Monday, April 21, 2008

TR - Jordan

April 7 - 16/08

Race Results:
Dead Sea Marathon
Amman, Jordan
Fri, Apr 11/08
Marathon #302 – Country # 90
3:37:48 - 1AG

Planning began for this race/adventure last fall when I started to put together an itinerary for 2008. I figured that it would be nice to run a marathon in Jordan for 2 reasons:
1) Jordan looked like an interesting country to visit
2) Since I had already run the highest marathon in the world (Everest) I should also run the lowest (Dead Sea)!

My first step was to register for the race and then I tried to find a package tour to explore the country. That proved much more difficult because few Americans run the marathon and there were no ‘canned’ English tours. A private tour was very expensive so I emailed a running friend in Germany who arranges tours for German runners. He wasn’t doing a tour in Jordan in 08 but put me in touch with a friend who was. Christian was very receptive to my joining his group of 40 German runners for the race and an 8-day tour of Jordan. I was not concerned that the tour would be in German because I figured it would get me to all the important tourist sites and I could use a guide book to read about what I was seeing? I also figured (correctly) that many of the German runners would speak English and could provide some translation when needed? I agreed to join the group and meet them at the airport in Amman.

The long, direct flight (12 hrs) from Chicago to Amman gave me lots of time to read my tour guide and learn the history of Jordan. Archaeological finds date the first cities back to 9,000 BC.
During the Iron Age (1200 – 330 BC) three kingdoms emerged: the Edomites, the Moabites and the Ammonites. According to the Old Testament this was the age of Exodus when Moses led the Israelites from Egypt to Jordan to the Promised Land. In 333 BC Alexander the Great stormed through Jordan and after his death control of the country was split among a nomadic tribe called the Nabataeans in the south and the Jews in the north. Around 64 BC the Romans took control and created the Roman province of Arabia Petraea with the capital in Petra. When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in AD 324 it changed the country and many churches were built on the ruins of old temples. After the death of the Prophet Mohammed in AD 632 the armies of Islam moved north and the Umayyad dynasty established control (661 – 750 BC) until a huge earthquake destroyed much of the empire in AD 747. For several centuries the armies of Islam and Christianity fought for control. The Ottoman Turks took control in the 15th Century and stayed in power until 1918 when they were defeated by TE Lawrence aka ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ leading an army of 100,000 Arabs! After WW II the UN partitioned Palestine and created the State of Israel and we all know what happened after that!

While I was waiting at the Amman airport for the German group I bought my visa to enter the country and was ready to join them and head for the hotel as soon as they arrived. Christian introduced me on the bus and immediately one of the runners asked where we had met? Only after he stated that he was running ‘capital cities’ in countries did I remember that we had met in Trinidad in Feb 05 (3 weeks after my knee surgery)! Within a few days I had met the entire group including a few runners who were running countries so we had a lot in common and I established some good contacts.

We had two days of tours before the race and started early on Wed morning with a visit to the ruins of ancient Amman at the Citadel – located on the highest jebel or hill in the city (850m above sea level). Like Rome, Amman was born on seven major jebels (hills) but now spreads over 20. For some reason I expected Jordan and Amman to be high desert plains? Was I ever wrong! The country is mainly rugged, barren mountains or jebels and valleys.

If I tried to describe every interesting site I saw in Jordan I would have to transcribe about 40 pages of the tour guide to this report. So for brevity I will only mention the highlights. I have uploaded more than 100 photos of the trip to my website with captions to share with my readers. If you want more details on this very interesting country or a specific site – especially Petra – please search the Net and look at my photos!

At the citadel we toured the National Archaeological Museum to view the Dead Sea Scrolls and 6,000 year-old skulls. Sites visited were the Umayyad Palace and Audience Hall (AD 720), the Colonnaded Street and Temple Of Hercules – Roman (AD 100). From the Citadel there were great views of modern Amman and the world’s tallest, free-standing flagpole (127m) and the Roman Theatre built in the 2nd century to seat 6,000. It is connected to the Citadel via a tunnel. During the Roman period Amman was known as Philadelphia?

