Shore to Shore in Jordan

A dispatch from a Jordanian marathon that takes runners from the Dead to the Red Sea

By / June 2014

I am not a runner, but I admire people who run in marathons because of their discipline to push through pain and exhaustion to reach the finish line. This spring I watched with admiration as nearly a thousand people endured cramps and blisters to run the Dead to Red, a 150-mile relay race that began on the banks of Jordan’s Dead Sea and ended in the city of Aqaba, on the shores of the Red Sea.

Among the racers were professionals, amateur enthusiasts and novices like Abby, a 14-year old American living in Amman, who told me she ran because of the novelty of the race. “It’s definitely something I wanted to cross off my bucket list,” Abby said. “Not everyone gets to run from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea.”

Some competed to raise money for charity or draw attention to a specific need. “Jacks Army,” a group of students from the International Community School in Amman ran to honor Jack Davies, a former ICSA student who has leukemia. Forty students tried out for the honor of representing the school. This year’s team of 10 to 16 year olds finished fifth, a school record. “Our kids love running,” said Coach Duncan Hardy, who trained the team for eight months. “They didn’t need motivation.”

The Dead to Red is sponsored by the Amman Road Runners of Jordan. It began in the early nineties as a fun run suitable for athletes of all ages, genders and skill levels. The very first Dead to Red had two teams of six runners each. However, the unique challenge of the race soon attracted more serious competitors as well as bike enthusiasts and roller bladers. Most of the Dead to Red participants are expats but Marie Hoyez of Amman Road Runners said interest in the sport of running is growing in Jordan. The first and second teams in this year’s race, she pointed out, were both Jordanian.

Each team can have a maximum of ten participants. One teammate runs while the other nine rest in trailing vehicles. The fastest teams rotate their runners every 300-400 yards. This year’s winning team finished in 12 hours, 33 minutes, 33 seconds and averaged 12 miles per hour, roughly the same speed as the winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon.

The race started on a Thursday afternoon and officially ended 24 hours later. Jake, an eighteen year old from Amman, said the start was the most exciting part of the race. “Everyone had their adrenaline pumping and we sprinted from the line to get in front,” he said. “If we saw a team ahead of us we got excited about chasing them down. But after about 20 miles we said ‘forget this let’s just focus on getting to the finish line.’”

The course itself offered scenic beauty for those who could relax and enjoy the view while awaiting their leg of the race. The first 18 miles took runners along the jagged Dead Sea shoreline. White mineral deposits left by evaporation clung to barren gray rocks near the water’s edge, a reminder of the lake’s extremely high salt content. The Dead Sea is ten times saltier than the ocean.

After ascending from an elevation of 1362 feet below sea level, the next 95 miles of the course went through Wadi Araba. For those who appreciate desert scenery this stretch of the road offered a view of massive beige sand dunes and mountain ranges that glowed burnt orange in the sun’s reflection. Herds of camels were roaming free along this sparsely vegetated section of the highway where, as the skeletons and fired skins attested, animals and speeding cars did battle.

Most of the race took place at night when the cold desert air stiffened muscles and sleep deprivation tested runners’ patience. Hardy said the mental demand to stay focused was tougher than the physical challenge.

But boredom could be as much of a morale killer as achy muscles. At sunrise most of the runners had been up more than 24 hours and although numb with exhaustion they forced themselves onward, driven by their camaraderie and an inner determination to finish.

By noon of the second day most of the Dead to Red teams had either completed the race or were entering the Aqaba city limits. As each runner neared the finish line, their teammates climbed out of their vans to join them for the final 100-yard sprint. A few competitors who had completed the race lingered to cheer for incoming teams but most quickly retired to a soft hotel bed for a few hours of sleep before the evening awards banquet.

I stood among the volunteers and sponsors and looked into the faces of the runners as they crossed the finish line. What I saw was a mixture of joy and relief and pride at the accomplishment. After the high fives and post-race pictures I asked a few of the runners if it was worth the pain. They said they had no regrets. They said they hoped to do it again next year. As I drove away from the race I thought about training and joining them next year. I thought I might like to mark the Dead to Red off my bucket list, too.


Danny Wright, a regular EthnoTraveler contributor, is a writer living in Jordan.