Stage 1: Traversing Ancient Waters

Stage 1: Traversing Ancient Waters

…A desert as vast as the United Sates… so arid that most bacteria cannot survive there… the Sahara remains a desert without compromise, the world in its extreme.”
– William Langewiesche, Sahara Unveiled

It would have been wonderful to be able to neatly wrap up the events of Stage 1 for everyone in one choice word. But since when did the Sahara Desert give due thought to something so trivial as descriptive convenience? No, it marches on by its own beat and good luck to anyone who tries to tag along for a ride.

So, as it were, Stage 1 of Sahara Race 2010 was a foul concoction of wind and fire. I say “windy”, because for the first half of the day the desert raged like a Chicago scorned. 

The Sahara that most envision is an arid expanse of sand and meandering dunes. Camels would cross it in long leisurely strides and nothing in desert of the mind suggest so much as a gust, never mind full blown gail. In essence, the Sahara of the popular imagination is a world of stillness. 

But you never know the desert until you cross it yourself. That day, the wind barreled across the land in heavy, sweeping strokes, undeterred by the early enthusiasm of a throng of fresh and eager runners. 

Many friends back home like to joke that I could at least look forward to a week-long microdermabrasion session in the desert and will come back with a silky complexion. 

Rubbish. Winds were clocked at 40km/hour and it felt like I was putting my face through a car wash.

The flaps of my desert cap not so much fluttered in the wind but positively smacked my face. I had come into the race expecting to tackle baking desert heat and energy-sapping soft dunes. Instead, I found myself caught in a fight against an invisible force, often not knowing what was going on until it (literally) hit me. 

Sometimes, the flaps would catch a certain gust and pull back, travelling parallel to the ground like they were mini magic carpets attached to my head but really just acting like a dragging force behind me. In those moments, I felt a bit like a dog trying to break against its leash. The going, to say the least, was tough.

But you never know what you’re missing until it’s gone, do you? As the morning rolled away, taking with it the harsh hot winds of the Sahara, we found ourselves left with nothing but a soul-withering heat, the slow, simmering type that stewed your very lungs into an oven. 

That oppressive afternoon heat would come to claim many a strong-headed competitor on the first day – off the top of my head I can think of Sally Sanigar and Jack Denness, both veteran runners who’ve clocked over 4,000km between themselves coming into this race (and that’s just counting the major endurance races they’ve completed). Papa D told me a few days later that Stage 1’s temperature was 48C. Just one of those things you really would prefer to find out postmortem.

At Check Point 3, the day’s toll was evident all over. People looked dehydrated, banged up with blisters, or just plain exhausted. It didn’t help that, despite a deep blue lake next to us, we were passing through a rather ho-hum landscape. The stage was named “Traversing Ancient Waters” but was squarely one of those things in life that is more romantic in name than in practice. 

It just didn’t look like we were in the desert much and I was a little disappointed, having expected to see sand dunes straight from the story books. Still, with less than 10km before reaching camp, there was no option but to plod on.

sahara race 250km 63The sole photo-worthy moment from a visually ho-hum day

Ever tried searching for something in vain (car keys, wallet, etc.), then had that sinking realisation that life is pretty much going to suck until you find it? That was me at the 32km mark. The campsite was nowhere in sight across the horizon, and there was that knowledge that so long as the camp was out of view, all that I could see before me was distance I had to first cover on foot.Luckily, the last leg went by faster than planned thanks to Steve McGrath, he of the face with the blue war paint. The way he smeared it on his nose and cheeks, I thought he was being patriotic and was trying to draw the Union Jack or something. The end result was that he looked a lot like a football fan that had mistakenly wandered into the desert. (I found out a few days later it was just blue sunblock. Ah, well.)

So we walked, chatted, ran and before you know it we heard the beating of the drums of Camp 2. Oh, sweet sound of the finishing line! I have to say, it was a very clever move of RacingThePlanet (the race organisers, also known as RTP) to add drums to the end. Just as your energy is flagging after covering 30+ km on foot, the drums spur you on in the very last stretch and add an element of heroism to your finish.

All in all, Stage 1 proved to be a steep learning curve of a day. With the whining muscles and the blustery wind (truly just more like walking in a massive hot hair dryer), I was left wondering “why the heck are there 4 of these desert races?? One is enough.”

Later, as I was scampering about in camp, Sam Fanshawe remarked that I “still have energy to run!” 

What she didn’t know was that I just really needed to go pee.

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