Running from Shadows

My Marathon des Sables . . . and beyond

DNF: Sahara Race (Jordan)

If you didn’t know already by following the earlier links to my “live” race blog over at the 4 Deserts website, this race became only my second ever “Did Not Finish”. My first was because of an Achilles tendon tear years ago at one of the George Littlewood Six Hour Challenge events. This second DNF was also due to a medical reason.

The first two nights in camp were pretty grim, it has to be said: the “tents” were poorly put up, ours measured about 12 foot by 12 foot for 8 people, and covered in large gaping holes in the sides and the roof. I can only assume the organisers might have acquired the dregs of what was left of a Bedouin family’s goat-hair tent collection, passed down over many generations, before they finally headed off laughing to the big city lights (well, Petra) with a fistful of Jordanian dirhams.

Still, tent camaraderie was on top form and Japanese/English/Korean language barriers weren’t a problem. There were some surreal though funny conversations: my Japanese tent-mates and their Korean friends were fascinated to learn more about Western toilets (“Is is true? They’re all white?“) as they don’t have them, squatting being their preferred methodology.

In fact, this was the only option available back in camp (unless taking a pee (gent’s only)): you quickly became aware of the need to avoid the Dark Pit of Doom when crouching over a sandy deep hole when it’s been raining rivers . . . yep, the sand slips . . .

This conversation was quickly followed by a discussion about what’s apparently one of the top UK exports: the TV programme Escape to the Country. Millions of Japanese congregate around their TV screens to marvel at this: I was asked in a deeply serious tone, “Do you really have homes in 5 hectares of land? For one family?!??!”

Tents 7 and 8 were rumoured to be without much of a roof on their first night and, sleeping in their waterproof jackets and the compulsory rain poncho they still got very wet in the very heavy rains. A couple of hastily-acquired waterproof tarpaulins were acquired the next day.

Which was the start of the race and Stage 1: I found the 25 miles across the sands of Wadi Rum a doddle, finishing 51st of the 186 starters. Back at camp it was a challenge trying to get my down sleeping bag dry from the previous wet and freezing cold night, stood in the cold wind and driving rain holding it in front of the fires.

Overnight Stage 1 was another of poor sleep: the rain and winds were back with a vengeance. It became so cold. Before long I was wearing my entire kit for the week: running shorts, running tights, three pairs of socks, my short and long sleeve top, my waterproof jacket, my Buff and my Goretex hat . . . in my zero-degree rated sleeping bag in a silk liner on a hard, cold, stony desert floor (but, hey, my rucksack did only weight 7.8 kilos!). Before long I resorted to what I knew would become a bad idea but I was desperate: I then put my emergency bivvy bag over the top of my sleeping bag.

Emergency bivvy bags don’t breathe, as any Scout will know. So when I finally woke up on the morning of Stage 2 my down sleeping bag was quite wet and cold droplets of water were dripping down onto my head and neck. A wet down sleeping bag is not good: down bags, while weighing less compared with synthetic, lose their heat-retaining properties when wet. Still, I’d hoped to finish with enough time to try and dry off in the last hours of hot sunshine we were promised for the day.

Around the middle of Stage 2’s 22 miles is where things started to go a little wrong. I started getting a strong acid reflux from eating and drinking. I had no idea why.

Back at camp after Stage 2 we found the organisers had sourced some thick blankets to keep us warm for the night, but not enough: the slower ones in the field returned with wet kit late in the afternoon with the blankets having run out and with only a couple of hours of waning sunshine left. The only means left to get dry and warm were to huddle around the cauldrons of burning logs. I had a particularly wet back and shorts so was crouched with my back to the delicious heat for my final bit of drying off. “YOU’RE BURNING!!” shouted one of my Japanese tent-mates. You’ve never seen me move so fast. I wasn’t, of course, burning, as I quickly learnt by the noise of hysterical laughter (including mine once I knew my backside was still intact).

