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The Relentless, Arduous Push to the Finish – Part 1

I awake the morning of the rest day after a particularly rough night of sleep. I’m feeling very dehydrated, extremely hungry, and hung-over. Pain shoots through my knee every time I move my body. On all the other mornings I’ve felt tired, but not awful. This morning, my mind is happy, but my body is feeling awful. I need water and food to speed up today’s recovery. I’m still a bit shell-shocked over yesterday’s epic experience. My body tells me that it was real, but I still can’t comprehend it.

Every few minutes cheers erupt around the bivouac as comrades finish the long stage in what is now 24+ hours after it started yesterday morning. Camaraderie is actually the theme of this day, as the sister/brother-hood that has been developing throughout the week really takes its form. Despite the many languages spoken throughout the field of 800+ athletes, we all have a unity of compassion and support for our comrades. You can see and hear this time and time again, in French, Spanish, English, German, etc. as the ubiquitous battered-looking runner walks into camp and his or her tentmates jump up, offer hugs and high-fives, grab the runner’s backpack, offer water, etc. It gives me warm feelings to see this and really crystalizes the MDS experience. The most salient example is the moment of the last finisher of the long stage — 30+ hours after the start – more on that later.

Speaking of tentmates, Brendan and Ted both had great long stages and get a decent (a relative term) night’s sleep. I’m proud that Michele made it in just after midnight and thrilled to see Andrea and Karen arrive in the morning. Their epic journey took them through the night, in cold conditions, with little sleep, and through a hot morning to finish the stage. Seeing them walk to the tent full of smiles, I’m impressed and humbled. Our team is together, exhausted, and happy.

Aside from talking with everyone about their experience on the long stage, I pass most of the rest day cutting my gear apart to save weight. This is partly due to boredom, partly to the challenge of finding new ways to lighten the load, and mostly to absolutely maximize my chances of securing a top-50 finish. My tentmates laugh as I cut half of my backpack apart, removing every extraneous piece of webbing, mesh, strap, pocket, etc. I even cut the edges off a photo I was carrying of my wife! (No need to carry a photo of a gravel parking lot in Alaska all the way to the finish of MDS). My hunger is insatiable – by noon I’ve eaten all of the food I had planned for the full day. I’m way behind on calories at this point and without a stage to race today, all I can think about is food and how I don’t have enough of it. The race officials invite us to the center of the bivouac for a special treat — a cold Pepsi. This is special in many ways: as I’ve run out of food, for me this means a couple hundred unexpected calories today — a godsend!

The sight of people walking to get their Pepsi is reminiscent of a post-battle scene in a movie. People are hobbling around, limping and shuffling — feet are bandaged, faces are sunken, and we’re all dirty beyond imagination.

In the afternoon, we hear an announcement that the last finishers are arriving. The entire Bivouac empties, as we make a slightly painful shuffle to the finish line. Emotions are on full display as the athletes who have been out on this stage for more than 30 hours approach the finish line. With hundreds of fellow MDSers there to welcome them home after a lonely overnight march through the desert, they beam as they approach the finish line. The crowd cheers loudly out of respect and pure joy for our mates who have braved the long stage and finished.

Following the last runner of the stage are the camels and Berbers, who sweep the course and add a bit of drama when crossing the finish line of each stage.

Evening finally arrives and I find myself more nervous going into the marathon stage than the long stage. For the long stage, it was about pushing myself into the unknown to discover any hidden potential. I found something that surprised me and suddenly placed me in a quasi-competitive situation. Now I desperately want a Top-50 finish and I’m willing to put it all on the line to get there. I look over the General Classification before going to bed, my tired mind trying to work the math to determine how fast I’ll need to run the marathon stage based on those who have a chance to overtake me in the rankings. I figure that I’ll need to a sub-5 hour stage to have the slightest chance of maintaining position. Considering how terrible my knee feels, the fact that I’m running way low on food, and five days of cumulative fatigue, I’m not feeling very good about this. It’s hard enough to even walk for 5 minutes now — I just don’t get how we can tackle a marathon tomorrow. I find solace in the fact that everyone hurts, everyone is fatigued, everyone is battling the same mental and physical challenges. We’re in this together. Tomorrow is tomorrow — time to rest and see how far my mind and body are willing to take me in the morning. A beautiful sunset closes the evening, its glow exemplifying the new bond I have with this hostile, yet gorgeous desert.

Stay tuned for the Marathon Stage write-up …


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