Race review: Muscat Marathon 2018 half marathon

Running along the sea during the Muscat Marathon 2018 half marathon

Last month I ran the Muscat Marathon half-marathon, mentioned here, and it was a fun race. I like to write race reviews mostly for my own benefit; they’re fun to go back and read later, but, who knows, I might actually be helping someone that’s considering running the race. If you don’t give a shit about running (and who can blame you) you might not want to waste your time reading this.

The race was run on January 19, 2018 and race registration closed on December 1, 2017. I thought that was a little odd, as it’s almost a two month gap, which is more than enough time to train for a 10 k or, if you’ve got a good running base, a half marathon. The half cost about $65, so is was pricey but nothing too crazy if you’re used to US prices.

The race date was Friday morning (the workweek here is Sunday to Thursday) and packet pick-up was Monday-Wednesday before the race. There was no morning-of packet pick-up. I wish I’d taken a picture of the packet pick-up. It was a huge tent full of tables and volunteers, but hardly any runners were there. I don’t know when people picked up their packets, but it definitely wasn’t 6:30 pm on Wednesday. The guy who gave me my race bib and stuff told me my shirt was in the bag, but I got home and discovered he’d left it on the table. The race was at Al Mouj (formerly The Wave) which is half an hour away, and I wasn’t going to go back and get my shirt. I don’t need another race shirt that badly.

The race was initially going to start at 7 am, but the week before they changed it to 6 am. We left home around 4:30 to make sure we made it in time, and let’s just say we made it with plenty of time to spare. I milled around for over an hour before getting to my starting corral. I couldn’t find the port-a-pots so I used the toilets in the mall, which are really nice (although as we got closer to the race start they ran out of TP and paper towels).

The race started around 6:20 and the first few miles were on brick pavers, then we ran through a sandy construction area for maybe a mile, then it was back onto the brick pavers as we ran through the Al Mouj golf course. Then there was another half mile or so in the construction area, during which I had to stop and dump the sand and pebbles out of my shoes. Next we had another 2 miles on brick pavers before finally hitting asphalt. The brick pavers are no fun because they are particularly hard, whereas asphalt has a little give. There were probably 6 miles on the asphalt, 5 on the brick, and 2 on packed sand.

Sunrise over the mountains while running through the Al Mouj golf course

There were regular hydration and fuel stations, although at the hydration stations they were literally handing out full-sized plastic water bottles. It was so wasteful. I felt like a terrible person for taking a few swigs of water and then throwing a 2/3s full water bottle onto the ground (there were no garbage cans, or recycling, for that matter). There were a few stations with gels and at least one station with bananas.

There wasn’t tons of crowd support, and the course wasn’t particularly scenic, but I still enjoyed it. You run along the sea for a good chunk of it, and the part through the golf course is pretty. Running through the neighborhoods is fun; people are out in the bathrobes with their coffees, kids, and dogs, giving out high-fives.

The end of the race was kind of a mess. I ended as the 5k and 10k races were getting ready to start and the finishing area was jam-packed with people.

The morning of the race was unseasonably warm. I was expecting to be cold standing there in shorts and a tank top at 5:30 am, but I was sadly comfortable. I knew that meant I’d get hot quickly during the race, which unfortunately proved to be true. Thank god for those aid stations with water bottles; I also drank all the water in my hydration belt. When I finished I had crusty salt in my eyebrows.

In summary, the race was disorganized, but it was fun and you could tell the race organizers were trying really hard to make it as good as possible. I think in the years to come it will only get better!

Advertisements

On getting scuba certified

The world looks different from 50 feet under water

That’s right, I am now a PADI open water scuba diver! For me, it’s a pretty big deal. I was really nervous and hesitant, primarily since scuba diving goes against one of my main survival instincts: sinking is bad.

Maybe a year before we were scheduled to arrive in Muscat, Nate said the one thing he really wanted to do was get scuba certified.  My response was a half-hearted “Okay….” and I kind of hoped he would forget about it. But every time someone asked us about moving to Oman, Nate would talk about how excited he was to get scuba certified and I would usually smile wanly and say, “Well, it’s something I’m really scared to do, so I guess that means I should give it a try.” (And in the meantime, I still kept hoping Nate would forget or get too busy or something.)

Fast-forward to Nate’s first day at the embassy here. He came home and immediately said, “I already got a recommendation for a dive shop to use for our scuba qualification!”

Well, shit.

