The descent or ascent to misery: 20km – 30km
Had I been thinking straight or even thinking at all I would have realised that things were about to get a lot tougher, but blissfully oblivious I trotted along quite happily, continuing to admire the surrounding. A long gentle climb, a nice downhill and we then turned right off the track to follow another one into a valley, where we got our first sighting of Alpacas and donkeys. What more could you ask for: volcanoes, desert, alpacas and donkeys.
Shortly after this I started to feel ‘a bit off’, and could not quite put my finger on it. I took a gel and some fluids and walked a bit, then picked up the pace again before starting a long climb which I could see a number of other runners plodding their way up. I remembered the course profile and knew that this was going to be a long 5km pull back up to about 4000m. It had to be done, it would be hard and I would be doing a lot of walking.
I was really not feeling good. Headache, light headed, nausea, vision going a bit blurred. Whoa, I really wanted to vomit and what was this stumbling thing that was going on? I was weaving about a bit. Ok, some water, some steady deep breaths and focus on controlling the legs and putting one foot in front of the other (and not randomly out to the side). Also, why were my contacts slipping about? I used my finger to try and re-position them, no effect. I stopped, bent forward, hands on my knees and took some deep breaths before starting out again.
A couple of the guys passed me as I made my weary way. It was at this point that I realised I was suffering from altitude sickness, mild, but making its presence felt. There were several more vomit prevention stops and a couple of ‘don’t fall over’ stops.
Eventually, the track stopped climbing and started a gentle drop to the 30km check point which I could see in the distance. As I got closer to it I could not see the route away from it, then I spotted people striking out to the left, up the side of the valley. Oh God! How was I going to do that? At first I thought it was straight up and over, and then I realised that it was more of a diagonal climb up the side of the hill, doubling back on the route we had just come and finishing up on top of the hill.
I had lost all track of time, and frankly did not care. This was survival mode now, although I do recall looking at my watch and seeing 4.55 on it at some point near to the check point. The check point was a bit like a warzone; various bodies lying about, one person being sick, several sitting in the ground or rocks. There were spilt drinks and food probably a result of people’s loss of co-ordination and the wind that was whipping around the checkpoint catching anything that was not weighted down and making a good attempt at dislodging and carrying of the pop-up gazebo.
I scrabbled about for my drop bag and eventually found it under the table, a sticky coke covered mess. Some of the coke had managed to get into it too; yeuch. I wandered about aimlessly and eventually sat on a stone to poke about in my drop bag. I put my hand down to help reposition myself and it landed on one of the ‘grassy’ hassocks. Correction, not grass but dry spines the fine sharp tips of which lodges themselves in my hand and broke off. Ouch, but there was something vaguely cartoonlike about it. Getting them out was going to be interesting.
I just could not face eating or drinking, but knew I had to take something and the best bet was going to be the Espresso shot can. The first couple of slugs made me feel extremely sick and it took all my will power to not be sick. As I scanned about me I noticed Sandra. That was odd; she should have been at the head of the field. I asked her if she was Ok and the answer was not, she was feeling really ill. What I did not realise at that point was that she had had problems with her hydration after her pack had burst and that she had decided to drop out.
It occurred to me at that I could actually just stop, end it all here, now. I had given it my best shot. I was suffering with the altitude, I was dehydrated, not able to eat and there was some tough terrain and 12km still to go. Then the old rule number five kicked in: man up. You did not come all the way out here for it to end here like this. You are stronger than this; you ran 72 miles up the Great Glen and 95 miles in the Glenmore 24, you can get your sorry ass up off this stone and finish this.
I drank the rest of the espresso shot, got up, told Sandra I was heading out because I just needed to get this finished, and as I passed Graham (who had arrived just ahead of me) lying on the ground patted his leg and told him he needed to move.
The wheels come of the bus: the last 12km
With the wisdom of hindsight, did I honestly think I was going to get away with this?
I knew it was a simple matter of survival and finish now. The altitude sickness was under control and would improve once I started to descend; but I just did not or could not factor in the impact of dehydration and glycogen depletion which would bite me, (just as surely as they had at Loch Ness a bit over a month earlier).
Off I set, up the hill with a steady continuous plod. It was not a packed, hard earth or stone path like we have in the Scottish hills, but sandy and stony with lots of the spikey tufts. I had to pick my way up avoiding going over on one of the stones and sliding in the sand. I opted for continuous motion, no matter how slow as I knew that if I stopped it would be hard to force myself to get going again. My breathing was hard and laboured, my legs burning, but I got to the top taking frequent sips of water and a gel on the way.
What a view!
I allowed myself a few moments to take it in and take some. As I stood there a strange sense of lightness and a wave of euphoria engulfed me. It was very strange but welcome after the despair I had felt down in the valley approaching the checkpoint. I felt light, happy and full of energy. When I turned to look where the path led next I saw the flags but no obvious path. This could be tricky, but what the hell, it would be fun. I struck out over the sandy hassock covered ground. It stated to descend gently and I picked up momentum and speed bounding along at a silly and reckless pace: the possibility of falling or going over on my ankle never occurring to me.
