Jeremy Curran: The King of Wadi Bih

The streets of Umm Suqeim and Jumeirah Beach are blissfully quiet at 4:30 AM. Only the rare passing car will interrupt the silence. I confess I would have little reason to know this fact about my Dubai neighborhood, but for the unusual training habits of the man I was up early to meet for a run last week: Jeremy Curran, the winner of this month’s Salomon Wadi Bih 72K ultra in Dibba, Oman. The Wadi Bih ultra was notable for two things this year: the dreadful conditions and Jeremy's new course record. Wind gusts exceeded 100 kilometers per hour and carried sand and loose stones into the faces of the runners. Temperatures plummeted into the low single digits, leaving unprepared participants suffering from hypothermia. The runners’ encampment near the start/finish area on Dibba beach was a ruin by Friday afternoon. And then there was the 44-year-old Jeremy Curran, a native Australian and resident of Dubai, who took off into the storm in a singlet and shorts and smashed his own 2013 course record by more than eight minutes. 

A mutual friend offered to set up coffee with Jeremy the week after the race. I jumped at the opportunity. My interest was piqued by a photo of the Wadi Bih start. It shows Jeremy taking off from the line as if he is running a 5K, with the other participants behind him clearly embarking on an ultra that could take call day. The odd juxtaposition fascinated me, and I wanted to hear how Jeremy had defied the horrific elements to set a new course record of 5:28:15, which meant averaging nearly 4 minutes 30 seconds per kilometer over 72 kilometers of rough mountain jeep track with significant elevation. It seemed almost unbelievable that he had done it in a year where the conditions were easily pronounced "the worst ever."    

I had heard that Jeremy usually ran in the early morning before work. At our meeting over coffee, I somewhat brashly offered to join him for a run the following week in a George Plimpton-esque bid at participatory journalism. Having made that offer, I was dismayed to learn how early Jeremy actually starts. Our 4:30 AM meeting time on Al Wasl Road was in fact a late call for Jeremy, a small concession to my need for sleep. On weekdays, Jeremy is generally out the door by 4 AM and will start as early as 3:30 AM if his planned mileage requires it. I wanted to run with him to get a feel for the training regimen that had produced his recent successes. One sleep-deprived day seemed worth it. For his part, he was happy to oblige as long as I was comfortable with the early start time and his planned pace. We agreed on the time and a meeting spot between our respective homes.

On the appointed day, I fought back a series of yawns and stumbled out the door into the pre-dawn silence. I had been awake for forty minutes already, and as I limbered up in front of the meeting point on Al Wasl Road, I performed a quick inventory of my key systems. Head? Cloudy. Heart and lungs? Mostly asleep. Legs? Like bags of wet sand. I have always had trouble getting my body awake and ready for exercise in the morning. In my college rowing days, I worked around this issue by going down to the boathouse early before morning sessions so that I could begin my warm up routine 20 minutes before everyone else. I still try to wake up at least an hour before any early morning run to have time for coffee, toast, and some light dynamic stretching. But asking my body to rouse itself at this hour was a non-starter. It was going to be shock therapy all the way.  

I had little time to reflect on how much the next hour might hurt because I soon heard the tick-tick-tick-tick of a runner’s footfall approaching. I could not pinpoint the direction from which it came, but the cadence sounded a good deal faster than my warm-up pace. I braced myself for the run ahead and turned to see Jeremy enter the amber glow of a streetlight down the road. He was coming from the opposite direction of his home, so I could only assume he had decided to get in some extra distance - apparently he had not extended the concession of a 4:30 AM start to himself. About twenty yards away, he gestured up the road and said “this way.” I could see he did not intend to break stride for a greeting, and so I started off and settled in next to him.

We clipped along around 7-minute mile pace heading north toward the Dubai Water Canal. The absence of traffic meant we could take to the roads, which entirely transformed the experience of running along the normally-congested Al Wasl Road. When we crossed the middle of the intersection at Umm Al Sheif without slowing, I began to see the attraction of running at this hour, when the abandoned roads belonged only to the runners and maybe an ambitious cyclist or two. 

Jeremy had indeed been out already. He was doing 25 kilometers that morning and so had started 30 minutes before meeting me and would continue another 20 to 30 minutes after I finished. I felt oddly like a slacker despite my rising and running far earlier than normal. We began chatting about his recovery from Wadi Bih and his next big race, the Paris Marathon in early April. I soon forgot about my body’s resistance to the early morning start and enjoyed settling into conversation with a fellow running addict. And given that we were moving faster than my usual easy pace, I was happy to see that I could maintain the conversation without disturbing my breathing too much. 