We then headed north to the ancient Roman city of Gerasa (Jerash) that is well preserved. First we stopped for a wonderful Jordanian lunch – warm bread that was like a pita or naan bread with all kinds of humus and dips. Washed down with a local limonade drink made from limes.
Jerash had a population of 20,000 more than 2,000 years ago. The city is entered through Hadrian’s Arch built in AD 129. Behind the arch is a restored Hippodrome where Chariot races are held each day for tourists. After passing through the South Gate we reached the Oval Plaza and the Temple of Zeus (AD 162). Behind the temple is the South Theatre (AD 81) that could seat 5,000. Then we strolled down a long Colonnaded Street past the Nymphaeum- the public fountain (AD 191) and the Temple of Artemis (the Goddess of Hunting and Fertility) to the North Theatre and North Gate. On the way back we stopped at the South Theatre to watch some Jordanian teenage girls dancing and parading to Jordanian bagpipers? That surprised me but our local tour guide, Osama (NOT – Bin Ladin) informed me that they were ex-military and the military still uses bagpipers in their bands (from the days of British rule). Jerash was very impressive and interesting!

On our return to Amman we stopped at a 19th Century Inn called Kan Zeman for a traditional Jordanian dinner and entertainment. A great atmosphere and a good dinner.

On Thu we packed our baggage and left Amman to travel north to the Syrian border and the ancient city of Gadara or Umm Qais where Jesus was said to have cast the demons out of two people and into a herd of swine? Gadara was captured by the Romans in 63 BC. The ruins are not as impressive as Jerash and in many places the ruins were built over by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century. What I found impressive about Umm Qais were the spectacular views of Syria, Golan Heights, Sea of Galilee, Israel and Lebanon – all in the same view. You can’t do anything like that in the US!

After leaving Umm Qais we traveled south along the Jordan Valley and Israel border and made a brief stop at the Aljun Nature Reserve where we enjoyed a short hike and Osama explained some of the local plants to us. Most of the trees I would describe as ‘scrub brush’?
When we returned to Amman the bus stopped for a liquor run because Osama informed us that it would be the only chance to buy beer/liquor for the desert camp where we would stay after the race. I decided to buy two cans of local beer called ‘Petra’ - 1/2 liter cans of beer with 10% alcohol – equivalent to drinking a liter of wine?

After the booze stop we followed the route of the Ultra marathon/marathon from the city to the Dead Sea. One of the German runners had a topological profile of the courses. It was hard to believe? The course started at an elevation of 800m/2600 ft and dropped 1200m/4,000 ft to finish at the ‘Lowest Point on Earth’ – the Dead Sea at 411m/1349 ft (below Sea level)! The Ultra was 48.7 km and the marathon started at the 6.5km mark of the Ultra. As we drove the course I noted that it was a continuous steep descent (800m) for the 1st Half where the course reached Sea Level. It was going to be a bitch on the legs! At 22 km the course seemed to flatten out although the profile indicated a 400m descent over the 2nd Half? I didn’t believe those figures because the course seemed to be fairly flat after 22km? Around 25 km the course passed by the road to the top of Mt Nebo where Moses is said to have seen the Promised Land and is buried. I don’t understand how anyone in his right mind could look out over the rugged, barren, inhospitable landscape on both sides of the Dead Sea and believe that it was ‘The Promised Land’? The story is not believable!

At 30km the course reached the end of the highway and an elevation 200 ft below Sea Level. If we turned right we would pass Al-Maghtas or Bethany-Beyond-Jordan where John baptized Jesus. The Israel border was very close and Jericho was only 12km. Instead the course turned left and ran along the Dead Sea over a series of rolling hills with three BAHs (Bad Ass Hills) starting at 35km as the course continued to drop to the finish line at Amman Beach at 400m below Sea Level! I realized that the final 12km would be very painful if I did not run smart in the 1st Half!

The Dead Sea Resorts were located along a stretch of the Dead Sea near the 40 km mark. The tour included two nights at a 5-star Movenpick Resort which was much nicer/luxurious than the hotels I normally stay at. I could get used to staying at places like that – but not the prices! It meant we had a long drive to the start line in the morning but a short walk to the hotel after the race. Christian had already given us our race packets and only after I checked it in more detail at the hotel did I realize that I had a bib # for the Ultra! I had asked him to reserve bib # 90 (country #90) but that bib # was colored for the Ultra race. We had to switch the bibs before the race – and they let me keep bib #90 as a souvenir!

