Magic of NEVER
“I will NEVER run stage race, never do it on sand, never put myself in unknown environment and never even dare to think about it” – I was loudly shouting it to everybody who wanted to convince me in doing so just barely one month ago. However, irony is, that it has never been so easy to say yes and accept such a challenge!
Marathon des Sables (MDS) – Peru is just around the corner and I have never felt so unprepared and so unsure about what is going to happen. The only thought, which makes me calmer, is acknowledgment that it is the same running, which I have done already for years. Certainly, I will encounter different and unknown environment, but it is nothing more than adventure, self-exploration and kind of new experience, where the winning is not the main goal. At least I hope so, but isn’t it a bit foolish? I am coming without any specific preparation, straight from my off-season and even though it is a bit childish and irresponsible who doesn’t like to risk and go all in no matter consequences? Moreover, it is Peru, dream destination for any mountain lover. This time it is sand mountains, dunes in Ica Desert, parts of which are barely touched by civilization. It has so many archeological sites, that there you can still easy find bones of dinosaurs or maybe even baby dragons breathing and making this extreme desert heat.
6 days self-sufficiency to cover 250km is nothing else, as being camel in the snail house and the most vital decision, which everybody tries to make prior the MDS is – how not to starve, but still run light. Not easy task, but I am not doing anything what is easy, as it is the essence of my philosophy of the running sport. Suffering is part of the game and like in all other ultra challenges, usually not the most fittest guy is wining the race, but the one who has strong mind and stomach. Though stomach could be empty this time, I am ready to go till the very end and find out undiscovered horizons.
Definitely, my decision to come was impulsive, but knowing that I will leave my footprints on million years of evolution and history made my call relatively easy. Furthermore, magic of never could not be underestimated, as it is exactly what pushes me forward and now I pronounce it more carefully and with more respect, as I am obsessed with everything, which I have NEVER tried before.
For me all races start much earlier than H-hour or gunshot announcing the beginning of the stage. #MDS isn’t the exception at all. It started way back in Lithuania when I have begun packing all mandatory equipment and necessary food into CamelBak Octane 16 pack. Sounds silly, but getting ready for 6 days self-sufficiency in the desert requires a lot of effort and as usually I have been very negligent and slow, so basically packed everything just last minute before departure. Despite, great tips, which my stage-pro-runner friends shared with me, I had to be very creative, as so many unknowns were waiting for me. Experiences, from the past MDS races, were so individual that definitely one size hat couldn’t fit all. Moreover, traveling itself was already the race and I was hardly involved in competition with time, boredom, sleep, proper food, jet lag and numerous hours spent on the planes and busses reaching campsite Zero.
In the Zero was easy to notice and distinguish first time entries like me and regular MDS participants like Rachid Elmorabity and Remigio Huaman, famous for their wins at previous MDS races. However, in the camp Zero everybody was alike and different at the same time with his or her own agendas and various reasons being in complete wilderness. In the newly established desert campsite life was just flowing and this river of simplicity was nothing-similar compare to civilization, which I have left hours ago in Lima. I was there as fruit of greed mixed with luck and pure coincidence, the offer, which I could not resist, in order to discover undiscovered and becoming better version of me.
From now on MDS race road-book clearly became my new bible, as contained all necessary information, which structured my daily life for upcoming week. Moreover, it contained first insights on the racecourse, which was top-secret information up till now and had more than 10 commandments, what I shall and shall not do. Trail religion is strict and cruel, but guess super necessary one to protect the lives of runners and make us as one to survive. However, it punishes runners with time penalties even for the smallest faults, so being absent minded I was already waiting for the first nail to my cross.
Heat and sand creates miracles in the desert, sadly mine wasn’t so sexy today. Remember while ago I was writing about magic of never? Guess what, #MDS surprised me with another one.
Today I was puking my guts out on the way to the first stage finish line and even wondered how good runner I am as was chicked and passed by few elderly gents. Tried desperately to keep up with them, but had no chance doing so. The more I tried to stay hydrated the more water I have been loosing, the faster I tried to push myself forward, the slower I have been moving. Battle was lost and the only hope left was not making hydration situation even worse and dangerous in those extreme heat conditions. Mitigation of expectations is must in the races like this and the better own manager you are the better race outcome is. This time it was as low as no matter what reach the finish line, but to do that I needed #hydrateordie.
