Marathons and a Mountain

The last post to this blog was January 30th! This is what happens when routine takes over and adventures simply become living. Of course, our lives have been fairly eventful and we may come to regret not writing them down as time spirals on. I have always wanted to run a marathon and I got my chance earlier this year when I ran the Dubai Marathon with my running buddies: Jeremy and Steve. I did okay for a first marathon (not as well as I’d hoped) but I’m happy with the experience. Before I jump into the story of that race, though, I want to relate a recent marathon of a different type.

During the last week of spring break Lisa and I travelled to Sri Lanka on vacation. This was my and the kids Christmas gift to Lisa. I won’t tell the story of Sri Lanka here we’ll save that for another post (possibly Lisa will write it). Lisa and I have a tendency to take these trips without the kids… We’ve been to Mexico, Hawaii and Disney World without the kids (left them with grandparents). Most recently we were in Hong Kong.  When we went to Hong Kong we hired a nanny to look after the kids.  This time, however, we hired no one and the kids remained home alone! I expect that some might judge us irresponsible for doing so.  Certainly, I had some trepidation leaving my children for a week largely unsupervised. Though we did not make the decision lightly or without preparation.

Kirsten is a few months away from 14 and we’ve prepared her to take care of her siblings for many years now.  She’s taken the babysitting course and has been given increasing responsibility in caring for her siblings since she was 9.  Our week in Hong Kong demonstrated that Kirsten really did not need the help of the live in nanny we hired. It was an excellent trial run.  Lisa prepared frozen meals for dinner each night with instructions for reheating and we had several family conversations where we played the scenario game: “What would you do if… someone was choking? the house was on fire? the toilet suddenly burst and water was pouring all over the floor?”  etc.  Emergency numbers were posted on the refrigerator and all our campus friends and neighbours were aware of our kids being home alone.  How wonderful to have such a great support network of caring people willing to be there for my kids!  A big thanks to the Palmers for checking in with the kids frequently and our neighbour Raji.

In addition to all of this scaffolding and support we signed Jaron and Lilli up for a weeks worth of day camps at the Epicenter.  They would go to the Epicenter each morning beginning at 8 where they’d get breakfast (they had to pack their own lunches) and remain there until 5pm.  Those lucky kids had one fun activity after another: crafts, water fights, treasure hunts, cooking classes, talent shows (in which Jaron and Lilli took top prize with their rendition of “Let it Go.” Lilli sang and Jaron played Olaf) and more. Nearly every night we also took the time to video call the kids with Skype from our hotel.  Really the kids were well supported in there week long marathon without the parents. Yet, to leave my little ones for so long, however calculated, was hard.  I still find myself sneaking into their rooms late at night to watch the rise and fall of their chests… are they breathing? Will that ever go away?

When we finally returned home and found our kids alive, well and thankfully happy to see us I was reminded that this slow growth of independence is the plan and that God our Father and friend is perhaps as anxious for us as I was for my kids.  As we told our stories to each other Jaron related an incident to me.  About half-way through the week the Epicenter took the kids to Wild Wadi Waterpark in Dubai for the day (crazy lucky kids).  This is a giant outdoor water park with huge slides, wave pools and the like (Kirsten joined them that day).  As Jaron tells it he was with a group of Epicenter kids in line waiting to get on a big slide.  Jaron was at the back of the line and when he got off the slide none of his friends were at the bottom, he was all alone.  Being small and alone in a giant water park with thousands and thousands of strangers would certainly be frightening. In his rising panic Jaron might have run off in search of his friends but he relates “Dad, something said to me ‘wait’ so I waited and before long some of the leaders came and found me.”

Some may say that Jaron is a smart little boy.  Others may say that he has been taught well. I would love to take a little credit but I can’t.  Jaron was not in much danger, of course, he may have wandered panic stricken around the park to eventually have been found and consoled but thankfully he (and his leaders) didn’t have to endure that. Some will call it good intuition but I am reminded of a missing flash drive at the start of this bold adventure and the clarity with which its location came to my mind. So I am driven to conclude that this was a small and tender mercy of the Lord.  To my mind the words once came “stand up and go to work!” and ever since it has been the motto and clarion call of my life.  Perhaps for Jaron he may find himself being reminded in future days simply to “wait.”


