The Sahara Race kicked off during the last week of October and I flew out the night before our transfer into the desert as Id already used all of my holiday allowance from work for the entire year. This was the last desert in the series for us all and I had been injured in the run up with achilles tendonitis and shin splints causing me to drop out of a few races over the summer, not the greatest preperation. In the end the only objective really was to finish, but then again thats pretty much the only real objective anyway!
I landed in Cairo late, around 11pm and Bucket had arranged for a cab to pick me up. On the way from the airport to the hotel, the cab crashed into the back of a truck on a roundabout and ripped the bonnet off of the front of the car. After the driver had tried to fight the truck driver unsuccesfully we limped to the hotel which was an hour from the airport anyway and I got searched by the guards entering into the hotel lobby, clearly security was a major issue here. Then when I got to the room where Bucket was staying, I found out there was an absolutely MASSIVE wedding reception going on in the huge pool/ bar area outside of our terrace doors. Pink strobe lights were coming into the room and the bass was so loud it made everything shake. I must have got about 3 hours sleep before Hully came in the morning and woke us up. We went to breakfast and then went through check in as usual where they go through your kit and make sure we'd all signed your life away officially one last time. Everything felt a bit rushed as I hadn’t been in town more than about 5 minutes but it was GREAT to be back with the boys with new addition to the group Mickey, a Scot living in Sydney.
Eberhard Frixe whom Id met in Chamonix in August did my kit check, I had everything I needed & my pack weighed in around 7.5 kilos as planned. Then we were all shepherded onto buses for the 7 hour transfer into the desert. We were all in pretty good spirits but that quickly faded when we realised how epic the bus ride was going to be. We had the added issue of passing through a number of security checkpoints. We also had an armed guard on the bus with us at all times. Half way into the journey one of the buses broke down and Mary was forced to call in a replacement from Cairo, which would take a few hours to reach us. We ended up all waiting together in a roadside service station in the middle of the desert where we started to meet and chat to some of the other competitors. These included Annabelle Bond who had recently become the first woman to climb the 7 highest peaks on the 7 continents inside of a calendar year. She was racing with 2 friends, one of whom had just Denali to go before achieving the 7 for herself. Clearly we were in distinguished company. We sat back on the bus as it went to refuel and the driver hopped out and popped in the petrol nozzle. When we looked out we realised that everyone in the petrol pump area including the driver was smoking. We promptly all got back off the bus and walked a good distance away from the area. Hully also took the time to give a couple of young american guys a some pointers on blisters: 'you'll get them son don't you worry' ....
We carried on driving late into the night and arrived at the campsite some time after midnight after a few minutes of snatched sleep. We were led off of the road into thick, soft and now cold sand and through some sets of glow sticks into the ring of tents. We found our one and all bed down for the night. Not a good start regards getting some proper rest before Day 1.
In the morning we woke and went through the usual desert routine, repacking, preparing drink mixes and stashing food and enduralyte salt replacement tablets in accessible places in around the front packs for the Days Stage. Alain Wehbi a Lebanese guy sharing our tent told us that he would definitely be first back so would get things ready for us. Clearly he wasn't short on confidence. Mary then gathered us together around the fire in the centre of camp and introduced the staff and the race. She also gave the five of us, Hully, Willo, Frank, Bucket and myself a mention as the only 5 in the field looking to complete the series here. The guy in charge of course marking then went over the days terrain and distances and we lined up at the start line. Right before the air horn went off I met Team CHASE for the first time, Mark, Paul and Luke whom Id been in contact with during the preceding few weeks. We wished each other luck. I had little idea at this stage how intertwined our races were going to become.
