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Mastering the Sahara Shuffle - MdS 2015

The last rays of light finally sink behind the mountains as we roll into checkpoint four (CP4). We are 50.2km into 92km of the fourth and longest day, and if our calculations are correct the next time we see the sun’s first rays we should be almost crossing the finish line. The whole night lies ahead of us, one foot in front of the other. I can feel a hotspot on both sides of both my heels, but mentally and physically I’m feeling strong.

Our water tags get clicked as we collect three litres of water; a sign that the next stage is not going to be easy (the usual water collection is one 1.5 litre bottle). We pull to the side, and I peel my pack off my aching shoulders. A broken collarbone a few years earlier means my left shoulder sits higher than my right and takes more of the weight, even when I adjust the straps. But there is no time for worrying about that, I have blisters to clean, pop and dress before we press on. As we neared this checkpoint, we decided that we would be through quickly, refill the bottles and press on to CP5 for a longer stop and dinner break.

After pulling off my sand-encrusted socks, I decided to ‘treat’ myself to a fresh pair, something I have been dreaming off since setting off at seven that morning. As I pull them out of my bag, they feel damp. Not a good sign. My socks are covered in the juice from my pre-made dehydrated meal, which I made that morning. It has leaked all through my bag, so the decision is made to stay and eat our dinner earlier than planned. One that turns out to be a sage move considering what lies ahead. Only one sock ended up being swapped. No idea why but it seemed like a wise decision at the time!

In its 30th year, Patrick Bauer had promised us a surprise. We knew it was never going to be a good one. Not only was day four the longest in its history, but we were about to hit over 30km of sand dunes. That’s longer than my parent’s home in Carew to Ashburton! Walking in sand is hard, short legs walking in sand is harder, but I knew there were plenty out there doing it far tougher than me, so I told myself to man-up and more importantly keep up! Sam and Joss were setting a cracking pace in front with Jacqs and I following closely in their footsteps.

The darkness was a blessing in disguise, as we had no idea what was ahead of us, only glow-sticks attached to people’s packs marked the way. Those dunes were never-ending; up, down, up, down. We overtook people, people passed us, but as long as we kept moving forward we were one step closer to the end!

Joss pushed on at about 4am, so it was now just three: Sambo, Jacqs and myself. It was bloody hard yakka. The terrain had finally turned back to solid ground, but now our feet were aching. I honestly don’t how people did that whole day on their own; it would have been an extraordinarily long and lonely day! I never thought I’d say this, but for once I was really enjoying Sam’s rubbish chat!! I couldn’t have done it without either of them. What was mentally the most challenging thing I have ever done was made achievable with these two by my side. There was a lot of hate and pain, especially towards Patrick Bauer (sorry!) but finally, we passed through CP7 with six kilometres left to go. The longest six kilometres of my life!!

I had now more than doubled the longest distance I had ever done, and in my mind, I was telling myself there was only one lap of Hagley Park left. To add insult to injury, the first three kilometres were down a sandy riverbed (or lugga if you’re Kenyan!). We could see a faint distant glow over the hill ahead of us, so we knew the end was in reach. Then Jacq told us she could see submarines! Was this it? Three kilometres from the end and one of us had finally cracked?? It just turned out I had miss heard her, and somehow we managed a pathetic laugh from our tired, aching bodies.

We crossed the finish line in a time of 21 hours and 40 mins. What should have been total elation at having finished instead seemed to be rather an anticlimax. An awkward three-way hug over the line was the only hint of celebration before we downed our sweet Moroccan Chai (tea) and clicked our water tickets one last time before shuffling to our tent with our water for the day. The sun had just come up as we finally crawled into our sleeping bags, thankful for a day off ahead of us.

There is so much I can write about so instead of one big blog post I will roll out a couple over the coming weeks. Six marathons in six days across the Sahara desert. I carried all my own food and kit (without water my pack was just over 8kg) and apparently the highest temperature reached was in the early ’50s.

