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A Race Through the Sands of Time

Thursday, October 13, 2011 - 09:59
Running 250 kilometres in five days through the Sahara Desert is an extreme challenge and accomplishment. Part 2 of “Running Through the Sahara Desert with a Mission” provides interesting insights into David Barnard’s unique and “painful” experiences during the race.
“No Pain, No Gain” - Running Through the Sahara Desert with a Mission- Part 2

# Stage 1, 2 October 2011 - “Traversing the Ancient Waters”


The big day finally arrived on Sunday, 2 October 2011.

We gathered at 6h30 for a final race briefing. This was followed by what would become an every-morning custom: Japanese competitor, Kenshi Kina, dressed up in his university cheerleading uniform and leading us through a collective cheer.

A local band from the nearby town of Fayoum played as we assembled at the starting line, enthusiastically counting down the last few seconds. The sun was out in its full glory and you could feel the temperature rising, even this early in the morning.

The 2011 Sahara Race officially started at 07h00. Stage 1 covered a distance of 37km, mainly in the vicinity of the two lakes of the Wadi El Rayan Protected area. From the start I ran comfortably among the top 30 competitors and finished the stage in 5h19.

But it was tough. Very tough. The heat and soft sand were much more difficult than I ever expected. The landscape was just amazing, often there is nothing, really nothing other than kilometres of flat sandy areas, then a few beautiful sand dunes spice up the landscape, before returning to flat, soft sandy areas.

Even more amazing was our campsite the previous evening which was next to the Southern Lake, a massive stretch of water in the middle of the Sahara Desert. The first leg was therefore called 'Traversing Ancient Waters'. The first 8km followed the contours of the lake until the first water point. After the water point and crossing a small bridge, we ran in the vicinity of the Northern Lake, at some point up to 34m under sea level. By this time the Sahara started showing its true colours, with temperatures of up to 42 degrees measured in some areas.

But I made it to the finish without any major problems - no blisters - just tired legs and sore feet from the hot sand.

Deserts have a beauty of their own and the Sahara Desert is no different. But this beauty exists with many dangers - it is a harsh, ruthless and unforgiving environment. It is like a vulture, waiting to pounce on the weak or anyone daring to take it for granted.

Given the heat of the first today, and similar conditions expected over the following days, the challenge was going to be how best to manage running and walking in these conditions. It was definitely going to get painful and the Sahara demanded respect.

Our overnight camp sites can best be described as basic. Eighteen white tents were pitched in a half moon shape, with the first two tents closest to the finishing line used as the medical tent and cyber tent. The other 16 tents were for competitors, roughly 10 people per tent. The camp fire was usually in the middle of the circle, and the most popular pace where everyone gathered for a chat, breakfast and dinner.

Toilets were basically a hole in the ground, covered with tent material for a bit of privacy. Every morning the camp was packed up and moved to a new location, ready for when the first competitors arrived.

We had no access to running water or water for cleaning for the duration of the race. The only water made available to us was 1.5l at every checkpoint while running and 4.5l on completion of every stage.

After seven days there was a smell in the air!

One of the unique features of the 2011 Sahara Race was the 17-person strong Ciao-Tian Arts and Drumming Troupe from Taiwan. They entered the race in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China. As part of this process, they took turns carrying a life-size ‘Prince’ mascot throughout the race, from start to finish.

# Stage 2, 3 October 2011 - “Sandy Horizons”

Stage 2 covered a distance of 41.6km which I completed in 7h11.

There was just one way to describe the course for this stage - brutal - in terms of loose sand and the heat (at least 40 degrees). Three quarters of the course rated as ‘difficult’ according to our race guide.

The morning started quite comfortably on hard-packed sand until the first check point (11.2km). However, from 8h30 onwards it just became too hot to run. I still felt good, even after finishing the stage, but realised that managing the next two days (42.6km and 40.4km) before the 86.4 km log run (Stage 5) would be crucial to finish this monster of a race. At the same time, I was aware of the fine line between going slower and spending more time in the unbearable heat.

