Why running in Sahara is not easy? How are people fined for trash in the desert? When do you need sleighs in the desert? What’s a desert eating? And why do you need smilies on the rocks?
If you have read up to this chapter, then you already know: why before the start we shave our knees, cut off the backpack and make group photos of the feet. But the time of merry dancing has come to an end and comfort becomes a thing to be remembered, as now the fun begins – the hourglass of challenge. Are you with me? Then, on your marks!
The first night was spent in comfort, thanks to the borrowed from Joel suit of a baker – a weightless, windproof and snow-white jacket, and also the lowered edge of the tent to get rid of drafts.
In spite of the fact that this is Sahara, and people gathered here for one same purpose – to run 237 km, we have to live together for a week, which means that, besides running, we will have to deal with household, and it has its own rules. For example, cooking.
How does this happen? Those who come first gather the branches and spines around the camp, while others bring rocks to make fire.
After that, the fire is made using letters, and everyone carries his casserole with water. 15 minutes, and you have a liter of boiling water. If you want, you can drink it, if not – fill up your freeze dried food. A basic life of a small tribe of savages :)
In the morning, while people were putting on their socks, preparing for the start and packing their backpacks, the Berbers cleverly disassembles the tents. Their hard work worthed it – as it turned out, no one wants to carry 2 kilos of food today, therefore they’ve got it. As to say “work for food” :) On the first stage I’ve decided to take a solar panel and a fully charged power bank.
Before the start we were put in some strange pens, like cattle. We didn’t understand what was it, but, in fact, these pens were a giant “32” number from helicopter fly (the 32nd edition of Marathon des Sables). Such a tradition of the race.
And who will find me here? Waving the flags and yell!
Take some photos and go to arrange at the starting arch. Crowd into the corridor, like herrings, Patrick climbs on the jeep and starts to motivate us.
Patrick conducts our thousand chorus – we sing the daily “Happy birthday” to birthday guys. Sang, and suddenly got goosebumps all over – the Marathon des Sables anthem came on – Highway to Hell!
Just imagine: you are in the desert, AC/DC are screaming kilowatts from speakers, helicopters fly all around raising the dust, and thousands of people near you yell like rock stars! Aaaaa!
Adrenaline goes off the scale, the countdown begins, and here it is – Start! Let’s go!
10 minutes later the emotions calmed down. Now I can think about my strategy for today in details. So, we’re running 30 km today, there are a few hills and sand – we are given the possibility to check the desert and to understand where we are. Such a “sandbox” of the first day.
That’s why, remembering my coach Lyonea Shvetsov’s advice, I decide to run slowly, on low pulse, and give the possibility to all the Flashes to extenuate on the first stage. Keep my pulse around 150-155. People overcome me, it seems all of them do. I pull myself together and don’t accelerate.
I don’t know why, but I thought Sahara consists of giant sand mountains. Bullshit. Sahara is primarily stony plateaus, after that rigid sand valleys, mountains, dried rivers and lakes, and only after all of these – enormous sand dunes.
I would even call them uncommon for Sahara. So uncommon, that the Berbers take their children, for good behaviour, to watch the dunes. Like in cinema.
And here we run on such a sand plateau, and I realize that I can’t run on it. My legs get stuck in the sand, and running raises my pulse to 170.
This is energetically disadvantageous, therefore I choose to walk, trying to put my foot flat on the sand, without pressing it with my heels or toes. It works out, and I even try to run, but… again I walk and curse. But the sun rises meanwhile and it becomes a little hot.
And… water begins to end.
A checkpoint appears on the horizon. I run up to it, my plastic card is punctured, and I am asked how much water I want to take.
On the checkpoints you can choose how much water you want to take – 1.5 or 3 liters. BUT. If you choose to take 3 liters, you will have to carry them on your back before the next point. Because if you throw a bottle away in the desert, you get an 1 hour punishment to your overall result for the whole ultramarathon. And if you don’t take, the water may end before the next checkpoint. And it can lead to cramps, overheating and other goodies. Puzzle your brain over this all the time.
I want to say that during all these six days I took the minimum. And sometimes regretted it. But not today. Today I finished in fine spirits and legs.
Our almost full team was waiting for me in the camp. As it turned out, I was the 191st, the average pace was “jewish” – 7:40.
After cooking some rice with vegetables I started to fix my Moldovan flag, which was proudly waving over my head the whole way, and that I managed to break on the finish.
Because I didn’t have any tools, I went to look for them in the camp. Seeing that I try to tear some wires off the fence, a truck driver called me.
– Need help? – asked he politely.
– My flag is kaput, – smiled I charmingly.
The guy looked at the broken carbon flagpole made from a fishing rod, and led me to his colleagues. Long discussing about how to save the national pride of Moldova, they decided to put a hobnail inside and to fasten it with electrical tape. Very responsive guys. Thank you.
