PART 4: WHAT THE CAMEL SAW.
It isn’t always necessary to put your hand in a fire to find out if it will burn you. In other words, first hand experience isn’t always required to learn a valuable lesson.
The most prized experiences I had at the Marathon Des Sables 2012 were not ones that were self-inflicted, if you don’t count the decision to toe the start line in the first place. For that I take full responsibility! I didn’t take my body to its limits, I didn’t really suffer, and I certainly didn’t find the meaning of life. Instead, most of what I learned came from being able to observe the experiences - the good, the bad and the ugly - of others, especially those of my fellow Scandinavian competitors. So, I am dedicating this last blog article to those six amazing people I had the honor of sharing this fantastic adventure with. Thank you guys.
Jørgen Leschly Thorsted
The first lesson I had was about patience and it began well before the actual race had begun. When our flight had arrived in Quazazate, it seemed that everyone was rushing to get through passport control and customs as quickly as possible. Jørgen, in contrast, was not showing any interest whatsoever in getting involved in any of this mad scrambling. Instead, he was the picture of calmness. Even though I was myself full of nervous energy, and I felt like I had to get into the stampede to fight it out with the others, observing Jørgen settled me down. I knew that he had already been at the race twice before so certainly he had to know something that I didn’t. I just felt compelled to take his lead. So, I resisted the urge to run with the bulls, but rather quietly move along at the slowest pace possible. The end result was that we got our bags from baggage claim, and even got prime seating at the back of one of the buses, all with no stress. As it turned out, we ended up waiting over an hour for all the buses to head out on the 4 hour trip to our desert base camp. So, in the end, there was no reason to hurry anyway. I chatted with Jørgen many times before, during and after the race, no doubt annoying him, at least a few times, with all my questions. The main message from Jørgen was very simple; the Marathon Des Sables was not a sprint, and hurrying and feeling stressed was totally counterproductive to having a good race, both physically and mentally. I think it took me several days of racing to fully calm down, at which time I said to Jørgen that I finally felt at peace with the environment, the situation, and, more importantly, with myself. Jørgen was like an older brother to me, the one who had already walked the walk and was so willing to help me at each turn to have a great experience. From him, I got a great lesson on how to live in the moment, and to do so in calmness and harmony.
From what I understood, in his work Peder is responsible for leading and managing some very important projects in Europe, yet he felt no need to show any kind of self-importance or to ‘talk up’ his profession or position. He greatly impressed me with his very relaxed and humble way of quietly, yet decisively, going about his business. Although I felt he was not such an overtly vocal person, when he was asked for his thoughts on something, he was very generous with his input, which I found well considered and respectful of other people’s opinions. I was also even more impressed when I discovered that he had qualified to compete in the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) by successfully completing at least three qualifying ultra races of a very substantial nature in a two year period. This showed that he is a person that is firmly committed to achieving very challenging, long term goals. I am grateful to Peder for reinforcing the ideal of the way I wish to conduct myself, in a respectful and thoughtful way, in my professional and personal lives.
Kitt was unfortunately the only one in our group who had to withdraw from the race, which occurred just after a few days. I felt so badly for her because the reasons for having to drop out were due to an injury and not because, for example, due to being ill prepared or not managing the demands of race correctly. There is a saying, ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’ I had been carrying a persistent foot injury in the lead up to the race, but fortunately it had been good enough to cope with the demands of the race. Kitt was not so lucky. For many days I kept thinking about how I would feel or behave in her situation where all the work I had put in to preparing for the race (not to mention the expense!) would have, for all intents and purposes, gone to waste. I’m not sure, but I doubt I would have handled it as well as Kitt did. Of course I cannot be sure of how she truly felt about it, but she did not reveal the great frustration she must have been feeling, complain about it or try to elicit our pity. Further proof of her class was the fact that she chose to stay with us in the tent and support the rest of us for the remainder of the race, even though she could have left the race completely to make an early return to the full facilities and comforts of our Hotel in Quazazate. To be able to think of others and to help them when you yourself have been dealt a cruel blow, and to do so willingly with a smile on your face, really shows great character and grace as a person. Kitt showed me a great example of the way I would wish to be and behave if I was in a similar position; and that is very likely to happen in an ultrarace in the future, but if not, then for sure in life at some point. Now, if there is a positive to come from Kitt having to pull out, it saved me the indignity of getting ‘chicked’! Thus, my male pride is still intact (at least for a little bit longer anyway).
Never, EVER, underestimate a book by its cover. Bent and I sat together for the long bus ride out to the desert from the Airport. I feel very embarrassed now to think how I was trying to give him with some race advice, or at least thought I was? Anyway, he certainly didn’t need it and I do need to thank him for being so diplomatic and nice enough in not just telling me to shut up! In the end, Bent was our number one guy. He absolutely kicked ass, eventually finishing in the top 100, which is an absolutely amazing achievement. It is said that ‘empty vessels make the most noise’. With Bent the complete opposite is true. He showed me how it is possible to carry around such a vast amount of personal strength and self-belief, but without any hint of arrogance or the need to show it off. A true warrior. Massive respect!
