07-Oct-2011 02:04:50 AM [(GMT+08:00) Beijing, Chongqing, Hong Kong, Urumqi]
No peace without justice.
No pleasure without giving.
No meaning without community.
That kept repeating through my mind as I ran in almost-delirium from Stage 7 to Stage 8 yesterday, I even tried to record myself on camera, I don’t know what came of it yet. I was consumed with the thought of wars and oppression, with overwhelming empathy for those that we write-off because they are not of our stature … because they were never afforded the privilege and the opportunity … and somehow through a giant leap of faulty deduction, we believe that they didn’t try hard enough, that they deserve their lot because of their choices, not ours or the world around them.
But there are individuals and organizations that buck this trend everyday – leaders, businesspeople, social entrepreneurs, local heroes, and individuals – to bring justice to disenfranchised areas, to create communities, on the ground, to advance social cohesion and trust … in an effort to create a leveler playing field and to create opportunity that is available to the rest of us. Tomorrow’s Youth Organization does this every day through the vision of great leaders and through the passion and tenacity of some of the world’s brightest staff and volunteers, in order to affect positive grassroots change across the ME. One of their hardest mission, and one of their first, is addressing the oppression and poverty in and around the refugee camps of Nablus. Overcoming and overturning the injustice of history - first in the form of religion and tradition, and second in the form of belligerent military occupation, or State terrorism, that continues to be justified in the name of security through the proxy ownership of a veto in the UNSC – is a Herculean battle, and one easy to give up on even before starting, but TYO has taken this up bring contemporary people, ideas, and solutions to face a once intractable problem. And each day, they influence and inspire a future leader in one of their classrooms, and each week they enable and empower a woman to take ownership and lead the economic, social and political fabric of their communities, through TYO’s many programs.
While this race was an intensely selfish experience, as were my blogs that were so inwardly focused, the meaning of the race had become much bigger for me a while ago. TYO provided me with a rich narrative that associated my effort with something bigger than myself, and my family, friends and supporters enabled me and loved me to actually invest the time and effort over the last 6 months to follow through. Failure was never an option, I had commitment contracts, and if we can’t honor our commitments (implicit or explicit), then you take away just a little bit of trust, just a little bit of credibility away from the world. And these are the times when we need more trust and more credibility with one another.
The first half of the race was actually quite reasonable yesterday, I finished it in about 5.5 hours. The remainder half took over 9 hours – long, grueling, and by the end in full delirium and hysteria. Checkpoint 2 was the best surprises of the race, absolutely delightful, it made me happy. It was at the entrance of the “Valley of the Whales,” a protected historic area that has remains of old sea creatures from hundreds of millions of years ago, when this desert was ocean. The checkpoint has a little shop and clean and proper toilets. If we had money, it was fair game to buy things from the tiny store (sodas, juices, chips and biscuits), I did screech in delight. So I used a clean toilet, washed my face and head with fresh water, and bought myself some treats! 2 juice bottles, 2 bags of chips, and a pack of cookies. This was either serendipity, or the universe accumulating your wishes to create that one perfect moment, in a moment of great need. Over the course of the day the chips and the cookies came in very handy, providing an extra pep in the step whenever collapse seemed imminent.
Checkpoint 4 to 5 took everything I had left. There was an incredibly inclined and high climb on a dune right after leaving checkpoint 4, and then an enormous expanse of soft sand (the worst kind), rock, and undulating dunes that had to be covered in unbearable heat and wind that was blowing against us at maybe 25 mph. I had a moment of heat exhaustion, a minor blackout in between – actually I don’t remember how long the moment lasted, because I had kept running through the beating sun first feeling incredible pain and exhaustion, and then nothing really, just blankness - when fortunately one of the jeep’s pulled over with the Event Director in it, who forced me to sit in the jeep’s small shadow for 15 minutes, drink a bottle of water, and take electrolytes, all the while dousing me in water. Soon I felt blood in my veins again, life flowing back slowly, and then it was off to the miserable trek again.
