• Jake Gardner

Jake's UltraX Jordan Diary

On the 6th October 2019, I took part in my most difficult challenge yet - a 255km 5 day multi stage endurance race in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. Here I relive each day, giving a sense of the enormity of the challenge I faced. It was an incredible experience I will never forget.

6th October

Today the realisation of the enormity of this challenge I had signed up to almost a year ago had finally kicked in. This was my first ever running event, having never before competed in a marathon, half marathon or even a 5km race. 3 months of preparation, including having to prepare for our summit of Mt Elbrus in the middle of the training, with my longest run being 25 miles now boiled down to just 5 days in the desert. Today I would be travelling to Amman, Jordan; a country I had never been to before to meet the 73 strangers embarking on the same arduous and relentless adventure that I would be going on. This was going to be something very special, but I had mixed emotions of nervousness and excitement. The final pack of my bag was, as always, an inevitable unnecessary panic, thinking you are ready and then realising that you might need something you hadn’t packed.

I jumped into the Uber to catch my train at 11am - Not a great start with no where to sit but thankfully no delays! At the airport, I met up with a few guys who were on the same adventure (Mike, Michael and Quentin). The flight had a tail wind which meant we arrived in Amman 30min early. The visa queue took around 1 hr which delayed us and eventually we got to our accommodation in Amman at around 01:40 local time. I briefly met Edwin, who was asleep in our two man room, before a shower and bed.

7th October

Up 07:15 after 5hr sleep with breakfast at 08:00 - an odd assortment of cheese, processed long life meat, boiled eggs, bread, courgette, peppers and coffee. Talking to other competitors from all over the world, it seemed that everyone had been training hard and were well prepared. Most of them were very experienced, but some were just here for the experience and to complete the challenge.

At 08:45, we all met in the meeting room where Ultra X co-founders Jamie and Sam took us through what we were about to embark on. The medical, osteopath and security teams gave introductions and talks on self preservation and possible wildlife. We then had to go back up to the rooms for kit inspections, last charge of devices and obviously the last use of a proper toilet in 5/6 days!

On the bus journey to the Wadi Rum desert I got to see my first Jordanian camel. It was around 32c with clear skies. After around 5 and a half hours, we debarked the busses at the entrance of the Wadi Rum desert. We put our bags on to one of the many Toyota Hylux and jumped into the back of the pickup truck. In a convoy of 7 vehicles we left the tarmac onto undulating desert terrain as the sun set into the dusty desert skies behind some spectacular mountains. It took around 35 minutes to reach the remote camp that we called home for the next three nights. The views were amazing as we picked our bed place, got comfy and got ready for the 1st race day. We had some good chats and I had some vegetarian pasta from my freeze dried ration packs before getting my head down. Wilderness Navigators Flag is now hanging up.


DAY 1 - 46km

Up at 6am after a rough night with basically no sleep, I put together the last few bits ready for the race and had some help with my race number 05 after scramble egg soup (horrible) aand a mug of coffee. I made sure to stretch and do mobility exercises, which is the norm for me to help with my back.

With an incredible sun rise over the wadi rum desert, we set off at 08:00 with cheers from the crew and photos .. so it begins. The pace at the beginning was fast but comfortable as the temperatures had not risen too high yet. I quickly found some kind of rhythm but was very conscious of keeping the pace down. After the 2nd check point at 26km, it’s starting to get very. At this point, I had been running with a Marine called Chris, Guy who is in the Army and Quentin from Costa Rica and they were all seasoned athletes. They headed off very fast from the 2nd to last check point while I was collecting some water and taking on some food. I left the checkpoint on my own, which is normal to me as 99% of my training was just me on my own. I get to the point where I can see them but because of the sand dunes and heat I can’t catch them.

I slow down and start using my running sticks and at this point around 30km - 46km, I struggle.. massively struggle. Some support vehicles drive past and say hi and give supporting cheers and ask if I am okay which helps. I find a way of getting through it with some music (Slipknot), poles and alternate between jogging and walking. The last check point is at 41km, and with 3km left to run I dig deep! With the camp in sight, I catch Quentin and finish within 5hrs, feeling exhausted, dizzy and sick. I may have pushed myself too hard but only time will tell. I spend the rest of the day resting, eating and hydrating! I only had baby wipes to wash with. With a hamstring massage, back massage with the osteopath and foam roller for a good 30 mins, I’m get energy back slowly. The heat really does take it out of you.

The times are put onto the board and I am surprised to see 6 DNF’s on the first day. Kit all sorted for tomorrow, breakfast ready. I am very aware that it will be darker tomorrow and I will probably be more clumsy so I want to be as organised as I can be. It’s a 6:30am start for everyone tomorrow, giving us 1hr and 30min in the cooler conditions.

