What does an illegal beetle look like? What for do people need an ushanka-hat in desert? What is the taste of the last sip of water? How to create special effects using a gel? Why wrinkles are good?

This is the fourth chapter about my running through desert in April 2017. If in the first three I have told about the preparations, how did we come there and even how we ran in the first 2 days, in this chapter I will focus on the most important day, for which sportsmen come here all over the world.

Let’s go.

Day 3. Another 31.6 km on sand.

This was my third morning on Marathon des Sables. It began with a beetle. Such a fat dung beetle, which brazenly came into our bivouac and didn’t want to leave. And guys, knowing that I sometimes eat insects, brought me it for breakfast. But the beetle was lucky –  it did not look appetizing :)

As it turned out later, the beetle didn’t return to the desert, but crawled into Vlad’s backpack and has travelled 32 km with him! If he would manage to find his home one day and tell his story, he would probably go down in the beetle history as the greatest traveler.

By the way, I would like to mention that, besides this little guy, we haven’t seen any other creatures in the desert, though talking to a snake or scorpion would be very interesting.

On the start we are reminded that the subject of the day is Mountains. 32 km through several mountain ranges. Anyway, I have noticed that the smaller the distance, the harder the route.

But we got already used to the mountains, therefore the first two were easy enough to overcome.

And there is one more mountain in front of us, and it’s way harder. We climb it with difficulty and run on the ridge.

The view from here is amazing – underneath, like an ant chain, the string of runners stretches to the horizon. And you just run on the ridge – one wrong step and you will fall from a 200 meters height, hilariously tumbling down the rocks.

Here skyrunners immediately stand out – they run on rocks like saigas, passing by the others. What kind of processors do they have in their heads, which make such fast decisions where to put the feet and at what angle?

Step by step I try to switch my brain to a turbo mode and accelerate – it seems that I get i… oh fu…! dammit..! shi…! – I bumped my big toe against a sharp rock.

I get to the checkpoint limping. And there is Patrick, meeting us with a crafty smile – the today’s route intersects the yesterday’s. We have to run again on the hill we overcame yesterday, but now from the opposite side. Up on sand, and down on rocks.

+57 degrees in the sun :) In the shade – +41, but we don’t run in the shade. That’s for sure. I’ve checked it out. The MDS cap doesn’t help. The head gets hot, ventilation is poor. So I take it off and run, and my head is cooled by the wind.

There was a cleft in the rock in front of us, which has made a little queue – everyone helped each other to get across it. Nobody cares about the result – you need to help other sportsmen overcome the obstacle. Therefore, we help each other to climb on the platform. A sports brotherhood :)

A little further is another obstacle – the angle of climbing becomes almost vertical. The organizers took care of it and hanged a rope. So, MDS is not only running, but also rope-climbing.

The top. Painting. I wait. Breathe in. Take a look. Breathe out…

And run down on rocks, destroying my nails and risking to break my legs. What for? I will try to explain it to you and, first of all, to myself.

When I came here, my goal was just to finish. But, when I understood after the second stage that I have a chance to be in the first hundred, I decided to struggle. Well, as usual :)

It is the victory over yourself, over your weaknesses and other’s advantages that gives you that hormonal release after each race. It gives you that most important feeling of full, bright and real life. That’s why now I’m running down this mountain, breaking my nails and overrunning the cautious runners.

Underneath I meet yesterday’s dunes. But today they are not bothering me – I just wait until they end. I think that the desert has made me somehow more patient.

7 km. The final stretch. Water is not enough – only half of the bottle (350 ml). I decide to run 800 meters, then walk 200, and drink a sip every 500 meters.

The less the water, the tastier it becomes. In fact, I can now talk a lot about the taste of water. But that day, when I drank the last sip 4 km before the finish line, I understood that water is the tastiest thing on earth. When you’re dead of sun, sand, mountains and distance, you take a sip of water in your dry mouth and don’t swallow it immediately, but enjoy it like…

like…

like…

… I give up, I can’t explain what does it feel like – you just need to try it.

No matter how hard I tried to save the water, it ended half an hour before the finish line. I could handle all the thoughts about heat strokes, cramps and other problems with a mantra. A simple one, but (incredibly!) effective:

– I don’t need water, I can run without it…

Now I understand why they put the “Highway to Hell” song on the start :)

The closer I was to the finish line, the more clearly I heard the song Dumb Ways to Die in my head. This is a funny song about stupid ways to die :)

Due to this song, an obsessive picture of a glass of water appeared in my head. I run with it and spill the water. I remember my friend’s, Edik, words:

– Dude, we don’t have a full glass of health at our age. That’s why it is important not to spill what remains. And bring it to the finish.

