Sahara Blog: Day 5

The NABS team wraps up its final treacherous day of racing in the desert, raising a total of $97,000 in pledges.
Day 5 Group Effort

Mandrake CEO Stefan Danis is racing across the Sahara with a team of eight Toronto marcom executives to raise money for NABS. Follow his progress as he blogs about the experience…

Day 5: Horrible, Beautiful Long Day

Some extraordinary highlights on the NABS front: all eight of our runners took on the 87 km day and six completed it, which, given the course’s conditions, was beyond anything I could have imagined. It speaks to the indomitable spirit everyone brought here. Oddly, at various points in time during the day, each felt much better than in the first two or three hours of the race. How could one go and run/walk 87 km in the desert if the night before they were on an IV drip or on antibiotics? That’s what a couple of our Canadian women did. While I never doubted they could, it seemed very improbable. Seems like the meditative sort of drug kicked in after 10 or 12 hours, when the sun came down. They are all safe, healthy and, despite the blistered feet, dirtiness, bandages, IVs and antibiotics, most will say there’s no place they’d rather be.

To give a visual, I am typing while lying in the sand with my feet up, as they swell within minutes. The 100 metre walk to the dug-in and draped squatting-only washrooms feels like a mile away, and most are walking much slower than the oldest senior you know. It is zombie-land. People from different nationalities speaking foreign languages look at each other, smile and shake their heads, wondering what happened to all these fit people who showed up in Cairo a week ago. The desert has done its thing. Life hands out tough challenges and this is likely the toughest week the NABS crew has had to overcome; if not, it is certainly the hardest one they have chosen of their own will.

But it is over and tomorrow, we all get to have a photo op running in front of the pyramids! Our challenge is over, other than some healing required. Meanwhile most of what NABS can do is offer hope that healing will come soon. What I am convinced of is that our individual adversity quotient will rise and future tests/encounters will seem simpler and more manageable when they arise. Life’s simpler pleasures will be more treasured, like a glass of cold water, a shower or clean clothes, which we would all gladly pay a fortune for right this minute.

In my tent, buddy Mehmet Danis was going to go for broke to try to catch the guys in front. He never caught them but ended two minutes behind Eric, a former winner, and Dan Parr, another former winner. Tomorrow as we rise to the pyramids, we can actually stay close to them and watch the mechanics of gifted athletes who are also likely the hardest working runners in the world who are non-professionals. Our pain threshold is mainly around managing the physical toll on the lower body and trying to retain a positive attitude to keep moving. Theirs include doing so while competing full out and having their heart rate in the red zone without collapsing.

Mehmet’s performance is hard to describe unless you are here. To put it in perspective, he is more than one hour per marathon faster than we are as a team, but his gift is how he elevates everyone in our tent and NABS with just-in-time observations on gear, strategy or defusing stressful situations with humour. Louie is also racing extraordinarily well and he sits mid-teens. He is a frequent customer of the medical tent too.

We had a team briefing the night prior and discussed our strategy for the day. We concluded that for a win, the Italian team would need to have an implosion. Sad when strategy is based on surviving to be around to fight the last round but that was it. We agreed to run our race but stay in visual contact, and attack at kilometre 50 if we were still alive ourselves.

The pace was blistering and we were with, in front, or just behind until 20 km, Ernie mostly leading. The checkpoint had a retail store and we grabbed a coke for Sophie, her chosen sugar booster for later. We cursed not buying out the whole store – why did we only buy one? Then we started to rise for 10 km or so in the Valley of the Whales, where petrified sea animals can easily be found. The pace was such that I took pictures, while running – I look forward to seeing the whales when I get pictures from other runners! Sophie did much of the leading.

We kept a visual with the lead team and started getting closer. By 30 km we would enter a checkpoint for water pitting and they would leave it. At 40 km, while ascending a massive, steep sand dune, their pain was evident. I led most of that stage, feeling like I was having just the right level of electrolytes to keep me going painlessly. By 50 km, we entered the checkpoint a minute apart. Mental calculation was to get ahead by the next checkpoint, take 10 minutes at the seventh, another 15 at the eighth, and 20 on the last one to erase our 45-minute deficit. An unlikely and tall order, but it was the only way to gradually make it work to make out a W. I got excited; it was unfolding as I thought.

