Friday, May 29, 2009

Namibia: Beyond Racing the Planet

It's been about a week since the Namibia Racing the Planet Ultra...and still with that amount of time gone by, the pain is still more fresh in my mind than I would prefer. And one look at my feet shows that they took quite a beating out there. When I landed back in DC after about 40 hours worth of traveling, they looked more like the feet of my 95 year old grandmother, than my own...but are slowly but surely coming along!! And the TV show The Biggest Loser has nothing on these races, as I lost a whopping 14lbs trudging through the desert of Namibia!! WOW

I was racing this event without my 2 Aussie teammates Michael Hull and Pete Wilson, and so even though I wanted to do as well as I could do, I also thought it might be the only time to experiment with some of my previous race plans...mainly the amount of calories I bring. That part of the plan, I had gone back and forth with a dozen or so times. At the very last minute after picking up my pack and it feeling like I had a family on my back, I decided to toss out a bunch of my gels and sports drink powder. BAD decision!!!!

Let me first say that the terrain in this race was over-the-top BRUTAL, with the 1st day having us go down the Namib version of our Grand Canyon and back up the other side. And let me add that it is the 2nd largest canyon in the world behind our Grand Canyon...and not much smaller. The check points are usually spaced out to ensure that we can refill our water...the only thing that the race gives us the entire week...but this 1st day proved to be tricky and for whatever reason, even though I NEVER run out of water...this particular day, under these tough conditions, I was caught without a single drink for 2:15. At one point, in the middle of the heat of the day, I had the chills and good bumps..a sure sign of heat exhaustion or worse. I managed to finish up and basically stagger across that day's finish line.

But the problem with me, is that I wanted to keep doing as well as I possibly could each day. The smart thing would have been to simply walk a day and recuperate..take it nice and slow and try to get back above my dehydration level...yes, the "smart" thing...but I'm not often accused of being smart..more often stubborn...pig headed, etc each day I pushed and pushed...not necessarily running fast..but when you feel like you're going to fall over just walking, any speed running is pushing it. In the last desert race I competed in, I felt as strong as an to spare...excited, refreshed...this race it seemed, every mile was a struggle. I didn't necessarily go much slower, but rather just made myself continue...but the pain and misery of going and going when I wanted to just lay down and quit, was ROUGH...very rough!!

And I also was some serious rooky mistakes...let me summarize my 1st day of disasters. Well, 1st of all my wife Chelsea and I went over to Africa early and were lucky enough to go on a gorilla trek in Rwanda. It was an amazing experience but the food there was not exactly up to par and so living on french fries and coke for 3 days is not exactly the pre-race program most recommended before a 6 day, 150 mile, self supported race through the canyon, mountains, and desert of Namibia. So I didn't have a lot of rest going in, and felt like I had already lost a few lbs before the race even started. So anyway, 1 hour into the race, one of my trekking poles broke, then I after reaching the bottom of the canyon and running through a stream and sand, I decided that I'd better put on my sand gaiters (like snow gaiters for skiing that keeps out the snow..sand gaiters keep out the sand). The gaiters attach to the shoes with Velcro that I had a cobbler sow onto my trail running shoes. It was only after I sat on a rock, dumped the sand out of my shoes, and try to put the gaiters on, that I made the shocking realization that my idiot self had the WRONG Velcro side sowed on my shoes....the SAME one as on the gaiters and so they matched instead of being opposite and thus actually sticking!!! The word SHIIIIIIIT could then be heard, throughout the canyon as I yelled that upon realizing my brilliant move!!!! "This is perfect" I said to up at a race through sand withOUT the means to keep it out of my shoes!!! So anyway, no real time to ponder the "what ifs" and "if onlys"...just had to TRY and put that behind me and "keep on keepin on"...sand be damned!!!!!! That would prove to be easier said than done!!!!

So forward onward 2 more stages after the 1st day and it was more of the same...PAIN...EXHAUSTION...I just never had it. I ran relatively well though, despite my energy level and the 1st 3 days I still finished between 48th and 58th place...out of 214 starters...not bad actually, but the misery that it was causing was becoming quite a lot to endure!!! And once again, the terrain we had to cross, was so hard core, you would have to see it and experience it yourself to actually believe it. When I thought back to the fact that I had trained for this by running 7 "road marathons" on PAVEMENT...and was laughable...what the hell was i thinking!!!!! That gave me some good cardio, but did virtually NOTHING to prepare my legs for the climbs and descents, and rocks and sand of this race....CRAZY!!! So...we finish about 40K on day to bed about 8pm in the tent..and then for the long day...62 miles worth...we had to wake up at 2am, get in buses, and were driven 5 hours to the start. And of course I didn't sleep in the add sleep deprivation to all the fun, and the long day was already shaping up to be a doozy!!!

