Day 1: 36.2km – a small Jebel, three sets of dunes and many rocky planes
“It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves – in finding themselves” (Andre Gide)
We assembled at about 08:00am as instructed to form the customary race number which allowed the photographer to get 1,300 runners forming a perfect 30. The view from the helicopter must have been electric, below were the largest group of runners in the event’s history ready to start the race and among them a star studded cast of top class runners, event legends and a highly respected adventurer, and us, Tanya and I, both ready and eager to get started. Earlier I gave her a breakfast bar with a note stuck to it, the note read:
“Day 1 This will be a really tough day, much to learn. Remember you can do this, you are strong enough, fit enough and well prepared for this adventure. I love you sooooo much, don’t forget it”.
I hoped that this will show her how much confidence I had in her as a person and remind her that within this she wasn’t alone. I was right there and would remain so not only for the race, but for life. When Tanya eventually published photos of these messages on Facebook after the race most could see the intention, the love and the purpose, but one individual went as far as to question my motive and indeed the love I have for my wife on the basis that – “why would anyone who knew this expose another person to this” – I felt both publically insulted and angered; insulted that the love and care I have for my angel could be questioned by someone who did not know me, and angered that the effort of Tanya could not be sees or properly congratulated by this individual. I knew why Tanya had to do this, why she had to endure what she endured. I felt that no one was entitled to question my angel’s success; it had to be acknowledged for what it was, an amazing achievement. The 2015 MdS would allow her to overcome so much, to break free from that which held her back in the past; it would show her that she need not stand back for anyone; in short it would liberate Tanya and empower her. This, I realised, would scare many…and so it should.
We have always made a great team, and here that team dynamic would be put to the ultimate test. No rest, no privacy, no escape, no time to get away from it all, for eight days and nights we would be tested, and in my heart I knew the outcome, an even stronger bond, but first we had to be tested.
We moved onto the start line to have the regular morning briefing by Patrick Bauer who announced the daily birthdays, cautioned us about the weather and the fact that runners should keep on drinking and remember to take their salt tablets and keep their pace moderate. After giving us a brief overview of the course it was the customary ACDC’s Highway to Hell that started the countdown to the first stage of the 30th MdS, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and off we went. After many long months of preparation we were actually in the race.
On route I settled into what would become routine for the race, every kilometre, I would remind Tanya to drink and to eat, but her difficulty in swallowing seemed to persist. At first I didn’t think much of this but over the next few days this would become a major source of concern for me. Tanya would eat a nut, and take a sip of her water and for all intents and purposes it seemed as if everything was going according to plan. We went through check-point (CP) 1 at around 13.4km’s with everything going well. Our pace was more than sufficient to get us in within cut-off but Tanya remained cautious and a little anxious and kept on pushing. I had to hold her back urging her to slow down a little. By the time we reached CP1 we had already crossed a valley, ascended a small jebel, went through a rocky pass, and navigated through two small sets of dunes. At the CP I filled the bladders and after a brief five minute rest, set-off again.
Tanya running with Sir Ranulph Fiennes between CP1 and 2 during our first stage.
Source: Genis Pieterse
Between CP1 and CP2 we covered another 11.4km’s. It was during this leg that Tanya and I had the pleasure of spending some time with Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Rory Coleman whom we crossed paths with within the 2.6km dune crossing that lead up to check point two. It was obvious that Sir Fiennes had some difficulty and that his backpack was some cause of discomfort, and yet he exhibited a great sense of humour. Seeing that we were from South Africa he began singing “o die donkie”, an Afrikaans primary school song he knew from when he went to school in South Africa. We exchanged a few words and seeing that everyone was finding the dunes a little difficult I said “don’t worry, everything eventually comes to an end” to which Sir Fiennes replied, “that is not correct, the kindness of a good women never does”. I will remember those words of wisdom for the rest of my life. Eventually we reached CP2, refilled our water, and rested a little before setting-off, a few minutes after Sir Fiennes and Rory. The last 11.4km’s were somewhat uneventful, the terrain not too difficult but the temperature high and the sun relentless. We caught-up to Rory and Sir Fiennes about 3km’s outside of the checkpoint and Tanya made sure we got another set of photos with this legend of a man.
