Sahara Race (Namibia) – a lesson in life 4

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It has been a while since my last article on this blog. I believe I’m not the only one who wonders, at 11 in the evening, when did the day go, in this daily fuss. Family, job, training, recovery, parenting … and here goes the lot. All at high-speed, as if there is no time to enjoy and to take in what happens. But today I decided to take a deep breath, to detach of it all and to tell you how my first CaliVita 7 Deserts race went.

It’s been two weeks since my return but I remember everything in crisp detail, as if it happened yesterday. If I close my eyes I can feel the Atlantic Ocean breeze, the sun heating everything up as in an oven, the fine sand getting everywhere. I remember the beautiful, positive people with inspirational life stories, I can hear the sound of steps sinking ankle-deep in sand, I can taste the dry food which I started to really hate towards the end of the race, I can feel the wounds on my feet, the bad times agony and the bliss of good ones, the joy of getting my medal at the end of the race and the sense of personal achievement brought about by successfully completing a challenge like this.

To get the full picture of what this race meant to me, we should start with the beginning. On August 1st last year I was bursting into a more than insane training program, spreading over an eight months period, program which I intended to follow to the letter and meant to prepare me as well as possible for this monster project: 7 extreme races covering distances between 250 and 522 km, on each of the seven continents, all of this in order to raise funds needed to afforest 7 acres in Southern Romania and to support “Padurea Copiilor” (Children’s Forrest) Association, for whom I ran since three years already. It was my most ambitious project so far, a huge challenge both physically and logistically.

Luckily (indeed, I feel fortunate) I met people who immediately joined me and made this project happen, materialize beyond the stage of just an idea or a plan. I don’t want to call them partners or sponsors. These words are too magniloquent. And this is because I consider them first and foremost friends, who were and are supporting me in all these crazy adventures I throw myself into head first. They don’t ask and don’t expect too much of me, and this makes our relationship extremely warm and authentic, so that I don’t feel any pressure and just mind my training. And for this I thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Did I want too much?

Most of those reading my blog probably know I had surgery on my left knee eight years ago, namely a meniscectomy surgery. After a half a year recovery period followed by seven months training I managed to run my first marathon, in Athens, in the autumn of 2011. It was love at first sight and I somehow knew long distance running will be part of my life from then on. I ran over 20.000 km in training and races and I didn’t feel the slightest discomfort in my left knee. So the days were passing by, training was according to plan and I was confident everything will go as expected. Until one day when my left knee began to swell in my meniscus area and I started to feel pain and discomfort during training as well as after. At the beginning I suspected over-training or maybe it was the effect of jumping a warm-up or stretching session, but pain became more and more acute. This was the moment when I met Virgil who used physiotherapy and massage to relieve me from some nasty contractures in my lumbar area, which caused imbalances which, in turn, seriously affected my whole running posture and bio-mechanics. I only then understood how complex everything was and how a simple cervical or lumbar contracture could draw upon the hip or knee joint and has effects on running posture. On his advice, I took a MRI and then the bomb exploded. This happened one month before leaving for Namibia. MRI result: a 6 cm meniscal cyst. Given the very short time left until the race, the solution was a kineto-therapy program (thank you so much, Alina!) and punctures in my knee to get liquid out and release the pressure, followed by injecting drugs which will reduce the swelling, at least for a while. I took the first shoot at Medsana and the second – three days before leaving for Namibia – at CentroKinetic, under the supervision of dr. Bogdan Andrei.

I know this was quite a long introduction, but I wanted to give you the complete picture of what this race meant to me, from all angles.

Hello Africa! Runners with their knees in their bag are also welcome?