Though I was desperate and surprised by all his new experience, actually it didn’t make difference, because I just like running no matter how hard it is. Sorry for those who think that I can compete with Usain Bolt and Mo Farah in their preferred distances at Olympics or stay close to Rachid Elmorabity in his playground. Everybody has Achilles heel and I am happy to find out my third one. Failures are just part of the process and yet the best way for improvement, when lessons learned are identified. Definitely, on my vomiting odyssey, I remembered poor Jim Walmsley during this years Western States Endurance Run and probably it was very first time when I could really got under his skin and into his shoes. However, my shoes didn’t move at all, as all energy was used for marking the course with the pieces of food from my stomach, so after a while I simply have no power left to lift my #megagrip‘ed legs at all. Water wise, professor Prof Tim Noakes would be super proud, as I definitely wasn’t waterlogged and done all stage with one litter of water in extremely hot desert conditions. Sounds stupid, but the more I drunk the more I watered plants all around me. So, looking from this perspective I wasn’t totally miserable and have done few great things in the sake of science.
No more excuses. Certainly, the fastest won the first stage, of Marathon Des Sables PERU however no less demanding five ones left through the #IcaDesert, so I won’t stop at the finish line, as tomorrow is yet another splendid day!
At #MDS campsites we are living like a big family and it has its own charm. Somebody is eating and somebody is farting at the same time in front of you. However, it is new reality and norm that anybody gets angry or frustrated. We are definitely building something unique here, as being almost 24/7 all together is not just about recovery and running. Most likely those difficulties, disappearance of privacy and shame are the things, which makes our relations so special. It should be similar to high mountain expeditions and though I have never done one myself, feeling that instead of fighting cold and snow we are fighting heat and sand as well as unpredictable human factor in very stressful daily situations with a lot of unknowns. The only difference is that we do it with total strangers, whom we met in bivouac Zero for the first time.
Big brood of strangers is divided into the cells which consists of 4 to 5 tents with their own stories and colourful personalities, so build the good and supportive team takes time. I live with Ozzie, Mauritian, Japanese and the Cow. I would say we are one of the most international cells and Cow being the most interesting from the rest of group. Though being Japanese he clearly doesn’t have nationality. Seems that running with super warm cow costume in the desert with heat reaching up to +40C is the essence of his life. Although it is a bit weird and I am a bit unsure that he will be able to finish all the stages, probably he the best got idea of life. Life is simple and just we make it too complicated. Furthermore, everyone here with his own reason and though reasons differ, most of the runners want this simplicity in their complicated or super busy lives. Very likely deep inside most of them a super jealous to Cow, who found meaning of life just being the one.
It could be surprise for many, how creative one must become to manage all the challenges during Marathon Des Sables PERU in order to have a bit more comfortable life. Let’s take the simple plastic water bottle, which is the only thing organizers are providing to us. It can serve as a bowl, as a pot to heat the meal, as a mixer to prepare electrolyte drinks or as simple dust bin to store all the garbage, because penalties for flying trash in the strong desert wind is cruel, but fair ones. More creative runners even managed to use it as toilet substitution as well, since nights in the desert are cold and dark, so navigate back to own tent could be yet another challenge.
#MDS brings a lot of unknowns and figuring out the answers could be crucial part of this adventure. Each day runners are gambling in the desert and usually their health or life is at stake, so trying to get those answers right is vital. It is kind of art, how to find solutions for camp daily life problems or get used to them simply by ignoring. However, do we really know what the future holds for us next day or next hour? Not really, but exactly in that is the beauty of stage racing and exactly what got me addicted to it – mysterious camp life! This is why experience how to survive in the nature matters.
Let’s take the simple tent example. That’s right, each runner has the tent, which must be set up in the evening and put back in the bag early next morning. Sure, it is not the rocket science, but anyway skill, which must be developed in advance, as it definitely makes your life easier and preserves energy, needed for running. So, after one stage, I had run to the finish line first from my cell and thought what a nice idea would be to put all the tents and surprise my herd with the positive vibes after their hard day on the sand. However, our campsite suddenly was ambushed by such a strong gale, that it was impossible to set even my own roof. On their arrival I was still standing with “parachute” in my hands, not being able to move, as needed to secure flying house from disappearance. Just all together, after hard cross fit workout with the stones, we managed to set all the cell tents and conquer unpredictable.
Is it easy to have life like that? Not at all, but adventure and creativity is always here, so every wasted minute in the desert is worth that!
Swimming with the seals and flying with the birds was the prize I got after the long stage at Marathon Des Sables PERU, but do I really knew how it will end at the begging of it, definitely not.
