The Marathon des Sables, 30th Edition – How hard can it be? – Part 1

29/04/2015

Perception

Interpretation

Understanding

We all see, hear and experience things differently, so naturally we all interpret things differently… surely then, it’s logical to realise that we all understand things differently. Yet often people are surprised by what they encounter because they base their expectations on others’ experiences and beliefs.

It is with this as a guideline that I often end up saying “How hard can it be?” because what I may find hard, someone else may breeze through, or what I find easy, someone else may never even contemplate trying.

If you don’t try, you won’t ever know.

At the end of the Long Stage at the Grand to Grand, after over 27 hours on course with no sleep, as I reached the finish line and Tess (co-owner & director) hugged me, I told her how much I hated dunes and sand and that I never ever wanted to experience anything like it again. I was done and cancelling my entry into the Marathon des Sables. She, with years of stage racing experience, told me I would feel differently once I’d had some sleep and that if I wanted to continue with stage racing, I’d have to get used to dunes because a lot of races have them! She was right, although thankfully they don’t all have the amount of sand and dunes that Marathon des Sables has!

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I obviously didn’t cancel my entry and did make my way to Morocco because as a lot of runners will know, once home and post-event, your brain forgets the hard bits, you become like Dory from Finding Nemo and eagerly sign up for something new!

So… here’s what happened for me…

THE JOURNEY THERE

For the UK, entry is via a company called Run Ultra and I have to say what a smooth process they make it. They had 3 flights departing on the same day, someone to meet you at the London airport, dedicated check in desks for departure and then, on arrival in Morocco, Steve was waiting alongside other representatives to guide you to the correct coaches for the journey out to bivouac. Do make sure you have your data roaming switched off (especially if you are Vodafone customers) because uploading just 6 photos to Facebook will incur 3 text messages telling you that in the space of 10 minutes you have used enough data to have already incurred a fee of GBP 45.00. If you are a very lucky Vodafone customer, expect these messages to come in late, in reverse order so you won’t actually know about this, or be able to do anything about it, until it’s too late!

What a view coming in to Ouarzazate…

mds1Photo copyright: Michelle Payne

There was a lot of waiting around for all planes to arrive and buses to load up, and the coach journey is long… up to 6 hours… so be prepared and do take the water offered en route. Then you will encounter lesson number 1… the toilet pit stop! Here’s how it goes…

Men out to one side…

Women to the other…

Women find something to hide/squat down behind… and pray no-one is taking your photograph… yes, I saw several people with cameras out… but be reassured, eventually during the week, some of you (make that most of you)… will stop caring about being seen…

You will also stop for a packed lunch. If you find you need a toilet break here, get your packed lunch first in case they run out. If you avoided the toilet pit stop before, this is the time to take full advantage over any worry about being seen, because nearly everyone else is fully engaged with their food on the other side of the coach, sitting outside on rocks or on the ground eating. Do however be aware that although you may think you aren’t able to be seen… as you stroll back to the bus feeling much more comfortable, especially if you didn’t take advantage of pit stop 1, you will most likely sight locals in the distance… who will be watching your direction! If so, squash those thoughts down and concentrate on your food… you really won’t care on the return journey home!

A helpful tip: ensure you have antibacterial hand gel in your hand luggage and make sure you carry it on the bus (backpacks which you will use as hand luggage and have squished as much of your kit into as you are able within the 7kg allowance, will be put into the storage compartment under the bus)…

Watch out for camels… we were lucky enough to see some and the coach stopped so we could get some photos…

mds2Photo copyright: Michelle Payne

We arrived in darkness. Given that tents are allocated on arrival, our tent (organised beforehand) had a plan… one of us… aka who we thought was the fastest runner…  would grab the nearest tent and text the others… this worked well and we ended up with a tent nearer to one end than in the middle… I obviously didn’t work this out until I’d trudged round the whole arc of tents… Tent #117 was going to be home for the week 🙂 … it was a little roomier than I expected (thankfully) but way more open with virtually no privacy at all… if you feel you need some, get one of the ends… it’s not much but psychologically it can help! And yes, they are held up by sticks… which can collapse in sandstorms…

mds3Photo copyright: Matthew Cranham

Ground cover is provided by a rug, but the rocks will not have been swept out before the rug is laid.  If you have an inflatable mattress, you might just want to try and get rid of as many sharp rocks and pebbles as possible… if you want a good nights’ sleep… ok virtually no-one gets that, but if you want a reasonable amount of sleep, you should also try and make the ground as smooth as possible. Note, this does not apply to any sleep for the night/day after you finish the Long Stage…

