Stage Four: 76 KM (Part Two)
As the final light of the day faded, we switched on our headtorches and made sure our glowsticks were attached. These glowsticks would act as guiding lights for the rest of the race. Not only were they attached to every competitor but also to every marker along the course. It became a simplistic yet torturous act of searching for the next neon green glowing beacon, lights guiding you down an endless tunnel.
It was searching for these lights that Charly and I came up with a game to pass the time. Each runner wore a bib number on their backpack and on it was their nationality. As we were still going at a fast pace, we were overtaking a lot of other runners so as we would approach another runner we would guess their nationality. It was a literal and metaphorical stab in the dark, but it was a great distraction and one that Charly seemed spookily good at.
As we approached the next two runners we made our guesses, and sped up to see who had won. It was only when we got closer that we realised it was James and Lirim. It should have been a moment of celebration but as soon as we saw them we knew something was seriously wrong. James was staggering like he was drunk, and it was evident he was dangerously dehydrated. We slowed down to join them and every 10 minutes or so he would have to stop to either throw up or lie on the ground to try and gather some strength to keep going. In his delirious state James couldn’t work his headtorch so we linked arms and I used my headtorch to light our way. I found it incredibly hard to see a man of real strength and stature laid low but this race. The strain of pushing early on had really taken a toll on him and we all knew that if we couldn’t get him to the next checkpoint a few miles away he would be out of the race. During this time we were being overtaken by a few runners who would stop to check if we were all ok, but one lone figure passed us without stopping. It wasn’t until we shone a light on his bib number did we realise that it was Joe. After painfully leaving Grace he had gone as fast as he could to try and make up sometime. Our tent was almost all together and yet our morale was devastatingly low.
After what seemed like an eternity we could see the distant glow of the checkpoint ahead. We tried to raise James’ spirits but he crashed to the floor once more, repeating; “if I don’t get a drip, I’m going to die”. This photo above was taken by Joe in the moment I believed the Marathon des Sables had beaten him.
We got him to his feet and eventually to the checkpoint where he immediately went to the medical tent. Lirim and Joe vowed to wait for him as they both were in dire need of some sleep. Charly and I sat shell-shocked at the horrors we’d witnessed already and with still 26+km left to go we debated what we should do next.
We decided to press on and left Joe and Lirim asleep next to the fire and headed out. Both of us weren’t sure we would see James again, he was a deadman walking when we left him. How could someone recover from that?
It was clear that Charly and I needed to bring our spirits up so at about 35 miles in Charly put some Taylor Swift on. We cut through the dark silence with loud and, for my part, out of tune singing and a smile finally returned to my weary face.
The rest of the race felt endless. Every km felt like a mile, every mile felt like a lifetime. We would vainly hope that the next checkpoint would be only around the corner, only to find that it was not, and we would stagger on, our morale chipped away. At the next checkpoint I forced down some warm food in an attempt to fuel me for the final 16 miles. Sat on a deckchair around a roaring fire, we could have been a holiday. Except for the fact that we were sleep deprived, suffering in every sense of the word and emotionally raw. We knew we couldn’t stay long so we dragged ourselves away from the welcoming warmth and pressed on once more.
The prickly heat I had been suffering with from where my gaiters were attached around my ankles was becoming excruciating and I debated taking my sand gaiters off to elevate the pain if only for a moment. I knew this would be foolish but I stopped for a few minutes and loosened them so I was no longer completely protected from ingress of sand but I could finally feel some cooling breeze against my raw rash ridden skin. In the moments like this were I was not focussed on the tunnel of light illuminating my footsteps I would look up and simple marvel at the majestic blanket of stars set in the deep purple night sky. It is a beauty so awe inspiring that words will always fail to do it justice. I wanted to stand there forever but a shooting star cut through the sky, bringing me back down to earth and reminding me of the miles I still had ahead of me. We pushed on with the soundtrack to Hamilton blearing out into the darkness.
Suddenly, and without warning, I was stumbling forward. The first time it happened I presumed I had simply tripped on a rock as I had done countless times before. The second time I had to make a conscious effort to stop my body effortlessly falling forward. I realised then that I hadn’t tripped at all, I was falling asleep. My body was completely and utterly spent and with no energy left it was trying to shut itself down. At this point I still had 20km left till the finish line and wearied panic spread through my body like a disease. I took a gel, hoping the sugars would jolt my body awake like giving your car a jump start. The effects were painfully short lived and within half an hour I found myself once more staggering towards sleep. I knew I needed to do something or I would cause serious injury to myself so I got out the coffee sachets that I had each morning and ate it whole. I don’t know if you have seen any of those viral videos of people trying to eat a spoonful of cinnamon but that’s what it felt like. I fought back the urge to throw up and swallowed it down. Caffeine instantly surged through me and I was awake again.
Despite having studied the route the described sandy summit at 70km came as a real shock. A sandy summit sounds like something you build at the seaside with your kids not the massive mountainous incline it truly was. It was brutal and my tired limbs screamed for me to stop throughout. As I reach the top I was hit with a tidal wave of emotions, I stood at the summit and howled like a wolf into the darkness below. Coming down the incline you could see the light of base camp but the comfort of camp was still 6 miles away. In my weary state I began to cry. Thick, relentless tears tumbled from my bloodshot eyes as I thought about those I love at home and how much I wanted to be with them right that second. The video at the bottom of this post is from that moment.
I was clearly struggling more than Charly in these final stages as she would keep having to wait for me, that woman’s unending strength and resilience was, and still is, utterly astounding to me. I simply had no energy left and my thoughts were now solely focussed on just getting to basecamp, checking up on how everyone was and finally resting my destroyed limbs.
We crossed the finish line just as the sun began to rise, ending a day that I will never forget for a myriad of reasons.
Calories Burned: Unknown as my Garmin ran out of Battery
Calories Consumed: 3,355
- Great British Porridge (400cals)
- 2 Clif Bar – Alpine Museli Mix (540cals)
- 4 Torq Gels (460cals)
- Peanuts (360cals)
- Dried Mango (85cals)
- 2 Small Salami (240cals)
- For Goodness Shake – Chocolate Recovery Shake (270cals)
- Expedition Food – Chicken Tikka (1,000cals)