Fast-forward maybe another month or so and I had gone on a few snorkeling trips. The one big conclusion I drew from snorkeling was that if I really wanted to see anything, I’d need to learn how to scuba dive. The water is deep in the reefs here and everything interesting is usually pretty far below. I met one of the dive instructors on a snorkel trip and he seemed like a cool dude, and I was slowly starting to come around to the idea of scuba diving. Nate said he wanted to get scuba certified for his birthday, so I decided it was time to bite the bullet and just do it.

A tiny anemone with some tiny clownfish

We decided to use the local branch of EuroDivers, and it was a great experience. EuroDivers came highly recommended because they have no minimum class size and the instructors take their time with the students and don’t rush you through anything.  We did the online theory portion at home, and then we had 3 diving sessions. For the first diving session we were in a swimming pool, the second time we did two dives off a beach, and for the third and final session we did two dives off a boat.

A note about the theory portion: if you plan to do the PADI open water scuba class and you want to do the theory at home, be forewarned that it is a slog. We’re talking five on-line modules, most with over 200 powerpoint slides. It takes a minimum of eight hours and you have to pay attention to the whole thing since they’re basically telling you how to not die.

For the first session, Nate and I were with three other students in the pool, but for the beach dives it was just us and the instructor. When we did the last two dives off the boat it was the two of us with two instructors. The amount of personal attention we received was really helpful given my inclination to freak out.

Reef wall in the Maldives

Initially I didn’t think I’d ever enjoy it, but now I love it. It’s incredible to think that the earth is over 50% water, and humans get to see less than half the world. On our second dive off Fahal Island we were encircled by a massive school of little barracuda. We swam over moray eels with heads literally the size of a person’s head, which was alarming but incredible. In the Maldives we dove along a reef wall that was over 100 feet tall. By scuba diving you get to see some of that other 50+% and as long as you float along and don’t touch anything, you are able to move easily in that other environment. That, my friends, is amazing and it’s a surreal experience.

If you’re thinking about getting scuba qualified, do it! If I can do it, anyone can.

I’m not complaining about the weather!

The Omani flag flying high at Jabrin Castle

Things here have been busy. We had our first visitors over Thanksgiving, took our first local vacation, got scuba certified, and I’m training for my first real race since 2014. We’re also putting up Christmas decorations, going to parties, and I’m baking a lot of cookies. There is so much to blog about and just not enough time.

First things first, the weather here is currently perfect. Around mid-November it was like a switch flipped and the weather got awesome. It’s in the 60s in the morning, and by mid day it’s actually comfortable to be outside in the sun. We drive to work with the windows rolled down and I leave the kitchen door open when I’m cooking. During my morning runs, even the ones that last for over an hour, I don’t get hot. It’s a fricking miracle. When we first got here everyone told us that the weather in the winter would make the terrible heat worth it, and they were totally 100% right. This is currently my climate paradise and it’s amazing.

In my last blog post I was whining about how our stuff wasn’t here yet. The following week it arrived, and never in my life have I been so excited to see our stuff. I actually clapped when they unpacked my sari stamp block mirror that we had made in Dhaka. I unpacked and put away almost everything within about three weeks, and we got rid of a lot of stuff. There are clothing donation bins all over our neighborhood, and we probably donated a few hundred pounds of clothes and shoes. We don’t have tons of storage space, so I turned off the water to two of our four showers and they are now perfect for storing large plastic boxes. With our books on the shelves, stuff put away, and pictures and art on the walls, and our house finally feels like home.

Sunrise in Muscat

I’m training for a half marathon and so far it’s going well. My weekly milage is building, slowly but surely, and I have stayed injury-free (knock on wood). While waking up at the crack of dawn kind of sucks, I love running here now that the weather is perfect. Running along the ocean, watching the sun rise over the mountains and hearing only the sound of the waves and my own breathing is amazing every time. I will never take this for granted and if I ever do, someone please punch me.

Bimmah sinkhole

Some friends from Dhaka came to visit over Thanksgiving and it was so much fun. They only stayed for three days, but we packed as many Oman highlights as we could into the long weekend and everyone had a great time. We spent most of the first day at our favorite beach and then we went to Thanksgiving dinner. The next day we woke up bright and early and drove to Bimmah Sinkhole, followed by Wadi Shab, and on their last day here we drove to Nizwa and then checked out Jabrin Castle.  Oman is such an incredible and beautiful country (and there’s still so much we haven’t even seen yet!), and showing visitors and friends our favorite parts is so much fun. Seeing the wonder and amazement reflected on someone’s face and knowing that they are just as fascinated as you are is pretty cool.

The sun setting over the Wadi Shab entrance (and freeway)

There’s still so much more to say, but I have to get back to baking Christmas cookies!

