This is part 3. To view part 2 click here.
“Once men are caught up in an event, they cease to be afraid. Only the unknown frightens men.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The night before the long stage our tent became a surgical tent. One of the gals in our tent was a nurse and she was really terrific in helping everyone with their multitude of blisters. One gal’s feet were so bad they had to go to the med tent and have major cutting and bandaging done.
The two main ailments that were bringing people down were blisters and dysentery. All of my tent mates and neighbors were experienced marathoners and ultra-marathoners — much more experienced runners than I. They had all trained well. They were simply victims of the desert. Why I was spared much of this I leave to the guardians that seemed to walk with me. Going around my tent of 8 people we had one person with a pulled IT band and calf muscle, one sprained ankle, 4 people with crippling blisters rendering their feet painful to hobble on. There was one other guy who did not seem to have any major complaints though he may have just been quiet. I had one small blood blister after day two of wearing two pairs of socks. I popped it and bandaged it and it was fine.
Nobody in our tent had dysentery though it was rampant throughout the camp. Seemed like every tent had at least one person who hadn’t been able to keep food down. After two days of diarrhea and vomiting even the best runners were left with no energy. Even if they were able to keep going they had to stop frequently behind a bush. Obviously dehydration became a huge problem for them. Most people continued on despite their obvious physical pain. They weren’t there to win, they just wanted to finish this crazy challenge known as the Marathon des Sables.
I know it is hard for some people to understand the I-just-want-to-finish mentality but for those of us that get it, fighting through the pain is a kind of win in itself. Most of us were not really concerned with our rankings — it was more a one-on-one with the desert that can’t be measured by a clock.
The weather was not that terribly hot. It got to about 85 degrees in the afternoon but sometimes it felt hotter if it was direct sun. It would have been nice weather had it not been for the crazy winds. It seemed at times that the winds would just pick up and you had to really lean into it to keep going. Temperature was the least of our worries (at least the first two days). I saw a lot of bandaged ankles and taped knees from people who made a simple misstep on the rocks and dunes.
The more people I saw with things going wrong the more aware I was of how lucky I was and the feeling of being protected kept growing within me. I wasn’t taking it for granted at all. Believe me, I was not thrilled to have to traverse that kind of mileage but I was constantly brought back to a place of gratefulness that seemed to make my journey more bearable. Every time I started to falter I just looked up and said “I’m in Africa, I’m in AFRICA!”
On the morning of the long stage they confirmed we had 35 hours to finish the 55 miles BUT they threw in a little twist — we had to be at checkpoint 4 within 16 hours or we would be disqualified. Hmmm, that put a bit of a wrench in things. Check point 4 was the 50k mark. That was 31 miles in 16 hours. Sounded doable but 31 miles would be the longest I had ever gone in one stretch. A lot could happen in 31 miles and I had a lot of reminders hobbling and puking around me of what could happen.
I started the long stage feeling really great. I was really moving along in the first 10k and was actually ahead of a lot of people. Then I became aware of some hotspots under my right arm, my inside right ankle and on my left baby toe. I didn’t know what to do. I had another 50 miles to go and I knew that discomfort I was feeling was just going to multiply. I had to make an executive decision and I decided to make my first stop of the race at the first check point and see if anything needed attention. I would take ten minutes and take off my shoes and see what was going on. I had 16 hours, I was sure I could invest 10 minutes. Reminded me of Lake Placid when I kept asking my coach to calculate if I had time to change my socks….
When I got the check point it took me awhile to find a doctor to help me. Finally I found Dr. Eddy who had me take my shoes off. Sure enough I had the start of two tiny blisters. We both kind of chuckled at my petite blisters in light of the ravaged feet seen around camp. They hardly seemed worthy of the puncture and tape that he put on but I firmly believe that had he not done that I would have ended up with some really painful blisters. We put some tape on my arm where it was chaffing. All fixed up and ready to go. One problem. EVERYONE had left the check point. I WAS LAST!!! Oh my God!! I panicked. There was nobody left. Everyone had gone ahead.
I really started to book my way out of check point 1. I had been really lucky so far and had not had to actually use my compass or even really look for route markers. My strategy of never letting the other runners out of my sight had worked so far but now I was really panicked. I had spent nearly 30 minutes in check point 1, could I catch anyone?
