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Travel Blog - Saudi Arabia and the Toughest Mudder 8-hour Race

My first travel blog! I’ve had lots of people requesting that I write blogs about my travels, and race recaps. Ryan and I are just arriving home from Saudi Arabia, from an obstacle race Tough Mudder put on that was probably the most competitive in OCR history. Since Saudi is a country newly opened to tourists, and people seem very curious about the experience, I thought it would be a good place to start! Just a heads up, it probably won’t be my best travel blog, as I really didn’t take many photos and videos while there. I didn’t think until the flight home (aka now!) to write a travel blog about it, and my phone was off the whole trip to avoid roaming charges. I’ll do my best to write good descriptions and add photos where I can!

 

I’ll break my blog down in to three parts:

 



Part 1 – Casablanca, Morocco

 

Ryan and I got spoiled this trip, as our flights were paid for ;) We used to have this privilege several years ago, when OCR was really growing as a sport. The past few years, however (and especially since Covid), no trip expenses are covered to bring the athletes to races; it’s generally all out of pocket. Tough Mudder worked with a travel agency called Nirvana to book our flights for this trip. We saw they had us flying through Casablanca with a short layover on the trip to Saudi Arabia. We asked them if we could just stay for a few days, and they obliged! Traveling all the way to Saudi is looooong. It’s over 24 hours of travel time, the jet lag is awful and time change is pretty aggressive. It leaves you feeling crummy for a few days. Buuuut Morocco is only a 6 hour flight from our home airport in Montreal, Canada! The time in Morocco is 6 hours ahead of home, and Saudi is only 8 hours ahead, so it was an awesome way to break up the travel and jet lag.

 

I didn’t realize Morocco was colonized by France! We were pretty excited when we got there to learn everyone speaks French. Ryan is fluent in French, since he grew up near French-speaking Quebec. I’ve been learning for the past three years since we moved there, and I can definitely get by with easy conversations. People in Morocco don’t speak much English, just Moroccan and French, and we needed the skill right away because we had some trouble with our car rental. We showed up at good old Budget, only to find it was closed. Ryan and I were standing around trying to figure out what to do, when some random local man wandered over and asked if we needed a car rental. We do! “Follow me,” he says. And so we start following him in to the middle of a big airport parking lot, with Ryan whispering to me “Google car rental scams in Morocco!.” So I’m following along and Googling, while Ryan is communicating with this man trying to figure out if this is a legitimate company or not. It’s funny sometimes, trying to figure out how things work in unfamiliar countries! Turns out, this was indeed a business, but definitely not like how we’re used to things running in North America. We paid in cash to avoid giving any banking info, just in case, and I was careful to take videos of the car/any scratches and the location. The man gave us his WhatsApp number, didn’t even talk to us about insurance, and off we went. Just to finish this side story, it all worked out okay in the end, outside of one funny incident. We told this man we’d return the car at 11pm at the airport on the night our 2am flight left. He actually showed up at our hotel at 8pm that night (lol!), and woke us up from a pre-redeye nap. I have no idea how he found us, the car must have had a tracker. He said he had another client and needed the car back early, but we could take the free airport shuttle! We took the airport shuttle, no harm done, and never heard from him again. Wild stuff!


casablanca morocco

We only had two days in Casablanca, and here are a few things we discovered. The country is a funny mix of Arabic culture, and French. There are Parisian bakeries everywhere, the croissants were flaky and amazing, and otherwise it reminded me a lot of my travels to Abu Dhabi or India. We walked in to a juice bar after a run one day, thinking it would be quick take out fresh juice. Much to our delight, it was sit down only, with a full six-page menu of the most epic fruit smoothies I’ve ever seen. We’re talking toppings, various granola or add on choices, and smoothies that look like rainbows with different layers of blended fruit flavours in one cup. Dessert smoothies, health smoothies, and everything in between.  Breakfasts are incredible. For super cheap, you get this full breakfast spread you can’t even finish eating. Both of our breakfasts came with a glass of “fruit juice,” which was actually a blended smoothie made with fresh fruit. We ate the most delicious tajine for dinner I’ve ever had. All in all, the food is mind-blowingly good, and it’s all very naturally healthy. If you’re gluten free, you would have no options eating there as it’s a lot of rice, and saucy Arabic slow-cooked stews.



We went for a beautiful run along the waterfront. It looked like there were beaches to visit, but we didn’t get the chance. We visited a mosque, which unfortunately was closed to go inside, but even from the outside was incredible to see.

 

Clothing-wise, it’s fairly conservative. I ran in a baggy t-shirt and thin, billowy capris, and was quite comfortable. I read a few things saying you could run in shorts, but I’m glad I didn’t because I think I would have been out of my comfort zone. I didn’t see any other runners in shorts, and the men we passed running were generally all in full-length track suits. Luckily, it wasn’t that hot when we were there; around 23°C. For walking around the city, I wore billowy clothes, and I think it’s a general rule to keep knees and elbows covered.