And so I left for Namibia with quite a low morale, but I was trying to see the half-full side of the glass. I was going to run in an amazing landscape of which I only knew from books and I was about to meet exquisite people. Sahara Race Namibia is part of a four races circuit called 4 Deserts, alongside Gobi March (China), Atacama Crossing (Chile) and The Last Desert (Antarctica). Each of those are 250 kilometers long, take one week and require one to be self-sufficient to complete. Which means runners carry a 10kg backpack containing all they need to survive: food, equipment, medical and hygiene stuff.  You forgot to pack something? Tough luck! The organizers are only providing shelter in tents at the end of each stage, water at hydration points and medical assistance, if needed. The rest is the responsibility of each runner, each manages and gets to the finish line the best s/he can by him/herself. And the stages for Sahara Race were as follows:
-stage 1: 39km
-stage 2: 40km
-stage 3: 43km
-stage 4: 82km
-stage 5: 40km
-stage 6: 10km

Surprisingly, by the time I got there (the trip took some 24 hours), the inflammation significantly withdraw and I started to hope again that my knee would let me run as I planned and trained for.

You can’t get away from what you fear

Rolling back the movie of what happened during that week in the desert, I now realize the whole race was an emotional roller coaster. Even if the profile was quite flat, without significant altitude gain, the emotions profile was more difficult than the toughest mountain ultra I ran so far. I rejoiced, I cried with pain, I felt frustrated and helpless, only to rejoice again and so forth, kilometer by kilometer, step by step, up to the finish.

I started the first stage with a huge appetite for running, as I didn’t experience in a long time. Despite the 30 degrees at only 8AM and the almost 10kg backpack, I felt no pressure in my knee. And that made me happy.

But everything lasted for exactly 5km, when my knee crackled and for a few moments I could not step on it. The ecstasy of leading the race quickly turned into frustration, desperation and despair. These were the first 5 out of 250 km. The first day out of 7 and I couldn’t believe it was happening right then. Other runners started to pass in front as I continued in tears for the next few kilometers. Took me a little while to boost my morale and to think I didn’t get there to feel sorry for myself but to run. As best as I could. Which I did. But each step was a trial and it took me awhile to get used to the pain and to acknowledge it will be there with me for the whole week. I was convinced it won’t get away so it was just a matter of mutual habituation. I finished the first stage on 16th place in the general table and, as soon as I got to the tent, after preparing my recovery drinks (All Stars Amino BCAAAll Stars 100% Whey ProteinSyntech L-Glutamine), I spent one hour taping my blistered toes and then I tried to rest for the next day stage. The term “rest” in a race like this is quite relative, as one shares the tent with 7 other people, each with his/her own habits. Furthermore, it gets quite cold at night in the desert, so one doesn’t exactly get a very refreshing good night sleep.

The Show must go on!

The morning starts strong. You cannot linger as organizers must pick up camp and move it to the next finish line. There is no need for an alarm clock. The hustle and bustle in base camp wakes you up, willingly or unwillingly. Like a tiny robot, I followed the same ritual every morning. I would pack my sleeping bag, check my gear and pack everything in my backpack. Then I would take my CaliVita supplements (NoniResveratrol PlusIron PlusMagneZiB6Curcuma ProPanax GinsengOmega3 Concentrate), I’d hydrate well, eat a handful of nuts and – 30 minutes before the start – I’d take a SiS (Science in Sport) electrolytes gel. God bless and off I went. This type of multi-stage races contains lots of variables and there is a very thin line between success and failure. Each day and each stage are completely different, starting from the running surface (big dunes, small dunes, sharp boulder fields, dried riverbeds even mountains), up to the temperature and humidity and the way your body takes those, considering the previous days effort.

The 40 kilometers of the second stage felt more difficult, despite my backpack getting lighter day by day. The previous day effort took its toll. It was getting significantly warmer and humidity caused by the proximity to the ocean made the heat even harder to bear. But somehow I managed to find resources to maintain my speed to the limit between too slowly and too quickly, in order to save my knee for the following stages. All my suffering was rewarded by the most spectacular landscapes and at the end of the stage I was amazed to notice that the base camp was set at the foot of a sand dune and a few hundred meters behind there was the Atlantic Ocean. I was the 15th runner to cross the finish line and I realized that would probably be my running level for the rest of the week, under the circumstances. I didn’t want to push harder and to risk not finishing the race or, even worse, to jeopardize my participation in the other 6 races in CaliVita 7 Deserts calendar.

