Eilat’s Desert Run gives Lisa Jackson the chance to follow in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia.
Sent here to encourage the Arab revolt against the Turks, Lawrence of Arabia first came to this part of the world back in 1917. Now there’s an entirely different reason for us Brits to come to Eilat, Israel’s most southerly city, and it's not just the fantastic climate at this time of year, which at an average of 20C is a real tonic when the UK is usually freezing. No, it's the Desert Run, currently in its third year, which consists of a 5K, 10K and half marathon and, as of 2014, a marathon.
The half marathon started at 7am to make the most of the coolest part of the day. Milling around with the excited participants at the startline in a shopping-mall car park I was struck by how stylish most of the Israeli runners were – I spotted the cutest skorts and some of the most colourful (but classy) compression socks I’d seen in a long while. Not to be outdone, I sported a Larry-like keffiyeh that I hoped would stop me getting sunburned.
And so, as the sun slowly reddened the Jordanean mountains across the Red Sea, we set off. After 500m the route plunged off-road and onto a dirt track leading to the Eilat Mountains. The going was incredibly tough, like running in a stony sandpit and, unused to such terrain, I tripped and crashed to the ground just 1km into the race. Having repeated a mantra of ‘I’m fine’ 20 times as I surveyed my torn running tights, I eventually picked myself up, dusted myself down and continued, my spirits buoyed up by the appearance of a troupe of tambourine-wielding singers in traditional Bedouin dress.
The other half-marathoners soon left me choking in their dust, but a few kilometres into the race the 10K runners came charging by. At the 5K mark the two routes diverged and I continued further into the Negev Desert, along what the race website had said were ancient Bedouin smuggling routes, as the 10Kers headed for home. From the 7K mark the route was mercifully mostly downhill, giving me the chance to appreciate the way the sun was lighting up the multicoloured mountains. I’d been worried about how I’d cope with the heat but luckily there was a delightfully cool breeze fanning us the entire time.
The Road to Nowhere
The route followed a dead-straight dirt road that stretched from kilometre 12 to 17 and into infinity. I dubbed it the Road to Nowhere as I headed down it, cursing the fact I’d accidentally left my iPod headphones at home as music would’ve come in very handy here. Luckily, I soon came across a water station manned by cheery volunteers handing out some of the most succulent dates I’ve ever eaten, which gave me a much-needed sugar rush.
Eventually I spotted two runners in the distance and hastened to catch them up. They turned out to be Sagit-Simcha Waelti-Bazrawi, 47, and her husband Peter, who split their time between Zurich and Tel Aviv. We compared notes about how much harder it was to run on sand than tarmac, and agreed that Morocco’s fabled 251km Marathon des Sables, the world’s toughest footrace, no longer seemed all that appealing, now that we had first-hand experience of just how challenging desert running can be.
Afterwards, while proudly sporting her medal, Sagit-Simcha told me why she’d enjoyed the Desert Run so much: ‘I love spending time in nature so this was, for me, a perfect race,’ she said. And the day’s highlight? ‘Meeting you!’ she replied with a grin. ‘It gave me the strength to keep running.’ Little did she know that she’d done exactly the same for me…
Photo credit: Israeli Ministry of Tourism www.thinkisrael.com, Lisa Jackson
● The date of the next Desert Run hasn't yet been confirmed but is likely to take place in November 2014. To enter, visit daromadomrun.co.il/index.php/en.
● Return flights from London Luton to Tel Aviv with El Al cost £360 (£391 from London Heathrow). To book, visit www.elal.uk.
● For information on Israel, visit www.thinkisrael.com.
‘We did it!’
‘I thought the Desert Run would be a great chance to combine a vacation with a 10K.’ Nir Lavi, 38
‘It’s wonderful to be able to get away from the city and run in such a wild landscape.’ Tammy Feldman, 44
‘I’ve never run in the desert before, so I don’t quite know what to expect, but I’m looking forward to it.’ Batsheva Bahat, 47
How to beat the heat
• Wear light-coloured clothing to reflect the sun’s rays and keep you cool.
• Headgear, such as a cap with a flap at the back that protects your neck, is a must, as is sunscreen.
• Many races may serve water and sports drinks in cups, making it difficult to drink enough fluid on the go. Hence it’s vital to carry your own water, either in a bottle or hydration backpack.
• Glare can be a problem, so wear sunglasses.
• The Desert Run organisers advise runners to keep cool by spritzing themselves with a plant mister. The best spot to spray? Your ears, apparently, as they're so rich in blood vessels!
What to eat, see and do in Eilat
• Carbo-load at Pago (www.pagopagorest.com). This is one of Eilat’s best restaurants serving everything from first-rate sushi to seafood pasta and fish. Mains are about £17.
• Swim with dolphins. At Dolphin Reef (www.dolphinreef.co.il) you can scuba (£60, including all-day entry to the private beach) or snorkel (£50) with seven bottlenose dolphins.
• Go trekking in Timna Park (www.parktimna.co.il). Journey through the desert visiting incredible red rock formations and the remains of a 6,000-year-old copper mine, the world’s oldest.
• Walk beneath the waves at the Underwater Observatory Marine Park (www.coralworld.co.il). The Red Sea boasts an astonishing variety of sealife and coral and this is a super-easy way to see them – without getting your feet wet!
• Take a day trip to the Dead Sea, Masada, Jerusalem or Bethlehem (as the race is so close to Christmas this is a must-do at this time of year). Israel is a compact country, and most of the top sights are within striking distance of Eilat