Casablanca Morocco Travel

Finally, traffic is terrifying! Put all your brain cells in firing mode if you’re the driver. Road-rules wise, the direction of traffic, lights, signs and painted lines are all the same as in North America. However, be warned that people don’t seem to follow them! There were round-abouts everywhere, and it took us a little while to learn the “local rules.” People stop right in the middle of them, and you’ll get a lineup of cars six-wide just waiting to exit the round about, so it sort of defeats their purpose. Lanes don’t seem to matter; cars will just squish in as long as there’s a few inches of space. Pedestrians cross anywhere they like, and cars have to be on alert to come to a screeching halt. The funny thing is, we didn’t see a single accident! There’s no way you could drive while on a phone, and being able to parallel park was a very handy skill. There aren’t really parking meters, but a parking guard who patrols that street will randomly walk up to you after you park, demand a few dollars, and then keep an eye on your car all night. One night, we neglected to pay, and found a ticket and boot on our car the next morning! We thought these parking guards might be some kind of scam, but it turns out they’re legitimate.


We found it quite a safe city, security cameras everywhere and very friendly people. Knowing French definitely came in handy; if you traveled there without knowing how to speak French or Moroccan, I would recommend trying to do some research ahead of time to learn how things worked. Systems seem much less “automated” than in North America; you have to communicate with people the old-school way, which was great as people are friendly, helpful and reasonable, I’m just not sure how it would have gone if we didn’t speak French! All in all, I would definitely travel back to Morocco, as I’d love to see more of the country outside of just the one city.


Morocco food


Moroccan food tajine

Part 2 – Saudi Arabia

 

In terms of countries in this general part of the world, I’ve visited Dubai, Abu Dhabi, India and Nepal. I mentioned above that I’m more of a mountains/greenergy person than a desert person, but Al Ula I found to be quite beautiful. Al Ula is where our race took place, and it’s actually an oasis in the middle of the desert. There are big rocks and cliffs reminiscent of the grand canyon, and palm trees everywhere. There’s also a fair bit of history to explore. Unfortunately, we really didn’t have any time to explore before the race, and left right after, which only left us one afternoon.

 

We flew in to Madinah airport, which is about four hours drive from Al Ula. It’s the second most religious city in the world! It would have been a huge culture shock, but luckily I’ve traveled to some other conservative countries and knew a little about what to expect. Even still, I was wearing Lululemon tights and a baggy sweatshirt when we landed at the airport, and I was supremely uncomfortable in tight pants. Everyone was covered head to toe. People were friendly, greeted us warmly, and probably avoided blatantly giving me funny looks. I did change in to baggy pants as soon as my bag arrived off the luggage belt. I’m sure if we’d flown in to a different city, we wouldn’t have found the dress code quite so conservative, which was a bit silly of me as I should have known what to expect. I personally just like to try and respect the local customs.


Mosque Saudi Arabia

Us Canadians were excited to find a Tim Horton’s in the airport! We noticed there were a lot of chain restaurants, like Pizza Pizza and Duncan Doughnuts.


We learned fairly quickly that this country moves at it’s own pace. A few times we asked for a taxi, and they asked us to wait “5 minutes, 10 minutes,” while they had a smoke break with friends. Plan to spend a long time at customs when you arrive! Both flying in to Medinah and Quatar on our flight home, it took us over an hour to be processed in the customs line, as they don’t have automated systems like we’re used to at major North American airports. We bought a temporary SIM card at the airport for Ryan’s phone, and the man helping us asked us to come back in ten minutes about halfway through the process. Even at Tim Hortons, we ordered a few sandwiches and our lovely cashier started making them from scratch. I think the bread was the only thing that came pre-assembled, but he mixed up the tuna salad and everything! It seems common to sit around for half an hour after finishing a dinner out, and just hang and chat. It’s a nice change, once you accept you just have to go with their flow!


Mosque Morocco

Madinah was definitely more of a desert landscape. I wouldn’t say it was beautiful, but I think there would be some incredible history and mosques there to explore. Tough Mudder was supposed to pick us up that day from the airport and drive us to Al Ula, but long story short we ended up having to get a hotel and stay overnight. Ryan and I went for a fairly terrible run! We were trying to get to a park, but didn’t realize it was on the other side of a highway. On a map, it looked like there was a bridge where you could cross fairly close by, but that bridge ended up being several kilometers away. Really, we just ran down the highway! There were sidewalks on the side, but it sure was loud. We made it to the park for all of three minutes before turning around to run the highway back home. I had worn baggy capris and a baggy t-shirt, and I really wish I had brought full length running pants and a long-sleeved shirt. People seemed genuinely stoked to see us exercising, though, we even got some cheers from people at the park and waiting at stop lights!


