Stage 3: Through the Sand Valley

Stage 3: Through the Sand Valley

On Day 3, we rose to the havoc wreaked by a night-long sand storm. Everything in the tent – gear, clothes, bottles – was blanketed in dusty yellow. Simply sitting up in my sleeping bag caused a sheet of sand to cascade down my face. I spat sand from my mouth and tried my best to shake it out of my ears and hair – but it was mostly futile as the omnipresent desert had spent the entire night creeping into every crack possible. As W. Langewiesche once observed, you do not live in the Sahara; the Sahara inhabits you.

Stage 3, named “Through the Sand Valley”, was something of a big day for us all. A marathon’s distance laid between us and the next camp, the longest of any leg after the 94km Stage 5. Conquer Stage 3, and mentally it becomes far easier to complete the race since you’ve virtually hit the halfway mark of the 250km race.

As I joined in the morning fray, it struck me how oddly time seemed to flow in the desert. Each day, we would get up just past 4am, leaving a theoretically-comfortable 2 hour window to prepare before flag off at 6:30. Yet the laundry list of pre-race chores – pack up, make breakfast, pack electrolytes, mix Perpetuem, prep mid-race snacks, fix feet, stretch, clear tent – always seemed to outlast the minutes.

Before you know it, the flag off horn is blaring and you’re off for another long run without having duly processed what exactly you’re doing. Not that it really matters whether you think about it or not – what matters is simply that you do it. 

sahara race 250km-112
The desert snaking into hues of gold

I know some people find it quite remarkable that there are folks out there who are 1) willing and 2) able to race such distances day in day out, under punishing conditions, no less. Take my word for it: it’s easier than you think. When a whole group of runners charge off into a wild desert, you will find a sudden burst of motivation because the last thing you want to do is get left behind in said wild desert. Besides, the body adapts at an impressive pace. It learns to deal with the new reality in which it doesn’t get to truly stop until it covers 250km. “Get with the program,” you tell it. “We’re going to see some spectacular stuff. And you will be in plenty of pain. But it will be spectacular.” And get with the program it does. We didn’t get to the top of the food chain by being poor adapters. To make the kick off to Stage 3 even easier, we were running away from that nasty sand burial of a campsite. I didn’t need to be told twice.

PictureOff for more frolicking in the big sandpit

I was all gung-ho at the start – because if you have to tackle a desert marathon, best to go in fighting, right? And so with sleeves rolled up to catch whatever was left of the morning breeze, we raced the sun to the first checkpoint. On this first leg, I also finally got to meet the one and only Andre Papadimitriou, a.k.a.  “Papa D”, a Canadian I’d been in touch with before the race. It happened like this: I was happily trotting along when this man dressed all in white (because one cannot forego style simply because one is in the desert) turned to ask, “Are you Jane? F*****g h**l! Where’ve you been all this time?” Which, on any given day, can’t be a bad start to a conversation.

Papa D makes for great desert company because, well, of who he is. Even parts style, humour, funk, and bad-assery (is that a word? I am making it a word.) topped with a streak of randomness, he helped melt the miles away in our steady march. By the time we were brought up to speed on all the desert gossip, Check Point 1 was just a stone’s throw away.

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Roving race jeep looking every bit the hardy desert machine that it is
There, Sam Fanshawe asked me for a quote to be posted in Breaking News. Apparently enough people back home had made enough noise by way of asking about my status that a quote was called for. Thanks, guys. Truly grateful for your love :) And since I was on a desert high, I declared to the world:
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Because, y’know, YOU LOT are the crazy ones.

And why not? It was every bit true at the time. A few hours later, I would learn the meaning of “not fun”. 

But for now Check Point 2 blew by in a blur and a mini-surprise awaited us at Check Point 3. Did you know that, if you so wished, you could go swimming in the middle of the desert? Not the plunging-hands-through-piles-of-sand variety, but the real kind where you’re soaked from head to toe and get to blow air bubbles all around you.

See, Check Point 3 was right by a spring. In the desert, folks. In. The. Desert. And despite the desert heat, the spring was fresh and unbelievably cold, like a pool of freshly-melted ice. To this day, I can’t be quite sure whether it felt the way it did because we had already been marooned out in the sunny Sahara for 3 days or whether it had indeed been as cold as we had all declared. The memory is a fragile, faulty mechanism and the body is good at playing tricks on you.
Fun aside, the blisters had started a hearty assault on the feet and the ones I’d popped earlier were filling up again. But how anticlimatic would it be to quit the race on the marathon leg, eh? So after dousing myself with spring water, it was up and onwards again.

