I’ll level with you. Until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of the Muscat Marathon. (I had never heard of Muscat.) Then, on the most January of January afternoons, I got an email:
‘Oman Sail and the Oman Ministry of Tourism would like to invite you to participate in the Al Mouj Muscat Marathon and to discover how Oman uses the power of sport to contribute to the socio-economic development and to promote the country as a high-end tourist destination.’
A quick google revealed Muscat to be the capital of Oman. A following click showed that Oman shares a border with war-torn Yemen and uncompromising Saudi Arabia (as well as the more tourist-friendly United Arab Emirates). But while its neighbours in the Middle East have gained unwanted ‘Breaking News’ notoriety, Oman has quietly gone about its development – an often overlooked nation in a region that’s impossible to ignore.
I looked out the window, at the wind and the rain. A shop’s sign toppled over, landing with a thud against the pavement. An old man struggled with his wantaway umbrella. I typed another couple of words into Google: ‘weather Oman’.
Oman I’m tired
Several weeks and one sleepless flight later (I salute your persistence, wailing child), I’m brushing elbows with Omanis and fellow internationals (lots of them, thanks to a 300% increase in numbers from 2017) at the unassuming backstreet startline of the Muscat Marathon – although I’ve settled for the half-marathon option, because…well just because.
The 6am start means it’s still pitch black as I and the thousand or so runners shuffle and stretch and shake in nervous anticipation. Unfortunately, by 6:10 this nervous anticipation turns to frustration as the English mic man (like the UAE, Oman is a hotspot for sun-seeking expats) reveals there’s a road barrier malfunction 2K in. A few lighthearted jeers surface from the back of the pack. The mic man attempts to bring the crowd round with some shameless flattery: “This is our most popular year ever and it promises to be an excellent race. Thank you all for coming!” But he’s lost us.
Just as things threaten to turn ugly, the barrier’s lifted and we’re treated to a rendition of the Omani national anthem (classically rousing, trumpet-heavy, 8/10). Then, after a 20-minute delay, I’m darting off into the unknown.
Trotting along the sleepy streets of Al Mouj – an upmarket waterfront community of new-build houses, palm trees and big-wheeled range rovers – gives the chance to settle into a steady rhythm without distraction. With the morning sun yet to rise, I follow the patter of feet from runners up ahead, desperately trying to stick to a consistent pace and reminding myself that comfortable effort now probably isn’t going to feel so comfortable in an hour’s time.
Quiet streets make way for a sprawling building site – a common feature in a country still in the relative infancy of its development – and building site soon makes way for lush green golf course which, in a country that reaches summer highs of 49°C, is a nod to the wealth of this area. An impressively well-populated water station – with almost as many volunteers as bottles – marks 5K, at which point the course turns back on itself for a return trip through golf course, building site and backstreets.
I begin to realise this isn’t likely to be a race for the senses. At which point, as if to illustrate my point, a middle-aged woman from someone ‘Fun Runners’ surges past, abruptly stops, leans forward and throws up in a bunker. I offer an “Are you OK?” and wonder whether she is actually having much fun.
Back in the streets of Al Mouj, a few bleary-eyed residents are out to wake up their vocal cords on the sidelines, as the early morning sun rears its head. I reach 10K feeling relatively fresh, but the same can’t be said for the 1:40 pacer I’ve been shadowing, who hobbles off glumly, leaving me in a very dangerous position: with no watch, no pacer and no idea how to judge the second half of the race.
Erring on the side of caution/wimping out, I ease off and forget about the time. The road leads out of the residential neighborhood and onto another vast stretch of land set aside for development. Gulls caw overhead and a couple of men on a quad bike drive past blazing ‘Despacito’, the chart-topping Spanish love song from Luis Fonsi ft. Justin Bieber. No doubt Luis had barren Omani building sites in mind when he first sang the line, ‘Déjame sobrepasar tus zonas de peligro’ (let me surpass your danger zones).
A slight climb – of which there are blissfully few – leads up to a coastal road, which the route latches on to and leads us along for a couple of kilometres. To my right, the vast Sea of Oman glistens beyond the beachside mass of fishing boats and ramshackle huts that nod to a traditional Omani way of life.
After a sharp U-turn, it’s back the way I came for the final 5K back to town. Wise to the fact that ‘just a parkrun to go’ means nothing when you’ve already run three of the b******s, I do my best to maintain a steady pace on increasingly tired legs – save for a 10-metre burst as a band of chanting men lift the spirits from the sideline with some Omani song.
The final few kilometres, though a bit of a slog, are tempered by the fact that it could be a lot worse – as the long line of weary runners heading in the opposite direction remind me.
A hero’s finish
As I hit the streets of Muscat once more, a sign reading 21K comes into view but, in my slightly befuddled end-of-race state, I’m convinced a half marathon is 22K. Imagine my surprise, then, as I round a corner and see a finish line about 400m in the distance. The speed of the resulting sprint to the line tells of a slightly reserved race on my part, and must confuse the 100-or-so spectators who have gathered just beyond the finishing arch. Never before has a runner strained so hard for a top-50 finish.
I collect my medal, take a seat on a nearby bench and come to a life-affirming realisation. There I was thinking the early-morning start was to avoid the heat of the day, but my rumbling post-race stomach tells a truer tale: at just gone 8am, the hotel’s breakfast buffet has a few precious hours remaining. For that, Muscat Marathon, you are wise beyond your years.