Dinner, which is catered, was still available when we arrived and tasted great, much better than I had expected… and it’s a great opportunity to chat to your tentmates and get to know each other a bit better, and you will also get a glimpse of how your personalities will mesh together over the coming week.

mds5Photo copyright: Michelle Payne
with Matt Cranham and Gwynn Stokes 🙂

Then it’s back to the tent, sort out who is sleeping where… work out how to use the toilet system (more on that in the next section), brush your teeth and wipe your face over before snuggling into your sleeping bag and going to sleep looking out at the stars as a gentle breeze flows through the tent… it was a rather lovely start to the Adventure!

KIT CHECK DAY

We’re British, shouldn’t we be used to queuing?

Helpful tip… take a full 1.5 litre bottle of water with you when queuing.  It’s hot, it’s going to take more than a little while.

You will be given a time slot to go through kit check corresponding to runner number. You will hand over your big bag before going through kit check so make sure you use the first night to finalise anything you want to carry during the course of the week, rather than waiting to see how much your pack weighs (such as sleeping bag liners). So queue number 1… hand over bag, watch it thrown onto a lorry which seems to be stacked impossibly high… do not contemplate whether there will be anything going over the top of those bags to hold them in… walk away and don’t look back. Trust me on this…

Queue number 2… you will queue until you reach the desk, you will then queue behind the desk to the next point and so on… this is where they will check against the questionnaire you have completed (given on the coach along with the roadbook etc.) as to what kit you will be carrying… you will get your water card, your SOS attachment and the “bracelet” that allows you to be tracked on course… and yes, it looks like you’ve got an ASBO ankle tag on…

Helpful tip… do secure this with a safety pin! A bit tiresome but mine came off without it…

Your pack will be weighed… this weight may be wrong… don’t stress about it if so! Mine weighed 9.3kg in the tent (amazing considering how much previous packs have weighed) yet 8.7kg officially with nothing removed. If at this point your water tag and tracker are missing, try not to stress too much… you will eventually be given one. Inside the tent(s), the temperature will be hot, there will be no air… and you will be itching to get out… but still you queue…

You get to the medical bit… if you are really really really super unlucky (thankfully this was not me…) somehow, somewhere from the start of the queue to this point, you will have lost your ECG and your medical certificate. I kid you not. This will result in being told you have a time penalty of an hour (or was it two)… plus a fine of a lot of money! If you’re even more unlucky, you may have misplaced your euros too… pray your tentmates have extra on them to cover your ass! My tentmate was lucky… others in the tent had brought extra… and so was coined a phrase for Tent #117… “What will go right for Mike?”… this still makes me smile 🙂 …seriously though, he is an absolute superstar and fab tentmate!

You will then queue a bit more… before eventually the end is in sight, you drop your kit to one side and pose with your runner number against a cardboard MdS background… before being blinded by the daylight as you are released to freedom.

The rest of the day and evening is your own with all meals catered… enjoy these moments, where nothing aches, where there are no blisters… where you don’t have to struggle against the “breeze” to light a piece of fuel that burns your fingers and then goes out… each and every time!

Now, as previously mentioned… the toilet situation… there will be three “compartments/doors” with open flaps to the front (you can hold this closed with one hand)… there will be a stool shape inside. You take your biodegradable plastic bag and secure over the stool and once used, tie it up and place it in the bin just outside. These bins are emptied pretty regularly and much more hygienic than events of old.

A helpful tip… find a small pebble or rock and put it in said bag… it will stop the wind blowing it back upwards… you really really really don’t want that to happen.. thankfully I knew of this tip beforehand…

There is also a “changing room” provided for women. This is NOT A TOILET. Can I just repeat that? THIS IS NOT A TOILET!!! You will be informed about this on the coach journey to bivouac. It is noted in the roadbook. It has a sign on it… a circle with a toilet inside it and a cross going through it. It has written on it that it is NOT a toilet.

