With only fourteen days between races, Paul and I wanted to maximize our recovery by traveling to our race host town in El Paso, Texas (USA) as soon as we could. Not too surprisingly, getting cheap flights and minimizing flight times do not work hand in hand. Our itinerary involves breaking the trip into two legs. A three-night stay in Santiago, follow by another 40 hours flight to El Paso with a few layovers. All that adds up to having only seven real rest days before Trans-Pecos. Without us realizing, our attempt to compete in 4 self-supported desert races in 6 weeks (4in6) is starting to take its toll.
Heading into the World Record-tying race (Race #6) and the third leg of 4in6, I can feel my mental energy waning. Mental energy is not well defined but all athletes should study it with considerable interest. It behaves more like an emotion than a fuel tank that needs to be recharged. Willpower fluctuates over time depending on our state of mind. Because of its transient nature, it is imperative that I stick with it and ride it out (like during a bad stretch in a race). Other times, it’s chronic, which is an indicator that I’m on the wrong path. By listening to the ebb and flows of my mental energy, it allows me to work at my highest mental capacity when it matters most. In this particular instance, it means lots of Netflix and no talk about running until we start packing for the race.
Although the facilities provided by our AirBnB host in El Paso were fantastic, I can’t say the same about our room. The pictures made it look a lot bigger, but it was really a 8’x10’ space. Not only do we feel claustrophobic, there just wasn’t enough storage space to stuff all our luggages away. Alas, it was too much hassle finding another place to stay so we had to make do with what we’ve got.
Multi-stage racing is a relatively new concept for North Americans. One of the only other race in North America, Trans-Pecos is a self-supported Desert Ultra Marathon that spans 270km over seven days. Participants of each stage must complete on average a marathon per day, with a 90km (56miles) long stage on Day 5. What sets this race apart from other races we’ve done so far? Cat claws, cactuses of all shapes and sizes, biting flies, giant wasps, scorpions, and rattlesnakes. The moment you get complacent is the moment something can bite you in the ass, literally and figuratively speaking. From its conception, the race was designed to challenge each participant to run through some of the most difficult terrains the Chihuahua Desert has to over. With this year’s annual rainfall being well above average, there will be no shortage of shrubs and cat claws getting in our way!
It was obvious from day one that Paul and I didn’t do our homework for this race. While others brought hiking poles, gloves, and gaiters, we showed up wearing splits shorts. We didn’t know it at the time, but this would turn out to be a painful lesson we won’t soon forget.
The race started off in the pavement and having that marathoning background helped us build a sizeable lead in just the under 10km (6miles). We were excited about the prospect of winning this competition early on. But once we ventured deeper into the park and off the beaten path, the terrain got significantly more technical. I tried my very best to avoid being cut by cat’s claw vines, but there was just no way to do that without losing significant amount of time so we put our head down and ran through them. No pain, no gain right? It was like death by a thousand cuts. It left marks all over my arms and legs by the time competition ended. Isn’t it ironic that cat’s claw anti-inflammatory properties did nothing for us in the race? To make life in the camp more interesting, we had biting flies taking a chunk of my flesh between each stage and wasps that won’t leave us alone until dusk. Every day all I could think about was having a pair of hiking poles and gloves so I could push the cat’s claw aside instead of running into them. Obviously, I kept these thoughts to myself, but this negative energy would build up more and more as the week goes by.
Everything came to a head in Stage four. With only a few minutes separating Thomas (the overall leader), Paul and I after Stage three, I lost track of them midway through the stage. The markings on the course were hard to spot, so my sighting skills were tested. Not paying enough attention to the trail, I sidestepped on some loose gravel and ended up sliding off the side of the hill. Next thing I knew, I had to make a horrible split-second decision. Should I break my impeding fall on a cactus with my hand or my face? My survival instinct took over but I was left with a dozen cactus spines on my right thigh and two deep punctures wounds on my left hand.
In a self-supported race, one cannot rely on nor expect anyone to rescue you, so I did the only thing I could do. I kept going. With adrenaline kicking in, I kept running with cactus spines all over me. Moments later, however, I was in such agonizing pain that I knew something was amiss because I couldn’t close my fist and my palm started to swell. Naturally, I thought pulling those cactus spines out of me will alleviate the pain. I knew I had to pull it out fast or it was gonna really hurt. The first one I pull out was truly an out of body experience. The long spine was so entrenched inside my palm that I was pretty sure it penetrated deep into the muscle issue. It was unbearable. My attempts to pull out the second one failed when doing so felt like I was tearing my hand apart! You can say I was in desperate need of medical attention.