It was during this stage that Tanya asked me to speak a little more, I had fallen silent. For me the first two days are usually the most difficult, during these two days I usually suffer the most. I think it is the shock of starting again with a full race-pack after some rest that my body and mind need to overcome, but I pulled myself together and we had our first of many long chats in the desert. I love holding Tanya’s hand and whenever the terrain allowed made use of the opportunity to hold it tight.
Eight hours and fourth five minutes after our start Tanya and I crossed the finish line of stage one of the 2015 MdS, 1-hour 45-minutes ahead of cut-off. This was well within the 90-minute limit I had set for us for the day and I felt good that we were able to maintain a steady 4.1km/h. Using our VO2 max results I had calculated our maximum pace for the race, given our race weight, to 4.4km/h, and during day one we were able to come to within 93% of that projection. This was well above the minimum 3.3km/h I had stated as the most likely speed we would be able to maintain.
As we crossed the finish line there was the customary sweet Jasmin tea provided by the Sultan Tea Company. I picked up one for me and one for Tanya; however, I don’t drink tea so the second tea was a special treat for my angel, a reward for having performed so well throughout the day. I was extremely proud of Tanya, not for finishing the day, that I knew she would, but for attempting it in the first place. I collected our water and we made our way to tent 172, but all was not well. As we crossed the line I could see that Tanya was not in a good place and as we reached the tent Tanya had to go outside to throw-up. The cause seemed to be the 32Gi, our energy drink and a main source of energy during the day, and on top of that it seemed as if my angel was a little dehydrated, but no matter how much I insisted, Tanya continued to say that she can’t swallow and could not drink. I had to fetch Tanya’s hygiene kit in her bag and escorted her to the female only hygiene tent for some much needed freshening-up. When Tanya exited, I could see there were bigger problems, she leaned over and whisper into my ear “I just came on and it is a full blown period”. I put my arm around my angel, knowing that the MdS 2015 had just become that much more difficult for her.
As we walked towards our tent Dion came to speak to us, asking how the day went and gave Tanya a few words of encouragement, as did Theresa our quite tent mate. The rest of the tent all provided Tanya with some words of encouragement and soon I had Tanya’s shoes off and she was lying down on her sleeping mat while I prepared some food for her. Tanya continued to be nauseous and could not eat any of our planned evening meal which consisted of 2 minute noodles. After much encouragement, I got Tanya to drink some water and eat some of the drywors, although not much at least she was getting something into her depleted body. I gave her medicine, got her into her sleeping bag and within twenty minutes she was fast asleep. I could now look at my feet and tried to attend to it as best I could with my head torch. I ate my noodles, and got into my sleeping bag without even looking at the race book. We had a relatively peaceful night and each time I woke, I would drink and make sure that Tanya also drank some water.
Day 2: 31.1km, three jebels, some dunes with never ending salt and rocky planes
“God created the desert and in his fury he scattered it with rocks”
When we woke on the 6th of April 2015 our actions were the same as on the first day, we ate, packed and generally prepared ourselves for another long day. I took a look at Tanya’s feet and opened a formidable blister that had formed under the big toe on her right foot. After cleaning it, I taped it and we were ready for the day.
As on the first day, Tanya’s breakfast bar contained a message:
“Day 2 This is the tough one. Today you will climb more and higher than you have ever done before with a back-pack. But you can, you did it at Addo. Hold my hand and know that you are the most amazing women in the entire world, and I cannot imagine being here with anyone but you. Love you xxx”
To be honest, this was the day that truly scared me. Both, Tanya and I knew about her fear of heights, and we had worked on this over the preceding two years. For the most part her fear was under control but we honestly had no real way of knowing. Today was going to be the acid test, testing something like this in the heat of battle is always risky, but this was the moment of truth. My message to Tanya was there to remind her that she had done this before, she can climb high mountains and she can succeed.
