Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Sahara Race..2009 (bad language warning!)

If you would've told me 10 years ago, that I'd be running through a desert, let alone my 6th desert...I would have recommended a good psychiatrist...for us BOTH! But here I am looking back on it as fact. I finished the 2009 Sahara Race...150 mile, self-supported, 6 day run through the hottest desert on the planet!! My 2 teammates and I reunited again as Team Trifecta, with simply crossing the finish line as our main goal. We also hoped to have some fun along the way (since we are probably much better at that, than running). But lastly, we still wanted to perform as well as possible. As usual, my competitive spark at the opening gun, would quickly morph into a 5 alarm fire somewhere along the way, and 'fun' would fall further down on that list of priorities!!

This event would see 'the boys' come together in another amazing destination...for tent fills expletives, obnoxious behavior, pain and misery, and plenty of laughs mixed in. We had myself from the 2 teammates Michael Hull and Pete Wilson from Australia...Peter Bocquet from Australia but living in Singapore...Erik de Hart another Aussie...and James Elson from the UK! This would be our 4th Racing the Planet race together...with the others being the Gobi in far western China, the Atacama in Chile, and our epic trip to Antarctica which might have been considered more of an ultra booze-fest, than an ultra marathon. We also had 3 new fellows in our tent...a rookie to these events from the US names Ken Shuart...another rookie from Scotland named Mick Campbell...and lastly an experienced runner from Lebanon named Ali Wehbi who was vying to win it all...things don't often go the way you plan in the desert!!!

Before the race, I hadn't paid much attention to the other teams who had signed up and would be racing along with us...and up to that point I had thought of them as just 'along with us'...not so much 'against' us!! But as we all met at the race check in, I felt my competitive juices start to flow...and found myself 'checking out' the other competitors and started to mull over our chances against these very physically fit looking people from all over the world. And the usual thoughts of 'am I ready for this', 'have I done enough training' started flying around in my head. But this time I could answer YES! I had been going quite hard for quite a while, and had come off one of my hardest races just a few months I was feeling quite optimistic about my current state of fitness. And after some chest pumping from Hully and Willo, I started to consider that we had a decent chance of placing well in the team division, and maybe even winning, did I just say that...well yeah, I figured why not.

This race had us going up against another 8 teams...and although the famous (in our own heads only) Team Trifecta was undefeated in our previous 2 races together (Gobi is where we all met, but didn't race together as a team there), we had raced against a grand total of ONE team in those 2 races!!! I know..pretty pathetic! But in our defense, in Atacama where we went up against the other team from Chile, they were MUCH more talented runners than us. And it was there that we learned the most important lesson of team ultra endurance sports...that being one great 'team' is much more important than being three great runners that are in a team!!! There's a huge difference and that difference was what we hoped to expose and take advantage of. In the Atacama Crossing, we beat the Chileans after they disbanded and we hoped that a simliar scenario would work in our favor here in the Sahara Race. And so with that knowledge under our belts, even though we faced faster runners, we knew that wasn't the most important factor, and once again, the Sahara race would prove that!!!

I think the race would see 4 other teams either dissolve, or members dropping out all together somewhere along the 150 miles (almost a quarter of the 200+ racers would drop), with temps reportedly reaching 120 degrees. We had one team that consisted of all 3 members being stronger runners than all three of us, but they discovered that being patient and staying together was much more difficult than beating us...and on day 3, they split up and the 2 faster guys left their slower mate behind and passed us...but only to see the slower one, reimerge and also pass us, and even finish ahead of one of his 'faster' EX teammates...quite a moment. So in case that sounded a bit hard to follow, basically if they had just stayed together as a team, they would have put some time on us, but even though they all finished ahead of us, they were no longer a team and so we continued to put time on the other teams and Team Trifecta was leading the team division!!

