened to the 2017 champion Mohamed? He finally arrived walking, looking broken and explaining that he had hurt his ankle. He looked set to drop out but at the 3rd CP he pushed on.
For the women, the early pace had impacted on Shefia and now Oriane was running in 2nd. It was all to fight for though, the duo was only separated by minutes!
50-65km were the most challenging of the race with relentless soft sand that slowed the front runners to a walk at times. Behind, this section would eventually take its toll with over 30% of the UMED field not progressing past this section. Rachid and Elisabet took it in their stride but the impact on Emir was noticeable and he relinquished 2nd place to an in-form Sondre. Mohamed was somehow rejuvenated, and he now ran with the Tunisian, the duo looking for the final podium place.
Rachid arrived at the 80km checkpoint looking tired and exhausted. The day was taking its toll. He searched for food and drink, but the fatigue was obviously confusing him, he was undecided what he needed. Sitting down he consumed two cartons of juice only to vomit them back up. He left for arguably the toughest 20km’s he would ever run. The gap Rachid had accumulated was crumbling and Sondre arrived just 3-minutes later. The fight was on!
Sondre hunted the Moroccan down slowly pursuing but Rachid despite chronic fatigue never gave in, he arrived at the finish broken. He crossed the line and collapsed into the arms of the RD, Amir Ben Gacem. Moments later he was in the medic’s hands with an IV in his arm. Sondre finished a stunning 2nd just 6-minutes later. It had been an epic battle. The fight for 3rd came to an easy conclusion for the 2017 champion Mohamed when Emir dropped from the race with severe cramps just 5/6km from the line.
Elisabet was the next to arrive, the new female champion and 4th overall – she was back! This was a stunning world-class performance and her time was just 9-minutes slower than the 2017 champion, Mohamed.
“UMED was a really great experience. It was good to be back in a desert race after a break this year. I enjoyed the varying terrain, the heat, and the perfect mix of friendly atmosphere and hard racing.” – Elisabet Barnes
Behind, Oriane secured her 2nd place ahead of the local woman, Shefia.
With the arrival of darkness, the race took on a new challenge as the participants battled the terrain, darkness and the 0300 cut-off. As with all races, the dream of medals evaporated like water in a Mirage. Blisters, fatigue, dehydration, missing cut-off times, each runner had a story to tell.
“I did not dream of medal. I wanted to run strong and run well. That was my UMED goal. At half way I felt very unwell and I knew it was the beginning of heatstroke. I also had damaged feet with blisters… We had been advised that gaiters were not necessary, they were! I was mentally and emotionally strong, but I knew it was time to be kind to myself and I allowed myself to call it quits. I had done what I set out to do, I had run well, I had run strong, and that was for 50km. Next year’s goal will be to run well, run strong and get that medal.” – Sue Ding from Malaysia who had completed the 2018 Marathon des Sables.
As Roosevelt rightly said:
“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Racing does not give guarantees. It is why we test ourselves. Pain eases, memories fade, skin heals and soon, often the next day, the desire to return and put the demons to rest is what motivates everyone. The desert is magic and leaves only one desire: to come back and tame it!
Post-race, RD Amir Ben Gacem was proud of the race, “Last year, we had just 60 runners, this year we had over 130 and I am proud to say, over 30 women. That is stunning. The race will evolve, and we learnt some lessons this year that will be applied for 2019 only to make the UMED bigger and better!”
“Wow, I am really happy with that,” Sondre exclaimed. “I am the first ‘human’ – to place 2nd behind the desert king Rachid and to have his brother behind me is a true honour.”
- Elisabet Barnes 10:26:06
- Oriane Dujardin 12:58:57
- Shefia Hendaoui 13:35:57
- Rachid El Morabity 9:11:47
- Sondre Amdahl 9:18:12
- Mohamed El Morabity 10:17:33
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