Our run provided an opportunity to follow up on the conversation of the previous week. While having coffee, I had noticed that when Jeremy speaks about running, a special energy enters his voice. His Australian accent is light and his speech has a neutral, matter-of-fact quality to it, which are traits in keeping with his role as corporate counsel for a Dubai-based project company. But when he talks about running, the pace of his speech quickens, the range of inflection increases, and his eyes become more animated. 

From all of our conversations, one things is quite clear: At this stage in his life, Jeremy is, by his own admission, a run junkie. He ran in school in Australia, mostly middle distances, and with a swift 9:05 best in the 3000m, he had showed some early promise. But by 18, he had dropped competitive running from his routine, gravitating towards rugby and lifting while at university. After graduating as a civil engineer and then moving around between Hong Kong, Saigon, London, Paris, and Dublin, Jeremy moved to Dubai in 2006, having picked up a law degree along the way. It was here that he found his love of running again. A friend invited him for a casual run in Safa Park, and after a few sessions Jeremy quickly remembered why he had enjoyed running so much in the first place - he was good at it. Now in his mid-30s, Jeremy began his second chapter in life as a competitive runner. Jeremy started running the weekly predictor race hosted by the Desert Road Runners in Safa Park and joined Abras AC, one of Dubai's speedier running clubs that has a knack for producing good track squads.

Like many masters runners who return to the sport after a hiatus, Jeremy pursued his avocation with the zeal of the converted, pushing his body to the limit. He started hammering the local races, trying to get himself back to the form of his teenage years in Sydney. “I was focused on speed and would just cane myself on every run, wrecking my body,” he recalled. It was only after his running had put him in the hospital in 2009 that he decided to make adjustments to his approach. He was racing at one of the Abras 10Ks in the Dubai Marina when he passed out in the finishing chute. His last memory of that race was entering the third and final lap of the looped course. He next remembers waking up in the hospital. How he got around the final loop is still a mystery to him, and he has no memory of it to this day. When he woke in the hospital in a semi-conscious state, he started to panic. His wife Laura was expecting a baby girl, and Jeremy was worried that something had happened to them. Then he noticed the tubes sticking out of his arms and slowly came around to a groggy realization that he was the one in need of care. “When I woke up, I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t remember my wife’s name. I was terrified that we’d been in some kind of accident,” he recalls with visible unease.

After the hospital incident, Jeremy says he became less inclined to 5K and 10K races and moved out to marathons, preferring the reduced intensity of the training, but loving the added time on the roads. There were additional factors as well. With children now arriving, evening track sessions became harder to fit into his routine. He also found that 5K and marathon training did not mix well and felt he should pick a distance to focus on. The 5K is a younger man's game, but the marathon holds promise for older runners, he reasoned. Since 2010, he has been going long and finding success in it. He ran 2:42 at this year’s Dubai Marathon, setting a new personal best by over a minute. “I wanted to go below 2:40, but it was a hot and lonely track and it’s easy to get bored out there,” he observed, adding, “I don’t know, maybe I just wasn’t fit enough.” He hopes to dip below the 2:40 mark in Paris in April. The time is a long-term target that Jeremy appears mildly frustrated not to have hit yet.

Like his decision to ease up on intensity and move away from shorter race distances, Jeremy’s training schedule is heavily influenced by his commitment to family. He and Laura now have three children at home (Jeremy also has a fourth child with his ex-wife), and between family commitments and his work as a lawyer, few daylight hours remain available for training. Hence the early morning schedule - starting out the door before 4 AM and back before 6. He admits that he can rarely sleep more than six hours per night on this schedule, which is surprisingly little for a masters runner with Jeremy's training load. But he prefers it this way because it allows for guilt-free training: “If I know that family is squared away, and that my work is squared away, then I can train as hard as I need to without worrying that I am letting someone down.” It is a regimented and compartmentalized approach to training where, as Jeremy puts it, “everything gets its due” - family, work, and running. It is also a strategy employed by a man trying to bridle a full-blown running addiction. 

Without his strict routine, one suspects his love of running could throw the rest of his life out of balance, as it almost did in 2009. His hospitalization after the Abras 10K still weighs heavily on him: “I think you're allowed one mistake, but do that again, risk hurting yourself badly, when you have a family...then you’re just an idiot.” Jeremy dialed back the intensity of his running program again after his son Leo was born. He wanted to have more time at home to help Laura. Now that Leo is two, he is allowing himself more freedom on the roads. “I feel like I can really let the obsession take over again, and just let it wash over me. Now I can become as big a running nerd as I want,” he says with a smile, knowing that he is speaking to a kindred spirit. “I really can’t stop.” I recognize the addiction, and I admire the impressive balance Jeremy seems to strike between obsession, obligation, and love. 

