Marathon des Sables – Chapter 2 – A Year of Daze

A Year of Daze

“Really Alex, you can’t keep doing this sort of thing. You need to think of the people who care about you.”


I have no idea how many days this lady had been sitting beside my bed talking to me. She may have been there for five minutes, or she could have been there for three days. I had no idea.

For what seemed like an eternity of cloud and mist, I could hear a female voice. I couldn’t understand what the voice was saying, but I was aware that the voice was there. Sometimes the mist would start to thin and I could almost understand what was going on, then the cloud would again descend and everything would return to the dark.

It was 1982. I was 25 years old and a computer operator, working a 24 hour rotating shift for an international insurance company. With hard work, gritted teeth and a lot of help from Lady Luck, I had survived my first eight years of living with type 1 diabetes. There had been many touch-and-go moments where things had nearly come unstuck, such as the time my friends and I were in the spaghetti restaurant and my sugar went low. It was all they could do to keep me shovelling the spaghetti into my mouth, knowing that eventually the starch would do it’s job converting to sucrose in my system and bring my sugar level up. Until then, they were good friends enough to ignore the embarrassment I was causing them and just keep me focussed on eating.

But I still hadn’t accepted the reality of what I was living with. After eight years, you would think that I had come to accept it and live according to the realities imposed by type 1 diabetes. But not me. No, I was the he-man warrior who was invincible. I was working 24 hour shift work, running, cycling, playing squash, doing gym work, surfing, snow skiing, water skiing and bush walking. Me compensate because of a chronic illness? That’s was not going to happen.

So here I was now in a state of semi-consciousness, drifting in and out of reality, with what seemed like a permanent lady sitting beside my bed.

I was to find out later that I had come home from night shift and gone to bed as normal. But my blood sugar level dropped too low and I went from sleep to coma without waking up. Fortunately my flatmate had found me and called an ambulance, and now I had spent a week in intensive care as the hospital brought me gradually back to the world of the living. The “lady” sitting beside my bed around the clock were nurses, there to calm me when I finally emerged from the coma I was in.

Nurses around the world are very special people.

“My name is Anne, and this is Betty, George, Paul, Susan and John. We are trainee doctors who have been asked to determine the extent of your problems. As you know, you spent some time in intensive care after having a major hypoglycaemic episode. Do you remember about that?”

“Yes, but it’s a bit fuzzy.”

“Yes, and it’s because of that fuzziness that we are talking to you today. You were in a very bad way when they brought you in to emergency. By the way, who was the fellow who came in with you?”

“I don’t know, but I suppose it was my flatmate. Why?”

“Well, you can consider him to be a very good friend because he caused a bit of fuss when he thought we weren’t doing enough for you. What is my name?”

This was a strange question. She had told me all of their names just a couple of moments ago, so why ask me now?

I opened my mouth to tell her what her name was and my world caved in. A black hole opened in front of me and I felt myself fall into the hole and keep falling. I had opened my mouth but there was nothing there. Where her name should have been was simply blank. My short term memory was gone and where it should have been was just a wreckage.

The young doctors could see the sudden panic I was facing and quickly set about reassuring me and calming me down. They explained that I had suffered some brain damage from the extreme low sugar and it was likely to have affected my short term memory, amongst other things. But by now I was only vaguely aware of what they were saying. I had started the descent into a mental hell that was going to take me two years to climb out from.

26,000 Injections Later, Give or Take

Jump forward twenty six years, six or seven ambulance trips to hospital, countless episodes of low sugar, known as “hypos”, and roughly twenty six thousand injections of insulin. It’s April 2008 and I was on the train home from my day at work in the city. Along with half the people on the crowded train, I was reading a copy of the daily commuter newspaper handed out at the station.

There were the usual stories about local celebrities, politicians doing silly things, the latest out-of-reach model of car from Mercedes. I moved on through the letters pages where young, spotty faced, love-sick commuters write anonymous notes to the pretty girl they saw the previous day. It was all mildly amusing, but in a humdrum sort of way. I was about to give up on the paper when I turned the page for the final time and something grabbed my eye. Having lived in Saudi Arabia for five years and spent many hours driving and walking through the desert, my eye was tuned to look for anything that might be about Saudi, the Middle East or the desert. And what I was looking at now was a half-page story with a photo of a person dressed in shorts and running shoes and a desert hat apparently running through the desert. Intriguingly, the person also had on what appeared to be a backpack.

As I sat on the crowded suburban train, squeezed into my seat and with my bag tucked between my feet on the floor, the story was telling me about another world. This was the world of extreme duration events and specifically the Marathon Des Sables. I’d heard about this event and that it was some sort of crazy race across the desert carrying all of your stuff on your back. But that was about the extent of my knowledge. The story I was now reading, though brief and without many details, was setting my mental wheels in motion. I learned from the story that the name “Marathon Des Sables” is French, and means “Marathon of the Sands”. The event was started many years ago by a French adventurer called Patrick Bauer, after he had undergone an experience in the Sahara desert in Morocco.

The event entailed the competitors covering a distance of about two hundred and forty kilometres in stages, set over a seven day period. Each competitor carried all of their gear and food requirements, with water being supplied to them along the way. And the reason why the story was in the newspaper at all was because the 2008 running was about to start.

Even though the story held only scant information about the Marathon Des Sables, it set my mind running and for the rest of the hour-long trip home I could think of little else. I even sent my wife Donna a message, telling her that I had something to ask her when I got home. My mind was churning, my excitement was up. Could it be possible that I would again experience the magic that is the desert at night?

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