Marathon des Sables – Chapter 7 – Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law

We went to IKEA one weekend to buy a bookshelf for Donna’s work room at home. Donna loves IKEA. As she was helping me to load the bookshelf into the car for the drive home, she whinced momentarily then mentioned that she’d hurt herself slightly. She mentioned a couple of times on the thirty minute drive home that her back was hurting, but we both cast it off as being not really important. The next morning, however, it was starting to look like something serious may have happened.

Over the next few months, Donna went off to the doctor a number of times as her back was still hurting, and seeming to get worse. The doctor was prescribing pain killers of increasing strength until she eventually advised that further investigation was needed and referred Donna to a specialist. As you read this, please remember that I’m compressing months of pain and anguish and doctor’s visits down to a few sentences.

The specialist was concerned that there was some real damage, so gave Donna some ultra-sounds, followed by injections directly into the spine. He had found that while Donna was helping to load the bookcase into the car, she had twisted slightly and caused one of those incidents that notoriously reduce a person to a life of pain. She had damaged one of the disks in her spine. Any wonder she was in so much constant pain!

As time progressed, so did Donna’s pain. The injections didn’t help and eventually the specialist was out of ideas. It’s not a good thing when the back specialist has run out of ideas. Donna’s GP was now getting concerned about the amount of pain killers she was on, as one of them was being referred to on TV as “Hill Billy Heroin”, and her dosage on that one was increasing week by week. She was now on a very strong dosage of that and a number of other life altering drugs, just so she could get through each day. This was starting to seem like an episode of Jerry Springer, but it was all genuine and easily explained. But that didn’t ease the doctor’s concerns.

Donna was now on the books for an operation on her back by a spinal surgeon, at The Alfred Hospital. The original timing for the operation would have allowed Donna to still make the planned trip with a little bit of time to spare, but sadly it was delayed a number of times. Donna wasn’t happy and neither was the GP. Neither was I. As you can imagine, there was a lot going on in our house by now, with me deeply involved in training and doing the preparations for my big walk, and Donna deeply involved with her back problems and trying to organize the rest of our holiday.

After a number of delays to the operation, it was with great regret from all involved that we decided that Donna was not going to be able to make the trip. This was not a decision taken lightly. There was so much going on in our house at that moment in history that this really became the only possible choice. It was either that, or give up on twenty two months of training and around $5000 spent on preparations. The timing now was such that, even if Donna went in for her operation the next day, there was not enough time left for her expected recovery to enable her to make the trip. This was a gut wrenching decision that would have to wait until 2012 before it could be rectified.

Why Can’t You Increase It?

By early 2009 I’d reached the limit that my food choices could take me to. My training was now sixty or more kilometres per week and I was noticing some problems. My food choices were getting difficult to eat for hour after hour, becoming cloying and sickly. But also I was finding that by the end of a long training walk, say thirty kilometres, I was simply out of energy. I’d stumble through the door a mere shell of a human. This was certainly not going to work non-stop in the Sahara. Something needed to be done.

After finding a specialist sports nutritionist on the internet, I went to speak to her, not holding out much hope for anything of great importance. It was one of Donna’s conditions that I didn’t skimp on doing what was necessary to do the event properly, so I swallowed my pride and went along.

Well, again I was shown how to eat crow. The young lady that greeted me was from South Africa and explained to me that she had worked with many athletes to fine tune their diet to maximize their ability. When I asked her about her understanding of type 1 diabetes, she explained that she had specialized in sports nutrition requirements for diabetics.

Now that we had clarified the ground rules, she went on to change my life. I know that’s a big statement, but it’s the reality of what she was able to teach me. She brought me to a new level of understanding of diabetes, exercise and nutrition that astounded me. Why hadn’t I known this from the beginning?

At this point I must stress that any person with diabetes reading this must not take my words as being true and correct. Before even considering changing anything, you must first consult your diabetes management team and discuss with them. Also I will not be giving details, as the potential consequences for anyone who did try to follow my advice without proper backup are too serious for me to do so.

