Marathon des Sables 2015 Post Race Report: The Perfect Storm Part 3

Day 4/5: 91.7km, everything you can imagine, heat, sun, sand, jebel, dunes, and everything else

“The only true wisdom lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and can be reached only through suffering”

Igjugarjuk, Caribou Eskimo Shaman

Tent 172 getting ready for the long-run, the 91.7km stage.

Source: Genis Pieterse

The sun rose as the sandstorm which had started during the early hours of the morning subsided a little before starting up with a vengeance again as we stood on the start line. Everything was covered with sand which meant that I had to first unpack our bags to get the sand out before repacking for the day. As this was the long stage we would start an hour earlier and time was tight. Again I escorted Tanya for morning ablutions, washed my face and brushed my teeth while waiting for her and soon we were back in the tent. I gave my angel, probably the most important message of the event which was as usual stuck to her breakfast bar. Today’s message read:

Day 4 Good morning my angel. Today will be tougher than anyone can imagine. Here we will need to dig deep, keep it together; stay focused…today is about VASBYT. I will be there, every step, every moment. Hold my hand and know that no matter what, I know you can do this. I am so proud of you. Love you, respect you and believe in you xxxxxxx

Tanya ate her breakfast bar and I was somewhat relieved when she turned to me and said that I should continue to give her nuts during the day as before to make sure that she remained fuelled. Such an approach was going to make life a little easier. But my beautiful wife was now becoming increasingly concerned with the state of her hair, being convinced that there would be no way to get the knots out and that cutting it all off, as her dad had advised, would be the only solution. I assured her that once we are back at the hotel, I will wash, condition and blow dry her hear until all the knots were out.

As the days before, I was simply too busy with getting everything sorted to really read the race book. I gave it a cursory scan, and quickly jotted the cut-off times for the various CP’s down, so that I could ensure that we had no mishaps. These cut-offs minus 2-hours became our targets and consisted of the following:

CP3, at 37.8km’s will close 11-hours, 30-minutes after our start, CP4, at 50.2km’s will close 16-hours after the race start and CP5, at 63.3km’s will close 20-hours and 45-minutes after the race start.

I folded the paper and stuck it into the camera pouch. A quick mental calculation made it clear that we would have to maintain a minimum pace of around 3.1km/h all the way to 63.3km’s to ensure that we meet all the cut-offs. To build up the two hour comfort margin we would need to maintain a pace of 3.4km/h. Knowing the type of terrain we would encounter, the heat that would easily peak well above 50 degree Celsius, the fact that due to fatigue our backpacks felt as heavy, if not heavier, than on day one, and the reality that by now we have already covered 104km’s, some of which I would not hesitate to class as brutal, I knew that to maintain 3.4km/h for the next 63.3km’s would be really, really hard work.

My angel on the start-line, ready for the long stage.

Source: Genis Pieterse

Then among the many faces appeared Mohammed Belemlih and Bassirou Bâ together with a photographer. Our photo had to be taken so that the article written by Bassirou could be published. Hugs were exchanged and good luck wishes cast our way. When Mohammed left it was with the parting words, “see you at the end”. All the members of tent 172, with the exception of Abdel Ben Battal, made our way to the start-line. Abdel, ranked among the top 100 and would form part of a later start, as would Dion. The mood was remarkably light, and we soon found ourselves among the crowd at the start. The usual race briefing was delivered by Patrick and we were told that 48 of our fellow runners had retired; the 2015 MdS was taking its toll.

Among the runners who were no longer in the race was Patrick Mouyen, a Frenchman whom I met during my first Kalahary Augrabies (KAEM) run and an MdS veteran, and Farah Idris from Great Britain who was pulled from the race with a raptured small intestine. The MdS is an extreme event during which a moment’s laps in concentration can cause problems both during and long after the race. A runner is literally pushed to their physical, mental and emotional limit and at times beyond it. There is no scope for mistakes, the desert does not allow your mind to wander, and if you don’t obey her, she punishes you severely.

Soon the customary Highway to Hell played over the loud speakers and we set off on the longest single stage in the 30-year history of the Marathon des Sables, a formidable 91.7km’s.

Patrick Bauer giving the morning briefing and the count-down to the start of the longest long stage in the history of the MdS.

Source: Tanya Pieterse

Tanya and I settled into a slow jog / walk rhythm, something we knew we could sustain. The first 12.2km’s to CP1 was as the day before sandy. It was to be expected as our bivouac was obviously situated in a valley surrounded by sand. By the time we reached CP1 it was around 11:00am and the early morning cool of the desert was replaced by the relentless sun and heat. Along the way I would make sure that Tanya ate nuts and drank water every kilometre which seemed to be working. At CP1, our bladders were filled and we were off without much delay.

