28 April 2015

The end of a beginning

I've been contemplating this post for a week now, possibly hedging, as it marks a conclusion; my rambling ruminations on the miles covered and the races run will quiet for a while and my focus will shift from accumulating miles to honing my skills and preparing for life's next adventures.

The races of the 12 for 12 for 1200 series.
What has this year brought? It signaled a fresh start for me, a way to return both to who I feel I am and to who I want to become. It confirmed the end of other things, things to which I had to say good-bye and leave behind. Beyond those introspective tidbits, it was a mission and so, first and foremost - just over $10,000 to the two organizations. I am humbled by your contributions that help these foundations to do their work. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Second, the amazing people I have met (both virtually and in person) and the true blue friends I have, from those who have known me for over 20 years to those who have known me for only two; I am forever grateful for your support and I hope that our friendships become stronger as we continue to grow and change.

Third, this year allowed me the opportunities to travel and explore and to both remember my strengths and realize all that I am capable of accomplishing. I have more to give and I plan to do so wherever I next land.

MDS2015, Stage Two
What's next on my journey? A new career in which I can continue my work supporting veterans; I plan to stay involved in this area as long as I am providing something worthwhile. I am hopeful that this means a move to D.C. is likely this summer (a big change for the munchkins, to be sure, but one which I hope to make as smooth as possible). And for racing? I will be back at the line for the MCM in October, and between now and then, I am eyeing a few 24-hour races, a 50-miler and perhaps a 50K. I want to tackle an 100-miler soon.

Once I am settled in a new locale, my second goal is to obtain additional coaching credentials and assist with at-risk youth athletic programs. Details are slim, much is in flux and pieces are shifting as I find how they match and create a new image. I will continue to post here; as my focus adjusts, the topics may change but I will share any new adventures with you all.

Thank you for this incredible experience. Boom.

A window in my room. (Marrakech, Morocco)

19 April 2015

A desert in Barbary: A long day and a cup of tea

MdS Race Recap: Stages 4 & 5

8 Apr, 0800GMT: Stage Four, 91.7km (56.98mi):

Tent 178, ready for the long day.
There are two more pages of maps. 

Note the start of the dunes at CP4, 50.2km
The dunes continued through CP6, at 74.8km. Whew.
There is now a visible swelling in the fore area above my right ankle and it is tender to the touch. I have no idea what it is but the residual inflammation has caused my ankle and foot to swell, resulting in a less-than-pleasant putting on of my shoe for the long stage.

Ahhh, the long stage. That moment in time, 15 years ago, when my knee failed me and I was pulled from the course in the middle of the night. This was the stage I had been looking toward, ready to stiff-arm anything that came between me and its completion.
A windy starting line. 
One of the neat things about the race is that the top 100 racers start three hours after everyone else, so as you are going, they come up on you and it is remarkable and inspiring to see them run past. Mosi and Ricky ran together and, to give you an idea of just how talented they both are, they finished at 2200GMT, about 13 hours after the start. Wow.

It took me a little longer. The day started windy and it never once abated, blowing up sand and dust throughout the entirety of the stage. Around CP1 (out of 7), I fell in with an Australian named Ryan, whom Mosi & I had chatted with on the course several times in the previous days. We ran and walked at intervals, mostly dictated by terrain, and had a nice rhythm going. Although we didn't talk a ton because of the heat and effort, he was perfect company, with his boundless energy and positive vibe.
He's totally surf chillin', I'm throwing up numbers to remember where in the race I am. Sheesh. 
Our day got more interesting about halfway between CP1 and CP2, when we came upon a fellow runner who had gone down and was now sitting on the side of the route, white and clammy, with an inoperable GoSpot locator. Three other runners stopped to help (including Sarah from Tent 177), and we laid her down, got her legs up and they put water on her neck gaiter and head while I got her GoSpot working and sent the signal indicating we needed medical help (batteries had died). I had packed a Skratch Rescue Hydration mix sachet and I poured it into a water bottle and slowly gave it to her, while one of the other runners used his sleeping mat to provide shade.