I understand that, just before it’s about to be removed, on the morning of a race/stage, when we are leaving that bivouac never to return, that it is not going to be used again and if there is a queue for the actual “toilet facilities” then it’s easier to use this, but not after the race, not during the night… not when other people are going to use it! It is the same as the toilets in that it has an open flap at the front but it has a crate inside only… this is for standing on so you can get changed without getting sand on everything! Not for pissing on!!!

By the fifth day, ours had been removed, probably because it was being used as a toilet. For those who said I had carried too many inessentials… you would have begged to borrow some of my sterilising tablets!

But to leave that day on a positive… everywhere I go, I seem to find natural hearts… this right outside our tent and in front of where my sleeping bag was… I was where I was meant to be…

MDS4Photo copyright: Michelle Payne 

STAGE 1 – THE RACE BEGINS

And so it starts… waking up, no more lazing around, no more time… it was here, it was real.

We would wake around 05.30 every day as the French tents opposite us woke at this time… I figured getting up at 6 would be sufficient time but it’s amazing how quickly the time goes… getting your breakfast ready, getting dressed, packing… going to the toilet for what seems like a million times before making your way over to the start line.  Stage 1 however was different … the taped off area on the first day which marks out the number for the edition of the race was ready for us, this year the 30th… the sound of the helicopter above, drones flying high… everyone waving their hands in the air… I saw a couple of people I recognised and said hello… and quite unwittingly ended up in the fourth row from the front! I looked to the left and saw my tentmate Elisabet who smiled reassuringly at me as she knew how nervous I was… she wasn’t looking to place this year… it was a training race for her…

Patrick started speaking… there was dust and sand and the sun starting to climb higher… Patrick carried on speaking… I figured this was taking quite some time due to it being the first day… surely not every day would take so long… let’s start already! The nerves were kicking in and the longer it took, the more I’d need another toilet break… men definitely have this aspect much easier at races!

Are we starting yet?

Eventually… the infamous track “Highway to Hell” began…

the countdown in French…

until we were released… adrenaline coursing, hearts pounding, dust and sand flying up as the runners swarmed through… so many smiles, arms waving, eyes cast upwards… the helicopter flying sideways down the long line that stretched out… I ran… or rather shuffled, as many a stage racer will call it 😉 and was overtaken by so many…

Don’t push, don’t try to match, don’t try to keep up… run your own race… the thoughts echoed through my head. It’s a long race and it’s not about one day! My coach’s words also echoed… you may not be the fastest but you are one of the toughest! Don’t go out too fast… oops. I scaled back… the soft sand making the legs work hard… how do they run so fast on this surface? My legs felt like lumps of lead whilst the leaders just glided…

Can I walk yet? No…..

2 minutes later… Can I walk yet…. no…

1 minute later… Can I walk yet? It’s an incline so Thank God YES!

This was to become a recurring theme in my head throughout the day and week as the race progressed… and a tactic of walk the ups, run the downs… however I hadn’t expected so many rocks. Elisabet’s husband Colin had warned me it was rocky (he’s finished this race twice) but I figured those were on the hills and would be smallish on sand… not so, lots and lots and lots of rocks… big enough to bash your feet time and time again. I prayed I wouldn’t get blisters…

I also hadn’t realised what a jebel was. I thought it was a term for a sand dune and had never even googled it. Note that a jebel is not a sand dune, although there will be a lot of sand… it’s a hill, or rather mountain. Most likely with steep sides. That goes up very high. That you could fall down and hurt yourself badly on. With big rocks. Fear of heights folks, fear of heights… need I say more? And very quickly on Stage 1 it was up, up and up… thankfully there were downs too, and flat bits. Not necessarily flat bits you could run fast on, especially when it was soft sand that had been churned up by a few hundred competitors already ahead, but flat was preferable to a mountain you could fall down. What I would come to appreciate during the Long Stage was how much flat I had on this first stage.

mdsstage1Photo copyright: Michelle Payne

We also were lucky in crossing a bridge where there was water… now I don’t know how clear or clean that water was but my cap was dragged along in it and dumped very unceremoniously on my head… the relief from the heat instanteous. Only two checkpoints during the day… any spare water I couldn’t carry on my front pack was poured over my head, neck, down the back and over the arms. You dry out quickly…

The heat was pretty unrelenting but not too bad (thank God for those heat chamber sessions)… but we also had a breeze. I thought this was a good thing to start with and it wouldn’t be until much later that I realised the downside.

