Despite the good day on Stage 3, my start to the day was somewhat subdued. I spent a long time taping my feet, and they were very sore, especially once my trainers were on. This was not boding well for a 50mile outing lasting well into the night.
Paula, Rich and I agreed to tackle the day together and to take it at a nice steady, but sustainable pace. Fine intentions at this point in the day. To our credit we remained together and looked out for each other throughout the entire stage and as a result we put in a pretty good time, and finished in reasonably good shape.
The start of the day was hot and more humid than before, though luckily the wind had died down overnight leaving a clear bright day. It was a pretty brutal start, straight into the dunes and then up a massive Jebel. It was an odd sight to crest the summit only to find a helicopter parked at the top. Our slog up the ascent was rewarded with a fantastic steep descent in soft sand. I threw myself down the slope quickly losing control and almost careering into one of the photographers who had been hoping to capture a good shot of the descent rather than a face full of sand. We gathered together at the check point and emptied the sand from our shoes. I was reticent to do this knowing the pain caused by putting my feet in my shoes in the mornings, and as it turns out my gaiters had hardly let any sand in and I needn’t have bothered.
|The easy way to the top.|
The section to CP2 at 24km was pretty flat, but sandy in places. At the check point we didn’t hang about and headed off, into the dunes. Small ones at first, then getting steadily bigger and bigger, through CP3 at 37km and pretty much to CP4 at 60km. 20+ miles of sandy terrain in the middle of a 50 mile stage – that’s just cruel. Luckily by now my calf muscle didn’t seem to mind the soft sand, though I couldn’t be sure that the pain from that wasn’t just being drowned out by the constant throbbing in my trainers.
To hammer home quite how slowly, or steadily, we were going not long after CP2, the lead runners started to go past us having set off some 3 hours after us – what had taken us 5 hours had taken them 2. Unreal. It looked so effortless, but at least we got to see those who for most of the rest of the race were so far ahead of us.
At CP3 we were issued with our glow sticks which we were to attach to our packs when it got dark. By CP4 we were losing daylight. The wind had got up too leaving us with a dilemma. We’d been using our sunglasses to protect our eyes from the sand but as it got dark and we put headtorches on it became apparent that we couldn’t make progress with dark glasses and so had to take a chance without them. We’d been going 10 hours and covered 50km, at a really constant pace. I was tired and in pain, but felt strong and positive, I’d been eating at regular intervals and keeping reasonably well hydrated, although we still had over 6 hours still to go.
After that it was pretty hard to tell exactly what terrain we were covering. Apart from a line of green glow sticks trailing off into the distance ahead of us, and white head torches behind, there was no light at all, complete pitch black. Outside of the glow of the head torch beam there could have been anything. It was hard to keep in contact with Paula and Rich and I had my head down just trying to keep my pace up and get finished as soon as possible. Both of them were nearby, but all the head torch beams looked the same and unless we shouted out it was impossible to tell who was who. Underfoot there was still quite a lot of sand, interspersed with harder rocky ground. A laser beam shone out from a hill just up from CP5 which I hadn’t realised and it frustrated me that we weren’t at the check point. Luckily it was only about a kilometre further on at 60km.
CP5 to CP6 was much of the same and we kept to the 5km/hour we’d been tapping out all day. Still feeling strong I was reluctant to sit still at the check point, but Rich and Paula needed a few minutes to sort themselves out and we ended up spending 15 minutes at the check point. With only 10km to go I wanted to keep going, but we’d stuck together so far, it seemed really churlish to head off ahead of them now.
In the last 10km, Rich appeared to be struggling, demonstrating that the brief rest at the check point had probably been a sensible option. As we set off into the last mini-dunes and grassy / rocky ground to the finish, again we could see the bivouac but getting to it took a while. It turns out the race leader, and last year’s winner had broken an ankle running over this terrain earlier in the day and it’s easy to see how. You had to weave to make a path through the grass and underneath the ground was either soft and unstable or very uneven. Rich had dropped a little way back so Paula and I slowed right up, and eventually waited briefly, then out of the darkness he came, trotting along swearing liberally to himself to keep going. He was reluctant to slow so all three of us started trotting the final km gradually getting faster and faster. It was an incredible feeling, and quite surreal as Rich’s swearing turned into some kind of Grand National type commentary. We were so close, had been going so long and were so relieved to get over the line, and ecstatic and very emotional.
This buzz lasted until well after we got back to the tent, much to the annoyance I’m sure of the 4 others who were in already – only Andy was behind us and then only by a few minutes. The whole tent did fantastically well, and we were reported to be the first complete tent to have finished the long stage. Darryl managed to come in 2nd finisher in about 10hrs 30 minutes which is just incredible and put him well inside the top 50 overall.
Back in the tent there was the need for some recovery drinks and basic food before getting into my sleeping bag. The feet would have to wait until the morning. Once again however the wind got up and blew in yet another sand storm which lasted all night and into the following day.