How do you make the impossible happen, when all odds seem to be against you? I still don’t know. It just happens. At checkpoint 5, my legs were like jello, my feet horrendously swollen, my overall system seemed to be shutting down. There were still 24 miles ahead of me, every ounce of me, from the quantum particles to fully formed organs, screamed quitting – it was such an easy option. And yet, somehow, I found myself at checkpoints 6, 7 and 8 by doing a combination of fast walking and slow running, counting down the miles in my mind … 20 left, 15 left, 6 miles left! You take breaks at these stops, and they progressively get longer over the course of the day. Drink a little, eat whatever you can find, and use a combination of pain and humor to engage with the staff and any other fellow racers at the checkpoint, who are absolutely lovely and try to make you feel as good as is possible, and there ain’t much possible. It gives you about 5 minutes of wind, which is actually helpful to just get up and start the next stage. But after checkpoint 8, at about 8.30 PM, I was beginning to hallucinate. The feeling of the deepest kind of tiredness and even destitution is inexplicable. There is absolutely no fuel, there aren’t even any fumes left. And there’s still 10K to go. On the other hand, there’s only 10K left to cross the finish line, where the drums are pounding, welcoming each runner in. There isn’t much to say really, I think the scene of me walking, then speed running, then slowing down to maybe sit and just rest my head for a moment, confusing the night glow sticks (to guide you through the track) for desert animals running towards you and freaking out for moments at a time, and just the utter desperation, is perhaps best summed in one of those movie scenes where the camera follows a mad man or woman running down a dark unpaved road, arms flailing about, drool dripping about, and you just get this haunting feeling of both pity but also a little bit of fear. That was probably me. And then I saw it, I saw the finish line, and I took off my bag, and I flung it across it as I went over. And it didn’t feel incredible at all. There was no feeling of accomplishment or victory. Just an overwhelming feeling of pain, tiredness, and utterly discombobulated innards.
Today is a better day, today is a good day. There still isn’t any monumental feeling of great accomplishment. But certainly a deep appreciation for the fact that this week is over, and that the last 6 months have combined been an extremely monumental and learning period. I am sure the coming days and months will provide more opportunity for savoring this, and for reflecting with more coherence. But for now I am glad to rejoin the real world, to take on the bounty and the grit of the planet, and to reestablish some semblance of normalcy in my daily life, now that training will subside. That’s till we find out what the next adventure will be …
Thank you again for all your generosity, love and support. I didn’t do this alone, I couldn’t have done it alone. I look forward to sharing, celebrating, and figuring out what’s next with you.
p.s. I had an LOL moment when I ready my 5 year old nephew’s comment asking me if I was at a beach next to water, priceless J
05-Oct-2011 03:22:27 AM [(GMT+08:00) Beijing, Chongqing, Hong Kong, Urumqi]
Energy conservation, and focus by virtue of that, is a learned ability. Running through the stages today, this became acutely obvious. Don’t hold the pee for too long, don’t let that itch get in the way, adjust the toes now, or eat something right away. Because if you don’t, your mind tries to multi-task across a multitude of complex needs and processes, increasing the focus on the most urgent, while taking processing power away from the rest (and sometimes more important tasks). So while multi-tasking (and attention deficit by some virtue of that) is a highly sought after contemporary ability, in reality science has begun to show that prioritizing and focusing on one thing at a time produces better outcomes for whatever task at hand – this is also the ancient wisdom of the sages, from Buddha to Ron Hubbard (ok maybe not him, but I thought a Scientology reference always draws a chuckle or two).