I shuffled on…

Until eventually I crossed the finish line. Knackered, dusty, dirty… sand embedded everywhere, but what a sense of satisfaction in getting the first day done… emotional… enjoying the cup of sweet tea that awaits every runner when they finish.

No time to loiter… get your next ration of water, get back to the tent, change out of your running gear and pin it up… blow up your mattress and then put the pack on it so it doesn’t fly away… check the feet for damage, realise you already have blister… go and queue up for your first visit to the infamous Doc Trotters… get said blister sliced, hobble back… realise the queue for sending emails is massive and decide to wait until tomorrow… you need food… you have your protein drink… you then do battle with your stove… you are rescued by your tent’s very own version of Bear Grylls who lets you use his (James, you total hero)!

Email time… a main highlight of the day…

Runners keep coming in and eventually it’s time to go check positioning…

Top half… only just, but still… top half…

And we had a full tent.

I go to sleep that night exhausted but very happy.

Little did I know how differently the next day was going to be…

© April 2015 Michelle Payne

 

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Adventure, Change and a new Challenge – The Marathon Des Sables (30th Edition)

22/04/2015

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Adventure.

Change.

Possibilities.

Experiencing.

Adventure can be so addictive. Once we learn to open our minds, our eyes, our thoughts and our self to new beliefs, cultures, experiences… we will never be the same again. Should we be? After all, aren’t we, as humans meant to change? If we weren’t, we would never develop beyond the mindset of a baby and our species would not have survived as it has. We are surely not meant to stay stuck at the ages of (for example) 1, 7, 15, 21, 30, 42, 55, 60 and beyond: either physically, mentally or emotionally… and what about the the human motivation to achieve self-actualisation, as described by Abraham Maslow… he who has been quoted as saying: “One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.” where to grow means to experience…

Everything we experience has the capacity to change us. IF we let it. There can be so many reasons why people don’t change, and I encounter a lot of these within my counselling practice, but if we allow it, if we embrace it, if we look to use what we find as a tool for opening our self, our minds, bodies and hearts, then how can that not be an overall positive way to look at, and live, LIFE?

“It” being CHANGE.

Change can be scary, it can be exciting, exhilarating even… especially for the adrenaline junkies out there who do crazy things like jump out of aeroplanes… ultrarunners at least have their feet on the floor 😉 … and change can come in many forms, not just travel (although isn’t that a great way to find new things!).  It can be from confronting fears, from changing how you dress, trying new things… from the repercussions of others’ behaviours… by choosing to do things differently, we lift ourselves out of our comfort zone… we “challenge” ourselves. Our reactions and responses to such challenges can teach us so much… not just about others although you can tell a lot about someone by how they treat you… but about who we are, who we want to be and what we want our lives to be like!

Last year I finished my back-to-back stage runs and completed the challenge I had set out to achieve, but all the while I was training for that challenge, the words muttered at the beginning of my journey in Sierra Leone, kept repeating. The suggestion of the Marathon des Sables.

I’d gone to the website, looked it up and felt fear. It’s an iconic race. It has a fierce reputation. It has its’ detractors too… those who call it a “fun run in the sun” as has apparently been said to people I’ve met… and for some I’m sure it is. For those with years of experience and adventure and endurance. But 155 miles across the Western Sahara of Morocco, self supported and in temperatures of up to 50 degrees celsius or more… the race that inspired all of the others you now see across the world… “how hard can it be” echoed once more. As I’ve already blogged, entries for 2015 were not open and I had to wait. I figured, get the others done, see what you’re dealing with and whether you even like it.

Only… entries became available before that happened. What to do?

With the advance notification process engaged, the day of applying dawned… time for a decision and no more sitting on the fence talking about “what if’s”… I had to make a choice.

