Marathon des Sables
Day #3 and the whole routine started again. The main difference today was that people were starting to show the punishment they have suffered over the previous days and were becoming a little more subdued. Today’s stage was 39km long, a distance which during training would have taken me eight hours. But judging by my experience from the first two days, I expected it would take me around nine and a half hours.
The start was a little different in that we had to gather at the start line fifteen minutes earlier than normal so they could take the “25” photo. This was where all of the competitors stood within a “25” stencil made of ropes and the helicopter took many photographs.
Once we had done the countdown, with AC/DC blasting out again and the helicopter roaring just overhead, we started the third day of this punishing event. Everything progressed as normal. I was now very good at pacing myself, having learned to resist the temptation to rush to keep up with the quicker competitors. The track was straight and flat, crossing country that was stony and with thin scrubby bushes every now and occasionally. The walking progressed as normal except that, after not long at all, I started to wobble again. Today it happened surreptitiously, sneaking up on me without me even noticing.
I suddenly found myself staggering, so I started eating salt tablets and drinking more water. But this didn’t help enough and before I realised what had happened, I staggered and fell over, flat on my face. Because this was only 4km from the start there were still people close by, so I heard a couple of the emergency whistles going off and people shouting for assistance. I momentarily wondered who they were concerned about, but then realised it was me.
As I rolled over onto my back, a camera was pushed in front of me as one of the news crews tried to capture the moment. Then I heard angry voices as those around me tried to get the attention of a doctor instead of a fellow with a camera. There was no doctor around and I had assured the people who were trying to help that I was OK. I ate a couple more salt tablets, had a guzzle of water and a short rest, then got to my feet and kept going. Due to the fuss with the salt on day #2, I had decided to risk running out of the electrolyte tablets by having two and a half per bottle of water instead of two. But obviously this was not enough on its own to keep my electrolytes up, so I needed to continue to have a lot of salt tablets. I got going again and, with the extra salt tablets each hour, all was OK. I reached CP1 OK and went through the normal routine.
The ground was very rocky after leaving CP1. I was walking on my own when yet again I found the salt was suddenly low. A quick couple of salt tablets and a dose of denial surprisingly didn’t fix it and again I found myself on my face. This time there were doctors within sight, so they were quickly on the scene. They sat me in the shade of a tree and started doing tests. They checked my sugar and found that it was slightly low, so out came the satchel of sugar again. I knew now that they did this with everyone, not just me. The sugar test was given to everyone who went face down. They took my temperature and then announced the funniest thing I’d heard all day; my temperature was up so I must have been suffering a fever. I chuckled and asked them if they had noted where we were. As English was a distant second language for them they didn’t understand the humour, so I just let it ride. However I was concerned that they might try to make me withdraw or want to give me a saline drip or something. Fortunately this wasn’t the case. They really just wanted me to rest, to show them that I was drinking my water and taking my salt tablets. Once I had rested, watered and salted myself they let me continue on.
The day progressed with one step following the other, over and over and over. We found ourselves walking across a salt flat that appeared to have no end. It was utterly flat and the track was utterly straight. We just kept walking on and on and on, without end. Step, step, step, plod, plod, plod without end. I was to find out later that just as I was coming to CP2, after walking a dead straight line across the salt flat for twelve kilometres, the temperature was 56C. I didn’t know that and didn’t even realise it was particularly hot. I just kept walking. Apart from putting one foot in front of the other, the only other thing I knew was that there was somebody walking not far behind me all across the salt flat. I considered stopping and letting them go past, but I didn’t have the energy to change my pace. So I just kept plodding on, step, step, step, hoping eventually to get to the checkpoint.
I was to learn later that the person walking behind me was a fellow Australian who decided that the pace I was walking was a good pace for him, so he slotted in behind me and let me do the pace keeping. It is a technique for saving brain power. You get in behind someone and just stay there, without the need to make decisions or think about much at all. When the conditions are as harsh as we had over that salt flat, it’s a good way to conserving vital energy.