DAY 2 - 50km

Up at 4:30am, fruity porridge and coffee for breakfast in the dark. A quick osteopath session at 06:15 because I had time due to being on point with my planning and organising. Everyone huddled on the start line, eagerly anticipating the starting call at 06:30. I feel okay but obviously slightly drained from the day before and my back is starting to flare up. The distance is 50km today which will be the greatest distance I have ever run in my entire life. The start went well and I wanted to get to the 20km check point in a fairly respectable time to make the most of the cooler temperatures. It was going okay until around the 18km point where I hit a wall and from there onwards it got worse and worse and worse... the heat increased and the pace dropped off significantly. I kept going but it was more of a walk/jog then a run. I was around 11th but as time went on competitors over took me one by one and by the end I was around 28th out of 73. It was 10 times worse than yesterday and at a point around 35km in I was properly in the locker. The guys and girls at the check points were great though and spurred me on and I just kept to a fast walk in the end, trying to enjoy the views. It was so hot! I came in around 7hrs 30min; drained, nauseous and dizzy.

Osteopaths worked their magic after I hydrated, cleaned and ate some food. It was a tough day and this challenge has turned into the hardest thing I have ever taken part in. The most challenging factors are existing injuries, feeling nauseous, difficulty breathing and the relentless heat. The osteopath did a small diagnostic and worked out that quite a lot of it stems from my lower back; The breathing, nausea, hamstrings and calf’s are all connected. I hope I get a solid few hours sleep tonight because tomorrow is going to be a very hard day with 72km and if today is anything to go by then I will be digging deep to complete it.

DAY 3 - 72km

With reveille at 2am and a 4am start, everyone embarked on the longest and most daunting day on the course. I started out slow in the dark, which was nice because it was cooler. However, after 5/10km I lost my neck protecting cap. I teamed up with an awesome Irish couple called John and Ruth. With a structured run/walk pace for the next 30km, it worked well but potentially too slow looking back because it all had a knock on effect later in the day. After 30km, my back deteriorated along and with the increasing blistering heat and unforgiving desert the next 42km were hard, hard work. The support crew were as always incredible, looking out for our welfare and being incredibly patient.

I ended in agony, being barely able to walk in the dark, getting in around 16hrs 30mins. The last 1km, some of the team members walked with me to the finish line in the dark. I endured the days full heat of 34c with minimum shade but I made it. Kieran and the team were incredible - The Osteopaths did their magic and my food was made for me.

DAY 4 - 44km

After minimum sleep due to getting in late the day before and a small sand storm in the night, I got ready in the dark. I felt destroyed after the day before but not defeated! Never give up. Kieran the osteopath worked on me before the race and I forced breakfast down and made sure to take electrolytes. Everything was packed as we had a move of camp today. I had a strategy today - knowing my back would more then likely catastrophically flare up again, I aimed for first 10km in 1hr 15; 2nd check point in 3hrs, 3rd check point in 5hrs, 4th check point in 7hrs and finish line in under 8hrs and that is exactly what I did. As predicted, my back broke down but slower today due to the express osteopath treatment at check points.

There are these incredibly delicate desert flowers dotted on the route, is amazing that nature is able to survive in these kinds of environments. I made it in 40th place - 19 DNF’s so far and overall I am 43rd. The new camp site over looked the valley, all set up ready and the team incredible as always cheering me in. 4th day completed.

DAY 5 - 40km

It was a tough night sleep - muscles in a lot of pain and restless; Hot, sticky and just couldn’t sleep. We were up at 5am to be on the race line for a 7am start. 37km today and after the longer days in the week, this is a very short distance in comparison. Today was all about just getting to the finish line and enjoying my last day in the Wadi Rum Desert. Once again, the Osteopath treated me in the morning before heading off. Everyone was super stoked on the start line - This was it, itching to be setting off on our last day. The views, as always, were unforgettable. I set off at a reasonably quick pace to make up some sort of time window in the first 10/20km, which had worked well the day before and there was also more shade today in the canyon in the morning.

It was really tough going today. I took it a bit easier but after around 18km, I was in the locker and over heating - It must of been around 36/38c and the sand dunes made it worse. I walked a reasonable chunk of the course today but made it back in in around 7hrs with the crew and team cheering which was incredible. It was very emotional as I was exhausted both mentally and physically as I crossed the line.

An unforgettable experience - 255km completed! What an emotional, painful but rewarding 5 days! I received my medal, a finishing photo was taken and nice cold can of coke!

Later on in the evening, the locals cooked us a feast of a meal made of local food, eaten under the stars with a couple of beers - those strangers on the first day were now close friends.

I got back home okay but I was that out of it that I left my main luggage on the train. Over the next few days I realised that I lost over 6kg in the 5 days. My wedding ring was falling off my finger because of the weight loss. Race injuries (Lower back, both ankles, hip flexors and IT bands) all need resting, stretching and recovering. I was due to head straight to work on the Monday but I was forced to take a sick day (which I absolutely hate doing). I am looking forward to spending time with my wife and eating a lot of food and wine and chocolate cake; Letting all the memories soak in and reflect on one of the most epic adventures I have ever been on.

Change the boundaries of what you think is possible.

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