The terrain between CP1 and CP2 had less sand, and the heat became really unbearable when we crossed a dried-up lake and descended into a stony valley. Tanya was still drinking and eating, although she continued to have difficulty swallowing. I could see that she was trying but with great difficulty. At times, for a brief moment, a cool desert breeze would sweep across the plane to cool us. It would be near impossible for anyone who has not been there to imagine how invigorating such a small and brief reprieve from the relentless heat could be. And then we arrived at CP2. We had covered 26km’s to this point, the desert was starting to cool a little as it does close to 15:00pm every afternoon and I knew we were well on track. However, I also knew that a formidable climb, preceded by a dune field was awaiting us during the next stage. By now we were out in the desert for 7-hours non-stop and had 11.8km’s to cover to CP3 with 4-hours and 30-minutes left to do so. Normally this won’t be a problem but I knew the combination of fatigue, the dunes and Jebel El Otfal’s with its 12% ascending gradient and 20% descending gradient was not to be under estimated. I let Tanya lay down to rest for the fifteen minutes it took me to fill our bladders and sort some stuff in our bags, and soon we were off. Tanya was still in relatively good shape, although it was clear that she could no longer eat as regularly as I would have like and, I was not sure how much water she was actually drinking. We pushed hard to 30.2km’s where we entered the dunes and navigated our way through endless up and down climbs. Navigating dunes is both an art and extremely hard work and although the dune field was only 1.3km’s it felt like ages for us to exit it. What lay before us was Jebel El Otfal, a formidable 250 meter high climb (the equivalent of an 80 story sky scraper) with a 12% gradient, getting steeper closer to its summit.

Tanya nearly at the end of the dunes, out in the distance Jebel El Otfal with its 200m vertical climb.

Source: Genis Pieterse

Tanya became worried again that we were running out of time; I assured here that we were doing just great. The climb was arduous, and Tanya began to find the high-step transitions difficult to navigate which meant that I would stop at each step transition to help her. This made progress a little slow, but we continued to push on and eventually reached the summit. For the first time she had a look back into the valley below, seeing where she had come from. At that moment I saw the spark of victory, for a moment her fear of heights disappeared and all that was left was the satisfaction of what she had accomplished. Later she would tell me what she had thought at that moment and I will remember it until my dying breath:

Before departing for the MdS, Tanya’s sister in America had written to her and stated that she was Super Women for even attempting to do the MdS. At the summit of Jebel El Otfal, Tanya had looked back into the valley and over the plane with the dunes she had just crossed, and thought to herself “no human could do this, I am indeed Super Women”.

I was ecstatic, Tanya had achieved so much, this was the reason why we were at the MdS and she was realising everything and more that she had set for herself. I loved the feeling of seeing her so victorious, her face said “see I can do anything”. I knew Tanya would never have to stand back to anyone in her life again.

Soon, however, it was back to hard work and we had to start our decent. For the first-time my heart skipped a beat, and I though, how am I going to get my angel down. We were faced with a 200 meter drop at a 20% gradient and all of that down lose sand with an anchor rope that extended only to around half way. I told Tanya to follow me, “dig in your heels and lean back into the mountain” I said, which my angel was moderately successful in copying. At the same time a group of French runners also started their decent, Tanya, was all over the place which seemed very funny to them. The humour this brought about lighten the mood for everyone, including Tanya, who did not seem to mind that she was at the centre of it all and soon the two of us was reunited at the bottom. Going down we could see CP3 at 37.8km’s which meant there were less than 3.8km’s left to our first CP with a cut-off. We had enough time to get there, but Tanya was starting to get worried again. I promised her that we would be there within 45-minutes as I could see the terrain leading up to CP3 had few major obstacles. We worked hard, pushing, and 40-minutes later we entered CP3, at 18:28pm, 1 hour and 19 minutes ahead of cut-off and for the most part in a relatively good condition. It was starting to get dark and we were handed our glow-sticks. I got Tanya to lie down while I filled our bladders, and got our head touches out. By now Tanya could no longer swallow food but was taking small sips of water at one kilometre intervals.

Tanya making a brave descend down the 200m high Jebel El Otfal.

