There are some emotions I think any ultrarunner can relate to; the feeling of complete exhaustion to the point that one step more seems impossible, sleep deprivation making everything seem 10 times worse, that you don’t have the right kit and were underprepared for the adventure, that carrying on seems so hard that you wonder why you even entered the race… familiar? Well not to me, I mean, not three days before the race starts and you haven’t even left the house…
So there is was, Friday night, and only a few hours left before I needed to be up for the flight and I had no kit packed and no sand gaiters on my shoes. Marcus, as usual, stepped in and to be honest if he hadn’t I am not sure if I would have made it to the flight. He took charge of sticking Velcro on to my new Scott Supertrac Ultra RC shoes, not an easy feat with the curved rubber sole, and given my choice of glue from B&Q the day before hadn’t been the best. I went for the glue that said ‘velvet and rubber’ as this seemed the closest to putting Velcro on my shoe, something clearly not common enough for the glue to specifically state this on the packaging, As the glue dripped over the kitchen table and the Velcro slid off he declared he would drive to Sheffield to the supermarket to get some glue that was up the job. I was tasked with packing the rest of the kit needed for the race. He shut the door and I sat on the stairs and sobbed. My work had taken up all the hours of the week, of the month really, and this was my first week off for over 18 months. As usual, as I switch on the out-of-office replies at my desk my body starts switching off too and I just feel exhausted, and want to crawl into bed. The thought of then packing for a trip and getting another night of just a few hours sleep before a 36+ hour journey and no showers or bed for a week was impossible. So I just stayed on the stairs thinking I would just not go to Peru…
I had planned for it to be so different. While in the past I had found the discipline, more the inspiration, to train, I had still had frantic night-before-throw-some-kit-together sessions that usually involved some swearing, Marcus coming to the rescue, and maybe the tears too. I had a place confirmed at Half MdS Peru at the end of August. This was not a race I really knew anything about but had been invited by WAA to be in their team, and with a trip to Machu Picchu included at the end of the race, it had seemed an adventure I could not turn down. I’ve never had Marathon Des Sables on my list of races I NEED to do, although that is actually a very tiny list of races, but if the opportunity arises it would be one I would take, so being part of the little sister race and getting to know the WAA team seemed a good start. My reservations had really been about my fitness, having accepted the place when I was in a bad way with my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and having just pulled out of UT4M in the Alps. Training had built up a little, but very long work hours meant I could not reach the time training that I had found much easier 12 months ago. A couple of long runs, and a couple of 60 miles weeks, was about the peak of it. My quads were tight too, to the point of being painful on the outside of my knee on runs, from an old injury coming down Whernside on a Yorkshire 3 Peaks walk last September. Anyway, other than checking the pack for the race on a long run, I didn’t do anything different in my training for the race, and rarely made my double run days either due to work or fatigue.
The concept of the race is that it would be 4 days in the Ica Desert in Peru and we would be self-sufficient the whole time, apart from water and tents provided. This meant carrying all food rations, sleeping equipment, clothes etc. The mandatory list of the kit wasn’t too long, with no stipulation on calories, although 3 meals needed to be shown for each full day. Between me and Marcus we had all of the kit, just the sand gaiters to get. The WAA ones were out of stock, so I chose the Race Kit plastic ones. I think these were designed for the fine Sahara sand but I would have probably been better with some more breathable fabric ones, as my feet were so hot, as if in two plastic bags for the who of the running… blisters were minimal with only one over the whole race though so no damage was done.
Marcus sets the standard for pre-race spreadsheets and with the best intentions, I cut and pasted the mandatory kit into a spreadsheet in about October. I printed off a copy and decided I wouldn’t add the rest of the kit and weights just at the moment but would save this for another productive day on my kit-min. But as the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ ultrarunners… well, I am sure this list will surface in my papers someday, but it was lost or forgotten, and I did not look at it or do anything productive from that day to the Friday night before the race. That’s not completely true, as late in October we were informed that the organised trip to Machu Picchu had been cancelled as the Peruvian military had better things to do that transport us there, due to a referendum on the day. So I hastily planned my own trip in the two days after the race. I managed to also organise a bit of currency, and stock up on some Tent Meals from Basecamp Food, so at least some important tasks were completed.
