A Chronicle of Marathon des Sables, part 3
Marathon des Sables, Stage 3 (38 km)
Tuesday 9th April 2013
The day dawned bright and warm, promising us a sweltering Stage 3. On paper it looked like a pretty flat and uneventful run despite its 38 km. Still feeling full after yesterday’s freeze-dried pasta bolognaise, I forced my breakfast down with a couple of gulps of water. Jakob, it seemed, was constantly hungry and looked forward to every single meal with the same excitement. This enthusiasm even manifested itself during the runs. “Oooh, I wonder what kind of bar I’ll randomly pick up next? Will it be chocolate or my favourite: orange?” But that’s what it’s all about. Attitude. As an athlete – or as a human being, I suppose – it’s your own choice how you will react to unexpected challenges in everyday life as well as in races like this one. If it’s one thing Jakob and I have learnt during our escapades, it’s that nothing ever goes as planned and that you always miss at least one crucial detail during the planning and execution of a competiton. It doesn’t mean that you should dispense with the planning altogether, only that you should pay more attention next time. A thing that swiftly came to mind, for instance, was the salt tablets we only brought with us as an afterthought to France last summer and that quite clearly saved our lives during that ultramarathon. It’s important to take unwanted surprises in their stride. That’s why I like Jakob so much. Or rather, one of the reasons. His ability to always see things from the sunny side. How are you doing, Jakob? You seem to be limping? “Never been better! I feel strong!” Doesn’t that bar taste aweful? You’ve had 30 of them already. “I LOVE these bars – they taste phenomenal! I could LIVE on them for an entire month!” Do you feel hot? Nauseous? It’s passed 50°C, you know. ”Oh, this is nothing. I love the sun, I really do.”
Setting out to the tunes of Highway from Hell for the third time, we had found a rhythm we were comfortable with. The first 13 km were pretty uneventful crossing a flat plain. As we ran through the pass of El Maharch we were passed by trucks with waving locals who high-fived us through their windows. Reaching CP1 we got a pleasant surprise with Patrick Bauer waiting for us, waving and posing for a photo. This will sound extremely weird but Jakob will support me in this observation which was the lasting memory we had of the encounter. Mr Bauer – wait for it – smelled of roses and soap. No, really, he did. Our noses had gotten so accustomed to our own sweat that when we encountered a normal human being who had paid a little attention to regular hygeine, our senses were overwhelmed. I hesitate to put this in writing, but it’s safe to say that it was one of the most wonderful aromas I had ever smelled.
Leaving the CP and crossing Ras Khemmouna Jebel, one thing became increasingly apparent. The heat. The first two stages had been accompanied by pleasant breezes that had made the oppressive heat bearable. This was the first day that we didn’t have the slightest stirring of wind at all. None. Zilch. Nada. For the first time I noticed that our shadows were very short, extending a mere 50 cm or so from our feet. This close to the equator the sun was almost exactly above us, beating us down into the ground like a sledge hammer. After passing CP2 we ascended a sandy medium sized ridge and it was all I could do to stand upright. 23,4 km into Stage 3 was my toughest moment during the entire race and Jakob had to pull me up the slope. My feet felt like leaden dead weights and the single thought in my mind consisted of moving one foot in front of the other. I had just taken two salt tablets, pulled a long swig from my water bottle and swallowed an energy gel. Despite all these precautions at the CP, I was experiencing the first signs of dehydration or maybe even sun stroke. I began feeling dizzy but I was determined to reach the top of the hill. Jakob, damn him, was skipping across the stones ahead of me as light-footed as a nymph. If only I had a little strength maybe I could strangle him when he got close enough? Not a lot of strangling mind you, just a bit. With heaving breaths akin to a moribund asthmatic I crested the hill and was carressed by a soft puff of fresh air against my face. I picked up my pace downhill, intent on giving Jakob a good throttling when I reached him but somehow I forgot all about it at the next incline. Feeling loads better, I followed my friend who was happily unaware of how close he had brushed to death only minutes before and just like that we were surfing down yet another off piste of sand.
