Sahara Survival - Page 4
A group works together across a pebble-covered flat. Photo by Carolyn Schaffer.
Stage 2 is a furnace of 120-degree heat. I just dive-bombed today’s last descent, a 1000-footer that spit us onto flat ground composed of black gravel. I see the red finish-line banner and the black bivouac tents, warped by heat waves. Patrick designs each day’s course so that you either can’t see the finish line until you are at it or you see it from miles away. Either finish is his final form of daily course-design torment, and today’s is the latter variety.
A headwind flips up sheets of grit. I overtake another runner, noticing it is Mauro and giving him a come-with-me wave. He speeds up, steps ahead of me and plays (a totally legal) windbreak. His gesture is sweet, paternal even, and a wave of affection for him flushes over me. When it’s my turn to pull, Mauro slides into my slipstream. The wind lets up enough that I hear our shoes simultaneously crunching rocks. The rhythm is hypnotic and familiar.
I became a trail runner because of the repetitive, calming sound of feet on dirt. In 2006, I called myself a road runner and was headed to the starting line of Missoula, Montana’s Riverbank Run when my mom telephoned to say that my father had died while they were on vacation in South America. After that, my mother withered into depression and near non-functionality. Though much about the next couple of years sucked, watching my mom suffer broke my heart the most. I was working and living in Yellowstone National Park, and I coped by running trails.
Because friends forced me, I tried to heal in other ways. I visited a therapist, but she focused on the past. “Look,” I remember telling her, “your questions only ensure that I see my father’s drowned, blue body lying on a beach when I shut my eyes at night.”
On the trail, reality was the soft rhythm of shoes hitting earth. The act shut out the past, the future, the present. I ran so much that I dreamed about it, too. This kind of running was reckless and unsustainable in the long-term, but it provided the peace I found nowhere else.
Mauro and I cross the finish line. I thank him until he becomes bashful. “Sì, Sì, Sì, bella,” he says. My gratitude is for the 30-minute peloton, the memory of how I began in this sport and the relief of not having to run like that anymore.
With his sun hat, sunglasses, and opaque sunscreen, John Mulligan deflects the Sahara's intense sun. Photo by Kirsten Kortebein.
I think as my new friend waddles past my tent like an exquisitely uncomfortable duck. He just finished Stage 3. “How are you?” I ask, immediately hating myself for those words. He’s clearly unwell.
“I’m going to finish this race,” he responds, pointing his finger at the ground as if he is a father lecturing his child. The 42-year-old is a business unit manager for the Vermeer Cooperation from Pella, Iowa. I understand, from the conversations we’ve shared since meeting each other in an Ouarzazate hotel before the race, John came to the MdS with big expectations. The Sahara Desert has its own plans for him, and it is chewing him up and spitting him out.
We sit in his tent. He removes his sand gaiters, shoes and socks, groaning through the movements. He has developed foot blisters that grow in size every day, and he says that they now cover half the surface area of each foot. At today’s finish line, the race’s medical staff treated the blisters and covered his feet with white bandages. I can’t see the podiatric disaster, and don’t want to.
“You’re a rock star,” says John, referring to me passing him during each of the three stages after he was slowed by those blisters. “You make it look easy.” John had hoped to finish among the top 50 runners, but now he says he’ll have to suffer much to finish in the top 50 percent. “I left my ego on Stage 1’s course. I had to.”
I understand that his heart is as raw as his feet and mutter, “I’m really sorry.” I mean, there is nothing easy about running 150 miles and otherwise surviving for a week in the Sahara, but what do you say to a man who is doing it without skin on his feet?