If only I had been impressed to wait when the gun fired and the Dubai marathon began back in January.  There were over 20,000 people at the start line that morning as we squeezed in to the throng.  Jeremy, Steve and I had to get up very early in the morning to make the race and were lucky to find a parking spot quite close to the start.  I’m not sure I could relate adequately the nervous tension that spread through me in the last moments before the start.  I had a plan though.  We’d trained well and I was more than confident that I could cover the distance with some ease.  In 2013 I recorded more than 1,728 kilometres in training runs and the last quarter of the year saw 200-250ks each month.  I was ready for this…

The plan was simple.  I would run at a methodical 5 minutes per kilometre for the entire race. With a little sprint at the end this would give me a time of 3 hours and 30 minutes.  Very respectable.  It is far from say a Boston qualifying time (3hr and 5min) but for a first marathon I would be quite happy with 3:30.  I wore my hydration pack so I could carry my gels and other fuel as well as Lisa’s iPhone for some tunes.  The iPhone served the dual purpose of tracking my run so I would know exactly what my average pace was. I was well prepared to execute my plan and then the race began.

I started out at what I thought was a nice 5 minute kilometre. I enjoyed running in the huge crowd of people.  Mostly I enjoyed passing so many people. I felt fluid, controlled, exhilarated. Then my little running assistant lowered the music volume and reported my average pace… 4min 12sec.  “Whoa! Maybe I should pull back a bit” I thought.  My legs said no.  I carried on 2, 3, 4, 5 I felt unbeatable.  I began to find a groove amongst the runners and a few I could pace off.  Again it occurred to me that I wasn’t following the plan but I reasoned that I really ought to give it all I’ve got (how else will I find out just how much that is) maybe I could pull off a miracle and run a Boston qualifying time… visions of glory. I kept moving.  I came across the 10k mark feeling great and in excellent time.  The plan was completely forgotten.

The Dubai marathon has a couple out and backs.  As I made the first turn (about kilometre 15 I think) I was still feeling pretty good and I felt good calling out to my buddies Jeremy and Steve as I passed them going the other way. (Jeremy was planning for about 4hrs and Steve about 30 minutes longer).  Somewhere between kilometre 18 and 21 I began to realise there was something a little off.  I wasn’t fuelling as I normally would. I just could not stomach the gels or the power bars though I continued to take on fluids my pace was rapidly slowing.

When I crossed the halfway mark I was far from a personal best and I could sense trouble was coming on.  From the half marker to about kilometre 30 I was running against a wall; my pace was well over 5 minutes per K and I was consoling myself with my overall average.  I could still finish within my goal and no one need know I ran like an idiot.  Around K 32 I was feeling better; I was energised by the idea of only 10k to go and still a decent average.  By K 34 though I was descending into one of the most painful runs of my life.  My right thigh seemed to seize completely as a cramp came on suddenly.  I pushed on passed a few defeated runners.  Consoled by the fact that I had not resorted to throwing up as some were.

By the turn around at kilometre 36 I had a wicked cramp in the front and back of my right thigh and my left calf was almost completely locked up. Slowing down was the only way to keep going.  If I stopped I would not be able to walk let alone run.  Only a few hundred meters from the turn around point I was blown away to see Jeremy coming the other direction – he was not far from me at all.  This could not happen… could it.  At about kilometre 38 Jeremy was suddenly at my side.  “Oh, hi Jeremy, great to see you!”  I might have said while secretly wanting to die and cursing in silent mental anguish.  He asked if I was hurt.  Not technically I thought but I had excruciating cramps in the front and back of each thigh and both calves at this point.

The noble Jeremy ran with me for a few minutes before I finally told him not to wait.  I was pretty angry with myself and a little resentful but honestly super happy for Jeremy (even then) that he was going to slaughter his goal.  I suspect that had I not told him to move on he’d have run with me the whole way in – jerk! 🙂 Despite the leg cramps and my awful 6min + kilometre pace I figured I could sprint out the last kilometre and pass him at the end. It was not to be.  It took everything I had just to pick my pace up a fraction the last few hundred meters.  An ounce faster and my legs would have seized completely and they would have needed to take me off the field on a stretcher.

In the end Jeremy finished just over 3:40 and I was a little more than 3:42.  Not a bad time considering my stupidity.  We hung out at the finish line for Steve… though I couldn’t really have walked away if I wanted to.  Steve came across the finish line looking like a Greek god out for a Sunday stroll, spot on with his goal.  My enthusiasm never fails to lead me a little astray but in a small (very very small) way I’m glad of how it all turned out as I won’t soon forget it and maybe just possibly the lesson will come back at a time when I really need it.


With the race behind us Jeremy and I set out on another adventure the very next day.  Our schedules had finally permitted a return to Jebel Shams.  If you’ve read previous posts you may recall that we nearly died on the mountain back in July. We wanted to tackle it again but in the winter and with the intent of camping at the summit.  The day after the race we drove to Oman and the mountain.  We arrived in the dark and setup base camp just a few meters away from our July camp.

