Marathon des Sables 2006

April 2006. Erg el Chebbi, Morocco

High winds have been blowing since the beginning of the race, turning the whole event into one continuous sandstorm. It also means that we are being air-dried like heads in a hair salon, dehydrating faster than we realize. The situation is made even worse by the high humidity levels. The effects on participants is devastating: four days into the race and already over 100 runners have quit. More than three times the usual rate, and twice as much as the previous high record. Everyone appears so exhausted that the overwhelmed organization has decided to shorten the “long stage” on day 4.
Night has fallen and Cyril and I are stuck at an aid station with about ten miles to go to reach the finish line of long stage.
Cyril is running a fever, about 101°F. He says he doesn’t feel to bad, apart from a case of stomach cramps and diarrhea that has him popping Imodium like Pez candy, but the doctor won’t let him move until the fever edges down to a normal temperature. Cyril tries telling her that his normal body temperature is higher than most, but she won’t hear of it.

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It’s a large check point with several Berber tents providing runners with cover from the wind and sand.
I cook us a meal of freeze-dried wild rice, mushrooms and chicken. Then two cups of beef broth. Ah, broth… feeds the body with salt and the soul with a homegrown feeling of warmth. When I close my eyes and take a sip of broth at such a stage in a crazy race, I am transported back to winter holidays in the mountains, my father playing Acker Bill and his saxophone on the tape player, my mother serving hot chocolate and laying out the Monopoly board… Happy memories that have nothing to do with broth.
Despite his predicament, Cyril has a smile on his face—he’s enjoying the moment, enjoying the crazy and unique experience that is the Marathon des Sables. Yesterday he told me that he’d never expected such a grueling trial. I’d tried to prepare him but even I’d forgotten what it made it so uniquely tough—sleeping on slim mattresses in open-air tents with seven other competitors and surviving on a wildly insufficient daily caloric intake, not to mention constant sand storms, high heat, and mighty dunes...
But there’s the gleam of semi-insanity in his eyes. He’s thrilled with the notion of being here.
Finally his temperature drops sufficiently for the doctor to allow us to leave the aid station.  We head off into the night at a decent jogging pace, turning off our headlamps to fully appreciate the bright light of the moon and stars. He starts yammering away about something. I now have a smile pasted on my face.
I wouldn’t have made this far in the race without him, that’s for damn sure.



It was my turn yesterday to be sick. But unlike Cyril, I was a monster to be with—I don’t know how he stood my despairing, dispirited company. Actually, I was like that to varying degrees for the first three days of the race. Only today do I have any real desire to finish that goes beyond the sense of duty I feel towards those who will be contributing to the Geneva League Against Cancer. Or Cyril, who simply buries the slightest thought of quitting as soon as I evoke it, which I do obliquely:
“I have a book in the Land Rover. I left it with Thibaut so I can read it on rest day.” Thibaut is one of my closest friends. He also happens to be a documentary filmmaker. He’s filming us sporadically, accompanied by a sound engineer, and presumably interviewing Klara for our film on cancer. The three of them are following us in a Land Rover that the organization has put at their disposal.
“What are you saying?” asks Cyril.
“Oh, just that I keep reminding myself that we’re running to raise money for cancer research, otherwise I’d really look forward to throwing in the towel and reading my book.”
We were resting (at my request) under the spotty shade of a low-hanging acacia tree.
Cyril feigns a kick in my direction. “Don’t even think about it. No way am I finishing this thing alone. Come on, time to get up!”

