Before The Race – Getting Ready All Over Again
The 4 Deserts Sahara Race (Namibia) will be the first major trial of our 8 Deserts Challenge – World Record Attempt. Why? The quick 2 weeks turnaround. Both Eric and I have no idea how our body would react. We have never ran two long distance races so close together before (never mind two self-supported ultramarathons), so our recovery ability will be put to the test. I mean, I have only been running for less than 2 years!
Before flying into Namibia, we had already revamped a small part of our race diet. We know what didn’t work for us in the heat, well extreme heat to be more precise. A lot more needs to be done, but our changes would suffice for now. As usual, we arrived two days before the race to acclimatize, in the small coastal resort town of Swakopmund. Much to our surprise, the weather here is quite cool, hovering around 15C with about 50% humidity. Apparently, we should expect similar temperatures for the first two stages of the race. Unlike our first race the Marathon Des Sables (MDS), the 4 Deserts Sahara Race (Namibia) is a much smaller and more intimate affair capped at 220 competitors. Many people also seem to already to know each other from previous 4 Deserts competitions. From Swakopmund, we were transported to our first campsite in the Skeleton Coast National Park, where the race is to be held. Lots of local wildlife in the park including whales, seals, jackals, springboks, rhinos, hyenas, and … even lions! We couldn’t contain our excitement because the course will take place in parts of the national park off-limits to the public, so essentially we will be the first runners/visitors there!
Stage 1 – Fit For Speed
Before the start of the race, the organizers wanted to introduce all potential 4 Deserts Grand Slam and Grand Slam Plus contenders for this year. For those who are unaware, this is a special club of people who plan to complete the 4 original races of the 4 Deserts Race Series (Grand Slam), plus the Roving Race (Grand Slam Plus) all in the same calendar year. As you can tell by now, Eric and I are not the only crazy people on the planet! We first heard of this from the movie Desert Runners (the one that inspired our World Record Attempt), so it is really cool to compete in one of the same races that started it all.
The stage is set for a fast 37km start as much of today’s trail profile is flat and the surface is mostly hard-packed sand. With a little experience under our belt, we had hoped to be more competitive this time around. Aside from nutritional changes, we also dropped our backpack weight by whopping 2 lbs or 1kg, a significant improvement over MDS. After about 4 hours of racing, we were thrilled to end the day in the Top 20, finishing 15 & 16 respectively. This should have been a cause for celebration had I heeded Eric’s warning to slow down the last 4km. I just got a little too excited. Eric told me I would pay a price in Stage 2 and I knew he was right.
Stage 2 – Lesson Learned
Eric’s premonition of my demise in this stage came true in so many ways. Being a hero in one stage is one thing, performing well over course of 6 days is something else. Even though we only ran 37km yesterday, I pushed the pace beyond my comfort zone. Under normal circumstances, this would have been ok because I would have unlimited nutrition to replenish my body supply of glycogen. In a multi-day self-supported race, however, this was simply not possible. Your body has to be able to recover quickly even when you are in caloric deficit. This is the black magic of extreme racing that few people talk about. My recklessness the previous day would come back to haunt me, as I soon discovered.
Although this stage appears relatively harmless, it is actually deceiving because it involves running close to 25km along the beach. For those who haven’t tried, running on soft sand can be very tiring. We were fine in the early part of the stage, at least until checkpoint 1. Things went downhill for me after that. I felt extremely tired and barely made it to checkpoint 2. Eric waited for me at this checkpoint as I went on an eating binge, consuming everything in sight, including my snack ration for the next day. This was a terrible idea, but I was hungry as a starving lion so consequences be damned! To make matters worst, we somehow missed today’s major attraction: a large seal colony. We must have been blind since everyone saw it except for us! With some food in my stomach and a bit of rest, I slowly recovered. We carried on the rest of the way, but we had lost quite a bit of time.
Needless to say, Eric had his many I told you so moments at the camp that night.
Stage 3 / Stage 4 – Trouble In The Horizon
After moving inland from the coast, we were warned in advance that the temperature would rise significantly to the 40s. We thought that would be a “welcome” change since we were freezing our ass off in the coast. After all, Eric and I survived the Sahara so what can go wrong? We had no idea of the troubles that lie ahead.