Bringing a dog into Oman

Athena at the beach

Arranging Athena’s travel is, by far, the most difficult, stressful, and expensive part of changing posts.

Before M was born, a friend told me that if I thought traveling with a dog was bad, just wait until I try traveling with a baby. That friend was wrong. No matter how terrible a flight with a baby is, at least you know your baby is with you, getting its needs met in a temperature controlled environment. Whereas if your dog is in the belly of the plane in cargo, who knows what is happening. Our total travel to Dhaka was over 24 hours and during that time, Athena got no food or water. Apparently she has an iron-clad bladder because she also held it the entire time.

Our travel to Muscat was on United and Swiss Air with one layover in Zurich.  We’ve all heard the United pet travel horror stories.  A dead golden retriever, a dead giant bunny, the list goes on. When pets travel on United they travel through United’s PetSafe program, which supposedly keeps them in a temperature controlled environment the whole time, they are offered food and water, and they can be taken out of their crates during layovers. I called PetSafe, booked Athena on our flight to Zurich, and was told United “doesn’t do codeshares” for pet travel. Meaning Athena would be booked through only to Zurich and we would have to recheck her there for the Muscat flight.

Great… So now our dog is also entering Switzerland, which has it’s own set of pet importation rules. Ugh.

I called Swiss Air and they, very politely I should add, assured me that she would never leave the transit area and there was no need for all the Swiss pet import documents.  But it was required that the dog be clean and not smell bad in order to board the plane. Okay, fine, hopefully her iron bladder would hold.

One more thing about United’s PetSafe: it is ridiculously expensive. For Athena and her crate it should have cost $1194 just to Zurich, given the total weight. Instead the guy quoted me $843, which is the cost for the weight class taking into account just Athena’s weight.  I figured United would realize it’s mistake when we were checking in and we’d be taken to the cleaners at that point.

A few weeks before we were scheduled to fly out, we filled out the Omani pet importation form, and the embassy arranged for our pet importation certificate. Athena didn’t need any special shots, rabies titers or anything strange; the process was quite painless. Oman doesn’t have a quarantine or anything, although your pet does have to be inspected by a vet upon arrival and if it looks unwell it could be quarantined. We were told that Omanis like to see stamps on official documents and that it would be a good idea to get Athena’s health certificate USDA certified but that it wasn’t required. We figured we weren’t going to go this far just to get her turned away because there weren’t enough stamps, so we spent a day of home leave driving to Richmond and paid $32 for a stamp and some signatures.

Five days after getting the health certificate certified by the USDA, we were at Dulles getting everything checked in. Athena’s crate met the specifications; her food, collar and leash were taped to the outside; “live animal” stickers covered almost every visible surface of the crate; and all of our flight info was taped to the crate.  Nate took Athena outside for one last hurrah while we got everything sorted out (we got there 3 hours early and ended up needing almost every minute of it). It came time to pay and the lady mentioned that the guy had quoted us the wrong price, but that she would honor that price. I was shocked. She assured me that paying a lower price would not affect the care Athena would receive, and then she slapped the Dulles to Zurich baggage tag on her crate.

We arrived in Zurich with a 4 hour layover and Nate went to go get Athena and recheck her while I dealt with a toddler who was running (literally and figuratively) on minimal sleep. A few hours later Nate found us at the gate, and apparently he and Athena had to exit the airport. He didn’t even have to show her health certificate and Athena had a nice little layover in Zurich. She drank Evian because water fountains aren’t a thing and, after spending another $350 for her ticket, she was on her way to Muscat with us.

Having to pick her up in Zurich and recheck her was a bit of a blessing in disguise, even if it was a pain in the butt. She got food and water and a chance to stretch her legs and take care of doggy business. Plus she got to experience Switzerland. Athena has now been to five countries!

In Muscat her crate came out on the luggage belt with the rest of the bags and she looked good. She handled the flight well, passed the vet check, and we loaded her into the embassy van to go to our new home.

She’s adjusting well so far to life here. She spends most of the day inside, as do we all, and we enjoy our evening walks when it’s cooled down a bit. Athena has joined us at the beach several times and she still doesn’t quite understand that she can’t drink the water. She’ll get there eventually.

VPNs and Wadi Shab

Wadi Shab

Over the past few days we’ve had a five-day weekend for Eid al-Adha. It’s been awesome. Having that long of a weekend just after arriving has been really convenient because it’s given us time to sort out lots of stuff and we’ve been able to start exploring our corner of the country.