We made it to CP2 as if in a dream.
After the normal checkpoint checks and balances, as well as a rest of fifteen minutes I set off again, this time bound for CP3. A British lady, Sarah-Jane, was setting off at the same time, so we decided to walk together. Sarah-Jane appeared to be suffering more than I was as she had the side effects of the bug that had been sweeping through the camp. She had a badly upset stomach and felt like, well let’s just say she felt really bad. Twice we had to stop while she went off the track, and I turned my back, for her to relieve herself. I began to wonder how she could possibly even get to the next checkpoint. She had little energy, a bad stomach and a slight fever.
We kept walking at a slightly slower pace than I would have done if I was on my own, so I kept reassuring her that I was benefitting from walking with her as it was slowing me down when I probably needed it. And this was the truth, even though she thought I was just being kind. We plodded on and on and I was amazed at how she was able to just keep going.
Finally we made it to a tree with some shade where there were two other people enjoying the rest. This was a young British couple who were boyfriend and girlfriend. He was suffering the same ailment that Sarah-Jane was suffering, but they had already had a decent rest under the tree. When some doctors came along in their 4WD they first attended to the young couple, giving him advice and a satchel of magic powder. Then they turned their attention to Sarah-Jane. I was sure she was going to call it quits as she had been considering that option as we walked along. Because she was now in the care of the doctors, I left with the young couple and we continued on.
For the next hour we plodded along, with the young fellow suffering terribly from the affects of the bug. His girlfriend was beside herself with concern, but was quite fit and healthy herself. She was trying to convince the fellow to call it quits the next time they saw a doctor, but he kept resisting. Eventually along came a 4WD with some doctors and her attempts to convince him stepped up a notch.
Did I mention that the temperature was 56C?
As they were now in the care of doctors, I kept going. Step after step I was heading for CP3. I was not doing too well myself, feeling the salt constantly tapping me on the shoulder. On and on and on, step after step after step, the country was flat and endless. I was thinking about the electrolyte tablets and the obvious fact that I needed at least three per bottle of water. I calculated this with the distance left in the event and the number of bottles of water. It didn’t compute. No matter how I tweaked it I was going to run out of the electrolyte tablets before I finished the final stage. I had miscalculated the required number by one tube of twenty tablets. DAMN! I had brought four tubes with me when I should have brought five. DAMN! I wondered whether I could effectively substitute the lack of electrolyte tablets with salt tablets, but the previous day’s experiences, combined with my experiences so far today told me that it wasn’t possible. The electrolyte tablets gave me something necessary that the salt tablets just didn’t have.
I don’t know how long I continued to plod along by myself across the seemingly endless plain, but it can’t have been too long; it just seemed like it. In the distance I could see the start of small sand dunes, so at least the endless flat had some respite. Now I was thinking of the next day, which was the 80km day that was going to take me at least twenty four hours and more likely thirty hours. I had already had two bouts of low salt today, episodes that are quite frightening to endure, and I had determined that I didn’t have enough electrolyte tablets to finish the event. Now, as I plodded towards the sand dunes, I simply ran out of energy. For the first time in the event I stopped and stood there, contemplating my future. I didn’t stand for long, convincing myself after thirty seconds to take a step and continue walking, but now I felt like an empty bag of skin. There were no muscles or bones left, just skin. I could have curled up on the ground right there and gone to sleep amongst the scorpions.
Right at that very inopportune moment, a 4WD with a couple of doctors drove up to me. They made the usual thumbs up sign through their closed, air-conditioned window and I looked at them. They made the sign again and my decision was made. I made the sign of a knife across my throat and the Marathon des Sables 2010 was over for me. That was my moment of decision and once made, I couldn’t go back on it.