The sports nutrition lady described to me the way the body gets energy, and specifically from carbohydrate. Of course it’s the carbohydrate that is the focus of diabetes. She told me the science of calories and grams of carbohydrate, then went on to ask me questions about the Marathon des Sables. She wanted to know how far I’d be walking each day, what the temperature would be in the Sahara, how much I weighed and how much my backpack would weigh. I really didn’t understand the reason for all of these specific questions, but answered them anyway. She then pulled out a chart and showed me, based on the information that I’d given, how many calories my body would need to complete the distance each day. Then, given the science behind grams of carbohydrate and calories, how much carbohydrate I would need to eat each day to be able to walk the expected distances.

I was gob-smacked! She made it all look so straight forward and scientific. It was purely mathematics. I was speechless. Then she asked me what my intension was for my insulin. I told her that I intended reducing my insulin each day, obviously. That is the standard approach taken by a diabetic when they are doing some exercise. She asked why I was planning on reducing it, to which I answered that it was the standard way. She would know that, surely. Then she said something that almost made me gulp. She said that, rather than reducing the dosage, she was going to advise that I raise the dosage by a significant amount.

What? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

I told her that I was very nervous about doing that and she agreed that she expected I would be. She must have heard that reaction previously when advising other diabetic sports people. To put it into simple words, she was advising me that I would use petrol to put out a fire instead of water, and that it was safe to do so. Then she went on to explain how the exercise / insulin / carbohydrate process works in a way that nobody else had ever explained it. Putting it into my simple words, she explained that insulin was like the pipe down which the carbohydrate flows into the cells to provide energy. When the cells need more energy because of exercise, they need more carbohydrate. To get more carbohydrate to them, they need a bigger pipe. As insulin is the pipe, they need more insulin. So more exercise? Then more carbohydrate so more insulin.

This was the case when the exercise was of the endurance type. When exercise is of the sprinting type, or just one day, this approach is not necessarily the right one. But for extreme endurance events, this was the way it worked.

After 34 years of managing my diabetes, I was in awe of this young lady. She had simply opened the door to whole new level of understanding for me. So much made sense now. I was able to think back to situations in the past and now understand how they had come about. If she happens to be reading this, thank-you very much for educating me.

Marathon des Sables – Preparation

Training for an event like this, in essence, involves lots and lots of kilometres over lots and lots of training walks. There is nothing that can be done to substitute for many kilometres on the road. By April 2009, after twelve months of pretty full-on training and preparation, I was regularly walking a marathon on one day of a weekend, plus a shorter walk on the other day. This in addition to the ongoing walks to work most mornings of the week. To say that our family life was centred around my training would be to understate it considerably.

By now I had overcome the problems I had discovered with my foot and overcome the issues surrounding the food I was going to be eating during the event. I had found food that was loaded with carbohydrate, was light, self contained and packaged in such a way that made it easy to carry and tough, so it could withstand the rigors of the desert. I still had to determine the food that I would be eating in the morning before each day’s walking and in the evening after each day’s walk.

I also had the extra consideration  of the long stage of the event, which was a distance of between eighty five and ninety kilometres. This stage was non-stop for that distance, so was going to take me at least twenty four hours and possibly as much as thirty six. So I needed to have food that would get me through that period without jeapodising my health and safety. I couldn’t just eat the “walking food” for that whole period; I would also need something more substantial during that time. But that was a decision for the future. Meanwhile I pushed on into the unknown territory of endurance.

Wilsons Prom

In my humble opinion, one of God’s gardens is the Wilsons Promontory national park in Victoria. This park of 125,000 acres, two hundred and twenty kilometres south east of Melbourne, was rescued from the ravages of mining before too much damage could be done. After much thinking, planning and plotting, I decided that Wilsons Prom could become part of my training. There are a number of rugged walking tracks around The Prom, with a loose network of tracks in the southern prom leading to the lighthouse. The lighthouse is near the southern most point of mainland Australia, but can only be approached either on foot after a long and arduous hike from Tidal River, or by boat with the threat of being dashed against the rocks of this forbidding piece of coast. It had always been a desire of mine to walk to the lighthouse, but now I had a real reason to do so. Plus now I’d been training for twelve months, so was more likely to be able to make the trek.

After making inquiries and getting all the maps I could find, I learned the track does a loop south along the west coast from Tidal River, then Oberon Bay, then down to the lighthouse, on up the east coast of the prom through Waterloo Bay, Refuge Cove and Sealers Cove, then back to Tidal River, a total distance of between fifty five and sixty kilometres. After twelve months of training I considered that I was now ready to tackle that challenge.