The hot air blurs the horizon… Or is it sweat? I see something that looks like an arch in front. Here it is, the finish!

Soooooo, where is my well-deserved finishing tea?

The thing is that there is a tent on the finish, where, after each stage, the Moroccans treat the finishers to tea. It’s amazing – this fragrant, sweet and hot tea spreads through your veins like life-giving water, so you can close your eyes and get into heaven for a second. But when you get back on your feet and decide to take another sip, you will be terribly disappointed – there is no more tea in the glass…

Yes, they serve only one sip, on the bottom, 30 ml at most. And if you try to take one more glass, the Moroccan on duty makes scary eyes:

– Just one!

Well, you’re not allowed to take more. I don’t understand, is it about marketing or simple greed, but it is really annoying.

So, I come to the table and try to show in sign language (my throat was parched), that I terribly want to drink and ask for tea. He pours. Maybe a full one? Yeah, sure – another sip of tea on the bottom. The tea disappears like water in sand. Despite the protests of the Berber, I drink one more. And more.

The scene reminds me of Sayid’s salvation.

There are fewer people in the camp than usually. As it turned out later, my efforts were not in vain – I came the 116th. And my overall place changed from 154th to 137th. I have a chance to be in the hundred. I will proceed struggling.

All in all, while waiting for the others, I am looking for spines to make fire, and involuntarily test my slippers at spine-resistance. The fire is ready. The test is passed. By the way, 90 out of 100. It’s so hot today, that I’ve decided to check my pulse. It proved to be 42 in the shade and 60 in the sun. Way too much. But, despite the heat, I’ve decided to gather some firewoods for those who didn’t come yet. Because I’ve started to feel guilty – Pafnutii did it all the time, because he’s the fastest among us and usually comes first.

I went hobbling to the clinic to look how are my feet after the races. The clinic is a large tent, where doctors fix your legs, but I’ve also seen how they save people from heat stroke with IVs. But, most of all, legs.

So, how is the “fixing” made? You fall on the floor, lift your foot, and the doc does some magic for your corns and nails – punctures, pops out, drills, disinfects, puts a band-aid. And your legs are again like new.

One of my nails went dark and a corn appeared on my little toe. But these are nothing in comparison to others. My friends lie nearby – Pasha and Kolyan. They have more problems.

Iya “bragged” that her nail was drilled today to remove the liquid underneath. Her legs are almost fully bandaged, poor girl.

But Vlad, for instance, had no problems at all. Even a small corn or a zit. All in all, the main secret of MDS – why some people destroy their feet and others don’t, remains a mystery. Maybe the science in the 22nd century will find an answer.

In the next tent everything goes on in the same way. Everyone is in a good mood, full of energy and craziness. People are stretching according to a specific program – about 40 minutes in unbelievable poses. I sympathetically watch this synchronous stretching performance :)

Meanwhile, the whole camp prepares for tomorrow. Because tomorrow is the most important day of the race – 86 km. Everyone’s nervous. I’m nervous too, that’s why I spend the rest of the day on preparations.

First of all – food. I decide to take 7 gels for every 10 km, 200 grams of raisins and dried cranberries for snacks on the run, and soylent powder for lunch – an overseas high-calorie food that Vlad gave me.

The meal of future – it contains all the nutrients to keep you alive. Add some water and drink. And so for the rest of your life. Cheap, fast, horrible…

Secondly – the tapes. I took off the old and put some new ones. Do you know how to find out if you taped your knees in a correct way? Easily – you just need to stand up. If the skin on your knees looks like wrinkles of a 300 years old man, you’re good at this.

Meanwhile, all those who packed already stay in a queue to the internet café. It’s such a tent where you can send an e-mail for free. And for 2 euro per minute, you can have a talk on satellite phone.

But we have our own free (60 euro per month – unlimited) messenger. My satellite Garmin inReach constantly changes its owner, and everyone writes his relatives that he’s safe and sound. I suddenly hear boy’s laughter: messenger has learned a new word and suggests us to use it – pizdets. A very common word on MDS. Very. Pizdets how common.

A guy stays in the nearby and laughs too.

– Hello, where are you from?

– Priviet, rebyata, ya govoryu po russki.

As it turned out, Fernando was Spanish and lived in Moscow. Cool guy. Iya brought her massage ball and we did him a back massage.

Yeah, strange, I know. But a lot of strange things happen here. For example, a tattoo before going to sleep. What for? To know where are water points. Therefore, I write it down on my hand and also the approximate time of arrival.

We will run this stage in two – with Anton. Our preparation is approximately the same, and we won’t let each other to give up (sit back and procrastinate).

