Proud Irishman, IT professional, and enthusiastic endurance athlete, 51-year-old Eion Keith, beat back a strong challenge from Oman’s Hamdan al Khatri, to win the inaugural 170 km Oman by Ultra Marathon du Mont Blanc (UTMB)Champion’s title with a strong finish in the early hours of Saturday morning.
The race village in Al Hamra, was the eagerly awaited finish line for Keith, where a few hundred hardy souls braved the cool temperatures, and the late hour, to give the new champion a rousing reception as he crossed the line looking remarkably composed considering his exertions.
Keith’s wife Helen, herself a competitor in the 50 km event earlier on the Friday, waited patiently alongside the media and supporters, outwardly calm, yet excited and with the concern for his welfare that those close to all of the ultra-distance competitors must have felt as the athletes entered a second night in the rugged Jabal Akhdhar, Hajar Mountains, Jebel Shams arena. “Having got to the front, I think he’ll be too strong mentally, and maybe physically, for the young Omani,” she said quietly, with the confidence of knowing her man.
“Hamdan started really fast,” said an elated Keith, “But I knew if I could hang in there, my experience would work in my favour, and that’s exactly how it worked out. I caught him on the big climb and managed to have a bit of a burst soon after that left me a wee bit clear.” Keith was gracious too, in his praise of the Omani, still a relative novice at endurance running, and echoed the thoughts of many observers in saying .
“He is a tough competitor, and it’s only a matter of time before he or one of the other Omanis wins this championship.”
Kaori Niwa of Japan took out the Womens Ultra-distance title with an emphatic performance, over Anita Lehmann, with Alena Shevchuk predicted to be next home. Francesca Canepa overcame drama, getting lost close to home, and the gutsy challenge of Meredith Edwards to win the women’s 130 km, with Kath Leguin a solid third. Favourite Romain Olivier trounced the men’s field over the same distance, over compatriots Julien Chorier and Seb Chaigneau.
However these events are labelled, they truly are challenges worthy of the name, and with a little tinkering will surely become a permanent fixture on the international athletic calendar, as the OmanSail expertise in event management, and an enhanced public profile ensure that thousands will pencil in the Oman National Holiday weekend 2020, as one, not to be missed.
The 2019 Oman by UTMB festival concluded with a family day yesterday featuring 10 km and 5 km events with special 2 km events for the stars of tomorrow, and OmanSail CEO David Graham in his address, paid tribute to all of the children and youth of Oman competing, in particular, and emphasised one of his organisations key objectives across the event, lies in promoting healthy lifestyles, good health, family and community wide activity.
It would be a very brave person indeed, based on the potential demonstrated by the Omani athletes in the main events, and the enthusiasm shown by the next generation, who could say that Oman does not have significant potential on the global athletic scene. As 2019 champion Eion Keith remarked, “The Omanis obviously share many of the characteristics of their North African cousins, and have the potential, as a nation, to become a real force in long and ultra-distance events.”
Photos by Lena Petersen, UTMB