Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Desert

A huge thank you to everyone who cheered me on, and contributed to the desert run fundraiser. The run is over of course, but we’re leaving the fundraiser page up for a while longer in case anyone wants to contribute after the fact.

The Sahara was beyond beautiful, and punishing in the extreme. I don’t suppose it is really possible to imagine what such a run will be like until the experience arrives – likewise, it might be pointless to try to describe it, but I can try.

The terrain varied from hard packed dirt, to hard packed sand, to varying textures and composition of sand, soft and hard, as we progressed into the desert. The dunes, when we reached them, were majestic and sensual in their shape against the sky. Depending on the place and angle to the blue above, the yellow sand took on tinges of green, pink, white, greys and blue. They offered no shade but their mere presence was refreshing compared to stretches of endless flat.

In many places, 40 million year old fossilized shells carpeted the sand under foot.

And of course there was the heat. Everyone tried to cover as much ground before the heat really got going around 10am. For the better athletes, this was almost enough time to finish the entire distance for the day (between 38 and 43 kilometers). This meant that on top of their physical advantage, they escaped most of the biggest hardship of the event – the crippling heat. For the others (me included), the days invariably turned into a crawl through the swelter. Typically 42 or 43 degrees Celsius, without a cloud in the sky or any landscape features to seek shelter under – it was just us, our packs, and the furnace. Regular sips of water and electrolytes were the only weapon against dangerous dehydration.

On that front, I did really well. Constant sipping allowed me to stay on par with the rate at which water and minerals were vaporizing from my body. Many times I felt light headed and a little nauseous but the scales never tipped beyond return. Others were not so lucky and had to receive IV fluids after fits of vomiting and collapse.

I only made it part way through day 3 of 7, however. My weakness turned out to be my knees: by mid afternoon of day two, they were in agony. The right knee screamed upon impact with the ground, but the left one suffered the opposite problem and burned during the lifting of the right foot.

One finds ways of negotiating with the pain: a rhythm and manner that works around the injuries to an extent - but the problem is these strategies are highly dependent on the terrain in order to work. In most places, the resistance of the sand was unpredictable: what looked like a firm area could easily cave in, and what appeared soft could often be much firmer. The pain management postures would backfire horribly upon such misjudgments – and anticipation of such mistakes made every step a roll of the dice.

By the time the sun was getting low in the sky of day two, I had started chanting a spontaneous, wordless song, much like the songs my Choctaw Native American ancestors may have sung. The tones created continuity for my mind to support itself with. The willing of the sound aided the willing of the forward motion, and gave a sort of timeless context to the pain, softening its jagged edges. I would not have been capable of imagining how this could possibly help before the moment I started the hum and song, and before that moment, I had no idea I was going to do it. The sound gave birth to itself as an answer to the hardship, and the hardship welcomed it and responded positively. I really had little to do with it – I was a kind of bemused middleman, mediating the conversation between pain and song.

I arrived into camp perhaps half an hour before cut off time that evening, but without a watch, I couldn’t know I was going to make it: the twilight dumped adrenaline into me and my 2-3 km/h limp turned into a semi-run for the last stretch, which happened to be the scaling of an immense, soft dune, followed by an equally big descent and a succession of smaller dunes on up to the finish.

Adrenaline masks the pain for a moment, but the damage to already injured tissue is still happening whether it is felt or not. Once in the tent, I lay down and when I finally realized food was necessary before sleep, getting to my feet again was almost impossible.

I saw others limping around the camp that evening and imagined that like me, they were hoping for a miracle to happen during the night: to wake up reconstituted and pain-free.

It is amazing what the human body can do with a night’s sleep but there are limits. I was able to stand easily enough the next morning, but the pain was still very much present. So I continued to hope that somehow, I would find a way to negotiate with my poor condition: some new posture and gait that had eluded me the day before.

The desert progressed into full-blown dunes that morning: magnificent contours etched with light and shadow by the early light. Sheer faces dropping into sinkholes. Dune slopes rippled with microcosmic dunes of their own: sand echoing its patterns on and on, probably in ways my human mind could not perceive. The thought of the alliance of so many grains of sand to form such a masterpiece makes the mind become still with appreciation. But it doesn’t heal busted knees.

I monitored my pace. This first couple of hours would be my fastest, with the air still relatively cool and my knees at their best. Things would inevitably only get worse as the sun angled into the best position to scorch this part of the earth, and my knees losing what small relief the night had given them and slipping further with the renewed abuse.

By the end of the first 8 km stage, I knew I would not make the cut off time. In order to do so I would have to maintain the current pace all day, without stopping to rest, and despite the increasing difficulty of the terrain lying ahead. The nerve channels from my knees conjured a recurring memory of Jim Morrisson’s musing on being ‘lost in a romance, wilderness of pain’. That was what lay ahead of me – superimposed on the physical wilderness: hour after hour of trying to bargain with a wilderness of pain. It brought to mind tales of how people try to bargain with the devil, despite his infinite advantages in the realm of cunning.

The choice became either stopping there and then, or continuing on and risking permanent damage. I opted to ‘live to fight another day’.

That afternoon in the tent, Dan – who would go on to win the race – showed me exercises to foster proper alignment of the knees. Movements you want to do alone really – to protect your street cred.

I know I can fix this liability with the proper training. My mind is strong enough for the event, and so is my stamina. I never lost my sense of humor, not even in the moments of greatest pain, and lack of physical strength never threatened to end the show. One year to correct my posture and gait so that my knees don’t flare up – and I think I have a chance of finishing the full 250 kms.

In other words Sahara: I’ll be back.

The Valley of the Whales is intimately linked with the Declaration of Cetacean Rights in my mind, and I will return there reaffirming my commitment time after time.

In those 56 hours in the desert, I covered 88 kms – an average of roughly 40 kms per day. Before the event, the most ground I had ever covered in a day was 25 kms, with a much lighter pack, on far easier terrain and in far gentler weather.

I returned to Cairo weighing a full kilo and a half less. I was crippled for days but felt strangely free – my body more at ease than it had ever felt since childhood. The only way I could describe it would be a sense of infinite space within the body – joints open to the world, all currents flowing. My body was singing.

I thought about the tens of hundreds of thousands of generations of whales that span the time divide between Archeoceti and the whales I have met in this modern world. I thought about how whales briefly walked the earth before returning to the sea. The memory of the deepest, richest blue of the waters surrounding the Cook Islands painted such a contrast to the perfectly arid world I had just crawled through. The curious, playful intelligence of the humpback whales I met in the bluest of worlds now exists in my mind alongside the mute, fossilized remains of their ancestors, defying the eons in the dry vastness of the desert.

My body sang, and I thought these thoughts… and felt to be the richest man alive.

1 comment:

  1. That seems like such a fun yet exhausting event. I am an extreme event seeker and know I’d love to try something like that but would also be cautious about my health.

    It's funny how I can go skydiving without thinking twice, but would be so reserved about trekking across the desert.