The next day still rather sore from our marathon we set out on a two hour return hike into one of the canyons.  This hike (without packs and no hills) we hoped would get our legs moving.  We were also interested in exploring the abandoned village at the end of the hike.  Village is a rather grand word for what we found.  A smattering of small low roofed rock huts pressed neatly into the side of the cliff nearly invisible from any distance.  A single track hugging the canyon wall provided access to the village and I could not help but wonder what life might have been like for its former occupants. Did hostile neighbours force them back into the canyon?  Possibly but it seems more likely that they came for the water.  There wasn’t much of it even in winter but there was water there.  The inhabitants had built a small earthen cistern to catch the water coming from some spring up the canyon wall and a rudimentary irrigation system to water their crops.  They had terraced the canyon to create small garden plots; no small feat.

By the time we got back to base camp it was lunch time.  The mountain awaited and so did our 45 pound packs.  A good deal of our weight was water – we would not make the same mistake we made last time.  Each of us was carrying 6-8 litres.  The summit was only 9 kilometres from base camp but the “trail” very difficult.  The rough trail, the heavy packs, the elevation, the marathon all conspired to make for some very slow moving.  We moved at more than 45 minutes per kilometre!  Literally less than a tenth our running speed.  The summit was reached with nothing but pure determination.

Indeed, we never actually made the summit proper.  We were likely about 500 – 1000 meters from the summit marker when we had to make a choice.  The last rays of the sun were winking out when we found a small flat like piece of ground about the size of the tent.  There were places for tents at the summit; we’d seen them there on our last trip but our light was gone.  We had headlamps and would likely have been fine but we were well aware  of the 1000 meter straight drops around us.  Did we dare scramble over this rocky path weighed down in the dark?  For perhaps the first time in my life (assisted by Jeremy) I made the cautious decision.  We dropped our packs.

The temperature at the summit was just above freezing.  Almost as soon as we stopped moving and the packs hit the ground we felt the cold.  At base camp it was in the low 20s and the bottom of the mountain in the 30s (celsius).  I’ve long ago learned to pack for cold weather so we were soon crammed in the tent comfortably warm stuffing as many calories down our throats as possible. The food polished off I laid down on my mat and didn’t move a single muscle for a good hour as Jeremy and I talked.  I fell asleep that way only to wake up several hours later so completely immobilised by the sleeping bag and fleece and layers of clothes I was wearing that I found myself in a panic attack.  I’ve never really experienced anything like that before.  I’ve felt panic from close encounters with death or when I’ve been in serious danger but never have I experienced anxiety and panic at this sort of level and simply by being confined.  I think I’d stressed my body to the point that my brain was reacting badly.  As soon as I’d extricated myself from the confines of the sleeping bag the anxiety subsided. Let’s not do that again.

The hike off the mountain the next morning was faster but not by much. The weight was reduced by our dwindling water supplies and all the food we’d consumed. Yet, we had found a new level of weariness. Last night I went to a celebration party for a friend who just completed the Marathon des Sables in Morocco (6 days – 250+ kilometres – most unforgiving climate and terrain). It had me wondering why we humans find this sort of thing so compelling.  Perhaps the same reason why women have multiple children (I’d only get talked into that once ladies if the tables were turned – you all are crazy). There is something about not just the act but everything leading up to it.  You prepare physically and mentally and then you take yourself as far as you believe your body and mind can go and then go further. It is experiences like those (physical, mental, spiritual, emotional) where we are stretched beyond our believed capacity and we experience huge leaps of growth that make life worth living.


3 responses to “Marathons and a Mountain”

  1. Thanks for the childbirth shout-out. I wonder that myself – why anyone does it more than once. Your description of “You prepare physically and mentally and then you take yourself as far as you believe your body and mind can go and then go further” is spot on! Except I would change “believe” to “KNOW.”

    Great post! I’m glad you and Jeremy talk sense into each other every once in a while. You left out the part where I was about to call the US Embassy in Muscat to come looking for you.


    1. James MacDonald Avatar
      James MacDonald

      I did leave out that part – shoot – I had planned to put it in! I wanted to draw a comparison between how differently two wives can respond to the same situation when one has had to endure being married to me. I’m glad you let Jeremy out to play still. 🙂


  2. Great post but my name could have been mentioned a few more times… 🙂

    Reading this kind of shocks me that we climbed that mountain after having hiked to an abandoned village after having done a marathon the day before. If this post were about someone else I would think them crazy.

    Good times. Good times. We have many blessings in our lives. Supportive families, amazing surroundings, natural beauty and youth*.

    *may be in decline



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