Apart from the early hours, Jeremy’s training is conventional for a marathoner. It includes an interval session, a tempo run, and a long run, with lots of steady kilometers in between. His volume averages around 140 kilometers per week, but can top out between 180 and 190 kilometers in preparation for ultra marathons. These might not seem like big numbers when judged alongside professional marathoners, but they are impressive for someone who comes home from a run at 6 AM and spends time with his family before heading out the door to a full day at an office gig. After my morning outing with Jeremy, I felt depleted before leaving the house for work. I found myself doubling up on coffee orders during the morning and struggling to stay alert at my own office gig by late afternoon. Even allowing for the adjustments of the body’s internal alarm clock, it was hard to imagine doing that much volume, that early in the day, on a weekly basis.

At Wadi Bih this year, all of those early morning hours paid off. Toeing the line in Dibba only two weeks after his PB at the Dubai Marathon, Jeremy had not attempted to put any additional training in his legs. He had just focused on recovery and maintaining his fitness with some easy workouts. He was determined to break 5:30:00 at Wadi Bih this year - slightly more than a six-minute shave off his 2013 course record. He had not accounted for the wild weather, but he tried to ignore it, putting his head down and quietly going about his business before the race. At the start, he looked like a man in the wrong event. Unlike everyone around him, he carried no headlamp, warm layers, poles, or water bottles. What he had that no one else in the field could match, however, was an intimate knowledge of the route and a course record to his name. He already knew how it would feel to unspool his energy patiently over the 72 kilometers of Wadi Bih in order to leave nothing in the tank when he returned to Dibba. After his one potential challenger dropped in the first half, Wadi Bih turned into a race between Jeremy Curran 2017 and Jeremy Curran 2013. He knew his 2013 split times by heart and monitored his progress relative to his 2013 pace.

Wadi Bih is an out-and-back course that summits the steep Wadi wall at the halfway turnaround point. When Jeremy reached halfway, he was 30 seconds ahead of his 2013 course record pace. He tried to remain calm as the wind blowing across the top of the Wadi whipped him about, almost carrying him off his feet at one point. The sugar and caffeine he had ingested during the first half of the race made keeping calm a challenge. According to many of this year's Wadi Bih runners, the wind gusts at the top of the Wadi produced a feeling of almost animal fear, and Jeremy was no exception. But he was ahead of his 2013 record pace, and so he decided to put his head down and see what would happen in the second half. 

From his previous experience at Wadi Bih, he knew that the real test would come in the final 10 kilometers, when his blood sugar was through the floor and his quads were pounding from the steep downhills coming off the summit. Things went well for a while on the return journey, but his spirits started to dip mightily in that final 10K. “When I hit the final climb over the dam at the end of the Wadi, before the turn for home, I was seriously in struggle town,” he said. “I nearly broke when I got to the bottom of that hill.” To add to his misery, the epic winds gave him a final kick just as he left the Wadi and made the left turn heading back to Dibba. He steadied himself and turned his back to the wind. It was only a few kilometers to the finish with a tailwind to help, but Jeremy was emotionally and physically drained beyond anything he had experienced. Just then a friend drove up in a support vehicle and played a voice recording of his children from a phone in the car. Jeremy heard it, and in his state of exhaustion, he thought his children were on the phone talking to him live. The dedicated family man inside Jeremy began tearing up as he ran next to the car, but it gave him the emotional lift that he needed. He was ready for the final push back to the beach at Dibba. 

The scene at the finish was hardly what Jeremy had expected. The wind that had nearly blown him off his feet at the top of Wadi Bih had wreaked havoc on the beach. The storm had knocked down the finish line arch, leaving only a stray support pole on the ground to mark the finish line. Spectators and race officials were safely indoors. In what must have looked like a mash up of a post-apocalyptic thriller and an obscure running genre film, Jeremy arrived at the debris strewn finish area with no one to witness the end of his heroic journey but himself. Or perhaps there was also the Jeremy Curran of 2013, the shadow that had run beside him on the Wadi walls, which had been the only true competitor and companion Jeremy had throughout the long morning. Eventually the organizers presented Jeremy with a medal, and Graham Rafferty, the chairman of the Desert Road Runners who volunteers to handle the timing each year with his wife Katrina, certified Jeremy's new course record. But the bleaker, solo ending was in many ways the more fitting one for a man whose wont is to rise and run alone every day in the dark, and who seems to run because he is compelled to by inner forces rather than a need for external validation. In the end, Jeremy was the best possible witness to his own very personal triumph. He had raced his former self, his younger self, up and down Wadi Bih, and he prevailed in the unlikeliest of circumstances.