It all started the day before the race, when we have to hand in our personal belongings, have our race bags checked for all the necessary equipment and food, and have our medical statement and electrocardiogram checked.
In my case, the doctor frowned when he saw my ECG printout. “Strange… And your doctor signed you off for the race?” he asked. I nodded. “Is something wrong?” The doctor shakes his head and hands back the printout. “I guess it’s ok…”
Guess?!? I was unable not to imagine that something was wrong with my heart. 
Especially for me, considering my druggie past associated with hypochondriac tendencies.
So faced with a doctor’s skepticism about the state of my heart, I suddenly feared that I would drop dead during the race came roaring. 
Then there were the high heat and high winds on the first three days of the race. Having learned from my previous two participations, I’d added to my daily nutrition about five half-gram sodium tablets provided by the organization. Evidently they were not enough. On the third day I started to feel nauseous. I collapsed in the early afternoon at one of the checkpoints, exhausted and unable even to drink water without dry-heaving.
I was told that I was dehydrated—though not to the same extent as in 2001 when I required an IV—and was given some anti-nausea tablets, and told to wait a few hours at the aid station until the pills took effect and I could start drinking again. I was also told to up my sodium intake to 15-20 tablets per day.
I told Cyril about my heart. He told me I was being my usual hypochondriac self and that I wouldn’t be allowed to race if there was a serious problem. I saw his point and managed in this way to suppress my doubts enough. But there is nothing more pernicious and capable of sapping your mental strength in a race like the Marathon des Sables than doubts on your physical well-being. Especially when those thoughts immediately focused on the possibility that I could drop dead and deprive my extraordinary three-month old baby of her father.
It took a few hours for the nausea to pass and then for me to rehydrate. But by evening, thanks to massive moral propping by Cyril, I was positively radiant. On an ultra trail, when you’ve been feeling like crap and suddenly take a turn for the better, the sensation is one of such relief that it results in a massive second wind.
Which is what Cyril feels on the fourth day when we head into the night to finish the 58-kilometer stage in just under 15 hours. For my part, I no longer fear orphaning my daughter; I feel that perhaps in some way I will make her proud.
I do wonder, however, if all this is necessary.

Semi-sheltered from the sandstorm in the Berber tent, trying to read a John Grisham novel
It's rest day and I'm trying to read. The lines blur, my eyes cross, my mind is incapable of understanding the slightest sentence. I’ve been rereading the same page for five minutes—and this is a John Grisham novel. Reads like Joyce. I don’t feel this exhausted when I walk around the camp, I feel actually quite buoyant - but my mind is a mental marshmallow.
Still, the long stage is over, we’ll get through the marathon stage tomorrow, and then it’s pretty much a ten-mile victory lap to the finish on Day seven. I’ve done it for the third time. Cyril has also made it. But I can’t shake the unease.
I put the book down and head to the medical tent. After waiting in line for ten minutes, I’m ushered in by a friendly doctor, who leads me past two rows of patients lining the sides of the elongated rectangular tent like victims of a natural disaster. Most of them have had, or are having their feet fixed—blisters popped, disinfected with red eosine that makes the feet look even worse than they are, and then taped. They all wear blue lightweight slippers to keep them clean.
I tell the doctor I’m feeling feverish, which isn’t far from the truth. She checks my vitals and diagnoses nothing more than race fatigue. But I’m enjoying the relative calm of the medical tent (I can almost hear some Buddha Bar music playing in the background, but it’s just my imagination), not to mention being pampered, so I decide to deal with my anxiety once and for all. I tell what happened with my ECG readout just before the race.
She smiles and goes to look for my file. While she’s gone, a young blond haired woman in her late twenties enters the tent. She’s just here for information, she says. She’s Finnish and didn’t understand exactly what happened to her yesterday. She collapsed in the middle of the stage (I see the yellow bracelet on her wrist indicating that she’s had to withdraw from the race) and was told she’d had a stroke. But surely it was heatstroke? No, says one of the doctors present who had been present when they’d medivaced back to basecamp—definitely a stroke. Minor, for sure; heat-induced, of course; but she’ll have to take it easy for a long while and definitely see her general practitioner when she returns to Finland.
I await my tending doctor with baited breath.
When she returns, I notice a Doctors Without Borders badge on her jacket—there are quite a few of them here—and I know I’m in good hands. She’s seen much worse, undoubtedly, but she’ll give it to me straight.
She still has a smile on her face, so I guess that’s good news. She pulls out the ECG and says it’s perfectly normal. Something to do with something in my heart (valve, aorta?) expanding or shifting due to endurance running. Apparently it’s a common occurrence, and a way for the body to adapt and pump blood through the body more effectively.
I slip off the gurney a different man. The last two days will be a real joy.

I return to my tent and am treated to a strange sight. The organization has parked a Land Rover in the middle of the empty quad formed by the large circle of 80 tents sheltering the runners. Boxes are being unloaded. Boxes labelled “coca-cola”.
The loud speaker crackles to life. A voice explains that due to the unusually harsh conditions of this year’s event and the high rate of drop-outs, the organization has decided to treat everyone to a can of Coke. I’m not a huge fan of coke usually, but a) I am not going to refuse anything cold! And b) at this point, a can of Coke will take as natural and organic as orange juice pressed from Florida oranges picked straight off the tree.
Everyone else apparently agrees. Runners start to emerge from their tents like zombies from the grave. Seriously, I feel like I’m on the movie set for a Western Zombie flick.

