How can bugs motivate? Can socks stand up? Why does a cow walk on two legs in desert? What did my mother do in desert? What kind of stitches to use to sew a corn?

So, this is the final chapter, where I will tell you about my last days in desert and what I’ve learned during this time. Let’s go.

I’ve left behind the longest stage of MDS – 86 km. Two days that will wrap up the whole ultramarathon are still ahead. And, if the final marathon is only the day after tomorrow, today is another day, equally important – The Day of Rest.

 

Day 5.

The fifth morning of Marathon des Sables is full of joy and bliss. Because there is no running. Only if you’ve already ran, of course :) That’s why, today we are going to have a good time! So, what’s the first thing? Where is my “to do” list? So:

 

To have a good meal  —  ✔

For this purpose I’ve saved the most delicious set – mashed potatoes with meat. And for dessert – dried mango and tea with sugar. Royal breakfast! Everyone treats himself as he can :)

To squint in the sun  —  ✔

To look at the finishing people —  ✔

After the breakfast, Pafnutii and I went to look at the finishing people. The string does not stop. People are coming and coming. We applaud and congratulate them, because they’ve had harder time than us – we have suffered for 12 hours, but they – for 24. Bravo!

To help a person in need —  ✔

And then, Pafnutii and I, staying at the finish, see an older woman, who barely tries to reach the line. You can almost see how hard is it for her. She’s smiling, doesn’t look at the supporters, doesn’t react to all the “Bravo!” cheerings. She just walks by, barely breathing. No emotions, no weakness.

At the finish she was handed three 1.5l bottles with water. She was so concentrated, that the water confused her. This poor woman is barely standing on her feet, and now she is given 4.5l of water.

Pasha and I took the bottles (her and other madame’s), asked for the number of tents and dragged the water to the addresses.

At parting I wished all the best to my severe Miss Marple. And she suddenly began crying… I lost my way, but she hugged me like her son. I hugged her too… And, suddenly, I felt that I’m crying too. And that’s how we were standing: she was crying, and I tried not to cry.

I did not immediately understand what was happening to me. Only a little later I understood why I was so touched. I didn’t hug a stranger, but my own… mother, who will have her birthday the day after tomorrow and who I miss very much.

My mum always worries when I go somewhere. And here are desert, a week and the ultramarathon. And she has her birthday these days. She asked only for one birthday present – my comeback. She promised me she won’t celebrate it until I write her everything is ok, I’m alright and the finish line is left behind. And so did I later. But, at that moment, I was hugging this woman and mentally apologized to my mother for making her worry about the goofy me.

 

To steal tea from moroccans —  ✔

After wiping my nose, I came back to the finish, where Pashka was already waiting for me. The moroccans continued to make fun, treating the exhausted runners with a sip of tea.

Pasha was greedily looking at the tray, I understood immediately his thoughts. I went to the tent and took a glass.

– Only for finisher!

– It’s not for me, it’s for my friend, – told I proudly and gave the glass to Pashka. Pasha momentarily drank it down.

– Take and remember. – Pasha choked.

So as not to relax :)

 

To save berbers’ jeep —  ✔

While I was giving Pasha back blows, removing the remnants of tea, I’ve noticed a small jeep full of berbers driving to the dunes. There was a lot of music, the guys were having fun.

But their fun didn’t last long – the jeep predictably stalled in deep sand. Several minutes they were trying to get out, but… no chance.

– Interesting turn, – we thought and went to them.

And they were already busy digging the wheels up. They looked guilty. It seems that they borrowed the car to have a drive and “drove”. And we will leave them in need? No way!

Our attempts to get out only made everything worse. The berbers decided to use a traditional berberian method – they pulled out some bushes and put them under the wheels. You know, like people in our country put rocks, but in desert they put bushes :) Brrrum-brrrum, oooh, it worked!

The culmination – the car starts to move, climbs the bushes, accelerates, passes them and… sinks again into sand. Scene, applause!

