Samarathon 2018 - Winter #epicshit in the Israeli Desert. Part I
I was invited to cover a race in Israel called Samarathon for BikePanel magazine this winter and I needed to write an article covering each stage immediately after the stage ended (a different kind of challenge that I am not sure I’d want to repeat). As such, this blog post includes more than just my race report. It also includes information about the race in case this post inspires you to sign up (and I sure hope it does). Like I did with my BCBR post, it also includes my realizations and thoughts about the race in comparison to other stage races I took part in.
So here goes.
|Ma'ale Qetura - start of the first climb of the day|
What is Samarathon
2018 was the 4th edition of Samarathon. Yes, I did not misspell it Google, this is how this 3 day mountain bike marathon stage race in the Israeli desert is called. It takes place in the south end of this small country, or as the race organizers calls it in the “wilderness” of the Negev and Southern Arava Desert. The course includes ancient camel made trails, man made singletracks on the Israel Bike Trail and it ends every night at the riders village in Timna Park (more about that later). This was the first year that the Samarthon included 3 full length race stages with a total of 200 km (125 miles) and about 2,700 meters (8,858 feet) of climbing.
It takes place in February, the middles of the Midwest winter, but a great time of year for a desert race. It is a “couples race” which means teams of 2, where both you and your partner have to start, ride and finish every day together (or within 1-2 minute apart).
|Man made desert single track|
The Invitation and the Team
At the end of November, while I was visiting my family in Israel a very tempting offer jumped into my lap. The race organizers invited me to cover this race for BikePanel. “Can I do this alone” I asked “No, it’s a couples race” was the answer I got, “but I don’t have a partner”, “don’t worry” a second later I heard the phone ringing: “Hello” (in Israel it is pronounced “Aalo”). “Hi, Uri? Nice to meet you” This phone call with Uri (another Panelist for BikePanel) was the first time we ever spoke. In fact we had never met before and I had no idea what he looked like. Hmmm, a blind date on the first stage of the Samarathon? Sounded like a crazy idea or actually a great idea. Add to that that training for a race that takes place in the middle of the Chicago winter is exactly what I needed to make this blind date, unforgettable and even more epic. That’s it, it was time to live by my own words, go big and put into action my own private fantasy that I wrote about 2 winters ago (here). Of course I’m in!
|Rami, thanks for the picture|
Before I dive into my blind date and the race itself, I wanted to start off by saying that this format of couples races is not my cup of tea. Personally, I prefer individual challenges (yes, the triathlete is still there somewhere). I even tried to convince the race organizers to add a solo category (more about that later). From my experience with a similar format race (Epic Israel that I did in 2016), I learned that in order to ride in harmony and have fun as a true “couple” you must train together and work on your coupling (or relationship). I guess it’s not different than any other relationship, it requires work, a lot of work. Despite my views, when such a tempting and crazy offer was on the table, that represents exactly the opposite of what I just said you need for couples racing - I am saying hell yeah! I’d give it another shot.
When you sign up for a race that takes pride in the slogan: Ride Hard, Live Harder, there can only be one goal. Ride hard (for me) and enjoy even harder.
|it's even on the sticker!|
To make this as epic as possible, I was going all in. What does that mean? I am going to borrow a bike for the race. Who knows? Maybe it would be a double love at first sight. The chosen steed for this task was a purebred black (with neon green accents) stallion called: Niner RKT RDO, equipped with the best bling Shimano Di2 has to offer. I’m such a lucky girl to have such good friends.
The Blind Date - Prologue
We all know that these days there is really no such thing as a true blind date. So shortly after the above mentioned “life changing” phone call, we decided to check each other out on social media - stalking Millennial style. Our modern style courtship phase was short but effective. While Uri was showing off with photos of his long training rides, anything from gravel, mountain or road, enjoying a very mild and forgiving Israeli winter. I hit back with posts of yet another Zwift and indoor trainer sufferfest, spiced with very few outdoors rides. Throughout this virtual courtship period, we both stayed committed to our goal: Samarathon start line on Thursday morning, February 22nd, 2018.
When Life Throws You Lemons …
We all know that we can make all the plans in the world, but the universe/God (whatever you believe in) has its own plans for you. This is exactly what happened in my case. After a week of being sick, on Wednesday morning, Uri sent me a text to let me know that he was extremely sorry but he was still sick and very weak. There was no way he could make it to a 3 days stage race.
Which means, I got stood up. A big problem in a race where you must start as a couple. So what does one do when life throws you a lemon like this? Call Nimi (one of the race organizers). After a few hours of searching for the savior, a knight in shining armor (or more like black kit in his case) was located. A spontaneous volunteer that agreed to put his life on hold and rescue me from my dateless race. Now it is a true blind date, old school style.
The Blind Date - Stage I
The Knight (yes, he does have a real name, it’s Rami, but knight sounds so much better) and I met for the first time at 10pm at night when he arrived to the race camp. But we met for real at the start line of Stage I.
The dry data
Stage I is a 69 km (~42.5 miles) loop with 850 meters (~2,789 feet) of climbing and 40% singletrack.