So no spreadsheets, no organisation to get the gaiters professionally attached, and with a mess of kit stuffed from the bed to the bags at 11pm on Friday night I set a 4am alarm and hoped for the best. Marcus dropped me off at the airport and I think if he had told me not to bother going I would have just turned back, finished the work I didn’t manage on Friday, and headed for a week in the Lake District. But they’ll be other weeks for that, and with the determination to make the best of being so far out of my comfort zone, I boarded the first flight.
24 hours later we were picked up from Lima airport and put on a fleet of coaches which would take us to the desert. It was about 11pm and for the first time in days, I managed to sleep a little. We were woken up for a meal at about midnight, which given it was a chicken dish it didn’t fill me with too much confidence about whether I would get enough vegan food over the next day before we were self-sufficient. Thankfully I had my snacks too. After another few hours trying to get some sleep on the coach, I was woken up with a jolt. And another one. I opened the curtain to a sunrise at the edge of the desert. A desert fox sauntered past the window and the bus rolled on. We had run out of the road so the next few hours would be a bumpy ride through the desert, the fleet of about 7 luxury coaches looking out of place moving through this historic landscape. A surreal stop was some more food being delivered to the coaches; a breakfast of a shredded chicken sandwich and yoghurt drink so another meal missed but I did have some supplies in my bag so I wasn’t too hungry. We got out of the coaches to see the mist on the desert hills being burnt off and despite it being about 7am it was warm. Back on the coach, we went, until the end of this part of the journey which was a fleet of less than luxury army trucks with some soldiers waiting to greet us. Suddenly it dawned on me that it would have made sense to change before the coach ride as I hung on to my laptop and handbag, dressed in my far too warm clothes and converse trainers and was hauled into a truck. We then had an exhilarating ride through the desert bumping over dunes and hanging on to the sides of the truck.
From the truck, we were taken to a beach. It seems so surreal, to be suddenly dropped out into the desert beach, in the intense heat – my feet got sunburnt just while I was sorting out my kit. The directions were that we had to give our non-race luggage in at 3pm (it was only about 10am) and once we had registered we could leave our bag and go to the camp. While others rushed getting changed and sorting out their kit from the luggage I sat on the hot beach. It seemed the first time I had paused for days, maybe weeks, and it was so surreal to be here, on a beach in Peru, not quite sure what I was doing here, what was expected and how anything over the next 5 days would go. The other racers seemed to be in groups of friends, mostly French, and I did feel lonely. I started to slowly take out what I needed from my luggage, seemingly managing to get a lot of sand in that bag too. I was reluctant to hand my luggage in, mostly in case I forgot something, and also as I was worried to leave food in the bag without knowing what would be provided for the meals that day. As more truckloads of racers were brought to the beach, I took a deep breath, registered for the race and handed over my luggage, which had become the safety blanket on the few hours on the beach. The beach was golden sand, huge, and surrounded by two mountains. I went to my tent, which had been put up in a circle of six, with space in the middle for our cooking. I was going to vlog and would have probably had quite a bleak video with me still feeling a bit lost, and far from home. But before I did my neighbour arrived, who was Lizzie, from London. Then my feelings of the race changed, this wasn’t any longer a process to be endured on your own, as the comradery in our camp of 5 was really the key; the chatter of distraction, the support for the prep as well as the race, even the swapping of bits of kit as teammates had brought soap, extra fuel, better knives… although I am not sure I was able to assist in any of this as I realised my kit was limited to very essentials, if not the bare minimum.
