01 July 2013, 7am
Dead Sea Ultramarathon
Fri 5 April 2013
The 20th edition saw Jordan’s first Olympic marathoner, Methqal Al Abaddi, at the front shortly after race patron, Prince Firas Raad, fired the starting gun. As Al Abaddi opened up a lead he immediately started to close in on HRH Prince Talal bin Muhammad, who had simultaneously started eight kilometres along the route in his debut marathon. The Prince, first cousin to King Abdullah II, is a motivated marathoner and had a mission in mind. He had quietly raised over US$728,000 in pledges from friends and family for the King Hussein Cancer Foundation and Centre for the treatment of ten children suffering from leukaemia.
The highway from Amman to the Dead Sea cuts and chases its way down into the Jordan Valley between Salt Mount and Mount Nebo. This is where Moses is said to have been shown the whole of the Promised Land; across the valley on the far horizon lie the West Bank and Jerusalem.
The sparsely-populated countryside is dotted with clusters of houses. The small town of Adaseh is the focal point for locals who gather once a year to encourage the runners on their leg-sapping plummet. The road snakes through the town, which is perched on the hill around two switchbacks before another panoramic view opens up, to signal the start of a unique journey.
With half of the 50km covered runners drop through the sea level contour. A simple stone monument and a sign showing the cross section of the valley mark the point. There is still 400m of descent remaining but most of the steep quad-jarring downhills are done. What remains is probably the fastest half marathon course in the world.
The slopes ease off as the valley opens out. Patches of green become more frequent. Roadside vegetable and fruit sellers congregate in Rama, a single-street village 38km into the course and one kilometre before the junction where a road leads off towards the site of Jesus’ baptism on the west bank of the River Jordan.
A long sweeping left turn marks the start of the final run-in. The next five kilometres might appear flat – they are, in comparison to the past 40 – but the road continues to descend towards the lakeshore. Resorts and hotels multiply along the water’s edge. Camels share the road with pedestrians, but for runners there is a different obstacle. Three rolling, normally insignificant climbs, challenge the mind and body over the last four kilometres.
At the start Al Abaddi had nothing more than an over-distance training run in mind, but his 2:50:57 finishing time shows the advantage afforded by gravity on this course. Had there been no such advantage Al Abbadi’s performance would have ranked as the 10th fastest 50km ever run. Although it cannot be recognized it was a noteworthy performance for the Jordanian who has his eyes set on qualifying for the Moscow World Championships Marathon in August.
Marathoners and ultra runners followed the Olympian over the line. While Prince Talal was fighting his way through the marathon wall, Prince Firas and Princess Dana and their children were almost unidentifiable as they joined the 6500-plus runners and walkers completing the 10km challenge.
The initial cold, wet and windy conditions had disappeared as runners made the descent into what could be described as the world’s largest hyperbaric chamber. If training at high altitude increases oxygen carrying capacity, the increased oxygen levels at low altitude promote endurance, post-race recovery, and relaxation. There is no greater naturally-occurring level of oxygen to be had than along these shores.
At 55km long, 18km wide and 370m deep the Dead Sea is the world’s largest ‘flotation tank.’ A salt content 8.6 times greater than the oceans makes it impossible to sink. Floating in the Dead Sea you lie back, eyes closed, with the salt-enhanced buoyancy supporting your head and your body washed by the warmth of the sun-heated waters. There can be few better methods of post-race recovery. With so little sensory stimulation the mind and body are freed from the rigors of the race.
It is little wonder that King David is said to have chosen the Dead Sea as his place of refuge over 1000 years BCE, but it is only one of the sights that make this event a draw for international runners.
Petra, the city carved into the rocks in 1 AD; the Baptism site; Wadi Rum, which has been inhabited since prehistoric times; Jerash, the best-preserved Roman city outside Italy, and the biblical history of the Mount Nebo region are but a few of the attractions within easy reach.
The Dead Sea Ultramarathon has its scenic views and beauty. It has its challenges, its history and its character, and it is unique: it is here that you run to the lowest place on planet Earth.