Stage 2 & 3 – Exhaustion
Hypothermia and frostbites became a serious concern for many competitors after Stage 1, Paul included. He had suffered frostbite like conditions over his nose and face so the medical staff was monitoring him closely overnight to make sure things don’t get any worst. To be honest, he was a little scared because the right side of his nose, on top of being swollen, had lost all feelings along with his right cheeks. Of course he wanted to complete the 8 Deserts Challenge, but he wasn’t about to do it at any cost. Losing his nose over a challenge, however great, was not worth it.
When morning came, the head doctor wanted to pull him out of the race right away, citing safety concerns. He told them he could continue based on his improved condition. Kris, after having a good understanding of his situation, intervened on his behalf. He managed to convince the medical staff to let Paul continue on the basis that they can check him periodically. We began the day running over a vast frozen lake and then into a forest trail. In stark contrast to the brutal storm of yesterday, the weather today was absolutely marvelous. Mind you, it was still -10C out there so you can’t be complacent. Thankfully, there weren’t any major climbs to be done otherwise we would all be dead! After coming close to hypothermia in Stage 1, Paul’s body just wasn’t the same. The trauma took too much out of him. I am suffering as well, though not to the same degree. Despite our lack of energy, we tried our best to finish Stage 2 as fast as we could. One thing we learned from racing in extreme cold (Stage 1) is that you need way more calories between checkpoints than your usual desert race; we ate more to err on the side of caution. Luck was also on our side in Stage 2. The course was cut short by 16km (10miles) because Kris informed us during the morning briefing that parts of the lake were impassable. We were driven to camp over roads to make up for the missing miles. By the end of Stage 2, we were feeling a bit stronger though still far from our usual selves.
Tough as it may be, the act of running was not the only challenge of this race. Because temperature had dropped below -30C by the evening, it was unbelievably cold sleeping outside in a teepee. As far as sleeping pad goes, the small piece of reindeer skin that barely covered the length of my upper body just didn’t cut it! I believe no one was able to get any sleep that night. You also can’t imagine what it is like to have to go to the washroom either. To put it lightly, let’s just say that winter camping is an acquired taste.
Aside from the initial 10km, Stage 3 was really the crossing of a large frozen lake. For those who haven’t ran with snowshoes before, using it on ice was pure torture. Imagine running with long spikes on concrete and that’s exactly what it feels like. Now try to do that for 30km … yikes! The run across the lake seemed to last forever, not unlike the Salt Flat crossing of Ultra Bolivia. This flat open space really tested the mental game of all competitors. It is something that you will never get used to no matter how many times you have done it before. For all that suffering, however, there was light at the end of a tunnel. We finally get to sleep in a cabin instead of a teepee tonight!
Stage 4 – Never Ending
On the penultimate stage on Day 4 (64km, 40miles), we were told that we will be going over a mix of snow covered trails and lakes. The stage was set for an epic day as we set off from the start line with heavy snow fall. Paul and I didn’t really talk much about race strategy the night before because I had already decided that we would minimize our chances of making fatal mistakes by buddying up, taking our time at the checkpoints and not doing anything we would regret. I just sort of follow whatever pace Paul dictated. There wasn’t anything for us to prove and we were both pretty banged up, not just from this race, but from the wear and tear of 7 previous desert races. His right calf and my left calf started to stiffen up real good. My right ankle was also in considerable pain from overuse. I guess with our longest training run on snowshoes being 12km, it wasn’t the ideal preparation that we sought. Nevertheless, this is not the time for regrets or second thoughts. We had to stay in the moment and get things done!
Before long, with snow continuing to fall throughout the day, we staggered into CP4 with only 25km (16 miles) to go, ready to take a nice long break. Rather than saving my dinner for later in the night after we finish the stage, I got some hot water and ate my freeze dried meal on the spot. I wanted to be in full strength getting to camp and not take any chances. By taking that extra bit of rest, a traffic jam ensued at the checkpoint. From the look of things, many of our fellow competitors are ready to give the course hell today! It was fascinating to watch how each runner deals with his/her own inner turmoils. Some athletes handle adversity through laughter while others just buckle down and execute their race plan with laser-like focus.
