What are we doing tonight? How about running 50K in the desert?

Another goal reached. When you put 50 Kms in your legs, no one can take them away from you (cit. Max Calderan). In addition, there is the satisfaction for what seemed to be an unreachable goal and that today feels almost like a normal feat. In May, my first 42k in the desert (leaving at 4:00 pm), after 2 months a 40Km training (leaving at 5:30am and running at 52 degree Celsius), now, after two more months, 50 km at night.

This last training has been the hardest from both a psychological and physical point of view. Although I was assisted by a car and the path was adjacent to an asphalt road (I planned this training session by the Al Qudra cycling path in Dubai), I simulated a solo run; this meant self-reliance for water, food and medical needs (it was my first time). The night run, after a work day, had the added difficulty given by your body screaming for sleep.

Two days prior to the planned session I did a test by my house running at night on the sand for about ten kilometers in racing gear. In my 10-Kg backpack I carried

  • low-sodium water in large bottles that I used to refill 2 small bottles that I kept at arms’ reach
  • towel
  • two t-shirts and an extra pair of sports socks (for some comfort)
  • Long pants (in case I completed my training with the sun already high in the sky)
  • First aid kit prepared by Caduceus Medical for the occasion
  • Extra batteries for two flash lights (front light and extra hand light)
  • Cellphone for emergency calls to the assistance car when far from the check points)
  • Belt to be used also for emergencies (to throw something at someone, to use as tourniquet, etc…)

The previous evening I went on reconnaissance with the rescuer that was to drive the assistance car. I verified the route and the climate and established checkpoints approximately every 10 kilometers.

The time has come. During the day, I did mostly computer work (I avoided tiring activities and too many appointments on the road), normal meals with some added carbs. At midnight I met a friend, Michele, who was fascinated by the experience and decided to join me for the first few kilometers.

I leave home around 23:30 and I quickly realized the night was more humid than the evening before; this change makes me nervous although I try not to show it. I stop at a supermarket to buy more water (maybe a result of the rising tension) and keep it for emergencies. I take advantage of the stop to get a cold coffee; I drink half of it while reaching my destination. Once at Al Qudra, we get ready in a few minutes, and we are on the road. It’s an important test. My first non-stop 50 kilometers; my first night run; my first run with a 10-kg backpack.

As planned, I walk the first hour in the sand. The objective is to get acclimatized and not waste all the energies, as the journey is long. Michele (who is not aiming at completing the 50km) after the first hour decides to continue (originally he was thinking about stopping after the first 10 kilometers); luckily I had the extra case of water in the car!

When you run in the desert, there is no music to keep you company; you need to listen to your body and the environment. To have somebody running by you, on one end gives you comfort, on the other end it might shift your focus especially when the goals are different. You need to stay concentrated. If you don’t want to talk, don’t talk. If you need to stop, stop. Don’t follow the other’s rhythm. This is the most important thing and also the hardest one.

Kilometers are passing by as well as the first two checkpoints where I stop to fill the small bottles with the water I have in the backpack. I refuel as I go; dates for now.

Half way through the session, the backpack begins to feel heavy. I had planned to stop at the 25 km mark to rest for five minutes but, in reality, I don’t need to sleep, just to take the weight off my shoulder for a few.

At the 25 km sign, I let Michele know that I would stop also to test pausing which is so necessary in longer races. I wanted also to get my body used to micro stops (sometime the hardest thing is to restart running after a stop). Michele decides to continue or he might not be able to start running again. I give him a half a bottle of water.

Micro-stop: backpack on the ground, I lay down and set the alarm clock for five minutes later, but I can’t sleep. I am alone in the desert (Michele has already disappeared in the dark) but, in reality, I don’t feel alone at all. I hear animals moving, the wind blowing through the small dunes all around me. I get agitated, I can’t wait to start running again, but I force myself to stay down. As soon as I hear the alarm clock, I stand up quickly, grab my backpack and start marching again. I eat another date and two dry meat strips (it’s time for proteins).

