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Running 250km across the Sahara

Heat and Trust - Running 250km across the Sahara isn't just about the challenge, Its about solidarity too.

Running 250km across the Sahara in blistering heat isn’t just about the challenge, its also about solidarity too.

My Plane has just touched down in Cairo and I am nervous and full of trepidation. My friend Megan Steward, who is doing her first big ultra-endurance race alongside me, picks me up. We are here to run in the Sahara Race, rated by Time magazine as one of the top 10 endurance events in the world. 

It’ll be brutal - 250km in the harshest conditions lie ahead.Day oneWe wake at 4:45am; my body feels stiff, my back is aching and I am feeling a mixture of fear and excitement.

 Day one is meant to be the easiest of the stages at 38 relatively flat kilometres, but I’ve done a dozen or more of these types of multi day stage race endurance events and I know that day one is always a shocker. At 6:30am the gun goes, and we are off. 

The soft sand and strong headwinds and heat hit me like a brick wall. I feel like I’ve been plated on Mars as I get my bearings in this vast landscape. I have just come to Egypt, via Paris after the long haul flight from NZ and everything feels just a bit surreal, like my body and mind are playing catch up with the happenings around me. I pull back on the speed pretty quickly, reminding myself that experience should make me wise to blowing all my strength too early, but its hard when you are hyped up and excited and being passed by others shooting out into the desert like rockets but I know we have a long week ahead and that the race doesn’t even begin till the 5th day, the long day. 

Up till then its all posturing and really rather irrelevant to the overall results picture. Its not how you start, its how you finish.After skirting the slat lake for five and half hours, I arrive at camp feeling down, very sore and rather brutalised but immediately I get into my routine or recovering as best I can for the next day, hydrating, eating, preparing gear, writing up my blogs before I get off my legs and rest. Many spend the time socialising and sitting out in the sun, happy to be through the first day but I try and conserve and recover as best as I can, I don’t waste anything I don’t need. 

Everything needs to be done methodically and with calculated efficiency if I am to get through the week. I am planning on running the long stage of this race (each other these multi layers has one big, super long stage of between 80 and 110km) with my friend Sam Gash from Australia, I have had some scary situations previously on long day stages running in foreign lands, absolutely fatigued and dehydrated and getting lost, surrounded by wild dogs or running into trouble with local men, especially into the night phases so have decided two’s company.   

We ran the Gobi desert 250km race a few months prior, together and made a terrific girl power team, providing each other with moral support, encouragement and the odd ass kick or two when either one of us needed a concrete pill to keep going. But as I look around camp at the end of day one I don’t see Sam, where is she? She is usually finishing around about the same time as me, our pace is pretty similar so I get a bit worried when a few hours later she hasn’t come in and then, there she is crying her eyes out being helped over to the tent. Whats happened?  I race over.  Are you ok?  

Sam was attacked by an Egyptian man loitering in the bushes surrounding the lake during the race, an attempted sexual assault but somehow Sam all 4 foot 11 inches of her, managed to fight him off and  she got away, unscathed but shaken and in shock. 

The organisers found her after an hour of running alone and transported her to camp. That usually means you are out of the race but under the circumstances, they allow her to go back out and finish the first stage, albeit under close guard of a vehicle. She is not the only one. Half a dozen women have been attacked today but hers was the worst. 

A number of other runners are also out of the race. My dear friend Jack Denness a British running legend who the previous year had run the Badwater Ultra in Death valley 217km non stop for the 12th time and at the age of 75, was found unconscious on the course and rushed to Cairo Hospital; another man’s kidneys have failed and he is also on his way to hospital. Megan comes in five hours after me but in good shape and high spirits, grinning like a two year old in a giant sandpit.

Day Two

I am feeling better today even though the terrain in tougher. My body is slowly getting used to the heat, I have often found the body reacts violently on the first day of such adventures probably due to a combination of  jet lag, nerves and tension, dehydration and climate shock but by day two things often iron themselves out. 

The sand though, oh the damn sand. I had forgotten how much of a pain it can be in more ways than one. Its pouring into my shoes despite the latest in mum made gaiters designed to stop that very problem and the sand packed in there is making the shoes too small and the pressure is causing most of my toe nails to life and the blisters are developing nicely thank you very much. 

I know the nail are all turning black while I am out there running but I grit my teeth and will try to sort it out later. The scenery is incredible. After 30 odd kilometres we climb up onto a plateau as flat as a pancake and then to the final checkpoint. 