Before we left for the start line, Mohammed Belemlih, came around to greet Tanya and I. With a great big hug and some words of encouragement for my angel we set-off to listen to Patrick and with Highway to Hell playing through the loud speakers we were off once again. It was no surprise that day one took its share of casualties, however, only seven of our fellow runners had fallen out but our entire tent was still in the race.
Tanya waiting for the second stage to start, a difficult jebel day.
Source: Genis Pieterse
The first 8.2km’s were really tough stony terrain, mostly flat, and for the most part not too hot. The climb up the Hered Asfer Jebel, the smallest jebel of the day, was no small feat and took place as the Sahara heat reached its peak for the day. At around 11:00am each day the temperature will peak and will stay relatively constant until around 15:00pm so our climb and much of the remainder of our climbs for the day would be in 50 plus degree Celsius. This is difficult enough on its own but with a race-pack on your back the challenge is really on. Once the first summit was reached we continued to ascend over and over again, each time going a little higher than before, and each time it seemed as if we had reached the top. We would continue to do this for 4km’s before our decent started. As our decent started we found Steve Diederich, the UK organiser; Tanya looked at Steve and said “please tell me the worst is over”, and Steve looked at her saying “it’s all over, the worst is behind you”. I knew he was not totally truthful, as I have done this part of the route before, but I was thankful that he, with his calm friendly face and quite voice gave my angel hope.
At the bottom Tanya heeded the call of nature behind a bush and within a few minutes was off again. To stay focused and to deal with the heights Tanya adjusted her headgear so that she could only look ahead, the constant adjustment cost us some time but I knew that this was a small price to pay to ensure that she could continue. By the time we reached CP1 at 12.6km’s we filled our bladders and left ten or so minutes after Rory and Sir Fiennes who passed us just before we got to the CP, the technicality of the decent meant that Tanya and I had to take it slow.
The route between CP1 and the start of a very steep climb up Jebel Joua Baba Ali at 17.1km’s was relatively easy and fast, but the heat took its toll and we rested in the shade under a lone tree with some other runners. Tanya sat on a low branch, unfortunately, it had some urine on it, not great to do at that stage, but my angel kept it all together. The climb up Jebel Joua Baba Ali was extremely difficult, staring with lose sand nearly to the top. Although only 300 meters to the top the lose sand made it nearly impossible to summit, taking one step forward just to slip two back. Strength, commitment and determination was the only way to the top and Tanya showed ample of this. The climb was slow but eventually we found ourselves on a very technical summit. We continued along the summit ridge for two kilometres before starting our decent. While going down we could see CP2 in the distance 5km’s away. But the sight was somewhat disheartening; with a flat lifeless salt plain lying between us and the only oasis we could see. It was time to pick-up the pace a little and to make up lost time, but Tanya was not feeling well at all.
Because of the problems of the previous day we abandoned the use of the 32Gi and only took in water. Tanya was not eating due to the difficulty in swallowing and even when she drank the sips were too small. Unfortunately by using a bladder I could not see how little she was actually drinking, a mistake that should not have been made. We remain focused, I held her hand and we continued towards CP2. I knew the climb that followed after CP2, and knew that Tanya would need a little rest at the CP before we started out. When we reached our checkpoint Sir Fiennes and Rory were still there, I filled our bladders again, which allowed Tanya to lay down in one of the Berber tents. I let her stay down for 20 minutes before starting out again, by now Rory and Sir Fiennes had started the climb already.
At the foot of our climb we met up with Mick Ramayet, a French veteran of the Marathon des Sables, having completed fifteen such runs. A legend in his own right, who has a calm demeanour and exhorts such confidence, that it is empowering. We also came across Saadi Hussain from the UK, he was not in a good spot and I could see the exhaustion on his face and body language. Ahead of us stretched a formidable climb and feeling like this at the bottom was not encouraging.