I ran feverishly hoping help would be right around the corner. Somehow I managed to catch up to Paul and we worked together to reach the next checkpoint. I seriously feared my year long journey would come to an abrupt end.
Thankfully, the medical staff was well prepared for these types of situations. They injected some novocaine into the affected area of my palm and took the remaining cactus spine out. My palm bruised almost immediately. A dozen or so other spines were also taken out from my right thigh. My left palm started to turn purple from the bruising and there were still fragments embedded inside my left hand and right thigh. Any sort of abrupt movement and the spines would swirl inside me, stopping everything in its tracks. I didn’t dare to tell the medical staff out of fear that they would pull me out of the race without my consent. Maybe I was paranoid, but that was my train of thought at the time. After having some time to gather myself, I had to make a decision to either continue or to call it quits. It was one of my defining moments.
What constitutes a defining moment? According to Oxford dictionary, it is “an event which typifies or determines all subsequent related occurrences”. That clearly isn’t precise enough of an answer for me. For me personally, it is a profound moment of self-growth and enlightenment. In this instance, it was breaking through a barrier I once thought I couldn’t. The thought of abandoning the race had left me feeling ashamed and unworthy of this endeavour. I won’t abandon this race because I can’t fail my brother; we are in this together. Just as Paul did on the mountain side in Kilimanjaro, I didn’t know whether I could make it to the end, but I need to find that out on my own terms.
On the way to the next camp, a constant shooting pain radiating from my injured thigh reminded me that nothing is given and everything is earned. I had only one focus: keep one foot in front of another. Somehow, someway, I will get to the finish line. To my complete utter surprise, Paul and I only lost 20mins to Thomas that day. Although the struggle was real, it wasn’t as bad as I initially thought. Sometimes you find courage not only from ourselves but from the people closest to you. It wasn’t pretty, but I got it done. You really are stronger than you think. All I had to do was trust myself fully beyond a shadow of a doubt.
I spent a significant amount of time that night looking for ways to get those cactus spine fragments out. It was an incredibly laborious process, and spotting them was next to impossible even if I could feel them move inside of me. Some pus was starting to develop. With the 90km (56miles) long stage coming up, there was no time for doubts. It was time to step up and focus. Fortune favours the bold. The show must go on.
The stage is set for the final showdown in Stage 5. After the race director gave us a pep talk about the course profile the evening before the run, I had developed a racing tactic which would give Paul and I the best chance to succeed. Go on the attack the first 20km (12 miles) on the runnable trails, ease back on the more technical parts, and drop the hammer on the last 40km (25miles) or so when the sun begins to set and the terrain levels out.
Everything went according to plan until my body failed me. We had a solid 15mins lead after 20km, but things started to unravel as the heat from the sun intensified and the terrain got much more technical. Upon arriving at checkpoint five (CP5, approx. ~50km or 31miles), I was exhausted and 25mins down on the leader, Thomas. With only a couple of energy gels on me to cover the rest of the distance, I was called upon to summon my inner strength once again. We had to make up almost 60mins on Thomas with less than a marathon distance left to win this race. It seemed inconceivable and improbable. The only saving grace was that the sun was slowly setting in the western sky.
With our podium spots already secured, our World Record breaking race coming up in Oman in only 5 days time, and a stabbing pain still bothering me, there was simply no practical reason for me to keep pushing the pace. But life is not about doing what is safe and comfortable; it isn’t always about doing things that make sense. The 8 Deserts Challenge is not solely about breaking the record. I am here to find out what I’m made of. I closed my eyes to relish the moment, took a deep breath to reset my body and mind, and gulped down my two remaining gels. With a quick glance towards Paul, an implicit agreement was made. From there on end, we are going after this with a singular focus: get to the finish line as soon as possible, in whatever means necessary. The chase was on.
It was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. The fatigue and hunger that plagued me just moments earlier melted away and I was stripped to down my core: a pair of lungs, legs and whole a lot of heart. Next thing I knew, I lost track of Paul who was trailing behind. He was losing steam, but I had to continue. There was no time to waste. I wasn’t sure what would happen to me if I stop even for a second. I couldn’t take that chance. With every breath I took, I felt a sudden resurgence spreading across my entire body. I was floating down the trail but also working against the clock. I had to lay it all on the line and risk everything.
