Running Through History

A “Start” banner is strung incongruously between a pair of 2,000-year-old stone pillars amidst the Greco-Roman ruins. The sense of history is palpable ...

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By Alfie Pearce-Higgins. Photos by Ali Barqawi. Look out at the desert near the Jordan Trail from behind a natural flying butress.

From Umm Qais, cloudless biblical views stretch out over the Sea of Galilee, Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights. One can see Syria, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and, on a good day, Lebanon in the distance. Heading south, 390 miles of trails lead all the way to the Red Sea at the far end of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

A “Start” banner is strung incongruously between a pair of 2,000-year-old stone pillars amidst the Greco-Roman ruins. The sense of history is palpable as Mohammad Al-Sweity and I are set for our attempt to become the first people to run the Jordan Trail.

Waiting nervously as the midday sun beats down, I wonder what the countless people who have stood in the same spot over the past millennia would have made of two men, clad in short shorts, tight shirts and minimalist packs, about to embark on a 12-day fun run, an indulgence of 21st-century proportions.
It was on this site that the Bible describes Jesus casting out the demons of two men. Judging by the expressions of the bemused onlookers, some might consider us in need of our own exorcism.

Lena Annab, the charismatic Minister of Tourism and architect of Jordan’s resurgence as an adventure-travel destination, finishes her speech: “We wish you the very best of luck; you’re going need it.” The klaxon sounds.

With each early step, I concentrate on not tripping over the unforgiving Roman cobbles, conscious that to fall in the first few hundred yards would be an inauspicious start.

There are few better ways to understand a country, its culture, its history and its dogs, than by running across it.

A Long Time Coming

We leave the hilltop settlement and drop into the first of many valleys that span the arid hills of northern Jordan. Olive trees pepper the steep slopes; we see children perched precariously on makeshift ladders collecting fruit. The sun dips
toward the horizon basking the hills in golden light. After months of expectation, a sense of relief that our expedition is finally underway washes over me.

Sweity and I are an improbable running pair. More than 20 years my senior, he has children and grandchildren. He speaks little English and my words of Arabic can be counted on two hands, but we somehow manage to communicate when it matters. Even our running paces are rarely synchronized: although he is the better runner, he struggles with fatigue and injuries, while I somehow discover unexpected reserves of energy.

I first attempted to visit Jordan in 2016. After booking flights and pouring over hiking maps, a chance visit to a doctor in Kathmandu revealed a congenital heart defect. I spent the Easter of that year undergoing open-heart surgery in London, but Jordan continued to lurk at the back of my mind. So when, a few months later, I first stumbled across the Jordan Trail website, the decision to try to run it was an easy one.

Sweity and I have simply been brought together by a love of running, a shared ambition and a coincidence of timing. We independently contacted the Jordan Trail Association (JTA), and they helped to coordinate and support an Anglo-Jordanian joint attempt.

Three hundred and ninety miles would be the farthest I have ever run and initially I suffer from the fear of failure. But soon I realize what many already know: that without the pressure of racing, running can be a much more comfortable experience. Although I have never been a serious contender in competitive ultramarathons, I am incapable of resisting the urge to try to catch the person in front or hold off those behind. The Jordan Trail teaches me how to take a mature, mindful approach to endurance.

A night sky while camping in Majdaline.

A Land of Refuge

A few hours later, we reach the top of a pass and catch a glimpse of a red Ford pick-up in the distance. Our crew, generously provided by the JTA, enables us to cover the 35 to 45 miles each day carrying just water, a few energy bars and a windbreaker.

In charge is the highly efficient George Inkababian with his ever- cheerful sidekick Sanad Al Hawamdeh. Mohammad and Mohammad (we soon resort to surnames) grew up as shepherds and know the trails intimately. On some of the trickier sections, they join us, somehow managing a gentle jog while simultaneously talking on the phone and smoking. Ali Barqawi, a leading Jordanian adventure photographer, is there to chronicle the figurative and literal ups and downs. All of them continually ply us with tea, pastries and good humor.

Although one hears little of Jordan, there may be few countries with a more interesting story. Northern Jordan sits at the heart of the “fertile crescent,” an area that hosted the development of the earliest human civilizations. While Britain was still populated by hunter-gatherers, the first libraries were being built in modern-day Jordan and neighboring Syria.

Until the mid-20th century, journeys such as ours were a common occurrence across Europe and the Middle East. Soldiers, pilgrims, migrants and even students would frequently cover hundreds or even thousands of miles on foot, living off the generosity of locals.

