Sun, Sand, Snow, Slam!

TrailRunMag 18.11.2012

Roger Hanney takes stock of three deserts down, one to go…

As much as it might make us sound like afficionados of self-gratification, every member has started spoken sentences at some point in the past 12 days with the phrase, “when we were in the Sahara”. But it’s entirely possible that we have used the phrase, “next week, when we’re in Antarctica,” even more frequently.

But having just outlasted the limitless heat, boundless horizons and bottomless sands of the Sahara to rush back and finish organising snow goggles, waterproof gaiters, and Everest-proof mittens for Team Born to Run, it’s safe to say that this dream is almost real, and it’s going to be near impossible to beat.

For many runners, ‘living the dream’ might mean running a sub-3 marathon, a 2:20 perhaps. Or maybe it’s a sub-1-hour City to Surf, a sub-4 Six Foot Track, a sub-10 100-kay, a sub-24 100-miler, but it probably doesn’t involve running with all your food for the coming week crammed into a backpack under your sleeping bag, toilet paper, and fork.

matt Donovan gets his sandbagging groove on

That said, even dreams that end well can feature sensations of checked motion, running without moving, and no place of shelter or sense of time productively passed. Sahara was certainly a race of three halves. The illness and near-catastrophe of Gobi left us psyched for a trouble-free race in the classic Egyptian desert of childhood stories. And it started so well, we thought.

Amazing campsite, an incredible desert night wth a full moon so bright that just 3 planets and no stars were visible, and we were ready to run. For 25km. Then it was a first day death march, as Born to Run founder Greg Donovan succumbed to heat – lots of heat – and we barely jogged it in. A virus the previous week, Big Red Run in the Simpson Desert to organise and launch, a charitable foundation to promote, a daughter to marry off, daily to-do lists with over 100 tasks to complete – none of these were helping as he lay in the medical tent.

To replace fluid and restore salt levels without administering a dreaded race-ending IV drip, doctors had him drinking high volumes of beef bouillon – soup stock. Between his first and second pee of the day, roughly 13 hours and 18 litres of water, electolyte, sports drink, and cold soup had passed – or failed to pass. Dehydration is a beast to run through, and without spending hours on a hot course without cooling or shade relief, it’s hard to understand just what it means to bottom out on Day 1 of a multiday.

At any rate, going for the next 3 days was sunny, sandy, slow, and sometimes sour. This is the team challenge. It’s perhaps why no team has – yet – bagged the 4 Deserts Grand Slam. After 160km covered slowly in survival mode, knee deep soft sand dunes, significantly more time on feet than anticipated, and moments of discord within the group, usually dissipated by spending more time with other runners on course, a painful 87km was expected for the LONG hot day 5.

Jess Baker making it look tough, as always

Even the ever-effervescent Jess Baker fizzled a little in this unique landscape where beauty and cruelty are clearly well-established partners. But a turnaround was on the cards, and though the 5th day might have been something for our aforementioned 2:20ers to scoff at, it was steady, determined, and it saw Greg storming through checkpoints without pause for chat or cheers. And, out of character, the ever-ready Ron Schwebel became our Gollum for close to 10km, an imagined figure chasing us through the night and hopefully catching but, at best, matching our pace.

With nightfall, the game changed entirely. Tempo lifted as a newlycool breeze buoyed weathered spirits. Did I not mention that we had mentioned the 20km checkpoint earlier in the day with freshly boughtfrosty cans of cola, for our trot through the open-air UNESCO whale burial ground, scattered with the bones and intact skeletons of prehistoric whales from tens of millions of years ago? They were land giants who fed on mangroves and would ultimately evolve by leaving land to go into the ocean.

But that was 7 hours ago. Now we’re running across the Sahara, lit by stars and moonlight, cranking the Ayups when romantic notions of night running away from civilization give way to the hunger for a pre-midnight finish.

Amazing terrain quickly lost ita thrill for some…

Once again, Greg’s son Matt shone through as everybody put it in to get home. Jess ran up and down, just for some extra mileage, pushing back against any inclination to slow as many runners typically do late in an ultra.

Uphill, exhausted, across an expanse of distance twice our expectations as was so often in this land of distorted perspective, the team finished hand in filthy sweaty hand at 9 seconds to midnight. Job. Done.

The following day’s history lesson about the desert’s tribes and geology, and even the jawdropping run from the Sphinx, past the Pyramids to a much-welcomed Finish Line did not displace the lesson of the week. Sometimes the greatest joy is to be found in the greatest struggle.

And sand in your sleeping bag SUCKS!!!!

As I write this, we’re roughly 5 hours flying time from Santiago, Chile. Then Buenos aires, and the southern tip of Argentina, Ushuaia, where we’ll get a bit used to the cold, shed some jetlag, and board a boat to the Antarctic coast. On the way across Drake’s Passage, it is forecast that 90 per cent of us will become seasick. After 2 days, rubber duckies will whisk us and emergency survival gear to a penguin-dotted shore where we hope to run 100km on the first day. By the end of the week,we will be the first team to bag the slam, Greg and Matt will be the first father and son to take out this challenge as well, I’ll be the first person living with type 1 diabetes, and a number of other world firsts will also draw further positive attention for our cause, the Foundation, and

It’s gonna be a huge ending, and a big new beginning.

Living the dream!!

– RH