Now I am running alone; I keep on the sand for the most part and I am obliged to keep the light on to avoid holes and obstacles. I am trying to keep the simulation as realistic as possible; in the middle of the desert – where no vehicles can ride – a simple sprain can mean trouble.

I continue to go; I hear strange animal sounds (?), but I can’t recognize them and I get shivers down my spine. Fear? I believe so.

The backpack is getting heavier and heavier; I try to hold it on the front but it doesn’t change much. Actually I can’t even run that way. I make it to the 30-Km checkpoint. The car is there with the headlights on. I waive that everything is OK without stopping, and they tell me that Michele has just left. I start running again and I soon meet him; he decides to go back to the car that is still in view.

The sun is rising by now and I can remove the lights I was using. I put the leftover food in my backpack (to feel free); one of the large bottles of water is finished but the weight is still heavy. Around the 35th kilometers, a vision…a red cross-country vehicle is coming towards me, driving on the sand. Definitely, it’s not a cycler coming to train.

It’s a friend! Alex – manager of Inflight Dubai – knew about my training session and has decided to come by for a quick hello and a bit of support. A couple of words on the fly while I run and he drives alongside me. I signal him to wait for me at next bench as I need to rest for a few minutes without the backpack.

I am 15 kilometers to the end; I have drunk a very little quantity of water, so I am using the large bottle to freshen up the head and muscles. I finish what is left and eat the last piece of dry meat. Alex leaves, I start running again, and I see the first cyclers arriving.

At 10 kilometers to the end, I meet the assistance car and I stop for 30 seconds for a quick check. I see a little water bottle half full; I drink what’s left of the cold coffee bought the evening before. They see my face is tense. I continue, but I decide to leave the backpack behind. If I were in a real solo run, I would have taken what was really needed (securing it to my body with a belt or else) and I would have got rid of the backpack. Now I am walking.

A few cyclers come by and ask me if everything is OK, I signal it is, but I realize I am staggering. Forty minutes after the last checkpoint, I see the assistance car coming back to me for a check. I ask how much is left and the answer freezes me: 10 kilometers!

“Impossible!” I insist. I asked them to check as I had passed the 10 kilometer mark 40 minutes prior. As the car goes back and forth on the street alongside the track to check the distance, I continue, but I am discouraged. I tell myself that I will go on if less than 5 kilometers are left; otherwise it was still a good night training of 8 hours.

A few minutes come by and I start thinking that maybe it was really 10 kilometers since it’s taking them so long. I see the car again…please let it be less than 5 kms.

I am 6.5 Km to the end… they confirm from the car. I stare into space and don’t know what to do. I clench my fists. I look at them. I leave. I take with me only a small water bottle. I want to get to the end. I start running again! I don’t even know where I found this new energy; I was like dead a few seconds before.

  • 5 km, I drink some water, I slow down for a few dozens of meters, and I decide that it’s what I’ll do every kilometer.
  • 3 km, some more water, I check the time; I want to make it in less than 9 hours…I should be able to.
  • 2 km, more water, I check how much water I have left; we are almost there
  • 1 km, a small sip of water, the rest on the head and I speed up

I make it! I stop the clock.

Massimo leaves the car and comes to congratulate me. He sheds a tear (maybe more than one).

I check the time (even though I know it makes no difference): 8 hours, 49 minutes, 30 seconds

Great resistance training. Clothing, supplies, concentration, all was perfect.

I check how much water I have left, as it was my biggest problem on my first attempt: one large bottle (considering that I emptied one at 4/5 of the course), but you always need some margin.

We can go to sleep now, but not before a fantastic and absolutely “unhealthy” breakfast!

Special thanks to

  • Massimo Zinio for photographs and assistance
  • Max Calderan & Desert Academy for coaching

What are we doing tonight? How about running in the desert?

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