I found people in Saudi Arabia really excited to see us there as tourists. We didn’t see a lot of tourists, which is probably much due to the current global climate with the war nearby right now. Locals didn’t speak very much English, but seem really excited to try and communicate with you in various ways. The Google Translate app on phones was fun and helpful – locals would type something in Arabic, translate it to English, then hand us their phone so we could type a response. Once we got to Al Ula, we did see more tourists. The dress code was a little less conservative than Madinah, but you would still want to avoid tight clothing and keep knees and elbows covered.


Pre-race interview with the film crew

Once we arrived in Al Ula, we really only had Friday afternoon (the day before the race) to do any exploring. We took the shuttle bus Tough Mudder had organized to the old city, about 25 minutes ride. There were tons of shops and restaurants. There were really neat ruins of the old town, with a whole city that seemed to have been constructed from balls of mud piled on top of one another. Ryan and I opted to just walk some back paths through the palm trees to a restaurant. Admittedly, we totally got lost and ended up in a sort of tent camp, in someone’s backyard with their chickens and goats. Luckily, the neighbour was sitting outside his tent, and was super friendly. He guided us back to the little dirt path that would take us to our destination (the Pink Camel restaurant – delicious!).



One thing I’ve discovered in Dubai, Saudi, India, Nepal and Abu Dhabi is that things look quite shiny and clean on the main streets. However, once you go a little off the beaten path, you’ll discover a little more what it’s like behind the scenes. Class systems seem very prevalent; people either live in a giant fancy palace of a house, or in a tent off in the desert with piles of garbage being burned. Tipping isn’t necessary, but we tried to tip in cash if we received great service, hoping it would go to the person who served us and not just the owner of the restaurant. We would also tip our cab drivers a few durhams, and they would seem really grateful.

 

Though this trip was short, I found Al Ula to be the most beautiful desert landscape I’ve visited, and I’d love to go back with more time to explore!



Part 3 – The race

 

I’ll leave an actual race recap for a different blog post, since preparing for and racing this once is a pretty special story of mine that I’d love to tell. However, I think a lot of people are curious about this event that Tough Mudder put on. It’s the first of it’s kind, with the biggest prize purse obstacle racing has ever seen.

 

Overall, I found the event really well organized, and I could tell they put a lot of thought and heart in to it. I’ll admit (and probably get heck for it) that the past few years, when Spartan Race put on their key events, it really felt like they just stopped giving a poop. I guess when I travel to a World Class event, where top-notch competition has been brought out, there’s a big prize money, it’s titled as a World Championship, etc. I expect there to be a higher level of attention to detail. Maybe a harder course, good accommodations, a cool festival area of after-party, media, and all that. I think the elite athletes would agree that Spartan seemed to have just lost their heart for it the past few years, but Tough Mudder sure didn’t.

 

We stayed in the “glamping” tents that Tough Mudder organized for us on site. After my experience at Spartan World Championships a few years ago, when we were supposed to be glamping in the desert and it was a fairly scarring experience, I had a lot of apprehension about doing this again before such a big event lol! I think Tough Mudder did a great job, though. We showed up and registered, and they immediately told us which tent we were in, which was labeled and easy to find. Unlike at Spartan, someone hadn’t already slept in it, there wasn’t garbage everywhere, and loud dune trucks driving literally all night long. It was quiet at night, the tents had new bedding, and there was even a solar-powered battery bank you could charge your phone with off USB and a light for night time. Floors were covered so you weren’t just on sand, they put nice floor mats down, we got a towel. Cots were fairly comfortable… a little saggy in the middle, but I found it sort of like sleeping in a hammock, and I actually slept great! Temps got pretty cool at night in the desert, but I found they provided enough bedding and I only had to put on pants and a sweater to sleep on one extra chilly night. They provided bathrooms and showers a really short walking distance away, which had hot water for the most part, except for right after the event when everyone was trying to shower at once and the hot water ran out. I didn’t really mind; I love camping and to me, part of it is to get away from our cozy daily lives in to a bit of a different element where everything isn’t always perfect.




Also, the food was so good! Tough Mudder provided breakfast and dinner. I was expecting the catering to be typical flavourless pasta, but it was pretty top-notch healthy meals. If you were gluten free or vegetarian, you’d have no problem as options were available. One night, we had grilled fish with a lemon-dill sauce. Another night, Moroccan chicken and rice, and after the race, homemade pesto chicken pasta.

 

Tough Mudder had organized shuttles every few hours to take us to the various destinations we could explore – the old city, Elephant Rock hike, Aljadidah Arts District, and Hegra tombs. There were some issues with the bus drivers not following instructions and getting the busses stuck in deep sand, which threw off the schedule a bit, but I think it was more of a language barrier than an organizational issue on Tough Mudder’s part. Also, like I mentioned above, this country runs on it’s own more relaxed schedule, so busses weren’t necessarily exactly on time. A good effort on Tough Mudder’s part, though!