The first day was around 40km & the first 10km went out in a straight line over majority flat and reasonably well packed terrain. The one competitor I knew something about was Mehmet Danis, a previous winner of the Gobi March. Mehmet went off extremely quickly at the beginning and didn’t look back. The pace was relentless but I seemed to find it ok to sit in the top 10 or so runners. A German guy wearing all black was also racing and seemed to be sponsored by Red Bull so clearly he was no slouch. He had a camera crew with him filming also and they spent the first half of today’s stage driving up and down the field taking video footage of us but also blowing massive amounts of dust into us from debris kicked up by the wheels which certainly wasn’t making breathing any easier. At the 5km marker I looked at my watch and realised Mehmet had gone through in about 20 minutes so it was clear that we were off at a ridiculous pace. Already the field looked pretty strung out behind us. Into CP1, I got some water and then moved on. The heat even by this relatively early hour was absolutely oppressive. I had started without a hat on as Id forgotten about it and realised at CP1 that I needed to get it out or I was going to go down in the next section as I was already dizzy after 45 minutes of running. I lost 2 places just getting it out of the back of my bag. The next 10km I ran all of but at a much more reasonable pace, getting passed by George Chmiel a young American runner who yelled out ‘how awesome is this, its much easier than I thought’ as he passed to my right. There was a short sand dune climb into CP2 which I walked but had still made good time and I guessed I was around the top 8 or so still. The next section became difficult. I looked behind and couldn’t see anyone approaching and Id also lost sight of the next nearest runner ahead so I was struggling to pick out the pink markers. This was extremely unusual and actually the first time it had happened to me in a desert event.
In the end I stood still on top of a hill for a minute or so just trying to pick out the course. By that point a Canadian runner Ash Mokhtahri had joined me from behind and we followed a long sweeping curve around into CP3 at 30km. I left the CP just before Ash and head down the hill into a section of enormous solid rock slabs. The heat by now around midday was intense, in fact each day got to between 45 and 49 degrees centigrade. I was really struggling to keep my body temperature down with the fully laden pack. When Ash and I hit the slabs we lost all site of the course markers again and because we were surrounded by rock it was obvious that there was nowhere to place a pink flag. In the circumstances we drew a line from the last two markers and head out across the expanse in the same general direction. Twenty minutes later we hit a sand runway, delineated by rocks and thought we could see a pink marker way off to the left. We head down the sand road to it and promptly discovered it was a coke can. Now it was around 1000 metres back to the previous flag, we had little idea of what direction it was in and to press on forwards would have meant potential major trouble. After around 5 minutes of running around and searching the distance for any sign of life, a car pulled up and drove off past us into the distance. We could see it was a racing the planet vehicle so followed it but they too were lost and had been following Ash and myself. We then just stood still in our tracks whilst they drove back off into the distance behind us searching for the correct path. Eventually they stopped and stood on the roof waving to us. It was a good 5 minute run back to where they were and by this stage Ash and I were annoyed and frustrated. Still at least we weren’t in the middle of nowhere waiting to be eaten by camels. The last 3km were over rolling thick sand dunes, which forced us to walk uphill and around a rock formation into the camp. It was obvious here that others had got lost too. George the young American turned into the finishing straight just ahead of us and from a totally different direction, before crossing the line and berating the RTP staff and volunteers for the poor course marking.
I felt pretty whacked as I sat there Id finished around 8th and only a few minutes behind those just ahead of me but I realised I didn’t really care. I went back to the tent and laid down with my feet up. Tonight we were camping in the white desert with our tents pitched in between incredible limestone structures, it was truly spectacular and a great place to finish the day.
About 20 minutes after, Mickey Campbell came in having had a really great first stage. The boys from Team Trifecta followed only shortly after that before Ken, another US competitor joined us. Ken fit into the tent atmosphere beatutifully he was a great addition to the clan for the week, by the end he was almost as unsociable as we were and was fully amusing the entire tent with his tales. Only later on did Alain make it back. He had had knee trouble in the first 10km and had been forced to drop out at CP2. He spent the rest of the week hanging out with the top 5 runners after each stage and didn’t run again. Bucket came back late in the afternoon after a very long day out in the heat. He seemed very tired and instantly mentioned that he hadn’t been sure he was going to actually make it through the day. It was a time for just sharing the pain between us and acknowledging how hard and how hot it had been. The boys from Team Trifecta were in the lead in the teams but by only a few minutes so they had a lot on their mind also. Erik made it into camp later having dropped out at CP3 again with injury. When it began to rain just as the sun dropped below the horizon we had to smile to ourselves that you just never know quite what the desert will throw at you.
