The route of the Dead Sea Marathon was worryingly simple on paper, which before arriving gave me massive concerns. I was worried that I might get bored and in those moments of monotony my mind would craft stumbling blocks full of self-doubt and self-hatred. I had done similar simplistic route before and been completely undone mentally by it.
However, as the dawn light crested over the Jordanian mountains illuminating the landscape in pink and orange shading I knew that my mind would be too preoccupied in absorbing views that defy belief to spiral into boredom. The landscape is truly unlike any place on the planet, it feels so unearthly you may as well be running on an entirely different planet. The unique geography of the Dead Sea being at the lowest point on earth creates this truly mythical landscape. Perfectly circular salt islands dot the shoreline and seem too perfect to be from nature’s creation. They are columns of salt rising from the waters like saltbergs. Pure white and completely solid salt beaches set in the midst of ancient red mountains. I know that my words will fall short in doing it’s awe inspiring beauty justice and that is a good thing, as it must be seen to be believed.
The salt from the Dead Sea is used in a myriad of industries and is harvested through evaporation ponds; huge man-made divides cutting across the Dead Sea that allow the water to be contained and then evaporate leaving only the prized salt behind. It is these man-made divides that we ran our marathon upon.
Most of the race is run upon the large central rampart, which is about ten metres wide, that cuts down the centre of the Dead Sea from top to tip. This line in the salt is the border between Jordan and Israel and civilians are not allowed on it at any other time of the year. This fact only added to the epic scale of this race. Two countries whose histories are stained with one another’s blood. This was painfully evident as besides the race volunteers manning the aid stations the only people on the route were holding guns. Countless sentry points scattered along the route with Israeli soldiers watching the land to East through telescopes; fingers upon the trigger. The fact that you were running upon land scarred with war was literally illustrated at every kilometre; as the markers carried a hefty warning in deep red that mines lay just off the course. That’s right, no quick wee off the course as it is literal minefield out there!
One thing that will appeal to those looking to set a PB is that this race is almost completely flat. I don’t mean it in a way that some race directors describe races as undulating only to find out when you get there it is up and down a mountain for 26.2 miles. I mean it is completely flat. It could be a PB race, it would have been for me if I wasn’t coming back from an injury.
Because of that, before the start of the race I had flip-flopped over whether I should be running the half marathon rather than the marathon. I had not trained, was still injured and lacked the mental fortitude of days gone. However, as the turning point came for those running the half marathon I increased my pace to breeze past it. Not allowing my brain to comphrend what I was about to put my body through was the only reason I ended up running a marathon that day. Not strength of will or determination but mind tricks. I still felt good at mile 6 when the turning point was so why would I stop now?
Shortly after that turning point we made our way down the out and back down on a smaller rampart you can see on the map. The terrain for much of the race is compacted rock and soil, that felt reminiscent of some of the terrain from Marathon des Sables. However, on this out and back it felt like solid salt but looked like dry cracked earth. Salt burrowed it’s way to the surface and protruded ever so slightly creating tiny trip hazards in the cracks catching your weary steps. I did stumble forward as I grabbed a water at one of the incredibly frequent aid stations that were at every 3km on the course.
Running in such an epic landscape it is very easy to forget you are running a marathon, you could imagine yourself on Tatooine running after Luke Skywalker or on the scorched earth of some post apocalyptic time. The only thing to bring you back to reality is a random DJ booth or the bright yellow porterloos. As I neared halfway I finally had to use one, running in I expected to be as you’d expect a porterloo at a marathon in the desert would be like but just like everything else with this race I was pleasantly surprised and found it well stocked (I was ready to say goodbye to my buff) and actually smelling nice!
Two miles after that pleasant experience, however, my body cried enough and I knew instantly my race was over. I had been running at four hour marathon pace for the first half but after the loo stop I could not get back into any sort of rhythm. I began to run only to come to a staggering stop, my limps and mind to battered to battle on any more.
My fitness frayed in the sand laden wind and I knew that time had become irrelevant now. The only thing that mattered was getting the finish line. I cursed my lack of preparation and respect I was giving the marathon distance nowadays. 22 marathons had given me a cocky complacency that no runner should ever have; “I can just turn up and run a marathon, I’ve done it before”. Those words should never be spoken, but I have uttered them in the past. Half joking of course but the other half was idiotic arrogance. After the Dead Sea Marathon, I vowed to never disrespect the distance again; to fear it as it should be feared.
From then on I ran half a mile and stopped to walk, running again only when my body felt able. Sometimes that would be after ten metres other times ten minutes.
The final 10km were mentally tough. From there you can easily see the resort that is the finishing area. It seems within touching distance across the salty sea and you assume that your watch and the km markers are incorrect. But you’re so wrong and they are right. The looping long way round is compounded by the small ‘hill’ which is a tiny slope but my tired legs felt like they were summiting Everest. Once you are over it you are on a concrete path that leads you the whole way to the finish.
As I entered the resort area I tried to put a sprint on but my legs were completely shot, my fitness had laid me bare throughout this race and yet as I crossed the line almost an hour slower than my personal best I felt knackered but incredible happy. Happy that I had run such an incredible race at a painful pace and still utterly loved it. I limped away from the finish line holding that medal in my hand like a baby bird, scared that I might break the dream of it all. I found an empty deckchair on the shore of the Dead Sea and slumped into it, I had dreams of running into the sea and getting the iconic picture of me floating in its salty water. In reality I was far too tired to do much else but sit and stare out to sea like a really dramatic fisherman.
It was all too easy for your mind to drift off in the simplicity of step upon salt in the endless landscape. There were mainly points where I had to force myself to refocus on the here and now. To remember every mile, every step and I am so glad I did. The Dead Sea Marathon will be one of the top races I have ever run. There are many races I have done in the past that I would define as bucket list but the Dead Sea Marathon is the epitome of that phrase. A landscape so mind bogglingly beautiful, an epic race route that runs across a sea and straddled two countries, fantastic and regular aid stations and a medal that hangs on my wall with pride. The Dead Sea Marathon shattered my expectations of what an overseas marathon should be in all the best ways and I long to run it again already. Right now, as we sit in our four walls dreaming of distance lands my mind goes to this race a lot and I know I will be back there running it again soon in happier times.