The way my mind was working at this point is that I’d suffered nine months of training, made countless sacrifices and I wanted no regrets. We made a first pass at them and they responded as expected. Fine. We did a second one and they did. With months invested, I was going to go down swinging, trying, 100 times if need be. I remembered thinking I was doing my best in the Gobi March when I knew I was first Canadian and first in my age class on the 80 km long day. I had needed another Canadian to blow by to awaken in me what was possible and to show me I had in fact settled. Settling is insidious – it sickened me and ultimately I pursued him down. I never caught him but felt so alive going to exhaustion and just learning there is always a little more in you than you think there is, all that untapped stuff we never access, or are blind to.

I’ll spare the experience of kilometre 55 but it became apparent we weren’t in a position to die trying. It was a huge setback to me as finishing #2 meant nothing per se, I preferred to go for broke. Imagine the conversation taking place as our team discussed our feelings on the matter next to a team of four Italians within inches of us, themselves being marshalled to respond. I blew my top, couldn’t contain it. It was horror.

After a few minutes, using some of the techniques I have been learning to bounce back quickly and clear myself of the feelings that can rob me of a good moment, I had let it go. It wasn’t going to happen. And if not, honour them and help each other get to the finish line as fast as possible, together. I talked to Roberto, then he to Paolo their captain and we agreed to move as fast as possible and help each other get the day done. It was a gentlemen’s agreement (sorry Soph) and everyone relaxed.

The sun was setting, and it became a beautiful night to cherish forever. We were building a memorable finish, seven of us together. Roberto is a prince, with five kids including four girls, and he kindly offered advice on teenage-hood – perhaps you get more authentic advice after 65 km? He remarked that the colour of the Sahara is very much like his hometown of Siena. As for the Sahara, all of Siena is homogeneous looking. I remember finding the city absolutely beautiful, and years later finding out is it an actual color in the paint department. Same with Sahara, one grade lighter.

Enrique talked about his love of running and tennis. He shared he owned a home in France too. We talked about our families, we had so many similarities. Michele, the 2:30 marathoner, doesn’t speak English, and his legs do the talking. Soph was happy, she liked their smell; they are clean shaven, eat real food, and wear cologne I think. I ran next to Paolo, the captain, who is a celebrity runner in Italy, and we went as hard as we could without talking for extended periods of time, lights turned off, using the moon light to guide us. And we walked a lot too. He shared that he practiced running on the beach with eye covered to increase the tactility of his feet so he could run at night in the desert, free and uninhibited. He is one of these guys who has combined personal interest with profession; he no longer is an ER, he is now a personal trainer. His science background has allowed him to leverage nutrition and he shared how they prepared for the race, including blood analysis and required blood nutrients and minerals to optimize it for the heat. It was very informative and the opening for that conversation hadn’t been possible until that point. They left little to chance; I even had his publicist send me an email after reading my blogs! You could say he took this race seriously, as I did. He suggested we do one of these together one day, in the same team.

I ran next to a world class champion in the middle of the night in the Sahara, after having started at 7 a.m. that morning. It was beautiful. The seven of us crossed the finish line together laughing with their camera crew in tow filming it, exchanging polenta for sport beans. We came in second but gave a good fight; the closest 1-2 finish in RacingThePlanet’s team competition history. They thanked us for pushing them and we did the same.

We need to nurse our body parts, Ernie has a bad ankle and Sophie’s feet are badly mangled up. Sophie is an incredible champion; she won the women’s category by six or seven hours overall but because she is registered as part of our team, she and others here will know but she will be without the large trophy. Also the highest finish for a woman as part of a team entry – we came in the top 20 overall as a team.

Tonight we will have the cigars, champagne and polenta, and close the chapter and make it a memory to savour. And more important, I read we were now at $97,000 for NABS! Thanks for your encouragements and pledges.

Carpe diem,
Stefan