Source: Genis Pieterse

It was time for Tanya’s regular medication, but, I knew we had a great deal of technical terrain to cover over the next 25.5km’s which would all be during the night. Some of Tanya’s medication causes drowsiness, especially the higher night-time dosage. I, therefore, decided that it would be best to skip it. By now, the perfect storm was brewing on the horizon, serious mineral and vitamin shortages caused by Tanya’s inability to take in sufficient nutrition, compounded by the fact that she was losing nutrients through menstrual bleeding and exceptionally hard physical effort. This exasperated a chronic condition and placed even more stress on an already stressed body. On top of everything, dehydration was starting to set-in and the combination of medication withdrawal and all the other elements created a vicious cycle which started to spiral out of control.

We were in for a long-night and as the sun started setting we set-out into the night towards CP4 which was 12.4km’s away and for which we had a little less than 6-hours to reach. This would be enough time even if the terrain was severe, so I could divert my attention, dedicating it to keep my angel focused and motivated. During this section we crossed mostly uneven stony ground, with some flat ground at times. We held hands and sang some songs to keep our spirits up and made good progress. At about 46km’s Tanya started to say that she can’t see that well, but with me holding her hand navigation wasn’t much of a problem. She could no longer see the glow sticks used to mark the route and kept on asking me if I am sure that we are still on the right track. I had to reassure my angel constantly but her lack of sight caused her stress to increase, which compounded things even more. Tanya showed tremendous trust in me during this time and I can just imagine how difficult and frightening this must have been. During our training we had at times made the other close their eyes so that we could lead each other but never over such technical terrain, and always just for fun. Not once did I even think that this could possibly happen out there.

As the sun set, we only had our head torches to guide us into the dunes. My angel was now no longer able to see and the customary MdS laser wasn't there to guide us.

Source: Genis Pieterse

Eventually we reached CP4 at around 22:15pm about two hours before cut-off. We had achieved our goal of building up a 2-hour ‘lead’, this would take some of the pressure off. We were now at 50.2km’s and had been going for about 14-hours with very little meaningful rest stops. I also knew that with another 41.5km’s to go we won’t be able to simply continue going, especially not with Tanya unable to eat. Again we filled our bladders quickly, replaced our head torch batteries, and I got Tanya to try and eat something, but to no avail. My angel could simply not eat, but I was thankful that she could still drink some water and that would have to be enough.

I had made a decision earlier during the day to only eat when Tanya could eat, my logic was that overall I was still better hydrated and fuelled then my angel, so if I continue to fuel myself the energy I would have available could set a pace that would be to her detriment. By cutting my food intake some of my reserves would become depleted and I would naturally slow down. I had been here before and knew how to get myself out of the hole if I became completely depleted, so a calculated risk. Something which is a hallmark of extreme adventure and ultra-endurance events, you constantly weight the risk against the potential benefit and make cautious decisions, knowing, all too well that you would have to live with the consequences.

At about 22:30pm we set-off again and within 45-minutes we had entered the dunes and would have to navigate through endless sandy ascends and descends over the next 7.7km’s, but this year the signature green laser would not be there to guide us as before. It was here that Tanya’s vision deteriorated even further, she started to hallucinate, seeing images in the impressions of the sand and finding it extremely taxing to climb to the top of the dunes. A sandstorm hit us and Tanya found it hard to keep her balance, the wind was strong and made progress difficult and slow. Again I held her hand or supported her arm when it was needed and singing some old songs we knew from much younger days gradually made our way forward. Unfortunately this also meant that we were only using one of our walking poles at a time which made getting up the dunes really tough and slow. At some point, while navigating through some rocks and small trees among the dunes, Tanya lost her balance and fell bumping her head. She was concerned that she might have sustained an injury but I could see no bleeding so we continued. By the time we exited the dunes we found ourselves on a very technical decent into a valley with larger rocks ranging in size between tennis balls and soccer balls. By now Tanya could see very little and was concerned that we were lost as she could no longer make out any of the glow sticks. We made our way, one step at a time, moving slowly and cautiously until we, eventually saw CP5. Of all the CP’s throughout the race, I think the sight of CP5 early on the morning of the 9th of April 2015 caused the biggest relief in me. We reached CP5 at around 03:07am on day two of the long stage, by now we had covered 63.3km’s and had 28.4km’s left, a distance I felt that was totally manageable seeing that we had 17 hours left within which to complete the race.