I think my favourite part of the whole race was the sunrises and sunsets, all seen from our camp by the sea. I had expected the camp to move each day, with a linear race route, but the logistics and terrain meant we had one camp, and only the last stage would be linear. Once you accepted the rather false need to carry all of your equipment each day, rather than just leaving it in your tent you would be returning to, it was no issue. The tents were checked while we were out running, although we had one rumour of a racer digging a hole under the tent to hide her food. Sunset was from about 6.30pm so I think I was in bed when it got dark by 7pm each night. As the stages began just after sunrise I was up about 4am so the early nights fitted into our new routine. It wasn’t too cold at night, I was fine in just a t-shirt and my sleeping bag, so the extra layer of the Fireball I had taken doubled up as my pillow.
Stage 1 was not starting until 7.30am. I got into a routine in the morning to get my socks and shoes on without getting sand in them and make sure I was covered in sun cream. To save on weight I had only brought enough fuel to heat up my evening meals, and not my porridge for breakfast, so I had soaked the oats (a Cashew and Goji Berry Porridge packet from Tent Meals) overnight. They really didn’t taste as good to me this way, and thankfully campmates had fuel they didn’t need and were going to throw away for the rest of the days, so I could heat up the porridge after this. So with nerves and the less than perfect breakfast we gathered at the start line.
Despite being remote in a desert, miles from any towns or power, we still had all the razzmatazz I now expect from these non-UK races! Music pumped out with the race director giving a brief description in Spanish of the race, then thankfully (for me) being translated into French and then sometimes English. Then we had a countdown and we were off! This was my first experience of running on sand and the soft sand of the beach seemed impossible to run on… everyone seemed to be tearing past me as I struggled to get above a walk. The negative thoughts rushed in as they so easily do, and I thought I would have to pull out (about 50 metres from start line). I told myself I wouldn’t do that but resigned myself to a walk for the whole 17 miles of the first stage, and that I might not make the cut-offs. I tried to walk fast up the sliding lose sand as people continued to run past me. After about half a mile, I noticed quite a few coming past with poles and so decided to get mine out of my bag. I seemed to be moving quicker with them so I kept the poles out, for the rest of the race. There were some slightly more compact pieces of sand in that first mile, but the gradient was steeper on these bits and I carried on walking or jogging the bits I could. The poles helped ease the negative thoughts, but I still felt out of place, out of my depth, and somehow wishing that Marcus would drop in with a helicopter and take me for a week relaxing in a cottage in the Lakes rather than struggle through the desert so many miles from home. We came to the first descent and I ran down, and at the bottom was some harder sand, which I could run on too… ok, maybe this isn’t so bad after all. I knew we had 10km along the coast to the first checkpoint, and then a few miles of ascent, before a final 10km back down to camp. Maybe this was doable after all. I caught up my teammate Lizzie just as we could see the checkpoint, and we spent pretty much the rest of the stage together. I think this was probably the turning point in my mindset, although I thought I was very near the back, we chatted and laughed our way through the rest of the stage, and I relaxed, realising I probably could complete the race and not to stress about pace or placing. I had been fairly conservative in my water as I had absolutely no idea how much I would need for 10km in the heat. I never needed more than a litre between checkpoints, though for this stage I carried 1.5 litres. After the checkpoint was ‘The Great Dune’, which didn’t look so hard at the bottom. I decided the most efficient way to move up it was to dig in with my poles and to step in the fresh footprints, as the sand didn’t slip so much in those. I got into a rhythm, though it was about 10am at this point and it was getting hot, with the sweat dripping off me. But near the top, the dune was so steep on soft sand and it just took so long to make any progress, as if on one of the step machines at the gym where you climb without getting anywhere. The people without poles were having to crawl with their hands I wanted to get the GoPro out to film it but was worried that if I dropped it, it would sink into the soft sand and be lost. Eventually, the dune finished and although we had another steep climb later before the second checkpoint, it was the hardest part of the stage over. The rest of the race was over some sandy plains, under the mountains and then the descent was through ravines and back over sandy dunes to the camp. I was surprised about the variety of the landscape, the changing colours, and the mountains, as we climbed to about 2700ft on that first stage. Then I laughed, as it was typically me not to even check where the race was, or what the terrain was like… I doubt Marcus would ever start a race going oooh, look, I had no idea there were mountains in this race?!
