My first 42 kilometers in the desert; a dream come true. A goal finally achieved thanks to Max Calderan. After completing my first marathon, one of my goals was the marathon in the desert: running the same 42 km but in an extreme environment and prohibitive conditions.
I had postponed the feat for a couple of years, knowing that my physical preparation was still not sufficient to cover such distance safely.
In November, I completed my first 15K in the desert with my first podium in a race. The difficulties I encountered during that race only confirmed the fact that I wasn’t ready to run 42 km.
Then, I had a fortuitous encounter with Max Calderan, an athlete who specializes in solitary marathons in the desert.
We met at the Spartan Race. He recognized me as he had just read an article I wrote for the OutdoorUAE magazine on the flight from Jeddah to Dubai. It couldn’t have been a more random and predestined encounter.
We met again at a later time to evaluate the possibility of a possible synergy between his amazing adventures and Dubaiblog for media coverage. In that meeting, while sipping a coffee, I expressed all my regard for someone who is planning to train with an over 100 km run at 50 degrees while I still haven’t faced a 42km one.
And he told me: Get ready and come to train with me in the next few weeks. I am sure that you are already ready to face this challenge. Leave behind pectorals, awards, enrollments and anything that can affect your mind. You must live the desert, be alone, live the experience, walk if you don’t feel like running, stop if your legs are tired, run again when you have recouped energies. You are alone.
And then we went. Almost no instructions. He wants to see how I prepare. I begin researching on the Internet; I look at what I have and what gear I can adapt. I buy a few things. Citing Clint Eastwood in Hearthbreak Ridge: “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome.”
– I improvised, because I didn’t really know what I should have done
– I adapted when I realized I wasn’t in the best conditions
– I overcame but not without difficulties
I am used to running on asphalt, in an urban environment or at least close to civilization. Technical gear is important for a good result: good shoes, technical stretch fabric, gel, etc… but a desert run needed additional fundamental items. And this is what I prepared.
Running gear: triathlon suit (useful thanks to the back pockets), dirt marathon shoes, various bandanas to protect from the heat and eventually dry myself, stretch bandana to protect nose and mouth in a storm, stretch long sleeve t-shirt and long pants to prevent sunburns (they were black because that’s all I had), 4 gels to insert in the appropriate stretch band, dry apricots, 6 small bottle of waters (normally, during training, I don’t need to drink for the first 30 kilometers), a long sleeve pile shirt for the low temperatures at night, sunglasses, suntan lotion, a change of clothes for after the run, a Keffiyeh (always useful), a beach towel to lay down in case I needed to sleep.
A backpack contained everything, but luckily when I arrived at the meeting point, I found out that Max wasn’t going to run with me but would have followed or anticipated me on a car; so I just needed to bring all that was really necessary in between checkpoints.
We are ready: temperature is 46 degree Celsius and it’s 4 pm. In 15 minutes I am ready for the adventure. It’s 4:15. Max reveals to me the path to follow; a pipeline will be my landmark for the first 10 kilometers but I would have points of reference throughout the entire course, so it was impossible to get lost. Safety first.
I started as quick as a gazelle…adrenaline rushing through; however, it took less than 1 kilometer to understand that the way I was clothed was completely inadequate. Beyond the color (black), the stretch fabric worn on top of the triathlon suit trapped the heat; the gel band compressed the pelvis and caused discomfort and difficulty in getting water.
I had no alternative, however, as I needed to prevent sun burning of my arms and legs. So, I ran on. After a few kilometers, the first checkpoint; while running I wasn’t aware of how many kilometers I had already run and how many I still had to face. Max gives me a few tips; the first regards better clothing. He also advised not to fear going a bit slower: this I not a competition; I am alone.
Walk uphill, run downhill and in plain; in the beginning, at least.
More kilometers made of uphills and downhills and another checkpoint. Max now advises of some postural problems in the way I walk. He also advises I sit in the car with the A/C on for a few minutes to lower my temperature. I realize I didn’t bring enough water. I begin increasing my walking streaks to save energies and water. I am looking forward to a less powerful sun later in the day, so as to get rid of my suit which I did on the third checkpoint. Much better.
After a few hundred meters, we leave the pipeline; I follow an enclosure to the first gate; I went through it. By now it was dark, and the water was almost finished; Max gives me an additional 1,5 liters but I needed to manage it. I am incredibly thirsty, and I promised to myself that I would never waste potable water again in my life. I grab a flashlight, just in case, but I can see the net anyway, and Max suggests to continue without it to embrace the desert night. I follow the advice. It’s night and I disperse less water; I use some on my head and my energy increases. I could even try to run but having water bottles behind my back prevents me from lowering the top part of my triathlon suit. I take mental note of that as running bare-chested would be easier.
