Sahara Ultra 111 – Part 2: The Hell at Night
The depths of the night conquer the desert. I am running in total solitude through the vastness of the Sahara. Above me the starry sky and below absolute darkness. Kilometers in front of me and kilometers behind me not a living soul. I don’t see or hear anybody and only the little reflecting flags arranged every 50 meters mark the track in the light of my head lamp. If just one of them turns over or the battery runs out, I will be lost.
Soon I reach the camp at 65km. I sit down for a moment, eat the hastily warmed up rise and drink something. I put on the second GPS, refill the water in my camelback, replenish food and energy gels for the rest of the night. I am not being offered a massage. I don’t want to waste too much time anyway.
After 15 minutes I hit the road again. The camp is about 200m away from the race route. It was easy to get to the camp, since it is illuminated and visible from the trail. The other direction is more tricky among the dunes. The light of the head lamp doesn’t reach that far. I need to follow a quad to get back on the trail safely.
I switch on the music by James Horner now, from Avatar. It sets me into a mysterious mood inspiring to experience intensely the surrounding scenery of the night, thrown in the middle of wasteland, far away from the civilization, in total darkness. I just want to divert my attention from the increasing fatigue, from the hurting legs, swollen with blood, from the wounded feet, from the knee…I need to endure as long as possible. The entire night of torture awaits me. I have to somehow go through it without getting crazy.
I don’t know why but the sound of Horner changes my assessment, my view of the situation, my interpretation of what is happening. I start to feel a deep gratitude for what I am experiencing, here in the middle of the Sahara, at the end of my tether, left to my own devices, doing something extraordinary in the darkness.
70km. About 41km to go, less than a marathon. This is a distance I can grasp mentally.
Every now and then I try to run, but the total fatigue and the immobilized of pain knee don’t let me run very far. Generally I feel growing depletion and I am surprised I still can move, I haven’t crashed out. I am wondering what a human body is capable of, of the boundless layers of possibilities, lying inside us, and how we can access them, if we really want or if the situation forces us and we don’t have a choice.
I notice vapor coming out of my mouth. Is it meanwhile that cold? I can’t feel it. I ask the staff. They have put on 3 jackets each. And indeed, when I stop at 80km for 2-3 minutes I can feel a biting chill. I ask the staff to get me some jacket as well.
Around 80km my fatigue reaches the apotheosis. I am only able to stagger. I can hardly keep on my feet. I am getting weaker and weaker with every minute. Somebody from the staff comes up on a quad asking if everything is ok. I am fighting, but I am losing my optimism. What happens if it gets even colder and an energetic crisis floors me?
I am approaching 90km. It is 1:30am, still 3.5 hours to the time limit. I am going to eat here something. A jacket waits for me.
The only thing the staff could arrange is a polyamide raincoat, not breathable. I will sweat like a pig, but it will protect me at least a little bit from cold and wind. There’s no point in being picky, one must use whatever they offer.
But something worse has happened. It questions all my efforts up to now, the entire 18.5 hours of my ordeal in pain and hope.
A guy from the staff: “Do you realize you don’t have the chance to make the time limit?”
Me: “Doesn’t matter. I will be fighting till I reach the finish.”
Him: “After 22 hours we will close the race.”
Me: “Look, I asked you at 40km, what if I would be torturing myself for 22 hours and not make the time limit. You said you were flexible.”
Him: “I thought, you meant the cut-off time at 70km. It doesn’t matter anyway. You will be late by half an hour, maybe even an hour. Several people have dropped out. We can’t make any exceptions for you.”
Me: “My estimations tell I should be on time.” I am bluffing a little bit. In reality I didn’t let my brain calculate it cause I was feeling I was in the red. I didn’t want to admit defeat, I didn’t want to accept the reality. Maybe it was more comfortable this way.
Him: “I was measuring your time on the last 10km. You don’t have the slightest chance in this pace.”
Me: “My GPS was showing a higher speed.” It was, by times…
Him: “Even with this speed you won’t make it in the last 3.5 hours”
Me: “If I don’t make it in the time limit then I will just continue until I reach the finish line. It’s up to you if you disqualify me or not.”
He can see that I am not joking, that I am going to fight as long as needed to cover these 111km.
Him: “At 5am we are closing the track.”
It means removing the marking from the trail. Without it orientation at night is absolutely impossible. Trying to finish without the marking is a sheer suicide. Getting lost in the Sahara means inevitable death, considering the fact, that I needed 1 liter water every hour spent there.
There is no point in arguing and losing time. I throw in, leaving: “But until 5am I can continue. Before 5am you don’t have the right to take me from the race. Until 22 hours are over, until I have a theoretical chance to make the time limit, I will struggle.”
But inwardly I am boiling. I am angry, I want to blame others. But I realize it doesn’t make much sense. It won’t help and certainly won’t solve the problem.
I feel gruesome depletion. But in this moment I also feel a total depression, hopelessness, sheer despair. There is no point in doting. One must soberly analyze the remaining options. And the only option, unimaginable considering the state of my body is…to run. If I can run for the most part of the remaining 21km, then I have a chance to make the time limit. But how? Let’s just try…
I jump to run. I take a step, two, three, 10 meters and indeed, it goes pretty well. 50m, 100m, 200m. I am surprised, but I am pressing on. I don’t want to think how it is possible. I don’t want to think at all now. One kilometer, two, three. Wow!