Søren Kruse Lilleøre
From the oldest member I now go to the youngest, which is a very relative term when referring to someone who is over 30 years of age! It just shows how preparing for, and participating in, the Marathon Des Sables seems to be something that the older and more life experienced seem to have a better time coping with. Alongside Jørgen, Søren was the only other from our group who had completed the race before and so it was good to observe how he went about his business. I certainly learned a lot. Søren is also an ambassador for the treatment of diabetes and being able to lead a full and active life with the condition, which he himself has. While we all had to meet the same challenges in order to complete the race successfully, Søren had the additional challenge of having to perform regular blood sugar level monitoring and insulin injections, all in the harsh Saharan conditions for an entire week. This is another case of not knowing how I would feel or cope with such a situation, but he is living proof that diabetes will not be something that needs to stop a person from not only participating in events that many other totally healthy people will never even consider trying, but also being able to perform at a very high level. Like Bent, Søren finished well up the list and all I can say is, simply, wow! One other thing I’d like to mention is that I very much enjoyed our colorful, off the wall repartee on a range of subjects, some quite weird indeed. So, I say to him, “Next time you’re out in the desert, don’t forget to feed the camel’”
Where do I begin? Apart from my own personal ‘epiphany’ in the darkness of the Sahara during the long 4th stage, as I described in part 3, Rikard ended up being the source of my most valuable lesson and greatest inspiration from this adventure. For the first several days, Rikard was kicking butt. A well trained, well focused machine just getting out there and getting the job done. His career as an experienced army officer was no doubt of great advantage to handle this ‘desert campaign’. Just another day in the office?! Then, almost without warning, the wheels seemed to come off. I knew that Rikard had had some issues with foot blisters, but he had been able to manage them ok over the first 3 race stages, or so I thought. However, the 4th stage was to become an epic experience for him, and undoubtedly not for the reasons that he would have hoped for. For the first three stages, I had barely caught a glimpse of the Swedish flag he had flying on the back of his pack before it disappeared into the distance soon after the start of each day. However, on the 4thday, the long double marathon stage, I started to see it at regular intervals and this surprised me greatly. Was I getting faster or was Rikard in trouble? I think it was more the latter. Whenever I saw Rikard, he was doing either one of two things; running at a good pace that I couldn’t keep up with or then he was shuffling like a old woman that should probably have been put escorted back to bed for an afternoon ‘nanna nap’. What the hell was going on? At one point we chatted for a brief moment and he said that he could either run or he could not move, but there was no middle ground. The problem, it seemed, was that his feet had now become so sore that he was either pretty much stopped to treat and resti his feet, or then running as hard as he could to get to the next rest stop in order to minimize the time in agony from being on his feet. It seems that apart from first and top, all the other gears had dropped out of his transmission. The last time I saw Rikard during the stage was at the 50km checkpoint, which signified the start of the last 30kms in the night. I don’t think he noticed me there and, although I wanted to say something, I felt that it was not the right time. It would be a long time before I would see him again. In fact, it would be more than half a day.
When I had woken up in the morning after having completed the long stage successfully, everyone was there except Rikard. No one knew where he was or what had happened to him. Then, I think it was at some point late in the morning, when we were in fact already considering what to have for lunch, it seemed that a ghost had entered our tent. It resembled Rikard’s physical form, but it did not speak. I’ll never forget the emptiness and lifelessness in his eyes. He slowly withered to the tent carpet floor, put his head into his hands, then to between his knees and sighed deeply. He did not move again for about an hour. We were all silent, I guess not knowing what to do or how we could help. After some time, there were some signs of life as he began to stir from his zombie-like state. We got him to eat and drink something and then took him over to the medical tent for whatever attention he was obviously in great need of. Well, if being in that state was not bad enough, the queue for treatment was long, with up to a 2 hour wait. All those with ‘war wounds’ had to wait in open tents outside the main medical tent, which now resembled a blood and guts decorated MASH unit. Just to make sure things weren’t uncomfortable enough, a sand storm decided to come to town, quickly covering everyone from head to toe with the Sahara’s finest. However, the desert decided it could do better! The temperature began to drop very rapidly and the reason for this became all too apparent within a few minutes when we were hit with a freak icy cold rain storm. Oh yes, and that drink came ‘on the rocks’, with some lovely hail to ensure we weren’t having the absolutely most amount of fun possible. Those who were in the medical tent at the time were the lucky ones as it was the only tent that was covered on all sides, but even in there it was freezing. Pretty much everyone else in the entire MDS tent village got soaked and chilled to the core, including those waiting in the very exposed pre-treatment waiting tents. Talk about adding insult to injury! Rikard was in a bad state to begin with when we took him over, but now he was lying in a fetal position in one corner of the tent and shivering uncontrollably. We tried to warm him up as best we could, but it wasn’t really working. Eventually, he got moved to a warmer area out of the cold and received the necessary treatment.