Thibaut finds me about an hour later with Clara and the sound engineer to do some interviews. He’s seriously depressed. “I’m not sure we have a movie,” he says. “We lost the first camera on Day one from the sand storms.” (I knew that much already.) “I’ve wrapped the second in a plastic bag, but the tape keeps jarring.” 
We’re shooting with an old-school Sony PD-150. We would have been better off with a newfangled camera that records to a hard-disk, like the sound system we’re using, of course, but we didn’t really have the budget. We also didn’t think we get this much sand. Actually it’s not sand, it’s sand dust that is just getting in everywhere.
Oh, well. The race has knocked me into a stupor, and the fatigue, the endorphins and the prospect of successfully finishing the race combine to fill me with a sweet floating sensation. Heroin can’t hold a candle to it.
I look at Thibaut: he's tired. For my part, I may be close to running on empty, but I am also filled with energy—a diffused soulful energy—and I want to share it with him. He’s riding around in an air-conditioned Land Rover, but the Marathon des Sables is taking far more out him that out of me.
“We’ll get it done, you’re doing a great job,” I tell him, projecting all the confidence, peace and goodwill that inhabit me. 
He shrugs and sets up the camera.

All this is nothing next to what Klara has been through and is now going through. If anyone can put things in perspective and focus on the truly important things in life, of which there are very few, it is Klara. “The gift of cancer,” she tells me, “was to force me not to worry about the mundane stuff. You have to get it done, you have to pay your bills, but in life there is so very little you actually have to stress about… Children, you can’t help worrying about your children.”
Klara collapsed in her living room one evening shortly before her 40th birthday. She was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. A year-long battle ensued… A fight not so much for her own life but to see her young son grow up, something she realized had been passing her by as she worked harder and harder to climb the corporate ladder.
She was hospitalized three times for chemotherapy, kept for weeks in a sterile room hooked to so many instruments that she felt like a Christmas tree. Then she had to suffer the long wait for a bone marrow donor and the transplant itself, and then was forced to confront the fear that her body might reject it.
Klara survived. And now, a year after her remission, she’s in the desert talking to me about it. I ask her questions about living with cancer, questions I couldn’t ask my father who died three years ago from prostate cancer. She says that for her, being here at the Marathon des Sables, is like playing back the tape of her illness in reverse—catharthic in the extreme. But she always has a smile on her face. She talks to other runners, comforts them in their suffering, listens to their own personal stories: a woman who survived breast cancer, a man who should’ve died in a motorcycle accident after breaking his neck and is here, fifteen years later. Like truly extraordinary people, it’s the others she finds extraordinary, not herself.
It makes me think of my reasons for being here. Sure, I’m doing a (hopefully) worthwhile documentary that aims to convey what is it like to fight cancer as a patient. Sure, I’m raising money in the process for the League Against Cancer. And sure, I’m here with Cyril as we both test our limits and discover a new dimension to life. 
But I’m also running from—or at least to quell—my obsessions, my addictions and my fears; running in an attempt to find a prop to my weaknesses, my self-esteem—and for redemption.

Silent conversations between Cyril and me
At the end of the next day, marathon day, the atmosphere at basecamp is very different. The race is essentially over—nobody is quitting on the last short run tomorrow. Many runners have been joined by their families who are allowed to visit tonight. An opera singer has been invited to perform. It’s far removed from the isolation and hardships we’ve experienced over the past six days. It’s magical.
I listen to the music sitting next to Thibaut, sharing a cigarette, making a few mental promises. Cyril is also somewhere nearby, basking in the glow of imminent success. How can I not be happy, here in the desert with two such close friends listening to a soprano sing about love?
My father’s not here to share this, and I miss my family deeply, but that's ok. Even now there’s a empty hole somewhere in me, and I just don’t know what it is. But for now, I’m able to ignore it, live with it, let it go. That’s the feeling I want to hold on to.

Chris drops to his knees to receive his medal for the 2006 Marathon des Sables
 At the finish line the next day, several members of the organization who knew my father congratulate me and tell me how proud he would be. I collapse in tears of course. Cyril puts a hand on my shoulder and waits for it to pass. He understands—we’re all emotionally frayed from physical depletion.
But it’s not just the mixture of sadness at my father’s absence and joy at finishing in his memory that makes me cry. Something is being released, something is being let go.
I just hope that it’s gone forever.
When I return to Geneva, I tell my wife how close I was to quitting, how unmotived I felt on that third day to actually finish. I just didn’t see the point, it didn’t seem to matter.

This is a good thing, she tells me. "You have more to live for and less to prove," she says.


WATCH THE FILM "RUN FOR LIFE"

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