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(CNN) — When Greek messenger Pheidippides burst into Athens in 490 BC, having run the first marathon, he probably never imagined his superhuman effort would one day be considered passé. He may not have had time to reach that thought. The legend goes he collapsed and died upon delivering his news.
Yet that’s the world we live in today. For a growing number of athletes, 26.2 miles (42.19km) is not enough. For these restless souls, Pheidippides’ other feat, a 150-mile dash from Athens to Sparta, is more aspirational.
The rise of ultramarathon running has been unstoppable in the 21st century. Steve Diederich, the founder of global race database Run Ultra, says 12 years ago he had around 60 events listed. Now he estimates there’s somewhere between 2,200 and 2,300.
Many ultras offer relatively safe and regulated access to some of the remotest spots on Earth. “There’s some incredible parts of the world where it’s a huge privilege to go — and a real privilege to cross these areas on foot,” says Diederich.
The Marathon des Sables in the Moroccan Sahara has long been considered the blue ribband desert ultra, and one of the longest at approximately 250 kilometers (155 miles). But last month an even longer race was born in the Dubai desert.
Set in a rugged national conservation area, the Al Marmoom Ultramarathon claims to be the longest desert ultra in the world. The 270km (168 mile) route was run over five days in December in temperatures as high as 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit).
In its inaugural year, 19 runners (15 men and four women) completed the race, with 36-year-old Moroccan Rachid El Morabity — a six-time Marathon des Sables winner — crossing the finish line first in 31 hours and 17 minutes. Eleven runners didn’t make it, as well as many others in the shorter 100 km and 50 km versions of the race.
Race manager Ole Brom oversaw of the health and wellbeing of the athletes. Running these distances across energy-sapping sand amounts to an extreme sport, the Norwegian told CNN, and “not something that is taken on lightly.”
“On the first day after about 40 km, about 12 km from the end, (one athlete) collapsed unconscious,” says Brom. “He ignored the signs of dehydration and he suffered the consequences.”
Stretches of the race, including one 100-kilometer leg, were only accessible by air for first responders, explained event director Ruth Dickinson. Athletes wore tracking devices and distress beacons and carried anti-venom pumps in case of snake bites.
Magdalena Boulet from the US won the women’s race — one of only four women to complete the 270 kilometer edition of the inaugural ultramarathon.
courtesy Dubai Sports Council and FittGROUP Middle East
Running across the dunes was not without its rewards. “(It’s) really peaceful,” says 45-year-old female race winner Magdalena Boulet, “(you) can’t really see anything for miles and miles.”
“It’s mesmerizing,” Brom adds. “On certain routes there were Oryx, there were sand gazelle, mountain gazelles. We saw eagles (and) a lot of different migrating birds.” (As a designated conservation area, runners were penalized for dropping trash and required to bury human waste, should nature call.)
There were still smatterings of luxury, with racers provided hot water, tents and massages between stages. Brom says some athletes told him they’d return for the toilets alone.
The bigger picture
In 2015, consultancy firm Deloitte estimated sports-related expenditure in Dubai totaled $1.7 billion annually. The government is actively looking to grow the sector as part of plans to further diversify its economy.
Extreme sports have played an increasing role in raising Dubai’s status as a sporting destination. A photo-friendly training session on the Burj Al Arab helipad was once the preserve of A-list athletes like Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Now you’re as likely to see a kitesurfer jumping off. Events such as Red Bull-sponsored cliff diving in the marina and base jumping exploits from the Burj Khalifa by Skydive Dubai have made headlines around the world.
The Al Marmoom Ultramarathon will join 400-plus local sporting events ranked by the Dubai Sports Council. Acting director of events Ghazi Al Madani says planning for 2019’s race is already underway.
Brom believes transit hub Dubai could become a nexus for desert ultra runners, playing host to regular events in its “backyard.” “Ten percent of the landmass of Dubai is sand,” he adds, “so it makes perfect sense.”