When the medics arrived, the runner asked us to stay. She was determined to finish the stage and the race and was terrified that the medics would pull her. We told her we'd let them know, but that for the moment, she needed to get fluids in her system and rest until she was well enough to get back on the course. After the medics got the I.V. going, and we were reassured that she was going to be okay, Sarah, Ryan and I continued. Unbeknownst to me, the moment was captured (Mosi sent me this image two days ago):

Photo: Ian Corless
For the record, she finished both the stage and the race. 
Ryan and I slogged on, and as the sun set, I tried to capture the moment on video:

I was apparently very tired at that point. Here's the official video of Stage Four (pt1):

We made it into CP4 as the sun was setting and, after a quick meal, donned our headphones and continued. We made it into CP5, halfway through the dunes, at XXXkm, around 2330, and after a welcome cup of hot tea, continued on into the night. Funny things happen at night, and I found myself staring at the sand wondering how much there might actually be and how big of a beach it would make. I also followed insect trails in hopes of seeing a scorpion or something unusual, which I finally did but was too fumble-fingered to get a picture of it. We were each in our own world, but keeping tabs on the other (we'd set up a system of turning off our headlamps to indicate a pee stop) and even with Sting keeping me in movement, I could hear Ryan singing out loud to his tunes, which was strangely comforting. There was no discernable skyline and dust and sand swirled about, smudging the moonlight into pale indifference.

We completed the 24.6km of dunes and approached CP6 at about 0230. I was cold. I hadn't been able to eat or drink anything since about 0030, and I couldn't get warm, even though I was wearing my lightweight down jacket. Looking around the CP, there were bodies massed under and amongst the two Berber tents set up, but still exposed to the relentless wind. As soon as we stopped to refill our water bottles, I started shaking. I asked Ryan if we could just stop for an hour to warm up and then keep going. He agreed and pulled out his sleep sack and we huddled behind three other runners, our shoes still on. My shaking got worse and I ended up pulling my sleep sack out and he bear-hugged me until I stopped shaking, by which time my body was aching from its warming effort.

The sun was creeping by the time we started off again, with only 18km to go. It took almost four hours, partly because I was moving so slowly and still not warm and partly because the terrain was once again the undulating, soft, no-traction sand, until, with 2km to go, it gave way to rocky plain.

How do I explain the feeling of completing Stage Four? A small sense of accomplishment and the immediate thought that I needed to return for another edition. When I got back into the tent, Mosi & Ricky were in repose and Alissa and Martin were asleep; I pulled out my sleep sack and joined them, only waking in the mid-afternoon heat, finally warm.

Fitness assessment: My legs were slightly sore, but my fore ankle was swollen to the point where there was no discernable break between my calf and ankle. I had a massive blister on the pinky toe of my right foot. Everything else was good.

Sunset after Stage 4.
10 Apr, 0700GMT: Stage Five, 42.2km (26.2mi):

The marathon. The stage after which one can say they have completed the MdS, where the medal is bestowed upon you after you cross the line.

Why is Ricky sitting? Because he is in the Top 100. so will leave at 0830, rather than 0700, like the rest of us.
With Jay Batchen, Mr. MDS America, who completed his 10th race this year. (The huge dude in the back is Keith from GBR, a former rugby player who ran the MDS with Prince Harry's Walking with the Wounded charity.)
I decided to wear my compression socks that day, which I had brought for overnight recovery, but which the huge lump on my leg needed at this point. I had been given a painkiller the night before, but the act of pulling the socks on brought tears, which streamed down my face even as I caught my breath and said little. Sarah, from Tent 177, saw me and asked if I wanted a painkiller and promptly brought me one, for which I was immensely grateful.

I started off with a shuffling gait, determined to "run" more than walk the stage, but upon hitting a section of hard packed dirt with soft patches, I simply was in too much pain. At CP2, I asked one of the medics for another painkiller, which he graciously supplied. I route-stepped it out, determined to finish in under eight hours. When I crossed the finish, it was a small, bent-arm fist pump. And a hug from two other runners, one of whom happened to be Ryan, who had finished much earlier. I got the blessed cup of finisher's mint tea, my medal, my finisher's vest, my water and, after dropping those off at the tent, went to medical.

The dunes on marathon day. 
The very last CP of MDS2015; yes, my finger is in all three shots. 
Me with Kieran Alger (GBR), whom I'd met virtually in the months prior. He also finished in the Top 100 and we exchanged our respective jerky. American bacon jerky wins, hands down, over the British beef jerky. 
So, my medal is the wrong way 'round, in all pics. (Post medical with the bandaging on the ankle area.)
The medal the right way around, but now you are all distracted by Mosi. 
Oh, and Mosi? Yeah, he finished fourth that day. Boom.

