"The Miracle is not that I finished. The Miracle is that I had the courage to start."
Just to be clear: knowing what lies ahead can be a two edged sword. Yes, you know what the terrain looks like. You know roughly where the check points are. You know the sandy bits and the rocky bits. You have been through the Canyon. You have climbed the dunes. But, at the same time, you also know EXACTLY what the terrain loloks like. You know that you will feel blistering hot, and thirsty, and tired. How your shoulders will ache from the straps. How your eyes will search for Dune 45, knowing that it lies somewhere along that road, but not being sure just quite how far along. You know that when you round that final corner and look up at Big Daddy you will be awed, humbled and not a little bit daunted by just how bloody big it is!
I started off not knowing what to expect from the field. Gary counted down "3... 2... 1!" and we were off. From the start it was instantly apparent that there was some real quality runners in the field, who positively munched up the veld, bobbing off along the dirt track with effortless strides. I settled into a steady pace and made my way up the long, gentle incline to the base of the mountains, passing between two huge rocky outcrops, then past the Bushman paintings before turning left and running parallel to the mountain range. At this stage Buys and Erica had caught up with me and we ran together. Erika in front wildly snapping photos of the scenery on either side and occasionally back over her shoulders. Buys seemed to be very comfortable and we caught up on the last year. We walked up the rocky pass together and then trotted along to CP1. The array of provisions on offer was just as good as last year, except for the absence of the home made rusks, which I missed this time. Going along to CP2 we passed Stephan who was so busy taking photographs. As before the location of CP2 (khaki tent in a khaki landscape) was hidden in the bushes so we chose a general line which we followed until it became visible. Stocked up all my water bottles and headed back up towards the pass. I left Buys behind at this stage and the runners behind me quickly faded from view. I could see nobody up front: they were obviously far away already. The view from the top of the pass with the lone Quiver tree in the foreground was lovely and I could see the lodge in the distance. I decided not to follow the fence like last time since that made for a very boring run, but tried to keep to the road at the base of the pass. Not too easily done since the road faded in and out. Eventually abandoned that idea and just took off through the veld in the direction of the finish. Was still feeling very good at this stage and enjoyed the spectacle of a couple of Oryx nearby. Still no sign of any other runners. Eventually just a bit from the finish I saw Linda on the other side of a donga. She got to the finish and I arrived a couple of minutes later. The pool at the lodge was delicious. The sachets of Rehidrat were not.
Last year the second day was my undoing. I got completely dehydrated and stumbled my way through the final leg. I was resolved not to do this again so I drank copiously from the start. The field spread out rapidly again and I settled into an even pace along the track, some way behind Erica. Eventually overtook her and then caught up with George. The road to CP1 was long and the heat and humidity were kicking in although it was early in the day. From CP1 to CP2 we had been told to find our own way. George and I took a direct line and headed off along a little animal path which quickly faded and left us dodging between tufts of grass and numerous pumpkin vines that had started to grow after the rains. As CP2 became clearly visible we found a well defined track and enjoyed the easier running. Arriving at CP2 not too long after Linda and Francesco had left. Erica came in just as we were finishing up. The slices of orange tasted amazing. This was the start of the dunes. I put on my gaiters and set off. George was tiring a bit and I left him behind. Going was slow in the dunes. Lots of walking. And it was blisteringly hot with an occasional breeze only on the tops of the rises. It took an awfully long time to get to CP3. This was where everything started to go wrong last time, so I filled up every watering bottle and took off with not a little bit of trepidation. From CP3 to the finish it is generally down hill. You can see where the Elim dune ends and the river bed begins. But the Elim dune is also the longest dune in the world, so the end is a bloody long way off. And it stubbornly refuses to come any closer. So getting down to the bottom takes and eternity. I was comfortably ahead of George and Erica at this stage so I could afford to adopt a run/walk strategy. When I eventually got down into the river bed though I was pretty buggered. But I also knew that this was still far from the end. That river bed is deceptively long and basically runs around the blunt tip of the dune with the finish on the far side. It is still a good few km from this point. The remaining water in my bottles had been reduced from icy to ambient temperature, which at this stage was somewhere around 45°C. It was disgusting. That river bed sucks the soul out of you. There is not a breath of wind. It is midday. The Sun is hammering down. Everything is still and baking. The only sound is your feet in the soft sand. And your breathing. I walked. A lot. Pretty much exclusively. In my head trying to view the dune from above. Telling myself that the next corner in the river would bring me a view of the banners at the finish. But, of course, it didn't. But this little mind game kept me going. Mostly. But you can only fool yourself for so long! Eventually I saw that the line of little bushes in the veld seemed to be converging with the river bed and I decided that this meant that the track we had run out on earlier was getting close. Thankfully I was right because one of the finish banners popped out over the river bank a few twists along and I knew that the end was in sight. Erica came loping by at this stage, showing just how handy those walking poles are in soft sand. Still not convinced that they are worth lugging along, but when you need them, they must be brilliant. She yelled at me to join her but I didn't have the energy. I knew that my laboured trudge would get me there in a minute or two. I crossed the finish at a walk and flopped down onto a mattress in the shade. My legs started cramping up within moments but nothing like the display they put on last year. I battled to get the Rehidrat down but kept sipping away. It was not a disastrous repeat, but still a damn tough day in the desert.