So once the stage was over it was back to my tent to look after myself for the rest of the day and prepare for the long stage tomorrow. I managed to keep sand out of my shoes, though it was everywhere else by this point, get some food, and make sure I was drinking plenty of water. There was a rumour that the camp mail (family and friends could email us at the camp) had arrived and we headed to get ours… sadly I only had one! (Thanks Zaf) and it made me think that actually, this was just an ordinary Monday back home, and how displaced it felt to be out here, on what felt like the edge of the world. As it got dark at 7pm we were heading to bed early, and other than being woken by a minor earthquake not long after, I managed some sleep, though pretty restless in hour bursts at a time. I still don’t regret not taking a mat or pillow though, as my pack was heavy enough.
DAY 2 – THE LONG STAGE
The next morning was an early start as due to the fog that was coming in from the sea they wanted people back before it got too bad. They had also decided to cut it short by 10km which they told us at the start line, so 56km to go. I was happy with that; progress had been slow the day before, and I could relax if I knew I was going to be back in less than 12 hours. The route was to do a reverse loop of the day before, with extra miles in the middle. The description of this in the Spanish was that once we had ascended it would be up and down… the English translation was that it would be flat. Hmmm. Clearly, the word undulating hasn’t reached these English lessons, but in the end, it was mostly flat with a few sharp climbs. For me, progress was going well until 25km and I had enjoyed some of the more compact sand and ravines. I was getting an expert on reading the sand and picking my lines on how hard it looked. I felt a blister pop just before the 3rd checkpoint at 25km, but decided I could run on it and didn’t need to stop. In fact, I didn’t feel it again so I am not sure if I am just immune to blister pain now, or if it was that we had 20km of whole new problems with the headwind as we turned to the coast. It was tough. I couldn’t hear my music anymore, the sand was getting whipped up and blown against your bare legs, which made me turn round at times, just to give my shins a break, and it was just a case of head down and march or run out the miles. It seemed slow though, and my chances of a sub 9 hour run faded, then a sub 10 hour… but eventually, I came to the Great Dune and had the satisfying few minutes of running down the dune that had caused so much huffing and puffing the day before.
With the last checkpoint and half a mile of soft sand done, I knew I just had 6 miles along to camp. In less than 2 hours I would be finished, well within the daylight too. So I headed on, though decided to have my last Mountain Fuel Jelly as I hadn’t been eating as much as usual in the headwind as it was too windy to faff with food. So I squeezed out the jelly, folded the packet in my side pocket, and then put my head up. That didn’t feel right? It took me a few moments to realise that the draft in my mouth was a gap in my front tooth and that my false tooth had fallen out! I checked my pocket, but it wasn’t there, which could only mean one thing – it was on the sandy, stony, windy beach. I turned around, probably with a spike in my heart rate, as I was panicking now. It could be anywhere, though I was sure I would have noticed if it wasn’t in before I had the jelly, so I started to retrace my steps. I couldn’t find it. The thought of returning to camp without it and having the rest of the break, and visit to Machu Picchu with a gap in my front teeth was just unbearable. I was trying not to flap and cry and just resolved to stay looking until I had it. Now, Dear Readers, you might remember this isn’t my first ultra-tooth-drama, as at the end of the Spine Challenger in January, with less than 10 miles to go, I bit into a frozen Clifl bar and broke the same false tooth off the plate that holds it in. So I finished with a gap and refused to smile in the photos. I then had a week without a tooth (well, the broken tooth was wedged in with chewing gum when I had to do a Parole Hearing in front of a Judge and Psychiatrist which was the lowest point of that saga!) and an expensive bill at the dentist. And I promised myself I would try to save up the money to get it fixed properly (it was a cycling accident that knocked it out years ago) but here I was, desperately looking for it on a beach in Peru, with about 3 hours of daylight left. I was walking backwards and a French runner, Isabelle came towards me. ‘I have lost my tooth’ I shouted over the wind. ‘Oh dear’ she said, and began to look, ‘there are so many small white stones though’ she said. I know, ‘but it’s got a pink plastic bit attached,’ I said, my French stretched a bit at this point. She went on a few metres, and away from the line I had a run. ‘Is this it?’ she called, and with her pole pointed to a half-buried false tooth. ‘YEESSSSSS!’ I cried and ran to pick it up. I could see her look at me, and the sandy tooth, as if to say ‘there is no way you are going to put that in your mouth is there?’ But a rinse of water, and I shoved it back in. I was used to sand everywhere now and had been chewing sandy Clif Bloks most of the race. ‘Thank you so much, I am so grateful, thanks, thank you so much…’ She just carried on as if it wasn’t a big deal, but I was so grateful I could have just hugged and married her right there. It was a bit of a slog to the finish, and with the tooth finding stop I finished in around 10.5 hours. It was such a relief, to finish, to finish with my front tooth, to finish strongly and overtake quite a few in the last few miles, and to know it was a rest day the day after. I was also surprised when Lizzie told us that we had pretty much finished halfway through the women’s field the day before, as I was sure I was in the last few. I think mid-table was about where I finished at the end.
DAY 3 – REST DAY
The rest day was great. Although people were saying they could run, and we should have just finished, the luxury of a day doing nothing was such a reward for me. Though we filled all the hours in it, by doing our laundry, well, rinsing our kit out in half a plastic bottle, getting shade in the tent they had put out for us, as well as me getting some much needed antisocial time by listening podcasts in my tent. I guess my phone charger to allow me to listen to music and podcasts was my luxury item, although with hindsight I probably should have squeezed in some soap too.
The last stage was 14 miles and again started early, so it was a really pleasant, runnable, 3.5 hours and was only getting hot towards the end. I could see the finish line from higher up and sprinted down to it… getting my medal as I passed the line. The last two or so days had been so relaxed that I had almost forgotten how unsettled and stressed I was at the first day. So it wasn’t any strong feelings in crossing the line, just that I really needed a shower and was pleased how much I had ended up enjoying the last stage.
We were still in the middle of the desert at the finish but had coaches waiting to take us 3 hours to the very smart Hilton Double Tree Resort hotel in Paracas. I am not sure what they made of all of us sand and sweat covered runners. The hotel was gorgeous, and I could not wait to get in the shower, but obviously, we all had the same idea at the same time and I was only rewarded with a lukewarm shower. It was still heaven. We followed with a reception and an amazing, though not vegan-friendly, post-race buffet on the white sandy beach. The next day I was back to Lima and had then arranged my own trip to Machu Picchu, though had company from some of the other racers for many parts of this trip. Then back home a few days later with some dodgy tan lines and sadly a cold as souvenirs.
I could reflect harshly on this race, that results-wise it was my poorest for a long time, and I just didn’t feel like I had the speed or strength on the sand, and hope I didn’t let WAA down with that. But really? Why take this one so seriously? I went out without my normal training due to a summer of chronic fatigue bout, I barely had any time off work getting ready for the time away, I spent the first few days wondering why the hell I had agreed to it… but I got through it, I came through it all with a smile on the finish line, a bunch of new friends, the experience of running in deserts and being self-sufficient, and fresh motivation to get back to training as soon as can and push myself for the challenges I have set for next year. Look at all the positives and it was a success, a time in which to grow. And now all that’s left is to try to get all the sand out of my kit…