Easier said than done.

No sooner had I lost sight of Check Point 3, I entered the infamous valley of sand and hit a massive sand dune as an introduction to what would be many dunes to follow. Folks, here’s the leçon du jour; try to just learn this vicariously through the hard-earned pains of yours truly:
Sand dunes are great to look at but terrible to climb. 

These things are the epitome of “terrible beauty”. Repeat after me: sand dunes are not for climbing. Again: do not climb that awesome-looking sand dune even if it’s throwing come-hither eyes at you. Stick to playing with small, harmless sand castles at your friendly neighborhood beach. If god had wanted us to spend quality time with sand dunes, he would have put them in our cities, not in some far-flung corner of a desert. (I am aware of the gaping hole in this argument but just roll with it for now, ok?)So where was I? Ah, yes: do not mess with The Dunes. Not while in their native territory, on a day of sweltering 45C heat, with the air as still as death, a 7kg pack on your back and blisters on your feet. The Dunes will chew you up, grind your bones, weave a basket with your hair then spit out your remains for future passing camels to point at and laugh at.

Still, that leg across the sand dunes was as figuratively breathtaking as it was literally. Traversing up these iconic desert monsters, meandering through their bends with the sun hanging high in the sky, lungs turning into an oven but still somehow mustering the energy to carry on – isn’t that what we all imagine when we think of a desert race? I was living the dream. 

sahara race 250km-114Yes, we took ourselves through that on foot.

Besides, the silence was so mesmerising, the solitude so absolute. The sand dunes rose and fell for as far as the eye could see but there wasn’t a soul in sight. Even though I knew there were competitors ahead and behind, the endless ascends, descends, and bends of the dunes often hid them from view. If it weren’t for the footprints in the sand reminding me of the earlier passage of other competitors, it would not have been a huge stretch of the imagination to think I was all alone in the world.But the desert is full of surprises. While dutifully crunching up yet another ridiculous sand dune, I came upon a tree a few inches tall. I’m not sure how this is scientifically possible, especially since it sprouted midway up a big dune where I imagine there’s virtually no water to tap into underground. But Nature works in mysterious ways, no?

sahara race 250km-115Scientifically improbable but apparently possible?

As the sun climbed higher still in the sky, I switched my mind off to all the blister pain that was building up and mutely passed the tests set before us. Eventually, the dunes fell behind and a plateau opened up ahead.Now here was a different playground to explore! The soft packed sand was scattered with a mind-boggling array of fossils and rocks. We all knew that this year’s race was set in the UNESCO World Heritage site Wadi el-Hitan, a massive stretch of land that was below sea level some 40 million years ago. But it never became quite apparent until this point that we were literally marching through marine history. If someone had knocked the entire fossil collection of all the world’s museums onto this desert floor, it wouldn’t have looked very different.

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And it was the open-air museum of your wildest dreams. I couldn’t go slow enough to take it all in. Here a shell, there a fossil, and what-are-all-these-indistinguishable-shapes? The sheer concept of it was absurd: we were running across what once had been an ocean floor, dashing about in a massive tank that was teeming with marine life in all its richness and complexities. Right then, “arid” was a very foreign concept. The coin-like rocks were a point of intrigue. They were each no thicker or wider than a quarter. When you kicked them they made a tinkling sound, just like coins. What on earth caused these formations? Were they already like this before wave and wind erosion set in? Rocks on the beaches at home would at least come in a variety of sizes. But these pieces of rock were almost uniformly sized, as if they were the product of some madman who had churned them out of a factory and then on a whim had chucked them all into the wild.But enough dawdling on this leg of the race. There was still some 15km left and if I didn’t watch it the desert will do that funky thing it does with time and swallow hours whole. Managed to catch up with the very lovable pair of Sandy and Collin Suckling, an Aussie couple here on their virgin desert race as well. 

sahara race 250km-124The fantabulous Sandy and Colin Suckling right before we got to CP 4.