100K of running on 95% I tell you how much that SUCKS!!!! No energy, not enough calories, low on sleep, and now I've got to run 62 miles in sand with a back pack that weight about 20lbs!!! LOVELY!!!!! The temperature as we were running directly into the sun into the 2nd stage was 109 degrees!!! I literally staggered into the check point, babbling incoherently until the race staff dumped some water on my head and I popped back into reality. As I sat on a seat and surveyed my surroundings, it felt like I had somehow left a race and woken up in a war zone. There were runners sprawled out everywhere...and dropping out left and right. Only 2 check points into a 10 check point stage day and people were calling it quits. I took about 10 minutes there and realized the atmosphere of giving up was WAY to prevalent there and quite contagious, and I didn't want it creeping into my body and infecting my brain as well!!! I had to get the hell out of there...whether I felt ready or not. I saw way to many people stronger than me, throwing in the towel. But if there's one thing I have learned in all my races, is that it's not about the strength of people's bodies..but rather what's in their head that matters in moments like this. I may not have the biggest and strongest legs, but I do have the mental strength when it counts. And at that moment, I had to really dig in and use some of the strength to get my ass up, and the hell out of there...moving onward in the right direction!!!

Well, this long day would go on and on and on. Under "normal" circumstances, it would probably have taken me about 13 hours to do a stage of this length, but with the difficult terrain, and my energy level, I ended up plodding along for over 25 hours!!! Wow!!! Walking up and down the sandy mountains, all night long, on and on and on, I had some of the lowest lows I've ever experienced in a race. I staggered and staggered and more than a few times wondered to myself, what in the hell am I doing here!!! This is ridiculous!! Nobody should ever voluntarily put themselves through this type of pain and misery. I don't know how many times I had to stop and dump the sand out of my shoes...and can't even explain what a pain in the ass it is to stop, try and sit down without everything cramping up, and go through the process of taking each shoe off,sometimes socks too!! Just the most simple of things becomes and incredible choor after hours and hours of marching. Through the darkest part of the night, we went over some of the toughest terrain and I couldn't believe we were having to negotiate mountain crossings in the delirious, exhausted state we were in. And when i say "we" for the 1st time in the entire week, I finally met up with a guy named Rob Bolton, who teamed up with me and we stuck together and forged on. We were both hearing things, and seeing things and it was quite a night as we continued on! We didn't chat a whole lot, but just knowing I was sharing the pain with someone who was feeling the same misery as I was, made it easier!! Each and every check point seemed like it was 5 miles further than we thought. What an excruciating existence we were living, trying to get from one to the next. We go over a climb and say "oh it HAS to be just up here" and then get there to find NOTHING..and repeated this disappointment countless times...oh my God. An aid station worker asked me what I needed and I said "a loaded f#@%* gun!!!!!" I just wanted to end the misery!!! I remember trying to imagine how wonderful it would feel when this was all behind me...but man, did it take what seemed like a lifetime....25 hours...are you kidding me!!!

So I finally stumbled to the finish of the long day and virtually collapsed into my tent floor...AHHHHHH!!! I knew then that I was going to make it and even though the thought of another 20-some miles through monster sand dunes the next day sounded like one of the craziest things I could ever imagine having to go through..I knew I could and WOULD do it at that point!!! Needless to say, this race was WAY harder than it was supposed to be and about 50 people dropped out along the way. And the ones that had made it so far, were very vocal in their feelings about what we were subjected to. For many, the thought of continuing on was proving to be too much and many were threatening to pull the plug on their own race...and amazingly for the 1st time ever, the race organizers actually dropped 10K of the "dune day" the next day. That was one of the most beautiful pieces of news I had ever heard. If I had had ANY liquid in my body at that point, I might have shed a tear..but a tear was still way to much water to waste and so I just silently rejoiced in my head.

So the next day started the dune day and I had drank water just about all night long so as to try and re-hydrate AGAIN!! And with the thought of doing a bit less mileage that day, and knowing it was the last difficult day since the last day was just a 10K sprint to the finish, I actually was feeling energized and really gave it a go!!! I moved pretty quickly up and down the massive sand dunes, and knowing that at any moment, the sight of the blue ocean was going to be over one of those dunes, only spurred me on even more. And then the moment finally came..after 6 days and miles and miles of brutal terrain, days and days of pain, I crested a monster sand dune and I caught my first glimpse of the ocean. WHAT A SIGHT!!!! I could almost imagine the cold water and feel the cool breeze. It was for this very experience that I had signed up for the race. The thought of going for miles and miles of sand and running into the ocean was something I had dreamt about...and finally it was within my reach. I actually sped up and finished in a dead sprint and it wasn't more than a few minutes before I had shed my clothes and was running down the beach, into the water!!! OH MY GOD...THE BEST!!!!! It was worth it....well, not totally, but pretty damn close!!! I floated in that ocean and tried to let the water wash away all the pain I had experienced...use it to clean all those negative thoughts from my soul...that long dark night was slowly but surely fading away!!! What an ending!!!

As I mentioned, the last day was a quick 8K sprint along the beach and into the little town there on the Namibian coast and I made quick work of it and right to the cooler straight to the celebratory beer...AHHHH...nice and cold...hell, why not have another...ok, 3 more I what..I was dehydrated right!!!!!

And as I side note, I was awarded the "Spirit Award". It's an award they present at the finisher's banquet, to the competitor showing the most positive attitude and good cheer throughout the race. Wow, I think they may have mis-interpreted my incoherant babbling, for good cheer!!! Well, actually as much complaining as I just described, I did manage to put a brave face on my pain and always tried to be positive when I got to an aid station...thanked the volunteers...hell, I WAS happy to see them..who wouldn't be. They all worked quite hard as well, so even though I was hating life more often than not, I kept a smile on, and looks like it paid off!!! It was quite an honor to receive it... and that plate, along with the race medal, are just more "bling" to add to the wall!!!!!

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