The original plan for my inaugural Wilsons Prom walk was to practice for the ninety kilometer non-stop leg of the Marathon des Sables by first doing the Lighthouse loop of around fifty five kilometres, followed immediately by a forty kilometre lesser loop track. The downright humour of that concept was yet to strike me.

After much consideration, planning, working through “what if” situations, determining my potential food requirements then multiplying them by one and a half, I considered I was ready. It was May 2009 and I set off for The Prom, as it is affectionately known in Victoria. Was I ready for this? Well in the last twelve months I had covered over two thousand kilometres of slogging up and down hilly, gravel roads with an ever increasing weight on my back, hiking along in all weather conditions except snow. I had walked through sunup into rain and completed marathons in the hail. I had never stopped and never given up. Yes, I considered I was ready for this.

I was wrong.

But before we jump to that conclusion, let’s get there in a step by step process that will open to you the humour behind my thinking. After leaving Melbourne and taking a couple of hours to drive to The Prom, everything was going to plan. I left Tidal River on time, at five o’clock in the morning, and walked in the dark south along the beach with my headlamp on. It was a bit eerie being in the dark, hearing the surf crashing on my right. Everything went to plan and I found myself at Oberon Bay on time and feeling OK.

By the time I was at the lighthouse, I was a little bit behind schedule. It had taken maybe an hour or so longer than I had anticipated to get there, but as this was my first visit to the lighthouse, I was thrilled just to be there. I had a rest, filled up my water, then continued on. So far I had completed about twenty kilometres of the planned ninety or more.

Forty minutes after leaving the lighthouse I came on a long, long up hill struggle which, by the time I got to the top, had my legs wobbling. I had felt this in the past with one stretch of the Oxfam Trailwalker. It too was a long up hill struggle and had caused similar difficulty. I pushed on up in some considerable discomfort, eventually getting to the top. Down the other side and on to Waterloo Bay was quite easy, but now I was some hours behind schedule. I was also starting to consider that the full double loop that I had originally planned may not be feasible. This became more apparent when I got to the end of Oberon Bay and was struggling along a wonky stretch of boardwalk. By now it was four thirty and my original plan had me almost back to Tidal River by now. And yet here I was only just over half way along on the first loop, with the sun soon to go down. This wasn’t looking good.

The marathon distance of forty two kilometres came and went with me now in considerable difficulty. Here I was in the middle of nowhere. It was pitch black at ten o’clock at night and my body was simply out of energy ……… or so I thought. My legs were shaking with the relentless up and down and bumping of the rough track …… or so I thought. I was so exhausted that I was losing my balance on slippery rocks and getting an agonising stream of leg cramps. This was no longer fun and I wasn’t enjoying myself. Oh, and to make sure that the picture was complete, it was now starting to rain lightly.

In my exhausted state my brain wasn’t working at 100%, so when confronted with a rocky area at the top of a hill, with an unclear track, I was unable to clearly determine the correct way forward. I tried numerous times to find which way the track went, even backtracking and then making another approach, to see if the direction suddenly became apparent. Sadly that didn’t happen. I knew that I was exhausted and therefore it was likely that my sugar was low. I also knew that I was close to the edge of a cliff, as I could hear the crashing of the waves way down below. With this combination of conditions, being exhausted, not thinking clearly and effectively lost, I decided to stop right there and sleep on the rock under the large poncho I was carrying.

Miraculously, the rest of that night went without drama. Sure I was exceedingly cold and uncomfortable, hunched as I was under a poncho on the top of a huge rock, but I had managed to survive the cold and light rain and was clear headed when dawn finally arrived. If anyone had seen me, it would have looked comical as light rain was still falling as I was trying to have my morning injections. So now I was sitting on a rock, under a poncho, fumbling around with my insulin pens trying to keep everything clean, dry and in order as I injected myself.

Another consideration at that moment was that Donna had no idea where I was or if I was still alive. Mobile telephone reception at Wilsons Prom in 2009 was rudimentary, so I hadn’t been in contact with her since three o’clock the previous afternoon. I was starting to imagine what she could be thinking and what she might be doing, but on that rock in the early morning light I was powerless to do anything about that. All I could do was get myself together and move towards Tidal River until I eventually found some signal.