I wish the course everyday was as leveled as today’s (we’ve had intense days of dune climbing before today – which absolutely destroys your legs), with legs as fresh as Day 1, and shoes as comfortable as goose-down … but alas that wasn’t the case. While I was optimistic about my prospects for today before I started, I quickly found out this morning that my legs were more tired than I knew, and while the course was relatively leveled (relative being the operative word) it was sandier than the organizers had made it sound. So the combination of tired legs and softer sand resulted in a much slower run. And after about noon, it becomes damn near impossible for me to get a lot of running in, the sun not only burns through your head, melting the deepest parts of your brain, but it also starts to burn through your will, one step at a time, to the point that you consciously have to force yourself to take the step after, instead of stopping in your tracks and collapsing. However, the important part, I made it through Day 4! One more day of running, albeit a hell day of 54 miles, and then it’s all over! I know I have made it this far, but I can’t compute how I can physically make it for a continuous 14-15 hour day of running, if not more, depending on the conditions, mine and the environment’s. My legs are exhausted to the point of mush, the sun drains exorbitant energy, and food reserves are at a critical low. Some of you have recommended asking competitors that are leaving for their left overs, unfortunately I think we’ve missed our window of opportunity. Nonetheless it’s the final push, and all those that have made it in the past, athletes or masochists, tell me that it just happens, that the limits of the body have not nearly been reached, that the spirit is far from being broken. Whatever moments of agony and reflection that have transpired this week will pale in comparison. But somehow through will or magic, Day 5 will be completed, however long it takes, whatever it takes. Damien has already emailed me as an angry coach, scolding me for hanging on to the pain and moments of weakness, and not believing enough in what more is possible. I will just have to experience it tomorrow, and hopefully tell you all about it on Day 6 (no blogs tomorrow), when I have crossed the finish line.
I thought about food a lot today. Between checkpoint 2 and 3, I was chasing a steak and fries (for most who know me, not a staple food for me), and between checkpoint 3 and the finish line it was pizzas (again not my general go-to food). There were hunger pangs throughout the race today, so much so, that I ate through all my reserves for Day 6 (the last day, which is a day off in the desert, before we cross the finish line of the entire race at the Pyramids of Giza on the morning of Day 7). I reasoned that was okay, my body was craving food intensely, and more food today was probably better ahead of the long march tomorrow. Who cares about Day 6, we’ll all be scattered around camp, limping, moaning, desolate. As long as there is no running, it will pass. Awaiting the finish line will be pizzas and cold cans of coke! Almost makes me want to start Day 5 now! So all in all a good decision I think. And eating while running/ walking actually consumed the time, and made things go by a little bit faster. But not fast enough, I was nowhere near the 5 hours I would have liked, it ended up being over 6 hours, more time in the sun and on my feet, but better than yesterday.
The shoe decision has actually been one of the best so far, the pain has subsided and it no longer distracts to the point of system shut down. The gators keeps most of the sand out, and the little that gets in does not affect much with two pairs of socks on (I did that this morning to create more sand protection). And it seems that others are following suit, the swelling in the feet grows day after day, so even if you have bigger shoes to begin with, they become quite fitted by Day 3, and painful by Day 4. Requires some interesting planning, how many sizes to go up, too big to start with, too small to end with?
Last night was a poor night of sleeping, the desert winds were howling, there was a sand storm that continued to beat us and drench us all night through the open tents, and at one point our tent came unhinged on one side and collapsing on us. Needless to say this was highly distracting, in addition to the usual sleeping on coarse sand or pebbles (damn you air mattress!) … my major chaffing has actually come from the sand rubbing on my back at night than from my clothing or my back pack. It’s very windy at tonight’s camp site, I hope the conditions aren’t as bad as last night. Proper rest is essential, tomorrow will be a test of every ounce of human and animal nature resident within us.
There has been growing camaraderie at the camp over the days, which is natural. People getting to know each other, supporting each other, relating to each other and bonding through the common experience. It’s an unusual club of a few masochists who can now identify with each other. Our particular tent has become very friendly, open and easy. Many laughs, great experiences from around the world, a brotherhood of sorts to get through this week, at least. In spite of the emotions that I feel on the course, and that I vehemently unleash on all of you every day (and that you graciously bear with) – a sort of catharsis, I maintain a reasonably jovial and fun nature around camp. The staff and volunteers know me and cheer for me whenever they see me (on or off the course), fellow racers are empathetic, kind and supportive and the local crew (of Egyptian workers) high-five with me every chance they get. It’s a nice welcome throughout the course of a rough day and at the end of it. But what continues to be of highest anticipation and value is your thoughts and perspectives from all around the world. Absolutely delightful, touching, moving and heartfelt at the same time. It’s the fuel recharge in an empty, broken-down car, at the end of each day, so that it can chug along – black smoke and all – the next day … the final day!
