Well, after 250km run through blistering heat, knee-deep sand, dehydration, malnourishment, and all on almost no sleep…I’m pleased to report that the 2012 Sahara Race is in the books! I can honestly say that this was not only the toughest race I’ve ever run, both physically and mentally, but also one of the most rewarding. It’s difficult to adequately convey in words the entirety of the experience, but in this race wrap-up I’d like to try to take you through the race week, share with you the physical details of the event, and also give you an idea of where I was mentally throughout the week.
Following several lengthy and sleepless flights, I was finally in Cairo and ready to begin another adventure. Thankfully, all of my gear made it with me and I could now start the process of losing all of the extra food packaging, cutting-off any unneeded webbing, tags, etc. from my pack, and getting everything ready for the final race check-in. The event hotel was truly an oasis, but one that I would have no time to enjoy before the race. In a few short hours, I would be bound for Camp 1 and the start of the race.
The final race briefing and competitor gear check-in the following morning moved swiftly amid an air of nervous excitement. I did receive a few sideways looks and comments, mostly about how little gear was with me. The way I look at it, the less you take, the less you have to carry! During this time I was also able to reconnect with many friends from my previous South American race earlier in the year. There is a really strong bond that forms between the competitors in these events. I guess it’s partly owed to shared misery, but you can hug a fellow racer that you haven’t seen in almost a year and catch-up like it was just yesterday that you last spoke. I like that.
With my gear checked-in, my non-race gear stowed, and a few final treats purchased for the trip out, I quickly found myself bumping along the road exiting Cairo and on my way to Camp 1. Soon, I was far from the bustle of the city and passing through the borders of the Sahara. Judging from the site of our first camp, this week was going to involve an awful lot of sand!
After a sleepless night spent staring at the inside of the tent, I was soon strapping-on my pack, scanning my timing chip for the first time, and readying myself at the starting line. The desert morning was quite cool until sunrise, when the temperature immediately jumped at least 20°F. A local group of traditional musicians provided the morning’s entertainment along with the appearance of the two camels that would escort each stage’s final sweepers along the course.
In truth, I remember little of what followed that day. I do recall the footing being solid through this first of six stages and that by the 3rd checkpoint the heat was absurd, but nothing very specific. It’s all a bit of a blur. As I reviewed the metrics from my heart rate monitor, it’s easy to see why. Starting-out much too fast, I had maintained an average heart rate within the mid-180’s, which is far too high for a race of this sort. I remember staggering (literally!) into the final checkpoint and having to sit for a good 45 minutes before I could properly stand and make my way to the tent.
As I lay in the tent, I had my doubts as to whether or not I had just blown my chances of a good result by the completion of the week. Could I recover enough overnight to be able to maintain a high level of output the following day? The first stage is always the easiest and it was only going to get tougher from here.
(Stage 1: 23.5 miles, 04:22:03, 11th place)
Looking at the day’s course notes the following morning was not the ideal way to lift my spirits for the coming day. “Difficulty Rating: Difficult. Terrain: Sand Everywhere.” Despite my usual pre-race nausea, I felt surprisingly well, to my amazement. Today, I would not allow myself to get caught-up in other people’s races, but would focus on my race and at my pace. I knew that I would come back from the previous day’s blunder. I just didn’t know how long it would take or how it would effect me in the later stages of the week. No matter. All that needed to be thought of was the day that I was in and on reaching the next checkpoint. That’s all. Let tomorrow take care of itself.
The first two sections of the day were run through a valley, of sorts, and over a very undulating sandy terrain. Running over sand is tricky. When drifted up, there is a slight crust that sits atop each drift. That’s where the best footing is, so I was constantly shifting sides in order to take advantage of the firmer sand. Head down, this continued through the following 15+ miles.
After the 2nd checkpoint, the terrain opened to a vast plain of dunes and all at a slight incline leading to the top of a very high plateau. The morning chill had been replaced with a blazing sun and very little breeze, making the last half of the day’s run much more difficult to endure. Plodding on, now alone, I knew that I would have to gut out this final bit and I knew that it would be tough. My energy was draining quickly.
Cresting the plateau and passing through the final checkpoint of the day, I could see where my path would take me. After descending the steep dunes that surrounding the escarpment, a plain of rock lay ahead, followed by an almost impossibly high dune. I could see the distant shapes of the few runners ahead of me as they slowly climbed out of the plain. I lowered my gaze and pressed on, hoping I could hold out these last few kilometers.
