Wednesday 11th April & Thursday 12th April – Stage 4, “The Long One”, 81.5km or 50.6  miles

…and the ritual started of Ash slowly clinking his way through making breakfast, then Paul doing the same, then us all getting up.  The Berbers came round and dismantled the tents again, and then a photographer turned up and said five, two, eight?  I said yes mate, that’s me.  You like taking pictures?  I said yes mate.  He then asked me to get my camera out, and put it up over my eye while he took pics of me.  I got some great pics of him taking pics of me, and his photos were to be one of the few runner profiles that were put online.  Shortly after, another guy came up and interviewed me, asking me questions about why i was doing the MdS amongst other things.  It was only when i got home that i realised how lucky i’d been to have this interview, and how delighted friends and family had been when they saw it on the website.

A couple of the lads had become mildly obsessed with a lady called Sarah from Mauritius who was in one of the French tents opposite us.  One of my tent bro’s (who shall remain nameless), had developed a particularly entertaining spanking motion to describe what he would like to do to this lady.  Alas (or possibly not), this unrequited love (i use the term loosely), was never recognised, and was often interrupted by Lydia one of the comisaires du bivouac, who unfortunately regularly disturbed the motion, amongst other unpleasant activities such as yours truly donning my Skins, on more than one occasion.

I can’t remember much of this morning, but the mood must have been a tad subdued.  We had a long distance ahead of us, wherever it’s completed.  But over two days in the Sahara, it added an extra twist!  A couple of guys had read the route book and mentioned a couple of snippets, including the legendary jebel, and the laser that would be fired across the sky during the night, but i’d tried to ignore any comments, and focus solely on the fact that it would be around 10k to the first checkpoint, and similar distances thereafter.

As usual, it seemed to be a big, long, flat, straight distance at the start of the stage, with some cracking comments in the route book “small stony hill”, “end of hill”, “becoming sandy before dunes”, and then at 6.5km, “dunes start”.  Nightmare.  The sand in the dunes was incredibly slippery and moved away with every step so it was difficult to make any headway.  I’d started walking with Dani and Mia again, plus an Australian lady who’s name i can’t remember.  We caught up with the French firemen, who were having a mare pulling the disabled kids (or one of them at least) through the dunes.  I chose to trog on and leave the ladies at this point, as i was feeling pretty good and wanted to make up some ground at an early stage, rather than just drag my feet, which at this stage is what i felt i was doing.

At 9km, we started the rocky ascent of the jebel.  I started walking more quickly as it became massive slabs of rock, and for the first time, i started passing a lot of people.  Quite a few guys in various languages (English, French, Spanish) were cursing the ascent, and struggling with how difficult it was.  I on the other hand, was absolutely loving it, it was just like a training session up Garburn, or Nan Beild, or Gatescarth, or any of the other rocky trails and passes around the Lakes that i’d done repeatedly in my training.  This is one of the few sections, that i can genuinely say i enjoyed in the whole week, and i felt like i flew up the jebel.  I got to the top, and Blue was sat on top, along with loads of photographers and people enjoying the views

I carried on walking along the edge of the ridge of the jebel, and saw a queue next to a rope, on the way down.  The view from here was incredible, runners stretched out into the distance, like tiny specks as far as the eye could see into the hazy distance.  I could see CP1 about 1km away, with a bunch of ants moving towards it across the valley bottom.  There were stacks of photographers and film crew taking pics of us all moving across the jebel ridge, and down to the top of a rope that stretched over a section of rocks.  It was busy with people stopped enjoying the view, hydrating and scoffing,  but i carried on to the queue and grabbed the rope.  After slipping down the first section, there was another two sections of rope, but these just covered a PROPER steep section of sand.  One guy at the bottom of the rope stumbled, fell and yanked the rope round which made it quite painful for everyone higher up still hanging on.  With a shout of ‘sorry guys’, he was off.  Sod it, i thought and let go of the rope and jumped!  It was amazingly liberating experience letting go of the rope and bounding down the sand.  Every time i landed, my foot sank, taking it all the way to the shin in the softer parts.  I jumped my way down, overtaking people struggling their way through the sand.  I got out of the sand section and removed my gaiters, then took off my shoes and emptied out the sand that had got in anyway.  The gaiters were rapidly becoming a bag of crap, and i was getting frustrated with them.  A Geordie voice called over “raidlight mate?  Shite eh, mine died on day two”, and i could only respond with ‘aye mate, not the best’.  Off i trotted down the rocky trail that wound it’s way gradually down to CP1.