When we woke up in the morning for Day 2 I felt dread rather than excitement. This was the difference in my mindset between a strong build up to Atacama and an erratic and tiring build up to the Sahara. We kicked off and head over some rough packed ground before heading across a sandy expanse to CP1 at 10km. I had no intention of pushing the pace today, it would cause me to potentially blow up and have a shocker and I couldn’t face a huge long walk, Id rather just jog slowly and get on with it. Quite quickly it became obvious that plenty of others felt good and wanted to take advantage of the cooler early conditions where temperatures were about 10 degrees lower than they would be in a n hours time. I got to CP1 in about 12th just before the real heat of the day. It was like running into a brick wall. It was hotter than the previous day and we were totally exposed to the heat. I found myself running with people I hadn’t seen before as Id fallen down the pecking order with my slower pace but I kept running the flats and downs and walking the ups into CP2. Just before CP2 I felt like I was going backwards, people kept overtaking me and I was slipping further and further down the order, all the time feeling worse and worse due to lack of energy and massive overheating issues. I wasn’t concentrating on eating enough and hence my reserves were being eaten in to, way to early in the day.
As I moved through CP2 it became clear that actually everyone was feeling the same way and as I carried straight on I left behind a tent full of people just trying to cool down out of the heat. I pressed on quickly now power walking with the poles out. I went through some very low points all as a result of the heat and felt like I was really struggling to keep control of my body temperature and keep moving forward at the same time. I’ve no doubt that if I’d run those sections I would have ended up collapsing and power walking was actually enough for me to pull a long way clear of anyone behind me. As I exited the rough dunes section we hit a long downhill open stretch of sand where we could see CP3 in the distance. From there it was a hard left turn straight up the hill and into some incredible sand dunes before the drop down in to camp. I reached CP3 where Eberhard was working with his usual enthusiasm and he filled up my two bottles and sent me straight on. As I plugged up the hill to the dunes a Racing the Planet car came past on its way to the evenings campsite and the whooping and hollering from within helped keep my motivation up. Once into the dunes it was very hard going, two steps forward for one back as the sand slipped from under my feet. I made it over and down the other side a half an hour later, running up the hill and into camp. I had turned a disastrous first half of the day into a strong finish which I was massively pleased about.
Day 3 began with a procession up and over a small set of dunes and onto a long downhill plain, before carrying us up a long and slow ascent into CP1. For the whole of this first 10km you could see everyone stretched out ahead and behind and it was quite a sight. Again I found myself pushing the pace but running only about 15th - 20th as people ran so relatively hard early on. As I made it through CP1 again the field began to spread out and I lost sight of most people behind as I ran as hard as I could down the long downhill section into CP2. This truly was fast going and my hope was that by turning this section from 1hr 20 minute walk/ run on the flat into a 50 minute downhill jog, I could effectively finish half the day with almost no effort and go on to an early finish, maximising recovery time. Actually this section held more up its sleeve than that. Just shortly after I passed Erica Terblanche the leading lady who was taking a photo of a spider, I noticed that the runner ahead had collapsed in front of me. I caught up to him within a minute and it turned out to be Webbo from Team Chase. Their team had disbanded the previous day as each of them felt more comfortable running at their own pace. Webbo had blown up badly the day before and had overcooked it again, he was clearly very dehydrated. A medic van was already on its way back so I stayed with him until they arrived and then pressed on the 500m or so in to CP2. I urged Webbo not to accept an IV or a lift unless he really really needed it as I was concerned his race would be over if he did either, when some time recovering in the shade of the vehicle would hopefully get him good enough to continue.
In the end Webbo made it through that section and finished the day. CP2 to CP3 was absolutely intense. I passed a young English guy, Chris, going through CP2 again, now becoming a common occurrence as I would take the water and walk straight through whilst those ahead of me at that point would sit in the shade and drink for some time. CP3 was at an oasis and we could see an outcrop of very out of place palm trees at the top of a hill for about an hour before we got anywhere near it. Prior to that we face a long trudge up an enormous heap of sand. When I reached CP3 I was caught by Paul Rowlinson also of the disbanded Team CHASE and Eberhard urged us both on at the same time. I couldn’t face going up into the oasis, the energy to walk an extra 100 metres seemed a waste.
CP3 to the finish was just a long hot walk. I had a good chat with Paul about the race and back home and we stayed together for around 5km before we split up very slowly and I pushed on ahead to the finish passing Mehmet the pre-race favourite in the final 3km who was struggling massively with his stomach and therefore his hydration. It was a long finishing straight over which you could see the camp for around 40 tortuous minutes, but once there obviously a great relief to be in.