It seems that it’s a kind of berberian entertainment, so we wished them a good day and left…

 

To chill out under a fan —  ✔

Yep, there is a giant fan at the finish line, that blows air with water drops. You stand under a cool, wet air stream, and imagine yourself being somewhere in Iceland near a waterfall. Or not Iceland. Actually, everyone uses his own imagination. You can picture yourself as Gulliver and thousands of lilliputians try to knock you down with their little hoses.

And people are still finishing…

 

To put up my socks  —  ✔

Enough chilling, there are a lot of things to do at home. First I need to collect all my clothes for laundry. The most important are the socks – my feet should feel soft and clean. I find my socks, try to unbend them – it doesn’t work. So, I put them up and take a photo for all those who wash socks once in 150 km. It’s a shame to be such a dirty man!

To do my laundry — ✔

I can walk in same clothes for a long time. But even I, a caveman and a piggy-wiggy, decided to wash all my running equipment, because… not only my socks were standing up.

To sew my corn — ✔

You can’t just look at a swollen corn and ignore it. How can you fight it? For example, you can borrow a needle from girls, thread it, puncture, and leave the thread in the corn to drain it and to prevent any inflamation.

“You cannot see your feet until you take off your socks.” – Dmitri Voloshin

To make a pillow —  ✔

I have long wanted to tell you.

So, do people need to take a pillow with them in desert? An inflatable one, a feather one or an antigravity cushion? My answer is: no!

Dear friends, now I will teach you how to make a pillow using whatever’s at your disposal. Take the cover from your sleeping bag, put in it all your running clothes – shorts, T-shirt and underwear, for example, pull your buff over the cover and ta-dah! Your swish, soft and pleasant to the touch pillow is ready!

Weight – zero grams of extra weight.

To listen to some anecdotes —  ✔

Joyle is on a roll today. He told us a hilarious Estonian anecdote about reincarnation :)

And people are still finishing…

 

To make a gift —  ✔

Do you know what, according to the statistics, is the the most exciting impression of Marathon Des Sables participants? Any ideas? So… it isn’t the night running, not the bloody corns or the faintings from heat, not the hunger, penalizations, exhaustion, terrible pain or disqualification. No guesses? Do you give up?

The right answer is: Coca-Cola.

Miracles also happen in desert. The next day after the long part of the race, each runner receives a steamy jar of cold Coca-Cola! And now I understand the statistics – it really looks like a miracle! When you spend 5 days under a baking sun, drink only fresh, warm water and eat tasteless mixed fodder, a cold Cola is like a Gift of the Gods for a good behaviour. And you are ready to dance your heart out with excitement!

Well, this day has come :) Thousands of dehydrated people have gathered in the center of the camp, lustily waiting for the truck with a red logotype.

It comes! Well, not the one from the advertising, of course, but we all know what’s inside! I start to sing:

“Watch out

Look around

Something’s coming

Coming to town”

People sing along, as they can, in all the languages of the world.

We take these cherished jars with our trembling hands and go away, to avoid being trampled by the others. Everyone has his own plans for this jar – some drink it at one stroke, others save it for tonight.

My plan is not to drink it at all. I don’t mean drinking it at home after the race. It’s stupid. I mean giving it as a gift to someone. No, I’m not crazy or overheated, yes, I clearly understand what I’m going to do, and no, Pepsi didn’t pay me for it.

Values change in desert, and a 30 cents jar of cold Cola equals to a 300 bucks dinner in a Michelin restaurant.

I just want to see a smile of a happy person – it will give me more power and energy for the race than 300 kcal from sugar water. I have already decided  who will be the lucky man, when suddenly…

By the time I was looking at others’ twitching Adam’s apples, hearing their moaning and smacks, I suddenly felt that one of my hands is trembling, and the other one tries to open the jar. No, stop! My hand froze on the jar ring. My mind demands pleasure, but my heart wants emotions. Who will win this battle?

But the Universe helped me. Iya approached me, smiling. That’s it… I gave her the jar. Iya looked confused at me.

– This is for you.

– It’s too expensive for a gift

– If it is, share it with Natasha.

Iya smiled:

“– I’m the happiest person in the world – I have one and a half bottles of Cola!”

Yeah, making someone happy even for a minute – it invigorates you more than a jar of Cola! Thank you, Iya!