Each morning at 07:30 we had a briefing where the course for the day was presented. The briefing of the third day caught my attention in a particular way, as we were getting ready to run a 20km stretch of beach and to come close to a seals colony. We hence had a 43 km stage with a lot of sand, featuring small dunes and an endless beach where at that time of the year more than 100.000 seals congregated; they seemed scared and puzzled by the sight of some crazy people dressed like Robocop who were running towards them. Facing a strong wind on the last 10 km, I reached the finish line on 11th.

Highway to Hell

In the evening everybody was a little anxious, talking about the long stage awaiting us the next day. About 82 km of hell, as we were expecting the warmest day yet. I remember standing at the start line and trying to imagine how it will be. 14-16 hours of effort on an unknown terrain which felt just like an oven, maniacally fed by someone showing coal into it… I started at a moderate pace, knowing that what mattered here wasn’t the start, but how best to batch energy for the whole length in such a way as to arrive alive and in a (fairly good) condition at the finish line. On the first 30 km we faced the same strong wind as in the previous stage.

Looking at it after, I realize maybe it was better like this, as otherwise I would have been tempted to run faster. Back then, though, I hated it with all my heart. Everyone was cursing “Bloody wind”. The combination of sand and head wind squeezed out every bit of energy and made you feel like you were making no progress. At lunchtime, temperatures reached 47-48 degrees and many runners just gave up. It was the stage with most withdrawals, 15-16 if I remember correctly. The effort, and dehydration, combined with ignoring signals your body gives you at times like this can literally take you out without even noticing. I saw people lying down or having drips administered; there were people being moved around by organizers or just aware of what was happening to them but unwilling to continue.

I was getting through two other long stages like this one at Marathon des Sables and I knew everything will be ok if I could make it through the roaster at lunch time. As evening fall, I somehow managed to find another gear and I started to run even faster than when I begun in the morning. It was chilly and I found – I don’t know where – the resources to carry on. On the last 15-20 km I caught up with at least 6-7 runners who probably started off too hard and were now slowly walking towards the finish line. I finished 18th in 16 hours and 5 minutes and I found it hard to believe that the most difficult part was behind us.

The important thing is to Want, not to Wish

For the following two stages (40km and 10km) I gave it my all, ignoring the knee which held me back for each step. I somehow felt I could press on a little harder and it won’t give way. I finished this stages on 9th and 5th respectively, and in the overall tables I managed to climb on the 11th place. The instant Samantha, the course director, awarded me with my medal I felt freed, relieved, at ease and joyful I managed to successfully finish this race, despite the problems encountered along the way.

It was a race that taught me a lot about myself, during which I learned what I can and what I cannot do, a race that unfolded me just like the leaves of an onion, a race that hardened me both physically and mentally. I experienced things and I got over moments which I never imagined I could. I dug in the deepest corners of my mind, I fell and got back up on my feet dozens of times, and I feel fulfilled land happy to be able to slap myself at the end and to say to myself “You pulled this off, you idiot!”. You don’t want to know how many of this inner dialogue I had with myself during this week …

This is why I love ultra marathons. This is why I simultaneously love and hate this kind of races. Because every time I discover a new ME. Not necessarily stronger or smarter, but better fit for whatever life will throw at me.

For those interested in statistics, oh well, the new Garmin Fenix5x measured all possible and impossible parameters for this race and I have to admit it is a gadget which kept me entertained even after I finished the stages, as I would press all its buttons (and I also only had to charge it twice during the whole week)

Stage 1:

Stage 2:

Stage 3:

Stage 4:

Stage 5:

Stage 6:

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