No one around here has seen themselves in a mirror since Saturday, that gorgeous invention for the vanity of mankind, so we are mirrors for each other. Certainly the level of vanity shrinks, what people are comfortable with showing or sharing increases over the days, and our only cue to any major personal disaster is when another mentions it. Otherwise, we have no fucking idea how completely shite we look, or how badly we’ve actually fucked ourselves up. I actually don’t think that I have lost any or much weight, but I am not sure what physical cues to look for, I think I was already a the diminishing returns point. Others I can visibly tell have lost a good amount of weight, their faces shrunk in, their backs hunched, the spark in their step gone for now. But all of this, the suffering, the experience, the discovery, the charity, the community … will culminate in an accomplishment that we have all shared, and one that we can reflect back on in moments of introspection and in moments of folly, and that’s a rich moment of reflection.
A long day tomorrow, but looking forward to your comments and notes throughout tomorrow. I will be in touch on Day 6. Yallah, let’s do this!
p.s. there should be lots of pictures and videos of the event and competitors on the race website that you should check out (I’m in a bright yellow jersey!)
04-Oct-2011 01:54:29 AM [(GMT+08:00) Beijing, Chongqing, Hong Kong, Urumqi]
Just when you think you've learnt the toughest lesson and are prepared for the ugliest harshness of life, life knocks you down again. So what do you do, stay down, or pick yourself up, through the sheer electrical pulses left in your brain, like starting a 40 year old car that hasn't been touched in decades? Today was indescribably brutal, the sun pulsating right through your body like x-rays burning each of your organs individually and then together, moments after moments of hysteria. The course was the toughest so far, the day the hottest. I saw my spirit being broken down to pieces right in front of me, in a moment of complete defeat I almost decided to quit.
Chance favors the prepared mind, and I agree. I now know that planners and organizers have a natural advantage over those of my kind, if they so chose to. I focused on the intense training, as much as possible the heat, and of course the grueling weight on my back. All the rest I left to the last minute and chance, and what I did get done was because of the proactive help of some friends and the deeply caring paternalism of others ... but I always thought "those things will sort themselves out, I've done the hard bit." It's also a lesson of life that most of the times you just have to do things to learn, otherwise it's too academic. I got unbelievably priceless counsel and wisdom from my friends Damien (I still don't hate you, in spite of all the suffering) and Ryan on matters big and small (as accomplished 4 Desert racers). What to pack, how to pack, how to rest, how not to rest and various other useful advice. But their perspectives were different, they had different points of views based on their own experience and needs. I tried to use as much as I could, while including the calculus of my own idiosyncrasies. And what I ended up with, was, well, not good enough. But I know now. I should have erred on the side of more food, not less, I should have brought the air mattress (I know Ryan, you said it) that I dumped last minute at the Cairo hotel, I should have left the book (what the fuck was I thinking?!) behind, I should have organized things for each day, but most importantly I should have trained in these damn shoes more before I came here.
I was at the verge of collapse at the second checkpoint today, mentally I came very close to leaving. The intensity and the magnitude of pain that I felt forced tears, not emotional tears, just tears out of sheer physical distress and breakdown. My feet had swollen into balloons in the reflecting glass of heat they call sand around here, and my shoes were breaking down each toe, then each toe nail step after step after step. A fellow racer pumped some energy into me with a few kind words, so I continued drudging to the next checkpoint, about 13 miles in, where I could take it no longer. What would survival demand of me?
Yesterday one of my tent mates collapsed at a checkpoint, fainted. Heat exhaustion and dehydration. But he was well enough again to have finished strong. Others have been dropping out, some after the first night, several yesterday, some this morning, and others throughout the course today. For the rest of us, we are half done! 3 more marathons in two days ... done in two days! I imagine gorging in buffets of top chef cooking for days, lying on a soft bed with the temperature down to freezing, having a shower, or a fresh pair of clothes, or how about a cold fruit smoothie - gosh that has to be better than the myth of virgins in heaven. In between the running and (mostly walking) today, I had a nice moment of reflection with my roommate from Cairo, pondering the vastness of space and time as we trekked through 120 degree heat amidst a vast panorama of space and time ... the bottom of an ancient ocean, the topography of many different lands in one place and one sighting, and just the magnificent infiniteness of it all. Oh the hubris of humans, do we really intend to compete with this historic force, or should we rather collaborate with it, even be subservient to its enormity and complexity?