If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way.
If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.
~~ Jim Rohn ~~

So 4 tabs open on the computer 10 minutes before entry… refreshing, constantly. The form came up. It got completed… 2 minutes later email confirmation came through. I had my spot. All UK entries were gone within 12 minutes. I prayed I’d enjoy the other stage runs, otherwise this could be a very expensive lesson I’d have to learn from. I then concentrated on the challenge at hand, which I’ve already blogged about.

For anyone interested in reading about that, posts can be found here.

Coming home from America, with the amount of mileage and training I’d put in over that 18 month period to date meant there was a price to pay. Achilles tendinopathy and in my case, lovely thickening… probably permanent. Weeks and probably months of rest was what I needed to fully heal but with an Ultra already booked in some weeks ahead, I took 2 weeks then returned to the gym. Cue excruciating pain and 4 weeks of no running… cross training became the way to go so as not to lose all fitness, followed by two weeks of easy running before hitting the planned Ultra (you really do have to feel sorry for my coach – this was against his advice, as well as my sports therapist). A 50K I vastly underestimated even though it’s billed as a double your marathon time and add a bit more on… I’d also encouraged a friend to do this even though their longest race was 15 miles to that point. We “got it done”, and within the cut off… but this was not a wise move and indeed a very valuable lesson learned – listen to the Coach and Sports Therapist in future – they’re there to help you!

So how do you train for an event that’s on another continent, that’s going to be so much hotter than the ones you’ve already done, and over long distances again… all while you’re in the UK in the midst of winter and have a job (or two) to fit in?

You get a schedule, you stick to it as best as possible. You get a coach if possible, and have regular sports / leg massages. You run… a lot. You run long easy runs on both days of the weekends, and for this event, I also walked. Given the terrain of sand, sand and more sand… with my lack of experience, and the blistering from Madagascar that was still healing, expecting to walk parts was vital. Expecting for and training with that in mind would help the mental strength too. You also run with a weighted pack… starting small and building the weight. Given my pack had been 10.9kg without water in America, I went up to 11.2kg in training this time using a tip from a Hong Kong runner… packs of rice! I tried firewood to start with but that added to the chafing… you might want to avoid that one!

You comb the kit list and try and test everything. Luckily I had already gone through this with the other events so had a very good idea of what worked for me. Anything I wasn’t sure about, I rang my tentmate. Call it luck if you will, but another member of my running club was also doing this event and not only that, she was an experienced ultra runner, had completed MdS three years previously with her husband and is a very kind person who always stops to help others if she can. It just happens that they also own the shop I had gotten my previous stage racing kit from, and they are only round the corner (check out their shop here)!

One thing I hadn’t thought about until it was too late was heat training. Kingston University was not only fully booked up but the cost of full sessions would be another added expense. They don’t charge huge amounts but costs do start to stack up with training, coaching, massage, kit and then this! Once again my soon-to-be tentmate stepped into the breach.  As it had a treadmill and bike, she offered to share sessions with me.  Due to time constraints I couldn’t accept all, but managed to fit in 2 x 2 hour sessions: very helpful and informative and I really recommend these for anyone who is planning on desert races.

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Another thing that can bring reassurance pre-event is sorting out tentmates.  Tents are grabbed on a first come, first served basis.  If you organise through friends of friends, then you can meet up beforehand and/or connect through social media. As my tentmate already knew me, she invited me to share with a group that was forming, and I’m so very glad I said Yes! I had the opportuity to meet one person at the shop, and then two others at a race in January – for those in the UK, the Country to Capital 45 is a great race that a lot of people use as a training run for MdS.