We got off to an excellent start in stage 3, too well in fact. We felt pretty good so we kept an honest pace, but we were still cautious because our energy level can change at anytime, as yesterday’s debacle would attest. Much to our surprise, we passed one runner after another. The previous stage had been a difficult one and many runners had expended enormous amounts of energy there. Of course the heat played an important factor as well. After spending two days running in cooler climate, many competitors weren’t used to the hot temperature. After 20km into the race, we found out at checkpoint 2 that we were in the 6th and 7th position! Only 5 runners were ahead and there is a sizeable gap between us and them. We were a little shocked because we have never been part of a lead pack up until now, not in previous stages of this race and certainly not in MDS. Having no one else to follow, we had to start navigating the course on our own. Things were going smoothly when all of a sudden my body launched forward and I landed sideways on the ground. My face was full of sand and Eric was standing beside me asking if I was OK. Apparently, I had tripped over a small rock when I got distracted wiping the sweat off my face. I was not injured (very fortunate here as the course was littered with rocks), but things weren’t the same after that. All the momentum I gained was lost and I made the mistake of using valuable water (from Eric and myself) to wash the dirt off my face. I was pissed so my best judgement went out the window. This was the turning point of the stage because with about 10K to go between where we were and the next checkpoint, we had very little water left.
By the time we checked off another 4k, Eric and I had completely ran out of water. The temperature in the desert had just risen to 45C: it was hell on earth. Delirium set in and I was about to faint when we reached checkpoint 4. We replenished our water supply, but it was too late as I struggled the rest of the way. My core temperature wasn’t cooling fast enough. Despite signs of heat exhaustion, I somehow managed to finish the stage. I guess others must have slowed down as well because Eric and I ended up finishing in the 15th and 16th position respectively. Not bad considering the combination of what had transpired and my almost catastrophic mistake. Crossing the finish line was a blessing, but I was feeling very dizzy so I had to seek help to cool down in the medical tent. Just when you think you had it bad, others had it worse. As I was lying down being treated, the medical staff brought in another runner on a stretcher. His name is Kyle McCoy and I recognized him from his bib because he is one of the top contenders from US. He was conscious, but he was in pretty bad shape. Aside from vomiting, he reported that he had been having diarrhea throughout the day: all signs of severe heat exhaustion. Even though he couldn’t move and was in serious pain, he refused IV because according to 4 Deserts Race Rules, he would be immediately disqualified from the race. Many competitors suffered badly on the day as well including the overall leader Wataru Lino.
In preparation for the long stage, we took things easy at stage 4 as did everyone else. Although this stage appeared uneventful, at least in our eyes, a number of people dropped out due to severe dehydration. Eric finished the stage with a little bit of knee pain, but we were hopeful that his condition would improve by tomorrow.
Stage 5 – Mind Over Matter
The 77km long stage got off to a furious start as the elites tried to gain an advantage over one another at the very beginning. This is the stage is where you can gain or lose hours if you are not careful. We stayed behind at the back of the pack because Eric was not in a position to compete. In fact, just finishing the stage is now in doubt as his knee problem got worst. He took as many painkillers as the doctors would advise, but even the simple act of walking was painful. The plan was to finish the stage as quickly as we are physically able to, without jeopardizing the completion of the race. We adopted a 7-and-1 run and walk strategy, where he would run for 7 minutes and walk for 1 minute. We sticked to this plan for more or less 12km until the first checkpoint when he was unable to to continue to run. It was really frustrating because the course was relatively flat and totally runnable. We ended up walking the next 10 km instead. This is when Eric stopped feeling sorry for himself and decided to try running in spite of the pain. Walking 55km is a long time out in the desert so he didn’t want to do that. Plus, there is no guarantee that his knee wouldn’t buckle due to prolonged use. It was a risk he was willing to take. He picked up the pace and I tried desperately to match him. Soon, the real sand dunes presented themselves. This stage has some of the biggest and most spectacular sand dunes you will see anywhere in the world. We had to climb to the top of one to realize the sheer scale of this Namibian wonder, which stretches to no end for miles and miles. Pictures don’t do it justice. Every direction I looked belong to a National Geographic special. The moment was surreal.
After traversing the dunes, we descended on checkpoint 3. It was a massive vertical drop that would get anyone’s heart pumping. I decided to have a little fun and bolted down the slope Kilian Jornet style! I would have made him proud … at least in my head. My legs were sorry, but I sure wasn’t! Eric struggled a little to make it down to the checkpoint. When he finally did, we wasted little time in continuing our run, where a vast area of nothingness awaits, spanning all the way to the sea until the next checkpoint.