And people are still finishing…

 

To meet the last hero  —  ✔

And people are still finishing… No, all seem here. After 33 hours from the start (more than a day and a half!) the last participant of the longest stage of MDS came to the finish. That’s the one who drained the bitter cup! I take my hat off to him!

To unearth some thorns  —  ✔

And here comes the evening. We want to eat, but it’s not that simple. Thousands of people have been here for two days, and there are no more branches in the nearby – people are constantly cooking food on fire and eat. Eat and eat. That’s why we went to a night expedition to collect secret, underground, actually undersand thorns. We find some, pull them out and take home, so as no one sees us, because the locals will steal them – 100% :) Hurray! We provided ourselves with dinner and breakfast.

Day 6.

I opened my eyes, as usual, in darkness. Usually I wake up first, but not today – today guys have an early start. Everyone, except the fastest 150, starts at 7 am. And we (the first 150) start as usual – at 8:30. What sort of experiments are you doing here?

Finally wake up from the yells of Berbers:

– Three, two, one, start! (of course in Berberian language)

This is how they dismantle the bivouacs. Two are holding the sticks and one lifts the top and runs over our clothes, constantly apologizing. And so 200 times per morning.

I had a bite of what God sent – 300 grams of some powder. The label blew off, I try to understand by taste – it seems like chewing undercooked rice or couscous with curry and pieces of meat… or soy? or soy meat? In a word, “feed” is also “feed” in Africa.

At least there is no more food, my backpack is empty and lightweight, and it’s pleasant for me. But it looks quite strange – skinny and ridiculous. And it hits me on the back while running. Put my sleeping bag inside, without packing it, and voila! My backpack looks again like it has 30 kilos in it.

The guys ran away, and only Pasha and I remained in the tent. In the next tent were also 4 of our friends. Everyone is puzzled by their place in the standings, they want to improve the results. Now I’m the 91st and I think about the pace I should run to remain in the first hundred. Because 30 people are wishing now to take my place in the hundred, hoping to push me out of there.

Today everyone bets the bank – the last day, you have nothing to lose and there is no sense to save your powers. That’s why the battle will be a good one – the dust will cover everything, the pulse will go off-scale, the camels will be creeped by runners with bulgy eyes, and the doctors will work in three shifts.

Well, I’m ready. I will fight until I have the power.

And here’s Anton, going towards me with a bright smile – my running comrade, with whom we’ve spent 12 hours ploughing the desert, cheering each other, getting out of hypoglycemia, quicksand and banal laziness. And only thanks to each other we have passed this long stage so steeply.

I put on a big smile too, tap him on the shoulder:

– I want today to be only the two of us. – Anton nodded approvingly. It seems he was going to suggest the same thing. – Me and the desert, – I finished my thought.

His smile slowly slides off the face.

– Why apart? We are, like, running so cool together.

– Yes, my dear, we are, thank you very much for it, but… you know, today, on the last day, I want to be alone with the desert, I don’t want any external motivation, and I don’t want to convince someone else to run, I don’t want to count on other’s water, to share the mistakes, to talk, to depend and to adjust, I don’t want to disturb and to be disturbed. All in all, I don’t want to finish holding hands. I want to be only the two of us. The desert and I.

Anton nodded approvingly.

– I want to talk to it, to look closely at it, to feel one more time its breath, I want to fight it and, of course, to lose, but the most important I want is to have an aftertaste of this race. Not the talks about gels and kilometers, not the pace control, but the squeak of the sand on my teeth, the baking sun and my heart beating out of my chest. The insane thirst and the sip of water in a dry throat. The feeling of loneliness among hundreds of runners and immense dunes. That’s what I want to remember.

Well, in fact, only now I wrote it so beautifully – I had time to think. But then I explained everything easier, and thanks to Anton he has understood me. Understood and forgiven :) By the way, he’s a nice guy! And I would definitely run with him any other race.

Strange thing – we are only 150 at the start, and somewhere in front there is a thousand of runners, and we will have to outrun the majority of them.

Shot! Run! Today I’m running faster than usually – my pulse is around 160, breathing is hard, it’s hot, but I knew the risks.