I alternate running streaks to fast walking. At one of the checkpoints, I leave everything in the car and keep only the flashlight and a bottle of water to carry in my hand; bare-chested I begin running again at a good speed with enthusiasm and more energy. Heat is no longer a problem. I leave the water in the car too and decide I would drink only at checkpoints so that I wouldn’t be tempted to drink and consume the last liter. For safety reason, we reduce the distance between checkpoints, and I keep the flashlight to signal. My legs began aching, but I am not cramping. I manage the difficulty. I eat some apricots.
In the meantime my thoughts have vanished. The only concern is surviving! I try to pretend the support car is not even there. I didn’t bring enough water; I need to manage.
Another checkpoint. We are now in the Qasr al Sarab resort, and I receive good news: only 10 km to go. To save water, I run less; I only have a little more than half liter left. But I am almost there. It’s so dark that I can’t see the road, so I switch from the hand-held flashlight to the front one which is more comfortable to use and leaves my hands free.
My thought are running to what wearing next time and what to eat, but the main thought is always water.
Last checkpoints seem to be farther and farther. I ask Max over and over if I had really run only 2 km. I need to rest. I lay down on the fresh sand and I look at the stars; I see a falling star as soon as I lift my eyes. Five minutes, and I am back on my feet. I see a tower further down the road, and I wonder if that’s the entrance of the resort. Maybe I will meet a guardian who will be able to give me some water. Some cars are passing by, but they are not stopping, and I can’t ask them.
Another checkpoint and I hear the magic words: last kilometer. I ask for a confirmation and how much water I have left. Less than a third of the small bottle and the same quantity in the larger one. I drink almost the entire small bottle, I take the last gel, eat some apricots and I start running.
I make it to the tower, and there, I found only Max (it was not the resort entrance). It’s over, he says.
You ran 42 Km…I celebrate by drinking almost all the water I had left. I don’t eat to prevent thirst. I am tired but not exhausted. I look at the clock: only 8 hours have gone by. Then I think that, with enough water, I could make it to 50 km. But it’s fine for today.
We look for a place to camp for the night; we will be sleeping in the desert to make the experience complete. Max checks for animals’ traces. We can sleep in the car or on the sand. I choose to sleep outside, but I get cold; I have a high fever. I go to change and wear pants, the long sleeve sweater and the amphibious boots. In the car, however, I can’t sleep; I finish my water but I am cramping for hunger (another reason why I can’t sleep), but I know that I will be having breakfast in a few hours. I can’t wait for sunrise.
I go back outdoor with long sleeves and long pants, a shirt to use as pillow and the keffiyeh as cover. I finally fall asleep for a few hours and I am awoken by the first morning prayer. I feel energized (although hungry and thirsty); my legs are not aching. While I wait for Max to wake up, I prepare the camera for some sunrise shots.
When Max wakes up, I ask for breakfast, but he replies with a surprise: one last challenge. We need to climb the 80-meter dune in front of us to enjoy the sunrise from there. Then we can leave.
After a few meters, I understand it won’t be as easy. I am sinking, slipping back; I try to crawl but not much changes. While he climbs, I use my last energies to follow him, but it seems useless; I have no energy without water. After 20 meters I feel sick. I vomit (only gastric acid as I haven’t eaten). I call to let him know what is happening.
I stop. I think. The top is far. He is not talking.
I try to climb, but I haven’t recouped yet. My head spins again.
I lay down in the sand to figure what to do. It’s not easy to stop. You need to sink arms and legs in the sand to have some grip and not slip.
I decide not to give up. I crawl for 10 steps and I stop. I rest. Ten steps are nothing compared to the 60 meters of dune I have left to climb. After a few attempts, I found my rhythm: 20 steps in 15 seconds and 2 minutes and 45 seconds of rest. I tell myself that it will take me 30 minutes. No problem.
When I am 2/3 of the way, I finally feel close to the end. I start increasing to 30 steps and rest for 2.5 minutes. I do this twice, and I vomit twice. I am sick again. I stop for 5 minutes.
I begin climbing again with 20-step streaks except for last cycle…30 steps, and I am at the top.
My first instinct is to say “F…. you Calderan”
He replies seraphic that he is used to it. It’s over; I made it.
Car, breakfast (I must have drank 2 liters of water and two teas), back to Dubai.
Marathon in the desert with coach Max Calderan. Climbing an 80-meter dune.
As I am writing this article, I receive a message from Max: “Hi Nico. Just to say…Proud of you. Bravo. You didn’t give up. You could have, but you didn’t. Max”
Thank you Max. I owe you!