18 April 2015

A desert in Barbary: Main mounts & salt tablets

MdS Race Recap: Stages 2 & 3

6 Apr, 0900GMT: Stage Two, 31.1km (19.32mi):

If you noticed yesterday, the start of the race was according to GMT, which, incidentally, is one hour earlier from local time, which means we turned our watches back one hour. Another twist of the MdS, we were truly on our own program. (As an aside, I brought only my Timex Ironman, no GPS watch for me, no keeping track of pace, only hours.) Other things the race did were to hide the checkpoints behind terrain features, so you rarely saw them until you were less than 1K away but then placed the bivouac sites within your sight line, often from 5K out. Merciless humour.

The distance of Stage Two was not particularly daunting, but once you looked at the map of the day's route, you realized why it was less than 20 miles - three mountainous climbs and descents, with two ridge-line runs, and a 7K flat but searing slog across a dried salt bed. This is what the course looked like on the map:

From the top of the last ascent, you could see the bivouac, 8K away. 
Yes, a rocky descent, then sand dunes before the bivouac.
Our tent somehow missed the morning photo but Mos and I got our start photo.

Stage Two!
I loved the climbs and took advantage of my stature to pass many on the ascents. Why? Because I am slow as molasses on the descents, all of which were technical, even the sandy one, as there were slate-like rock shards nestled throughout. What's my deal with downhill? I don't like the idea of falling. (Never mind that I haven't fallen going downhill in who knows how long.) Pretty inane excuse, I realize; a skill I will work on. The photos don't entirely capture the inclines of each climb; suffice to say that there was a rope attached to one of the final sections, it was that steep.

Start of the day. 
From the top of the first climb.

The ridge line. 

Halfway up the last ascent. Mosi took the photo. That's me, #877. 
During the first climb, I remarked to Mosi that the ridge would be perfect for main mount landings (pilot, after all). He asked, "Was that the guy who invented it?" I was thoroughly confused until he said, "Was his name 'Mane'?" I laughed out loud for a good ten minutes. "Uh, no. The main mounts are the primary wheels on which you land, Mos." Pause. "Oh." Yes, and later we discussed that it wasn't Jerry who invented the jerry rig.

Stage Two was my favorite for a variety of reasons - the ascents, the views and the undulating rocky trails - despite the terror I felt during the third descent. Seriously. My heart rate felt like it was higher going down than it was going up.

Health assessment at the end of the day: Heel blisters worse, especially on the left foot. Large blister on my fourth toe, right foot. A weird pain above and in front of my right ankle. Tender to the touch with a small lump. I assumed it was my shoe structure and made some modifications with my knife to the top of my shoe. Other tent mates had similar foot issues, mostly blisters though, with Dean & Alissa getting some on the bottom of their feet. There is no real remedy for this but to lance them, drain them, cover them in iodine and tape them up in the morning, raw or dry, for the next's day's trek.

Laundry at the bivouac.
Sadly, we lost a tentmate that night - Rachel - who had succumbed to dehydration and heat exhaustion along the course. She spent the night in the tent and then returned to Ouarzazate with several other course casualties the next morning. A precautionary tale and one we took earnestly as temperatures during the day varied between 99-120F. The race provided 120 salt tablets at the start, and if you needed more, you went to medical and got them. I alternated them with Hammer electrolyte tablets, two every hour until five hours, then four tablets per hour. This in addition to Tailwind/Skratch electrolyte powder in one of my water bottles. Serious business.

7 Apr, 0900GMT: Stage Three, 36.7km (22.8mi):

A lot of people asked me what I thought about during all the time out on the course. Thankfully, I was able to be in the moment most of the time and just be, without pondering how to resolve the world's crises. I will say that Mosi and I had some fun and random conversations that punctuated each day and on Stage Three we crafted the broadcast sign-offs for each major newscaster in recent history, with a twist, gangsta style, as in "This is Dan Rather and that's the muthaf***in' news up in this b***! Watch yo' back."

