October 16, 2018
The doorstep of hell
Always start with why (Simon Sinek explains the concept the best) as there will be times that you will ask yourself just that very question and if you are 12 hours into a challenge in the middle of the Wahiba Desert in Oman on a fat bike and you do not have the answer then you may be stuck at the very point for quite some time.
My why for this particular challenge has a long history which you need to know but I shall keep as brief as possible. In 2014 I entered my first ultra running race, a total virgin, I entered the Trans Omania, a 300km single stage foot race in the beautiful country of Oman. It started with 120km and 8,000m of brutal mountains, leveled out for a while until it’s last 145km arrived carving though the Wahiba Sands, a desert so baron that it boasts little wildlife aside from a few farmed camels and goats and the occasional scorpion. It was in this desert after 170km of running, being awake for over 60 hours, experiencing hallucinations and loss of feeling in my legs from below the knee that my baptism of fire into the world of ultra came to an end. I quit the race. There was zero consolation in that over 70% of the field failed to finish the race. Whilst in deep physical pain, the pain of quitting mentally started to eat away at me. I would be back.
In 2016 I managed to persuade Tom Otton and Jacque Le Roux to run the Wahiba desert with me. I did not tell them how bad and brutal the desert was in order not to spoil the surprise that soon met them. It took us a painstaking 35 hours to reach the Ocean at the end of the seemingly never ending route as we picked up one of the most aggressive Desert tattoos to date. I have labelled the tan level from my various desert experiences as the “Desert tattoo”. As is the case on many of these challenges there are hours of silence. Sean (who I recently ran across Corsica with) put it best when he said “you just need to do these things with blokes that know when to shut up” something seemingly so simple but many have not yet mastered. There are however times of great chats, games, songs, hypothetical equations and ideas of other challenges which we would then go on to debate their level of difficulty.
During the 2016 crossing the topic of “Fat Bike” came up ensuing a debate for a number of hours as to the speed these bikes could travel and whether or not running through sand may actually be faster. Unable to confirm either way which mode of transport was faster the practical outcome was that we “would try” and see. A new challenge was born. No date. No details. But it was in my mind, I would ride a fat bike across Wahiba.
Fast forward 26 months and my phone pings, an invite to a whatsapp group (which I hate) called “Omanathon” ironically started by Carlin (a good friend and a guy who has given his time selflessly to helping me complete a number of my challenges by always volunteering to be part of my support crew, without this guy in my life I would not have completed a number of challenges that I have, along with my Dad and Jacques wife he supported us in the 2016 run for example, a total legend) who suggested we ride fat bikes across Wahiba in October in 3 days. The idea sat with me for a day or so and then a conversation with Jacque followed which quickly escalated to us attempting Wahiba non stop in August. It came as no surprise that Carlin was keen to support us (this time and would ride it at a later stage) as was another good friend and support professional (if that profession exists) Captain Brookes. The arrival of InnerFight endurance coach Tom Walker in time for our June 50/50/50 challenge cemented his name on the list of possibles to ride with us which I quickly transferred to the confirmed column with a simple whatsapp. A late addition to the team was long time InnerFight endurance team member Giorgio.
4 riders, 2 support guys and we would source a Bedouin to show us the way. We were set. Simplicity is the key in these things. Leave Dubai 8am on August 2nd, start riding when we get there, finish riding when we are at the end, drive to hotel, sleep, drive back to Dubai. Things do not need to be any more complicated really do they? Ah training you ask? Yes Jacque and I went out 2 weekends before to “test” our bikes out and all seemed fine, Tom didn’t bother to test ride his at all and Giorgio had some experience. It’s funny when people ask about training as yes I do a lot of specific training but my training specifically is aimed at achieving 3 things for me 1. To make me stronger, 2. To make me fitter and 3. To make me mentally stronger. I therefore run, ride, lift weights, sleep, recover and do mind numbing mentally challenging things on a frequent basis. One of my favourite quotes is “a lion doesn’t warm up to kill” which of course you have to take with a pinch of salt. However my point here is simple, I see too many people “getting ready” to do this or “thinking about” doing that and then ending up really doing nothing. Whilst I know that some events need a certain amount of focussed training it is my goal to live in a state of physical and mental fitness that allows me to run across a country, ride through the mountains or back squat until my legs literally fall off at pretty much any moment of my life. You could say I am “fit for life” but I would say I am “fit for my life” and to achieve things that seem a bit far fetched. We could go on, I won’t. I had 3 weeks earlier ran 195km across Corsica with over 12,000m of elevation. I saw that as excellent training for this fat bike challenge.