The races started at 7am on Fri but we had to check in at the start of the Ultra by 5:30 to have our bib # scanned which meant leaving the hotel by 4:30am. In my haste to get ready I forgot my heart monitor strap! I became flustered and annoyed because I haven’t run a marathon in 10 years without my monitor! I decided I would just have to run the race the old fashioned way – based on pace and how I felt? We left our warm up clothes on our tour bus and the race organization bussed the marathoners to the marathon start by 6am. That meant a 1-hr wait without any toilets or water at the start line. Fortunately I took water with me and the weather was warm enough (high 60s F) that warm ups weren’t needed. There were 3,000 runners in all races – but only 100 in the Ultra and 100 in the marathon. The rest were in the Half and 10Km. There were two groups from Germany, one from Italy and one from France but only two other Americans in the races. The Ultra and Marathon started at 7am. I was concerned about going out too fast because of the steep descent? There were distance markers every 1Km which really helped. There were water stations every 2Km which would be needed because of the heat and dry air.

I passed 5Km in 24:15. Thinking that was too fast I tried to slow down. I really needed to know what effort (i.e. heart rate) I was putting into the sub 5min/Km (8 min/mile) pace but I screwed up that option/possibility! When I passed 10Km in 50:15 I decided that gravity was doing most of the work and I felt OK so I decided to stay with the 5min/Km pace for the 1st Half and see what happened? By the time I reached 18Km the temps had climbed significantly and I started dumping water over my head/body at every water station to cool down! I passed the Half in 1:45:37 – the fastest half I ran in the past few years! Now the real test began as the course became flatter. I figured if I could slow down and hold a 5:20/Km (or 8:30/mile) pace for the 2nd Half I could finish under 3:45? I was pleasantly surprised to find I only slowed to a 5:10/Km pace for the next 10 Km and I started to pass a lot of runners who had passed me in the 1st 10Km. They had gone out too fast and their legs were trashed from the steep down hills and they were struggling!

When I made the turn at 30Km (200m below Sea level) it was HOT! The road/course was straight as an arrow for the final 12Km and I could see the series of BAHs waiting for me! I managed to hold the 5:10 pace until I reached the 1st BAH around 35Km. My pace slowed to 5:30/km (8:50/mile) pace. When I reached the crest of the 2nd BAH at 40Km and my hotel was right there I briefly considered the idea of turning into the hotel and going straight to the pool!
My legs were trashed, I was out of energy and I was HOT! But I had reached 40Km in 3:26:07and a split of 6:04/Km (my slowest split of the race). Even if I continued at a 6min/Km (10min/mile) pace I would still finish under 3:40! I focused on shutting out the pain, the lack of energy and the heat and forced my wasted old legs to keep moving toward the final BAH – and the finish line! When I crested that final BAH at 42Km I could see the finish line and the finish clock read 3:37 + change. I begged the old bod to give me one final jolt of adrenaline to sprint across the finish line in 3:37:48!

When I crossed the finish line I was hurting and felt BAD. But that was GOOD – because it meant that I had left absolutely nothing on the course! It only took a few minutes and a few bottles of cold water to cool me down and help me recover quickly. I walked to our tour bus, retrieved my camera and took a finish line photo. Then I struggled to walk/limp down to the beach on the Dead Sea. My legs had started to stiffen and cramp because of the hills but I managed to make it to the beach and into the Sea. What an experience! The salt content (30%) is six times greater than the ocean and provides unbelievable buoyancy! It is impossible to swim (or drown) because your body floats so far out of the water that it is difficult to stroke and keep your balance. The easiest way is to float on your back! It is difficult to describe but remember floating on an inner tube in your youth. Same feeling but no tube! And don’t get any water in your eyes or mouth – stings like Hell and tastes awful!

Many of the bathers including runners were giving themselves a Dead Sea Mud bath (see photos). The spas at the resorts charged a fortune but all you had to do was scoop the black mud from the bottom of the Sea. It feels slippery –much like a body lotion and is supposed to be great for your skin because of all the minerals it contains? I declined!

After my dip or float in the Dead Sea I walked back to the hotel for a cool shower and then explored the resort and enjoyed a pizza under a 2,000 year-old olive tree! That evening the race organization hosted a dinner and party at our resort for the runners. I was surprised to see the local (Muslim) runners drinking and dancing and really enjoying the party? Osama explained that (most) Muslims in Jordan did not abide by the strict/fanatical interpretations of the Koran. Very few women wear a head scarf, etc!