You will then go through the nightmare that is known as Hell aka getting your medical certificate signed and an ECG print out!  Unfortunately GPs are not often well versed in sports medicine. An ECG can show little anomalies which will mean your GP refusing to sign your medical certificate and you having to rush off for an urgent appointment to get a heart ultrasound. Naturally I was one such lucky person :/ You can only get your medical certificate signed after a set date. This will allow around 3 weeks of torture. It states in the UK rules that you need both ECG and medical certificate signed, dated and stamped. I was very lucky that the cardiologist I saw didn’t mind my frantic phone calls, leaving signed documents to be stamped at the last minute and didn’t charge extra. There is obviously the need for safety – no GP will want to send you off to the middle of the desert if you have a potential problem but when you run ultramarathons and have a very low pulse rate which can show as incomplete ECGs, not all GPs will understand this. So for those runners that read this with a future event in mind, if you can get a free ECG done well in advance to set your mind at ease that you are ok at present (it obviously doesn’t eliminate future problems), I would advise doing it if possible. I would also advise checking GP prices. Some lucky people (aka not me) get theirs free.  Some not so lucky people (again, not me) get charged a fee… some very lucky people (yes, this would be me) get charged a high fee! For every single certificate! I could have had a basic holiday for the price of 3 certificates, I jest not.

You will then come to the final few weeks and hopefully tapering on your running… this should be an enjoyable phase, after all what could go wrong? Unfortunately due to all the aforementioned plus the unknown, or even known for returnees… you will start to wonder if you need to adjust your nutrition, try something new (don’t do it!!)… change pack, change trainers… hopefully you will already have had the velcro stitched for your gaiters… you will re-weigh… everything! Especially food. You may need to go buy more if you snack on any treats you pack (this was me, several times)…

But this is part of the path… part of the journey that is known as the Marathon des Sables… surely the race would be the reward… after all, how hard could it be?

© April 2015 Michelle Payne


Song of the Week

12/04/2015

deadmau5 – I Remember (Radio Edit)


Slow Dance

08/04/2015

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Slow Dance

Have you ever watched kids on a merry-go-round,
or listened to rain slapping the ground?

Ever followed a butterfly’s erratic flight,
or gazed at the sun fading into the night?

You better slow down, don’t dance so fast,
time is short, the music won’t last.

Do you run through each day on the fly,
when you ask “How are you?”, do you hear the reply?

When the day is done, do you lie in your bed,
with the next hundred chores running through your head?

You better slow down, don’t dance so fast,
time is short, the music won’t last.

Ever told your child, we’ll do it tomorrow,
and in your haste, not see his sorrow?

Ever lost touch, let a friendship die,
’cause you never had time to call and say hi?

You better slow down, don’t dance so fast,
time is short, the music won’t last.

When you run so fast to get somewhere,
you miss half the fun of getting there.

When you worry and hurry through your day,
it’s like an unopened gift thrown away.

Life isn’t a race, so take it slower,
hear the music before your song is over.

~~ David L. Weatherford ~~
Posted with permission
http://www.davidlweatherford.com/
(Picture found circulating freely online)


Song of the Week

05/04/2015

AC/DC – Highway to Hell


Grand2Grand Ultra – Rest, Regret and the last half of the race

01/04/2015

The best bit after the Long Stage? You’d think it would be sleep… after all, if you’ve been going over 24 hours without any, most people think sleep would be easy. Not so… not when it’s daylight, the camp is awake and runners are still coming in, especially when it’s your tent mates… and it’s the only day you’re actually back in time to hit the comms tent!

There were also treats… I thought it a rumour but no… lo and behold a treasure… not something I usually drink but after days in the middle of nowhere, it’s like nectar…

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and we were even treated to some live music… right there in the middle of nowhere… there were a lot of happy campers as you can imagine!

There had been more drop outs by this time and unfortunately this included one of our tent 😦 … Steve had got soaked in the torrential rain and hail storm on Day 1… including his trainers which, I believe, did not dry out properly before the start of the next day… what I hadn’t realised was just how much pain he had been in on the Long Stage… his feet were totally and utterly shredded.  How he managed to push through is unbelievable… because of this…

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Blistered, macerated, bleeding, infected… by now he could barely hobble… so after returning from a trip to the medics, he gave out his food to be divided amongst those of us who wanted it and made the choice to go back to Kanab, when he would eventually meet up with us in Vegas at the after party. A sombre mood descended.

Feet. They make or break your race…

Stage 4

And so the next day dawned, not much sleep gained… you think you’d be so tired that not even the devil would be able to rouse you.  This just doesn’t happen… not for me anyway. A couple of hours, a bit of catnapping… and before you knew it, the music started up… and the question… what time is it? a tent would yell… 3 songs past 6, another would reply!