Absurd humor notwithstanding, this was my least favorite stage. Not because it was particularly difficult with respect to terrain, but because I got into my head a little too much about the race, my goals, the munchkins and thinking about Stage Four. As a result, I didn't enjoy the course, and by the time I got past CP2, at 25.9km, onto a whole series of steady, sandy rolling hills (not dunes, mind you, just sandy enough for no traction, so extremely tiring), I was ready for the stage to be over.

So yeah, no photos from the course this day.

See those undulating sandy hills? Yeah, they were no fun for me.
Tent 178, still going strong with seven! A little dirtier, perhaps.
Mickael, one of the eight members of the Transavia team. They were in Tent 179, our next door neighbours for the week.
I also started to feel really guilty about Mosi's company, because I knew he was itching to just go. I told him, thank you for keeping me company through these stages, but I think that you need to open up and go. We trekked together until 8km to go and then bid each other adieu; he took off like a gazelle, barely touching the sand. I was happy to see him in full stride. I finished the day and commiserated with Alissa, who had felt the same way during her day out in the desert. I was grateful that I could share my blah day with her. That, and my vegetarian lasagna and bacon jerky.

Oh yes, the bacon jerky. It was pretty much heaven to have out there and there was much sharing of it, both to tent mates and to other runners along the course. (You can keep your British beef jerky, Kieran!)

17 April 2015

A desert in Barbary: Stages of the sand

I am four days removed from the Sahara's buffeting wind, a wind which enveloped me from all sides, whether urging me forth, mocking my progress across the land, embracing me in a lazy caress, or causing comedic havoc by collapsing our sleeping quarters in the middle of the night. The wind was a beautiful constant for me out there on the course, whether strong or soft, and most notable in the moments of its absence, when the desert sat still and hot.

The Marathon des Sables was everything I had hoped for upon my return, 15 years after I first tasted the air of anticipation at the starting line. It was grand and epic and humbling and exhausting, but not once did I doubt my ability to arrive at the end of this journey. I am grateful and humbled. In this conclusion, I hope the efforts I have put forth have inspired you in some small way and that the money I have raised assists those injured Marines & sailors as they rehab and find their new normal.

For the recap, I am breaking the race recap into three days: Arrival & Stage 1, Stages 2 & 3, and Stages 4 & 5. I haven't yet conceived of how I will write the concluding blog to this grand adventure (or whether there should even be one!). For now, the stages of the sand......

31 Mar, 0900L:
Mosi & I arrived at Charlotte Int'l to take the first of three flights which carried us to Africa....four hours early. Yup, neither of us double-checked the departure time and we both had it in our heads that it was 1100, so there we were, dropped off by an Uber driver (who had pretty much the best travel story of being a tourist in Jamaica, replete with crashing his scooter with his wife on the back) and excited to embark on our trek. Wah-wah.....We chilled out at the US Airways lounge and triple-checked our gear.

1 Apr, 0800L:
We arrived into Madrid-Barajas airport as the sun was rising and as we completed morning ablutions in the airport restrooms, we were joined by several other Americans (Steve & Doug) and we repaired to Mas Q Menos for some breakfast sustenance, consisting of café con leche, pan rústico con jamón ibérico y brie y un donut de chocolate. Mosi had not yet before experienced the amazing-ness that is jamón ibérico and thus was born a saying listing one's life priorities: "Get money, get ham."
Landing at Madrid-Barajas.
We boarded the flight to Marrakech, now accompanied by multiple racers from a variety of nations, including Russia and Spain, and, just shy of three hours later, landed in Africa. It is hard to describe the arrival; we were in a major city, after all, but it was at once banal and exotic, for the pungent aroma of cigarettes and spices, the anticipation, the regularity of passing through customs and locating our bus driver. (There was a hilarious moment when the driver wouldn't leave the airport because we had one passenger missing, and it took me calling Jay Batchen, the U.S. coordinator, to get him to go. Turns out our missing passenger, Dave M., had boarded the wrong flight and had ended up in Agadir, on the southern coast. But that's another story.) Ten of us boarded the bus.

View of the Atlas Mountains from the plane as we came in for landing.

Double-decker cow transport.
The drive took us over the northern end of the Atlas mountains, and as we progressed up the passes, there were more than a couple upset stomachs, which the cool air of the peaks weren't quite able to quell. The road was narrow, under construction at points and would have been closed had we been in the States. The views were gorgeous, the scenery initially and unexpectedly green due to heavy winter rains and snow, giving way to the forest pines and rust-colored hillsides where homes jutted and crumbled in succession from the red earth. We arrived in Ouarzazate (whar-za-zat) as the sun gave way to the blue of night.