I started to close in on some of the walking dead. My adrenaline (scared out of my mind that I would be stuck lost and alone in the desert) made me just plow through. After I passed a handful I started to feel a little calmer. Okay if I were to pass out or something at least someone would have to step over me to get by….
I made the mistake of following some guy from Germany. He went off course and we ended up doing a little extra rough terrain but ultimately I started to see some other people in the distance. I remembered that the fast runners had a 3 hour delay in their start so if nothing else they would pass me. Okay all is not lost, just keep on hauling. Lo and behold I came across one of the gals from the next tent she was really sick and having a rough time of it. She is a really great ultra runner (did 13 ultras last year and made it into Badwater this year — an invitation only race.) I felt really bad for her because she is really thin to begin with and three days of puking was not helping her energy levels. But she was still moving and still passing people. Tough as freakin nails. We chatted a little and she motioned for me to keep moving and she would catch up as she exited behind a bush.
I passed through check point 2 and I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure she was still following me. She was hanging tough. I needed her to hang tough because come nightfall I was going to drag her into the desert with me whether she wanted to go or not!! I was already getting nervous. Not enough people for me to follow. I’ve never run in the dark — she had a lot of experience. Even if she was sick she would be a better partner than none. We had a lot of miles to go before check point 4 but I was getting nervous that I wanted to make sure there were people around me.
It had been my hope to run straight through the long stage. Sitting here now I can’t exactly tell you why that had been a goal but it was. I knew plenty of people pulled over and slept during the long stage and maybe it was my naivete to think that I would be able to do it but I wanted to try.
We arrived at checkpoint 3 and we had the biggest surprise waiting for us. TONS of people were there including a lot of our gang! It seemed everyone was in the medical tents getting blisters operated on, resting ’cause they were dehydrated, or out back behind the tents puking up whatever was left. I had never been so happy to see so many sick people! (Well I wasn’t happy they were sick, was just happy to see my friends!)
I was ready to keep on moving but a couple of people were really hurting. We decided to band together and make a little group to go forward into the night. I knew I was wasting some time waiting for them but I also knew I needed them. I was so happy to have company going into the night that I didn’t care any longer about how long it would take.
So we set out on our march…. Six of us in total. Colleen and Alisha leading the front (they looked the strongest). Caroline and Jessie in the middle. Me and Molly taking up the rear. We had our little glow sticks dangling off the backs of our packs and we started to make our way to check point 4.
Very soon after leaving check point 3 I started to have the worst pain in my back. Very strange. Felt like someone was stabbing me under my left scapula. I was not happy. This was my first pain of the entire race. The ground was full of rocks and we all switched on our headlamps. For about 2 hours I was just staring at the ground trying to avoid tripping over a rock and feeling the knife in my back driving deeper and deeper. I was tense but I was so grateful to have these gals with me that I forgot about how trying this was.
We got to check point 4 before 9:30 about 12 hours from our start. Some of the gals wanted to continue on. I knew I couldn’t. It wasn’t even a choice. My back was hurting so much and I was having such a hard time with the darkness. My executive decision was made in two minutes. I was setting up camp for awhile at least to rest my back. Caroline and Molly were with me and we rolled out our sleeping bags. Jessie, Colleen and Alysha were contemplating moving on.
That was my night under the stars with no tent. I fell asleep instantly only to wake up at 2 in the morning wide awake ready to move on. Everyone was gone!! Even Molly. Just me and Caroline who had already been talking about dropping out. No way for me to get up and go in the dark by myself and no way could I just leave Caroline here by herself — that would be a dirty trick. Nothing else to do but button down and wait for sunrise.
Then the windstorm hit. Whoa, biting, cold wind whipping through the camp. Tents flapping, equipment blowing around. I hunkered down into my sleeping bag but it was piercing. I had to fetch my emergency blanket to cut the wind. Clouds covered the stars and I was secretly happy that I had not tried to continue on. That would have been terrible. Darkness, wind and clouds….