As I went back to the bivouac, the expression of happiness on my face slowly changed to a suffering one. The hotel slippers were very thin, and the rocks mercilessly tortured my tired feet. When I got back I already had a plan.
I took the scissors and regretfully cut off 15 centimeters from my carpet and, using a shoelace, made some ultralight, fashionable and, the most important, soft slippers in which I walked until the end of the race.
There was a cherished, almost sacred place in the camp, where crowds of participants gathered every day at 5 pm. It was the table with the results of each stage.
I expected the 300th place, but it happened to be the 191st. Well, not bad for a beginning, but our guys rocked this time – Anton was the 34th, Pasha – 48th, Vlad – 66th, and other five people overran me.
Yesterday, looking at how I tape my knees, our guys decided that I’m a guru of tapes and asked me to tape their legs. Damn it, it feels good to help my friends, even though I know nothing about these sticky stripes of material. Well, except the knowledge about saving your knees from long loads. Artyom took his tapes, got a microtutorial about taping, and went home – to the neighbouring bivouac.
And, before going to sleep, the local “postman” brought us some letters. I was given a bunch of paper with small print. The whole tent became silent, the silence was interrupted only by the rustle of the sheets and rare laughs.
Here, in the desert, you’re cut off from the outside world, that’s why you are sincerely surprised by the fact that there, at a distance of thousands of kilometers, are people who are watching you, supporting, feeling proud and worry about you. And you feel like a soldier who’s resting in the trench with his comrades and reading words from home. It really gives you the power to continue the next day.
Thank you, my friends, for these warm, freshly printed words from homeland, with which I heated up my soul and breakfast.
I don’t know about you, but my morning begins with toilet. Of course, only if I hadn’t taken Loperamide before the race. And here, in the desert, I wake up at 6 am, and first of all go to the lonely staying closet.
It is made very simple – a fenced with banner cloth square meter of desert, with a chair in the middle. The chair has a hole, you have a plastic bag – brown bag, or, how we call it out of love, – chocolate bag. They are given at the end of each stage.
So: you unfold the bag, paste it, sit down, read the letters, stand up, mess up the letters, apologize to the authors, desecrate the letters with a thoughtful face, close the bag, take it off, throw it out in the trash, sigh with relief, go home.
After the breakfast, putting on my fivefingers, I thought that maybe they are the reason my feet are still safe and sound – an amazingly elegant solution – a glove for feet.
Due to the independence of the toes and the thickness of the cloth, friction of skin and soaking because of sweat are excluded. And shoe covers protect you from sand. Anyway, some of the guys from our team had their first problems with corns.
We take breakfast, pack our backpacks and, as a tradition, smear with sunscreen. Mine ended unexpectedly yesterday, that’s why the sponsor of today’s smearing and my saviour is Iya.
This photo is posted with Vlad’s kind permission. It tells a lot about the atmosphere of this race. I won’t try to explain – it’s pretty self-explanatory :) Discussing about this, we went to the start.
While the energizing “Highway to Hell” sounds all over, I rethink my plan once again. So, today we have 39 km with dunes and a mountain. Sounds encouraging. My plan remains the same – to keep a low pulse. The weather promises +34 degrees for today. Perfect! Due to the low humidity, this temperature is tolerable, because the sweat evaporates immediately and takes away the body heat. And if there would be a wind… Heaven!
So, Start. We run. Today people overrun me less frequent, maybe, yesterday’s accelerations have affected them. The mood is excellent, the weather is fine, the panoramas are mindblowing! During the whole race I have counted more than 20 different landscapes, and all of them are Sahara. Extraordinary place.
Running is easier than yesterday. I think it’s because of acclimatization and slow running the day before. Immediately enter into sand. Overcome the small dunes pretty fast. Thanks to adrenaline.
After that was flat ground with gravel, and running became easier…
On the 20th km I have a snack with raisins. The taste is marvelous!
For long distances, besides gels, I recommend to take dried fruits, especially sour ones, like cranberries. They don’t work as fast as gels, but the effect is longer. And after all this liquid plastic I wanted to chew something natural. But if you run on a pulse higher than 165, forget about raisins. They will be very hard to chew and you won’t have enough air to breathe, breathing will fail, legs will get tired, pace will fall – all in all, don’t do it.
The first 30 km were relatively easy, on a heart rate of 150-152. But here was a punch to the gut – my watch died. The battery power suddenly got low and now I have to run on my own feelings. But I didn’t have to run. The Dunes began.
I wrote Dunes with a capital letter for a reason. Because these were really giant Dunes – each has 100 meters at length and 10 meters in height. I turn to walking. I get stuck, the sun is beating down, the wind disappeared like my dreams about an easy stage. I curse while climbing another sandy hill and see one more in front of me. When are you going to end?!
