As the last rays of sunshine fade behind the rocky mountains of AlUla and the mild daytime weather gradually gives way to cooler evenings, crowds flock to the makeshift stands erected near the car park of the Sahary Resort, a luxury campsite in the region.
In front of each stand, a flag with the EcoTrail logo and a mileage: “10 km”, “45 km”, “83 km” … A total of 550 people have come to register for the next day’s circuits, three trail courses, all established in the AlUla desert. Most of them are Saudis – 60% according to the organizers’ figures – the others are residents or tourists. The tail is bigger in front of the smallest circuit, but some hotheads have been tempted by the 83 km.
A trail in “a beautiful region”
Dean, a Californian living in Jeddah, is one of the most adventurous runners. Accustomed to desert hiking raids, the American seems excited at the idea of facing his first trail of over 83 km. “I normally run 50 km. I’ve already done ran 60 km and I still have some in the tank,” he says. Here it’s flatter, so I thought I’d give it a try.”
In his electric blue fleece, Remi just got his bib for the 45 km trail. This Parisian has been a “runner for a few years”, especially in Jeddah, where he lives. “There are local clubs that organize small races,” he explains. This EcoTrail was an opportunity to come to a larger race and see what it looks like. And Alula is a beautiful area.”
An eco-friendly race
A few meters away, a tall and large man watches the runners while scratching his chin. You can tell by the attentive gaze he has on the runners that he is one of the people in charge of the event. Indeed, he’s even the founder of the concept. Jean-Charles Perrin is the man behind EcoTrail, a French structure born in 2007 and promoting races in natural environments in a spirit of eco-friendliness and awareness of nature preservation. Operating in 12 countries across Europe and Asia, the concept is now arriving for the first time in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia.
It was the French Agency for AlUla (Af-Alula) the French organization in charge of promoting the region, which contacted him to deploy the concept in the country. “We thought it was a good idea,” says Jean-Charles, “their project to open up the region to tourism and discovery was in line with what we want to do.” He is delighted to be able to transpose his idea to a country that he finds “mesmerizing and protected like nowhere else.
A race for all ages
The next day, the appointment is given just a few steps away from the impressive Elephant Rock, at six o’clock in the morning for the two biggest circuits, 10 o’clock for the smallest of the three. For the latter, the weather, clear and relatively mild, is more than ideal for a trail. The atmosphere is musical and festive. There are men, women, runners in the prime of life, veterans and even some children. At 10 o’clock in the morning, an animator gives the kick-off at the microphone, launching the hundreds of amateurs on the sand track.
The arrival will be at the same place where all the competitors registered the day before: at the Sahary Resort. The first runners cross the finish line at 11 o’clock, out of breath. The first of them is Saudi Arabian and has just completed the first 83 km trail of his life. With the winner medal around his neck, Abdulaziz does not hide his satisfaction. “I feel proud, especially since it’s my first time, that I am the winner and that among the competitors, there are professionals with several trail experiences abroad”. The first woman to cross the finish line, Meredith, is also the first to finish the 10 km trail. Brushed with sunscreen under her sporty sunglasses, this American woman living in neighboring Jordan is no stranger to the trail of sands that she tamed in the Hashemite Kingdom. “I knew what to expect,” explains the runner. But it’s an honor to be able to see this landscape, because it’s still untouched, which makes it special.” Other runners will follow throughout the day, under a blazing sun. Most will finish on time, sometimes in pain. But no matter: the first Saudi EcoTrail is a success.