Memories…

Yuri dashed by… stuck his head in the tent and reminded me to pop by the medic tent again to check my hip… angel in disguise! My leg felt somewhat better, I wasn’t limping as much and the piriformis hadn’t cramped… that little bit of rest had helped tremendously, aided hugely by Yuri’s help and I actually felt ok… I knew I was deterioriating… you don’t do this kind of event without getting drained… lack of energy, speed, hydration, calories… you’re pushing through a deficit each and every day… but today there were more downhills… much better for me… I could run… well, there was still huffing and puffing up the hills, but more downs = more running or shuffling 😉 … and I took advantage of that… no matter how tired or aching I was… I took the choice to tell myself I would run the downs…

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The scenery was amazing… huge cliffs, trees so high they looked tiny… huge boulders to navigate down, rocks carved out by the weather over many years, by rains and floods… and in some parts it looks like we were running on a moonscape… it was also baking hot. So much so that as I ran I kept a very watchful eye out for any water, desperate to try and lower my temperature… the riverbeds crossed were dry… a few muddy puddles, a couple that had a little bit of water in… but how to get at it? Balance very carefully, put your cap on the end of your trekking pole and dangle it just enough to wet it slightly. It was that hot I certainly wasn’t worried about whether the water was clean, it was wet and that was enough. And then there appeared a mirage… a properly flowing river… stream may be a better description but at that point it felt like a full blown river!

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And this is my only other real regret from the whole race…

As I was shuffling along the road I noticed some other runners ahead rejoining the road… I’d seen the river but figured it was too far off course… as I reached the point I had seen them at… I decided to take a few minutes and see how near I could get. It was so hot and my head felt like it was on fire… heaven… you could go right up to it. So that’s what I did.  Took off my arm sleeves and hat and soaked them in the water… I turned around and noticed another runner go past so hurried up to get back on track.  Only a few minutes ahead was the next checkpoint. I could have left my pack there and gone in the water. I wish I had. Later that night, when everyone had returned, some of my tent mates told us what they’d done… they’d stopped, taken their packs and shoes off, and had actually laid down in it… how I wish I had done that. Laughter, fun, friends… surely that’s worth losing a bit of time for in a race instead of pushing through?

Anyway, that was not the choice I had made at the time… instead I pushed on through the rest of the course encountering some pretty evil inclines: looking back at some of the photos, it looks like we were crawling up.  I hit a few low points especially when hitting some long stretches until I caught up to Danny and we leapfrogged each other until we got to camp. I probably wouldn’t have run as much of the last leg if it hadn’t been for him. We hadn’t had much chance to chat up to that point as he was always well ahead of me but while we had this opportunity to talk, he shared how he found the race, the highs and lows to date and that he had been aching a lot and, like a lot of us, had found it hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag that morning, was tired and missing home but since he knew I had just completed a similar type of event in Madagascar, he thought if I could get up each day and do this, then so could he. A truly humbling moment and I don’t think he is aware of how much that meant to me. It kept my spirits up, helped me keep running and we eventually reached camp at the same time. I felt very happy with how I’d done overall that day; top half, position 37  or thereabouts… just a shame about the river…

Stage 4 survived: 7 hours, 21 minutes, 16 seconds

Stage 5

As so the last full day dawned… today was slot canyon day. I think everyone was looking forward to this… we’d seen all the photos from previous years and I naively assumed it would mean a lot of flat.

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There was, but to get to it you had to go down… and part of that meant, for me, holding onto tree branches as I slithered down scarily high inclines… yelps included! I also knew there would be climbing down over rocks a bit in those canyons but what I hadn’t expected was a very high ladder… the choice, just go for it and pray I wouldn’t fall or use a harness that had been provided. Sod the time, go for the harness… it just looked too damn high. Afterwards I heard a snake had been relocated not long beforehand so I definitely made the right choice… what if I’d got there and seen a snake… you’d have heard the screams for miles!

And of course, given we are generally getting higher each day, for all those wonderful downs, there is going to be a lot of ups. Again. Crazy painful ups… I doubt I will ever view local hills in the same way!

