Sahara Ultra 111 – Part 1: Going Through Hell
The agony starts at 32km. The burning sun of Sahara has sucked all the energy out of me. The feet go numb at every step. The renewed knee injury causes sharp pain and considerably limits it’s mobility, which makes further running like putting a quart into a pint pot. What can I do? 80km more to run in this state? Impossible! Sheer desperation. It’s over. Hundreds of hours of training. Was all this hustle for nothing?
I have run 80km races in the mountains. I have run 100km stage races in the deserts of Africa. But for the last year, the vision of running 100km in one piece has been intriguing me beyond measure. It should be something extraordinary, something BIG, something where I could test my limits. Then an opportunity for such an ultramarathon appeared: Sahara Ultra 111, a 111km non-stop foot race through the dunes of the Sahara. I couldn’t resist. 5 months and 1150 training kilometers later I was ready to go.
Already the way to the oasis Ksar Ghilane, where the race started, had been an adventure. It included delayed planes, engine defects, a night spent on the airport, even illegal passengers and resulted in 2 days in travel and 3 sleepless nights just before the start, which made the outlook of running 111km through the dunes of Sahara in the merciless sun quite a terrifying thought, considering the fact that it would need a full day and the 4th sleepless night of running.
And indeed it turned out to become the most traumatic experience of my life. And here is how it developed:
At the event appeared top notch ultra runners like the Portuguese cross running champion, the Italian record-holder in 12h and 24h runs, multiple winners of the sister event “100km of the Sahara”. The rest: participants of Marathon des Sables, a German who this year had finished 7 ironman competitions…and me. Altogether 12 participants. Looking at them, I am wondering what I am doing here. And they also 😉
We start at 7:10 in the morning, running from the oasis Ksar Ghilane across the Sahara to the settlement Douz. The dunes begin just as we leave the oasis.
Have you ever run in the dunes? The light, powdery sand literally sucks you in, you bog yourself down trying to bounce. You need a way more energy to move and you are progressing much, much slower. If you have run on the beach you know how hard it is to run in the sand. But when you come from the dunes to the beach it feels like you were running on asphalt now.
In the morning the temperature stays below 20 degrees Celsius but it rises every minute together with the rising sun. The dunes quickly take a toll on us. Thousands of small sand hills, rhythm changes, soil hardness demand much energy input. The powdery sand, where I get stuck particularly uphill robs my power. Special desert gaiters protect me from the sand. They will let me avoid abrasion and blisters between the toes. But believing that in a desert ultra marathon you can completely avoid blisters or coming off nails is like believing in Santa Clause. No, pain and suffering is unavoidable and included into the price…
And indeed about 15 kilometers in, the left knee starts to hurt. 3 weeks before the event, during the training, I have tripped over, fallen down and smashed both knees and hands. The wounds quickly come off but the patella tendon got hurt, which made my last weeks of training difficult. Unfortunately the injury hasn’t healed completely and now renewed at the beginning of the race. I still can run, but the pain gets stronger with every minute.
Now it’s getting hotter, I put on a special peaked cap, with a long flap covering my neck.
Around kilometer 20, the second area of higher dunes comes. I cover them running, which costs me much energy. This and the already grinding sun makes me boil in my own sweat. I feel my power abandoning me.
At kilometer 25, a rolling terrain of higher hills with less sleep slopes starts. It is covered with little dunes, sandy humps of 2-3 meters height, between them a sea of sand filled with sharp stones, the size of a fist. Running there is no way to put your feet between these stones. You are forced to step on them. Unfortunately, I don’t have right shoes for that. I have assumed the course will be the same with the sister race called “100km del Sahara”, but instead of stages it will be run in one piece. That course would be entirely on sand, without these treacherous stones. Unfortunately, the organizer had to change the course due to the sand storms in the days before which forced the police to close part of the planned route, which lies now in a restricted area with fresh, life-threatening dunes. My shoes with soft soles are good for sand, here I can feel every stone. It is only a question of kilometers and huge wounds appear on the soles of my feet. I can feel, how these stones cut into the flesh of my feet with every step. With every step pain paralyzes me and it will go on for the next several dozens kilometers.