I had spent two years of my life training myself to be the driver of my own destiny, to take full and utter responsibility for my safety and my life, so when my decision was made to call it quits I couldn’t go back on that decision. If I did, it meant that every decision I ever made again in my life was negotiable, and I can’t live with my diabetes with that sort of soft’n’fuzzy control. After hours of thinking, considering, “what if”ing, manipulating, trying to find any way that I could get my salt through to the finish line, I had now made my decision to withdraw.
And oh how I have pondered that decision since.
The doctors spent thirty minutes trying to convince me to change my mind, but I held tight to my decision. I knew that I had made it for the right reasons and to change my mind and continue would have been seriously risking my life. I sat in the shade of their 4WD and drank some water. They were talking on their radio in French and stopping every now and then to see if I was ready to continue. I kept telling them that I was out but they struggled to understand my commitment. Eventually they came to realise that I wasn’t going to change my mind, so the withdrawal process began.
They loaded my gear and myself into the 4WD and we started bouncing across the desert in the general direction of the checkpoint. Even while driving back they were constantly on the lookout for other competitors who might be in difficulty. I saw that, judging by my experience of driving in the desert in Saudi Arabia, these guys were excellent off-roaders. Having a diesel powered Toyota certainly helped.
Back at the checkpoint, the processing of my withdrawal continued. They asked me a few questions and filled in a form. Then I sat there for a painful hour, watching other competitors come in to the checkpoint, get their water, have a rest then continue on towards the end of the stage. I saw the young British couple come in which really surprised me. The girl had finally continued walking on her own and had arrived under her own steam. Then while I was there her boyfriend, who had convinced the doctors that he was OK, also came in. So after the euphoric reunion they set off again, sharing painful bliss. I really thought he was out, but he had kept on going. This event was an amazing show of human endurance.
We finally made it back to the bivouac by late afternoon and, after being fully processed and having my race number taken away, I went to the tent, where all of my tent mates were already into their evening routine. When a person withdraws, they are supposed to hand over all their food to the officials, so there is no chance that they will give some of their food to other competitors. When they asked me to hand over my food I told them I couldn’t because I was diabetic. I thought that this could lead to a serious problem if they insisted, but fortunately they saw common sense and allowed me to keep it, with the promise from me that I wouldn’t give any away. They trusted me to keep my word, so I honoured their trust and didn’t give any away. I believe this may have led to a small amount of resentment with one or two of my tent mates, but I hope I’m wrong with that. Food is the most important thing in the world to a person living with type 1 diabetes and having a reliable supply is essential. This may be difficult for a healthy person to comprehend.
During the evening a number of people came up to me to offer their commiserations. One was Jay, the organiser for the competitors from North America, Australia and New Zealand. Jay doesn’t say much, but with seven MdS’s under his belt he does understand the trauma and heartache associated with pulling out. He offered me kind words and was the first to say what I came to hear a number of times; my decision was the correct one given the circumstances and that I was brave to take that decision. I appreciated his words but it was too early for me to feel happy about it. The other tent mates seemed a little uncomfortable, probably because they didn’t know what to say. Meghan did say that she was sorry I had pulled out, which was nice of her.
For the rest of that night we went through the standard routines. But for me, there was the heavy cloud of withdrawal and no longer being an active participant overhanging everything.
I was not happy.
I wasn’t to know until after visiting with a specialist back in Australia that, what I had been assuming was just a bit of low salt, was actually an uncommon but life threatening condition called Hypokaleamia. I believe this was the problem that the runner in the women’s marathon in that famous video footage from the 1984 LA Olympics was suffering. Her name was Gaby Andersen-Scheiss and she was the marathon runner for Switzerland. Hypokaleamia is when the body struggles to maintain a healthy level of potassium and is quite dangerous and can lead to many problems, including heart failure. In the video, her struggling along, desperately trying to finish the race, was what I looked like when these episodes struck during these 3 days.
And in yet another cruel twist of fate, the specialist told me that people living with type 1 diabetes have, for some reason, a higher incidence of this serious condition. But until I learned that from the specialist months later, I was deeply gloomy and felt like a quitter.