Ultra Lesson 4: winners attack, losers wait
3km left to the finish. I am at the foot of this beast. The Crazy Dune, or the Big Daddy as the locals call it, is the highest dune in the world. Around 400 meters of pure sand. Are they serious? They want me to climb it after 100km run through the desert? I am dead tired already, last several kilometers were going across the dunes. Tourists need 2h30min to climb this monster. And the worst thing is Antonella is still running with me so I can’t take it easy if I want to have the chance to defeat her.
Today we have 27km to go, 15km flat and then 12km through the dunes. We start at 6:30, short after sunrise at the foot of the Dune 45. It is maybe 100m high and well frequented by tourists due to the nice, not very steep ascend and the location allowing for sunrise observations. It is the most photographed dune in the world.
Yesterday I made up almost 2min to Antonella and I am only 9 seconds behind her in the general classification. The strategy is to stick to her and then attack on the last 200 meters. I am taller than her, longer legs. I am pretty sure on 200 meters I can make 9sec over her when I sprint. So the focus today is on general classification. I want to finish the 100km of Namib Desert on rank 5 just behind the holy three and Lorenzo, the running machine. I have almost 1h lead over the next behind me so nothing can happen if I don’t get injured. And Lorenzo has over 1h lead over me, no chance to make it up on 27km, unless shit happens again. But it’s out of my control. So I focus on Antonella, on these 9s and general classification and I don’t care about today’s placement.
We start pretty fast. The first 15km are in the valley, flat, relatively hard soil. I decide to keep the speed high, going with 80% my maximal pulse rate. It rounds up to 5:30-5:40min/km. It feels good when I notice this speed is enough for Antonella and I sometimes have the feeling she would like to slow down. The ironman and another italian guy run with us this first. I eat my banana at km 10. Then on km 17, just before the dunes start there is a food station. I refill quickly and take some pieces of water melon. 7 people are before us. Doesn’t matter. They can’t win much.
We enter the dunes. The guys are far behind already and Antonella slows down. I decide to slow down as well and wait for her. The strategy is: I let her stick to me now and later, when she is stronger she will wait for me. We slowly run through the dunes, but they are beating our buttocks never the less. It is just terribly hard to run in the dunes and even worse to do it in this heat. Another italian woman, third in the general women classification, joins us. Now we run faster. All I want is to stick to Antonella until the last 200 meters.
We come to the Crazy Dune. I have greatest respect for it. The thought of climbing the tallest dune in the world overwhelms me. I am wasted already. How am I going to climb it? But I realize it is as hard for the others so if it is gonna kill me, what is it gonna do to the others? I notice Antonella has somehow preserved more energy than me. How to avoid her using this against me on this long, long ascent?
I decide to go first. You climb along the crest. You do a step forward and then you slip down 80% of your step. It is an arduous, exhausting, sweaty work. My pulse jumps to over 90% immediately. I come out of breath. I find out it is easier to use the footprints left by the predecessors. We go single file. I at the front, giving the rhythm and so keeping the girls from going too fast. The uphill crest has several turns. The ascend is getting harder and harder with every turn. I push my thighs with my arms. My speed gets ridiculously low.
The girls are smaller, have smaller steps and higher rhythm. The footprints are in short distance. Long steps don’t help, but if you can go higher frequency it helps a lot. This is good for the girls, not so good for me. My strategy of going first, keeping girls down and dictating my slower rhythm works until 2/3 of the slope. Then Antonella starts clapping on my bottom trying to speed me up, then pushing me and complaining. I finally go to the side and let her go. She goes up much faster and wins some distance. Arrives at the top and goes down immediately. I follow 1-2 minute behind her.
It is a crazy descent. Very, very steep. You run like crazy, swirling up clouds of sand. I can see her arriving down at the dry lake (dead vlei). She sits down, takes her shoes off and removes the sand from them. I am down and pass her. I have special gaiters protecting me from sand, so I can run immediately. I am pretty wasted and looking for an excuse not to run. And I find one: my strategy is to stick to her until the last 200 meters and then sprint.
So I run very slowly waiting for Antonella and her friend to join me. The tourists need 2h30min for the ascent. I just went up and down in 35 minutes. We run together through the dry lake, firm soil, beautiful views. White background of the lake, black dead trees standing around, then the intense orange color of the dunes rising around the valley. But I don’t have time to enjoy it and I don’t feel like it at all. I realize I haven’t really looked around being up the Crazy Dune, the race absorbed me completely.
But there is one more section of dunes left. And here the girls go fast, too fast for me. I can’t keep up their rhythm. I lose distance, I lose time. And when the dunes are over and 500m to go they have 200m lead. I run as fast as possible but I have no chance catching them. I loose in the fight for the 5th rank in general classification. I finish the stage and the race happy but also disappointed. I congratulate the ones before me and wait for the runners behind me. The total distance added up to 103 kilometers. “Quite an accomplishment”, I think to myself. 6th in the general classification.
I think I was 10th today. Short look at the result table. What? 8th? Why? There were 7 people before us, then Antonella and Cristiana, then me: 10th. There is something wrong.
What did I learn from this defeat?
I realized I had at least two chances to attack, demoralize Antonella and possibly win with her. First when we entered the dunes and she slowed down. I could go faster but waited for her. Second, after the crazy dune when she cleared her shoes from sand. There, I should have just run as quick as possible in this flat, firm section in order to win as much distance as possible and not wait to the very end hoping I would be stronger than her at the finish. Yes, I was dead tired, but it was also fear. I was afraid to attack. But if you want to win you have to attack. You have to use your chances. You have to attack if only the chance to win appears. Life is generous to the ones who catch opportunities and capitalize on them. Winners attack, losers wait til it is too late. This is maybe the most important lesson I have taken from this competition. And I really want to learn from this defeat.
It turns out two of the guys running before me got lost in the dunes. It was Martin and the guy I caught just before the finish line on the 2nd stage. They just missed the marker and went another way round. They run short of water and made 33km instead of 27. They came 1h after me from the other side and finished in the opposite direction. The worst thing is they run further, needed longer and in spite of it they didn’t experience the Big Daddy. What a shame! That’s why I was 8th and not 10th as expected.