AUTONOMOUS AQUATIC INSPECTION AND INTERVENTION
Words By: Jen Price
Without a doubt, this has been the hardest physical challenge this year and probably the hardest of my life.
The journey really began on our arrival to Wadi Rum Reserve. Here we jumped off the coaches and onto the back of ancient pick-up trucks; most of which required hot wiring and had more than a million miles on their clocks. We then sped off into the setting sun, across the red sand to our first campsite. Lit by glowing candles and generator lighting it was pretty magical; spirits were high and I don’t think anyone could quite believe they had finally arrived. Many had trained for months in preparation for what would be the longest running race of their life.
Very early on I connected with some fantastic people; finding I had mutual friends or British Army connections with some of them made settling into the experience extremely easy.
Everybody quickly got into the routine of the campsite; preparing kit for the race, fuelling their bodies, getting used to the poo bag situation… it was certainly not luxurious. Thinking back now, I don’t think anyone struggled with the ruggedness of the set up. Everyone knew what they had signed up for: six nights self-sufficient in the desert. I realise now that this was reassuring: 140 like-minded souls about to embark on the beasting of a lifetime.
We were warned that the first three days would be hotter than anticipated and advised to be prepared. Nevertheless, morale was naturally high as we crossed the start line for the first time and I’m sure everyone was pretty pumped. Thankfully, nearly all those involved heeded the race directors’ advice of “for god’s sake, don’t go too fast on the first day!” Even so, I underestimated how long 43km would take me on sand and in 35 degrees.
Seven hours-ish later, I arrived back in camp thoroughly sweaty and sandy, my gaiters having failed in the first five minutes, but in good spirits nevertheless.
Day 2 continued much the same: more sand, more heat and a little longer than the day before (48km). I arrived back at camp 9.5 hours later.
At this point, the strain started to show across the team and some runners had to pull out due to injury or not meeting the time cut offs. Personally, I was struggling with the heat and how it was affecting my ability to eat on the move. This, I later found out, was my downfall because staying on top of your nutrition is critical. I found eating the snacks I had brought with me to be a huge undertaking; either the consistency or flavour became unmanageable. I was repulsed by the look of them and forcing even the smallest quantities in felt like filling my mouth with grit that could choke me. Still, I persevered and figured I could make up for it in the evenings and at breakfast. This was not the case and soon my morning porridge was also a 20 minute ordeal. On top of that, the taste of electrolyte became unpalatable for me and I started switching to just water, a dangerous game but better than nothing at all.
This only really became an issue on Day 3, the long day. 70km, starting at 4am (which meant a 2am wake up) this was the day that we were all apprehensive about.
My logic was to exploit the three hours of darkness we had by shuffling along at pace for 20km. This would then allow me some buffer time for rest periods as the heat increased. Unfortunately, I was already feeling nauseous by check point 1 and both of my knees started to hurt. At about 16km, I paused to take anti-nausea medication and to have my knees strapped. I then plodded onwards doing my best to achieve a decent average speed.
All was going reasonably well until about nine hours in. Then the heat really started to bear down on us.
The race crew had reduced the distances between check points to 8km, often with roving water teams in between, but this could still feel like forever. The worst point was as we hit the first and only 1km stretch of tarmac. Many assumed that this would be a treat; a hard surface that would allow us to pick up the pace. In reality, the tarmac blasted us with so much heat that I was a wreck by the time I reached check point 6 (a mirage on the horizon for a painful 20 minutes).
That stretch had been hard, so hard, and so hot that I burst into tears. I also couldn’t do any maths; my brain was fried and so, like others arriving after me, we were confused as to whether we would make the cut off. Despite this, after some reassurance and TLC by the amazing check point crew (and a rather long rest) I dragged myself up and onwards. Ten hours down, four to go.
Eventually, after another 2.5 hours of gruelling trudging, the final checkpoint came into view… 4km away. There is nothing worse than being able to see an oasis but feel like you are making little to no progress towards it.
The light then began to fade and the pink marker flags became multicoloured glow sticks; beacons of hope that this would eventually be over!
On reaching the final checkpoint (and immediately lying down) it was clear that many other competitors were also having the worst day of their life. One runner had arrived and decided to rest for 2 hours in order to recover before the final hours’ ascent to the new campsite.
That last hour up hill was brutal. Again, the flashing light of the campsite could be seen ahead but progress was slow.
I eventually made it in the pitch black to rock camp just before 9pm. I was so spent that I sat down on the finish line. I then had eight hours to eat, sleep and prepare for the following day. At this point I couldn’t have been more grateful for having my friend Moe on the crew. He sorted hot water for my dinner and lent me his incredibly comfortable inflatable mattress for the night. Thanks Moe!
The following morning I could tell I hadn’t recovered, as was the case for many others. But, having managed breakfast, I made my way to the start line nevertheless. Something in me knew that my tank was empty and I was already suffering by check point 1. I began to enter a world of pain, not from my bad knees or any other visible ailment, but from exhaustion and nausea.
As before I found myself unable to eat anything or keep my speed up and I could see that the time was slowly slipping away from me. So, I decided that I didn’t want to suffer anymore, especially if I wasn’t going to finish the day in the allocated time. I knew that I wanted to re-enter the race on the final day and for it not to be awful.
The fact that the checkpoint crew didn’t push me to continue let me know that I must have looked as exhausted as I felt. I had a very good cry and slowly came to terms with my decision. It was tough, especially watching the last runner scrape through the check point with one minute left on the clock. I spent the rest of the morning with the check point crew feeling a mixture of disappointment and shame. I couldn’t remember ever dropping out of a race before and it was a real mind fuck. I had to keep reminding myself that what we were doing was not normal and that, if a friend had been in my position, I would be reassuring them that they had already achieved so much and that sometimes races just don’t go your way.
Turns out there was also another reason that I felt like the world was ending on Thursday morning: I was uber PMS (sorry if that’s too much information boys!). The reality is that PMS does have a massive impact on your emotions. For me, it suddenly made so much sense on the Friday when I realised it had contributed to my lack of stamina and determination the day before. PMS is not something I usually struggle with but, in this instance, it definitely tipped me over the edge and made life seem unbearable. Damn you Mother Nature! So, just remember ladies, sometimes you can’t beat it and that’s OK.
I know it was the right decision, despite how much it burns. It turns out I can cuff nine challenges but not ten! (Especially if the tenth is a multistage ultra-marathon – In fact, you should probably prepare for that one the most!). The decision meant that I was able to re-join the race for the final day. So, I attached my flags to my race pack for stage 5 and allowed the excitement to carry me. I still dry-wretched along multiple sections, which was very unpleasant, but I was energised by the thought of that finish line.
Medal or not, crossing that line felt amazing and I still feel like I can say I have run a desert ultra-marathon (I think circa 220km cuts it!). I certainly pushed myself to a physical limit I had not been to before.
Finally, a nod to the country of Jordan: you are amazing! The Wadi Rum desert is truly magical (when not running!) and the Bedouin incredibly welcoming. We were also able to visit Petra on our return to Amman and it honestly made me want to become an archaeologist, perhaps in another life…