I may be slightly crazy but I am not stupid and I take safety very seriously. If anything else I have a wife, a mum, a dad and a sister that all love and support me and they mean the world to me, I would never do anything to purposely compromise my safety and all of our happiness. I had a very close shave with death in February this year which drained the whole family for a while there whilst I was in ICU and I don’t want them to have to suffer at my expense. Therefore my plan of attack when it came to hydration and nutrition and the support crew for this non stop ride across Wahiba was paramount. Upon arrival in Bidiyah the town where Wahiba Sands essentially starts we sat in a coffee shop and discussed safety logistics with the riders, Carlin and Captain Brookes. It was decided that they would drive behind us, giving us enough space not to annoy us. The Captain was driving my car and Carlin had secured a Ford F-150 Raptor for the challenge which is a beast of a car, we were going to be more than safe with these guys behind us and the local Bedouin ahead of us showing us the route. As we were starting at 6:30pm we would have 30 minutes of daylight and then would be on bike lights to guide our way. In daylight it is easy, if you are in trouble wave your hand and the cars would see us, by night we decided that a firm back light on the bike would signal all is well and if we changed it to flashing we needed something. There is no phone signal in the desert so that takes away that variable.
Water wise we had calculated an hourly forecasted consumption rate of 1 litre per rider, increased it to 1.5 litres and then taken worse case scenario of 24 hours, therefore 24 bottles each. Food is always tricky in the desert and when you are racing the clock, I personally went with a tray of rice, 6 bananas, 3 stroopwaffles, 2 ragag (see note below on ragag), 6 snickers, coffee, dates, date bars, from Smith St Paleo: 2 lemon and coconut cookies, 2 date and seed cookies, 3 brownie balls and I topped things off with a dehydrated meal and a tube of hydration tablets. (Note, I did not eat all of this)
Ragag you ask? This has a long back story which I will not bore you with, however to our knowledge this is an Omani breakfast delicacy which consists of a large crepe type thing cooked on a flat plate which they crack an egg into, spread cream cheese on and top with honey. An insane amount of calories. I had used them before to fuel a climb up Jebel Shams in Oman with Jacque and they worked very fine there. We therefore had 2 each an hour before we started riding and got 2 takeaway. All up I think we bought 17 from a small coffee shop perhaps boosting its daily sales somewhat.
The first 4 hours of the ride were as expected, very hot and very sandy so no real surprise. The surprise was actually about 2 hours in when we were out of water and therefore turned to our safety plan of “back light flashing” but to no avail. Eventually we stopped and waited for the support cars to catch us up and give us food and water, it was during this stop where we were told that “it is really easy to see the bikes up ahead when the back lights are flashing” Captain Brookes and Carlin had clearly been admiring the flashing lights and forgot the code! The best thing on challenges is to be straight up with people, we all have good rapport and I know Carlin and Captain would have no issues pulling me into line so I have no issue telling them straight. This is how life should be, there is way too much fuss and bull shit in the world, if you need to tell someone something tell them straight, don’t beat around the bush. We told them they had made us suffer and they told us I wouldn’t happen again, it didn’t! Men of their word, you need those types of people in your life.
Maybe it was because my daily routine consists of being in bed at 8:30pm and or at least 8 hours before I need to get up or some other factor but 11pm was hard for me, I felt insanely tired all of a sudden. “Desperate times call for desperate measures” as the saying goes and welcome to the party snickers number one along with half a ragag, a packet of date bars and a large strong black coffee. Yes the coffee you could argue was quite luxurious to have in the desert but it was on my kit list so it was there when I needed it. This wicked concoction had a strange effect, it brought my energy right back but at the same time my recollection of what happened for the coming 4 hours was very poor so please excuse me. What I can tell you is that by process of elimination in those 4 hours I consumed both packets of Smith St cookies, some rice, 3 bananas, another snickers and another coffee. I would say my fueling protocol was going quite well.