3 Apr, 0800L:
After a day of reassessing gear and adjusting to time zones, we, along with about 275 others, boarded the MdS buses that would shuttle us to the first bivouac. And by shuttle, I mean a six-hour ride. There was a lunch stop and a pee break, the latter setting the benchmark for the devolving level of modesty by which all racers relieved themselves as the race progressed. Upon arrival, Mosi and I settled into our home for the next six days, Tent 178, with our fellow racers: Alissa, Ricky, Patrick, Dean (AUS), Martin (CAN) and Rachel. We quickly realize that our tent's vibe is on point, replete with several bad-ass runners, both a 5- and a 13-time MdS veteran, ridiculous innuendos and random hilarity. Each of their stories inspired me, and I was in awe of their drive, talents and touched by the graciousness of their hearts. I couldn't have asked for a better group of people to be with for this race.

4 Apr:
Admin day, which meant getting your bib numbers, your water and medical cards, your GPS ankle tracker and your emergency locator device, having your pack weighed and one last assessment of gear. There are 180 tents in the bivouac, set up three-deep in a horseshoe, with around 7-8 occupants per tent from over 40 countries. They announce 1,360 registered to start, with 209 of them women. I got to meet several fellow runners, including the folks in Tent 179, an 8-man team from Canada and France who will be carrying three disabled children in a modified rickshaw across the desert. Wow.

The course sweepers; always be ahead of the camels. The line in the back is the check-in.
Sun setting over the camp...
My amusement for the day? Having my race book, with all the routes and instructions, fall apart, after I had marked it up with the headings for the routes. My solution? Get tape and fix it in the middle of a windstorm at the Commissaire du Course tent (HQ), of course. We also receive our poop bags, which go over plastic seats in makeshift latrines situated approx 50yds from the tents. (In order to use these in the ever-present wind, you had to put small rocks in the bottom, which you collected en route, first checking to ensure they hadn't been peed on, as the usual course of action was to relieve oneself between the two aforementioned points.) The stellar ultra-runner Liza Howard commented on this best,

"The tent city was set up in concentric horseshoes, and everyday people stood a little closer to the tents to pee. My crew's tent (177!) was in the outermost ring, so we had front row seats to the encroaching urine line. Actually, the 200+ women continued to make futile efforts to find cover throughout the race. Most adopted a head-down quick step past the urinating men and their exposed parts until they’d gone exactly As-Far-As-Their-Mother-Would-Expect-Them-To-Walk-Divided-By-Overall-Kilometers-Run-&-Feminism. At that point, they resigned themselves to a few inadvertent sightings of their bottoms, squatted behind some scraggly 7-inch desert shrub, and tried not to pee on their shoes. Not urinating on your shoes is challenging on a good day. It can be particularly challenging on a windy day."

5 Apr, 0900GMT: Stage One, 36.2km (22.49mi):
Here's what it looked like in the book.
Course map & instructions for Stage One.

The hand-drawn version.
This is what it looked like as we got ready:
Prepping. The Berbers invariably take the tent down before we've finished this task.
Fixing my socks and shoes.
Tent 178, Stage 1: Martin, Patrick, me, Rachel, Ricky, Alissa, Dean & Mosi
Birthday announcements, camels and stallions, last-minute pee breaks and a racer-made #30 to commemorate the anniversary made for the start of the race.
Starting line. 
Mosi and I mostly ran to the first checkpoint, without issue, and then I realized I had a long race ahead and I hadn't come to be fast or to beat my previous times but to take each stage start to finish. I told Mosi this and he goes, "I was wondering when you were going to recognize that." After that, we took it much easier and just enjoyed the scenery and the moments.

The first of many climbs throughout the week. 

Stage One complete! 
My reward for completing day one was a lovely MRE meal of spaghetti in meat sauce, wheat bread with cheese spread and blisters across both sides of each heel. At this moment, I should have returned my original laces to my running shoes, which I had swapped out for elastic quick-laces. I would rue not doing so. No other feet or muscle issues. That night, our tent thinks up which actors would play each of us in a comedic movie version of the race. I think I got Kristen Wiig.