After Team Trifecta arrived shortly after, with Mickey in tow once again, I made up my mind that I was going to stick with the boys all day the following Day 4. I had no interest in racing now and wanted to enjoy it as much as possible without slowing down too much. Their pace was only ever slightly off of mine each day anyway and therefore it made sense to stick with them and try and help each other through. They were also now clear favourites in the team race after the disbanding of the CHASE boys who would have pushed them the hardest, but they were not yet fully clear of a Canadian Team so needed to keep the pace going. That day was a whole new experience for me. Frank led the boys off in a run 8 minutes, walk 2 minutes strategy, which included walking any hill and running any downhill. This made things easy as I could just run alongside and follow the regimented programme. They all helped each other out passing drinks, food, words of encouragement etc and it was nice to be out of the solitary world of running as hard as possible each day, for the most part entirely alone. As the pace was slightly slower than usual it also meant I ate more, had more energy and therefore found it actually more enjoyable. There were a few moments where Willo in particular felt lower than the other two and I tried to help out where I could in getting his drinks bottles/food out of his bag for him. Once again today I passed Webbo who had gone hard once again and dehydrated badly. We offered him anything he might need but he wanted to just walk on to the next checkpoint where he said he’d spend some time. He carried on but unfortunately was forced to take an IV to solve his problems at the next aid station and drop out of the race. We carried on as a team, catching up to Mickey between CP3 and CP4 where he was singing Proclaimers 500 miles to himself over and over. It drove Frank nuts but it certainly broke up the silence for sure. As we made it into camp that evening I felt better and stronger than at any point during the race. We sat outside together to the rear of the tent in its shade and tried to rehydrate as best we could. One day left, the long day and we’d have finished the 4Deserts Series.
Day 5 was 56 miles. This was going to be the longest RTP stage we had ever run. It was certainly a daunting prospect and I was annoyed to hear that I would be starting in the fast runners group, 3 hours behind the rest of the field. Team Trifecta were going to be in the slower group kicking off at 6am. After they had all set off, Mickey and I, the only 2 from our tent in the quick group tried to get some more sleep without success, so we ate some more and sat around trying to pass the time as best we could. At 9am they gathered the 16 of us on the start line together and set us off into the desert. The group consisted of Luke and Paul from Team CHASE, Mickey, Mehmet, The German Red Bull guy, George the young American, Chris the British guy id passed each of the first 3 days and another Brit, Guy, another German who was leading overall, a Spaniard and an Italian who had completed the race before and would go on to win both the day and the overall event. Lastly our group contained Erica the leading lady. When we set off it became clear that the guys at the front wanted to set a fast pace knowing that the event would be won or lost today but also that they would soon be running through their tent mates and the rest of the field. For this reason alone the long day is always my favourite. There is always someone else to chase into the distance or chat to on the way past, you get lots of encouragement and kind words and so the incentives to keep moving well are huge. I started off running like the others but a lot slower and quickly found myself 3rd from last out of the 16 with only Paul and Mickey behind me. Within about 6km I had caught up to Erica and we started to run together and chat. And that was how it stayed for around 6 hours. We ran the first 42km together all paced almost exactly at 5 miles per hour. We seemed to work brilliantly as a team and this was by far and away the best running section of the entire race for me. In fact today everything seemed to come together and Id go on to finish very strong, this early part having been the foundation for that. Erica’s experience in adventure racing was extensive having covered many extreme multi day non-stop and multi-sport courses. She had always raced as part of a team, but in the races she’d tackled, the requirement was to have at least one woman. Of course over that kind of duration men tend to be stronger and therefore Erica had been the sole female team competitor in teams of stronger males and knew that pacing was absolutely critical to success. With 4 deserts under my belt I also now finally understood how important pacing was and the tiny subtle adjustments we made over the course of the morning kept heart rate consistency almost metronomic. For the first 4 checkpoints we ran easily and freely, always in conversation and the time flew by. As we passed other competitors, people were extremely complimentary of Erica. We got called rockstars and heroes, which frankly helps a massive amount when you’re trying to run 56 miles. I passed Erik de Haart around CP2 – 3 where he had one of his bottle straws stuck up in his nose. I asked him if he was ok as that should have been bothering him immensely and he said yes but it was clear he was in pain and unfortunately his day would end at the next CP.