The first walkers appeared on the seventh kilometer. People walk slowly, talk to each other, admire the views. Fortunately, the format of the race allows you to finish even if you go 3.5 km per hour. But I’m running now 11 km per hour. And an impact might cause severe injuries.

Meanwhile we, wagging like a little boat in the sea, run ahead, I catch up the guy with ukulele – a small guitar. He walks and plays it. Wow! So cool! I run him up and turn to step. I see he appreciated :)

– You want me to play it?

– And to sing! – I embrace his shoulder.

And here in the desert sounds O shan ze Lize!

– O solei su la pluie, a midi u a minui!! Ya tusku vu vule O shan ze Lize, – I sing along the best I can.

I thank this guy and run on.

Look, who’s there ahead, so big and fat? It’s a running cow! The dude put on this cloven-hoofed costume and walks with sticks on the sands of Sahara. Applause!

After that there were less walkers and more runners. 15 km, 5:30 minutes per km. Pulse value – 160. But I still have energy left, and as long as I’m able and the surface allows, I increase my speed. What’s there, ahead? Ah, finally I’ll be able to take a better look at these guys.

A group of French sportsmen are dragging a wheelchair with a kid. As it turned later, this team tries to drew attention to an incurable disease, that paralyzes in childhood period – Ataxia-telangiectasia (or Louis–Bar syndrome). The boy’s name is Romen Chevillard and he’s only 11. But in spite of that, Romen is the 2016 world vice-champion (wow!) in competitions on such wheelchairs.

I shake their hands on the move and wish them all the best. Very cool guys – how did they climb the mountains? I have no idea. I have legs, hands and a normal coordination and met difficulties, and they have a kid and a wheelchair. Only later, reviewing various videos, I understood that they sometimes carried the kid on the back through these boulders and dunes – the wheelchair cannot be taken everywhere.

Mind blowing! That’s so cool. Respect to you, guys! Romen, you are a hero!

I reach the second checkpoint – 22 km. Get drunk. I mean, with water. Today Sahara is in a good mood – it’s not hot and there is a cool breeze, no sand and running goes easily.

All good thing, as well as bad, must come to an end. After the checkpoint we had to run in a sandbox, and we started to crawl, swearing.

I have wanted squeak of the sand on my teeth – I’ve got it. There was a lot of sand. It was everywhere, that’s why I started walking. My pace fell, people started to overrun me, it drove me crazy and I was trying to run where people normally walk. Running in such circumstances is like floundering in a quagmire – only makes things worse. And here I am, at km 28, walking with a pulse value of 165 beats, with beaten feet, spinning head, lack of power and only one wish – to fall down and don’t get up. All the signs of hypoglycemia – lack of blood sugar. Or, in other words, my batteries ran down. Apparently, I did not calculate the number of gels…

I stopped, ate an unplanned gel, some salt tablets and fell on a dune. I’m staring at a point on the sand. A light wind is blowing and grains of sand are rushing along the surface. I stare hypnotized at a point. I don’t know how much could I sit like this, if it wasn’t the bug. He ran out of nowhere and stopped right in the centre of my meaningless view. I thought it was looking at me. And suddenly it started to say:

– So, why are you sitting here?

– Waiting, – I flipped out.

– For what?

– I wait, until it gets better.

– You will feel better only at finish. I was there, and there are people who already feel better.

The Bug stood on its hind legs.

– I will wait then for everything to end. – said I.

– The race will never end. But you will feel better at finish. Remember it. Run!

The Bug stood again on all its paws and went towards me. I stood up on my legs.

– Got it, can I go then?

– Don’t go – run! Run and remember!

The Bug left quickly, moving to the horizon. I stood up and watched it. “Run and remember!”, – I heard once again.

A man in the desert talking with a bug about conscience – probably a very strange thing. It’s good that Anton is not around… Well, as I promised the Bug to go, I will. I go, my head’s all foggy, and I can hear a cheerful music coming from far away:
— Dumb ways to die, so many dumb ways to die…

The sit-down with the arthropode was a good thing: after few km I felt better and reached the last checkpoint at 33 km invigorated.

