One week today, Ultra X Jordan 2019 competitors will be tackling the long day, a mid-week 70km battle with the sand, the heat, and themselves. For an insight into how they’ll be feeling before setting off, check out the following memoir from one of last year’s competitors.
I listened carefully as I lay there, delicately curled into a foetus-like position, the only arrangement of limbs I’d managed to tolerably adopt in what I’d wrongly anticipated would be a restful 10-hour sleep cycle.
The unorthodox shape I’d assumed was far from accidental. On an ordinary night, my posture might have passed for an amateur display of contortion or even an enforced stress position, but this was no ordinary night. The placement of my limbs was scrupulously precise, each body part deliberately positioned like soldiers on a battlefield; some sacrificing comfort, others attaining it, all to the maximum benefit of the whole.
Lying prone, my half-bent legs straddled the fine line between too much quadricep tension and too much hamstring tension, a trial and error balance which, mercifully, prevented either from cramping. My head, buried face first in a travel pillow, the sides curled round my ears and tied at the back, was both warm and cushioned. Sleeping on my side with my feet resting on my backpack (one of the more enthusiastic race doctors had eagerly encouraged me to elevate my legs) meant that my torso was awkwardly twisted. I’d never been able to sleep on my back though, and the rocky, sandy mattress of the Wadi Rum desert was certainly not the place to try. I’d tested all the classic positions: starfish, log, freefaller, faceplant. None of them worked. Besides, I should raise my legs, the medic had said so. She was insistent and I was in pain. This was the best position.
Not quite awake, but certainly not asleep, I continued to listen. Perhaps it was the utter silence. So eerily unfamiliar at the start of the week, it had quickly become a source of bliss. It seemed to fine-tune the senses. Even the tiniest of sounds, those usually dismissed by the subconscious before even having a chance to be untangled by the working mind, seemed amplified and relevant. As the dying embers of yesterday’s campfire fought valiantly against the closing darkness, the accompanying soft crackle of the last surviving firewood told me it had to be early — very early. I listened again.
There was no denying it this time. It sounded like the gentle, murmuring wake-up call of the well-meaning, but nevertheless sleep disrupting, volunteers. Charged as they were with such a dire task, they were always apologetic, but that rarely kept the momentary flash of annoyance at bay. Leave me alone, I thought. It’s still night time. It can’t be time to run.
And then I remembered. It was both. Night time and run time had become synonymous. Today was The Long Day.
ULTRA X JORDAN DAY 3 ~ 70KM
It was Wednesday morning (or was it Tuesday night?) and I was already close to approaching the furthest I’d ever ran in a week. If successful, today would most definitely be the furthest I’d ran in a day and the distance accumulated by close of play would officially surpass my previous weekly best. What’s more, when I finished (if I finished), I’d still have two more days, and two more marathons, to go.
I checked my watch in the darkness: 2am. Due to the length of the challenge ahead, we were starting extra early. ‘We’ were the main pack. There was an elite group of faster runners, ten or so speed demons who were starting an hour later in order to keep us all closer together on the course. Many of them would still finish the day before us though. No-one had yet put words to the thought, but we knew it, and they knew it. In that moment, I both admired and resented them. An extra hour asleep…
Starting at 4am meant that hot water was available from 2am, so that we hungry runners could rehydrate our freeze-fried food and reboot our broken bodies. Tentatively, I began the slow task of unravelling my stiff joints and sore muscles in a convincing rendition of the evolution of man. Glancing in the direction of today’s pre-packed rations, I looked for the familiar breakfast sized food package. Super seed and red berry porridge. Delicious.
Unlike the groggy, uphill battle towards cognitive function that is the typical grind of a weekday morning in the city, gearing up for the latest edition of the rat race with caffeine and Instagram scrolling, I was rapidly alert in the desert. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to understand why some get addicted to this feeling. It was intense and bipolar. Nerves and excitement; doubt and conviction; regret and relief; all at the same time. The tension in the air was palpable and impossible to ignore.
Adrenaline already coursing through our veins, the group moved cautiously about camp, so as not to wake the lucky ten. The prospect of what lay ahead was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. 70km, we were all thinking, chewing the distance over and over in our heads. Not quite two marathons, just over three half-marathons, seven 10k’s, fourteen parkruns; there was no sensible way of comprehending such an arbitrary distance, and all this in a sport that loves nothing more than to place life-or-death significance on arbitrary figures. 70km. In one day. On very tired legs.
The silver lining of our situation was the relatively cool early morning temperature. A meagre 18C, it felt positively chilled compared to yesterday’s 32C midday heat. The advice given was to cover as much distance as possible in the morning, before the roasting afternoon heat slowed us all down. ‘Start fast, finish slow,’ they’d said. I won’t have any trouble with one half of that equation.
All too soon but not soon enough, it was time. Glutton for punishment, we gathered nervously by the start line, quietly wishing each other good luck. The faster runners were awake now and some had come to watch us depart, no doubt picking us off mentally, if not yet physically.
I glanced at my watch: 3:59am. In less than a minute I’d start running 70km through the desert in the darkness. I looked upwards at the vast, dizzying night sky; hundreds and thousands of tiny specks of light. It was mesmerising and minimising. I wondered if I was looking in the direction of Mars. A friend had told me that the surface of Wadi Rum had been likened to the surface of Mars. ‘You’re running in Wadi Rum?’ she’d said. ‘The Martian was filmed there.’ The thought crossed my mind: if there is life on Mars, have they found terrain similar to the surface of Earth? Are they lining up to run a double marathon in the middle of the night for no apparent reason? I found the thought comforting. I hoped they were.
10.. 9.. 8. I became dimly aware that those around me had begun counting down. In that moment, staring at the infinite magnitude of our solar system, the whole thing seemed preposterous. Why? This always happened at the start line. The why questions lie in wait, striking at the moment you’re most vulnerable. Stood at the start line, waiting to attempt the impossible, the doubts seep through the cracks of even the most impenetrable minds of the toughest ultra runners.
.. 7.. 6. It’s a good question. Why? Right then, I didn’t have an answer. I wanted to finish, sure, and I wanted to explore my limits. I wanted to make others proud. But that wasn’t quite it. Standing there in the dark wilderness, it struck me how primal it all was. It’s as though we’d been transported back in time. Did our ancestors do this? It was a deep, enigmatic, irresistible urge that went beyond any rational reasoning. Could I face the storm and make it through to the other side? What would happen if I didn’t? What would happen if I did?
.. 5.. 4. Suddenly, I felt it. The reality set in all at once. Awaking from my daydream, my senses sharpened. My vision came into focus with a jolt. Time, which had moved so slowly all morning, was all of a sudden accelerated. Everything happened in a beat. I noticed the tread on the woman’s shoes in front of me. Should I be wearing trail shoes? It was too late now. I smelled the sweat on the straps of my running pack. I felt the hard, bumpy rock of the desert ground beneath my feet. I heard the short, deliberate, forceful breathing of the man to my right, amping himself up for the fight. In, out, in, out. I realised I was doing it too.
.. 3.. 2. I was here, there was no choice. I wanted to do this deep down, I’d realise it soon enough. I just had to get going. I’d trained for months and already ran two marathons this week. Why? Who cared. Why not! The sound of the group chanting the countdown was like a boombox inside my head now. Individual voices, united. We wanted it. Let us run, we urged. Alone, together.
.. 1.. GO. We ran. Into the desert. Into the night. Into oblivion. We ran.