The mental focus was so demanding that fifteen seconds was all I can give myself at each checkpoint. In some water stations, despite feeling on the verge of overheating from my efforts, I only took half my usual water allotment to save time refilling all the water bottles. Every second counts but water management is a high priority. The strategy was to not drink a single drop the rest of the way and redirected all available resources to keep myself cool. I found an ingenious way to save water as I frantically tried to chase down Thomas. I took a sip of water and spit it onto my hands and pad it onto my face and neck. Not a single drop of water was wasted. It worked wonders. My mouth didn’t feel dry and the slight breeze took care of the rest. I was on fire. There was nothing that can stop me now. When I got sight of Thomas with 25km (15miles) to go, I knew I had to use every trick in the book to try to break his will. Right before I passed him, I gave Thomas a pat on the back and wished him the best of luck. Then I just zoomed by him. Thomas is, of course, no ordinary man. This is a US Marine Sniper veteran who did four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also happened to served with Mr. American Sniper (Chris Kyle). A man like that won’t be broken so easily and I didn’t dare to look back.
As darkness fell, I relied on my headlamp and glow sticks on the ground to navigate through highly technical terrain with great concentration. One twisted ankle, and it’ll be all over. The race organizer was so surprised by the speed in which we covered the course that they weren’t able to lay all glow sticks down in time. I was literally running blind in the final miles of the race, helped only by the occasional pink flags. When a narrow technical trail emerged along a cliffside with a 100m drop, I was reduced to walking in the fear of falling off the side of the mountain. I was fearless, but not reckless! During the ensuing miles, I correctly determined that Thomas would gain back significant time on me. By the time I reached the last checkpoint, I was told by volunteers that he was merely a handful of minutes behind. I did some quick math in my head to calculate the necessary margin to take the win. Twenty minutes in a span of (11km) 7miles is what I need! With no time to spare, I took a sip of water and emptied all my water bottles. I was pulling out all the stops because every gram counts. Tackling these final kilometers of the race head on, I stepped up my pace, lifting my knees higher and higher. I was certain that I was running seven minute miles. At least that’s how it felt! There is comfort in listening intently to the sounds of my pounding heart with my senses slowly melting away.
The end cannot come soon enough. As I crossed the finish line, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing it was all over. Suddenly, the world came crashing down on me. I was back to earth and my body was a complete wreck. With my heart beating a hundred miles an hour, I thought I was about to keel over and pass out. The volunteers at the finish carried my exhausted body over to a tent nearby and gave me a bag stuffed with ice as I alternate between laying it on my chest and on the back of my neck. As I regain my faculties and feeling more like myself again, I was informed that Thomas was coming in from the distant. My feelings were torn by the prospect of winning my first multi-stage race and rooting for Thomas, who had an excellent performance throughout the race week. I was quickly reminded by the debt incurred from bad karma. As J.R. Tolkien wrote, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.“
Thomas came storming through the finishing chute and immediately collapsed at the medical tent. I gave him a few moments to gather himself before congratulating him for waging such a hard fought battle. I gave the marine a big hug and said to him, “I don’t know who’s going to win this race, but you are a deserving champion”. He replied, “You made my pee turn brown!” Paul staggered to the finish a few hours later having suffered badly from dehydration and overheating; he was unable to hold down any nutrition. I didn’t expect him to fall so far behind and was gravely concerned about him. I gave him a huge embrace. It wasn’t the performance he wanted, but he has prevailed once again and was undeterred.
With the second edition of Trans-Pecos Ultra Marathon coming to an end, Thomas is a deserving champion. Although he won by a razor thin margin of four minutes, I was ecstatic with my second place result and Paul coming in close behind in third place. I have found what I was looking for. There are no regrets.
What stood out about this race compared to other races was the kindness and generosity exhibited by the race volunteers. Not only did they offer to pack and ship our awards back home to Canada instead of having us carry these fragile items with us all over the world, they hooked us up with contacts to help promote our endeavour as well as made generous donations to our Rainforest Trust charity. Our fellow competitors were just as unbelievable. When you suffered so much out in the desert, you can’t help but bond with one another. No one can truly understand what each of us went through unless they participated in one of these multi-stage races themselves. There is nothing else like it.
Now, we are off to Muscat, Oman where we will take on the most difficult challenge of all in only five days time. The Oman Desert Marathon is THE race where we will take down the Guinness Book of World Record for “The Most Desert Races Ran In One Year“. We are stuffing ourselves with food and drinks, but we know that no amount of rehydration and renourishment can restore us back to our former selves. Alas, that’s what breaking records are all about. It’s freaking hard!