The rains were stopping now so I slept a little easier before the start of Stage 3.

Breakfast was a job to keep down. As Stage 3 wore on I found myself taking medication at most checkpoints. I now had burning acid from a very warm stomach all the way up to my throat. Towards the end of Stage 3 any eating or drinking seemed to bring up a lot more acid and bile. What was going on? The medics wondered if I’d been taking too much electrolyte in my drinks in the first couple of days, causing the spiral of acid burn. It wasn’t pleasant. I was also not hydrating properly despite, I thought, drinking plenty. I did though on this day come across a newly-born, by a few minutes, camel with its mother: great to see.

Stage 4 was not a great start as I couldn’t eat all my breakfast. Nor could I eat much of my food out on the course. This was not good. I was already restricting myself to about 2,200 calories per day and not eating all of that was bound to cause a problem. So the first of several vomiting sessions began not long after checkpoint 2 when I took an electrolye tablet: my body was rejecting these now. My entire oesophagus was burning and I couldn’t get rid of it from drinking as that also seemed to be contributing to the problem. I was now taking medication at every checkpoint: Rennies, Zantac/Ranitidine, something else I can’t remember. Lots of them. But they were increasingly not working.

I didn’t eat much of my meagre dinner ration after Stage 4. Two mouthfuls and I wanted to heave. I started to wonder now: how much more can I go on, physically, without having eaten that much over the last couple of days? I knew I’d lost a lot of weight too by now: my bony hips and shoulders were hurting, sore and keeping me awake most of the night as I tried to get comfortable.

I was really looking forward to Stage 5, the Long March of 54 miles off the back of the 95 miles I’d covered in the previous four stages. I don’t find this kind of distance a problem: simply carve up the elephant into bite-sized chunks of 5 miles a piece and it soon passes. But you need energy to do it after having already run 95 miles. And I didn’t have much of that left because I wasn’t eating it. I figured by now my body was now consuming itself, which is fine if it’s body fat.

The descent from camp down into the bottom of a long slot canyon, some 12 miles of it, was awesome to see. I tried running what I could but now the running action was sparking off the acid reflux, an action and reaction that had started on Stage 4. At checkpoint 2 I had to sit a short while and take yet more medication: I was feeling grim.

Then the quick descent to nothingness. Before too long, after leaving checkpoint 2, simply walking fast was producing acid overload.  I’d caught up with Ian and Chris and tried hard to keep on their tail with distracting conversation as they encouraged me to keep along. But I was just getting slower and slower. They pulled ahead.

I was sick again before a long incline up a gorge. Now I had to stop and sit on a rock literally every few steps and heave. I realised I had very little left and couldn’t eat or drink. Just make it to checkpoint 3 and rest. I eventually got there but it took a long time. The medic there was quick to appreciate what was going on and offered a few suggestions about what might be happening in my stomach. After half an hour I felt marginally better after a swig of some Pepsi and a few sweets.

I left and got 0.2 miles around the sandy corner from checkpoint 3 and could barely move. The slowest of walking speeds was aggravating my stomach. I went back to checkpoint 3 and asked: What’s going on?!

The prognosis was blunt: “Your stomach is eating itself. Eventually you could have a stomach ulcer.” The medic also thought, because of the amount of acid being produced, I might already have had a piece of stomach lining break away and get stuck in the lower part of my oesophagus.

So what to do? I was 19 miles in to the 54 miles of the stage and so I’d covered 113 miles of the race with just 35 miles to go before a day’s rest and then a 3 mile untimed walk for the final stage. Those 35 miles were going to get tougher up some 2,500 metres of ascent. I had no distress flare in case of any problems (not given out by the organisers). As they’d explained at the pre-race briefing, if you get into trouble you could be at least 3-4 hours away from medical facilities. I didn’t really know what was going on, not having experienced this before. I could try and plough on but so devoid of energy was I that I really wondered if I’d make it to checkpoint 4.

