Lost in the Sahara at Night
By mid day the stifling heat was taking its toll on my body. My inner thighs had begun to chafe. Liberal globs of Desitin partially hid the pain. I was thankful for my broad brimmed hat with its cloth neck protector. The vital accessory, however, did not stop streams of perspiration from rolling into and burning my eyes.
The wind had picked up. Globs of sand now caked my hands and filled my lips and nostrils. I was uncomfortable. By late afternoon I had only gone fifteen miles. Today the required finishing distance was fifty miles. It was clear now that I would be spending the night in the desert.
At twilight there was a final race check point. I was well behind most runners but stopped anyway to again check my feet and change socks. As I headed out a nurse said firmly “Don’t go into the desert alone”. With so far still to go, and determined to never quit. I wandered solo into the desert and the approaching darkness.
The lights of the checkpoint quickly faded. My headlamp showed the way as I followed the well trodden route taken by runners before me. Then pain struck. I fell to the ground. My left hamstring had tightened. Crawling in the sand liberally sprinkled with sharp rock I desperately tried to massage the aching muscle. Many minutes passed. Thankfully the pain subsided. I stood up, massaged the sore muscle with a wad of Ben Gay and continued following the now fading trail. The wind picked up. Wads of sand and pebbles showered over me. In the melay my fine protective hat was lost as it flew into a deep ravine. When the gusts subsided I looked down. The trail I had been following had been completely obliterated. I looked up and there they were giant 150 foot sand dunes. I knew they stretched for at least twenty miles. I reflected that I only had fifteen hours to cross these daunting barriers when I realized too that I was not only alone but lost.
The emergency flare is a good safety device. Ignite it and there are two consequences. First, the competitor will likely be rescued. Second, if you use the flare you will also instantly be disqualified. What to do? I stood silently in the windy darkness and assessed my options. I could return to the check point but I was not sure exactly where it was at. I could go forward but I did not know where I was going. I had learned long ago that sometimes doing nothing for while is the best course of action when your next move is uncertain. And so, having no place to sit, I stood and waited. Having lost my hat, I used a handkerchief to make a head bandanna while carefully brushing away the lumps of sand which had accumulated on my balding scalp.
My patience was prudent. Within half an hour two British runners scurried up to me. I had seen their reflector lights n the distance. The reluctantly agreed to let me come with them, and their compass, if I could keep up with them. Every few feet I was sucked up to my knees by the soft ever moving sand. I followed the lead of the runners imitating them as I crawled like a dog from the middle of the dune to the top. Hollering wildly somehow helped maximize the effort. After climbing the third dune the British runners, not too politely, told me I was holding them back and left me to fend for myself in the bleakness of the desert night.
Was I afraid? Hell yes. Was I confident I would finish this race? Hell yes!
In time a struggling Italian runner who spoke no English approached in the night. He was supporting himself with two walking poles but was having great difficulty climbing up the dunes. I offered to help him, not only out of humanity, but I also saw he had an expensive compass equipped with a night light. We pushed on together of the next few hours. I would growl and claw my way up each dune then lay on my stomach and pull my struggling companion to the top where he would take a compass reading. At midnight we saw the lights of the next check point, shared some of my newly brewed hot coffee, and snuggled into our sleeping bag resting for three hours. Just before dozing off three Swiss women headed off into the nigh alone dressed in colorful tights to protect them from the chilly wind and unconcerned about what dangers may lie ahead. I was impressed.
The Mighty Dunes