It is kilometer 93 and…it gets pitch-black! Shit! The batteries in my head lamp ran out. I don’t see the track in front of me, I don’t see the markings. I can’t even take a step without stumbling over the uneven soil, not to mention running. I have got replacement batteries but have you ever tried to exchange 3 batteries in an electric device blindly? Shit! I wanted to exchange them at 90km in the light of the quad but I didn’t want to waste my time. And now? Shall I wait for the staff? They will surely come in 30-60 minutes, but I can’t afford losing more time!
I will just try to exchange them blindly. It’s dark like hell. I can’t even see my hands. I need to do it by feeling. First I remove the old batteries, put them into the front pocket of my backpack. Now I reach blindly for the new batteries packing, wrapped in a plastic bag in the back of my backpack. I got them. Now I need to open them very carefully, watching out not to dump them. If I did, I would never find them here, in the sand dune, in the darkness. Now where is the spring in the battery slot? There should fit the flat side of the battery, from what I remember. Now the second and third. I close the hatch. I switch on the lamp and…nothing! It’s dark! It’s over! I mean, what do you mean with “nothing”? Maybe I didn’t close the hatch properly? Maybe the springs got twisted? Maybe…the wrong direction? Wait! Maybe I need to put the middle battery back to front? Sometimes it works like this. I do it, being extremely careful that nothing falls out my hands. I switch the lamp on again. It works! Great! The whole issue took me several minutes but now I shouldn’t encounter any more obstacles.
I continue to run, reach 100km. The magic boundary. The last water point. I more declare than ask: “How are my chances now?”. Him: “If you continue to run for a little bit longer, you really have a chance.” Me: “Ok. I will walk for 1-2km now and then run.” Him: “Better you run now, to make sure you make the time limit.” Me: “Ok.”
And I run almost to the end. Then 2-3km of reeling and the last kilometer in delirium, on my last legs, running. I reach the finish line at 4:30 in the morning, half an hour before the time limit, after 21 hours and 30 minutes of hellish struggles, completely depleted but endlessly happy.
Yeah! I did it! I managed to cover the distance of 111km and reach the finish! Once again I moved the limits of what is possible for me. Now quickly the medal, a photo and to the hotel, to get a shower immediately and go to bed before I go down with an energetic low and shivers.
When I enter the hotel, the full dimension of the massacre of this race opens in front of me: the hotel lobby resembles an intensive care department: CPRs, intravenous infusions and so on. A friend from Germany, who finished 7 ironman competitions this year, lies unconscious with two IVs and dry ice under his arms. I don’t know at the moment if he is alive, for he is totally pale and motionless. It turns out later, he has suffered a serious sunstroke. His body overheated due to staying all day in the merciless sun of the Sahara. He lost consciousness after reaching the finish line.
It turns out, that despite the top-notch field of participants almost HALF of them didn’t finish the race. They have given up or suffered a circulatory collapse and were taken out of the race. From the contenders who actually have finished the race the MAJORITY had lost their consciousness underway due to dehydration or cardiac problems, but they continued the race. One female competitor fainted as much as THREE TIMES, but after recovery has finished the race.
I have finished as one out of ONLY THREE participants, who actually didn’t faint and stayed conscious all the way, in spite of the blistering heat and total depletion. Surprisingly I didn’t have any muscular or gastric problems. I reached the finish pretty much unscathed, except for the renewed knee injury (which I had to struggle with for about 95km), wounds on my feet, between the buttocks 😉 and in several other spots you don’t want to know about, two coming off toe nails, burned legs, spine overload and a headache caused probably by spending the entire day in the heat of the Sahara, under its mercilessly burning sun. But comparing it to the other competitors, these are only trifles, maybe except the enormous wounds on my feet, taking a substantial part of the sole, which now don’t allow me to walk at all and limit my “reach” to the radius of my arm around the couch 😉
I will spare you the view of the fresh wounds after the race. Here they are 3 days later, after they had healed a little bit:
I got them after 20km already and today I am wondering how I was able to cover the next 91km despite the insane pain.
At 32km a knee injury caused me to switch to plan B and some 3.5 hours before the end it didn’t look like I will make the time limit, that I had a chance at all…
But we count it at the end! 🙂 Never ever, ever, ever give up!
It was the most traumatic experience of my life, nevertheless I haven’t given up.
In the course of the race I drank around 20 liters of water and other drinks and burned 12,000 calories.
Among the participants who have given up was the Italian record-holder I mentioned, and also the multiple time winner of “100km of Sahara” (the sister race).
Zitoway, the organizing company, known for their extreme desert runs, describes this race in flashback as “the hardest Zitoway event up to now”.
I am proud I have successfully mastered this great challenge. But what I have experienced there still keeps me awake at night.
Ps. An interesting situation happened, when the organizer ordered a cake at the local, French-speaking bakers, in order to celebrate this event. Interesting, cause it shows how our assumptions change our perception of reality. But at first have a look at that cake:
And? Can you see it?
Well, the inscription says “Happy 111st anniversary of Sahara Ultra”. The bakers couldn’t just imagine that the number 111 in the name of the race could mean the number of kilometers to run 🙂 By the way, the race took place for the first time.
I wonder how this article inspired you. Share your impressions, remarks, conclusions with me and other readers in the comments below. I will also happily answer your questions.
Rafael, you are unbelievable! 🙂
It is indeed painful just to imagine what kind of discipline it takes to complete a journey like that – it must have strengthened your mind and your body like no other challenges in life…I’m so proud of you!!!
WOW! really unbelievable… driving for such a distance is painful, how about running?? I can’t imagine the endurance to run and achieve such a distance in the desert while you are injured… you are a true hero. Congratulations!