On arrival at CP1, i funnelled into the middle of the three queue lines, which were numbered according to race numbers.  The woman in front of me turned and said something like ‘bloody French, three lines, two empty, and we have to queue’ – i was gobsmacked and this was to really annoy me for some time.  Here we were undertaking an amazing experience, and all she could do was moan about a three-person queue and a two minute wait.  I was later to find out that this was a proper annoying woman who was in a tent near us – i’ll leave it there, but she annoyed the crap out of me.  I got my water and walked to some shelter to fill my bottles, before trotting on.  As i got out of the CP, i reached up to my hat for my sunglasses, to find nothing there.  I realised i’d put them on my hat coming up the jebel, then had got hot and taken my hat off for a while, losing the shades in the process.  Gutted.  Thankfully it wasn’t too bright, but i was bothered about the rest of the race.  I picked it up a little bit, even breaking into a trot at one point, until i reached a familiar figure trudging along in the distance and realised it was Peter who i’d sat next to on the bus on the way to the desert.  I recounted the story of annoying lady and he laughed, telling me that he was the cause of the ‘queue’, as he couldn’t find his card to be stamped for water.  I also had a moan about my glasses, and he said he had a spare pair in his pack i could have.  He’d been advised by Rory Coleman to take a spare pair in case he lost them, or for some other idiot he might have the misfortune to meet who’d lost theirs!  We got on with a good chat for the next few k’s until we reached a RIVER!!  This was a pretty amazing sight, as some people had stripped off and were floating in the water, while others washed off, and others still just carried straight on.  We navigated our way across the rocks, trying not to get our feet wet.  About half way across i heard cheers and clapping and turned to find the race leaders passing us. Having set off three hours behind us, they were passing us at 18k!  Amazing.  They seemed to be skipping across the sand, and then leaping across the rocks across the river.  Some plank had stopped on a rock and blocked the passing of one of them, who had to leap into the river and then skip back out and onto the bank. Turns out this was the guy who was due to be in the lead up until the end of this stage, but more on that later.We trogged our way along the track, with more of the ‘fasty’s’ passing us, including the first of the women.  Gradually, we made our way to CP2.  I had acquired some more blister action, so asked Peter if it was ok to spend some time at the CP getting them sorted.  This was to be my first encounter with the awesome Anais, who sorted my blisters out and then sent me on my way with a ‘courage, bonne chance, until later’.  Peter had been sorting his water out and a couple of other things in the tent next to Doc Trotter.  Off we moved again, and chuntering away to each other, we passed the miles, until catching up with Mia and Dani again (or did they catch us!).  Either way, they stopped by Doc Trotter at a ruined fort that the medic said was 15th century. 

Shortly after, a Dutch girl caught up with us, not looking at all well.  She stopped and bent over, so i asked if she was ok.  She said that she’d had sickness and diarrhoea since the start of the event but she was ok and didn’t need help.  About a hundred metres down the track, she bent over and started retching and didn’t look at all well.  I could see a truck up ahead so i started walking towards it with my poles in the air making a ‘V’ as we’d been instructed.  The truck stopped some way off and a guy hopped out, and attached a fluorescent fishing light to one of the way markers.  He saw me, and hopped back in to the truck and drove towards us.  Peter had stayed with the dutch girl so i wandered back up the track with the truck following me, while i explained to the driver what was happening.  He was in the truck on his own without a Doc though which was unusual.  We stopped beside the Dutch girl and he hopped out and had a brief chat.  He asked if she wanted a doctor, but she said that she was fine, and after a couple of minutes she seemed ok again and carried on.  Peter and I shrugged at each other and followed on.

Along the way, we started seeing that all the way markers now had the fluorescent markers attached, and with a quick look at the watch, i realised it was approaching nightfall.  We made it into CP3, and got our headtorches out of our packs.  We then walked slowly out of the final checkpoint.  A couple of k outside the CP, Peter suddenly shouted ‘what the fuck is that!’, i turned and said what.  He kept pointing his finger, then his headtorch, at something moving really quickly across the floor, and eventually i caught a shape in my own headtorch.  ‘Camel spider!’ I shouted, reaching for my camera.  The next couple of minutes resulted in my trying desperately to catch a photo of this tiny, but incredibly quick, thing moving around the desert.  It was obvious that it didn’t want to be in the light of our headtorches, but i got the shot eventually.  I’m not entirely convinced that it was a camel spider, but it was a scary looking beast regardless.  Night had truly fallen by the time i had the picture and it was pitch black, except for the dozens of head torches in front and behind us.  We moved off hard packed trail and onto sand, and started climbing dunes.  We could see head torches stretching far into the distance ahead of us, and the little way markers showed us the way.  This was to be the start of a total of 2 hours climbing up the massive sand dunes.  Trying to find the best route through the dunes and over the ridges proved almost impossible and on occasion i found myself confronted with about a foot of sand over the top of my head.  This meant jamming my walking poles into the sand, and swinging a leg over the ridge while hauling myself over.  It felt more like climbing at some stages, using the poles as ice axes.  At this stage, the line of torches started to disperse over a wider area as people tried to find easier routes.