On Sat morning we left the Dead Sea Resorts to travel south to Petra along the Dead Sea Highway. It was a comical group ‘trying’ to get on the bus. The steep downhill course had taken its toll on all the runner’s legs – quads and calves were stiff and sore and steps were not a good idea! I haven’t been that sore after a marathon in a long time? We made a brief stop in the Wadi Mujib Reserve to take photos of the lower Wadi Mujib Gorge. We did not find the ancient cities of Sodom & Gomorrah that supposedly lie somewhere around the southern edge of the Dead Sea? And we did not stop at Lot’s Cave where Lot and his daughters lived after fleeing Sodom and his wife turned into a pillar of salt. A more believable story is that she took a Dead Sea Mud bath and forgot to wash it off? We did stop at the Dana Nature reserve for another ‘typical’ Jordanian lunch and BBQ. The BBQ was delicious! After lunch we ‘enjoyed’ a short nature walk in the reserve – actually it was good (but painful) to force the sore old legs to move!

We arrived in Petra in the late afternoon – in time to enjoy a few beers and make an appointment for a massage at the spa at the Marriott Resort! I tried a Petra beer (10%). Thanks to that beer and/or the massage my legs felt much better and I was able to run an easy 5 miles on Sun morning through the hills of Petra before breakfast. I was looking forward to the tour of the ancient (2000 year-old) city of Petra because my research indicated it was one of the ‘wonders of the world’. I was not disappointed!

The Nabataeans settled in the area around the 5th Century BC but Petra’s glory days came under King Aretas (8 BC – AD 40) when the city was home to 30,000 people. The Romans captured Petra in AD 106. Muslims invaded in the 7th Century and finally the Ottoman Turks captured the city in 1189 and it fell into obscurity until 1812 when a Swiss explorer, JL Burckhardt, discovered the city. There are so many archaeological sites to see/enjoy in Petra that it would take too much space in this report so again I will only mention a few highlights. I have posted several photos with captions to my website.

When you enter the Visitor’s Center you begin a long walk to the entrance of the Siq. This walk passes the Djinn Blocks and the Obelisk Tomb – both carved out of the multi-colored sandstone. The 1.2Km Siq starts at a dam built by the Nabataeans in AD 50 to prevent water from the Wadi Musa River flowing into the Siq. The Siq is a narrow gorge that varies from 10 to 2m in width that was created when tectonic forces split the sandstone mountains apart! The sheer walls of the gorge rise about 200m straight up in most places. We arrived at the best time – early morning when the sun rising from the east highlights the many colors in the sandstone.
The natural beauty of the Siq is spectacular and along the way are several tombs carved into the walls. As you near the end of the Siq you suddenly get a peak at the Al-Khazneh or Treasury
which is the icon of Petra. It was carved out of solid iron-laden sandstone to serve as a tomb for the Nabataean King Aretas in 100 BC but gets its name ‘Treasury’ from the story that the Egyptian Pharaoh his treasure here while pursuing the Israelites. I had stayed with the tour group through the Siq but decided to take off on my own so that I could see more of Petra during our short one-day tour of the city.

As you head towards the centre of the city you pass along the Street of Facades containing more than 30 tombs until you reach the Theatre built by the Nabataeans over 2,000 years ago!
As you continue towards the city you pass the Royal Tombs, a collection of impressive tombs carved into the sandstone mountains. Two of the most distinguished tombs are the Urn and Palace tombs. Further west are the columns of the Colonnaded Street built by the Romans in AD 106. Walking along that street you pass the Nympaeum, the public fountain dedicated to the nymphs in the 2nd Century AD and is now protected by a 750 year-old Juniper tree. Then you pass the old Roman marketplace and the ruins of the Great Temple built by the Nabataeans in the 2nd Century BC and arrive at the Temenos Gateway and the Qasr Al-Bint – one of the few free-standing structures in Petra (30 BC).

On the way back to the Siq I took a higher route past the Temple of Winged Lions and the Petra Church. The church has some beautiful mosaics on the floors. As I rushed back through the Siq to meet the group I was rewarded with new views and colors that were different from the walk in. My biggest disappointment of the day and tour was that we did not have more time to explore and enjoy Petra. It definitely needs 2 to 3 days to explore fully! I would definitely qualify Petra as an ancient ‘Wonder of the World’ – on par with the Pyramids of Egypt and the Temples of Angkor Wat! A ‘must see’ for wanderlusts!