Checkpoint 3 was a crucial decision moment, to cut the top of my shoes off or not ... these were the choices I had. Can I bear the unbearable pain of my toes hemorrhaging (which they are, blood blisters are abundant) or should I risk a lot of sand blisters over the next few days? The pain had made me cry, I couldn't run, less walk properly, so out came the Swiss knife and off came the tops of both shoes! Raw survival, adapting to the situation at hand, although unnecessary to begin with, obviously. And that was that, it was like new life had been breathed into me. I lost nearly 2 hours at checkpoints today, mostly to saw off my shoes, pop several blisters and bandage them, and some for heat recovery. It was my longest day on the course, back-breaking, utterly grueling for mind, body and soul. But I finally made it back, finishing 27th in a progressively worsening race stat book. The 13 miles after I made the shoe adjustment felt a lot more closer to the running I am used to, although by that time the temperatures had hit their highest and then it almost becomes like a tightrope walking exercise - keep moving at a reasonable pace, avoid heat stroke, conserve your limited reserves of water (about 1.5 liters) that you only get to refill ever 6.5 miles or so. I have "gators" on my shoes that prevent sand from coming into the shoes, although they are not highly reliable. Nonetheless the friction of the sand under your feet, eventually blistering parts of the bottom, is a blessing compared to the agony that I had suffered over the last few days. Only if I had the right shoes, I could have been off my feet earlier everyday, only if I had been organized and prepared enough, I could haven enjoyed the experience more.
I feel a bit more hopeful about tomorrow. The doctors have drilled holes into my nails to drain the blood, so hopefully some of the pain subsides. That combined with open shoes that don't pressure my feet as much anymore, could make for a decent day of running so that I am out of the sun sooner rather than later, I definitely cannot tolerate another long day in the heat like today. On the other hand, I could be fooling myself, may the sand blisters that are meant to be tomorrow could be just as violent and torturous as the tops of my shoes. But I like the more optimistic thought, I want to finish in 5 hours or less tomorrow. Ain't that a pipe dream.
I made it through the last few miles of heat and delirium thinking through your kind comments and notes, and anticipating, even smiling at what awaited me. And it was an absolute joy and delight. It breathes new life every afternoon. Thank you for the generosity.
I am off to go wipe myself with anti-bacterial, 3+ days of no showers, no water cleansing, and the same clothes. All orifices smell about the same at this point. This is as raw as it gets I suppose - I never had imagined that I could put up with hygiene of such low quality or none at all, and yet here we are still grinding through it. Also looking forward to the rapidly declining ration of freeze-dried meals aka dinner. Beef jerky never tasted this good, Cliff bars never tasted this disgusting. 2 more days of running, please make me finish, you've been running this with me all along.
03-Oct-2011 03:17:24 AM [(GMT+08:00) Beijing, Chongqing, Hong Kong, Urumqi]
I got 11 hours of sleep last night, passed out in the cramped tent at 6 PM and woke up with someone's foot on my face at 5 AM -- well 11 hours of sleep on sand and rock, but it did help with some recovery. So lesson #1, there are easier ways to raise money for people and organizations that you love and support :) Lesson #2, it's hardly ever about competing with others, it's usually competing with oneself. I thought about this a lot today, and reflecting on things, I am pretty confident that I usually don't compete on the big things in life with others, it's almost always an obsession with avoiding failure, or failing and learning from it immediately (feedback loops), or doing things better than the last time because you know you have more of whatever it is, in you.
Day 2 was even more brutal that Day 1, I am not sure how long I can keep up. Tomorrow is the toughest course, although Day 5 is the 54 miler. They say if you can make it past Day 3, then you're in it to finish it. It was hotter on a longer course today. Apparently this race is one of the toughest of the 4 deserts, according to winners from Gobi and Aticama who are competing here. In fact my American tent mate who finished first yesterday, fell behind because of heat and dehydration, he's still in the Med Tent recovering. This is purely masochistic, and the Course Director (who curates the course) is a fucking sadist. Just when you think you're at the home stretch, he throws you this 60 degree incline, uphill in soft sand, that goes on forever ... absolutely brutal, back-breaking (literally with the pack that doesn't seem to get lighter), and almost crushes the very will of man.