But everything comes to an end, and right in front of me appears a mountain range. It seems small from afar, but everything is so deceptive in the desert…
We run over and begin to climb. At first there was a gentle slope with drowned into the sand rocks, becoming steeper and steeper, and suddenly I find myself sitting on a rock out-of-breathe.
I can’t go – my pulse is dangerously high. There is nobody around – apparently, I’m not the only one to suffer. Taking a breathe and drinking a sip of water, I continue to climb, smiling because of the organizers’ joke: they’ve marked this hard mountain stage with smileys on rocks. Maybe they wanted to cheer us up. But, in fact, it was perceived as hearts on the walls of a gas chamber.
And finally I reached the top. I look down and see that this tiny brook of runners, crawling up on the mountain, extends to the horizon. Feels good that I’m already here. But there is still a rocky way down, breaking legs and losing nails.
I sigh, run over the summit, and stop cold. What a surprise! The 300 meter mountain was covered with sand on the other side. To the top. What a slide!
Wow, hold up, let’s remember our childhood! Where is my sled?
I run up and fly down the hill with giant five-meter steps. My legs are slowly drowning in the sand, the wind is blowing in my face and I’m screaming out of excitement.
Went down as a bullet and the last kilometers this sensation of flying didn’t leave me… With such a cheerful mood I finished 15 minutes later.
Coming up to the bivouac and trolling the guys out of habit, I tried to take off my backpack, when suddenly a severe back pain made me freeze like a runner who takes off his backpack. Hardly taking off my ammunition, I crawled to the carpet and began to whine silently, which naturally led to the righteous anger of the neighbors.
Vlad offered to change my back pain with his heart pain – today, right after the finish, he was led to the check up. And asked to show everything that should be in the backpack – from calories to pins. But they didn’t find them. Vlad got an hour of punishment.
F*ck! How dare you to demotivate a person in such way because of some f*cking pins? He has prepared for the whole year, trained hard, saved the money, dreamed of getting into the first 50 places. And because of some bullshit he moves 40 places down and drops out of the hundred.
But Vlad is really a cool guy. He didn’t give up and continued to struggle, and, in the end, he came the 66th. Our man!
Looking ahead, I would say that Vlad found these cherished pins later in a secret pocket of his backpack. But the fine, unfortunately, was not removed.
Pasha had a bad day too – on the penultimate checkpoint he took a bottle and it has ended before the mountain. Therefore he climbed the mountain, went down and walked to the next checkpoint. There he was found by Vlad in a sad state and surrounded by doctors. But, thank God, after drinking and pouring some water on him, Pasha came alive and finished together with Vlad.
Hearing all these stories, I understood that my problems are nothing. Grunting, I checked the contents of my backpack once again and crawled to cook lunch. And there Iya proposed me her hand and… another hand to massage my strained back and shoulder muscles. After 20 minutes I was already running through the camp gathering branches for fire.
After lunch, Joel understood that 3000 kcal per day is way too much and he won’t be able to eat them, and, like a wizard, he began to take out from his bottomless backpack different delicacies and handed them out to the left and to the right. Dried fruits and meat, sweet nuts. We silently devoured everything, mooing approvingly – more, Joel, more!
In fact, Joel was not the only one – many people have seen this day, that for an average man in the desert, who runs 5-6 hours, 2000-2500 kcal per day are enough. You just cannot eat more. And I don’t understand why, because at home I can easily eat 2500 lying on the couch. Strange thing.
And so, when people understood they are carrying 2 extra kilos of food they won’t manage to eat, a celebration of kindness and generosity has begun.
Next time I won’t take food at all – on MDS it’s permanently in abundance :)
The most pleasant thing on MDS is the the after lunch rest. Everybody has packed away, and silently went to his place, purring like a cat. Everyone is busy. Some desand their backpack, some try to fix their slippers, some try to catch you on the “take and remember” thing, some silently went to smoke in the back of the bivouac, some discuss the tomorrow’s stage with neighbours, and some tell anecdotes about bananas.
In a word, a silent life of a small village. It’s very calming, you forget about all the city stresses and just pretend you are a savage who spends his whole life in the middle of the nature. And, damn it, it feels wonderful! I still miss those evenings. Damn, how simple it is to be happy.
You don’t bother your mind thinking what to eat or drink, where to go and what to do. You don’t care you smell bad, or that you don’t have a haircut and wear bad clothes. You can hiccup, fart, burp, and nobody will notice it. Your brain is free of hundreds of city restrictions, rules and rituals. And it gives you a lot of energy – everybody has felt it.
The city takes your power away, and the desert gives it back to you.
And it depends only on you if you are able to gestionate this power in a correct way.
Two days of the race have passed. But there are still a lot of obstacles, challenges, visits to the clinic, griefs, unexpected turns and calm and quiet rest in the middle of people who you already think as relatives.