I guzzle water hungrily and look at the path ahead. Down the other side of the Table Top Mountain and across a huge open valley, int he distance I can make out more huge sand dunes and, way off, I think I see the camp… but it could be a mirage. A korean next to me who speaks no English, grunts something that sounds profane in any language, obviously feeling as desperate for the end as I am, he points in the direction of the “would be camp” Then we start the climb up the last huge sand dunes, grinding to a slow pace, half bent over, my form has gone to all hell, so much for the back strengthen and core workouts, right now I cant stay upright with this 10 kgs on my back and this steep monster in front of me. 

My backpack is chafing my skin badly and my back is open in places. The heat is mind-blowing when the wind dies down. My Korean mate and I struggle on together into camp.Day two done, tis time to repair what I can. 

I get my back strapped up at the medical tent and do my own blisters (not trusting the doc’s to do it right). My big toes is a mess. I rest and wait for Megan to come in. I hope she still wants to be my friend after all this. As the sunsets over the desert, we sit and marvel at the beauty around us. The pain and uncertainty of what lies ahead is forgotten in the last light of the successful day. and a feeling of peace and serenity and great gratitude settles in my soul. 

One of the rare moments of knowing “Why” you are here. 

Day Three

It’s a killer. The heat and the hard terrain make it the going incredibly hard. Its difficult to explain the level of difficulty we face, in a few emotionless, heatless, painless words, hard to convey how each step can be a struggle and yet, Wow we are here, doing it, living it… More people have dropped out. Feet are mangled. 

We skirt big dunes, slipping and sliding. When the terrain is flat, the sand is super soft, almost powdery. It seems like a never ending wilderness of sand, its in everything, every crevice and nook, literally.Today, I am running next to a lady from Portugal. 

She too speaks no English but we pat each other on the shoulder in the dire heat of the day and when things get really tough she grabs my hand and squeezes, a universal language of support, camaraderie and solidarity in the face of adversity, we need no words. I know she is saying “Hang in there mate”After a few hours, I reach the last checkpoint on top of a small mountain and sit down for the first time to empty my shoe. 

My sciatic nerves suddenly decides to scream its ugly shooting pain at me. I don’t dare move scared I won’t be able to (its happened often before due to the four  compressed vertebrae in my back). After a few minutes of deep breathing I gingerly get up and move off slowly walking at first, warming up again. After the break my muscles are already stiffening and aching.  

A few kilometres later I am in the flow again when another very female problems hits, “but its not that time of the month yet! I cry in my head” but my body doesn’t care its in shock and yes that monthly visitor has just decided to ruin my day. (God do I even have any tampax). 

Running along stuffing toilet paper down my shorts while trying to stop my sciatic from going again, I start to laugh. Blokes don’t have to put up with this sort of s…t. and you know its quite damn drastic when you only have one pair of shorts for the week and no chance to wash.  But hey worse things have happened, we won’t go into details here ….. ahem..Finally I see the camp in the distance, but it never seems to come closer. 

Time and distance get distorted when you’re when you ‘re in an exhausted state and desperate to just to rest.Finally 

I get there, relieved and shattered. Over the next eight hours, I watch the other poor buggers limping in. I’m usually in the top 25 of the field, so there are a lot of runners out there behind me who are doing it tough. It’s not the fast ones who impress me; it’s the ones who battle on longer and don’t give up. Their journeys, their pain is longer, harder, their minds have to be stronger to handle it and not give up. 

I watch a young woman come in. She can hardly walk and I wonder how she’s going to finish when she can hardly make it across the camp ground - but she is smiling and I know she will line up tomorrow and she will make it to the end. 

Day Four

After losing all my toenails, my right foot has blistered badly and my back is buggered. It’s got open sores from chafing where the backpack straps have cut into me or rubbed me raw and I am struggling with paralysing sciatica pain when I bend. Going to the loo is a mission in its own right, I am glad no one can see. 

It makes for an hilarious and humiliating sight.

Another 42km completed now it’s all about surviving tomorrow: 99km, 45 plus degrees celsius, with a broken-down body and a heavy pack. 

Once I get into camp though, I am feeling more at peace with it all and not so nervous about tomorrow, the big one, the scary one.. oh who am I kidding. I am terrified just trying to talk myself into it but the sunset is extraordinary - a sign that maybe everything will be all right.

Day Five 

The day we’ve all been fearing and pacing ourselves for has arrived. we are already walking wounded, exhausted after nearly four marathons in four days. Everyone has some sort of injury and we know today is going to push our willpower to the limit.I am scared of being alone in the dark part of this long stage, in face really scared. 