Now back at the tent, the rain and hail storm had gone as quickly as it had come, being replaced with clear skies and warm sunshine. Slowly, everyone began to clean up the mess caused by the storm and to start drying out. After a while, Rikard returned. He was now no longer the zombie we had seen a few hours ago, actually showing some significant signs of human life. He was talking and was even willing to share a short smile or two. He ate, he drank and he slowly warmed up. At the end of the day, he was mentally fairly ok, but his feet were a mess. While they had been treated, bandaged and taped well, under it all they were badly blistered, bloody and infected. They looked like the feet of a freshly prepared Egyptian mummy! I can only guess how much pain he was in. So, Rikard was back, but what now? There were still two stages to go, with the next one the following day being a full marathon! Who would start a marathon with minced meat for feet? Not me, that’s for sure! I didn’t speak much more with Rikard that day. I just didn’t know what I could possibly say to make his situation any better. Although I’m not religious in the conventional sense, that night I found myself secretly praying for his wellbeing as I drifted off into an uneasy sleep. I too had that same marathon in the Sahara to deal with when I woke up!
The morning routine was, well, exactly that, a routine. After about 5 days, life had become very simple now. We knew what we had to do and so we just did it. Wake up, drop the kids off at the pool, eat, pack, and fill the water bottles before go to the start line ready to start the day’s stage. All of that went smoothly for us, except for Rikard, at least the last part. I walked with him very, VERY slowly, to the start line. I think it took about 10 minutes to walk the 300m from out tent! All I could think about was how in the hell was he going to be able to do a few kilometers, let alone a full marathon when every step caused excruciating pain. As other competitors began to also flow in, I saw Rikard’s face and he was in tears. I tried to say a few words of encouragement to him, something stupidly cliché like “Just try and put one foot in front of the other”, but then I had to walk away so that he could not see me ball my eyes out. I don’t think I’ve ever really felt this emotional about someone else’s situation. I also felt a kind of shame about how I had allowed myself to indulge in feeling worried about my own race and how I might cope with this marathon stage. After what I could see happening to Rikard, all that worry was gone. I was just so thankful that I had nothing, absolutely nothing, to whine about. When the gun went off, I just started running as hard as I could and I would continue to do so to the finish line, even if it meant possibly blowing up at some point. Today was not the day to hold back any longer. I remember thinking that I owed it to every single person who was out there suffering, with some suffering very badly like Rikard, to give it everything I had, just as they were doing.
The marathon was over in what felt like an instant, although of course it wasn’t. I felt incredibly elated after having had a great stage, performing to the absolute best of my abilities. At the tent, Bent and Søren had already come in and Kitt was also there to greet us. We discussed Rikard’s condition and we all expressed our concern about whether he would make it or not. Honestly, we weren’t very hopeful. Then Kitt exclaimed, “Look, there’s Rikard!” (or whatever she said in Danish to that effect). He had come in much faster than we had expected and so we thought that maybe he had quit the race and had been driven to the finish line in one of the organiser’s jeeps. However, this was obviously not the case, as was readily apparent from the wide smile on his face! He’d done it, but how was it possible?! The short answer, if I understood his explanation correctly, was a very simple one. Rikard said “It hurt like hell to walk and it hurt just as much to run. So, I figured I might as well run the entire way so that it would hurt for less time.” I had to leave the tent to ball my eyes out once again. What Rikard had suffered and overcome was, well, I can’t really put it into words. However, I can say that the reason I now call him ‘King Rikard’ should be fairly apparent. Maybe the only thing I can add is that I feel incredibly blessed to have been a witness to his ordeal and how he dealt with it. It has provided me with so much inspiration and belief to realize that I have only just scratched the surface of what I myself have the capacity to achieve in life. Hail King Rikard!
In the end, I felt that my Marathon Des Sables experience was kind of like that of a nomad’s camel on a long desert trek. I was physically prepared and able to cope with the demands, knowing that I would make it to my destination, as long as I stayed within my limits. I was also able to take in the scenery and observe the world go by as I moved along at my own relatively comfortable pace. Although I think I did it well, I can’t say that there was anything especially remarkable or inspirational about that. Like a camel, I just did my job. I believe that the greatest accolades should be reserved for those who are prepared to put it all on the line, knowing that they may fail trying. The cudos should go to those you are prepared to take themselves to their limits and beyond, even if that means having to suffer, sometimes greatly, in the process. I believe that having the courage to do this willingly is what it means to truly live and grow. How else can we really know what we are capable of as humans? The motto of the famous Leadville 100 mile trail race describes perfectly the kind of attitude or belief we should all have; ‘You are better than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can.’
P.S. One last thing! I’d also like to give a shout out to another MDS 2012 competitor, my British bro Danny Crookes. I had the chance to catch up with him a few times during a few of the stages and, although very brief, those encounters made my day. Danny has also written a blog about his own experiences. He writes much better than I do, so I definitely encourage you to check it out here.