Day 4. The day that will end after 86 kilometers.

My day X began earlier than usual – at 5 am. After I went to Vipassana two years ago (10 days without any communication with other people and meditation 11 hours a day), I sometimes meditate in the morning, especially before hard days.

And today it is, that’s why I brought my mat and went away from the camp on the dawn. Choosing a dune, I sat down and thought about nothing for 20 minutes, and, feeling all my body, practiced square breathing ( 15 sec inhale, 15 sec breath hold, 15 sec exhale, 15 sec breath hold). My heart rate meanwhile fell to 40-45 beats per minute.

This kind of meditation gives you a lot of forces – during the tenth day on Vipassana I ate a banana and some nuts the whole day and slept only 3 hours. And I wasn’t hungry and felt like 1.5 million dollars.

I went back to the bivouac full of forces. Silently took from my backpack a shapeless, multiple times melted and solidified Snickers. We have a birthday boy today – Vlad :)

Everything coming next was taken from his own report :)

When I got out of my sleeping bag, all guys from the bivouac started to sing «Happy Birthday». After the song, Dima came up to me and gave me a very surprising gift – a cake!

Well, the cake, of course, wasn’t a usual one – in fact, it was a simple Snickers, although it was a little flattened and melted. But the fact that this Snickers was carried on others’ backs for about 100 km on sand and wild heat, made it more beautiful than any pompous cake.

Vlad has prepared too, and took out a pack of Haribo gummy candies with cola flavour. All in all, the party was a success!

THANK YOU! The morning became sweet. And we have to run 86 km through desert. A perfect birthday, I’m even a little jealous. But I have had a similar b’day on Mont Blanc (watch from min 18:30).

Today the start is a little unusual – two different starts. The majority of runners start at 8:30, and top 50, where are two of our friends – Pashka and Anton, begin later, at 11:00. Why? One of the ideas is that all people should finish at approximately the same time.

Today mistakes will have a high price, and all the people get rid of extra weight. And a huge heap of needless things grows up before the tent. T-shirts, socks, new towels, a casserole, empty power banks, solar panels and clothes. A holiday for Berbers :)

By the way, a good life-lesson – don’t carry useless things through your life. Go light and bring only something really important.

Today I decided to make my start a little bit different and stay in the first lines. People began to congratulate the birthday boys, but Patrick’s speech was interrupted by the slowly falling on runners arch. I shouldn’t have helped with it on the first day, maybe I’ve broken something…

Sounds “Highway to Hell”, tens of hands hold the arch, the organizers run around, people are laughing, and I just go to the front line and pretend to do a low start.

In short, it’s a complete mayhem. But here’s the signal and we start! I run like Bolt. My dream is to lead a race at least once in a lifetime. And today it came true! So here I am, running ahead of everyone. Like a rocket, like a Soviet satellite, like Columbus, paving the way to others. My five minutes of glory!

Which lasted two minutes tops. I had to stop, because beginning an 80 kilometer race with 20 km/h is insane.

And how do you think, who was the first to overrun me? Vlad! He decided to make himself a birthday gift and leaded the race for the next hour.

Right after the start, we passed by a poor Moroccan “village” consisting of a few houses. I’m not even sure if there are people who live here. Oh, no, look – some children wave their hands!

It seems like they are completely shocked by everything happening here – just imagine that some UFO’s landed in your city, on the main square, and thousands of giant aliens decided to organize a survival race throughout the city.

After running a couple of kilometers, I decide to run without my ushanka-hat, as we call it out of love. The weather is cool, so I can run without it. I wonder if people can run the MDS bareheaded. Nice challenge…

We run with Antoha – the reason I like him is that he’s silent. There are talky runners, and after half an hour of incessant chatter you already think how to get rid of him. I cannot imagine 12 hours with such a “funny guy” – maybe, he wouldn’t finish, and he would be found at the end of the race, lying in a ravine with his leg broken :) Just kidding. Both legs. Still kidding.

Oooh, there is a little sandstorm ahead – a baby stormy, that immediately disappeared behind the mountain. And we went after it. Again I’m surprised by the diversity of the desert – it has thousands of faces, and all of them are different.

We climb the mountain out of habit. In a good mood and full of forces. Run up and down. Again. And again. We need to run before it gets hot. And so we arrived to the second checkpoint on the 23rd km. We run for 3 hours.

We don’t spend much time at the checkpoint – just take the water, run and… reach the dunes. And people immediately start overrunning us. In fact, I’ve noticed that fast runners often overrun us on dunes and mountains.