With the waning strengths I start tripling over these stones more and more often.
But the real agony starts at 32km. The burning sun of Sahara has sucked all the energy out of me. The feet go numb at every step. The renewed knee injury causes sharp pain and considerably limits it’s mobility, which makes further running like putting a quart into a pint pot. I’ve reached the end of my tether. What can I do? 80km more to run in this state? Impossible! Sheer desperation. It’s over. Hundreds of hours of training. Was all this hustle for nothing?
My plan was to run until the lunch camp at km 70, with short breaks at water points in between. Then to take a rest there for 20-30 minutes and depending on my physical and mental condition to set up the strategy for the rest of the race. I have been running 80km in the mountains before. I was running 60km in a single shot in the preparation period. So this plan seemed pretty realistic. I am terrified now, cause the reality of the hell of Sahara so quickly destroyed this plan. I haven’t thought I would need to abandon my “battle plan” so quickly.
I switch to forced march. My first thought: “I will reach the water point at 40km and there I will say: it’s over”. It is just impossible to cover 80km more in my state, in these conditions. My suffering will end, I will be able to sit down, rest in shadow, drink, end this torment.
2 kilometers further a female participant with walking sticks overtakes me. It completely destroys me. Am I really that slow? I have been running for the first 32 kilometers. Shouldn’t I have more time advantage over her? (It turns out later, she finishes as the best woman in field and 4th in the overall ranking.) In this moment I take the decision to quit.
The heat pours from the sky. On top of the wounds on the feet and the knee injury, my spine starts to hurt. Apparently my muscles weakened by the exhaustion don’t hold that well. Some nerve got jammed in the chest and makes the breathing difficult. I feel a stabbing pain while breathing. That’s just what I need now! A physio would be helpful now. Maybe he will be available at the next water point and will set me straight. Anyway, it doesn’t matter now. I will withdraw, endure the pain on the way to the hotel and there they will take care of me.
After one, two kilometers my pulse lowers slightly. The logical thinking turns on. It is time to assess the losses and soberly analyze the situation, if only sober thinking were possible in this heat. Let’s sum up the facts: in this moment I have covered roughly 1/3 of the distance. My speed now is below the norm speed, i.e. speed needed to manage the time limit. But running until now I have made up around 2 hours over the time limit, so if I could continue with this speed until the end, without breaks, I should have a chance to fit into the time limit. But this would mean 17 hours more of agony without any guarantee of success, altogether 22 hours of hellish wrestle. I can’t imagine this.
It is around 1pm. I reach the 40km water point. There is no physiotherapist, but a doctor, a cardiologist is there. I tell her what my problem is, more to justify myself for giving up than for her to help me. Actually I am hoping she will say something like: “In this state you can’t continue”. She… offers me some painkillers. I refuse. I prefer to suffer and know what is happening with my body than to damage myself for good. I learn that some people have had circulatory problems already and needed to be restored. In principle I want to quit. But then I realize how much time and sweat I have put into the preparation. And then I think, I will probably have to invest hundreds of training hours again in order to approach this challenge next year. It makes me wonder if it wouldn’t be better to consciously opt for this ordeal, and get it over with once and for all.
I am facing the choice: A) to quit here and now and put an end to this misery, sit down in the coolness of a car, quench my thirst and finally rest after 6 hours of struggle, or B) to decide on another 16 hours of going through hell without any guarantee of reaching the finish line and if so, no guarantee of keeping the time limit.
At the moment I am not able to take this decision. But after spending 2-3 minutes at the water point I realize I am probably able to at least continue to the kilometer 50, despite this heat, and then we will see what happens. I, kind of, postpone the decision and simultaneously prescribe myself a 2 hour dose of torture.
In the next 3 hours the heat will be the highest. It is maddening. I need to refill my 2.5 liter water container every hour. I am walking on the glowing hot sand, staggering, reeling. My suffering seems to never end. Apparently, it doesn’t look good, since every now and then somebody from the staff comes up on a quad and asks if everything is ok with me. I put a brave face on but I am in unrelenting pain. I am limping, hardly able to stand on my feet.