I was fresh enough this morning and ran the first half, passed in the top 5 at the first check point, and top 10 at the second ... then experienced the mental and physical decline at almost the same time as yesterday. The goal is to get back to camp as soon as possible, to avoid staying on your feet for too long, to beat the sweltering sun after 11 AM ... and to eat! That shitty camp food is starting to taste so good, I almost licked another guy's fingers because I could see some left over curry on them ... and my food reserves seem to be declining rapidly. I had made a series of tradeoffs packing my back pack both in New York and in Cairo, and each time I took out more food to make the bag lighter. At the current rate, I might be out of food by the middle of Day 5, if I make it that far. If I do, I'm sure my body will figure it out, and maybe a little bit of will power between now and then will help me ease the intake.
We are probably consuming a third to a half of the calories that we burn throughout the day. 7 miles into today, after check point 1, I had intense hunger pangs, so I ended up eating all my gel ration for the day right at the start ... I think it might have helped getting me to the second check point. And so the drudgery began after the second check point, insane heat, rough sandy terrain, the end nowhere in sight. Add to that the increasing pain of shoes half a size too small because of intense heat swelling, I think I might have to cut the fronts off at the risk of sand blisters, but it seems like it might be worth it given the pain my toes are in. In fact, I am pretty sure that I would be running a lot more if it wasn't for the pain at the front of my feet ... I'm having to run/ walk at awkward angles to lessen the force at the front of the shoe. If one thing breaks me first, it might be this, and I feel like such an asshole for not going another half a size up.
I did observe and sometimes enjoy the stunning scenery that pops up in the middle of desert monotony. There is a beautiful Monastery, for example, in the middle of what I suspect is nowhere, there isn't any life here besides snakes and scorpions, that is still inhabited by a number of Monks. I am sure I would find God too if I sat under a tree for 9 years, or spent my life in an isolated Monastery in the middle of a desert with no civilization around. But mostly it was constantly overcoming the pain, and the intermittent and then more frequent feeling of defeat. There are moments of utter collapse, the intensity of the heat, the painful feet, the disgusting feeling of "fullness" from buckets of water, water that leaves you body before you've even finish drinking it, and it's so easy to give up then, or to lie down in the middle of open desert and go to sleep. And while I have made it through those moments so far, I am not sure how much more will I got left, we'll see. I either cut my shoes of, or saw my toes off, something's gotta give.
I finished 21st, not because I got better, but because we all got worse. The half hour after the finish line was misery of all sorts. But after a bag of "dijon chicken," I got a little bit of life back. Clothes are disgusting, salt stains everywhere, I've been cleaning my armpits and privates with anti-bacterial, I have sand in my teeth, ears, ass crack and any other crevice you can imagine. The energy around the camp is low, super athletes are throwing up, others are faced with new heights of pain and exhaustion. And with calorie rationing, many will come out emaciated, I don't want to buy a new fucking wardrobe, I've been on a buying spree all year, but I think I reached the point of diminishing returns a while ago so hopefully I won't lose the 8 or 10 pounds expected, in fact I know I won't, pretty please don't let that happen!
Your comments were the best part of my day, I especially like Mark's offer to sneak me into Jordan and drive me to the finish line, or Rabih's offer to package Kathy along with me so she can continue to organize my life here. Lesson #3, one's community is the richest, most delicious part of life. While this is an intensely selfish (and fucking painful ... seriously, it's hard to imagine worse forms of torture, in fact I was joking with a fellow racer that the Race Director was most likely trained under the tutelage of Dick Cheney <oh shit that's anti red-state bashing, someone call those red-state intellects Perry and Bachman!>), it's given me even more appreciation of and gratitude towards the people in my life and how they carry me through each stage of life with so much love and care, with so much patience for the primate in me, and with an infinite range of complementary roles and skills and capabilities, without which I probably wouldn't even be able to get out of bed every morning. So thank you so much for your support, your words of encouragement, your humor ... and just your sheer love and energy.