Instead, we take the lead on the plain. On this stage, a French runner overran us 5 times on dunes and mountains, and we overran him 6 times on the plain. Antoshka had glucose tablets with him, so we ate one each time we overrun somebody – like dogs in the circus for good behaviour.

The hotter it was, the tastier became the water. At about 2 pm, it had a taste of morning dew in the Valley of Eden.

33 km. Another checkpoint, the road is smooth, running is “easy”, that’s why we run like a bullet. People spread out already – approximately one person each 100 meters. It seems like you’re running all alone. Well, except for Antoha :)

I forgot to tell you about our food. Here everything is quite simple. We eat one gel (100 kcal) each 7 km. Two salt tablets at each checkpoint to avoid dehydration. And I also have delicious raisins which we eat for dessert and reward ourselves with it for some achievements. It brings a kind of diversity to our long day and psychologically helps us not to give up.

I feel that I built up a callus and broke a nail. It’s tolerable, but I understand that it will get worse. I don’t take a painkiller yet, only for real emergency.

47 km. Our main camp. Here we are going to eat, take a rest, sit and drink. I add water to my soilent. The taste is not very good, like a protein cocktail. 500 kcal in 10 seconds. Let’s see how my body will handle this.

We are told that we are in the first 30, so we don’t spend much time here either. We need to run, but after lunch we will walk on low heart rate for like half an hour, to provide a normal blood supply to our stomach for digestion. Otherwise, if you run too fast, your body primarily supplies with blood your muscles and ignores the stomach, digestion slows down and food lies deadweight for hours.

But you won’t be able to run – the enormous dunes in our way tie our legs. And we understand that we are alone – nobody from the front and the back. Fantastic! A little creepy, because you can take a wrong turn and get lost, but it is also somehow special.

Oh yeah, such a wonderful quality of pictures (freeze frames from the video). This ultramodern special effect, that you might think is a muddy shit, is, in fact, the gel that treacherously got out from the tube in my backpack and made a mess of the camera lens.

And approximately 20% of my videos look like this. I don’t like gels. And I’ll call this effect “A sandstorm in Sahara”.

On the fifth checkpoint we found… sunbeds. Ehm… surprise. And even more surprising was to find some runners on them, who apparently were not in a hurry. Maybe it’s a VIP checkpoint for those who decided to lie in the sun and take a rest from the race.

So, where are the waiters?

– Hey, bring us a bucket of cold orange fresh here! And a medium rare steak, please. Two. No, four!

No reaction. Hey!

Alright, we will drink some warm water and have some hot gels. Brrrr. And here we are, running again through the desert. The sun sets, so we took of our hats and glasses. That’s good. But we still have to run 9 km on sand without a slightest hint of hard surface. And that’s bad. This is how this stretch looks from a bird’s-eye view:

But we don’t give up and run. Our legs sink into the sand, the pulse value is off-scale, we curse and turn to walking, and try running again…

Well, we were not made for sand…

And then, giving us a lesson about running techniques in the desert, Rashid, the leader of the race, flashes in front of our eyes. He runs on sand like we run on pavement. Miracle. Of course, he is miniature and lightweight, but… jeez, how does he do that?

People overrun us. Walking, jogging, with sticks. It blows your mind. How? What does he do differently than you do? I think, we were overrun by sky runners and walkers – guys who are used to climb the mountains fast and often. Grinding my teeth, I try to smile to an affable English old man. He cheers us and disappears behind the dune, on which a small caravan floats majestically.

Our feelings and the girls from checkpoint tell us that we run in the first 30. Plus those 40 people who started later, seems that we are approximately on the 70th place. Well, not bad, at least it doesn’t let us loosen up.

65 km! The penultimate checkpoint. Here we meet our sad friend Lyoha Firov. And now there are three of us! Three Musketeers. All for one and one for all!

That’s it. The sand is over. Our time has come. We rush! Note: “rush” on MDS means running with a pace more than 6:30 km/min. And we run with 5:55!

All those people who overran us on sand now are closer and closer to us. We catch up a couple of runners, and another one, and one more. We catch them up and they don’t. There is only one thought in the head – don’t stop! I can still see that English guy with his condescending smile in front of my eyes.

Where are you, my dear?

As for me, the best motivation is anger. A good one, sports, natural anger. Anger for yourself, for your weaknesses, for all that things that you could, but never did. Well, why did an old man with sticks overrun me on the 65th kilometer through desert?!

Guys grit their teeth too and run. Everyone understands that it’s not the time to give up. Because the results of the long stage determine your place on MDS, and show who you really are.

It’s getting dark, we turn on our headlights. There is no one around, only the retroreflective marks on the rocks show us the way.

