PART 3: WRITING YOUR NAME IN THE SAND.
Shit, this potato salad has got mayonnaise in it. Should I risk it? Nope. Well, at least that person coughing is a few rows in front of me. Better cover my mouth and nose, just in case. Should also avoid the metro and take a taxi to the hotel. Probably too many sick people at this time of year?
While my foot was on the mend, I still wasn’t confident as to whether it would be ok to do the race. However, not once did this key issue cross my mind during the flight from Helsinki to Paris enroute to Morocco. Instead, a kind of paranoia had set in where I started to think about everything else that could possibly affect my health keep me from the race. For some strange reason, I had now convinced myself that the universe was going to play a really cruel trick on me, where my foot would be actually come good in time, but I’d be prevented from doing the race due some other illness, which I suspected would be food poisoning or then a fever or pneumonia. I became obsessed with doing everything I could to avoid anything, everything and anyone that could possibly make me sick in the next few days! Isn’t it amazing the kinds of thoughts we are willing to entertain and allowing them to literally take total control of our lives?
I spent the next few days and nights hidden away in a Paris Hotel watching TV in between bouts of checking, packing, rechecking and repacking my race kit. I only ventured out to buy food. However, those trips were very quick ones and mainly to only supermarkets. I figured they were the safest option as they had the best selection of sealed food items. However, I did risk eating out the first night, but I had a very nervous time until my next number two, vigilantly monitoring for symptoms of an upset stomach. The last night was actually spent at a different hotel near Orly Airport, where the charter flight to Morocco would depart early the next morning. Here I met the other Scandinavian competitors for the first time. We went out for dinner and I was actually quite pleased to note that they also shared a degree of my paranoia, which became evident by our collective deliberation and then decision to have dinner at McDonalds, as opposed to the unknown, although very clean looking, ‘Quality Burger Restaurant’ over the road. I think this was the beginning of a great team!
The next thing I knew, we had already touched down in Quazazate and had begun our four hour bus trip out to the Sahara desert, my buff still covering my mouth and nose to save me from the strong air conditioning, as well as any sickly fellow competitors. The scenery passing by was already quite stunning and I was starting to get nervously excited about what lay ahead. However, the start of the race itself was still a few days away as we needed to first get acquainted with life in a tent village, as well as go through various technical & equipment checks. So, I still had about another 48 hours to worry about everything bad that could still go wrong.
In the tent village, going to the toilet was quite a simple procedure. A number 2 required a biodegradable bag, some wipes and a visit to a row of specially constructed ‘chicken coops’ set up some distance out from the outer row of tents. However, a number 1 was an even easier task, at least for the guys. All that was required was just a nice piece of sandy real estate was, and of course the balls (excuse the pun) to whip it out with no shame. During one such visit where, for whatever childish reason, I began writing my name in the sand, I realized that I was actually in the Sahara Desert! I had made it after all! In that moment, I felt that something significant had changed within me. The paranoia and worry I had suffered for close on two weeks was now gone and I began laughing wildly. I think I laughed even harder when I slightly wet myself whilst trying to dot the ‘i’. I don’t know exactly what triggered all this, but I just began to feel a great sense of gratitude as I stared off into the barren yet incredibly beautiful Saharan landscape. I just felt so grateful that I was one of the very lucky ones, blessed with this amazing opportunity. It wasn’t just about being a part of the legendary Marathon Des Sables race, but simply getting to visit in this incredible place. Sure, I was the one that had mainly ‘managed the project’ of getting myself here, but so many other things, which were totally out of my control, had to also have gone right for me to be standing here and pissing in the sand. I was the recipient of a serendipitous sequence of events that had brought me to the Sahara and I felt humbled.