An oasis of stability in the Middle East, modern Jordan has long been a refuge for those fleeing neighboring conflicts. Following successive waves of immigration since 1948, two million Palestinians now account for nearly 20 percent of Jordan’s population. Most recently, as many as a million Syrians have escaped from the neighboring conflict and sought sanctuary in Jordan. The majority live in camps on the eastern border but we see occasional United Nations tarpaulins fluttering in the breeze.

It’s hard to escape the cruel irony that endurance challenges are an indulgent hobby for us but a necessity for many others. The self-harm and self-help of ultrarunning has never made much rational sense, but for me it forms a vital physical and psychological outlet.

One of many tea breaks on the trail.

I lie on a carpet in the sand beside the fire, muscles satisfyingly sore, stomach gratifyingly full, tea and tobacco in hand, listening to the soporific notes of a Bedouin flute.

Alfie Pearce-Higgins

Running Through History

The route may pass along some of the oldest continuously used paths in the world, but the Jordan Trail is a relatively recent concept. In the 1990s, the British climbing duo Tony Howard and Di Taylor were working on a trekking guidebook when they conceived of the idea.

“We were lying in sleeping bags by a campfire under the stars when we had our eureka moment,” says Howard. “If we could complete a few missing jigsaw pieces, we could create a country-length trail that would not only pass through most of Jordan’s best antiquity but also link village communities along the way.”

The pioneering couple were among the first hikers to complete the Jordan Trail and remain heavily involved in its development.

Even in remote areas, we are never alone for long. Harsh barking usually marks the first sign of inhabitation. I’ve been chased by everything from Tibetan Mastiffs in the Himalayas to street dogs in West Africa, but the Canaan dogs in Jordan inspire a new level of terror. Wary of strangers and wearing nail-studded collars, these canines have been trained over the centuries to protect livestock from wild wolves and hyenas. Fortunately, they have also learned to recognize the motion of a stone being picked up. We soon perfect the art of swooping down mid-stride to arm ourselves.

The hospitality of the Bedouin contrasts with the hostility of their dogs. Wizened old men beckon us to join them for sweet tea and unfiltered cigarettes in their temporary camps—makeshift tarpaulin tents thick with smoke and smelling of the animal skins needed to insulate against the night’s cold. Children wave and shout excitedly, although for some it proves too much, and they burst into terrified tears at the sight of us. The incongruous ring of a mobile phone and a rusting Toyota pick-up truck are the only signs of modernity in this timeless nomadic lifestyle.

Each evening, we have the luxury of arriving in our camp to find the fire already smoking. Local communities deliver gigantic pots of food swaddled in blankets to keep them warm: mountains of maqluba (an upside-down rice casserole combined with vegetables and spices), rich juicy hummus, succulent spiced chicken, fresh unleavened bread and finely chopped lemon-soaked salads. That I succeed in replacing the estimated 80,000 calories burned on the trail is a testament to the delights of Jordanian cuisine.

After gorging myself, I lie on a carpet in the sand beside the fire, muscles satisfyingly sore, stomach gratifyingly full, tea and tobacco in hand, listening to the soporific notes of a Bedouin flute and looking up at a sky full of stars and experience a rare level of contentment. Never have I slept as well as on the Jordan Trail.

The Monastery at Petra.

The Road to Petra

Waking early, I struggle to force myself out of the comfort of the sleeping bag and into the bitter cold. Sweity is already up, engaged in his dawn prayers: his mat unfurled on the sand facing toward Mecca, his body bowed to the ground. Breakfast is another culinary delight, and I soon become addicted to the crumbly sweetness of halaweh, a fudge-like food made from tahini and pistachio—an ideal running fuel.

The trails are both a dream and a nightmare for a runner. They are constantly changing, winding their way around mountains and dropping sharply down steep slopes to cross dry wadis (ephemeral riverbeds), before an inevitable, grueling climb back out. The rocks are unpredictable, sometimes crumbling, sometimes slipping and sometimes holding firm. Particularly on tired legs and in fading light, they can be treacherous. My legs are soon bruised and bloodied from numerous clumsy falls, and several times I come close to tumbling over precipices. Sweity, on familiar home territory, proves to be the nimbler of us and survives unscathed.

Inevitably, there are moments when I long for the day to be over. The midday heat can be oppressive. On a few occasions, I deviate from the GPS track and am forced to climb treacherous cliffs to correct my course. But each day also promises new and unexpected delights. At the King Talal Dam, our camp on an exposed hillside overlooks the pristine water of the reservoir, and I wake to a spectacular sunrise. In the Zubia forest we run through idyllic glades and catch fleeting glimpses of wild boar. Near Rasoun we hack our way through thick bushes and emerge scratched, muddy and invigorated. Like Moses, we scale the side of Mount Nebo and survey the fertile plains of the “Promised Land” to the west, although my milk and honey take the form of Coke and Snickers.