The last checkpoint. We fill our bottles with water, Antoha takes out a surprise – a chocolate bar, which he has kept for the end. Mmm, yummy…

It got dark. It becomes harder to keep a fast pace, but there is a light ahead, and it seems like we’ve got wings! Our prey drive instinct comes out – the prey is ahead. You need to catch it up and eat it. :)

The light gets closer, tries to accelerate, but no – we catch it up and eat it. And who was it? I can’t believe it was our English friend. Hello! We’ve got you – I sincerely smile at him, pat him on the shoulder and say thanks. He looks at me totally confused, because he doesn’t know that only because of him I’m running the last 15 kilometers without a stop and overran at least 10 people.

But not only the predator’s instinct comes out in desert. The prey’s instinct is also powerful – Lyoha turned around and told us that there are 2 lights behind us. We accelerate – none of us wants to lose his place. The heart rate is growing. Another light ahead. And again predator mode. 7 km before the finish line: back hurts, legs hurt, but we don’t care – the adrenaline is boiling.

And all of sudden, remembering the song about dumb ways to die, I thought:

At what point MDS turned into a race for me? A race for places, for the first hundred. I came here just to overcome the desert, I didn’t want to compete against others, I only wanted to admire the views. What has happened? Why am I running like a saiga on sand, trying to overrun somebody, to run away from others, calculating in my mind how many places there are to the top of the results?

And I understand that This didn’t happen here. The desert doesn’t change you, it just shows you who you really are. Now I understand, that I won’t be able to pursue a calm life, watching its flow while sitting on a bench. I will fight with my rivals, with myself, with my weaknesses for the rest of my life. Well, Voloshin, don’t dream about a peaceful retirement… Damn it, I’ve had other plans…

We overran two more people and saw our camp and the finish arch ahead. It seems there are 10 minutes to it. Half an hour later the camp was still unreachable. The distances in the desert are very misleading…

But “good” things must come to an end and we finally approach to the finish line, despite of the optical illusion. Guys say that we should finish holding our hands. As for me, it’s a little bit strange, but I can’t refuse them – we’ve been through so many things together. So, we hold our hands like three, ehm, runners, and run into the finish arch.

12:16 on the watch. Fantastic! 86 km in 12 hours and 16 minutes!

As it turned out later, we were the 58th to come. The results by checkpoints:

Cp1–137. Cp2–109. Cp3–94. Cp4–84. Cp5–87. Cp6–73. Cp7–64. Finish — 58

I can’t believe we almost got in the first 50. Cool!

We embrace each other, the emotions are overwhelming, even my throat got dry. Soo, where is our well-deserved finishing tea?

Maybe today they will pour us tea from the heart – after all, we’ve run 86 kilometers…

Maybe today they will pour us tea from the heart – after all, we’ve run 86 kilometers…

I walk up to the table and ask for some tea. They pour. But again the same thing – a sip of tea on the bottom. F%#k! Do we, people who ran for 12 hours in heat through the desert, and who froze on the finish, deserve only a small, f..king, glass of tea? I look him in the eyes, show my index finger and drink one more glass of tea. He understands that it’s the wrong time to argue and sighs.

We take our 4.5 litres of water and waddle to the empty camp. It’s really empty – besides us, there are only 20 people out of 1200 here. We hardly found our bivouac and fell down. But we shouldn’t fall asleep – there are two more things to do.

First of all – to eat. The body must replenish its forces after all the stress.

Secondly – feet. As there is a few people in the camp, everyone goes to the clinic to fix his legs.

Today’s losses: a callus on the little toe and a darkened nail. Not so scary. In comparison to others – I escaped with a slight shock. But my “boots of speed Hoka” were more affected – its sole unsticks in clumps. Well, I think they will be enough for a marathon, but after that – to the dump.

And now I can crawl into my sleeping back and fall asleep. If I can. I fell asleep easily, but didn’t sleep for a long time. I woke up at 4 am with an urgent need to pee. Stood up silently – it seems that all our guys have arrived and sleep like babies, perfect. Paper, where is the paper? Damn it, there is no paper… I see that the tent 50 meters away is alive, the light is on, so I walk up to it. A Spanish flag and two guys in the tent.

– Guys, do you have paper?

– Rolling paper? – said the guy with a tricky smile, rolling himself a cigarette.

– And an ashtray, please – answer I without long thinking.

The Sahara desert. Nighttime. A starry sky as you can never see in a city. We sit silently with these Spanish guys and smoke, looking at the stars. The fume, just as our thoughts, goes up and disappears against the giant moon.

These moments stick in your mind forever.

Therefore, I Take and Remember.

To be continued…