The next five kilometres to CP3 were extremely heavy, the horizon moving further and further away without the Range Rovers of the CP coming any closer. For every little indentation in the ground we thought that the sand would stop, but no. Do you know how many different types of sand there are in the Sahara? I’ve heard that eskimoes have a hundred different names for different types of snow. Well, I imagine that the Berbers and Bedouins have a thousand different names for sand. I only had one, and colourful though it is, it’s hardly suited for print in a chronicle such as this. Reaching CP3 at 32,4 km we had less than six km left to the bivouac across an arid plain that looked like it once had been a sea bed. Unfortunately, the wind had died out, leaving us at the mercy of the late afternoon sun. Jakob was wondering if we should start running soon in order to overtake some competitors before the finish. Not feeling particularly frisky, I convinced Jakob to follow me in a quick walking pace. I asked how many he would like to pass before the finish line, and he promptly replied ”Fifteen”, in order to set an acceptable number. ”I promise that we’ll pass at least fifteen runners with the pace I set, but I can’t run a single step right now and we have to think about tomorrow. 75,7 km will be hard enough as it is without us overstraining ourselves today”. Said and done, we set a grim walking pace, passing at least twenty runners before we crossed the finish line in 6 hours 35 minutes. We had dropped below 600th position today, but I could live with that. Marathon des Sables would start for real tomorrow morning.
The mailman stopped by our tent in the evening, dropping off e-mail sent to us from our families and friends and even people we didn’t know before the race but that had decided to support our small little Swedish team with small texts of encouragement. Among others, we all got mail from Karolina, a mother of four living in Paris and who has followed the race for several years, as well as Rikard, who had run last year’s race and wanted to support us as well. The rest of you – Honey, mom, dad, Marija, Robert, Maria and Nicolas – you cannot imagine how much you lifted our spirits during the evenings and we can’t thank you enough! It had also become time to address an issue that had caused us quite a bit of trouble during the last couple of stages. We had to find a different solution for our gaiters. The plan was to glue and sew cut-up parts of our spare t-shirts onto our shoes. After dinner, we sat down with our design plans and got to work. I think I saw Jakob shed a few tears over having to destroy his trusted shirt that had faded from black to grey a long time ago. It was the shirt of the Malta Marathon, the first marathon he’d ever run. But its death served a higher purpose and to be honest it couldn’t have met a better end than protecting his feet in the most gruelling race on earth. We cut the shirts up by the sleeves, taped the edges with silver tape and spent a considerable amount of time convincing a male nurse to borrow his staple gun to fasten the shirts more tightly to our shoes. In the end our new gaiters actually looked pretty impressive.
Marathon des Sables, Stage 4 (75,7 km)
Wednesday 10th April 2013
I have learnt the hard way how my psyche works prior to hard races and the tougher the challenge the more nervous I seem to get. It starts the night before and if it’s really bad I can’t sleep at all. Jakob is the exact opposite and can never wait to get started. The very things that give me the shivers gives him little twitches of excitement. For instance, I was nervous for running during the night in pitch darkness in the Sahara. I mean, neither Jakob nor I had practiced particularly with our compasses and we were now at the mercy of our own shortcomings. “It’ll be allright! We’ll find our way. I mean, how hard can it be? You just follow the lights in front of us – everybody will have a glow stick attached to their backpack, right?” No arguing there. But still – the distance! 75,7 km! “Yeah, well we managed 108 km last summer, didn’t we?” Yup, we did at that. I’m always sick with anticipation when I’m about to embark upon something so tough that my mind has trouble comprehending the magnitude of it. Jakob simply thinks it cool. The tent was more still than usual, all the more so since one of our team mates, Ariel, had decided to retire due to severe dehydration with fever, shivers, nausea and dizziness. All of us had extreme respect for the distance ahead of us. At the same time, we all knew what we were capable of. As soon as I start running, my doubts run off me like water off a goose and I become completely and utterly focused on the task at hand, often compartmentalizing the distance into manageable smaller chunks.
Stage 4 started with Patrick cautioning us to take it easy since the temperatures would soar higher than ever before. The winner today would be the one who paced himself the best. When the gun went off we started running slowly than at the earlier starts. Everybody was taking it easy. We ran eastwards, over a flat and slowly inclining sandy plain, reaching CP1 after 11,5 km. We were handed two bottles with three litres and quickly poured at least half a litre over our buffs and heads to keep cool. Already, the sun was baking our heads and the wind had disappeared again. We didn’t bother to rest this early into the stage and started to walk up the ascent towards Jebel Zireg. Somewhat out of character, I heard Jakob grumbling behind me. I turned and was a bit surprised to see him struggling. Already? We had barely been on the run for a couple of hours and had a long way to go. “I’m OK. Just need a drink of water”, he panted. It was getting hotter by the minute and it was tough and slow walking up the slope.