As the days pass by and the distance accumulates, the scenery evolves. After 250 miles, we reach Dana, where all four of Jordan’s biogeographical zones meet: Mediterranean, Irano-Turanian, Saharo- Arabian and Sudanian. Villages nestle precariously on rocky mountainsides speckled with greenery and white flowers sprouting from inhospitable ground. Occasionally, I stumble across a stream and immerse my head in the clear, refreshing water.

At times, a gap opens between us, and I rest with the support crew while Sweity catches up. When time permits, they make Arbood bread, a simple combination of flour, salt and water. The stretched dough is fully submerged in the smoking embers of a fire for a few minutes and then removed and the ash shaken off. Bedouin shepherds can thus travel light in the mountains for weeks at time. We dip the warm and wonderful-smelling bread into olive oil and salt as we sip our tea and, as always, smoke.
After eight days, we arrive at Petra. Of all Jordan’s historic cities, the ancient Nabatean city is the most iconic. Having seen countless images of the famous buildings carved into red cliffs, I wonder if there is much that the real thing can add. But from the moment I first set eyes on the intricate 2,000-year-old architecture, I am transfixed. I spend our rest day wandering the narrow alleyways and with each hour the changing light reveals new beauty in the preserved dwellings.

Runnning Out of Trail

From Petra we emerge into the deserts of Southern Jordan. By this point, both of our bodies are beginning to feel the effects of 350 undulating miles: heavy legs, sore backs and disintegrating feet. The first few miles each morning are the hardest but soon we settle into a familiar routine. When tiredness sets in, we search eagerly for the sight of the red pick-up, often accompanied by the sounds of ’70s rock, a favorite of the crew. The combination of good food, plenty of sleep and the ability to listen to our bodies and vary our pace accordingly help to prevent any real issues. I’ve suffered more in 50-mile races than on the entire Jordan Trail.

It was in these deserts, almost exactly a century previous, that Lawrence of Arabia made his name. The British archaeologist and soldier was just 28 when he joined forces with the Arab revolt against the Ottoman occupiers. I brought a copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom with me and, although I rarely have the energy to read more than a few pages at a time, his accounts of crossing the deserts on camel-back and planning guerrilla raids against the Turks are the perfect accompaniment. Much may have happened in the intervening hundred years, but the scenery remains immediately recognizable from Lawrence’s evocative descriptions.

Gradually, the town of Aqaba inches closer on the map. After 12 days of running, we crest the final hill and catch sight of the Red Sea glimmering on the horizon. As we descend the last slope and reach the outskirts of the town we are joined by several other Jordanian runners who have been following our progress. The atmosphere is jubilant, and I can feel the accumulation of two weeks of suppressed emotions building within me: relief that the goal is within reach, disappointment that the journey will soon be over, gratitude at my good fortune and, already, a desire to find a new challenge on which to focus.

It has become a tradition among the handful of walkers who have completed the Jordan Trail that the journey culminates with a symbolic emersion in the Red Sea. On the beach, a crowd has formed to welcome us. We pause briefly for photographs before plunging fully clothed into the cool salty water. I hold my head under the surface for a few seconds to allow the situation to sink in. After a cumulative total of 80 hours of running, I have finally run out of trail.

A day in Aqaba provides a brief but important buffer between life on the trail and the return to reality. I spend much of it staring vacantly out to sea. More so than any race I have done, the Jordan Trail felt like a personal journey and its effects go far beyond the physical: I learned to slow down, to focus on the present and to appreciate my surroundings. From the airplane window the following day, I see the terrain that took days to cover, pass by in a matter of minutes.

Slow travel enables one to gain a true appreciation of distances. The tranquillity of the trail makes space for reflection and often unearths new perspectives. Far from being small, the world is vast; we just often choose to confine ourselves to a small part of it. And seeing the gradual transitions of culture and terrain help to dispel the notion of borders as absolute and countries as distinct.

Information about the 650-kilometer Jordan Trail, including tour operators, organized groups, accommodation and GPS routes, can be found at http://jordantrail. org/. Sweity and Pearce-Higgins were the first to run the Jordan Trail.

Alfie Pearce-Higgins is a British runner and writer. More information on Alfie’s expeditions can be found @jogonalfie on Instagram and Strava. Ali Barqawi can be found on Instagram at @alibstudios.

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