Setting out we had a goal to average 10km per hour inclusive of breaks and so wrap up the challenge in 16 hours. That may sound quite slow to those of you that are cyclists and if it does I encourage you to go ride a fat bike in soft sand and you would be very happy with a 10kmph average. A slight correction on the total distance at this stage please in that it was actually 145km not 160km as we had thought, shoot me! In the first 4 hours we were very much on target and actually slightly ahead but as the night wore on our ride to rest approach ended up leveling out at 1 hour riding and then anything from a 10-20 minute rest depending on if we needed to make coffee. The hour mark worked well for refilling water bottles and also to give the legs a rest as the soft sand and rolling dunes started to drain the legs despite our best efforts to refill the muscles with snickers bars. Of course The Captain ensured that we wasted no time, not only refilling our bottles whilst we ate but also controlling the rest for us. It is a double edge sword with rest stops as on the one hand they give you a break but on the second hand if you get comfortable it is harder to get going again.
Around 4am we came across some unreal dunes, big climbs but some awesome drops which are super good fun in the dark with just your bike light to show you the way, Mum would think it is a bit dangerous but it reminded me of the times I used to race my mountain bike downhill which was very dangerous but she never saw that either and again it was not to the point where my life was in danger and there were no brick walls around. Loads of fun. The aggressive and soft inclines took Giorgio as a casualty as the torque on his chain caused some of the teeth on his front chain ring to bend. The captain alerted us to what was going on so Tom, Jacque and I stopped and waited from him to arrive in Carlin’s car. He was irate at what had happened and that in his mind his challenge was over. The number one rule in all parts of life when things go wrong is to relax, it helps us to think clearer and ultimately stand a better chance at solving the issue at hand. Relax was not a word Giorgio knew at this stage and despite a couple of attempts from each of us to help him and fix his bike we were unsuccessful and were now a 3 on the sand. Onward to the end.
Day break when you have been doing a challenge that has taken you through the night is one of the biggest natural pick ups I think there is, it confirms to me that seeing the sun rise each day is so important and that natural release of dopamine in the body is like nothing else. If you are not getting up just before it is dark and seeing day break often I really request that you do so. The sunrise on Wahiba that day was not a romance film to watch but the energy that it brought was, the next hour of riding flew by. Endurance events I often explain as a roller coaster ride, one minute (or hour) you are on cloud 9 and then next you are in hell and questioning “why”. It was around 7am that I hit a low, energy just gone, back, bum, shoulders, hands, legs, feet, you name it they all hurt, was I on the doorstep of hell? Heart rate drops although I am pushing as hard as I can I can not get it above 115bpm and Tom and Jacque are disappearing spots in the distance. I know my why so stopping and thinking about that is not an option. You have to get a bit simple in these situations and also to a certain extent a bit primal and brutal with yourself. I have a think about things and make a plan. I guess you can say I have a bit of experience in this stuff but that doesn’t make it easier, I am human just like you, hard is hard and suffering is suffering, maybe we just react in different ways. For me as I said I get a bit primal, my life is in the 1 meter radius around me. I dropped the peak of the cap over my eyes so I could not see ahead, I stared down straight into the floor…..until I was told it was time for a food and water break. Not many words left my mouth during that break, I knew if I got a lot of food in then in an hour or so I would be good again, que the trusty snickers, a packet of date bars and a stroopwaffel. I did something that I don’t like to do often and asked if anyone has any voltaren. I am normally massively against pain killers but there are certain times and places where they are required shall we say, for placebo if nothing else. Giorgio had panadol, I had a few.