 

The race itself was well done. I had a few complaints, but I’ll start with the positives. Tough Mudder has done lots of these Infinity events and know what they’re doing. The pit was well organized, and every athlete had a section to place their nutrition and items that we could grab as we lapped through. To explain to those who aren’t familiar, the format of this event is a lap-style course. It’s 8 hours long, and you do as many 10km laps as you can within that time frame, so every time you finish a lap you can grab food/water/sunscreen etc. from your pit area. The only time we experienced any theft was in the pit; a lot of athletes were missing soft flask bottles after the race, but at $30 a bottle and the fact that they break all the time, I think it was other athletes grabbing things or getting mixed up about what was theirs. Nothing was ever taken from our tents, there was lots of security, and I found the country super safe outside of the pit zone lol! The registration process was smooth, rules really well explained, and the timeline of the weekend well-advertised. Things generally ran on time, outside of a delayed start due to weather conditions.



My main complaint was that the obstacles were too easy! However, I totally understand why Tough Mudder did this. They’re trying to bring obstacle racing to this part of the world where people are totally unfamiliar with it. They did have open heats, where the public could sign up to run the course, and we got to eat dinner a few nights with some locals running their first ocr! They were so excited and asking for all sorts of tips. Tough Mudder wants to make the obstacles fun and do-able for first-timers, so they’ll go tell their friends what fun they had and hopefully grow the sport. I doooo think at such a prestigious event for the elite racers, with such a big prize purse, there should have been harder obstacles. Maybe obstacles that just the elites had to do, and open-course racers got to skip, however I realize what a logistical challenge that would be - obstacle build time, overhead cost, the long list goes on. I think many don’t realize what goes in to putting on an obstacle race. You need approval at most venues to place an obstacle; at ski resorts, they have buried electrical wires you can’t hit, and things like that. This event actually took place on ancient burial grounds, so Tough Mudder wasn’t allowed to dig water pits, which a lot of their signature obstacles involve. In training, I’d been preparing to swing at and jump for nets, getting my callused hands ready, and worried about how my grip strength would hold up for 8 hours of obstacles. There was really only one overhead obstacle, and it was just easy rings to swing through. There was a loooot of crawling, which my knees are paying for. I just think there could have been some solution or compromise where elites could have had access to some more challenging obstacles. Maybe then open racers would see the elite obstacles and want to try them; Tough Mudder could charge for classes and coaching that people could take to learn how to do them.

 

Anyways, my second complaint was just that the course was a bit boring, but I don’t think that could have been avoided. It was just very flat and open. Just down the road, there were so many amazing rock formations and canyons that would have been incredible to run through. However, Tough Mudder said this was the ONLY place they were allowed to have an event venue. It’s pretty amazing they managed to pull off an event at all, in a country newly open to tourism who are totally foreign to the concept of obstacle races. Because Al Ula is an ancient city and protected area, it sounds like they were lucky to get a location at all.


 

Finally, the event timing was awful! It sounds like the company Tough Mudder hired had no idea what they were doing, but again you can’t really blame Tough Mudder, as they’ve never had an event in this country before. Having done some of these 8 hour races in the past, it’s pretty important to get splits on your competitors. It’s really motivating when you’re running for so long to know how many minutes ahead of or behind you someone is. Timing didn’t seem to be working at all, the timing company seemed to be doing things manually by writing down our bib numbers as we lapped through, and taking our time with a stop watch. There wasn’t any kind of leader board to look at until over four hours in to the race. I actually didn’t even know what place I was in until lap 5. A giant leader board would have been awesome, so I could see how many minutes ahead the leaders were, and how far behind me a competitor was. Ryan said his last laps he was pushing super hard, because he was worried 3rd and 4th would catch him! It turns out he had a 20 minute lead on them, and could have chilled out… after 8 hours of running, your joints really want that, trust me!


It sounds like Tough Mudder is planning to have more of these style events. The really nice thing was, they approached us several times for feedback. The number of times Ryan and I have said to each other, “Why don’t the race organizers ever ask the athletes, instead of making these silly decisions that make no sense,” I couldn’t count on two hands. It was really awesome to have them actually approach us and ask for feedback, genuinely caring about our responses. We mentioned these things to them, and I think they’ll work really hard to iron out any imperfections in future events. Overall, I think it was one of the most well-organized events I’ve been to in a long time. Way to go, TM!


Post-Race DQ before flying home


I’ll put together in a separate blog how I trained up for this, whether I’d like to go back if they host more events like this on the other side of the world, and a little breakdown of how my race went! I hope if you ever travel to Saudi or Morocco, you find this helpful!


 



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