In truth, if something helps me to maintain a positive attitude, then I will probably take it, however ludicrous it might appear upon reflection. I am certainly not one for dwelling on the fluffy attitudes in life, and I carry no superstitions. But, on a technical level, the tidal Thames can represent a part of our coastline, all the way up to the lock. It is not too much for my mind to consider that it is the sea breeze that I feel against my face. Nor is it too great a stretch for me to feel that this water connects with the North Sea and the Atlantic, thus representing passage to other lands and the whole world beyond. It is an effective reminder of the scale of the world and that, when I look for it, there is far more here than the built-up city in which I live.
I had noticed that when I ran at an easy pace, my mind could daydream for most of the journey from Hammersmith to London Bridge. When I ran fast, however, then I could not dream at all. I would be checking my timings at particular landmarks and gauging performance accordingly. The intervening periods would be spent contemplating breathing rate and depth, checking stride length, and seeking out anomalies; movements or muscles that felt peculiar or as if they were being overworked. In that sense, such runs could be likened to a deep meditation or trance. Whether or not I actually enjoyed it became something of an issue for me. If I was not, then surely this was all futile, regardless of the bigger picture and my ultimate goal?
I remembered the days of my youth and early twenties, when I lived to train in the gym, and to absorb myself fully in the intensity of the moment. And then there I would be, plodding along past the Tate Modern, convinced that I was not deriving enjoyment from this running at all, but more simply tolerating it.
Then, a few weeks before the MdS, when I was still increasing training mileages, I received a slight injury. I had attempted a longer run than usual, and as my lack of confidence and experience forced a different pace, the shift of stresses around my body caused an overuse injury in my calf. I had to hobble for a while, and it took weeks to heal satisfactorily to permit a good distance run, and it had certainly not healed entirely by the time I left for the desert.
During the period that I was unable to run I discovered something. I missed running. It was alien to me because I was still relatively new to it, and until now I had only really dwelt upon my strength-training days. I most definitely missed running. At the time I simply could not understand precisely what it was. I vividly recall watching runners pacing along outside the Tate Modern themselves, and as I walked on by I was overcome by both depression and envy. Somehow, despite the monotony and the duration of the activity, I had fallen in love with it. How despicably and unforgivably clichéd that I should only realise how I felt about it when it was kept from me.
After that, I came to view my runs differently. Even during the Marathon des Sables itself I still loved running. I accept that time erodes the negative perceptions of the unpleasant past, but I recall nothing but enjoyment throughout the event. I remember the camaraderie, the forged friendships (many of which still remain), and the thrill of running up and down sand dunes, over peaks and across open plains. It brought a sense of excitement beyond that which I could obtain simply from walking.
I became absorbed within the landscape, such as to become a part of it, one man moving across the landscape to reach his bed for the night. There was no battle against the earth. There was nothing physical to conquer. I was persisting in an endeavour to work as hard as I thought sufficient, whilst travelling across some of the most wondrous and challenging land on the planet. As Robert MacFarlane so eloquently suggests in Mountains of the Mind: we attempt great things in our pursuits to experience the sublime.
The race commenced shortly after daybreak. We started heading back the way we had come at the end of the previous day's run. The open ground was water-logged, but with almost a hundred runners all wanting to make good progress, we avoided the best ground if it meant we could get further ahead. We knew what was coming. We reached the other side of the flat, where the narrow path began at the base of a particularly steep hill. We were forced to a walk. The walk became a climb. We waited; those above us waited for those above them. Somewhere someone would be delayed whilst negotiating a particularly slippery or steep section, and that had a knock-on effect for the rest of us. My advice to future runners; sprint off that start line and stay ahead going up that initial section of trail; just do not trip on the fallen trees that litter the ground before the climb.
As the hill flattened, many of the athletes were moving at a fast walk. I was becoming jumpy with anticipation of the run that I wanted to lurch into, when I was suddenly shot in the back of the head. A fallen tree trunk lay across the trail at chest height. I ducked beneath it but as I stepped forward and rose, my rucksack connected hard with the trunk, and something was knocked with force onto the back of my head. I could not discern whether it was a sting or a bite, but the explosion of pain was incredible; I had never known anything like it. Out of a natural reaction my left hand shot up and my hand clasped around it. Whatever it was had a fairly hard and brittle skeleton or carapace, I could not tell which, and it was perhaps an inch or so in length. I had crushed whatever it was in my hand as I detached it from my head. My arm and hand extended out to the side quickly enough to ensure that it was flung clear of me, before it could sting or bite again. All that I had to go on was the feel of it. Obviously not a snake, but then it could be a small spider, a small scorpion or a very large ant.