The start line
The start was divided into 3 separate self seeding corrals. The corral you picked set up the riding tone for day. The first corral is for the true racers, those who came to compete for a podium spot and really hammer through the race. The second was for the average hammerhead. Those of us that were not podium contenders but still want to ride hard and truly race. The third one was for those who came for an event more than a race. Those who came to enjoy an epic and challenging ride in the desert, with a marked course, aid stations and course support. Very generous cutoff times allows you to do just that. The race organizers separated each corral start by a few minutes. Since I came mostly to enjoy the desert and have fun, the knight and I positioned ourselves on the third corral. We rode hard and enjoyed even harder!
|Goal for this segment - no sand in my shoes|
The first day course was the perfect mix of desert riding, mandatory hike-a-bike in the right dosage, 4x4 roads and amazing desert singletrack, and not so perfect but also mandatory headwind. The 3 highlights of the day were:
(i) riding the part of the Israel Bike Trail and climbing/hiking the infamous Ma’ale Qetura (Ma’ale = ascent - and it was!). The actual climb is about 800 meters long, for a rider in good shape with healthy set of lungs it is mostly rideable except for the 2 sets of stairs (although some good skilled riders can make those too). My personal goal was to get to the first set of stairs without putting my foot down, an almost success. While climbing I was faced for the first time with my biggest challenge for this race (well at least at that stage) - the heat. It wasn’t that hot in my standards but my body was used to the below freezing temps of Chicago winter, so climbing at 70f, caused my body to scream.
(ii) crossing a large section of drifting sand dunes and into an amazingly flowy singletrack along a cliff’s edge overseeing the valley below. I was sad it came to an end.
|Drifting sand dunes|
(iii) ending the day with Ma’ale Shaharut but in the descent direction. It's a 4x4 road that is sketchy with lots of lose rocks and very steep at the top section. I almost made it through that steep section, but only almost, I had to give my blood donation to the desert rocks (and banged knee). Then heading into a fast section leading into the riders village.
End of Day I - Lessons in Coupling
The Knight turned out to be an experienced partner in couples racing, who taught me how it’s really done, or should be done. In fact, he took charge right from the start. He led us into small pelotons to take shelter from the headwind in the opening 10 miles. Helped be carry my bike up the steep hike-a-bike, while I was dealing with the heat. Showed me how to work together on the flats and as the stronger rider he even taught me how to grab on to his jersey pocket (that was scary at first but then I got used to it). To top it all, he revealed his knightly qualities by helping wash my bike at the end of the stage and bringing me ice for my swollen knee. It was a perfect first date and a great lesson for this rooky in couples racing.
The Riders Village and Atmosphere
The apres bike is as important as the race itself. Let’s start first with the name “riders village” as opposed to “race village” as it’s called in other races. This was intentional and I believe sets the tone for the experience and atmosphere the race organizers are aiming for. The location was priceless, in the heart of Timna Park, an oasis. The village was located by the small pond and was surrounded by amazing views of the desert.
The race organizers promised that in the racer village you could find everything a marathon racer would need - bike wash stations, an area to fix the bikes, mechanical support, first aid, massage, wifi (and it actually worked!), charging stations etc. Add to that all the necessities needed to clear your mind and enjoy a magical long weekend in the desert: shaded space to relax (a chill zone), riders pub, food, good beer and even a live concert on Friday night. All this was promised and delivered, under a canopy of a million stars hotel.
The Race Venue - Park Timna.
I dedicate a separate section to the race venue. Park Timna is considered by many renowned geologists as one of the Middle East’s top attractions. It is best known for its multicolored sand, towering sandstone pillars (the Solomon Pillars), arches and ancient copper mines. Make sure you stay an extra day to explore the area outside of the race environment. Park Timna is located less than 20 miles from the red sea beaches of Eilat, and if you made it all the way down to the Southern tip of Israel you might as well take a few days post race to relax, hike, scuba dive or snorkel in the area.
For lodging you could choose one of 4 options: BYOB (last B = bed :-)), which means, we will give you a shaded spot and a mattress and you bring your own tent and sleeping bag. Samarathon tent, which means we’ll give you a mattress and a spot in a Bedouin style tent (a communal shared tent), you bring the rest. These options were located in the heart of the riders village and were the more cost effective options. The other 2 options are rooms for 2 or 4, either close to the riders village or in a nearby Kibbutz (based on availability - register early to secure these options if you are interested). A more costly option where you will get your privacy, but you will be located a little off the center.
|Best of both worlds - Upscale tents option|
From my experience with other stage races/events that I participated in, being close to the riders village is an integral part to the race experience. To live and breath the apres bike. You finish the ride, take a quick shower, grab a beer and sit down with the gang.
Which brings me to the 5th and very limited option (that I was lucky enough to secure). Upscale tents, with 2 beds, for you and your race partner, separated by a partition and a small common area in the front. This option was the best of both worlds. Right by the riders village, close to the showers but with somewhat privacy. For all options - don’t forget to pack ear plugs!
Stay tuned for Part II in a few days
Thanks for reading!