Desert conditions turn up the heat on Middle East marathon

The marathon terrain at Petra. Picture by Stevie Matthews.
The marathon terrain at Petra. Picture by Stevie Matthews.

Here I was on a flight to Amman, bound for Jordan and the Petra Marathon, with a running friend who had decided this was a good way to celebrate his 60th birthday.

I had always wanted to visit the ‘Rose City’, long before Harrison Ford and Sean Connery popularised it in The Last Crusade movie. I had also wanted to run a desert marathon, but both together?

The famous entrance to the Treasury at Petra. Picture by Stevie Matthews.

The famous entrance to the Treasury at Petra. Picture by Stevie Matthews.

On arrival in Amman, it was much hotter than usual, maybe because we had arrived at the tail end of a sandstorm that had hospitalised more than 200 people.

My friend Alex and I decided we would do a bit of exploring. We took a taxi to the Citadel and, after a wonderful couple of hours in the Archaeological Museum, we found a dream of a guide, who showed us some of the most well-preserved ruins at the Citadel, Temple of Hercules, which was built at the time of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and on the highest hill of the city. This must have been a huge structure as one of the statue’s hands remained and I felt Hobbitish in comparison.

Sadly, what must have been a wonderful sight, the Ummayed Palace, erected by a tribe of the same name, had been destroyed in an earthquake in the 8th century. However, the tour was extremely interesting. We navigated the many steps down back into the city, arriving opposite the ruins of the Roman Forum.

We were intrigued by streets selling goods of only one commodity. There were streets selling soap powder only, sewing machines only, motor bikes and vehicle accessories only, etc.

‘The scenery was stunning and a feeling of awe and wonder overcame everything’

We were on a mission to find the famous King Abdullah and King Hussein mosques. We did not allow for the fact that all the mosques in Amman are famous and, as our map was in Arabic, we had a disadvantage. Our substitute visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, though fascinating, did not really have the same gratification.

The next day we boarded our bus for Petra.

We stopped at a resort on the Dead Sea to allow everyone to experience floating in the water. Having three times previously immersed myself in the highly saline water of the lowest lake in the world (400m below sea level) and developed an irritating red rash on each occasion, I decided I could be excused.

A long drive and suddenly we were descending a steep road to Wadi Musa – Petra. And that was something of which I had been totally ignorant – Petra is the UNESCO Heritage Site of the ruins, Wadi Musa is the town. I was delighted to find that our hotel, the Movenpick, was opposite the visitor entrance to Petra.

A short walk over to see this before the race briefing did nothing to allay my fears regarding the heat. I cannot remember anything so intense.

We were informed that this year the temperature was 10C higher than it had ever been at this time.

We were given technical and support information, and were all surprised at the mention of being chased by wild dogs. Now that would make me run fast, despite having five of my own.

All profits from the races were going to provide medical supplies, clothing and provisions to the Syrian refugee camp not far from Amman. What had I to be worried about compared to these people?

The following morning, a nervous group of 60 or so runners met at 5.45am for the 2km walk to the race start. In the pre-dawn light, it was already 25C and I wondered who it was had thought it necessary to advise us to wear a light jacket to protect against the chill. Petra opens to visitors at 10am so we had an untroubled walk to the Treasury, the wonderful rose-coloured façade which is seen on all travel guides.

I shuffled to the start line ready for the 6.30am start, cursing myself for not down-sizing to the half-marathon. The temperature was creeping up steadily, but the crack of the gun saw us on our way.

The first stages were on rock and sand, and, by the time I was at about six miles, I had fallen three times. Then came the dogs – several, sand-coloured, howling and chasing, but more from curiosity than animosity.

However unnerving the surroundings might sound, the scenery was stunning and a feeling of awe and wonder overcame everything.

The course was amazingly hilly and there were some quite serious climbs and descents.

Many times I was greeted by friendly old men and boys herding their goats. I did not know that these animals came in so many different shapes and sizes.

By now it was 39C and, despite drink stations being only 3km apart, after the tenth one I could not suffer another mouthful of water warmer than some showers I have had.

As I approached the cut-off point, with 8km to go, I was relieved to see I was well within the time limit.

Twenty minutes later, as I chatted to doctors at a drink station, the runner sitting on a chair patted my arm and I realised it was dear friend Alex in a state of total exhaustion. I tried to encourage him to start again, we could walk together, but both he and the doctors opposed this, and I plodded off on the very steep descent on a rough trail into town.

Catching up with a lovely Malaysian lady, we jogged the last 6km home, holding hands for the last 500m, to cross the finishing line in six-and-a-half hours as joint sixth ladies out of 13, well within the limit, but surprised to find that many had not completed it, including runners in the half-marathon.

Some participants in the medical tent had been on drips, had soaring blood pressure and various other exhaustion and hydration problems. Alex had lost 5kg in weight, such was the fluid loss.

The organisers had catered for every eventuality and been wonderfully supportive.

By 7.30am the next day, most of us were following the same route as far as the Treasury, this time at a leisurely pace and accompanied by a guide. The focus was to see the Ad-Dayr (monastery), a climb of 800 steps, but not before spending several hours looking at the other amazing structures hewn out of the rocks.

I marvelled at the systems carved into the mountain to carry away water, for the area is prone to flash-flooding.

The narrow siq leading to the Treasury was in complete contrast to marathon day’s deserted appearance. Tourists thronged; donkeys and carriages for the elderly; numerous stalls selling trinkets, frankincense, myrrh and fast food. Given that this was historically an important trade route with the East, I suppose the Nabateans, Greeks, Romans, Abyssinians and everyone else had their own fast food. Still, they did seem a little out of place.

Leaving the Treasury, still one of the most incredible sights to imagine, we ambled past tombs of kings and high priests, temples, a huge Byzantine church, an amphitheatre and small dwellings, which may have been home to hermits. It was incredible to think that these were built from the rock, so perfect were they still.

I marvelled at the tiny cats and dogs which seemed to be everywhere, all the same colour as the rock.

Approaching the monastery steps there were frequent offers of taking a donkey ‘taxi’. It was saddening to see these poor, underweight and exhausted animals carrying humans up and down the rocky route.

Alex decided against the ascent as he suffers from mild claustrophobia and there were very narrow sections. It was not a stairway as such, often the rocks levelled-out and a ‘step’ could be a few metres long. But there were also some steep parts enclosed in high rocks.

As the path wound up there were more stalls of traditional crafts. I resisted the desire to buy something from every one, but it was very hard. These people were so skilled, friendly and genuine, and really deserved as much support as possible.

When I reached the top with Alienia, an Indian lady whom I met en-route, we were thrilled. A huge open area was ahead, with the monastery. This was much more impressive than the Treasury.

A Swedish man told us that if we crossed the ‘flats’ and climbed the final rocky peak we would be at what the Bedouins called the ‘top of the world’. We stumbled, crawled and dragged ourselves up. The effort was not wasted – it did feel like the top of the world, looking over to Israel in the far distance.

Evening dinner was out of Wadi Musa in a cave hotel, carved into the rock face. In total darkness, save for tiny, glowing beams from solar lamps, we entered the massive cave where we were greeted with champagne and spectacular fireworks, with the rousing music of Carl Orff’s O Fortuna. What a finale.

After a delicious Jordanian banquet and entertainment, some set off for the long drive to Amman airport and flights home. Alex and I at least had another night.

Jordan is an amazing country, with wonderful people and a culture to be envied and enjoyed, but I had only touched the tip of the iceberg. I will be back.