Back on the bike I was the first to leave the stop point but it was not long before Jacque and Tom literally flew passed me. They could do nothing and I think they knew it, I knew it. They said nothing and that was all I wanted. I spoke earlier about doing things like this with people that “know when to shut up” The flip side is that there are people that continue to ask you if you are ok when you are clearly not. I have done a number of challenges with Jacque and I think we have a very good sense of each other’s suffer level and when to say what, I think he has asked me if I am ok once, he just knows and that is why we are able to do these things together. Although Tom is slightly younger and this was only our second challenge together (of hopefully a lot more) he is a high level endurance athlete and coach and seems to know the rules already. Thankfully today neither of them asked me how I was, they knew and they knew to “shut up.” This leg I approached differently, it was broad daylight so I could see my Garmin on the front of my handlebars and the seconds as they ticked away. This was a 1 hour time trial, nothing else mattered I just needed to get to the next water stop which was going to be in one hour time, however we all know a watch kettle never boils so hard as it was I distracted myself from my Garmin and went back to head down looking at the sand and my knees, all that mattered was the power for the next pedal stroke. When you are so deep in the hurt locker and or totally in the zone (yes they can happen simultaneously) time somehow seems to pass, my first look at the Garmin was 25 minutes in the the leg, then 48 minutes and no sooner was I upon Tom and Jacque and the stopped cars ready to refuel us. A lot of people ask me what I think about in those times, to be honest the answer is very little, as I said above you have to strip things right down, it is often the over thinking and the confusion you allow your brain to cause that can be your downfall. A lot of people say they try and convince themselves they are not in pain, if that works then great but it is not something I really use, I do use a certain amount of “reject” tactics in that I reject any thought that this temporary lapse is going to undo any hard work that I have put in up to that stage. Yes these challenge are a massive mind game and for different people different tactics work and even for me from situation to situation I use different mental games to keep my body and mind moving forward.
Game plan for the next leg (which would be the first of the final 3) was to “sit on the wheel”. This being a cycling term where you tuck in behind the rider in front to take advantage of them as a wind break and sit in their draft, there are studies that show in that position your work can be cut by up to 30% and whilst that actual figure may not be applicable on fat bikes going 13kmph in the middle of the desert, mentally it was everything to me. In 2016 I had chased a friend up a long mountain pass in the French Alps by just locking my eyes on his back wheel and as I wrote about later in an article just kept “Chasing the chain.” This is a case of tunnel vision, not blocking everything out but focusing so hard on that chain that nothing else matters. I broke it up by saying to myself as I latched onto Jacques wheel that I would sit there for 20 minutes as that was a third of the leg. It was a war, it took every ounce of my body and mind to sit there for what felt like the longest 20 minutes of my life but as 20 minutes rolled round I knew I couldn’t let go. “Another 10 minutes” I said to myself. Of course (and I knew it) this was a con as I knew if I held onto his wheel for 30 minutes I could do it for 60. You see the mind games you play with yourself to make things happen? 47 minutes gone, 13 to go, legs screaming, out of water, if I could describe hell to someone I am pretty sure this would be it. The biggest risk when you are sat on someones wheel is when you let it go just a meter or two and the invisible rubber band holding you there just snaps and then you are on your own again. There was no way I was letting this rubber band snap. When we stopped to refill I heard Jacque say that the last 20 minutes of the leg was tough for him, Tom had been on the front and was looking very strong. Hearing Jacque say that lifting me a bit, not in a cunning way but it is always comforting to know that you are not the only one in hell.
In the last 10 years of my life I have had coke 3 times. I hate the stuff. The first time was when I was in this desert in 2014 and a car drove up to me and gave me a bottle of warm coke, took a sip and nearly threw up. They say it is supposed to pick you up and lots of people in the endurance community use it when they are at Rock Bottom in a race. In 2015 when I ran the Marathon Des Sables after the long day (92km) they drove a chilled truck into the middle of our camp and unloaded ice cold coke. I was not that keen on the coke but the temperature was attractive having not had anything to drink but warm water for 5 days at that stage. 2 sips and I gave my can away, yuk! The third time was back in this desert in 2016 when I was with Jacque and we came across a random “shop” if you can call it that. Jacque was suffering in his guts and we thought flat coke would help him and give him some energy back, I again had a mouthful and did not enjoy it. During this stop Giorgio could clearly see I was in trouble as he offered me a cold bottle of coke from his ice box, again the cold got me in, the taste of the coke not so much as I sat there looking down into the bottle of coke and suddenly out of nowhere a small bedouin boy appeared. I have no clue where he came from as we had seen no farms or civilization for hours but he arrived with a great smile and the standard Arabian greeting of Salam Alaikum. I could not tell you if it is was the sip of the cold coke or the energy of the bedouin boy but something lifted me up. I thought to myself “this is it, I am back in the game!” And I was, suddenly I was strong, riding was fun and the end seemed ever near, no issue for me in my new state.
