Ultra X Jordan: The Long Day

Writ­ten By Chris Taylor

Chris is Oper­a­tions Man­ager at Ultra X and takes the lead on plan­ning new races and events. His interests include (and are lim­ited to): ultra run­ning, plant-based foods to eat whilst ultra run­ning, and ultra run­ning with dogs.

2 Octo­ber 2019

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Read­ing Time: 7 minutes

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 night­time. It can’t be time to run. And then I remembered. It was both. Night­time 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.

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