While my worry and paranoia was now gone, I was instead filled with a degree of excitement that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before, except for when I was waiting for my daughter to be born. I’m not sure if that was evident to my tent mates, but I suspect my self-talk while organizing, packing and repacking my food supplies into daily consumption bundles for hours on end may have been a small clue. However, even that nervous energy was dissipated the moment the race began with AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ blazing away over the speakers. The Marathon Des Sables was a ‘GO’ and I was in it! Un-frikkin’-believable!! From this point onwards, I felt like I was on a kind of autopilot. Whether I was dealing with the physical and mental challenges of a daily stage, or then just taking care of business in camp between them, my needs had been narrowed down to just the very few essential ones of eating, drinking, sleeping and running. So, for one week, my life was now a very simple one. Initially it felt rather weird to have so few things to engage my mind, but I soon realized just how engaging even the simple things in life can be.
After I had successfully completed the first three stages, I knew that I was going to finish the race as long as I just continued to do what I was doing. Then at the start line of the long 82 odd kilometer long stage four, I presented myself with the following question: “Ok, so you know that you can finish this thing, but is that enough for you?” I didn’t get a chance to answer it at that moment as AC/DC once again interrupted my thoughts to signal the start of the day’s stage, as it did every morning. However, this question wasn’t going anywhere and it frequently invaded my consciousness as the day progressed, almost annoyingly. I guess it really wanted to get answered!
It had been a long day already as I entered the checkpoint at the 50km mark. The sun had just dropped below the horizon and the remaining daylight was also making a hasty exit. This was the only place I stopped for any appreciable length of time, but it was still only about 15 minutes; just enough time for a meal of cold berry custard and to get changed into my warmer night gear. I soon headed out into the growing darkness and almost immediately needed to switch on my headlamp. All the competitors were assisted in their navigation between the remaining checkpoints by not only the glow sticks that had been positioned at 500 meter intervals, by also by the long train of lights from the competitors’ headlamps stretching out into the distance over the undulating, sometimes sandy and sometimes rocky, terrain. Very soon it was absolutely pitch black and I found myself focusing on a point just a few meters ahead of me, which was lit up with my own lamp; and that is all I can remember about the next few hours, except for the odd black desert beetle crossing my path.
In part 2, I briefly made mention about the defining moment of my race and this occurred perhaps about 4 kilometers from the final checkpoint. I stopped to turn off my headlamp for a few moments so that I could better view and appreciate the beauty of not only the Sahara at night, but also the organizer’s laser navigation light that was burning its green path across the sky, which was quite a surreal thing to witness. As my heart rate and breathing dropped during that minute of stillness, I felt a very odd, yet warm and friendly sensation flood over my entire body and mind. For no apparent reason, I unexpectedly had a little cry, but also with a smile on my face. True tears of joy?! In this moment, I felt that my attitude towards the race, and my entire race 9 month long ‘project’ also, had shifted. Up until this point, I had stayed well within my limits, taking the more sure and safe options when making decisions, but now I felt like I was ready to be guided by my emotions.
I no longer cared about logically weighing up the pros and cons of a situation before considering my options and making a decision. It had taken me almost 4 stages of the race to finally achieve this wonderful state, one where I feel most alive and at my happiest, and I was now ready to run with heart. After experiencing this (and I do dare call it an epiphany of sorts) in the complete darkness for a few more moments, I switched my lamp back on again, set course for the finish line and let rip. I was well and truly in the ‘zone’ until the finish line broke my concentration. It was bloody amazing! I almost had to command my legs to stop moving once over the line and I’m sure my grin was wider than the Cheshire Cat’s, as I fist pumped the stars. I even found it hard to get to sleep for a few hours as I sniggered to myself in the privacy of my sleeping bag. While the still very significant marathon stage on the penultimate day was still ahead of us, before the short final day of the sand dunes, the only thought that crossed my mind was ‘Bring it on, baby!’, as I drifted off into a deep and dreamless, yet absolutely joyous, slumber.
It seems reasonable to think that the trials and tribulations you personally suffer end up teaching you the most. However, since I managed to make it to the end of the Marathon Des Sables with virtually no suffering of note to speak of, does that mean that I have missed out on some very valuable lessons or experiences? Maybe, but I would argue that it is also possible to learn just as much from the ordeals of others. In the final part of ‘Marathon Des Sables 2012 – My Story’, I will recount my most significant observations and thoughts, including one particular one that totally rocked my world emotionally and showed me a better and more valuable way to live my life.