There I started to doubt, was the bug really talking to me? These doubts were a good sign, I thought. It means that I have a relief.

I sat down in the shadow for a few minutes, drunk some water, felt a burst of energy. And ran. There were only 9 km left, and now it’s a bad time to relax, I’ve let already 20 people to overrun me.

And the desert never cease to amaze – here is a black wasteland, and you feel like you’re running over coals.

And here are the ruins of the city.

In fact, like I said: Sahara surprised us with new landscapes, weather and unpredictability every day:

giant dunes, and mountains, and dried up lakes, salt flats, ruins of cities, black plateaus…

But the most magnificent, the most epic sight in Sahara is…

The MDS Finishing Arch.

It’s the most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen – when you see it, you understand that this hard 230 km trip is ending now. That’s it – the borderline between two worlds: the wild and cruel nature, where you fight against yourself, and the city, full of salarymen who just go with the flow.

And now I want to cross this borderline and to become a salaryman again. It’s no need to lie: we all are tired and want home, to our cosy houses and conditioners, tasty food and cold beer.

I overrun a couple more people and break into the arch, unfolding the flag of Moldova. I’m overcome with emotions: my mind is blurred, my heart is going a mile a minute, there are lots of people around me – finishers, volunteers, all of them congratulate me, take pictures.

Pafnutii is here too, he gives me a tea. Patrick comes to me. He says something and puts a medal on my neck.

– I take and remember, – I hear my voice suddenly.

He tries to understand what did I say, but Pasha is laughing.

– Congratulation!

– Gracias!

I almost lost this battle – came the 126th, but won the war!

Based on the results of six days I’m in the first hundred, 88th place!

I stumble to the bivouac and fall on the carpet. Emptiness inside – is it really all? I can’t believe there won’t be any runnings on sand, tasteless breakfasts, collecting branches and stones, water and toilet lines, no one will ever send me letters written like this:

u

p

s

i

d

e

d

o

w

n,

to take more space on the paper, nobody will make fun of me with the “take and remember” thing, there won’t be any long after-dinner rests without phones, no more talks with bugs, no Moroccan sips of tea, no dumb ways to die in the head, no attempts to win the corn-measuring contest, no two square meters and no fume of Spanish rollies under the night sky and myriads of stars.

My reflections were interrupted by Iya – our superwoman, who passed all the stages on her stumps, because I can’t find any other word to describe her bloody feet. Anton boasted too – he took off his socks and showed us his 10 bandaged toes:

“– Full house!”

My two nails, punctured by doctors, and a corn look poorly in comparison to these two brave guys. Flaunting with such fresh feet after MDS is almost obscene, so I hide them under my socks, put on my sneakers and we all go for a walk – rumor had it that the organizers decided to hold a concert and to show the teaser of the race. And some people say they will give us BEER today.

I stopped near the flag on the way – my God, it’s feels so good to look at it here, in Sahara. In fact, there is an euphoria in the camp: everybody is walking around with their medals, embrace each other, congratulate, laugh like a drain, get silly. There are bottles and cauldrons thrown everywhere, because nobody needs them anymore.

They installed a huge inflatable screen and a stage. Something is definitely going to happen.

And a chocolate beauty is already dancing jazz on the stage. But, suddenly, she makes an unforgivable mistake: decides to sing “Stand by me”.

O-o-o, I can’t stay still when I hear this song. Losing my willingness, I slowly stand up and get on the stage.

I go wild and start to “dance” and “sing” as I can. I didn’t think then, before the start, that I’d be able to party like this after 230 km. It turned out that it’s possible. And it needs to be. These are the moments when you understand you’re alive. That now you are real, with all your flaws. When you don’t try to be cool or to look smart – only dance wildly with your friends under your favourite music somewhere in the desert…

We were given a jar of beer/Cola/juice and went to meet the last hero. The man who will close the finishing protocol, the one who had to suffer more than others. The hero of the race. Sounds “I will survive”, people are yelling, everybody applauses.

