The Mother of Hills

Stephen Sullivan is a gastroenterologist and marathoner, who worked in Saudi Arabia. The following is excerpted from his unpublished journal, Letters from the Magic Kingdom, which is a compilation of letters to family and friends detailing his experiences, in this case on a particularly painful, but worthwhile, run.

Today was race 13 in the Riyadh Road Runners' seven-month racing season. The season begins the first week in September with a fun run and then settles into a schedule of a race approximately every second week. It is a point series with nine of the 14 races counting towards the club championship. Included in the schedule is a three-race, 10k series and a cross-country championship. There is also an award for the runner with the greatest number of points. The only way you can win is to run every race and place reasonably well every time. This year, my training partner, Stefan, a crazy British Polak who has been in Saudi Arabia since sand was invented, will win it for the second year. Stefan doesn't take holidays during racing season. Can't risk missing a race.

... The two best runners missed a few races because of military commitments or being unable to get back from holidays. That is the only reason I won the 10k series with a 1st, a 2nd, and a 3rd. It is also the reason why, if I win the last race of the season next week, I will be tied with a 31-year-old Brit for the club championship (unless our two club speedsters come back). ...

... Peter is the Brit's name and hill running is his game. He just returned from his home in Cornwall where he ran hills to the pub everyday. I think he was homesick. Picture this:

The sun just coming up at 0630 hours when 50 to 60 crazy expats assemble at the starting line. The tooter sounds and we're off. Nice flat course, but what is this at 2.5k? The MOTHER OF HILLS! The grade is 1 in 3 and the 3k mark is halfway up the "mother-#@#!@." Up out of the wadi and into the sun, past the turn around and the first water stop at 4.5k. Then down the hill. Hope the brakes don't over heat. Hey! What's this halfway down the hill? It's the 5k marker! This is an out and back TWO looper! We've got to go up and down this "mother-#@#!@" again! That's over two kilometers of up-and-down "mother." Into a trance. How time passes when you're having fun. What's this? It's the 10k marker, but why am I walking by it at 30 minutes? Because it's half way up the "mother" you fool! What's that on the other side of the road? The 13k marker where my brakes will burnout in another 12 minutes (if I live so long). Finish line comes by at 57:03 and not a second too soon. Now if the five-miler next week is on a flat course, maybe I'll be able to catch that Cornish mountain goat who I could just see a minute ahead today. Inshallah — God willing!

Now who said I wouldn't be able to run in the Magic Kingdom?

(Published with permission of

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