I was excited lining up on the first day, the unknown of what lay ahead, which turned to nerves heading into the long day. But for me, the toughest day was the 42.2km marathon at the end. This day hadn’t even been on my radar. I presumed I would get to the last day and be stoked it was almost over. My feet were blistered and aching on the hard ground, and I didn’t know how I would get through the day ahead. Short legs meant I couldn’t keep up with the others as they walked, and running meant I was too far ahead. The only option was to do the Sahara shuffle, in a shuttle. Run until I was about 20 metres ahead, have a chat as they walked past me, wait until I was 20 metres behind and then shuffle my way past them again!

Rising over that last hill and seeing the finishing line was a fantastic feeling. I forgot all the pain, the hurt and tiredness and just started to run. As the Running for Rangers team we crossed the line together, a moment that I had been dreaming about for the last six months. I was so bloody happy and proud that I had made it! A request from Jacqs sisters was to do a double roll in front of the webcam. I hope you two appreciate it because that ground was hard and rocky! People standing around thought we were fighting, and for those who haven’t seen it, it’s not the best display of athleticism!!

Five people (not one of us knew all the others) came together at the beginning and left seven days later having achieved something incredible. But the real success of us running this race and crossing that line was the money raised for the Rangers. The great #runningforrangers social media campaign was brilliant, and support and donations from family, friends and strangers around the world have been amazing! A huge thanks to everyone who donated, your help is very much appreciated. Together we raised over $105,000 US at the time of crossing the finishing line (and still counting), a fantastic amount that is very much needed in the fight to protect the Rhino and Elephant in Kenya.

The boys are already talking about the next adventure, maybe a 300-mile race across the Yukon. As for me, I am sure there will be something, but at the moment I am going to enjoy going for a run without a house on my back!


10 things I learnt from a week in the desert: 

  1. It might be a running race, but the MdS is all about standing in lines; lines for your water, lines to get your gear checked, lines to go to the loo, lines for the doctors, lines at the checkpoints… you get the drift, a lot of standing around. But in saying that, for an event with over 1,400 people in the Sahara it was an exceptionally well-run organisation. Add to that just over 500 volunteers, mostly French, who were terrific. There was always a smile and word of encouragement and even a flower for Jacq and me from one lovely man at a water checkpoint each day. Joss was a little disappointed he didn’t get one too!

  2. Walking poles are a really good idea. On day two I had a minor tantrum before we even started; the poles were too long for me, and I kept tripping over them, I didn’t like carrying them, if I put them in my bag then I had to stop to get them out, blah blah blah. I ended up carrying them for the entire seven days. On the long day, I don’t know what I would have done without them. In fact, I appreciated them so much I named them after my two favourite actors – Leo (DiCaprio) and Liam (Hemsworth). Those two poles fast became my besties.

  3. Just because there are plastic loos provided and you are given bags, doesn’t mean people will use them. We didn’t have to venture far to find human bombs all over the show. I saw more faeces in those seven days than I have seen in my lifetime, and most likely the rest of my life too!! As the days wore on people stopped walking so far. The French in particular, male and female, had no issues with relieving themselves right in front of you!

  4. The Welsh are probably the happiest people on the planet. We were lucky enough to be right beside a full bivvy of them, and they were always keeping us entertained by singing, yahooing and just providing great banter. We did see them naked almost every morning too.

  5. No matter how bad you think your feet are, there is always someone worse off than you. Pete was the worst in our tent with blisters on the soles of his feet, but Jacqs and I also needed a trip to the Doc Trotters tent. I’d heard rumours that these guys weren't that gentle so I was a little nervous, but it was more-than-worth the three-hour wait in the heat after the long day to get my blisters cleaned and dressed properly, especially as one turned out to be infected. I thought mine were hurting while they were being dressed, but the poor lady beside me was in a hell of a state worse than me. Not only did she have blisters on her feet the size of saucers (which they were pouring iodine into) but also she had apparently missed (or just not applied at all) sunscreen to the backs of her legs. Not a wise move in the desert, which resulted in lots of little blisters. It was like a train-wreck that I couldn’t stop staring at. Needless to say, it took my mind of what was happening to me.