Checkpoint 3 had a great view as it was on the edge of a plateau overlooking a monastery with high towers in the distance. We finished the stage with two massive climbs. The first covered approximately 2km and a 200m climb in soft sand, and then after a slight downhill on the other side, we finished with another 1km climb.

I used my new tracking poles for the first time during this stage and was very happy I had them with me over the final stretch.

After the first two days I had no injuries, although I noticed the first signs of a blister or two, while a few toe nails were starting to take strain.

My special black and red Nike running shorts - which look like sleeping shorts - were getting a lot of attention. Both my running shorts and red Nike running shirt were very comfortable throughout the race.

Stage 2 was dedicated to the Starfish Greathearts Foundation for the “No Pain No Gain” fundraising campaign and I completed it wearing the orange armband of Starfish.

# Stage 3, 4 October 2011 - “Through the Sand Valley”

Stage 3 covered a distance of 42.6 km which I completed in 8h03.

After running very comfortably over the first two days and lying close to the top 30 overall, this was a very tough day and the turning point of my race.

From 27km onwards I had no strength and felt very tired. In addition, I thought I lost my heart rate monitor (it was in my back pack all the time), my watch died on the starting line, one of my tracking poles stopped working, and I forgot to put on sufficient sun screen cream on my legs, resulting in bad burns with blisters all over my upper legs.

Checkpoint 3 had a small pool and a number of competitors decided to use this opportunity to cool down. I decided to continue to the next checkpoint, which in hindsight was the wrong decision. A few minutes with my legs in that cold water could have prevented some of the sun burn which I suffered on this stage.

By the time I arrived at the camp site I was suffering from severe cramp and mild dehydration as a result of the sun burn. I spent the late afternoon lying on a stretcher in the medical tent to recover.

This was a serious wake-up call and made me realise how vulnerable you are in these extreme conditions if you make silly mistakes.

It was also my wife, Dalene’s birthday, and although I had no direct contact with her, fond memories of her and my sons back home made me focus and regroup that evening for the tough days that lay ahead.

Stage 3 was dedicated to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) for the “No Pain No Gain” fundraising campaign and I completed it wearing the pink armband of CANSA.

# Stage 4, 5 October 2011 - “Gardens of the Castle”

Stage 4 covered a distance of 40.6km which I completed in 7h46.

This was another hot and unforgiving stage with the wind blowing straight from the front for most of the day. However, most of the stage was rated “moderate”.

However, contrary to what the name suggests, this stage had no gardens and no castle. Just sand and more sand, with variations of rock formations, plateaus and open spaces.

My biggest challenge remained my badly sun burned legs. Although I kept on applying sun screen cream throughout the stage, the damage was done and I could feel the sun on my legs the whole time, especially my very sensitive calves and upper legs.

I arrived at the campsite exhausted and tired, and again had to be taken to the medical tent for observation.

Most competitors went to sleep earlier than previous evenings to rest in anticipation for the start of Stage 5 the next day. After running almost four marathons in four days, we now had to conquer 86.4km - a Comrades Marathon on tired legs!

Stage 4 was dedicated to the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) for the “No Pain No Gain” fundraising campaign and I completed it wearing the red armband of EWT.

The camp site at the end of Stage 4 was called “Camp Half Moon”.

# Stage 5, 6 & 7 October 2011 - “The Tethis March”

Stage 5 started at 07h00 on 6 October 2011 and competitors had until 10h30 on 7 October 2011 to complete it.

It took me 24h08 to complete this stage, which covered nine legs in total, ranging from 8-11km in length. Once again, the wind caused havoc with all competitors, mostly blowing straight in our faces. The heat was more manageable, but the terrain was tough, with many soft sandy patches and big sand dunes. Spending 24 hours on my legs was no fun, and became very tough towards the end.