We had something to eat at checkpoint 4 because that’s the last checkpoint with hot water. Eric and I were determined to finish running the course in the shortest time possible because we were in quite a bit of pain. Our toes were as puffy as a sponge cake and Eric’s right knee was swelling up. We went up and down canyons along the beach and I lost sight of Eric. He was going sonic speed. Not to be outdone, I was setting a good pace myself. Desperation can be a true performance enhancer if you are able to harness it in dire situation. We must have passed 20+ runners at that point! The official distance of the last checkpoint was 11km, but that was the longest 11km of my life. It was pitch-dark by now and I could only see a few meters in front of me. I was checking my watch and it seemed like the finish line should be in sight, except that it wasn’t! The course markers were getting further and further apart and after a few minutes, I couldn’t see one anymore. Then, all of a sudden a few of them reappeared. I was quite relieved because I thought I was lost for a moment. As I approached the markers, they suddenly start to shift and move. Something dawn on me at that instant: we are in a National Park and these are not course markers. Surely, wild AFRICAN animals must be afraid of mighty desert runners with beaming headlights … right? The moving markers now glow in pairs, 12 to be exact. I stopped immediately and pondered my next move. Even as fatigue as I was at that point, I received an instant shot of adrenaline. I wouldn’t use the word fear, but perhaps “concern” would be more accurate. Fortunately, a fellow competitor that I had just passed a few minutes before emerged from the darkness. I immediately followed his trajectory and intercepted him. He welcomed me with a sense of relief. I explained to him that I took a wrong turn and found myself in the company of wild animals. “You followed the hyenas didn’t you?”, he clarified . Did he say HYENAS?
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally crossed the finish line. Eric was there waiting for me at the finisher’s tent. I collapsed into one of the chairs and my legs felt like lead. I had not ingested any food for the last 34km and only took two sips of water. Eric could barely walk and his knee pain “returned” after 77km. Both Eric and I gave everything we had in finishing this stage. It was an epic run.
Stage 6 – Dream Is Still Alive
Unlike MDS, the last 10K of this race was not a charity stage. We were going to be timed until 9.8k and your final ranking would be based on that. Yes, it was very weird. We both just wanted to finish the race in one piece, but many runners were still surprisingly competitive after 6 long days. Perhaps the promise of real food at the finish line spurred them on. Eric surged ahead to minimize the suffering he had to endure, while I just trotted along. I had not recovered well after the long stage despite one day’s rest and my jammed toes demanded relieve. As I approached the finish line, Eric was there waiting for me and we crossed it together. It was a close call, but we survived the challenge once more. Our World Record dream is still alive.
After the Race – Putting Our Bodies Back Together
We chose Brisbane, Australia as our limb rehabilitation center right after the Namibian race. I know it is crazy far away, some 13,000km across the Indian Ocean from Namibia. Of course, there is a perfectly good explanation: we have never been to the Land Down Under! It is as simple as that. I know the purpose of our endeavour is to break the World Record, but we also want to see the world as well! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity so we are not going to let it pass. Besides, I have been dying to see a kangaroo or a koala since I was a kid. AUSSIE, AUSSIE, AUSSIE!
Unlike MDS, we did not escape the 4 Deserts Sahara Race unscathed. Running 500km in 4 weeks with a backpack had taken its toll, leaving the both of us with deformed toes and Eric with a mangled knee. Two back to back ultra marathon races in the Sahara and the Namib Desert confirmed our worry of the impossible challenge that lies ahead in September. No one has ever attempted 4 back to back self-supported desert races, never mind in 3 different continents, for a good reason: the risk of DNFing in any one race is extremely high. Aside from pure physical and mental exhaustion, we have seen enough in two desert races so far to know that failure is just around the corner. All it takes is a rolled ankle, a careless stumble, bad blisters, heat exhaustion, altitude sickness, GI issues, a bungled knee, etc to derail us. We definitely need special preparations for that or we wouldn’t make it.
For now though, we have the Gobi March to worry about in June.
One race at a time.
New Friends – Fellow Canucks & Other Notable Competitors
Esther/Jason(s)/Shan/Jason/Amy and Co – Members of the E&E Global Charity Team from Canada. Seriously, these canucks are some of the most generous people we met! Not only did they offer us canadian nationality badges when we needed them, they actually came to Namibia to raise money for their charity. Probably no one suffered more than them in completing the race and everyone is touched by their courage and resolve.
Jasmine – Our angel from Taiwan. While Esther and Co supplied the badges, Jamine actually sewed them on for us! We really can’t thank her enough. Hope to see her in future 4 Deserts Races soon. The Atacama Desert perhaps?
Tommy – A super talented fellow competitor also hailed from Taiwan. Humble and unassuming, he actually finished 2nd in the 4 Deserts Sahara Race (Namibia). We will see more of him this year as he plans to be a Grand Slammer. See you in Gobi Tommy!
Again, I wish I have more time to write because there are too many new friends to mention!