By now it was a clear choice: plough on with the possible risk of permanent medical damage or (it’s just another race!!!) call it a day. I also started figuring it would be unfair on other competitors and the few medics that were there for the event if I did get into greater problems later on the course, particularly in the dark on some very steep rocky sections when I was already unsteady on my feet.

So it was a simple, albeit hard, choice, really: I called it a day.

One of the checkpoint volunteers took a picture of me not long after I stopped and sat down and it serves to remind me that I was in a battered way with no real prospect of being able to last much longer. Shortly after I fell asleep on the sand with a blanket to wake up a few hours later with the sweeper camels sat beside me. The medic checked up on me regularly and noted a very swollen, hot stomach.

Eventually we left the checkpoint for the long drive back to civilisation before sundown: our driver was a bit anxious to head off out of the desert because the Land Rover didn’t have any working lights; they magically worked again once they were needed and bumped on a road! I had to demand an instant stop to retch along the way to a random hotel, where I caught a taxi to collect my kit from the race hotel. Here I met tent and hotel room-mate Ryo who had also had to call it a day. I also learnt that our tent’s star performer, a top Japanese ultramarathon competitor who’d finished the previous day in 2nd place and was aiming for an overall top 5 race finish, had also had to quit the race because of being unable to take on water and food . . . just 12 miles from the end of the 54 mile stage. I then moved on to another hotel to meet my wife and parents-in-law, about 8-9 hours after I’d decided to call it a day.

At no point did I have any regrets or tears about stopping, which means I didn’t quit for anything other than the right decision. I weighed myself once back at the hotel: in 5 days I had lost a whopping 15 pounds (1 stone, 1 pound) or 6.8 kilos. I know I hadn’t taken much food in order to keep my overall rucksack weight down but, even so, that’s a lot.

I’m still none the wiser what went on medically but here are possible explanations:

– too much electrolyte in my drinks in the first couple of days which started a circular chain reaction to upset my stomach, oesophagus and throat (this was the medics’ view as it’s apparently a common reaction in endurance events as the body gradually gets sick of electrolyte on restricted food intakes);

– not being able to properly hydrate my freeze-dried meals in the absence of boiling or hot enough water so I was crunching through stuff my stomach was having difficulty in dealing with;

– did I already have a stomach infection?

Once back in the UK I went straight to my doctor as very quickly after I got to the hotel in Petra I had a stinker of a bad cold which then lasted another couple of weeks: I’d had a wheezy, sore chest on that long incline up the gorge between checkpoint 2 and 3 on Stage 5 . . . (not helped I would have thought by the first two nights getting soaked in the freezing cold wind which was our tent).

He mildly told me off for having too much of a potent cocktail of anti-acid drugs: his mouth dropped to the floor when I told him how many Rennies, Zantac/Ranitidine, Some Other Tablet I’ve No Idea What It Was, And Some Chalky Stuff I’d had in the space of 3 or 4 days (“HOW MANY?!!???!?!”).

He dispensed me with a course of antibiotics after a check-up: he gently explained I’d been running to extremes for a week in a desert with a chest infection that had been settling in quite nicely for about a week and a half (“Didn’t you notice?!?“) so, yes, a stomach infection was also entirely possible . . .

Come to think of it, I was feeling a bit mildly off in the week before I left for Jordan. Must have got lost in all the excitement.  🙂

While it’s disappointing to not have finished the Sahara Race (Jordan) it wasn’t in any way a wasted journey: the scenery was fantastic, seeing the ancient ruins of Petra was something else, there was great conversation and fascinating people and new friends met (and I learnt from my Japanese friends how to squat). I was also able to test my new-found levels of fitness: but for getting ill I’m confident I would have secured my goal of a top third finish in the race.

Am I put off? You must be joking: the search continues for the next adventure.Image

No tears, no regrets: there are times when stopping the risk to health outweighs the need to finish a race!

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