I’ve never thought of abandoning a race. However, halfway up that distant dune, I came very close. With the sun pounding my face, each step up seemed to see my footing give way and leave my foot in the same spot it had started from the previous stride. Frustration! These are the times that you must focus on only the obstacle before you. Nothing else. I dug in, set off for the top, and did not look back. After cresting the top, I could see the camp and the few remaining dunes that would have to be conquered before arriving. Powering through, I crossed into camp feeling utterly drained but much better off physically than the previous day. Time to recover. Hopefully, I would be back to full-strength by morning.
(Stage 2: 26.5 miles, 05:47:08, 10th place)
The 3rd day is always a tough one, both physically and mentally. Physically, you haven’t reached that point of mindless, automatic movement yet, soreness is usually at its peak, and you’re not yet halfway through the race. Mentally, you still have one more short day followed by the long march, so it’s difficult to focus on the finish. This is the time to simply focus on the day at hand, running as far as you can, as fast as you can, and taking each section at a time.
I felt much better for the start of the day, and I cruised through the first of the stages without difficulty despite the course taking me through areas of very loose dunes. This proved to also be the hottest of the days yet, with temperatures soaring to the 110°F mark and beyond. With only a few runners in sight, I clicked through each kilometer mechanically, knowing that each step forward was once step closer to my goal.
Moving well and drawing nearer to the final checkpoint of the day, I found myself facing yet another late-stage climb. The day’s last checkpoint sat atop a high plateau whose approach path would take me up a very long and steep embankment. Head down, I determined to speed-climb this final obstacle with whatever was left in my tank. Following what seemed an eternity of clawing upwards, I was through the checkpoint and off on the final leg. After a tremendous downhill scurry and over a hot and desolate plain, I was upon camp. Elated to have now completed the first half of the race, I once again settled into my tent to rest. Another day done…two long days to go.
(Stage 3: 26.5 miles, 05:27:00, 8th place)
The morning of the fourth day began with a welcomed overcast sky and a slight humidity, which quite surprised me. A cooler temperature would mean that I could push the pace a bit and hopefully make-up some ground that had been lost in the first two days. I set off from camp with the hopes that the terrain would allow me to move up in the overall standings and to leave me in a better position for the start of the next and final stage.
Running the first half of the day with several others alongside was a nice change from my typical solo efforts. This was the first time all week that I was able to share the course with previous Atacama Crossing and Gobi March winner Anne-Marie, an outstanding German competitor who I had shared many runs with previously in the year. Though neither of us spoke much, we fed off of each others energy and the cooler weather and rocky, hard-packed terrain. We pressed our usual pace over the first half of the course, until the others were well behind us (save the few frontrunners) and only the desert plain stretched ahead.
Taking only seconds to exchange water bottles at the course checkpoints though, I soon found myself running alone again with the final 15 kilometers to go until camp. With the bulk of the day’s stage behind me and only a short distance remaining, I powered through at a strong but steady clip to reach the end of the fourth leg. I knew that the last of the short days was behind me now, and only the long march ahead, the following day. At this point, I felt quite relieved to be where I was. Physically, my body felt strong and ready to tackle the coming challenge. Mentally, there was only one more day (albeit a very long day) to go. Water. Food. Sleep. I’d need my rest…
(Stage 4: 23.5 miles, 04:30:13, 7th place)
The Long March. 53 miles. Two marathons. One day. This is the day you’ve worked all week to reach and it’s the day that all of your training and preparations have been focused on. This is the day that you leave everything still in you out in the desert.
I spoke with Anne-Marie in the morning hours before the start and we agreed that it would be a good idea to stay together as much as possible. AM has a very keen sense of pace, so I was happy to oblige, plus it’s much easier to tackle these long hauls with a partner. Our plan? As usual, we plotted to move from checkpoint to checkpoint, taking each as they would come, and covering as much distance as possible during the early and cooler hours. The sun sets early in the Sahara, around 5 p.m., and we both wanted to have our legs up in the tent by then.