The rough ground gave way and joined a track which continued to descend and I continued to clip along passing a couple of the guys. There was a hairpin bed and I could see a marshal marking the point where the route diverted from the track and into the canyon which we had been told to expect to be technical and tricky. I could also see a couple of the others, Havard and Masao. Not too far ahead I though; I wonder if I could catch them and take them? Damn that euphoria, and its false sense of power and promise of super hero status.
I turned into the canyon and my pace dropped immediately, but I continued to push and tried to keep some momentum. There was no path, it was rocky and full of thorny bushes a bit like gorse, and the flags were at times difficult to spot, but that was more to do with me than the placement of the flags. It was energy sapping and after about a kilometre I hit the wall with a monumental bang and the wheels went flying off the proverbial bus. The euphoria deserted me and was once again replaced by despair and tears. I was completely an utterly spent, every single gram of energy was gone, the tank empty. The last few fumes of energy had been burned by my mad lollop down the track.
I remembered Richard’s advice from Antarctica the previous year: do not fight the terrain, drew a deep breath and set off again, expending less energy battling with the rocks and bushes and focussing on picking my way along. My vision became very misted which made things even more difficult. I thought it might be a coating of dust on my lenses. It turned out that it was because I was so dehydrated and my eyes so dry that my lenses were becoming stuck to the surface of my eyes.
At about 38km, Graham caught up with me. I was taking a gel at the time and was totally unaware of him approaching, what a fright I got. He greeted me, asked how I was and encouraged me to follow him: good plan. I latched onto his heels and stumbled along behind him relying on him to find the best path. It was beautiful; there were ruined adobes, a stream and apparently more alpacas somewhere, but I was incapable of appreciating it. I was barely conscious. Graham pushed on, every now and again checking that I was OK and telling me as each kilometre passed.
We clambered down a bank, across a stream, and Graham reached out and pulled me up the other side where the landscape opened up a bit and the ground became easier. I saw bright flags in the distance and thought briefly that it was the finish: it was a graveyard; how apposite. As we arrived we paused as we realised that the track was about to start climbing. It was steep. We both groaned, but the finish was not far. My addled brain though it must be round the corner at the top of the slope. We started up the slope and Graham pulled ahead. He was stronger and in better shape. There was a lot of sand on the track draining the final dregs of strength from my legs as kept stumbling and slipping.
I turned the corner and was faced with another climb and no glimpse of the finish. I just wanted to face plant in the sand there and then and end agony, but what was the point. The gap with Graham widened.
I pressed on almost on my hands and knees, and missing a message Alasdair had laid out in stones at the side of the track. Had I seen it, it would have given me a much needed boost. Eventually I reached the top of the slope and saw the finish a couple of hundred metres ahead and Alasdair standing just in front and to the side, a welcome sight and relief swept over me.
Somewhere I found the strength to pick the pace up to a slow run, legs wobbling, I crossed the finish finally giving in to my legs desire to give way. Mike caught me, forgoing the opportunity to get a shot of me going down. Anne-Marie (the winner of the ladies race) came over to help as I was half carried to the shade and then passed to Alasdair.
I was pretty out of it, but they sat me down, handed me a can of coke and got an oxygen mask on me. After a few minutes I started to feel better and Anne-Marie gave me my medal. When I looked at the Garmin I was bitterly disappointed with the time it showed. I was frustrated and angry with myself. Alasdair told me not to be, it was a brutal race and I had finished which was the main goal and achievement. Others had not finished. He was right and I focused instead on feeling better, enjoying the coke which was like nectar, and the achievement of finishing under such difficult circumstances.
A few minutes later the mask came off and I started to think about sorting myself out. Fearghal came over and said that they were sending the bus back and that I should get on it. We picked up my things, grabbed a sandwich and another can of coke before I heaved myself into the van. My poorly condition allowed me a seat at the front next to the driver. As I perked up I was able to see and admire the full vista over the Atacama which looked almost misty with the heat haze, although that may have been my eyes. The eye drops were not having much effect. It brought home to me just how harsh an environment this could be and is.
A wall of suffocating heat hit us as we climbed out of the van back in San Pedro. I had not realised just how hot the day was. I later learned that we had been running in 30+ degrees. We dumped out bags in the room before I went back outside to take my shoes and socks off and empty out the substantial amount of sand that had managed to get in in spite of the gaiters. My socks and clothing were dyed red with the sand and they still have a reddish hue to them now even after washing.
Next priority was my eyes. I put in plenty of eye drops and then gently moved the lens with my finger before taking it out. My vision was still misty. The surface of my eyes was not happy and was probably slightly damaged. After a shower I went and sat in the courtyard in the shade by the pool where I took on more hydration ate some crisps and finished my sandwich. I was beginning to feel human again.
After a couple of hours the final group arrived back including Mike with the greeting; ‘It’s Lazarus’. It was indeed a miraculous transformation. A while later I decided that a Pisco sour and a large steak were required as did several others. A few drinks, steaks all round and time to reflect on the day celebrate each other’s achievement, sharing our experience, our highs and lows and comic moments. Then it was off to bed for a well earned and much needed sleep.
It was no until the next morning while out for coffee that I realised I had placed 3rd lady, with what will probably be the biggest personal worst I will ever have. It had not been a commanding performance and not what one would normally consider worthy of a podium place, but I felt as if I had earned by winning my own battle with the race.