The distance from the CP to the summit of Jebel El Otfal is only 2.1km’s but it took nearly two hours to complete the 250m vertical ascent (the equivalent of an 80 story building). The sand and extremely technical climbs was taxing and Tanya had great difficulty to muster the strength. Her lack of proper nutrition and adequate water intake was beginning to show its effect, compounding this, was the bulkiness of her race-pack, it caused a pendulum effect which she had difficulty in controlling. Her walking poles were needed for stability but at the same time were in the way. I repeatedly climbed down sections to extend my hand to help her up to the point where I had little strength left, but as a team we continued, not giving up on the race or one another. Along the way Richard Hallikeri, gave Tanya a push up a high-reach section of the climb while I pulled, one thing about the MdS is that there will always be a helping hand if you ask when you need it.
Tanya’s 200m vertical climb up to the top of Jebel El Otfal, having to overcome her fear of height for a third time on day two.
Source: Genis Pieterse
Step by step and little by little we ascended this massive mountain until we reached the rope section. By now Philippa Fewins had caught up with us and only about twenty meters of steep sand stood between us and the summit. I showed Tanya how to hold the rope as an aid and within minutes we stood on the summit. There was relief and urgency at the same time.
Day 2: Our three jebel profile for the day. Jebel El Otfal was encountered on day four again, but it would be from the opposite side.
We could see the bivouac, only 4.4km’s away but between us and the end laid a steep decent and a dune field. Tanya panicked a little thinking that we won’t make it before cut-off. I assured her that we had more than enough time but she was not convinced. As we ascended and passed other runners she would confirm from them whether there was still enough time left, and would receive the same answer time and time again, don’t worry we have enough time. Eventually we crossed the dunes, and as we excited, there was only 700 meters left to the finish line but Tanya was still in somewhat of a panic. Six minutes later we crossed the finish line with around an hour to spare. This was our closest call but I knew it was our toughest ‘normal’ day.
At the finish line Dion, placing in the top 100, was waiting for us to help with Tanya’s bag and the water. Tanya and I took some tea and I gave her mine again, she absolutely loves the sweet Jasmin tea and I knew that it lifts her spirit. Mohammed Belemlih also waited for us and immediately gave Tanya a huge hug; the friendliness of his eyes has such an amazingly comforting effect on her, and I was relieved that he was there to give her such comfort. Seeing Dion would lift Tanya’s spirit as he always had such positive and encouraging words to say to her. It is out there that you see the core of an individual, there is no pretence, nowhere to hide from reality and no place for masks. Only the raw and uncontaminated self is there and it is either beautiful full of love and compassion or it is not. I am happy to say that for most, the desert showed us that the people around us had kind hearts, soft natures and generous spirits. Tanya was better than the day before and the four of us walked to our tent. Mohammed made arrangements for a media interview for the next morning and Dion gave Tanya some comforting words before going to his tent.
I assisted Tanya, going with her to the women only hygiene tent, a canvas cubicle of around one square metre. Once she was done my focus shifted to getting her fed and medicated. Cleaning out the bladder I realised how little water she was drinking and we had a chat about this. I would make sure that she drank during the night, little sips at a time, and I would add 32Gi to our night drink. Again eating was a problem with Tanya finding it difficult to swallow, she had a small packet of salt and vinegar chips (or at least a part of it) and some drywors. Soon enough she was in her sleeping bag but the tent seemed to be more talkative that late in the day (or early in the evening). Eventually I could tend to my own feet and get settled for the night. I lay in my sleeping bag, in the dark, eating some drywors and salt and vinegar chips. During the night I woke up at intervals and would get Tanya to drink, by the time the sun rose on day 3 my angel had drank about one litre of the 32Gi water mix.