During this leg we had maintained our 2-hours lead ahead of the CP cut-off and I decided that it would be a good thing to rest for an hour. There was sweet Jasmin tea and some ‘deck’ type chairs which some runners were using to sleep in, and I soon had our sleeping bags out, and our shoes off. Tanya tried to drink the tea but became extremely nauseous. With Tanya dressed in her beanie and fleece, I quickly tucked her into her sleeping bag, hoping that the rest would be all that is needed to restore her sight, and cause the nausea to subside, something that was now becoming quite severe. Soon we were both lying in our sleeping bags on deck chairs at CP5. My core temperature had fallen, mostly because I wasn’t eating, which caused me to shiver uncontrollably.

Because I initially told the crew that we were only to sleep for an hour, we were woken at 04:00am, looking at Tanya, and a quick chat about our ‘lead’, how we felt and the benefit of more rest, we decided that another hour of rest would be best, and so at 05:00am, as the sun was lighting up the sky, we once again got ready to move towards yet another check point.

I packed our bags while Tanya looked for a place to be sick. The nausea had not subsided and my angel was no better than before. I helped her put on her shoes as her sight was now almost completely gone, her balance was also deteriorating somewhat and she started to complain about a groin pain. We decided that to get moving would be the best possible course of action, and at around 05:30am we were on our way. The 11.5km’s that stretched out before us started with a salt plane that would cover most of the distance. With Tanya now unable to see, the flat salt plane made moving forward easier and less risky. At about 73.4km’s the terrain became more sandy and hilly which again made it more difficult to move easily, but we were about 1,4km from CP6 and our spirits were up. Once we reach CP6 there were only about 17km’s left to the end.

The desert always reminds you of the balance between life and death.

Source: Genis Pieterse

Tanya and I stepped over the tracking mat at CP6 at around 10:00am well ahead of the CP cut-off but it had taken us 4 hours 30 minutes to cover a relatively non-technical and flat 11.5km’s. Tanya was blind, very nauseous and had a severe pain in her groin area. My angel was severely fatigued having slept less than 2-hours over the past 26 hours and continued to have difficulty swallowing. A quick calculation on how much time we had versus the distance we still needed to cover gave us much hope. There were around 17km’s left to the end and we had 10-hours left until the stage cut-off.

We had a chat and decided that seeking medical assistance would be the best thing. Tanya was scared that the doctors would pull her from the race if she told them everything that was wrong. I told her, that no matter what happens, I was very proud of her for even attempting the MdS, and that I had up to that moment, experienced the most amazing time with her out there. If she was pulled from the race by the doctors I would hand in my number and withdraw from the race to be there to support my angel in her recovery. It took some convincing, and eventually Tanya agreed to see the doctors. I told Tanya that I was proud of her for even attempting to do the MdS, and that would not change irrespective of what happens next.

And it was here where we met Dr. Thierry Benderitter and his team from Doc Trotters. Tanya was soon lying on her back in the medical tent with me at her side. Blood pressure was taken, blood glucose tested, heart checked and a ‘full’ medical done. Within minutes Tanya was hooked up to two units of fluids administered intravenously followed by a unit of glucose, but the pain in her groin area became increasingly more acute. The team decided to administer morphine which took a good 30-minutes to kick-in, but once it did, the relief was obvious, and Tanya was, how can I best describe it, ‘happy’. The fluids caused Tanya’s core temperature to drop which resulted in her shivering uncontrollably. Seeing my angel in so much pain was heart wrenching but receiving much needed treatment was a relief, as I knew she was in good hands. But this moment was most definitely an absolute emotional low for me, I had to work hard to keep the tears from flowing, all I could do was to sit there next to Tanya in the medical tent, to hold her hand and to stroke her hair. Not much was said during this time as I wanted Tanya to get as much rest as possible.

Tanya receiving medical treatment out in the desert.

Source: Genis Pieterse

After about an hour in the medical tent, another check was done, and Tanya assured the medical personnel that she was 100-percent and that she could see again. Based upon this she was given the all clear to continue with two conditions; firstly I had to mix a rehydration solution into a bottle of water for her and make sure that she drank from this at least once every ten minutes and secondly, that I remove all non-mandatory kit from her bag and place it in mine.

Within 90-minutes after arriving at CP6 we were on our way. Tanya could still not see any better but at least she could swallow again and the pain was totally manageable. Tanya told me that she had started to make peace with the fact that she will be blind for the rest of her life and resolved to tell the grandkids someday that she lost her sight during one amazing adventure. We moved forward at a steady and manageable pace. I stopped her every 10-minutes to make sure that she drank the rehydrate mixture and so we continued one step at a time. By the time we left CP6 it was about 11:30am and the heat was starting to pick-up, we were now moving slowly on a jeep track and every 30-minutes or so an official MdS vehicle will stop next to us to get an update on Tanya’s condition and progress. I knew we had enough time to get to the end so I shifted our focus from chasing the cut-off to ensuring that my angel does not become over exerted. I deliberately kept our pace slow, to allow the rehydration mixture and the administered medication to work.