Eventually we reached flatter ground, although that did still have an incline to it… it just wasn’t as obvious. There were also rain clouds gathering and I have to say, at that point because it was so hot and the air so still, as I saw some dark clouds approaching, I prayed it would cover me with rain. It didn’t… it stayed tantalisingly just out of reach… and I couldn’t catch it! I passed a field of cows… my poles tip tapping the ground as I walked this part… and then I realised I was being watched! There were a lot of cows. There were bulls too. It was a bull that watched me. I averted my gaze and then snuck a sideways glance… it was still watching me… I held my poles off the ground and still it watched me, it’s tail flicking from side to side and then it moved… a few steps toward the road, no fence in sight… I tried to walk with a lighter footstep, holding my breath… and eventually, thankfully, I was sufficiently past that it turned back to its herd, and I could breathe again!

What I wasn’t aware of was that this was the area that my tent mate Lee had had a close encounter on. Not with a bull but a moose. Apparently a moose had mown him down into a hedge. I kid you not… read his write-up in GQ Magazine!  Killer moose, watchful bulls, sneaky snakes… what is this? Next there would be zombies… oh and don’t forget the tarantulas and scorpion holes…

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I continued up the winding road… on and on, just where was the camp? It seemed to take forever and much longer than the previous day until eventually it came into sight… with pools on the other side of the fence… pools of water which looked so inviting… however given the previous cow incident, yours truly was not taking any chances… I didn’t want to be potentially ambushed and trampled so near to the finish of the race! Wise choice indeed as I found out that those were probably pasture water for the horses and cows… and given experiences to date, it would be just my luck that the horses were not that friendly despite outward appearances!

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Another stage finished and surprisingly only 4 and a half minutes slower than the previous day, around position 33 or something, so top half again and a very happy bunny 🙂

Stage 5 survived: 7 hours, 25 minutes, 56 seconds

Stage 6

The weather had been getting cooler, natural I thought given the ascension of course profile. However that night another storm hit, bad enough to keep us awake all night long with only little catnaps until one of the poles collapsed due to the strength of the wind and we thought the whole tent was going to come down. Those amazing sturdy volunteers came once again to the rescue  and were out in that weather checking everyone was ok and hammering down tent pegs, poles and anything else that could potentially go flying off into the night! I’m not a fan of being cold and the thought at that time of even getting out of my sleeping bag, let alone run in winds which sounded like something from the Wizard of Oz… well…

And at 5am Race Director Colin made his rounds – they were checking in to see how much worse it would get, how safe it would be up to get up to the Grand Staircase. Around 6ish, he made another round… they’d been informed it was just too dangerous and they couldn’t risk flooding especially due to parts being single track (if I’m remembering correctly). Safety is paramount and in those conditions there was a real possibility of people being swept away or falling… so while there was obvious disappointment in not reaching the full 273km, there was also a lot of very happy people staying in their sleeping bags just that little bit longer.  To ensure we had a Stage 6 and to fit in with the expected torrents, the organisers arranged for an “out and back” couple of miles, and everyone would get the same time recorded. A very fitting end for the team spirit and camaraderie that had built up over the past week. Our surviving tent:

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I’d made it and got my buckle!

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It was then time to grab some pizza… do you think they had ordered enough? There was another full table out of view of this 🙂

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The race organisers had timed it perfectly.  Just as the buses arrived and we headed off, the heavens opened. By the time we got to Kanab for a lunch they had also organised for us… just stepping off the bus and walking 5 steps to cover had us drenched. The highway to Vegas had been closed due to landslides and the torrential rain, but thankfully had opened up by the time we left.

And then it was Vegas bound… to meet loved ones, to celebrate, to sleep in a proper bed and eat non-rehydrated food.

And of course to Party! I’m not sure how many people stayed up all night but some did…

What an experience, what memories… what friendships made… it was tough without a doubt. My legs were completely shredded, more than I realised at the time, my achilles was bad and a huge swollen lump had grown by this time, walking was painful (and that wasn’t just because I’d insisted on wearing heels at the after party 😉 )

But…

Was it possible
to go from zero to a double-stage runner in only 18 months?

* Yes it was *

Go sign up… you know you want to 😉
http://www.g2gultra.com

Now what shall I do next…

© April 2015 Michelle Payne


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