One of the highlights of this stage was our visit to the UNESCO heritage site, Wadi El-Hitan (Valley of the Whales) and seeing the 40 million year-old whale skeletons lying in the sand. The landscape in this area is also characterised by the most stunning “mushroom-like” hills and boulders, shaped by millions of years of changing weather patterns.

I felt strong throughout the first 50km until the overnight camp, which I reached at about 17h00. However, as soon as I sat down, I started shaking (like a cold fever) and the doctor made me rest until about 20h30.

My strength returned and I made quick progress through the next two checkpoints, reaching 70km at about midnight. The next 9km to the final checkpoint at 78km was very difficult and took me almost three hours to complete. I was dead on my feet and could hardly keep my eyes open. After reaching the final checkpoint I decided to sleep for an hour, before starting the final leg at about 05h00.

Walking directly east and witnessing a perfect sunrise over the Sahara Desert gave me new energy and, surprise, surprise, I started running again and finally crossed the finishing line at 07h08.

It was finally over. I had conquered the Sahara Race and the longest day of my life. It was great seeing my tent mates Arjan, Patricia and Todd who all finished at some point through the night. Over the next few hours we waited in anticipation as the rest of of our tent mates - first Nigel, and then Geoff and Lourens, completed the race.

The rest of the day was very relaxing as we reflected on our experiences of the past few days and the excitement of officially finishing the race the next morning at the Pyramids of Giza.

But the day was not yet over. Luba befriended some of the Egyptian support crew and through them arranged the delivery to our tent that evening of a few beers, soft drinks, bread, cheese and potato salad. Like naughty school children sitting in a closed tent, we toasted each other, celebrated our new friendship and enjoyed a very special final night together.

Stage 5 was dedicated to SCORE and TechSoup Global for the “No Pain No Gain” fundraising campaign. I did most of the long run wearing the yellow armband of SCORE, and after midnight changed to the blue armband of TechSoup Global.

The camp site at the end of Stage 5 was called “Camp Petanque”.

# Stage 6, 8 October 2011 - “Final Footsteps to the Pyramids of Giza”

The last day of the 2011 Sahara Race finally arrived.

It was with mixed feelings that we rolled up our sleeping bags and packed our backpacks for the last time. It was all over, and time to celebrate a great achievement.

At 08h00 all competitors boarded the buses for a two hour journey to Cairo and the official last stage of the race at the Pyramids of Giza.

This was no more than a 2km celebratory run past the Sphinx and the three famous Pyramids of Giza, and then, finally, the finishing line. The men and women’s winners, Dan Parr and Victoria Blackburn, set off first, followed closely by the winners of the team competition, Mister Running Desert Team from Italy. The rest of the competitors followed a few minutes later.

It is a great feeling knowing that you are going to complete this extreme race. I walked the final stage with Geoff, Lourens and Nigel. It was very special to share these final moments with them, and run the final few meters to the finishing line with Lourens while holding the Springbok flag in the air.

Friends and family of competitors waited at the finishing line and everyone cheered until the last competitor arrived. This brought the 2011 Sahara Race to the best possible end - in the company of new life-long friends, in sight of the Pyramids, and with an Egyptian band playing in the background. Even the camels of the support crew were happy that the race was finally over.

We enjoyed pizza, beer and soft drinks, while many famous pictures were taken in front of the Pyramids which will tell a special story for many years to come.

A total of 123 competitors qualified to receive the special Sahara Race finisher’s medal - all champions in their own right.

By 13h00 we were back on the buses for the final journey to the Dusit Thani Lakeview Hotel and the first hot shower in a week and many more cold beers.

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To read Part 1, click here and Part 3, click here.

For blogs from other competitors, race results, and photos and video clips about the race, click here.

To view my photos of the race, click here.

To support the SANGONeT “No Pain No Gain” campaign with a donation, click here.

(I dedicate this story to my dad, David Botha Barnard (sr), who passed away on 12 October 2011.)