Day 3: 36.7km, dunes, sand, and more sand
“The vastness of the desert frightened her. Everything looked too far away, even the cloudless sky. There was nowhere you could hide in such emptiness”
James Carlos Blake, The Rules of Wolfe
As I awoke on the morning of the 7th of April 2015 I was relieved that day two was behind us. In 2013 our day two was for the most part the same as what Tanya and I had experienced the day before. I was so exhausted back in 2013, physically and mentally, by the extreme level of the three climbs that I could remember nothing of day three. I felt better this time around, but had some serious concerns.
Tanya’s inability to swallow and the resulting lack of hydration combined with inadequate nutritional intake was a real concern. With Tanya having her period at the same time, additional strain would be placed on various vitamins and minerals which would compound the shortfall she currently experienced. Having been diagnosed with clinically B12 deficiency and knowing that it caused poor motor skills because of nerve damage, were persistently shouting in the back of my mind. What we didn’t know at the time, which we found out after the MdS, was that clinical B12 deficiency also caused, among a host of other symptoms, hallucinations, vision problems and difficulty swallowing and some digestive problems. The medication Tanya was taking to manage her CRPS, could also, under stressful circumstances cause blistering of the skin, difficulty with swallowing, blurred vision, loss of bladder control, lower back or side pain combined with hallucinations.
So without us knowing the perfect storm was brewing on the horizon. The stress of the event, and Tanya’s health issues all worked together, combined with the medicine we hoped would help her, to create a disaster of epic proportions and it was racing our way at full speed. Also, what we never knew before is that Tanya not only had a fear of heights (Acrophobia), but that she had a fear of open spaces (Agoraphobia), something the desert had an infinite supply to throw at her.
Tending to Tanya’s blisters, a brave lady who takes the photos while having her blisters drained.
Source: Tanya Pieterse
After we rose, I tended to Tanya’s blisters, mostly on her right foot, gave her medicine and something to eat. My angel seemed better today and for the first time it looked as if she had settled into her run. My message for Tanya stuck on her breakfast bar read:
“Day 3 Today is going to test your ability to stay focused, keep your thoughts together, stay in control of your mind and know that you can. The tiredness, pain and discomfort you are feeling right now is what adventures are made of, this is where the stories are born. You are amazing and more beautiful (inside and out) than anyone I know. Love you up to the sky and back”
Mohammed Belemlih arrived to come and give Tanya her usual morning hug and encouragement and brought with him Bassirou Bâ to interview the two of us. Tanya mentioned to Mohammed that tomorrow was such a long distance looming on the horizon upon which Mohammed replied, “forget about tomorrow, think only about today”, really good advice from a great friend.
After some questions and answers we were off to go and listen to Patrick our race director, give us our morning briefing, before sending us off with the customary Highway to Hell, and so Tanya and I started another day. We were still in the race, some really tough sections behind us and I could see that my angel had a renewed focus.
We started slowly going up a gentle but sandy climb, a signature of the day. Sand, sand and more sand with lots of very difficult sandy climbs. The first 6km’s took ages as the sand slowed us down. From 6km’s to our first CP at 14km’s the terrain got a little better and we, once again, got an opportunity to spend some time with Sir Fiennes and Rory. Not much was said as by now the heat was peaking well above 50 degree Celsius.
At CP1 I filled our bladders while Tanya rested in the shade of the Landrover. As we got ready to leave we ran into Leigh, our fellow South African as well as Patrick Bauer with whom we had some photos taken. Tanya told Patrick that he was the devil, which Patrick translated for the other French officials: pointing to himself with a great big smile, “diable, diable”. Afterwards we were off, starting out across a flat dried-up lake.
What few people know about sand is that the heat reflected back from the sand can be between 20 and 30 degree Celsius higher than the ambient temperature, this meant that we were running in extremely high temperatures coming from both above and below, there were simply no escape, the sun, the sand, the heat, it became relentless. At about 20km’s we, once again entered a very sandy section which had the effect of sapping the little energy we had left from our tired bodies. Tanya was doing very well, maintaining a steady pace which I set to ensure that we remained on schedule. This sandy stretch lasted all the way to CP2 at 25.9km’s where I once again filled our bladders. With only 10.8km’s left for the day, and us being well ahead of schedule, Tanya and I took a breather lying down in one of the Berber tents provided.