The camp site out in the middle of nowhere was beautiful and we appreciated the spectacular sunset. Having to search around and find our tent (some of which had been completely blown over by the afternoon's storm and all were wet) added a little unwelcome challenge.
Felt pretty good at the start and trotted off vigourously along the stony track. Getting to CP1 was not too much of a problem. The last stretch, which is off track and across a plain littered with ankle grinding pebbles and boulders does slow you down though. A lot of runners went through CP1 at about the same time as me. It was busy. Stocked up on water and ice and headed out. The long slight descent to the road went by quickly. After crossing the road and entering in river bed (which I was told was 2 km long), i sat down and put on my gaiters because it was very sandy. But within about 500 m I saw one of the crew on top of a ruin at the side of the river bed and it was time to change direction. Bit of a waste putting on those gaiters. At some stage I later took them off. I think. But I don't remember when. Stephan was a few hundred m ahead and I let him dictate the tempo of the run/walk. After a while though I got impatient and caught up with him. We came into CP2 together. I was soon ready to go again and set off by myself, following the track. The course entered a broad river bed consisting of multiple streams with numerous longitudinal islands running down the middle. Although the track was initially easy to follow since you could see it emerging on the far side of each stream, eventually I lost it. I could still see that runners had been through this way before though since there were occasional sets of footprints. After crossing the river bed I attacked the slope up towards the shoulder between a large mountain range and an isolated koppie. The grass was shoulder height and this was rather heavy going. When I reached the should the little pimple of rock which marked CP3 was visible... far across the plain. I took off at a jog, feeling good and knowing that the end was not too far off. Somewhere in the distance I could see a white shirt but it was still a long way off. The km passed quickly as I converged on CP3, where I caught up with George. We set off together on the last leg. I had expected the track to wrap immediately around the back of the pimple but it seemed to head off in the wrong direction: away from the finish. We had no intention of putting in any excess km, so we took a direct line towards where the end should be. This might not have been the right choice because the terrain was not always easy going. Eventually we found our way back onto the track. Or the track converged with our line. I was still feeling okay at this stage but George was clearly a little broken. So we walked our way down to the road, across it and pretty much all the way to the finish.
The water reservoir at the finish was not quite as inviting this time. The water was green and completely opaque. I decided to defer a plunge until later and concentrated on rehydrating and getting a bit of food into the system. This was probably a good decision because later on they set up an el fresco shower using water pumped directly from the bore hole, which was crystal clean. The view from the impromptu little shower cubicle was stunning and I spent a glorious 30 seconds giving myself a thorough wash.
The tents were down in some thick grass in what I think was actually a water course. This meant that we had some pretty bad mozzies. But the consequences of a flash flood might have been quite serious.
Thoughts of the big day ahead did not make for a good night's sleep. But this was not out of the ordinary. On every one of the race nights I was in my tent for about 10 hours, but probably only actually slept for an hour or two. Or, at least, that is how it felt. Because I spent a lot of time staring up at the stars. And listening to the sounds of zips going up and down on all of the other tents. The subtle (and sometimes not so much) snoring.
The long day starts with a good long stretch in the wrong direction. The idea being to get to the top of the canyon. When we descended into the neck of the canyon we found that the little pool of water from last year had extended out to a pretty long stretch. I took my shoes and socks off. There was quite a wade with bag and shoes held high above my head. At one stage the water was so deep that it was up over my mouth. I felt for the short asses in the field.
On the far side I sat down, put on my gaiters, socks and shoes and then set off over the boulders. Around the first corner it became apparent that the shoes were premature: more water, but only shallow this time. I honestly did not have the patience to take them off again so I took a chance, hoping that by getting through the water quickly the shoes would not get too wet. Silly me. They got very wet indeed. This really pissed me off: I had been stupid. The weather was so humid that things were taking hours to dry, and now I had wet shoes. And about 48 km still to run. Shit. Nothing to do though so just started running. Got to CP1 in the canyon shortly. A few folk ahead were setting a rather vigorous pace which I decided was faster than I wanted to go. Fortunately Tim was close behind me so I settled into a good routine with him and we made our way across to CP2. Tim had to change his socks so I set off alone. I could see George and George a long way off ahead of me along the tar road, but i gradually reeled them in, catching up a few km before CP3. That is a really long, tough and boring part of the race. Onto the dirt track after CP3 we had real red dunes up to the right and the scenery was beautiful. Stephan was a bit behind us and George was stressing a bit because he wanted to move into a position in the top 10. So we needed to finish ahead of Stephan. We got into CP4 and filled up on water. Then ventured out into the river bed. Although at CP4 Gary suggested that we head straight across the valley, this just made no sense at all. So I chose a diagonal line and we headed off towards where I hoped Dune 45 was.
