Today did not start like the other days; today, when I woke up, I didn’t feel the best. Sleep had come at a premium due to the cold; and the fact that the tent had been on a slight slope meant that I had probably slept a few hours, out of the eight that I had planned. I climbed out of the tent reluctantly to the cold of the 6am air, my breath hanging in the air in front of me… I took a deep breath, cleared the blood from my nose (another great feature of the dry/altitude/heat Atacama Desert) and sat down on the stool outside our tent. This was it… the last battle…the last serious test of my character and of my mettle to see who would come out the victor between my ambition and the 4Deserts.
I sat on that stool probably for a good 10minutes, with my teeth chattering and my body shaking with the cold, and although the fire was going, I didn’t want to move. I wanted to be on my own… All week I had spent it telling people about how strong they are; helping people to rebuild from moments of panic; helping people to ‘get in the zone’… but all of a sudden, the thought of breakfast turned my stomach a little and I couldn’t get the nerves to go away. We had all helped to get Katrien (the now adopted daughter to most of us) from one camp to another with a smile after the anguish of having to watch her father drop out… I had helped Nick scrape the bottom of the fuel tank when he wasn’t feeling the best… I had managed to keep Clancy cheerful the whole way… I had helped Emma, Lucy and a few others….but all of a sudden… …There was no one to help me. This was not due to a lack of candidates or willing helpers… but more because I don’t know if anything that they would say would have sunk in at that moment. So on that stool I sat…and breathed… I looked my HoMA (www.heartonmyarm.com) and all of the photos that I always put inside. My friends, my family and I just imagined what they would all say at the time… then I plugged in my headphones…and hit play.
The first video that came up…
** “Some people listen to themselves, rather than listen to what others say… These people don’t come along very often, but when they do, they remind us… That once you set out on a path, even though critics may doubt you, it’s ok to believe… That there is no ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’ or ‘impossible’… They remind us that it’s ok to believe….”**
I could feel my heart start to pump a little harder… I closed my eyes… I thought about what this meant to me… and what I had been through to get to this point…and I started to strengthen my mind for what lay ahead. And then the second video came up…
**“I have wrestled with a alligator, I have tussled with a whale, I done handcuffed lightning thrown thunder in jail!”**
**“…Now if you know what you are worth, then go out and get what you are worth. But you have got to be willing to take the hits and not pointing fingers saying, you ain’t where you want to be because of him or her or anybody… Cowards do that…and THAT AIN’T YOU. YOU ARE BETTER THAN THAT…”**
I remember that moment clearly as the shiver travelled down my back as I registered the words in my head…and I felt Clancy’s hand on my shoulder to say ‘good morning’. I am guessing that she knew that I needed to be alone as there was no talking, no shaking to make sure I had registered her ‘nudge’, just a quick pat on the shoulder that seemed to say… “don’t worry… one way or another…” I opened my eyes and I could see the first rays of the morning starting to peak through and I knew I had to start trying to get ready and eat something. I managed to get some cereal and left over noodles down me (yes, noodles for breakfast!) and then began to tape up my knee, bandage my foot/ankle and re-tape my blisters while I listened to my videos again… Now I know what you are thinking… “Holy moly! That is a lot of drama and all before breakfast!! Is the long day going to be like this?! How many chickens can you fit into a telephone booth?” Ok, maybe you aren’t thinking that last one, but I had to try and lighten the mood somehow
As Alina called everyone over to the start line my heart was in my throat and all I could do was beg that the painkillers I had taken (after medical consultation) kicked in pretty quickly into the Slat Flats. 15km more of the gnarled, evil terrain lay in wait… and my foot was now ‘looking really freaking bad’ as one competitor kindly put it. After having sat and read through 3 Long Day blogs…you all know what they are like…so I am only going to focus on the interesting parts – of which there were two (three if you are lucky and I decide to do an “Ode to Zandy”).
As we all set off on the Salt Flats (a lovely 15km jaunt), it soon became very clear that this was not going to be an easy task. The ground was even worse than it had been the previous day and this resembled walking on a very treacherous coral shelf. Feet and ankles twisting, you could hear the odd scream and squeal from competitors as they twisted, cut and wrenched various joints in the salt flats. As usual Clancy and I started to chat away between us (a very handy defence mechanism we had conjured up), talking absolute rubbish and sounding like a pair of life long friends… but slowly, as we got further and further into the salt flats… that is exactly what happened to the banter… it went flat.
After about 2 hours… my foot was throbbing and I could feel every heart beat pulsing through my ankle… I was thinking to myself that we must be pretty well into it, and then I saw it… the most God awful sight imaginable… the half way marker! I know what you are thinking… “but it’s the half way marker! Surely that’s a good thing?! It means you are half way there!”… NO… what it meant was that I still had another 2 hours to go of indescribable pain. The Salt Flats had totally destroyed my leg and now…slowly… that was spreading up my body and into my mind. Every step was like an electric shock that would shoot up the length of my spine and soon enough it started making me nauseous and I could feel the cold sweat dripping down my neck. I thought to myself… I am not prepared for this, I can barely walk and I have another 7-8km to go of this crap?!?! What am I doing to myself? Why do I keep torturing myself…and there it was… just like that… doubt had crept in.