After a well deserved 45mins rest and our bellies satisfied (first time ever in this race!), we pushed on. Although in excellent spirit, we didn’t feel so good with Paul already starting to limp with his right leg. Our minds were willing but our bodies weren’t cooperating. To not risk further injury, we dialed back our efforts and alternated between a brisk walk and a slow shuffle. The Eight Deserts Challenge represents much more than simply a quest of human endurance. It is a test of self-discipline and self-awareness. As the prodigal Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War, “Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances”. To succeed in completing the 8 Deserts Challenge, one must adapt and be flexible to one’s approach to racing as circumstances dictate. This is what makes this challenge so unique.
As darkness fell between CP5 and CP6, our pace slowed somewhat with limited visibility. By now, we had to rely on our headlamps to guide us along. Much to our dismay, almost the entire 7km track in this stretch was on a steep incline. I’m confident to say that anyone who had been attacking the course aggressively up to this point must have had their wind taken out of their sails. A lot of curse words went through my head. My strained ankle screamed out to me begging me to stop. Paul’s aggravated his ITB (Iliotibial Band) wasn’t doing much better. It was a painful process dragging ourselves on one leg before finally reaching CP6.
“Another chance to rest up before the final surge to the finish!”, I murmured to myself as we entered inside the tent. To my complete utter surprise, we found one of our fellow competitors, Aaron from UK, laying on his side shivering and bewildered. He had passed us in CP4 a few hours ago full of energy, resolve, and determination. Covered in a thick winter jacket and attended by the medical staff, Aaron was advised to not continue even though there was merely ~8km separating him from the finish line. After a long heart to heart conversation with the medic, he finally relented. It must have been a great disappointment to accept that fact that he had just DNF in the race. I felt for him. Those are the breaks. This race takes no prisoners.
Paul and I finally reached camp at almost midnight that day. It took over 16hrs to cover 64km. We certainly didn’t break any speed records, but I’m proud to say that we had the discipline to hold back. As they saying goes, “Sometimes you need to lose small battles to win the war.” We competed to the best of our abilities, but sometimes it isn’t enough. I have learned over the course of my athletic career that although our egos are what drives us to great successes, it can also be our spectacular downfall. One must learn to know to tame it. Throughout the 8 Deserts Challenge, we had already tempted fate one too many times. It would be unwise to think that we have more lives than a cat.
Stage 5 – End of the Journey
Just when we thought the final day calls for an easy 15km victory lap, we found ourselves having to scale up what resembled a ski slope in the first 5km (3 miles) of the stage! My battered body was in too much pain to complain about it. We were but on a single mission: to get to the finish line and complete our year long 8 Deserts Challenge. As the end approaches, all I could think about was crossing the finish line with Paul together as a team for one final time. The 8 Deserts Challenge cannot be summed up in a one single moment, but rather, it is a culmination of many incredible memories, new found friendships, and the blood, sweat and tears of two men in pursuit of a dream. Crossing the finish line was merely a formality. This challenge threw everything but the kitchen sink at our way, tested our mettle but we managed to overcome. The journey is finally over and we won’t be denied.
It will take some time for us to reflect on everything that has happened this past year before Paul and I can fully comprehend what we had just accomplished. Certainly, another blog or something more is in order.
At 40yrs young, many would consider someone my age a “Finished Product”, for I could no longer change the trajectory that I had set forth for myself. As they say, “The ship has sailed”. Nothing could be further from the truth. This project proves that anyone can be whatever they want to be, and is only limited by their imagination and perseverance.
I would like to end this blog by saying that the best is yet to come. This journey have opened my eyes as to what Paul and I are capable of. There will be more challenges to face. We may not be so lucky and will certainly fail from time to time, but a life without challenges is a life not worth living. Without adversity, there is no progress or growth and without growth, we are merely existing. This is why we love what we do.