  6. Two Kiwi’s, two Kenyan’s and a Brit can talk a lot of shit! We chatted most of our way around the 262km course, especially on the long day. 99% of it was utter bullshit, but it kept us going. That 1% was when we were talking about dairy-farming in New Zealand (let’s face it, still probably bullshit). Perhaps not a conversation you would expect from two females! Unfortunately when we were having this conversation we were all in single file walking up a very steep slope, so everyone in front and behind also learnt about it too! Drinking games are the perfect game to play in the desert, except this time when someone got it wrong everyone had to drink. Never before has a drinking game been such a wise idea, or put me in a better state of mental health once finished! I have also shot, shagged and married almost everyone I know, including my tent mates! We loved it when strangers would add their two cents worth too. We also played ‘would you rather’ where you had to choose between two options. One that was bought up more than once, including the early hours of the long day, was ‘would you rather be where you are right now, or sitting at a desk for eight hours?’ The first option was always chosen immediately.

  7. My talent of making up words to songs really shone through, especially on the final day. I do not possess one musical bone in my body, and the only song that Jacq and I knew the entire words to was the NZ National Anthem (both Maori and English thank you!). I never want to hear what we sounded like, but for the last five kilometres of the race it got us through. I am pretty sure we mashed songs together too, as more than once our words didn’t quite match.

  8. The Happy Birthday song will be ruined to me forever. Each morning as we waited at the start line Patrick would stand and talk, and talk, and talk, in French. Then he would read out everyone’s names that had a birthday and we would then all sing happy birthday. I might sound like I have sour grapes here, but when you are waiting on the start line with approximately seven hours in front of you, the last thing you feel like doing is prolonging the process and singing Happy Birthday to strangers! Highway to Hell on the other hand…

  9. We had a weird knack for offending people! There were eight people to a bivvy, and as there were only five of us we needed to find three more. Most people had organised their tents before they arrived, so we set about finding three more to fill our tent. Pete met two people who were keen to join us on the plane before he offended them by letting them know that wearing your gaiters on the plane was not a good look! We arrived at the tent site and managed to find another person, only to find that when we came back from getting our water, he had ditched us too! We thought it was only going to be five until we came back from dinner and found two bags in our tent. We’re pretty sure the only reason they stayed was because we were all in bed by the time they came back and therefore didn’t meet us properly until the morning. By then it was too late to leave! They turned out to be two good sorts from London who somehow managed to put up with us and were referred to as the 'stowaways'. We taught them a thing or two including fire lighting, how to make a decent brew, Conservation in Kenya and the best way to shear a sheep (demonstration included!) They in return always made sure our tent was free of rocks when we returned, something we were extremely grateful for! They probably could have taught us a few more things about running too…

  10. I have the most amazing family and friends. The emails, phone calls and support I received before, during and after the race have really blown me away. Not to mention the donations! The emails that came to our tents each evening were really special too. I must admit after the long day there was the odd tear that managed to escape (the only time during the entire race). Just knowing that so many of you were watching and willing us to keep going was so nice to know.

I am back in NZ now and back to work. I think back to that week, and it seems so surreal; did I actually just spend a week running through the Sahara? Thanks to the power of social media, people who I wouldn’t have even considered to follow me have told me how they tracked me during that week. By the sounds of it, I think it was far less stressful actually running it! Listening to Lisa Tamiti talk all those years ago I remember thinking that the MdS was something that seemed far outside my capabilities, a race for the extreme athlete. Now having completed it, I still think of it as a big race, but one that is extremely achievable for anyone.

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