Three hours later, after a long haul of climbing and slipping in the muddy conditions, my mobile phone suddenly sprang to life. It was now over eighteen hours since I had the last reception and people were getting concerned. As soon as the phone beeped the first time, I stopped where I was to avoid losing that pocket of signal. Message after message came flooding in from Donna, from one of my brothers and my daughters, all of them gravely concerned for my safety. By now my ancient phone was running short of battery, so I messaged Donna to tell her I was OK, and asked her to pass the message on. Not wanting to become like the boy who cried wolf, I wanted to allay people’s concerns so they had some left if ever I really needed it.

Once back in the comfort and safety of home, I winced at how this inaugural Lighthouse Loop had turned into a black comedy of errors. I struggled to believe how misguided my thinking had been and vowed to learn from the many mistakes. Not only did my original plan have me completing the big loop within twelve to fourteen hours, which on the gravel roads around our house was certainly possible, but it also had me then completing a second but smaller loop in the next eight to ten hours. I was kidding myself to the extreme. It finally took me around thirty hours to finish the first loop, and I could have died in the process. Sure I learned a lot along the way, but my misguided thinking was a real slap in the face. That had to become an important, if severe, lesson.

Four weeks later I was off to do it again, only this time changing many aspects of the plan from the first failure. Plus I was four weeks more fit. These Wilsons Prom adventures were only the icing on a very large cake of training day after day after day. By now I was walking sixty to seventy kilometres each week and often doing a full marathon on one day of the weekend. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when thinking back to this time, that I realized just how fit I had been in 2009. The strange part about it though was that I was constantly so exhausted and tired that I felt like the walking dead, rather than a honed athlete ready to take on the Sahara.

Many aspects of this second attempt remained the same as the first. I still left from Tidal River at the same time of day, heading in an anti-clockwise direction. But this time I had totally discarded any foolish notion of doing a second loop, being satisfied to simply finish the sixty kilometre main loop non-stop. That was my goal for this second attempt.

Well, it didn’t happen. But I did at least get further than the first time before having to stop. This time I had brought an alarm clock with me, so I could have confidence of waking up if I needed to stop along the way. And the alarm clock came in useful, if not maybe for the reason it was intended.

Being more aware now of what the conditions were like, I was able to make much better progress. It was still late afternoon daylight as I passed over the top of the rock that I had slept on the previous time. With a shiver I saw just how close I had been to the edge of the cliff that first time and was also able to see why finding the path down off the rock had been so difficult. I pushed on hard as the sun went down and the headlamp came out.

Walking along bush tracks with the headlamp is hard work, as the light from it is focused directly only on whatever is directly in front of you. It’s a bit spooky to be honest, until you get used to it and care is required when the ground is rocky. It would be far too easy to “do an ankle” on a slippery rock or tree root, so progress is significantly reduced. This was a good lesson for the overnight section in the Sahara. The rocks there won’t be slippery, but there are plenty of them and they can be rough and jagged.

Again I was a shell of a human being as I blundered into the Sealers Cove camp site at close to midnight. I was now working on autopilot, so considered that I could keep going, even though it was dark, cold, wet, miserable and still a long way to go. From Sealers Cove there is an unforgiving climb from the beach, along a damp, muddy track, to the top of the saddle and I wasn’t looking forward to that.

I thumped unceremoniously down the last bit of slope from the camp site to the water crossing. Anyone who happened to be camping at Sealers Cove that night would have thought that they were under attack from a Yeti or something. But I was stopped in my tracks when I got to the water’s edge. I knew that there was a wet crossing and was prepared for it. At extreme low tide, you can be very lucky and wade through quickly with not much water getting into your boots, but for most of the time this crossing was at least knee deep and often much more severe.

This was one of those times.

When I got to the water’s edge and turned my head to see where the water was, I had to stop and think for a moment. What was I looking at? I was expecting to see a strip of sand, then the water, then more sand about 30 metres beyond that. But instead I was seeing just water, right up to the small step down to the sand. The tide was up high, meaning that a water crossing would have me stripped off and holding all of my gear above my head, as I headed into the dark towards sand that I couldn’t see because it was too far away, with water possibly up to my neck. All of this while wearing my headlamp and trying to keep it dry.