Reaching the summit at 16,5 km we were once again greeted by a magnificent view of the surrounding landscape. These devilish little hikes up the slopes were always rewarded with fabulous vistas of the Sahara and what a beautiful part of the world it was. Struggling through heavy sand with salty sweat stinging my eyes I caught myself smiling, not for the first time reflecting that we were indeed blessed to be able to participate in a race like this. And then it hit me. This wasn’t a race against the rest of the competitors. Or even Jakob. It was a race against myself in an equally beautiful as brutal corner of God’s green, and right now somewhat golden and ochre, Earth. Latching onto a Japanese guy with a huge green backpack, we slid down the sandy slope towards the silted up gorge we would be following to CP2. On my way down I noticed the teensiest beginnings of an ache in my left ankle. I hadn’t twisted it or anything. It only started to tingle a bit.
Trying to pick our way among the shrubs and looking for pink-coloured rocks to steer by, we emerged from the gorge and found CP2 by a lone tree at 24 km. Picking up our water we rested for around 15 minutes on the rug in the berber tents before we picked ourselves up and continued along the path aiming for Oued Rheris and CP3 at 36,7 km. My ankle had begun to throb and right now, at around 14.00 in the afternoon, we once again found ourselves in the anteroom of Hell with no wind. During a short break when Jakob was refilling his side pocket with fresh energy bars, we heard a thumping sound behind us and turning, we saw a rhinoceros charging straight at us! No, I’m just kidding. But it might have been. Instead, it was the two top male runners Mohammed Ahansal and Salameh Al Aqra battling it out in a pace that was warpspeeds faster than ours. During this, the longest stage of all, the top 50 men and top 5 women were set loose three hours later than us in order to chase us down like hungry wolves. It also gave us a fascinating chance to experience their unfathomable speed in this terrain first-hand. They flew past us like gazelles and after a short while there were others. Salaris from Spain and Capo Soler from Italy were duelling over third place and there was Christophe Le Saux from France with his characteristic bandana and shoulder-length curly hair bouncing up and down for every step he took. I was so enthralled that I completely forgot the pain in my ankle and when we reached CP3 I had a new spring in my step. We had passed the halfway mark and were pushing to reach CP4 at 45,2 km before nightfall. The reason for this was that after CP4 we had the biggest obstacle of all in our path: the biggest sand dunes in Morocco stretching for almost 20 km.
When we reached Oued Rheris, the pink markings disappeared but the race officials had thoughtfully put up a marker with a compass bearing of 53° just before we dove down among the three-to-four metre tall shrubs. We ignored the British and French who were following each other in circles and forced our way through the vegetation in a more or less straight line, hoping to exit the oued soon and aiming for the CP we still couldn’t see. My painkillers were working fine and we reached the CP running the last stretch of gravel. While resting from the sun for a bit under the black canopy of the tent we noticed a woman dressed in a yellow shirt and with a characteristic hair cut be led by two medics to the medic’s tent. She looked dizzy and her legs were frankly of no more help than a couple of over-cooked spaghetti straws. It was Laurence Klein, last year’s female winner of the race. Another one of the favourites to win the race had overestimated her ability and run headfirst into the redhot brickwall of severe dehydration. Shrugging into our backpacks we started out toward CP4. After a pretty uneventful 8,5 km where the highlight had been to wave and say “Bonjour!” to the local kids cheering us on (and trying to make us part with our buffs which seemed to be extremely popular) we reached CP4 which lay nestled next a huge, smooth sanddune. We were handed two bottles of water each along with a glow stick to attach to our backpacks. We rummaged around in our gear, finding our headtorches, changed batteries and prepared mentally for the darkness ahead. Quite clearly the toughest part of the entire race with the highest sand dunes of the competition separating us from CP5. Donning his NY Marathon beanie, Jakob turned towards me with a huge grin; “Here we go! This is what we’ve been waiting for all week. 30k to go and the coolest 30k of the entire race!!! Gaiters, do your stuff!” Our gaiters were already, after a mere marathondistance, reduced to pitiful shreds of their former selves. Half of the staples fastening them to our soles had fallen off, the silver-tape-strengthened edge of the cloth was torn and tattered and apart from a few staples at the front of our shoes, the only thing holding them together was the extra reinforcement bear thread we