After a good long slog, the dune that I had selected turned out to be wrong. Referring to the map and the occasional bits of traffic on the road we decided that our objective was the dune on the horizon, hidden in heat haze. A bloody long way off. The trudge continued. Running and walking. It was blindingly hot. Bit of a wind, but that was right in our faces. At it was so hot that it did not provide any relief at all. It took an eternity for the dune to get any nearer. But eventually we could make out the trees at the base. And then the finishing tent. But being able to see it is a far cry from being there and it still took well over an hour for us to cover those last few km. After the long run to get there, the idea of ascending the hot red dune is not very attractive at all. But we set off slowly up the ridge of the dune, taking short strides and just chipping away. The ascent is quite steep and you gain height quickly. Before long we were well above the couple of crows playing on the little thermal on the seaward side of the dune. When we got to the top I was all out of both enthusiasm and wonder. Photographs were out of the question. The only thing I was interested in was getting down. To the bottom. To the mattress and the cold bottle of water.
I obviously did not get my rehydration perfectly right though...
Although I probably had my best night's sleep, on the few occasions when I got up and stumbled outside to take a pee, after a few moments of standing there and looking up at the array of stars, waiting for the action to start, I had an overwhelming attack of dizziness and had to abandon the process, bend over with my head between my knees and wait for it to pass. After the first episode I realised that I must still be pretty dehydrated, so I started aggressively chugging on my water bottle. But, ironically, just when you need water the most, the taste is absolutely nauseating.
Today the wheels really came off. I found it hard to eat all of my breakfast. And my trip to the toilet was only partially successful, which left me a bit stressed. I started off fine on the long, empty flat bit from Dune 45. Fell in with George and we watched the other George disappear with Linda. We trundled along for the 12 km or so to the first dune crossing. Climbing up the steep face of this dune was immediately taxing and I knew that I was not at my best. George got to the top way before me and was on his way to CP1 when I got to the crest. By the time I got to CP1 I was pretty buggered. Sat down and emptied my shoes. Then set about filling my water bottles. I was not feeling very enthusiastic and this worried me because I knew that Big Daddy was just around the corner and that it would require everything I had to get to the summit. The stretch from CP1 is quite picturesque: barren vlei with occasional dead trees and big red dunes on both sides. I was not in the mood for appreciation though. Coming around the last corner and being confronted by the enormity of Big Daddy is more than daunting. The vlei at the base of the dune was actually full of water and I elected to follow Tim directly across it without taking my shoes off. It was slow going: not just because my legs were tired but I also did not want either of my shoes to get sucked off in the mud at the bottom. On the far shore the climb began. First up the face of a side dune and then onto a long saddle. This made for an opportunity to recover and I unwrapped a Sparkle. I told myself that I would be on top before I had finished the sucking sweet. This gave me about half an hour. The first bit was not too bad but I could feel that I was already tired and lacking in energy. What little I had left soon disappeared and I was left feeling like my tanks were absolutely empty. I scoffed down my dried pears, hoping that they would revive my flagging system. They didn't. Within only a short while I was reduced to taking 100 paces and then stopping for a rest. This is a long, slow and hard way to ascend a dune. Behind me people were rapidly catching up. Then overtaking me. Honestly, at this stage, I did not give a crap. I did not know whether I could make it to the top. And even then I did not know if I could make it back down again... and then across the Dead Vlei. After an innumerable number of 100 pace intervals I got to the summit. I did not even look at the view, just plunged over the edge and made my way down. The Dead Vlei was breathless and hot. CP2 on the far side was quite a bit off and I just walked as briskly as I could, drinking the bits of water at the bottom of each of my bottles. When I got to CP2 I was so pissed off with my sandy gaiters that I requested a pair of scissors and just cut them off, leaving them draped over a log. The last few dunes through to the track were littered with occasional tourist groups. They left me alone. That was a good decision. Somewhere behind me Jonathan was keeping up. I did not have the spiriti left to run until the finish was within a few hundred metres. Then I cranked up a bit of a trot and made a respectable crossing of the finish line. All done. Much tougher than the first time.
The final dinner was fantastic although I was a little too tired and my stomach was not too great. We had a jackal as a spectator.
This made me chuckle, just because it was so apt at times during my race. The original quote is attributed to Albert Camus:
"Don't walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don't walk behind me, I may not lead. Walk beside me and be my friend."
But is has been adapted to
"Do not walk behind me, for I may not lead. Do not walk ahead of me, for I may not follow. Do not walk beside me for the path is narrow. In fact, just sod off and leave me alone."