Friday, January 13, 2017

Bahrain Cross Island Run

     My dear readers I present to you Bahrain’s Cross Island Run. A most challenging and unique 16 km off-road desert adventure of breathtaking views in the company of friendly runners and his highness. Having last competed over two years ago and zero training this would surely be an epic run; yes, one of uncertainty and my only saving grace is to set a new personal record. That is to run across an entire country in one race.
     Awakened from sleep by the Muslim call to dawn prayers; the sounding was unbeknown to me when choosing a flat that a local minaret houses the loudspeakers on the corner lot. The melodic passages penetrate through the mid-rise’s sliding glass door as the sun prepares to give birth to another communal Friday. The view will soon unveil the ivory and golden cream dwellings whose roof tops are marked with satellite dishes and water tanks. Beyond, is the ever-calm iridescent blue water of the Arabian Gulf and the country’s vast mid-section desert.  To the South from the nation’s capital of Manama is where today’s race takes place, a barren land removed from the city bustle. For now, lying here resting and thinking it won’t be long and the smart phone will sing out “Wake Me Up,” by Avicii. Fast forward a few minutes and I find myself asking the local barista of the Costa Coffee for a double espresso for my shipmate and driving host, Andy, and a small americano to open my arteries. The cup of mocha is the capstone of a well-honed fueling ritual I developed over the years to have ready energy stores. The tradition is what I call - b o b o j – (banana, oatmeal bagel and orange juice).

     Within minutes of a few light stretches a set of headlights appear and John, another shipmate and race aficionado hops out offering the front seat. It’s a forty-five-minute drive to the Bahrain Sailing Club in Zallaq on smooth roads, Andy knows exactly where to go and is an excellent driver. We arrive and I head off to get my timing chip and bib number at the other end of the lot from the race organizer who is setup in a weathered tent lined with oriental rugs and several makeshift tables. The Bahrain Road Runners are the host and premier running club in this small island country. First though, they call me in on their photo taking, a good sign, right? With my number “128” pinned on my singlet and race chip strapped to my ankle a little more pre-race bantering, and a port-a-john visit, it was time to board the 7:00 a.m. transport bus to the other side of the island.  Our driving host, Andy, is also off, to get in a bike-swim block in preparing for the upcoming Iron Man 70.3 Triathlon in Dubai.
Endurance Riders training their Arabian Horses
While John and I were separated during the bus travel it gave us a good opportunity to chat it up with other expats and native runners and their experience with the race. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine, just go easy in the beginning, “in response to essential questions. Concerns like, what’s the best way to cross the oil and gas pipe lines, how about preventing sand from in your shoes, are there distance markers, hills, surface condition, and water stops.  Our caravan arrives on the east coast, for the start of  a westward trek on foot.  The weather was evident being mid-60s with a 25-knot headwind and full sun. In preparation, I am thankful in remembering to carry an Ultimate 20-ounce water bottle as I may need all of it, and hope for a refill on the course. One final check made to double knot my Adidas Super Nova 9 running shoes and it's race time.

     It’s now 8:00 a.m., “Okay everyone over here we are about to start!” shouts the race director. “wait, make room for his highness,” as the runners moved aside, Bahraini royal Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, strolls right up next to us on the start line, then it’s all smiles for the pre-race photo by the Gulf Daily News. Soon after the RD yells “GET SET, GO!” to start the epic adventure.

     Within the first kilometer, we come across the largest pipeline obstacle. Being conservative I elected a get on hands and knees approach to crawl underneath. I now feel the talc-like sand covering my hands and hear my heart pounding and lungs searing as my body tries to recall days when systems worked much more smoothly. From here on the other pipelines come in different sizes and numbers; all taken with caution not to twist an ankle and get hurt as help would be a long time coming out in the barren landscape.

     Can you imagine there are mountains on this flat desert island country? I don’t know how they found these hills but they are very challenging. One incline is so steep I felt my balance teeter and feared going over backwards! A course monitor was reaching out to help as I slowly leaned forward, recovering from a near backwards fall. While mostly a sand course it varies between soft and packed with plenty of ankle twisting stones requiring nimble navigation and perfect foot placement.
     Coincidence would have it my only walk, a super steep section, a photographer is taking pictures. Know the feeling? About two kilometers later, just after the second water stop a gradual drop in elevation brings us to the sea. On the other side of the country!  The surface is partially paved for the last three kilometers allowing a chance to get in the marathon shuffle. This is a relaxed running style having low knee lift while focusing on conservation of energy until sight of the finish line. Some runners call it “putting time in the bank,” or “miles under your belt.” A bit further along the race goes past the Bahrain International Endurance Village which is home to the Royal Equestrian and Endurance Federation. Rounding the corral my thoughts drift to the earlier sighting of a half dozen riders galloping Arabian horses across the desert at the break of dawn.

     With the finish line in sight it’s time to keep the head up, good running form and pump the arms a bit for the last couple hundred meters. Yay! Having the coveted finishers medals around our necks we spread good will amongst each other in trading our personal race experience. While awaiting the award ceremony, John and I take on lifeguarding duty as Andy gets in an open ocean swim. I couldn’t help the temptation of the refreshing sight of the surf after longing for it well before the race finished.  So, I went in for a swim myself, sans wetsuit. A bit chilly at first but quickly acclimatized and truly looked to take advantage of the cool salty water to help in recovery. Getting in a relaxing swim was just the answer. Nice and refreshing.

     The post-race fare included bananas, orange slices, water, hot chocolate and some kind of middle eastern spicy chickpea soup. John finished first in his age group so I snapped a few photos of him receiving a trophy from his highness and a podium shot. My finishing place was 6th in age group, 66th overall for a time of 1:31:34. The pace calculator processes this to be a 9:09 pace/mile. The race has a $40 entry fee and if needing a timing chip it will cost $20. Oh, goodness gracious where has the fitness gone? It’s remarkably inspiring how performance measurement can lead to motivation in better conditioning. I’ll be evaluating and self-assessing in pulling a better performance in upcoming events.

    We stopped at a shawarma on the way back for lunch. Shawarama is a Levantine meat preparation that is very popular here serving the predominant Arab and Asian population. I chose a chicken meal with rice and vegetables.

Having no preparation, mentally and physically, the event, organizers and friends, made Bahrain’s Cross Island Run an epic experience. Highly recommended!


  1. "Oh, goodness gracious where has the fitness gone?" - welcome to the oldies club, mate :)

  2. Wow, sounds like a unique race to run. Glad you found the motivation to do it without any training.