Eventually we reached CP7 at 85.7km’s, there was now only 6km’s left, a distance that we could easily cover in the time that was left. As we reached CP7, Dr. Benderitter was there to check on his patient, another bottle of hydration mixture was made and my instruction remained the same. If Tanya wanted to finish she would have to drink it all, and do the same during the night. I let Tanya lie down in the medical tent while I filled my bladder to capacity by draining all her balder water into mine. This way I could ensure that we had about 5-litres of water for the two of us with which to cover the last 6km’s, so even if we slowed down to a 1km/h crawl I would have enough water to get Tanya to the finish.

The last 6-km’s to the end was total mental torture. Sand would sap the last bit of energy out of us during the first 1.5km’s, and thereafter, the flat stony plateau, would taunt us by showing the finish-line that just never seemed to be any closer no matter how long we pushed forward. It became apparent that news of Tanya had reached the camp and that there were a constant back and forth communication given of her condition and progress. Along the way there were the familiar faces of the medical team, Steve Diederich, and many others. At some point the chopper flew over and Tanya was given the thumbs up from its occupants, but it wasn’t until we were about 500 meters from the end that it became clear how many people, both crew and runners were waiting for Tanya to cross the line.

As we approached there were cheers and the crowd who had formed were clapping their hands to let Tanya know how much they respect her effort. By now we had been out there for 34-hours with only two hours of ‘sleep’, and I use the term ‘sleep’ very loosely. I was amazed at my angels resolve to finish this stage. No one knew better than I how difficult this had been for Tanya and how much commitment she had to show just to be able to continue. She had to overcome so much during the past 34-hours and I was amazed at how well she had done. During the past two days and right through the night I had not heard one complaint from Tanya, not a single hint at quitting, despite facing all the challenges she had. Hearing the cheers and the handclapping made me emotional, a third time since we set out on the long stage, but I felt such contentment. It was great to see the support this group of amazing strangers were giving Tanya, they made it known that she belongs within this community of wonderful people. For once, Tanya was receiving the recognition she so desperately deserved and I was certain that she would walk away from the MdS a changed women.

Among the familiar faces standing on the finish-line waiting for Tanya to cross were Mohammed and Dion. Dion, to help me with Tanya’s race pack and Mohammed to give that customary hug to comfort Tanya, and to let her know he knew she could do this. We each received a Coke and made our way to the tent where Tanya was showered with richly deserved praise. Theresa gave Tanya a huge compliment when she said that she would not have been able to continued for so long. My angel beamed, knowing that she had achieved something that was for the most part beyond the grasp of most people. The suffering, fatigue, and pain were worth it.

We returned to our regular routine of attending to our hygiene and feet. Tanya could swallow a little better and I got her to eat some halva, biltong and salt and vinegar chips. I made another bottle of hydration fluid for Tanya and would give this to her throughout the night, ensuring that she had drank everything by morning. I had Tanya in her sleeping bag and within a little while she was fast asleep. Lying in my sleeping bag I had a concern, Tanya had come so far, and there were only 42.2km’s standing between her and the coveted MdS medal, but would she be able to recover? Today was supposed to be a rest day; a time to recover and refuel, but Tanya did not have this. I knew that I needed to ensure that Tanya was fully hydrated before the sun rose.

There was a message Tanya had not received because we did not eat during the day out on the trail. It was a message of congratulation, and I would only get the opportunity to give this to Tanya as part of her breakfast the next morning. The message read:

Day 5 SUPER WELL DONE MY ANGEL!!!!!!!! You did it; the hardest part of this race is in the bag. Today you take that well deserved rest. Sleep a lot, eat and drink lots savour your victory, knowing that there is only one more race day left until that medal hangs around your neck. I love you so much, you are the greatest and I am so privileged to have you by my side during this amazing adventure xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The past two days had, in part, not worked out exactly as planned, but here we were, having completed the longest ever long-stage in the history of the MdS, and we had done so, against the odds and with another two hours to spare until cut-off. But above all an amazing story of adventure was born, a tale of wonder to share. The pride I felt for my angel and the excitement that was bottled up inside me because of her success could not be contained and it took ages before I fell asleep.

#ThierryBenderitter #BloodGlucose #marathondessables #ultraendurance #extrememarathon #blindness #dehydration

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