The climb flattened out a little bit and i smelt smoke.  Shortly after, we came across a group of Berber tents, and then passed some people sat on mats smoking and watching as everyone passed.  I thought that this was a bit surreal, but as we emerged from the camp, i could see one of the way markers moving around. I’d expected a bit of hallucinating after an experience in the Lakeland50 when i saw frogs, but hadn’t quite thought it would be this early.  Moments later i was reassured when Peter asked if i could see it moving.  As we got closer, we could see the marker swinging around in the air, closer still and we could see someone walking along behind it.  Then we realised that a local lad had picked up the marker, attached to some string and was swinging it around in the air.  Whilst this was entertaining, it was a bit disconcerting as we couldn’t see the next marker.  We’d been warned that this sometimes happened as locals nicked the way markers.  Thankfully we had a huge line of head torches to follow through the darkness.  We started climbing yet again, before moving along a huge ridge line and then the ground started to flatten out again.  The footing changed from sand to gravelly trail and the going became a bit easier.  Just as the footing got easier, we heard a strange crack and crackle behind us and turned to see a red flare flying up into the sky.  It was a pretty awful feeling to know that potentially someone was in enough trouble behind us to have set off their flare.  As we carried on walking, we could see lights coming toward us, then a truck pulled alongside.  The driver asked if we knew where the flare had been set off, but we could only reply by saying sorry, it was somewhere behind us.  Shortly after that, as we continued on the long walk to CP4, we saw the Dutch girl lying down beside one of the trucks, with a doctor attending to her.  I’m not sure what happened, as we didn’t see her again after this.

We seemed to round a bit of a corner on the track, and suddenly could see a huge green line in the sky.  This was our first view of the laser that was fired across the desert to guide us in from CP4 to CP5.  We knew it couldn’t be far to CP4 now, but it seemed an absolute age.  After a short while, we could see truck headlights heading down a track to our right, and then we could see the inflatable markers that signified the checkpoint ahead.  Peter agreed that we’d get our head down for a couple of hours in the checkpoint and potentially have some food.  When we arrive into CP4, we could see a number of tents, and we split up to try and find space to get our heads down.  It was quite windy by now, and it felt quite exposed so it was good to find some shelter in one of the tents.  We eventually found two spaces in one of the tents and got our kit out.  Peter started preparing some food before we got our heads down for a sleep.  One of the checkpoint staff came round and asked if we could shift our gear closer together so that another runner could sleep next to us.  Grumpy Peter responded by asking where he was supposed to sleep.  After a terse exchange, Peter moved his kit so that the other runner could get in the tent.  I unpacked my sleeping bag and got in, putting my feet up on my pack.  Peter set an alarm for 2am (it was now midnight) and we settled down.  I was right  in the side of the tent, so it sloped down almost over my face which was a bit disconcerting at first, but i was too knackered to care, and i quickly sank into sleep.

Only moments later, i was awoken with a feeling of agony in my feet.  I opened my eyes to find a guy shaking my feet, the only words i could manage were ‘aaaargh’, whilst Peter awoke and said ‘what the fuck are you doing’, an American accented voice responded saying ‘sorry, my mistake’.  I didn’t have any trouble getting back off to sleep, and it seemed only moments later that Peter was shaking my shoulder and urging me to wake up. It felt like i raised my head once to emerge from sleep, then i opened my eyes and raised it again and actually lifted my head to look around.  Peter was cooking something to eat and appeared to be mostly packed, as i got myself together and sorted stuff out.  I couldn’t eat as i felt so sick.  Thoughts whirling round my head were about quitting.  What was i doing? Why was i doing this?  I felt awful, it was 2am, i was in the Sahara, and i still had over 32k to go.

I’m quitting, I’m quitting, I’m quitting.  Get out of sleeping bag.  I’m quitting, I’m quitting, I’m quitting.  Sleeping bag into stuff sack. I’m quitting, I’m quitting, I’m quitting. Stuff sack into rucksack. I’m quitting, I’m quitting, I’m quitting. Rucksack on back. I’m quitting, I’m quitting, I’m quitting. Head torch on. I’m quitting, I’m quitting, I’m quitting. Let’s move says Peter.  And we’re off.  ‘Peter, this is as much for my benefit as for yours, but whatever happens, we don’t quit in the night, because as soon as the sun comes up the world is a less scary place’.  This was the second time i had this sort of experience and i still don’t understand it as i write this weeks after the event.  How we can consciously want to quit so much, but still everything physically moves us on towards achieving what we’ve set out to do.  I think it’s an incredible example of what human beings are capable of, and explains a lot about how people survive in life-threatening situations – not that I’m claiming my life was threatened at all during this adventure.

Next bit to come very soon!

Climbing up the jebel

Climbing up the jebel

Jumping off the jebel!

Jumping off the jebel!

The River

The River

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503

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