Endurance events and ultras I have often described as the wildest rollercoaster ride you have even been on and I think I will stick with that description for a number of years to come. Yes for sure your energy levels peak and trough based on the energy you exert and the nutrition you take on but I truly believe your mental energy, the way you control it and the places it comes from play a huge role. How after over 15 hours of this challenge was I suddenly “back in the game” and guns blazing down the sand on my fat bike? Well the fun and the rollercoaster and the beast that is the Wahiba desert just kept coming and the last 10km to the end proved more “fun” and eventful than we had ever thought it would be. Something that I have always believed in in life, sport and of course in Ultra events is that you have to finish strong and today was going to be no different despite a puncture (our first and only of the whole trip) dunes so soft and steep that our bikes ground to a halt and we had to walk in our bike shoes pushing the heavier than normal fat bikes up them for 200-300m at a time, all coupled with the near gale force monsoon winds blowing in off the Indian ocean which at one stage near on stopped us as we tried to free wheel down a dune, it was literally insane. I knew where the end was having run here in 2016 and I knew how good it was going to feel as we reached the road and with my always finish strong mantra ringing it was time to finish the job at hand. These trips are special and the people you share them with are special, we started off as 4 and as we approached the finish line as a 3 it was a great honor and pleasure to cross together as a sign of our unity and the fact that in some things in life (this being one of them) you need a strong team of good blokes around you and that completing challenges like this teaches us all something and is a very special movement. As our fat bikes ground to a stop on the tarmac a firm handshake with Jacque and Tom confirmed the job was done and a silent nod of appreciation for each others support was exchanged. That nod is all that is required, no words, we all knew how we were feeling and what we had done, our work here was complete.
The riding to a certain extent was the easy bit and I often say that as I believe it is true, the team that support have the hard job, they were also awake the whole night but they carry the additional burden in some cases of our safety and for Carlin, Captain Brookes and the bedouin I am super grateful as without them this crossing would not have happened. Other people who I am also grateful for are my wife Holly and my parents. Since my crash in February they have been naturally more worried about me each and every time I go out on an adventure or challenge, I hate to think some of the thoughts that go through their mind when I am in a place with no contact for hours putting my body and mind through it’s paces. I am out there enjoying and enduring and they are left home just thinking. There is no way to thank them other than continuing to be the best husband and son I can be and be present when I am with them. I love you guys very much and thank you.
For no real reason but there has been little discussion of more fat bike adventures anytime soon with Jacque or Tom. Right now (and it may change) I feel like that is an experience ticked off in an awesome desert. Yes there is the empty quarter which is a damn big piece of sand, however at this moment I am not sure if the guys have an appetite for more fat biking or if I do. I think that is the great thing about taking on a variety of endurance challenges, you never get bored and you learn something different in every situation. When you complete a challenge like this you naturally feel a great sense of achievement and that fuels thoughts for more challenges, I think it is something in our blood though, I don’t want to sit still, I don’t want to wake up tomorrow not thinking about my next challenge as through the various ones that I have done I have learnt so much about myself, my team mates and in turn life. There are so many things on each challenge that you bring back to daily life and that learning experience is never going to end for me, I guess you could say it makes me feel alive and gives me a great reason to live. I just hope that anyone thinking of doing a challenge, no matter how big or small that is going to test them on many levels firstly knows their why but secondly finds that deeper sense of being, their reason to live, you could even say it is spiritual, I will refrain though and just say it’s life and it’s awesome.
Thank you for reading.