In the morning I rallied Caroline reluctantly to get up. She does a really funny imitation of me that I hope to get on tape one day. I basically tell her that come sunrise we are to be already packed up and ready to go at the first sign of dawn. She tries to walk but she can’t. I give her some Tylenol and inform her she has no choice, she’s going with me. I just kept thinking of what Marlie used to say to me — if you can win a point you can win two, if you can win two you can win a game, if you can win a game you can win a set, win a set you can win a match. You just have to move one foot in front of the other. C’mon we’re leaving…. (Caroline later reveals she was just too scared to tell me she wasn’t coming with me…)
As we were about to leave heads started popping out of the medical tents. Molly was still here, she wanted to go with us. Ian another friend was in the med tent too. Kerri who I had passed at check point 2 had made it afterall. My God what kind of super humans were these people? Any normal person would have quit already. Apparently the doctor’s had dragged them in during the night because they sounded so bad. Caroline and I didn’t sound bad enough so they just left us out there to suffer!!! Harumph!!
Ian wanted to quit. It had been 3 days since he had been able to get any food down. He looked grim. I told him to not make the decision lying down in the med tent. Molly talked to him too. He had come so far and it was only a little further to the next check point. That’s what I kept telling everyone. We are only going to the next check point. At the next check point we will reevaluate. I was aware of the clock ticking. Caroline was up and ready to go. “I’m going to start out because you’ll catch me soon enough” she said. I agreed. Molly set off with her. I decided to wait for Ian. A little voice was whispering in my ear that this was where I was supposed to be and I was supposed to make sure he got up and out of that tent. Who cared about the time? We were going to make the 35 hour cutoff easily. We only had to do 25 more miles and had 13 hours to do it in. We were good. We just had to get Ian up and moving….
Slowly Ian got up. He gathered his gear and we set out. I knew once he started moving he would be okay. Constant forward motion, it didn’t matter how fast we went as long as we were moving. I didn’t make a formal breakfast, I just figured I would eat as we walked and warmed up.
First thing we were hit with were the dreaded dunettes. They are like little roller coasters. You go up about 12-15 steps, cross over the top and slide down. Another 8-10 steps across the bottom and back up, over, down. By the third one I had to stop. Whoa I’m feeling dizzy, needed some food, tried to eat a poptart, wouldn’t go down so I chugged a couple of gels. About 6 more dunettes and we were heading toward a mountain.
All I kept thinking was thank God, thank God, thank God. There would have been no way that I could have done that in the dark. I would have fallen and twisted something. I was instantly aware that I had no more back pain. It was as if the back pain had come just to stop me from going forward the night before. I felt as if there was some kind of guide or plan. I was supposed to have slept at check point 4. I was suppoed to have met up with Molly and Ian and Caroline. I was supposed to do the rest of this in the daylight. I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
As we approached the mountain there was a camera crew out there and they stopped me to ask if I was thinking of quitting. “No Way” was my answer but I wish someone had told me my buff was on inside out!!! click here to watch.
The hardest part of the trip was climbing the mountain. I honestly don’t know how anyone did it in the dark. We climbed up using hands and feet and it was very precarious. One false step and we could easily slide into a crevice. Maybe the people in the dark didn’t see the dangers? I was scared and again thanked the guardian angels who knew enough to make me stop at check point 4. If I had continued into the night and came across this rock climbing I would have quit. I could barely do it in the daylight never mind at night. Once again I felt protected and cared for but I had to ask what the heck rock climbing had to do with a marathon?
Climbing down the other side was not easy either but seeing the long flatland ahead calmed me. Molly and Ian were ahead and I trailed behind Caroline and some other guy. We were doing it. Check point to check point.
By the end of the day we had picked up another guy in our weary band. I was feeling pretty good but I knew how much pain the others were in. I stayed behind to keep Caroline company for the last mile. I was so impressed with her. 30 miles earlier she had been ready to pack it in. As had Ian. But step by step, mile by mile they made it across some really rough terrain and soon we saw the bivouac. I crossed the line with Caroline all the while applauding her indomitable will.
We did it. We finished the long stage by putting one foot in front of the other and willing each other to finish. I was still feeling strangely good. I really didn’t understand why but I had long ago released myself to whatever energy it was carrying me across that desert. “You are exactly where you are supposed to be” was what the little voice in my head kept saying. Okay, okay, now just get me through the marathon……