First, and maybe most importantly, we finally got our internet installed the day before the Eid holiday began. I spent several hours the next day trying to get our VPN router set up. We purchased a router through StrongVPN so that we can use the VPN connection with our AppleTV. It worked well for us in Dhaka, and, now that it’s finally set up here, I’m happy to report that we were finally able to watch the end of the last season of Game of Thrones.

On a related note, we both fell asleep during the finale. There was so much talking. It was boring. (GoT spoiler alert, although I’m guessing that if this matters to you you’ve probably already watched it) Can someone please tell me why the hell Dany didn’t just blast the Night King with dragon fire in the 6th episode? He was right there. Ugh.

Moving on, a few days ago we went to Wadi Shab, a canyon filled with pools of water and a cave with a waterfall at the end. I was wary going into it because, as you know by now, it’s super fricking hot here and a hike, even just a 45 minute one, sounded like the worst thing ever.  But we took it slow and I survived. I looked like a boiled lobster, but I didn’t pass out or get hurt, so I’ll take it.

Start of the hike into Wadi Shab

The cave at the end was amazing. The passageway in was really narrow, probably 12 inches wide, and to get through you had to tread water and shimmy sideways. Leaving the cave, the sunlight lit up the water and it was practically neon blue. It was incredible. We left our cameras in dry bags once the swimming part started, so I didn’t get any photos of the best parts of the Wadi. Hopefully we’ll go back again soon when it isn’t so damn hot out.

We left M at home with the nanny. We weren’t sure how much of it we could do with him in the hiking backpack and we wanted to be able to explore as fully as possible our first time out. In the future, we’ll bring him with us and once we get to the beach where you have to start swimming we will take turns going to enjoy the cave while he hangs out in the shallow water.

This is the beach at the start of the swimming part of the trek. Usually there are hardly any people here.

One thing to note: we will never go to Wadi Shab over an Omani holiday weekend again. It was PACKED.  Apparently we weren’t the only ones who thought it’d be the perfect chance to explore the wadi. There were at least a thousand people there. Pools that are usually turquoise were brown because of all the people kicking up sediment. Lesson learned!

The parking lot is usually empty!

To, in, and around Nakhal Fort

Inside the Nakhal Fort main wall

During the Eid holiday we drove to Nakhal to visit the fort and check out a near-by hot spring. We weren’t sure if the fort would be open because of the holiday, but we figured in the worst case scenario, we’d admire the fort from the outside and at least we’d know where it was for next time.

The drive took nearly three times longer than it should have. I looked at the route the night before on Google Maps and it looked really straightforward: take the expressway north and exit on highway 13, which basically takes you straight there, all in about an hour.

However, Google Maps doesn’t work for turn-by-turn navigation here. Everyone uses Waze. As we were backing out of our driveway, I typed Nakhal Fort into Waze and it had us taking this strange route that would take nearly an hour and 45 minutes. I decided we would ignore that route and take the route Google Maps had given me. We were happily driving on the expressway and our exit was coming up; long story short, we missed the exit and the next exit was in eight miles. After the exit you had to drive another 1.5 miles to a roundabout to finally turn around. So after driving 20 miles out of the way, Waze was still insisting we take the wonky route. I said, “F that, we’re taking highway 13,” and we did. Until the road was closed and we took a detour onto a road that appeared to not go all the way to Nakhal. So we pulled a U-turn, got back onto the expressway, and drove another 10 miles to the route that the Waze app wanted us to take. Instead of arriving at 10:30, we arrived around noon.

On the drive back, Waze had us take 13 straight to the expressway. There was a road closure but we took a parallel road the whole way, and imagine our shock as we drove by the exact spot where we pulled the U-turn to take the stupid Waze route. That was annoying.

Anyhow, the fort was in fact open and only cost 500 baisa (about $1.25) each. It was hotter than hell so we didn’t do that much exploring. We found a nice room with pillows and air conditioning where we ate lunch, and then we ventured out to look around a little more. We didn’t last long in the heat and M was turning beet red.

Nakhal Fort is particularly interesting because it is built on pre-Islamic ruins on a rocky mound (which was done to avoid having to construct a sound foundation) and the shape of the fort is irregular because it follows the shape of the rocks. There were lots of hallways and rooms to explore, and I think M will have more fun running around during our next visit.

Hajar Mountains and date palm plantations around Nakhal Fort

Nakhal is full of date palm plantations and we drove through them to see the hot spring, which was rumored to have a picnic area and playground equipment. Turns out the hot spring is basically a nice stream and, with the Eid holiday, the entire river bed was one big picnic area. There was zero parking and we didn’t even get out of the car.  I was a little bummed because M would have loved it, but it was ridiculously crowded. We’ll check it out more thoroughly next time.