Together we pushed on for Check Point 4 but it was absolutely refusing to show. My water supply was running uncomfortably low so it was time to dig deep to run out some distance. Oh, but it was a grind. Then, while deep in the throes of a nasty uphill climb, I spotted the much-anticipated RTP flag fluttering ahead to signal our entry into the next check point. Except… it was a joke.RTP has this tendency, as I would later discover, to make you work extremely hard right before a check point. It’s basically their desert version of teasing a baby with a toy just out of reach. So we rounded yet another corner impatiently and at last the check point was in view – but not so close you could just fall and collapse into it. No, a good dash uphill was still required. The bitter agony.

Still, you simply can’t work up the temper to reach a check point miserably, because checkpoints have shade and water and *gasp* people who dole out smiles and words of encouragement. Check points are your happy spot in the desert.

After a quick re-fuel, it was off into the wild again to conquer the last 9km of the day. With a large portion of the day’s course under my belt, there was little stopping me now. But as anyone who has run a marathon can tell you, it is always the last leg of the course that kills.

The initial descent from the mountain plateau was fun enough. But once we hit open plains again, it was hills, hills, and more hills. The day’s allotment of electrolytes was also being depleted faster than I had planned so there was a new problem to deal with. Soon, it was all about 1) using my salted plums as a make-shift salt supply and 2) just battling on through a twilight zone.

I say “twilight zone” because the veneer of reality was sliding off fast, both mentally and physically. The sun was threatening to set in the distance but camp was nowhere to be seen nor heard. The hills taunted me with their never-ending waves. No matter how many hills I climbed, they refused to reveal the one thing I needed to see. Sometimes, when they sometimes say “9km to the next check point” it really feels a lot more like 90. And now, I was beginning to feel like I had walked off the planet altogether. Energy levels were low and frustration was welling up. But I knew if I let the frustration run its course, it was a sure-fire way of crashing before camp.

For the nth time that day, it was all about reining in the heart and letting the cold rational head take over. “There is a campsite out there somewhere no matter how ridiculous that seems right now”, I kept telling myself again and again, never quite believing the words but stalking ahead anyhow.

And then, after a merciless eternity, I finally heard it – the beating of the camp drums heralding an end to the day. But by then I was so zapped of energy it was difficult to break into a full run (my preferred mode of finishing each day) so I just half plodded in, a bit broken in body and spirit. Thankfully, Dave Lysaght (a competitor who had pulled out but decided to stay on as a volunteer) was there to give a hand. What a great source of cheer from start to finish.

Once in, it was more rush-rush-rush to go through the lengthy post-race recovery regime. It wasn’t until I had a chance to pause in the midst of it all that I realised a fever and nausea had set in – too much sun and work for the day, I suppose.

“Should I puke it out and get it over and done with?” I wondered aloud. “No. You’ll only run into all sorts of dehydration issues,” said Malcolm, the fitness guru of our tent. So, fighting down the waves of nausea, I headed over to the cybertent for some chicken soup for the soul – your emails.

The wonderful thing about the set up of these races is that they still allow you access to emails from around the world. Whenever the going got tough out on the course, the thought of being able to read all those fantastic emails as a reward at the end of the day was powerful fuel. Besides, it was just too much trouble to have to account for why I failed on a stage of the race; far easier to just get it done and say, “Hola amigos! Estoy caliente pero muy bueno!!” (I can’t explain the outburst of broken Spanish. It’s desert logic; roll with it.)

But it had been a hard, hard day – disproportionately so towards the end. I was still in denial about this as I was going through the emails. Then, I read the email from my parents: “…We know it must have been tough for you the last two days… please bear in mind when, just in case, you could not stand the desert heat or the challenge, do hold up as all the pains will soon be over.” And that was when it all hit home.

It was so hard going through that day. Although the heart never once wanted to quit, there were moments of doubt about whether the body would hold up before camp. But the wonderful thing about parents is that they share the irrational belief in your ability to get something done. Sure it’s hard, they were saying. But nothing in the message pointed at quitting, only a promise that I could overcome the pain, that it would come to pass.

I so badly wanted to let it all out at that point. But crying would have meant depriving the body of water and salt, no? Not ideal for tomorrow’s stage. (Actually, I was just 1) too horrified to cry in front of a bunch of people who were all staring intently at their computer screens and 2) too exhausted to even try.)

So it was some painkillers for me and off to bed with the rest of the camp at 7:30pm. Seven frickin’ thirty!! Mum would have been proud.


  1. Outstanding. Yo

  2. constance Chan

    Triple thumbs up! :)

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