There are many ants in the Amazon. Some of the largest can cause a person to collapse from paralysis and suffer fever-like symptoms. I hoped that if it was an ant then it had not been one of those. A scorpion seemed unlikely because whatever it was fitted so easily into my hand. A Bullet ant, perhaps? It had not wanted to let go, that was for sure. There were reports that would come later of someone who was bitten by one, and a second person had been unable to pull it clear because of the ferocity and strength of the bite. I think that the ant had to be killed and pulled apart before the head came free. Adrenaline had permitted me to ensure that whatever it was came free from my head; I was certainly beyond thinking at the time. A Bullet ant was the most likely culprit, but the pain, even after the villain had been disposed of, was horrendous.
I had not slowed during this, out of the fear of shame of causing a fuss or inconveniencing my fellow racers. Besides, we were only walking and the whole thing was over within a second, from bite to release. I attempted to shake the pain off as I gathered myself to a run. If it had been something poisonous, then my running would have the poison acting very quickly, and I could be laying on my back and frothing from my mouth in no time. Hopefully the worst that would come from this would be discomfort. I hoped. It was a concern for some time, mostly because of the pain. It hardly dissipated and my head throbbed relentlessly for hours afterwards. Welcome to the jungle.
It was a long, tough leg to the first checkpoint, comprising of some good and tough climbs. I greeted Angus and James at the checkpoint and James obligingly checked my head for fang or pincer marks. I was flabbergasted to hear that there was no visual evidence to account for the agony in my head. How unfair. I would have expected a pulsating boil, developing nicely beneath two vast, gaping stab wounds at the very least. Nature can be so cruel sometimes.
I made progress away from the checkpoint: passing some athletes and joining others for sections as I went. I met up with Sophie from England, and three Americans; Rob, Kevin and David, who were entertaining us with renditions from the American Rock Hall of Fame. It was great; it broke up the day brilliantly to find myself enjoying such an enthusiastic singsong. They attempted to cease every now and again, but others would heckle and demand for more. Along a steep and slanted descent we went; across a narrow creek and back up the next hill.
I reached the swamp first. Sophie and the three American chaps were right behind me. A section of water was perhaps two metres across; too far for me to risk a jump from such soft ground. A rotten log to my right bridged it perfectly. It took my weight and I edged my way across. The ground on the other side was 'interesting'. It was saturated and disturbingly boggy. With some steps my feet would sink a few inches; with others they might descend as much as a foot beneath the surface. I tried to keep close to the trees and exposed roots; anything to give me purchase and lessen the likelihood of getting both feet trapped in deep mud. I would be unlikely to lose a shoe, but it would be hard going to make progress. A foot became stuck on one occasion and I promptly fell over, making matters considerably worse.
As I moved on, perhaps a quarter of the way to a rise that marked hard ground about fifty metres from the creek; the others arrived at the log. Sophie was over first, and she waited for the others. One of them was stung; he declared as much as he stood there perplexed. His friend joined him, and was promptly stung too. Then they were both calling out that they were being stung, and then it was all of them. They must have disturbed a nest. "Wasps!" I called out, "Run!" I made a mental note that if anything ever stings me that I must not stand there in observation of the fact, but rather make progress away from the area as swiftly as possible. Most things here sting or bite in defence, either of themselves or their territory. By moving away from their area in either instance the threat is removed, and the need for defence is equally diminished. Unfortunately, wasps are demanding of significant distances between their aggressor and their territory; and they will pursue someone a good distance from their nest. In such a situation you might be running for a mile before they lay off their counter-attack.
I made for the hill as quickly as I could, calling back and encouraging the others to run too. If I was stung by just one of them then it would attract others. There was nothing to be done but create distance between ourselves and the nest. I was tired enough from my flailing in the mud but had to push myself to run up the hill when I reached it. I was exhausted; hot and panting. This was not how I would have desired to run in this race, but the circumstances dictated otherwise. Again, welcome to the jungle.
I emerged from the hills onto a high plantation. Without the protection of the canopy the heat soared the moment I left the trees. I turned a corner and happened upon the second checkpoint. At last! Vicky and Karen were there to greet me and we organised my water between us.