It was at this time that I laid next to Tanya holding her hand during our 20 minutes rest. We heard Nisha Harish saying how beautiful it is to see us together and afterwards we would find out that Ric Hallikeri had taken a photo of us when he posted it on Facebook. It was a truly special time, during which I spent hours of really quality time with my wife, holding her hand and talking about all those things that are so important to us.
Taking a rest with my angel during a very warm part of the day.
Source: Ric Hallikeri
The next 6km’s were once again sand and more sand, our progress climbing to the top of a small but very sandy jebel took ages. Tanya set her sights on a four wheel quad type vehicle parked near the top and when we reached it fell onto the sand to take a well-deserved breather. Once we summited the never ending sand just seemed to roll out ahead of us for ever, but we continued on making slow but determined progress. Going over the jebel Tanya and I came across, ‘rooster man’, the eccentric, Michel Bach, who was not having a good time. He stood on the side throwing-up, and we tried to make this delightful Frenchman understand that he should stay with us to the end. He waved us on, indicating that he would be alright, and we continued. The last kilometre to the end was on stony terrain and it felt great to be able to move more freely.
Again we crossed the line with a little more than an hour until cut-off, so I was pleased with our performance. We completed the day without over exhorting ourselves, yet maintained a comfortable and sustainable pace of 3.9km/h well above our minimum 3.3km/h and close to our maximum 4.1km/h indicated as such during our VO2 max test. It was essential that we crossed the line relatively in-tact as the 91.7km long stage was calling us and by the time we crossed the line was a little more than 13-hours away.
Nearing the finish on day three, I was so impressed with what my angel have achieved over the preceding three days.
Source: Genis Pieterse
And there they were, those dependable individuals who just always seemed to be at the end waiting for us. When I saw Mohammed Belemlih I knew he was there ready to give Tanya a huge hug followed by kind words, and Dion was there to lend a helping hand with Tanya’s bag. As a runner the words of encouragement and congratulations received from Dion, had meaning for Tanya. She knew that he had suffered the same fate and that his words were filled with the same hardship and victory that she had just experienced, such words are treasures, to be stored in both heart and mind, never to be forgotten.
Knowing that my angel had worked very hard during the stage, I took a tea for her, one for me to give to her and I tried to sneak a third, something I quickly found out was not to be tried again. But as we say in Africa it is easier to apologise than to ask permission. We made our way to our Berber home, tent 172, and dropped everything before I escorted Tanya to the hygiene tent for what would be our normal afternoon routine.
Waiting in-line Tanya met Angela Chong from Singapore; she was close to tears as she was busy losing a toenail, something women find much more traumatic than men. My angel gave her a hug and told her about the number of toe-nails she had lost during training, assuring her that they eventually grow back. Soon Tanya’s words of comfort and reassurance seemed to have calmed Angela, and these two women from very different worlds seemed to have the most beautiful connection out in the Sahara desert, birthed in hardship but sustained in mutual understanding. I looked at Tanya thinking no matter how bad she felt or how difficult things was around her, she could always make other people feel much better, a quality I fell in-love with all the way back in February 1988 when I first met her.
I took my angel back to the tent and got her settled for the night. I insisted that she had to eat, with the long-run looming we had to try and solve some of the existing problems. Again she ate some salt and vinegar chips with some halva and a little bit of drywors, not much, but enough to appease me. I mixed some 32Gi for the two of us for the night and made sure that we drank most of it by the time the sun rose.
We fell asleep with me rubbing Tanya’s temples to relieve some pressure and allow her to relax, tomorrow was going to be long and tough and I knew we would face some challenges, but how big those challenges would be I had no idea.