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STAGE 5 UPDATE 1715hrs 30-OCT-2009

Imagine being asked to walk almost 90km after you’d already done four marathons. This was the task that faced competitors emerging from their tents in Camp 5 yesterday, but they seemed universally delighted to be embarking on such an arduous challenge.

The long stage of a 4 Deserts event is one of the most remarkable elements of this acclaimed series. The monster distances come at a time when you’d guess most people would be on their knees and unable to think about brushing their teeth, never mind walk for anything up to 19 hours. Yet these epic, emotional journeys are looked upon by competitors as the icing on the cake. Nail the long stage and few things in life will be insurmountable.


For Stage 5, the Black Desert March, it was to be a staggered start. The majority of competitors headed out at 0600hrs, with the top 15 athletes chasing them off the back of a 0900hrs launch. That way, everyone would get to mix it up out on the course and feel what it’s like to have Paolo Barghini or Christian Schiester breathing down your neck. And, for those people used to being out in front all the time, it was an opportunity to race beside all the friends made since we began this 250km odyssey on Sunday.


The main group of competitors benefited from the coolness of the early morning and quickly settled into their various rhythms. Ahead lay a total of nine checkpoints, stretched out along a course that would take in the golden sands and volcanic rocks of the Black Desert. The terrain was billed as a mixture of moderate and difficult, but the real challenge would be the stage length – 87.6km (54.31 miles). Estimates for completion in the official Sahara Race 2009 course book varied from just under ten hours for the fastest runners, to almost 19 for the slower competitors.


The real gem in the route though was the village of El Ris, site of Checkpoint 4. Here competitors would have the chance to meet some of the people who live around these parts and share the tea kindly promised to all. RacingThePlanet always builds this cultural element into its events and it’s one of the most enjoyable aspects for competitors. The organization also planned to use the stop off at El Ris to supply local school children with much-needed educational materials.


Good judgement is essential with the long stage, particularly if you’ve never done anything like this before. Steady as she goes is best. With the weather and terrain helping progress, the initial sections of the stage seemed to go past pretty quickly for those watching from the sidelines. Hidechika Kabasawa of Japan, one of the 0600hrs starters, was first to reach CP2.  Team Trifecta got there pretty quickly too, staying ahead of rivals Mixed Bag and Good Sport. That was to be the order of the day as far as the team event went.  Lara Rintoul of Canada joked about how there was “nothing new” going as she reached the checkpoint. “I’m still walking through the desert,” she said. But Saturday! Then there will be something new!”


The top 15 who had started at 0900hrs hit CP1 super quick as expected, with Guy Evans of the UK enjoying being out in front. Tobias Frenz of Germany was second at this point, with Christian Schiester of Austria third. Briton Luke Carmichael, who’d started this event as part of Team CHASEUK, was also looking very strong now he was solo.


George Chmiel of the USA, who came through in ninth, was as amped as ever. “I have three goals today,” he told staff at the CP. “To be the first American, to be in the top ten and to win my age group, yeah!” And with that, off he tore.


By early afternoon the usual pattern with the leaders was emerging. Paolo Barghini of Italy had got himself back in front and was being chased by Tobias Frenz, Christian Schiester and Luis Marcos Silvestre of Spain. Early race leader Mehmet Danis of Canada was now right out of the picture having suffered from stomach problems earlier in the week. Gutsy as ever, he was showing his usual commitment by going as hard as he was physically able, but it wouldn’t be enough to impact on the final placings.


In the women’s event, Erica Terblanche of South Africa was moving well out in front, but would later start suffering from an old injury that had so far held up for her. Venetia Price of the UK looked confident and strong for much of the day, with Christina Dotson of Bermuda and Teresa Lam of Hong Kong typically consistent.


Fast forward to CP4 in the village of El Ris where the atmosphere was really something to behold. Competitors stopped to enjoy the tea kindly offered by local people and share a laugh with the village children. Although there was still an awful long way to go, spirits were lifted enormously at this very special CP. Australia’s Peter Bocquet took the opportunity to pass on a happy anniversary message to his wife, while Liz Tice of the USA joked with medical staff about the state of her feet. “The real question is,” she asked them “how long after the race until I’m going to be able to have a French pedicure?” Further delights were on offer at CP5 where some competitors enjoyed a rare dip in an oasis pool.


Out on the course Kenneth “Tintin” Johansson of Sweden and Paul Harrison of the UK were taking it slow and steady. Problems with Tintin’s feet had meant he was unable to get any proper sleep before starting, always a worry out here. With Paul at his side and painkillers to ease his discomfort though he was still smiling and utterly determined to finish. 


The biggest shock of the day was seeing an apparently ill Tobias Frenz falling off the lead group, unable to maintain his usual strong pace. Losing Tobias seemed to give Paolo Barghini an extra gear and he started to stretch out a lead that Christian Schiester and Luis Marcos Silvestre just couldn’t shorten for the rest of the stage. 


On and on they went. As darkness fell, the eerie light of the course marker glow sticks would become a lifeline for those out on the course at night. Some competitors chose to stop off at CP6 for a rest and refuel before heading out again for the finish at dawn.


Christian Zagal of Denmark, who had started at 0600hrs, was first into camp. He was too exhausted to give any reaction on this impressive achievement and headed off to bed.