We moved slowly but steadily from the start, making sure to not get caught-up in the excitement of the starting line. Soon, the opening sprinters had fallen away and we were moving forward with only a handful of runners ahead. We cleared the first few checkpoints with ease, barely stopping for check-in and water exchanges. My hydration plan had been successful thus far, as I consumed around 1.5 liters of water every 10km or so, and I felt no need to change that. My nutrition intake, however, would need to be increased over this long stage. I can wrench out a 50k on a couple of gels, but today would call for more calories, and early on. Over the first 5 hours, I kept a steady stream of solid food going in hopes of improving my later performance. Thank God for my Fig Bars! I savored my last remaining bits of solid food in hopes that my fluids would carry me through to the end.
By 1 p.m., we had long passed the halfway point of the day, but the blazing desert heat was upon us. My summer training is done in not only high heat, but also an absurd amount of humidity, so I was able to handle this aspect of the day much easier than some of my fellow racers. Still, with no shade and no relief, the Saharan sun beat down on us like we were being cooked alive on a spit. This is when having a partner helps. When one is down, the other can lift them up and push them on. Though we had run for hours together that day, Anne-Marie and I barely spoke, both concentrated only on the next footfall and another section completed, and both pushing the other onward.
Through vast plains of rock-strewn sand, up impossibly long inclines, and over dunes the size of cathedrals, we pressed on until the heat of the day had broken and we knew that we were close to the end. As the desert warmth dissipated, we quickened our pace, only a handful of kilometers to go. We sighted the lights of the final camp just as the fading sun disappeared, leaving us in a desert twilight. It’s beautiful to be in the desert at night, but neither of us wanted to slow or stop to enjoy the moment. Turning our headlamps on for the last remaining mile, we cruised up the blind plateau, drawing ever nearer to the welcomed sounds of the finishing drums. With almost nothing left in the tank, we crossed into camp and embraced, very happy to have conquered what we both agreed to be one of the hardest legs of any race we had ever done.
(Stage 5: 11:09:48, 5th place)
Rest Day & Stage 6:
While a rest day for some, the sixth day of the race allows runners with a slower pace to take advantage of an overnight checkpoint during the long day, and to continue on the following morning. Though we had nothing to do that day, most of the residents of tent #11 were up well before sunrise, as was our custom. Runners trickled in all morning until almost noon when the final competitors were in sight. As the last group crossed the stage 5 finish, accompanied by the course sweepers and camels, the camp erupted in an impromptu celebration complete with Bedouin music and songs sung by our wonderful local ground team. One of the great things about these races is that the final finishers are celebrated just as much as the winners, and sometimes more. It’s really an awesome example of the spirit that exists within the ultrarunning community.
The remainder of the day was spent with our legs up and desperately trying to stay out of the sun, which proved an almost impossible task. I vaguely recall commenting that I would gladly pay $1000 for a ride back to the event hotel for a shower and a shave! That evening we were given a brief talk by our local ground team manager about the history of the Sahara and were treated to some local Bedouin bread, cheese, and tea. Incredibly great after a week of eating dehydrated camp meals! Happy to enjoy my final evening in the desert, I slept for most of the night away from the tent with only the vast Saharan sky covering me.
Early the following morning, we began our transfer to Giza which would be the site of the final stage of the race. On arrival, we received our final briefing and set off on this last leg, a short 3km course that wound through the massive pyramids on the plateau. Eager to be finished and back to the comforts of civilization, my good friend and 3rd place overall finisher Steven and I blazed through this final stretch together, embracing at the end and happy to have completed yet another challenge. As the rest of the field crossed this final finish line, we cheered and congratulated one another on a race well run and on a very long journey now concluded.
(Overall: 31:26:12, 7th place overall, 6th male finisher)
In retrospect, I can easily say that the 2012 Sahara Race was the most difficult race that I have ever undertaken. Whether it was the heat or the sand or a combination of the two, there were moments when I was unsure if I could continue. But, that is the essence of the sport, I think. It’s about pushing yourself to that point and finding it within yourself to continue. To be faced with and to conquer the fear, doubt, and pain: That’s the value of running these races. Though I admit to declaring “NEVER AGAIN!” following this race, the unhappy memories fade quickly and I now find myself planning my next adventure, though I think it will be some time before I want to see another grain of sand!
Thank you to everyone who supported me in this effort, both family and friends. I could not have done it without you. A huge thank you to all who donated to Special Olympics in this fundraising drive. We were able to raise a significant amount of money that will help make the dreams of some very special individuals come true. Finally, I would like to say a very special thank you to everyone at Nature’s Bakery for their dedicated support and for helping me hopefully inspire others to attack and overcome the “impossibilities” in their lives. Thanks guys!