02-Oct-2011 02:05:03 AM [(GMT+08:00) Beijing, Chongqing, Hong Kong, Urumqi]
Day 1 of the race was a total breeze. Beautiful desert views, what once was the bottom of an ocean, cool breeze, awesome competitors, delicious food, cold water … just what I had trained for. Or not.
Actually Day 1 was the complete opposite of that, and worse than any expectations I had … and we still have 5 more to go. I didn’t really have dinner last night, I tried one of those crap freeze dried meals but failed with them. People started waking up at 5 AM this morning, it’s still dark at that time. Everyone is roaming about getting ready with their night lights on their heads, a pretty cool scene. Also slightly unnatural. Breakfast comprised of a Cliff protein bar, and at 7 AM we were off to the races. It started out nicely, the temperature was cooler maybe around 80 degrees, legs were fresh enough, and there was just the general excitement of the group. Running in sand is exponentially harder than I had envisaged, it consumes a lot more energy at least for me. Each day is broken up into 4 stages with checkpoints for water refills. I ran the first 13 miles well enough, crossed the first two check points in the top ten, whatever that means, and then I hit a wall. The heat had risen to 115 degrees, quite cool for this hood, my legs were turning into mush from running on sand and my hands and feet had grown almost twice in size from swelling. Which means I should have bought that pair of 11.5 instead of 11, fuck! This only means bad things for my feet over the next week, they will most likely be shredded, never mind the pain. At some point I just didn’t have a handle on anything, the blistering sun, the unbearable heat, the hot water in the camelback, the disgusting salt pills and electrolytes … added up to a feeling of utter misery. I was just sort of roaming, a body without a functional mind. It felt like the point of no return, and it’s only Day 1! Anyway, you push yourself through the miserable agony and make it through. I finished 5 hours later, finishing 24th (of ~150 people). The two guys that came in 1st finished in 3.10. Believe me I am not competing, I just had a slight leg up from the first two stages, I was a total wreck in the last two. The first 4 or 5 guys finished in less than 4 hours, the next 20 between 4 and 5 hours, mostly over 4.30, one girl included. Things will be very different in the days ahead, I just need to finish, by any means necessary.
Back at camp, the sand is boiling, two hours later things are returning back to “normal.” I had a delicious freeze-dried meal, they start to taste better when your stomach is eating you from the inside out. But will have to make do with the same pair of shorts and shirt for the week, like everyone else. It smells fresh. On top of that farts are flying around tents, the aftermath of gels and warm water. The natural toilets dug into the sand are festering. It’s going to be a great week of hygiene.
I don’t know how I am, how many of us are going to make it through the next 5 days, but I am sure that sheer force of will, stubbornness, and the channeled thoughts and energy of family and friends will make miracles happen. Tomorrow already looks onerous, the thought of it is debilitating. And it all leads into the great march on Day 5, when we run 54 miles or two marathons in a single day in the same or in fact worse conditions … heat stroking ourselves in a full day of angry sun and torturous heat. But at the end of it awaits a finishing medal - a personal badge of honor, delicious food, and a beautiful hotel. It’s going to feel so good, it’s going to make it all worth it … well it will then, but it’s all too abstract right now.
The people here are interesting. National, or rather I should say, language barriers exist. Given the top 3 countries represented here, you can imagine that there is a little bit of a segmentation. My tent “randomly” happens to have 5 American boys. But they’re all good fun, young, successful, sporting machines (one of the guys that came in 1st is an American in my tent … 3.10, are you fucking kidding me, it’s impossible, seriously trust me, I can’t figure out how one does that in this swelter). Good banter, lots of comic relief, definitely a cultural affinity. But none of it really gets you distracted enough from the ordeal ahead. I think I burnt my prefrontal cortex today, now all I have left is my animal instinct, let’s see if I am animal enough, I’ve been in the air-conditioned West for too long, my adaptation skills are a bit outdated. But for now I will take it one day at a time, otherwise it gets too overwhelming. Maybe it will hail tomorrow, which is known to happen here too … pelt me with screaming ice over this monstrous sun! 6 months of training prepared me for nothing, you can only train for this by doing this … so let the training begin!