Obviously none of that was about to happen. I had been stopped in my tracks by a significant high tide and had no choice but to find a place to sleep until the tide went down. So I turned around and headed back in the direction of the camping ground, which was back up the narrow track, in amongst the trees and bush. There were a few tents scattered around, so I crept around as best I could so as not to disturb those campers currently snuggled in their sleeping bags. Fortunately for me, over the years the park rangers at Wilsons Prom have gradually improved facilities and Sealers Cove now sported a wooden toilet block with a small verandah forming a shelter from any rain. So, putting any pride I may have left in my back pocket, I laid down on the hard boards of the verandah right outside the toilet doors, set my clock for the morning and tried to get some sleep.

After a short while, maybe thirty minutes, maybe only five, I became aware that I wasn’t thinking clearly. I should have been asleep by now, but instead my mind was racing in weird circles. Due to my current circumstances, it was clear to me that I needed to be hyper-vigilant as I was now into what I refer to as “endurance mode”. My current circumstances were tough and likely to get tougher before I got back to civilization, so when I recognized something odd happening with my head, I chose to assume the worst and have a fruit strip. As the effect of this started to kick in, it enabled me to realize just how bad my blood sugar level really was. It hadn’t occurred to me when I had stumbled in to Sealers Cove, but it was now becoming clear that I was on the verge of a desperate situation.

I took out one of the sports gels from the food pocket in my trousers and squeezed that down my neck. Then I followed that with another fruit strip. I sat there on the hard boards of the verandah to consider how I now felt and decided that another sports gel was required, as these are easier to get down than the fruit strips and act much more quickly. All of this was telling me just how bad my BSL had been when I had arrived at the camp ground. After another fruit strip, washed down with some water, I was finally confident that I would see morning, so curled up on the hard boards and got some sleep.

The next morning, when the world looked a whole lot different in the bright, morning sun, I pushed up the long hill from Sealers Cove, stopped to receive the anxious messages from Donna at the signal spot, then finally arrived back at Tidal River. When I called in to the rangers office to let them know that I had returned, the lady behind the counter was interested in what I was doing. I told her about the Sahara and then about attempting the Lighthouse Loop. She told me that doing the loop was a well known activity for those wanting to do something extreme, then asked me a strange question. She asked me which way I had gone around. I thought it odd that she should focus on that, but I told her that I’d gone anti-clockwise.

“Oh no, no, no” she said, “That’s the wrong way. You need to go clockwise.”

“Why?” I asked, intrigued that she should even have an opinion on the subject.

“Everyone who does the loop, and there’s a few extreme people who do it, all know that anti-clockwise is much too hard. Clockwise is easier. For a start, you’ve got that hell of a climb after you leave the lighthouse …”. Yes, I knew about that one.

“Then you’ve got the climb out of Sealers which, by that stage of your loop, is a real killer. No, the best way to do the loop is clockwise.”

So now I knew. My two attempts so far had both been virtually doomed to failure from the start, even by the experts. Learning this so suddenly and succinctly both sagged my shoulders and gave me a boost. I no longer felt like I’d failed and was immediately looking forward to the next loop in a month’s time. As Bullwinkle says to Rocky, “This time for sure”.

A month later I had managed to convince another fool, er I mean adventurer, to do the loop with me. Robin from my work was a long time bush walker although, being from New Zealand, he was more correctly a tramper. It was great to have somebody else along facing the challenges with me.

These walks were not easy by any stretch, so to be able to share the experience also meant sharing expertise. One of the things that I had learned by now was the importance of hydration supplements in the water, or electrolytes, or whatever you wish to call them. They all achieve the same purpose, no matter how you have them. Robin had never attempted anything quite as grueling as this before and found at about the half way mark that he was spent, and was suggesting that he was going to take the shorter path back so as not to stop me from completing the loop. I could tell his condition by how he was looking. With some encouragement, and by showing him the package that they came in, I was able to coerce him to give them a try, so put two in his water bottle. These supplements act like magic and over the next ten minutes his mood and his physical condition picked up significantly. By the time we got to the spot where the tracks diverge, he was feeling good enough to continue towards the lighthouse. Still drinking the water with the supplements, by the time we got to the lighthouse he admitted that he felt magnificent.

Robin never again suggested he was going to cut a loop walk short. Electrolytes are important. This was going to come back much into the future to haunt me.

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