After leaving Petra we headed south to Wadi Rum where the desert sparkles and opens up an enchanting landscape of red sands and towering sandstone peaks. This is the region that ’Lawrence of Arabia’ fell in love with and where he built a house while leading the Arabs against the Ottoman Turks. We posed for a group photo in front of the jebels named ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ by Lawrence of Arabia. We loaded into 4X4 trucks for a tour into the desert to see red sand dunes, 1600 year-old drawings on the sandstone walls and enjoy a tea break with a Bedouin tribe. Our drivers then dropped us off at a desert camp where we spent the night with Bedouins. After settling into my luxurious single tent I sat around a camp fire with the group and drank my two Petra beers and listened to Bedouin music. Dinner was late so I opened a bottle of Crown Royal that I promised to share with the group. They obviously loved Canuck whiskey because I only got 3 shots before it was gone. After dinner we continued to share booze and tell stories. I don’t know how I made it back to my tent but I do remember how ‘shitty’ I felt when Christian opened the flap at 7am and told me I had 30 minutes to be on the bus! However my legs didn’t feel bad that morning – all the pain seemed to have moved up to my stomach and head? I think I had a ‘wee’ hangover?

We left the camp at 7:30 am for Aqaba which is located at the northern tip of the Red Sea – only a few Km from Israel and 13 Km from Saudi Arabia. It is a large port city that is also being developed for tourist activities – diving/snorkeling/sailing etc. on the Red Sea. I was supposed to do a sail/snorkel trip that afternoon but didn’t think my head and stomach could handle rolling seas and the heat. The heat was stifling in Aqaba – temps in the mid 90s at 10am!
Instead I joined another runner to explore the city for a few hours and enjoy a pleasant lunch.
There is not much to see in Aqaba other than the ruins of the old city – Ayla – built in the 3rd century BC. To escape the heat I retreated to the pool at the resort. The pool temp was 72 F? They must use water coolers instead of water heaters – otherwise I don’t understand how they can keep the pool water so COLD! The day in Aqaba was rest/down time that I would have preferred to use in Petra.

On Tue half the group headed back to Amman to catch flights home on Wed and the other half stayed in Aqaba to enjoy more water sports and beach time. We arrived in Amman in time for a farewell dinner and to say our goodbyes since we all had different departures on Wed. I left Amman at 11am to begin my 24-hr journey home but AA delayed my flight from Chicago and extended my journey to 26 hrs and I arrived home at 3am on Thu. Gosh – I love international travel!

But it was a great trip and I met a lot of new friends and contacts. And I had a great race and completed Country # 90! Now what do I do? Glad you asked. Remember a few adventures/marathons back I mentioned that I had a new goal in mind but was not ready to announce it then? I am ready now!

During the past few months I have contacted many friends/runners around the world to compile a Country Club list – a list of runners who have completed a marathon (or ultra) in a minimum of 30 countries. I have posted this list to my website to make it easier to keep it updated and provide access to the members and readers. One reason for the list was to confirm my position on the list. As suspected only one other runner in the world has completed a marathon in 90 or more countries – my good friend and mentor – Wally Herman who holds the World Record with 99 countries! Wally is a fine gentleman – 83 years YOUNG – who still runs 15 to 20 marathons per year. But he no longer runs international races? I have asked him many times to join me on one of my international adventures/marathons to complete #100 but he always declines. He keeps telling me “I hand the mantle over to you. You need to be the first to reach 100”! I believe Wally is afraid to run #100 because of the publicity it might generate and he is a shy man. Also I don’t think he wants to argue with ‘purists’ who may dispute his count because he has also run a few ‘solo’ marathons in small countries that don’t offer an ‘official’ marathon! Unlike Wally I don’t give a damn what the purists think. I have no respect for their opinions and rules that are biased, self-centered and don’t take into consideration circumstances and facts! But I was waiting until I reached Country #90 to have confidence to accept Wally’s offer and challenge and I now announce that “My goal is to complete a marathon in 100 countries”!

Of course as most of you know my establishing a ‘goal’ is a problem because it immediately becomes an ’obsession’ to Maddog! He is demanding that I complete the goal in 2009 and has already booked six more international marathons/countries in 2008! “LET THE COUNTDOWN BEGIN”!

My next international adventure/marathon is in two weeks in South America.

Stay tuned!

Footnote: It took almost 3 weeks for the race organizaion to post the results but I finally learned that I finished 20th Overall and 1st AG in the Marathon so the effort was worth the pain!

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