Running from Shadows

My Marathon des Sables . . . and beyond

Stage 3, 38.8 miles: The Ancient Khmer Path (Cambodia)

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DNF.

The three letters that are marked alongside a competitor’s name when he or she . . .

Did Not Finish.

Those torrid three words which at the time don’t seem as big a deal when they’re being thrown around your head at a difficult time: they seem reasonable words; they can be justified 10 times over.

One’s world is very, very small, almost claustrophobic, when thinking this through in that very moment when this is being considered. It’s tunnel vision: there is no other world than the one in front of you: when your stomach is a bloated mess and burning; when you are completely exhausted; when you just want to stop; when you can’t understand why it is so difficult to walk one foot in front of the other, let alone run.

Loved ones aren’t there. A cold shower and good food isn’t there. The imagery of instead collecting the finisher’s medal: not there.

“Go on: just stop.” That’s what is there.

But some time afterwards? There arise 100 times more reasons why DNF could have been avoided. A hundred times more reasons why it becomes necessary to go back.

***

Packed and ready to go at the start line of Stage 3’s 62km/38.8 miles I hadn’t had a pee in ages and that which I had was like syrup. Not a good sign. In trying to drink plenty I was already bloated at the start.

We had been warned at the race briefing that today we would be heading into Cambodia’s jungle: not a knarly, impregnable jungle needing a machete but a series of narrow tracks through some thick trees, sand, bushes, open sun-scorched spaces . . . and difficult to access if you get beyond checkpoint 1. Basically, the message was: don’t go beyond checkpoint 1 if you don’t feel you can make the 6 miles or so thereafter to checkpoint 2.

Crikey, I thought, 6 miles? A nothing distance back home in the cold UK: under 50-55 minutes on a good day? Not here. More like 1.5 hours. The warning was being given because a few of us were now dehydrated and struggling big time after the last couple of days of effort. The previous day had already seen one DNF competitor, a seasoned ultra-runner, having already left for home.

It was now a mental as well as physical battle for me as I was this morning really not feeling like it at all. But I ploughed on. Onwards to checkpoint 1. Running was minimal. Instead I worked hard to push a good walking pace.

But it wasn’t, really. I was walking at possibly the slowest pace I ever had. I had zero energy and my few snacks weren’t giving me any extra oomph. Try as I might I couldn’t get water into me quick enough. The thoughts started to intrude as I got slower and slower and more people breezed on past me: the justifications for stopping.

I reached checkpoint 1. “Fine”, I lied, when asked how I felt. With a swig of yet more sickening warm water (it’s hard to keep it cool when in the shade temperatures are in the 30Cs) I left and tried to plough on to checkpoint 2, fully aware that I had to at least get that far to not put the race volunteers at risk.

It was grim. I felt pretty miserable. I kept having to stop every few minutes and I was walking.

What was wrong? Perceived high effort for low heart rates indicates one thing: my body was quite knackered. I simply couldn’t drink enough to replenish what I’d been sweating out over the last couple of days and the cycle of dehydration had firmly taken hold. It’s a very difficult cycle to break. Before long it’s too late: stopping becomes the only option, eventually. And that “eventually” was, for me, checkpoint 2.

I’d been there a while. Laura (UK), a medical practitioner and top ultra-runner in her own right, who was volunteering on the race and had looked after me at the end of Stage 2, was very firm: “You are not leaving this checkpoint until you drink this whole bottle of water.”

I looked at Laura, wondering if she was serious. A whole 2 litre bottle of warm water.

“I mean it. It doesn’t matter how long you take, but you are not leaving until this whole bottle is gone.”

OK. I wasn’t going to ignore Laura: she knew what she was talking about. So I began to drink, and immediately gagged, as I had done since trying to drink since the start of the day’s Stage 3.

I felt utterly crap. Overheating. Knackered. Pale: my blood withdrawn from my extremities and surface skin. My kidneys ached, worse than before. My stomach was bloated and acidic. I couldn’t pee. I had images of returning to how I felt in Jordan in 2014 and didn’t want to go there again.

“I’m done.”

After just 13.65 miles of the day’s 38.8: it had taken me over 4 hours to get that far, which is pretty pathetic. What was telling was that my Garmin heart rate monitor later told me my heart rate did not get above 125 beats per minute at any point, which is very low despite the seemingly hard effort.

DNF after just 55.25 miles in 3 days. Very poor.

“Are you sure? You can take as long as you like.”

“I’m done.”

Feeling completely done in, I laid back on the old, hard, wooden tractor cart and promptly fell asleep.

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Finished at checkpoint 2, Stage 3 (credit: GlobalLimits)

***

I wasn’t to be the only one. Before long, Kim (UK) joined me to DNF and there were reports of a couple of others falling by the wayside around the course. Once the checkpoint was closed we could eventually take the over an hour it took to be driven out on the cart back to a village: an extremely bumpy and uncomfortable ride across the hard, rutted tracks. Laura trotted alongside without breaking a sweat. Regular stops were needed: Kim and I felt sick at various points and Kim became desperate for water and shade.

Finally we emerged from the Cambodian jungle to be able to sit on chairs at a small shop to drink cans of Coke as we awaited four-wheeled transport to get us back to camp. Laura took a couple of pics, including a selfie as I found my cramping forearms incapable of doing much else but crack open a can of Coke.

It’s also here that I have a strong memory of Tan Tah Ming, a 59-year old Malaysian competitor no stranger to these types of event. He was positively wallowing in the experience: clearly tired, but wallowing nonetheless. He was luxuriously slumped comfortably in a plastic chair sipping another Coke. Dripping with sweat but with a massive smile across his face, he gathered himself together, stood up, took another can and simply said: “Tis very, very hot.” Then gave a little laugh and a bigger smile as he walked off to finish the stage after some 16 hours, still with a massive smile.

Always smiling. I particularly remember this, more so I think as the GlobalLimits family learnt just a few months later that Tah Ming had sadly passed away. I only knew him for a week but in this particular small world of runners most always leave a lasting impression, none more so than Tah Ming, always smiling.

***

Camp was at the amazing Beng Mealea temple and it would be a long day for those finishing in the dark. I pottered around feeling sorry for myself and tried to recover. I followed the lead of a couple of the Cambodian runners who’d been dousing themselves with water from a pond using a pail: big mistake. It was stagnant and stank a bit. I must have caught them finishing up after a single use of the pail.

I was an insect-magnet for quite a while after that and sought to busy myself cooling competitors down at the finish line and helping out my tent-mate Lorraine. I began to formulate what had gone wrong for my race (again): a combination of reasons but, firstly, before too much analysis, I had to get better.

A good night’s sleep was had.

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