I got back to camp, took my shoes off and managed to burst a blister the size of a tennis ball on my right heel. A nine-hour day of sand running had taken its toll on my feet and the pain was close to unbearable. But it was only day two of the 4 Deserts Sahara Race, and I was worried my race was over.
I’d always wanted to run in the Sahara. I’m 38 and I’ve completed the London and New York Marathons but the Sahara is unique with adverse conditions. My pledge to try a different challenge each year – which, so far, has included stand-up comedy, white collar boxing, building houses in Phnom Penh and running across cities – also helps to explain why I signed up for a 250km race across the world’s hottest desert. It’s a self-supported, seven-day event, and participants must carry all their food, clothing and medical supplies.
I’d been training for ten months to get to the starting line, so after flying to Cairo and crossing that line on day one – even though I had a grueling 250km ahead of me – was a moment I’ll never forget. It was 7am, and the sun was already relentless. I had naively believed that training in Singapore would help with the heat, but the heat of the Sahara is something I wasn’t prepared for.
Believe it or not, I was having a great time on that first day: the excitement of being in the desert taking part in this amazing race kept me on a high. However, towards the end of the stage, a few of my fellow competitors weren’t in such good spirits. It was around the 35km mark where I found one of the Singaporean guys in bad shape, suffering from something later diagnosed as hyponatremia, where you drink too much water and starve your body of the precious electrolytes that are already being evaporated through sweat. He was dizzy and talking nonsense, claiming that one of the safety cars had knocked him over. In my ignorance, I started feeding him more water and salt tablets until the medical van arrived and forced him to bring it all back up again. I’m glad to say that he was okay, and with only about 5km left of that stage, he made it to the end.
There was a fantastic buzz around the campfire that night. We all sat around chatting and eating our freeze-dried meals until we conked out at 9pm. Sleeping wasn’t easy. The tent was on a slight incline, and the sand packed beneath us felt like concrete. That, coupled with snoring and chattering, made for a restless night, and before I knew it, it was time to get up for my breakfast of spicy curry noodles.
Putting on the same clothes was disgusting, but due to weight constraints, I only had the one set of clothes to get me through the entire week. The salt crusts around my top and shorts made for an uncomfortable first hour, but once they’d got soaked again, the discomfort disappeared – only to be replaced by nagging muscle pain.
Stage two was 42km and it was a very long day that took me nine hours to complete. Again, being naïve, I assumed that sand was sand, and the week would be spent running in beach-like conditions. Wrong. There were areas of sand where it was like running on a gravel pavement, and other areas where you would sink six inches deep, filling your shoes to the point where your feet no longer fit in your shoes.
That’s when the blisters started. The pain from the exposed flesh was excruciating, and the salt and sand combination wasn’t pleasant. But half an hour in the medical tent, and the volunteer medical staff had me fixed up a treat. They are miracle workers, and I’m not sure I’d have completed the race without them.
Days three and four were two further marathon distance days that saw my left heel get the same tennis-ball-sized blister as the right. Luckily this was also quickly fixed by the medical staff. My other aches and pains resulted in requiring a cocktail of painkillers that slowly increased in proportion to my new found hatred for sand. My spirits remained high though, and the messages I was receiving from friends and family kept me going through the ups and downs (more downs than ups!).
Day five was the big one: an 86.4km stage that would either break me, or see me finish this crazy adventure. By this time, my body was begging me to stop the madness, but my mind was repeating the mantra, “Pain is temporary and defeat is not an option”. My body was a mess, and the combination of salt-crusted clothing along with the rucksack rubbing had scored my flesh, leaving abrasions all over my shoulders and back. Nevertheless the disgusting clothes went back on, the disgusting instant noodles went down and we started the “long march” at 7am.
The chosen course for the day was stunning, and within the first few hours we were crossing through Wadi Al-Hitan (Whale Valley), so called because whale carcasses remain from millions of years ago when this arid desert was once deep in water. It was truly amazing and a respite from the physical and mental pain we were going through. But all too soon the views became barren desert and there was still a crazy number of kilometers to go.
At a rest stop at 50km there was hot water for a proper meal but the chicken tikka I’d chosen was like trying to eat sand, and my body rejected it. I forced down as much as I could, and carried on.
It was night by the time I reached the 60km marker, and I was walking through the desert with only the light from my headlamp and the full moon. I stopped, switched off my headlamp, and lay on my back for a moment looking at the billions of stars above me, and admiring the same moon my daughter was seeing back home. It was then that my emotions took over, and I just wanted to get on a plane and go home. Luckily, there was no one else around, and pulling out wasn’t an option, so I carried on.
I must have been about 17 hours into the march by this time, and I started getting pretty bad hallucinations and hearing sounds that clearly couldn’t be there. At one point, I was walking with an Arab dressed in full gear, using a staff to help him – it was only when I started trying to have a conversation with him that I realsed I was going mad. That started a fit of giggles.
Luckily the next 10km checkpoint was only another hour away, and the ever inspiring and uplifting volunteers were there to welcome me, give me more water and raise my spirits for the next 10km.
My body was screaming at me to stop, and every step felt like someone was whacking my feet with a sledgehammer. At about 2.30am, 19 hours after I set out, the end was in sight. Those last few kilometers were the hardest of all, but shortly after 3am I crossed the finish line, and instantly burst into tears – a combination of tired emotions and relief at finishing the longest and toughest day of my life.
The following day was spent resting and welcoming back the rest of my fellow competitors. After only four hours sleep, I spent the majority of the day crying like a baby, resting and eating. The atmosphere was overwhelming, and everyone felt the same sense of relief having completed the course.
The following morning, we boarded the bus for Giza for the final stage, a relatively easy 10km course through the pyramids. The pyramids are something I’ve longed to see, but upon arrival all I wanted to do was get a broom out and clean the place up. It was still a great way to end the race, and an iconic place to get our finishers’ medals and some pictures taken.
I felt amazingly proud to complete the race, and I realised that any challenge of this nature is about 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. I went home knowing I’d done something my children and I would be proud of for many years to come. But before I left I made one of the senior 4 Deserts organisers promise to refuse me entry to any other race.
Less than three months later, I’m signed up for the 4 Deserts Roving Race in August. It’s a six-stage 250km course – this time through remote Iceland!
Chris’ Training Schedule
My training plan was entirely time-based, so I started off 10 months before the race with runs varying between one and two hours, slowly building up to four-to-five-hour runs complete with a rucksack filled with a 5kg bag of rice. I was running five to six times a week which, due to my fairly intensive job and desire to remain a hands-on dad, meant that I was running as early as 4am or as late as midnight some nights. The training was hard, and I became meticulous about every part of it.
By completing the Sahara race, Chris raised approximately US$25,000 for the Children’s Surgical Centre in Cambodia a charity he came to know through competing in White Collar Boxing. The 4 Deserts is a series of four ultra tough endurance races across the Atacama, Gobi, Sahara and the white desert of the Antarctic.