The relentless Paolo Barghini stormed in with a sub ten hour finish, looking like he could do it all again. Speaking on the finish line, he said: “I'm just very happy to win the stage for myself, my family and my sponsors. I really wanted to win the long stage and it was a fantastic day. I could run the whole day. The terrain suited me very well, and there were so many different landscapes.  For me, the thing that will stay in my mind for a long time is the sun setting in the Black Desert, with the sky on fire.”


Luis Marcos Silvestre of Spain came in second with a time of 10:21:24, with Christian Schiester less than 20 minutes behind. Both guys had given it their all, but it wasn’t enough to catch Paolo.


All through the night people arrived in camp, weary but ecstatic about what they had achieved. Pete Sexton and Anthony Brown of the UK finished the stage together, cheered in by Gary Hearns of Ireland. Gary had turned up at the finish line at almost exactly the right time to see his friends over, claiming he could set his watch by their pace.


Venetia Price who, along with Tobias Frenz, had helped encourage an in-pain Erica Terblanche on towards the finish, said: “I can’t quite wrap my head around that stage, walking nearly 90km. I thought I was going to enjoy the last five miles, but I actually loathed every minute of it.”


Erica, suffering from a flare-up of a knee injury, was elated to be finished, her lead in the women’s competition absolutely unassailable. Venetia, who had moved well the entire day, was second woman home, with Christina Dotson third.


The guys in Team Trifecta achieved what they set out to do – complete the 4 Deserts series and have fun while doing it. They were first team in last night, with Mixed Bag in second and Good Sport third.


Susan Holliday of the UK had clearly saved the best for last.  Becoming quicker and stronger in each stage, she somehow had enough energy left last night to bang the finish line drums for the next competitor in.


On arrival at camp, Kenneth Tintin Johansson went straight to the medical tent to get his horrendous blisters seen to. “My feet are bleeding,” he said, wincing. “I couldn’t stop. I had to keep going.”


Saurabh Singh of the USA, undertaking his first ever 4 Deserts event, couldn’t believe it was all over. “It was an amazing stage,” he said. “The landscape was so different from check point to check point. I had a good rest at CP6 for about three hours and then got going around 2am.  The sunrise coming up in the Black Desert was amazing.  I was aiming to be in camp on the hill to see it, but I missed being there by just 30mins.”


The ever inspirational Jennifer Murray - the oldest female to have completed a RacingThePlanet event – also rested at CP6 last night. She’s tackled the Sahara Race 2009 with her daughter Christy Powell, who was a surprise last minute addition to the start list.


“It’s just fantastic that Christy was here to do this with me,” she said. “It was, in all honesty, the best surprise of my life and that’s saying something as I’m in my 70th year.  My body is reacting to the exertion and I’ve been eating very little the past couple of days. I’ve been planning exactly what I want when I get home though.  I’m really looking forward to a Full English breakfast!


“It’s been physically exhausting,” she added. “I think one more day and I couldn’t have made it. But I’ve done it now and I never will again! I think that my next challenge may be something like growing a prize rose."


Pete Bocquet of Australia, who completes the 4 Deserts series with this event, came in at 08:32hrs.  At CP4 he had picked up Alex Baer of the Netherlands who was about to pull out of the stage, walking with him to the finish.   


Dee Vadukul of the UK, a member of Team No Line in the Sand, was overjoyed to have reached the finish. "I'm so happy I made it,” she said. “I'm so happy about what we achieved - in fact I'm really proud of what all the competitors have achieved here.


"I really want to go home, but I used that as my spur to go on.  When we packed before we came away we had people over to the house, and it's in a bit of a mess. So I kept thinking about how much I wanted to go home and tidy up!  Isn't that ridiculous?"


Last competitor to cross the line today was Anita Bracey of the UK, just beating the 1500hrs stage cut-off time. Although she has not managed to complete all of the stages, Anita has displayed enormous spirit and should be particularly proud of herself for finishing the long march. She was greeted with rousing applause and received many hugs.


Reflecting on the stage’s hugely varied terrain, RacingThePlanet’s Mary Gadams said: “I think that yesterday's course was filled with raw beauty. We started out with a relatively gentle, almost mindless moonscape, then after dropping off the plateau competitors experienced some civilisation in El Ris village. We then took the competitors through the oasis and some very soft dunes, before presenting them with the relief of a spring where they could take a dip.  


“The next phase began with some gently rolling hills before entering the Martian landscape of the Black Desert, filled with ancient volcanoes, sand and volcanic rock.  Many competitors passed through this eerie landscape in the evening and enjoyed a spectacular sunset. Finally, we brought them into the sand dunes again. The camp’s perched up on a huge dune above the valley, so that when people awoke this morning, they were greeted by a huge vista of the Black Desert.”


Summing up the long stage, Gadams added: “No one could ever say that the worst part was over!”


Special permission has been arranged for competitors to run through the Pyramids of Giza to the formal finish line tomorrow. Competitors will leave for Giza early in the morning, travelling for four hours by 4x4 and bus to get there. Awaiting them at the finish line will be pizza and cold drinks and, of course, those Sahara Race 2009 medals.


Until then, it’s time to relax a little and enjoy a final night under the stars in this jaw-dropping landscape.



Note:  For any media inquiries, please contact Samantha Healey at shealey@racingtheplanet.com.  


Sahara Race competitors will use Intel Classmate laptops to connect to the outside world.
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