01-Oct-2011 02:37:38 AM [(GMT+08:00) Beijing, Chongqing, Hong Kong, Urumqi]
Murphy's law applies everywhere, even here in the desert.
9.15 AM, UK time, I'm off the plane with 45 mins to the connection to Cairo. A Continental 'rain delay.' 2 terminals away, I secure my bag and run about 2 miles to barely make it to my flight. Made it. Can't touch this. Training has paid off so far.
Cairo hits you like a swarm of bees. Hussle, bussle, cacophony. Sporadic skylines, dense pockets of thousands of neighborhoods, an ultra hospitable local crowd. The Dusit hotel is a beautiful, modern hotel with all the luxuries and ameneties of a 5 star. Nice start, don't let it fool ya. Rooms are shared with random racers, fellow commrades for the next week. Mine is a 21 year old American ... sophomore at Dartmouth, parents both Stanford alums. What courage! My mother was still driving me around at that age, god dammit. He's run several 'ultras' before, 'you get addicted to them,'. he politely tells me. As I find out many of my new friends are superb athletes, scaling moutains like Everest, running 10,000 KM across the silk route, or completing 40 marathons in 40 months. WTF?!
But absolutely wonderful people. Top 4 nationalities: South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Canada. Undoubtedly they all play their stereotypical roles. Lots of electronics, lots of cameras, lots of high tech clothing, and extreme politeness. The 7 hour time difference precludes any real sleep on Friday night. Saturday morning is the briefing accompanied by equipment check and medical check. Beware of snakes and scorpions. Disease spreads like wild fire. Heat and dehydration may kill you. The docs are Nazis ... you only get attention if you're on your death bed. Oh and have a great run! I'm missing mandatory equipment of course, the spot-on organizer that I am. A bit of panic and a bit of pity get me what I need and I avoid yet another miss.
No anxiety still, we're on the bus driving 3.5 hours to the middle of the desert. This is going to be alright. I feel the brotherhood and the sisterhood of the traveling compression shorts. We arrive at Camp 1 at the South Lake. Breathtakingly gorgeous, I mean stunning water and desert views. You gasp a little. Then you walk to your assigned tent with 9 other people ... 10 to a tent of about 20x20, I think. They're all athletes, I'm fucked. But I get a lot of great tips from the veterans. Locals play some live music, while we enjoy fresh watermelon and bananas, the last of real food. Dinner is the stuff we're carrying, freeze dried goat shit.
Panic time. I have lost my 'passport' the little race bible that has all my stamps and checks for the race organizers to continually validate various milestones. With it is also gone my time card, an electronic device that is used to clock in and clock out, at the beginning and at the end of the race. The staff are annoyed I know, they will tend to it in the morning. I don't think I will be diqualified (this is a serious offense around here), but I will get penalties I am told, that is time will be shaved off my actual performance (big deal, can a brutha just make it back home?).
God dammit. Why can't I get anything right, these details are my Achilles heel. Fortunately I don't panic violently or for prolongued periods, this too shall pass. But so much for the calm before the storm.
So we wake up at 5 AM and start running at 7 AM. Slightly anxious now, but mostly curious, even looking forward to it. It's going to be one of those experiences when life tastes extra good in between the moments of agony. The views are going to be magnificent, the community is going to support each other ... showcasing human diversity and common humanity, the long periods of reflection and introspection will hopefully create new insight and cleanse parts that should no longer exist ... baggage must be gone. Most importantly, this intensely selfish experience will aim to raise awareness for an incredible cause run by amazing people who are changing lives on the ground everyday. To my friends at TYO, you have given this experience a meaning beyond itself.
Thanks again to family, friends and supporters for the incredible generosity, attention and care over the past months. Hopefully I will have stories more interesting than losing and borrowing things, the bandaid life that I normally live. One last thing, it sucks not having Google, I have so many disjointed thoughts that could have been made more precise if I had access to my brain ... fortunately for you, you are spared all the random neuron fires. Good night on Saturday night, about 11 hours before the race starts. See you all soon ... more tomorrow.