If the simple marathon stage is hard, long one is even harder, but as once somebody told me – when the situation is tough, you must me tougher. This was my mantra the whole 68km through the swampy sand, with the front wind blowing straight from Pacific Ocean and with the solid elevation gain peaking at impressive 300m dune climb on the last kilometres. Though I wasn’t hungry for victory and kept reminding myself that it is more adventure than race itself, adrenaline and testosterone did it’s job and from minute one starveling beast inside me was unleashed.
It was just a perfect day in the desert and though many believe that placing is the most important thing in the races, it is not true at all. Time, which I spend alone or with friends on the trails matter more. Gained new life experiences drive me to do such a rad things. So, having all it in mind, super tired, depleted, but happy I managed to crawl to the campsite. The day was over, fatigue and satisfaction blurred away, but something still remained there – hunger.
#MDS is one of the toughest desert footstep races all around the world and definitely more extreme than overestimated Dakar Rally. It has several reasons being the one, but the cruellest part of it – self-sufficiency or I would say food sufficiency, as you must wisely choose calories and not to have super overloaded CamelBak IOT run light. Nutrition and proper fuelling are crucial parts of running, as no one can run on empty tank. Everyday runners become lighter and their glycogen storages are not the same as it used to be prior the race. Energy demand increase, food and glycogen storages decrease and the only way to deal with it, is either being hungry or full, but with heavy refrigerator breaking your spine on the course. Ideal weight of the running vest should be no more than 10% body mass, which became true for me just after 4th stage. However, together with diminishing food stash I was shrinking as well, so sadly I have never found this perfect balance.
In the past few days I figured out that raw cuisine is not my thing, as I couldn’t pump myself with million nuts with no desire of something else. Food was the thing, which I could really think about at the lonely moments in my tent. It was not that I didn’t have enough Kratos Sport – Biosophia srl supplies anymore, but I have just missed variety so much, that would certainly have committed the crime for just one mango or avocado fruit. Suddenly the sin of Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden for just one apple didn’t looked so meaningless anymore and the only thought, which I was obsessed while daydreaming in my runs was veggies and fruits, so terrible sexy dream with the real taste, feel and smell, but still empty stomach.
I am literally running out of my own skin and parts of my body are falling apart. Lips and toes stopped being one piece few days ago and their nudity already is new norm and weird piece of art, which will remind me about this journey long after it will be done. This is the moment, when being the snake, sounds like amazing option – able to shed the skin and run hurtless.
However, nothing is painless at #MDS and everyone pays his own price. Blisters, headaches, vomiting and peeing blood are the symptoms, which almost everyone suffers. Dehydration, high core temperature and heat stroke are things what MDS’ers risk here each day and not being snakes they can’t transfer heat into energy. But medical crew can and each day they heal hundreds of runners and prepare them for more pain next day. Those who survive the stage come back and do it over and over again – ultras just simple like suffering.
However people in the camp step by step are changing, talks becoming louder, smiles getting bigger and laugh just confirms that just one day stage left to become the real desert snake!
Being in the moment
Each day 300 runners wake up in Peruvian desert, who terribly want to reach the finish line and each day I wake up trying to freeze the time.
Though, I am already exhausted, but in pure nirvana in sort of flow, where running is as natural as breathing oxygen into own lungs. However, having no choice, I am very reluctantly packing CamelBak for the last #MDSstage, very short 19km kilometres, which will end my latest discovered bedouin life. Damn it! I want to stay here for a little while and prolong intense feeling of deep affection of my new existence – being explorer, being Columbus, being able to elevate discomfort and suffering to yet another horizons.
Sadly this time desert can’t be endless and my heart is crying with no power to scream, as I am approaching the finish line and being just human failing to live split of a second longer by sacrificing own pride.
Stepping on millions years of history was awesome, flying on the sandy dunes was rad, but more importantly were the people who surrounded me, my each day shrinking cell, always ready medical crew, old friends from Arista Eventos & Marathon Des Sables PERU team patiently navigating me through the heat-breathing desert.
Even though, just sweet blood, from the lovely sun kisses, left on my lips and desert storm in my mind, which slowly calms down, I am still so overwhelmed with crazy wilderness culture, stoned with traveling and running experience, dizzy from deep emotions, which I am trying to absorb and relive each day – Peru certainly forever will stay in my heart!
Inhale, exhale, stop the time and be in the moment!