had sown them tight with. After a quick prayer we started climbing. Only half an hour or so after we left the CP the sun set behind the mountain range directly behind us, sending our shadows crawling far ahead of us on the sand dunes in front. After a while we lit our head torches and followed the glow sticks on a couple of backpacks 200 metres ahead of us. Running at night has always had a special place in my heart ever since our ultra in France last summer. You’re on your own against the elements and you have none of the comfort of landscape or structures to lift the monotony of the darkness. It’s quite a lot harder on your psyche to run in the dark, in your own bubble of light illuminating only maybe ten to fifteen metres in front of you. The sand dunes were endless. Up we climbed and down we surfed, getting a bit of sand in our shoes for every descent despite our gaiters. A short while afterwards it got pitch black and suddenly a poison green laser cut through the night sky pointing out the direction towards the CP. We checked our compasses for bearing 73° every quarter of an hour or so making sure the course coincided with the laser. After a while we started zig-zagging through camel grass and every time we crested a hill I was convinced that the laser was on the top of the next one. The way it shone, however, it could have been placed 200 metres or 200 kilometres ahead of us. Pushing foolishly and dragging Jakob along behind me, I was panting hard when we finally reached the military truck on which the huge laser was perched. We both heaved a heavy sigh of relief and ran down the final 500 metres to CP5 where we gratefully accepted our water bottles and settled down inside the tent to empty our shoes of all the sand. We were exhausted by now and my ankle was, quite frankly, killing me. In our minds we divided up the remaining distance into two 10 kilometre chunks, telling ourselves that we’d run 10k many, many times before and that this would be a piece of cake.
Heading almost due north, this section was unbelievably boring. Even though it was close to 22.00 the temperature was still a good way into the upper thirties. The absence of the Big Sledge Hammer In The Sky was a huge help though and since nightfall we’d been pushed along by a cool, gentle breeze. We passed many a struggling, lone runner (or walker, since we couldn’t see anyone truly running) while none passed us during the last stretch to the bivouac. We fell into conversation with Lettish, Poles, British and French and tried to buoy their spirits as best we could. A couple of them tried to keep up but had to fall away after a short while. Since we couldn’t run we walked, covering big chunks in short amounts of time. Due to my ankle and fatigue I was having a hard time during this section of the race and Jakob lifted my spirits with one bad joke after another, chattering away about trivial stuff that I can’t recall at all but that helped me immensely while we struggled across the many stony valleys between us and CP6. Finally reaching it after 65,2 km, I spread out on the rug in the resting tent and closed my eyes for a second. I was asleep faster than you could say bottleneck and just as quickly I woke, startled at what had happened. “If you hadn’t been here, I might have just taken a nap and not woken until tomorrow morning. Jesus!” “Don’t worry. I would have kicked you in the ribs until you woke up. We’re friends, remember?” Not wishing to delve further into what kind of friendships that are proven by physical abuse, we slowly and painfully rose, as graciously as a couple of rheumatics, and began limping down towards the glowstick marker further on.
I don’t remember much of the last 10k other than that we seemed to pass a lot of people. I was pretty alert but I guess it was the adrenaline that rushed through me in response to the certainty that we would most certainly cross the finish line in another hour and, by extension, the worst part of the Marathon des Sables. Which of course meant that we were only inches from finishing the entire race. What was a last day’s simple marathon distance? I mean, come on! True to his irrational form, Jakob wished to sprint the final half kilometre and for once I relented, joining him in a crazed and spastic shuffling across the gravelly sand separating us from the finish line. 16 hours 43 minutes 59 seconds after setting out on Stage 4 we managed to stumble under the big, white arch and were greeted by race officials cheering and whooping. It was a phenomenal feeling and we were so happy that we gulped down the hot, sugary tea served by the sponsors Sultan without a second thought. We got huge hugs from the girls at the water tent, picked up our rations and went in search for our tent. There we met our three Swedish compatriots who were all smiles and patting us on our backs. Hurting in every – every – single muscle and joint, we cooked dinner, ate, crept into our sleeping bags and quicker than a clubbed seal fell comatose.