When we got to 40km I caught up to Bucket who was resting under the canvas in a small village. They fed us some sweet tea and Erica and I pressed on. I had agreed with Bucket that if I caught him at CP6 we would finish by walking in together but he knew that I couldn’t walk it in from this far out if I felt as good as I did. This next section Erica and I started to work more as a team. When the wind started to blow hard she ducked in behind me for some limited drafting and we started to progress uphill into the dune climbing section. It must have seemed at this point to everyone we passed very much like we had run the whole race together at this point the way we were working, where in actual fact it had been that first section of the long day only. We made it up the dunes and into CP5 at 50km where there was a pool of water. Erica wanted a swim and she had been slowing significantly urging me to move on so I did do, again passing Chris the British guy at this point. I ran up the hill to the next CP6 passing many of the faster competitors from Group 1. I felt better than ever and surprised by how much running I had left. I put my ipod on at this point and just loved every minute of it. Just before CP6 I moved past Annabelle Bond and her team as well as the German who had been leading and some other runners from Group 1. CP6 was the overnight stop where you could sleep if you needed. There were probably a dozen runners there just taking it easy and resting after 60 hot kilometres but I wanted to seize the good momentum I had and so Sam filled my water bottles and I moved straight on. I was running into the dark now and there weren’t many ahead of me, roughly 10 from Group 1who’d started 3 hours ahead and 6 or 7 from our fast group. At this point the guy putting out glow sticks came past in the truck and disappeared into the distance leaving a trail of electroluminescence for me to follow. I got to CP7 at 70km once again with Ash Mokhtahri from the very first day who was ahead of me by an hour or so in the overall standings. He was in pain but felt better running so we left CP7 together and ran at an insanely quick pace to CP8 and 80km. I was totally out of breath for that hour or so as we pushed as hard as we could. It seemed to be that we could really keep each other going by finding different tracks through the sand . We hit CP8 and Eberhard was there for us topping bottles up again and blaring rock music out into the silence. He was in great spirits as usual and we refilled for the last 10km into camp. We stayed together for the first 5km here before Ash started to pull away from me, ending up a couple of minutes ahead by the finish. In typical racing the planet style this last stage was about 3km longer than advertised and it took me an hour and 40 minutes to get through it. It went on forever over dunes until I literally just stood still in frustration for how badly they’d judged the distance of this one again. Every race they do the same thing it seems, the last Stage of the 2008 Atacama Crossing was also 30 minutes longer than It should have been, small in the overall scheme of things but massive when you’re in it. Eventually I rounded the bottom of a dune and was faced with the big uphill into the finish, a dune which was pure soft sand and borderline impossible to get up. The drum beat kicked up again as I crossed the finish . I can't remember my time but it was about 12 hours.
I got my water and head to the tent where Team Trifecta were all spread out not yet asleep. They’d had a great day and had finished about an hour ahead of me albeit 2 hours behind given their earlier start. I lay down and felt the pain in my legs properly for the first time. My hip flexors were on fire I literally couldn’t lay on my side for the burning sensation firing up and down the outside of my legs. I managed to get a couple of hours sleep with my feet up on a stool before Mickey came in and then after the sun had risen into Day 6, Bucket came in. The last competitor finished in the early afternoon with only a few minutes to spare to the cut off.
The rest of that day was spent sitting around eating, sleeping, relaxing and doing interviews on camera for the RTP website. Late in the evening there was a rumour some kids were selling crisps and beer behind one of the sand dunes. I thought it was worth a shot so head over there and found out it was true. I spent every penny we had between the 8 of us and we got a few packs of crisps and 2 beers to share between us. Great time to break the rules, just before the last stage…
The following morning we got up around 7 and we were bussed back to Cairo, stinking and tired for the final stage around the pyramids. When we got there we waited for about an hour whilst they set everything up for the media and then we started our 20 minute walk up and past the sphinx and the biggest 2 pyramids before arcing round and finishing on a small climb. We crossed the line together, Lisa waiting for me the other side gave me a big hug and we got hold of some beers and pizza and wandered across to the buses to go back to the hotel.
I felt relieved that it was over but also a little disappointed at how little Id enjoyed this experience in comparison to the others. Each one of them could easily go down as the best 2 weeks of my life, except for Egypt. It all felt a little like we’d been there just to see it through, rather than for the enjoyment of running and competing. I guess Id known in a way that I would feel like that since we started the series and Id told everyone I wasn’t bothered about every going back to the Sahara.
The awards ceremony was excellent as always and we had plenty of beers and drinks before we were asked to come up and accept our awards for the 4Deserts Series. I made a speech on our behalf and Mary announced me as the youngest person every to finish the series, a nice add on to the end of an incredible 3 years.