I have been lost and exhausted at night in the desert on a number of occasions and its damn frightening, especially when your water starts running out, you get sick, or even once surrounded by a pack of wild dogs (The Jordanian desert)We set out together at a strong pace and fly through the first three checkpoints, then we reach the Valley of the Whales, running past the fossilised skeletons of 40 million year old whales which had legs back then, its true we can see and touch them. 

They have leg bones…. freaky sight in the middle of the Sahara, whales with legs. But to be honest right now I couldn't give a damn about the huge legged creatures remains as we run past; our eyes are focussed on each step. The heat is blinding, heading into the high 40’s and all I can think about is getting through this 100 odd kms as fast as possible and in a well state. At checkpoint four we reach a spectacular sand dune. 

It’s some of the most amazing scenery I have seen in my life, but I’m too exhausted to get too excited.My back is screaming at me, but I am not alone in that private torture. My Irish friend Magnus has had a broken back too and is in a lot of pain.

We each pop a pain pill and grit our teeth. At the top of each steep sand dune Maghnus pulls turns back to me and pulls me up the last metres or two then I pull Sam up. This small wee gesture means the world to me and I am encouraged. 

It takes a lot when one is totally exhausted to turn and help a mate. We are a super team. At one checkpoint I have to empty my shoes as they are full to bursting with sand but I can’t bend down without my back going into a spasm. Maghnus gets down on all fours in the dark and helps me remove my shoes, empties it for me and helps me put it back on while I am hyperventilating from the pain. 

Such a small gesture in normal life becomes something heroic here and in that tiny moment of time I know I have a friend I will respect for life. 

We all go through hell during the day, each despairing at time while the other two offer encouragement. As dark descends we shake hands, vowing to stick together from here on in. Fourteen hours after the start, we haven’t stopped for more than two minutes at a time. 

Even wee breaks were on the run. Having to catch up to the others as quickly as possible, we weren’t going to stop. We can almost taste victory; there’s only 12 km to go after the last checkpoint. Then the train turns to powder. 

It’s like trudging through deep snow. Sam is struggling; she has shed a few tears today, at one point thinking of her recently departed and very loved grandmother, Sam swears she is watching over her today she can feel her presence. 

 I too have shed some tears more from exhaustion and physical pain, just wishing the pressure could let up for short while. At around 9pm, after 15 hours, we hit the dried out salt lake that marks the final 3 km of our endless journey. We’re all beyond exhausted. Just before the end, a meter roars across the night desert sky. 

It’s a  magical moment emphasising the victory just a few minutes later.  We all cross the finish line together, holding hands, ecstatic but shattered. I hug my mates hard, start crying again, sit to drink some water, then cry some more. 

We have made it. The big stage is done and dusted. Day 6 With drums beating every time someone crosses the finish line, sleep is not an option during the long night. but I am content to lie here, in pain but horizontal at least and not having to move any more. As dawn approaches I begin to worry about my mate Megan, who’s been out there for more than 24 hours now. 

Finally at 10am I see her coming and am there to hug her as she finishes. She’s still trying to smile. At the tent she falls forward on her tunny exhausted and is instantly out cold for eight straight hours. Across the middle of the tent where 8 people need to find a space. 

But we all tip toe around the exhausted athlete, checking on her breathing every now and then and discussing whether we should check with medical, maybe she is unconscious not asleep. 

She didn’t even drink when she arrived but crashed out. I am concerned but uncertain what to do. Eventually she wakes, looking like something the cat dragged in. “Big night eh mate? “ She is grinning so hard despite it all, totally stoked with herself. I guess we are still friends? 

At around 7pm that night the drum starts up again, 36 hours after the final leg began. A lone Korean guy comes into view, moving at the rate of a an injured snail. The whole camp moves towards the finish line, and the last runner a man who must have endured hell to get there, crawls toward us to be celebrated as if he was the winner, in all our eyes he is, he is the toughest, strongest of mind. 

To not have given up. He is bowing in the Korean way, grinning, there’s music from the Egyptian workers traditional stuff and drums more drums. Everyone who can is dancing and many of us are crying too but this time moved by the power of the human spirit and the feeling of united nations together, around 70 countries represented, all their flags flying all the international peoples celebrating this mans victory. 

The last man has the respect of every single one of us, We are all changed a little just a little, forever this moment will endure. 

Megan feet are a mangled mess which will take weeks to heal, but she feels stronger than ever in her heart and spirit the true reason to be doing this. The wounds heal but the memories of the glory days and friendships will stay forever. W

e have a few more kilometres to do to completely finish the race officially, travelling to Cairo to run a few kms around the ancient Pyramids. A fitting end to to a magnificent experience.