I think that Clancy realized that I was in trouble (probably from the roar of pain and profanity that had just escaped from my lips) and she just dropped back a little bit to give me some much needed space… It had taken 173.5km for the Atacama Desert to break me… but that is exactly how I felt when I finally got out of the Salt Flats… broken. I sat on a stool staring vacantly into the distance and in a very bad state; I tried to make sure that I didn’t throw up on anyone’s shoes while I refilled my water and then… I closed my eyes. I was on the verge of screaming/crying/laughing/flipping out… when all of a sudden I heard a “come on slacker… time to get going” out of Clancy…and somehow, it just seemed to activate my ‘auto-pilot’. I just poured my electrolytes in, took another dose of painkillers (as advised) and set off on a hobble ahead of Clancy. After about 10 minutes Clancy caught up with me… held my hand and said “I am really glad you are my friend and we are doing this together”… and with that simple gesture I was back. I squeezed her hand, smiled, thanked her for being there…and realized that the promise we had made was true. Come hell or high water… we would tie a rope to the other and drag them across the line if it was needed. I don’t think that Clancy has realized what an important 10 minutes that was for me but it probably got me through the Atacama.
After that, we resumed our normal banter…we had Mary and Alistair sweep behind us for a while and even stopped to take pictures at one point as we were both just in a good mood. This mood was enhanced even more at the sight of Teresa (Clancy’s sister who was volunteering) leaping and cheering when she saw us coming in to CP3 quite ahead of the cut off. Here they had to drill six of Clancy’s toe nails to release the pressure of the blisters…and although it sounds horrendous (it is) Clancy just smiled and got on with it. Then as night fell we started heading over towards CP4 which involved climbing another huge sand dune and getting to catch up with the AWESOME John Williamson (volunteer extraordinaire) and of course…what you climb you must ultimately come down (so this involved another long descent). Before I go on I feel that I must make a note.
ALL of the volunteers have, through all of the races been brilliant. They work so hard, are in bed after us and awake before us and all the while so that they can give you a smile when you arrive at the CP/Camp… but this AC crew… this was something totally brilliant. They all just seemed to have the same sort of energy and fun coursing through their veins as Eberhard and Jeurg had in the Sahara. Without them… about half of the field that finished would have fallen by the way side and I feel it is only right to give them the praise that they deserve. So… CP4 – Clancy and arrived, as usual, as the ‘party bus’! Constantly feeding off each others humour and with plenty of stories, if it wasn’t fun… it wasn’t D and Clancy. That had kind of become our dynamic and our ‘attitude’ and we followed it like the creed of a crime fighting duo!
It was now dark, and as we set off from the checkpoint with our head torches on, we couldn’t help but take a few moments to stare at the stars and the moon. During all my races this has been the one thing that I have not been able to convey or take a picture of how amazing it is. To be out in the middle of a Desert with absolutely zero light pollution is truly a wonderous thing; and one that usually leaves you feeling a little more ‘recharged’ all of a sudden.
It was about half way into the check-point when I heard those four dreaded words come out of Clancy’s mouth that most parents dread and most competitors too, “are we there yet?!” “No Clancy Bear… not yet, I am guessing we are about half way”, came the answer. A few more yards, about 10 minutes worth I would guess….”Is that it there?! That light to your 1 o’clock?” “Uhmmm…. I dunno, I doubt it, it would be too soon I think. We should be there around midnight I reckon.” Another 10 minutes or so… “But where is it?! Is THAT it there in the distance?!” It’s funny, because the scene would have reminded you of a married couple arguing over whether to stop and ask for directions when they got lost. “Clancy Bear… it’s not even 11:30, I have no idea where it is, and when we see it, there will be a lot of white halogen type of light I imagine!” Now…to you, this may just seem like a funny little anecdote but to me… to us… this was probably the one time that we both kind of “lost it” with each other. Looking back on it, it is so small, so minute and insignificant that it just makes me realise that I couldn’t have asked for a better person to cruise the Atacama Desert with and especially on the Long March because if after all the pain and sweat we only argued over “where the CP was”…bearing in mind everything the Atacama threw at us, then that is pretty great going!
So, in celebrating my feat (that is, if you are thinking of it)…I ask you to spare a moment and to raise a glass to Clancy Johannsen – one seriously tough cookie, who kept this old timer laughing for about 230km out of the 250km odyssey; but most importantly, another example of the kind of amazing friends that the Deserts sees fit to bequeath you.
As I said before… the Desert takes a lot of things from you… but if you believe in yourself, it gives you so much more.