I realize the stock of energy food I am carrying with me won’t be enough to reach the 70km lunch camp, where I could fill it up from my drop bag there. I would need to rely on what the organizer offers every 20km and it would be a risky game. I am moving at a snail’s pace in this heat, my speed drops. I can’t hold the speed that would allow me to make the time limit, I am losing 10-20 seconds each kilometer (compared with the minimal speed I would need now), multiplied by 70km makes 10-20 minutes, that I will run short of at the end, and this not including breaks.
The decision is taken: I will quit at kilometer 50.
But first I need to get there. I turn on some business lectures on my mp3 player in order to draw my attention from the torments I am experiencing. Let’s just get to 50km, let’s have it over as soon as possible.
Amazingly, the business topic leads my attention onto different line. I recall the saying by Winston Churchill: “If you are going through hell, keep going!”. It matches the situation pretty well 🙂 It allows me to somehow reach kilometer 50. It’s after 3pm.
Decided to quit, I inquire about the details of such a move. “Will you take me to the hotel now or will I have to wait at some water point? Will I get lunch and when? Do you have an AC in the car?” etc. Then I ask: if I continue and don’t make the limit, will my time be accepted or will I be listed as DNF (did not finish)? Silence. What a pity. I was hoping to have a good reason to give up now. But the staff tells me they are here for me to be happy (as if they couldn’t see how much I am suffering), to help me to reach the finish line, even if it takes the full day and a full night. I don’t want to hear this. I have to end this here and now.
Now the time has come to say “it’s over”.
I am gathering courage to articulate that. In this moment all the people spring to my mind who today are crossing fingers for me, my friends, my family. All who have supported me for months in my preparations and who today cheer me on spiritually, who believe in me, in the strength of my body in the strength of my will. How could I give up now? How could I look them in the eye? You are supposed to fight till the end. And I have been enduring this ordeal for 8 hours only. I still have 14 hours before the time limit ends. Everything is still possible.
I recall an ultra marathoner, who run the Badwater Ultramarathon with a hemiparesis. At one point he didn’t have any chance to make the time limit but he was still fighting until the end, until the next cut off point.
Certainly, I am whacked, literally dropping to my knees, completely overheated, limping. My feet go numb with every step and every breath causes a stabbing in my lungs. I am losing time with every kilometer, but I still have 14 hours till the time limit. I still have some time reserve, so the 15 hour cut off time at the 70km shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe later I will get better? Maybe the heat will decrease after the sunset? Maybe I will be even able to run?
Why give up now? I still can go on. I will try to go a little bit further. I am going…
Lately, I’ve read somewhere: success is achieved by those who don’t give up and fight until they achieve it. How simple it sounds! 🙂
56km. It is before 5pm. The heat seems a little bit lower. I didn’t know you could be that wasted. But I start thinking more clearly. I realize, half of the distance is behind me. In 4 km there is a water point and then…lunch, maybe several minutes of rest. My mood starts to lighten. I decide to fight until the end, until 5am (meaning 12 hours more, together 22 hours), or as long as it is necessary to reach the finish…or die trying.
My GPS went off. The battery ran out. I recharged it fresh before the race. It is a special GPS watch for long distance runners, but apparently not for these distances. I was prepared for that. I have another one at 70km. But I wasn’t prepared to be so slow today. Until I reach the lunch camp, I will have to measure distances judging by time and assess my speed only roughly.
My business lectures are finished. I decide to record my ordeal on video.
60km. Water point. They tell me the lunch camp has been moved from 70km to 65km. It was easier to build it there. Good. I will eat something warm sooner and get a moment of rest. It looks like I will make it to the camp for sure and the cut-off time won’t be a problem. By the way, I learn more people had problems due to the heat: they lost their consciousness or suffered dehydration and needed an IV.
I am preparing for the night: I put a head light on my forehead and a flashing light at the back, so the people on quads can find me on the route.
The sun sets before I get to lunch, around 6:15pm. I have been struggling for over 11 hours now.
The second part of the article describes how this all ended.