Friday, 9 March 2012

Atacama Crossing 2012, CHILE : Stage 5 - 73.4 km

My dear family-relatives-friends and all of you who have supported me during this race,

The event which happened yesterday will stay forever in my memory as one of the toughest and most challenging fights which I have ever had to make, first, against my own limits and secondly, against the runners who were trying to fight for the vulnerable third position. 

Briefing before the start of Stage 5

The early course in Stage 5
I started the race with a slow pace despite knowing that Zandy (USA) had started the race in a very fast pace. I was really concerned about my quadricep which was still aching. I rather prefered following the pace of Bart (the Belgian runner whom I have been running together with for most of the distance in the last few days) and I was praying that the endorphins will make a big miracle and take away the pain generated from any single contraction of my quadricep.

Me, keeping in synch with the Belgian runners 
The first 20 kms was along a flat and easy road. We were crossing a huge plain before reaching the mountains. At the foot of the mountain, we had to go through a sandy valley before reaching a steep climb. Thanks to Bart and Steven (another Belgian runner), I stayed behind them and tried to keep up with their rhythm. Thank God, my quadricep was getting better and my spirit began to lift. So stupid of me to think that I can finish the hardest stage of the race without any suffering!!!

The rather easy stretch at the beginning of the stage

The steep climb uphill

The exhilarating downhill run

Having reached the top of the mountain range, a lovely downhill through soft sand brought us to CP 3. I took plenty of water and stayed in the shadows for a few minutes before having to expose my body again to the intense heat of the day, which was getting worse progressively.

Replenishing our water supply at the check point : Me, Steven & Bart
From then on, I was running through a very boring route through an endless plain, while the heat was starting to seriously affecting my body. By this time, Bart was already showing some signs of weakness, slowing down, while Steven was more fresh and was keeping a very good pace, which was too fast for me to keep up with.

Amazing landscape along the course

Thick salt deposit on the ground
I tried to keep up with Steven's rhythm despite his fast pace. After 4 kms of running together, I was already drained. I felt like I have been emptied of all strength in me, and even though my body was fine at that stage, my brain somehow failed to send any messages to my muscles to move. Negative thoughts started to hammer me. I was continuously telling myself, "DON'T GIVE UP"! and I was trying so hard to resist stopping to the point that I was actually using different tricks to distract myself from all these negative thoughts. To my horror, I failed to do that!!

I stopped running. I cannot believe how something like that can happen to me. I have always been a warrior in life, fighting against all the difficulties and odds. I was never one to ever give up. But on this day, I was none of that. I practically was on the verge of giving up.

I found myself asking, "Why, of all days, it happened to me today?" After 4 excellent performances, and after trying so very hard, I was running the risk to lose everything, due merely to the weakness of my mind? I was so very angry with myself! After 15 minutes of walking along an endless dirt track, with the heat adding extra stress on my integrity, I forced myself to run by counting up to 200 and alternated that with walking and counting up to 50. 

In this way, I pulled through my difficulties and managed to reach the last check point, completely destroyed and demoralised. While I was planning a long rest to recover at that check point, a big surprise came out of the blue! I found out that Zandy was actually still quite close to me in terms of time difference. I was informed that that he was only 17 minutes ahead of me, despite my 'crisis'. I could not believe it! I suddenly realised that all was not lost! My dream of maintaining the third position was still, at that point in time, possible!!

At that very moment, I realised why ultra-running is such a special/unique sport. One never knows where one's limits will end or snap, and most of the time, you realise that the borders are so wide, that you can reach the impossible. Drunk by excitement with this new-found fact, I was suddenly granted wings on my feet and I literally flew to the finish line against all pain which was coming through my body. The more I was feeling the pain, the more I was pushing myself to go faster. I wanted the third position so badly and I was not ashamed to declare that to the world ! I ran and ran and ran...I pushed myself way beyond my limits, a limit I did not even know existed. A limit I now know, is hidden in all of us, and can only be experienced if the mind wills itself to unleash it.   

When I arrived at the finish line, I was not even able to stand on my own feet. I was totally destroyed. If I was not helped by the volunteers at that moment, I am quite sure that I would have collapsed to the ground! Despite my terrible state, I still found the strength to check the final time difference from between me and Zandy ;-). I was so ecstatic and relieved to find that there was a difference of 25 minutes between us.

By the end of Stage 5, I have acquired three big blisters, lost almost two nails and nothing but pain around my knee joints. It took me 3 hours to eat and to organize my stuffs before I could sleep (I have only taken less than 45 minutes to do that in previous days). Every single movement of my body was causing me excruciating pain. One by one, my tent-mates arrived at the finish line and made their way to our tent, save for Chris and Innogen. Everyone was totally destroyed and each of us has our own 'story' to tell...I could see it in each of their faces. We all went through a phase in our lives that day, in which we discovered a common thing - that is, our ability and strength to overcome unimaginable difficulties.

The weather was turning nasty by late evening, with a likelihood of a storm coming. The organisers decided to stop the race for those competitors who were still on the course and bring them back to the camp for the night. They were allowed to continue with the race the following day, from the point where they were picked up from.  

The weather turning nasty and dangerously threatening

All the night, I was trying to find a good position to sleep so that I can feel less pain but it was so difficult. I did not sleep well at all. Strange dreams woke me up early the following morning. I noticed the new appearance of some white hair on my right leg and arm which was not there before!! They have appeared overnight under the enormous stress which I was going through for the past few days!!

Unable to sleep any longer, I convinced myself to stand up very slowly and braved myself to check on my blisters. I left the tent to take in some fresh air and walked for about 3 kms. I felt much better after that. It was to be a rest day for all of us who had completed our Stage 5 yesterday and we all made full use of that much-needed rest in our tents. The Cybertent was also getting very crowded today, with many emotional faces staring ahead at the laptop screens, many with tears welling up in their eyes....

Me (in the middle) on my morning walk...

The very busy Cybertent...

Me and my very awesome tent-mates. Camp 6 definitely rocks!!
I think I am now ready for the last sprint to the Final Finish Line even if my shoe does fall apart... (another small part has came off yesterday). As my barefoot-running-crazy-friend Martin has once correctly, if the shoe does fail me, I could always do barefoot running !! 

Once again, a huge thank you to all of you for your moving support and encouragement during the past few days, which makes a huge difference to me in situations where I was tested beyond my limits in a very hot desert and under extreme challenges.

The sight of our last camp :-(

Hopefully tomorrow, from the comfort of my hotel room, and with the race finally completed, I will have the strength to place my last blog of this amazing experience which I have gone through.

I am now dying to meet my wife at the finish line, for a strong hug, after ''leaving'' her alone for the duration of the race, in the Peruvian forests and rivers. I am coming, baby!!!

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