We had another tough team on our heels (they beat us outright in one day's stage)...Team Mixed bag from Singapore. They pushed us and pushed us and it was the thought of them breathing down our backs during the long stage of 55 miles, that changed one of my goals of having fun, to winning at all costs of pain and misery!!! My drive transformed me during the long day, and I'm afraid the 'whip' came out on my 2 teammates and I might have 'pushed' just a bit hard...and we came close..but not all the having a moment or two of discord!! But to their credit, Hully and Willo put up with my obsessiveness and kept trucking along!! And maybe to my credit, I didn't quite go over the top, but rather right to the edge...and I think it proved to be successful...well, I know it did, because from the half way mark of the long day, we held them off from 30 minutes behind pulling away and ending that stage over 2 hours ahead, and secured our team win. The last 10K got increasingly brutal, and even though I was feeling quite strong most of the day, by the time we reached to finish, along with Mike and Pete, we all were aching badly from head to tow and cussing at every step!!! "Where is the has to be over this dune...we've got to be getting there...this is bull shit...this is sure as hell longer than 10K" are a small smattering of things that could be heard coming from our mouths...but more under our breaths in hushed grunts, than yelling out loud. We didn't have the wind in our lungs or the strenth to waste getting angry at that point! We finally climbed one last steep sand dune, saw the finish line flags waving in the breeze. We breathed one massive sigh of blessed relief, and crossed arm in arm. It was quite a special and emotion moment...stumbing across that line and embracing each other, panting for emotionally and physically draining moment!! We had been through so much together...through 4 deserts, 3 continents, immeasurable pain...blister after blister...too many toe nails to count, strained muscles, self diagnosed 'snapped tendons' and 'broken legs'... But we never took ourselves too seriously and had tons of laughs...and a pretty damn good amount of alcohol along the way, and around the globe!!! And we had done it all with no more than a couple arguments...pretty damn good for 1,000 kilometers together. I'm not sure how many others could do the same thing...certainly not many!!

I look back on a number of moments through my quest to run through the hottest, coldest, highest, and driest deserts in the world, as being those 'moments' that you remember forever...small minutes of time, little spaces of 'being in that moment' amongst all the pain, when time itself seems to flow in slow motion, or comes to a standstill...where the air seems more fresh, colors more brilliant, where the mind overtakes the body and all your senses are firing on all cylinders...where the drug of choice is adrenaline and it flows fast and free inside your veins!! It's these moments when I found myself thinking "this is why I do this"!! I'll admit that 99% of the time, I DON'T feel that way and the majority of the time, I'm saying to myself "what in the hell am I thinking putting myself through this shit"! But those fleeting moments of clarity, really LIVING...many times in delirium...make it worth it!!! Hell, maybe I should just get my hands on some good would save lots of pain, months of training, and probably a LOT of money...but somehow I don't think I'd feel like I'd earned it that way!!! I think that would be a short cut..cheating..and that the long and hard way is the only way to make it happen, well..the right way!!! You appreciate it so much more when it hurts like hell to get there!!
In this race, that moment came during the long day...I was actually feeling rather strong...and the boys had recovered from some lows...the sun was setting, the colors in the sky were beautiful, the air cooling down...and I realized at that moment, that it could very well be the last time we went through all this together!! We realized we had probably wrapped up the win, the pressure of the competition was waning, and we just had to grit it out to the finish. I decided that we should try and take one last picture before my battery died for good, and before the light faded away behind the sand!! I grabbed Hully and Willo and I held the camera out in front of us for a self-portrait and said "well guys, this is it...who knows what life has in store for us tomorrow let's try and remember this moment forever, and capture it!" I'm not sure how much they were affected by it...I think they were...but I know I was, and I got a bit choked up!! The picture came back perfect (lowest pic above)...and I can almost still feel the warmth of the setting sun in our faces..and the miles we had traveled...and not just in this race, but in all the races, etched in our faces!! I know I have a few more lines in the edges of my eyes, and more gray hairs on the sides of my head, and probably a few less hairs on top of my head...but the little extra signs of aging have been well worth it...and let's face it, it's true, I have aged during this quest...but I feel like I've been so blessed, and that I've lived the lives of many people, been to places that few get to see, met people that few get to meet...certainly felt more pain than most, more desperation, and more dread...but surely more exhilaration, more achievement, and more accomplishment! Along this journey, I drank from many different waters...from rivers flowing near where our enemies water melted from high volcanos...and from underground oases...and even water from ice bergs at the bottom of the world...but amazingly, I still feel thirsty for more!!

(Michael Hull, Pete Wilson, and I won the team division. James Elson ran an amazingly strong race as usual and became the youngest person to complete the 4 Deserts series. Pete Bocquet could have easily won the "biggest heart" award and always trudges through to finish...he is a beast!!! Mick Campbell ran the race as if he had done 3 before it, and was a brick throughout! Ken teetered on the edge a couple of times, but hung in there, and ended up finishing really strong...very impressive!! Unfortunately Erik de Hart and Ali Wehbi both dropped out very early in the race, but cheered the rest of us on, and helped out quit a bit..I'm sure they'll be back)
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