It’s not a hero, it’s a heroine. She approaches the finish line. We’re on top of the world, embrace each other, yell, catharsis fills our hearts! A lot of people start crying..

The level of testosterone and serotonin in the air is so high, that you can cut yourself a piece of it. Now I can understand sectarians – for such an emotional outburst I would have given both my car and apartment. We got off easy …

And here she is, entering the arch. Tens of people embrace her. She cries her eyes out – I can’t even understand what’s happening now in her soul. She was sifting 12 hours through Sahara, exhausted, squeezed and weary. And here it is – the finish line! It’s over. The race is over, challenges are over, deprivations and pain are over. She approaches the arch, stretched to her limits, and sees that she’s being met by thousands of people and the life-affirming song “I will survive”, that thunders through the whole desert.

She will never forget this moment. I’m sure.

 

Day 7.

The MDS medal is already on the neck (some people even slept with it). The race has officially ended. But there is also Solidarity – a 7 km charity race. This race doesn’t influence your results, that’s why many people don’t even run, just walk these 7 km (maybe to stretch their staying in Sahara). Nobody wants to say goodbye :)

The organizers wake us up at 6:30 am. Gather the whole Russian-speaking team and take an AFTER picture of our feet. It’s also a tradition. A complete disparity.

We start, run, walk, take pictures, fool around.

After the finish we found a helicopter and, sitting on its frame, I solemnly pledged to give Pasha Moldovan citizenship if he comes to live in our country. He promised.

Meanwhile, the final results of the ultramarathon were shown:

I’ve run 237 km with an average pace of 8 min/km in 30,5 hours. Burned 15 000 kcal (approximately 2 kilos of fat), ran vertically about 2650 meters. And here are the results of our team:

I’ve taken the 88th place, and Moldova – the fourth, among 48 countries. And the most people (half of all participants) came from Great Britain and France.

Congratulating each other with the end of this race and saying goodbye to the desert, we took the bus and went to civilization.

On the way we were given a sort of a hamburger – two sad buns with something that looked like a patty between them. It was the first meal after gels, powders and other freeze dried food. What’s why each of us wolfed this food down.

I turn around and see a grimy, sunburned guy sitting and clutching this “burger”, with his mouth full and a look of a hungry wolf, who would rather die than share a part of his prey. And he absolutely doesn’t care that another runner takes a leak only a meter from him. If you would met such a person in your city, you would hardly pay attention to him. But. This “homeless” guy has a Rolex on his hand, that costs like a three-room apartment. It’s possible only here – the desert has levelled off everyone. Apparently, everyone remained in his 2 square meters, burying his pride and self-conceit in the sand :)

After 6 hours we ended up in the hotel. By the way, only in the hotel I took a look at myself in the mirror. Veeeery strange sight :) And feeling. It’s like re-acquainting with someone you knew in your past life.

I grew a beard and a moustache in a week. The moustache, by the way, I’ve decided to keep as a reminder about the desert :) We came back to civilization with all its facilities. Someone breathed a sigh of relief – shower! Someone was desanding his clothes. But I thought again, that the desert… no, the Desert (with a capital, and only a capital “D”) gives a lot to people. Maybe because there is nothing in it.

 

And then was a feast of feasts. Our whole team paint the town red – Cuban cigars, Moldovan cognac, Moroccan dishes, everything had its use! And, as the old saying goes, I was there, mead and wine I drank, I swear; though my whiskers bathed in wine, nothing passed these lips of mine… passed, passed, just kidding :)

 

The taste of delicacies, the softness of the couch, the brightness of the screen and the functions of your mobile phone, the number of rooms in the apartment and all these correspondence in social networks, likes and many other things are, in fact, – rubbish, that does not allow you to get to know yourself. And when you throw everything away, when you are all alone, only then you will truly know yourself and understand where do you want to move.

 

The desert, taking away, gives you a lot more instead. And it’s very important to know that there are no horizons. The walls are only in your head, not in your body. But you can understand it only when your head is empty :) When the wind blows the dunes of gyri, throwing out useless things and keeping only the important ones, creating a beautiful motif. The important thing is to remember and never forget this moment.

Well, Sahara…

“I take and remember…”