Part I: The Race
There are well-known risks in signing up for a first-year race:
1) race director could cancel the race and run off with your registration fees, or
2) the race organization could make “first-timer” mistakes that screw up the event.
I’ve experienced both (ugh!) — but as MdS Peru was marketed as part of the long-running, well-established Marathon des Sables organization (32 years! of racing in Morocco) it seemed like a safe bet.
I could not have been more wrong.
The lack of organizational knowledge — & start of problems – began on bus ride to the initial bivouac. Listed as a 7-hour trip, it actually took 11 ½ hours. No accident or exceptional event – it just took that long. As if, as if… perhaps they had never driven it before in a bus?
On that bus ride we experienced the first (and scarily significant) issue that would ultimately take many of us out of the race. Handed out with the box lunches was a bottle of Socosani– a local fizzy mineral water with very strong metallic taste. Two sips and I knew I was in trouble – midway through the trip, I started throwing up, as did several others on my bus. And this water? Race org confirmed it was what we would be getting on the course. Providing runners with only fizzy mineral water that made them sick – for 7 days, 240K race in the desert – are you effing serious?!
Yes, yes they were. We were told to drink more water to “get used to it”. Cue massive + continuous puking.
Things went further downhill upon reaching our campsite. Expectation, per the Road Book, was that we would be handed our (individual) tents at arrival & put into groupings by language – in an attempt to create some of the comraderie that is part of the 8-person shared-tent experience in Morocco (and most other races). But because we arrived well after dark (see 11 ½ hour trip above), they had already put up the tents & it was basically a free for all in the dark (find a tent, ok that’s yours).
OK, so no tent comraderie. Got it.
Similar to Morocco event, race organization was to provide the camp food for the next day of medical/gear checks. Arrghh! We stood in line for almost 2 hours for (very bad) food, which I couldn’t eat anyway (see “throwing up from water” above).
Here’s the thing – while we all understood and expected some “shake out” issues, the attitude of race director and camp staff was appalling. Overheard one older athlete complaining to the RD that they had no food on their bus (they ran out of box lunches apparently) so that was 11 ½ hours with no food + now almost 2 hours in line. The RD’s response? “That’s part of the adventure”. No apology, not even courtesy. That lack of concern for the health & safety of the athletes – and reputation of the MdS organization – was a continuing theme that deteriorated even further over time.
After throwing up for the 2 days prior – severely dehydrated & zero calories to go on – I started the race knowing there was no way I could finish, but determined not to quit until they made me. (Stubborn, much?)
Course for that day was 37K or about 22 miles of mostly sand. It was toward the end of that day that I started having kidney issues – that feeling like you constantly have to pee, but nothing comes out? That.
At one point, I checked with the medics – their response was “drink more water!”
As I looked around, other runners around me were dashing in to the bushes, some running bent over a bit. Finished & back at camp, I talked to other athletes having the same problem. Were minerals in the water causing some kind of blockage? Gave some hard thought to what continuing to push might actually mean – I wanted to get as far as I could, but long-term kidney damage was starting to look like a potential risk.
Lined up with everyone else to start – but by then, it had been 4 full days since I’d been able to eat & I was continuing to throw up (just water, by now) every couple of hours. About 3 miles in, noticed I was also starting to see significant amount of blood in my urine. (Note: this happens sometimes in ultra-racing but not this early in the race nor in these quantities – at least for me).
Made it to the first check point (about 10K in) & was pulled by the medics. (Likely would have timed out anyway since by then I was moving at slower-than-tortoise speed.)
The race organization was so completely overwhelmed (do you see the theme here?) by number of drops that they had no plan to get us out of the desert or what to do afterwards. After 6+ hours of sitting at the checkpoint in the desert – with the most severely ill runners wrapped in foil blankets getting IVs – we were loaded into a military transport truck & driven 2 hours to a hotel in Nazca, a nearby town. We were able to get food, a shower, and some sleep. As our luggage was still with race org, we had only the clothes we were wearing (& whatever might be in our pack).
Next day we were told (eventually, after a great deal conflicting information) that 1) our luggage would arrive at some point during the day and 2) there would be no transport, medical care, or assistance from race organization from that point. We would be left in that small town, 300+ miles from Lima – many runners still significantly ill — to make our way however best we could.
And oh, by the way – please sign this waiver-of-all-legal-recourse (which, of course, I refused).
Irresponsible? Yep. Dangerously negligent? Surely seems so.
(Post-script: Race eventually put out a statement about the water (below). To paraphrase: we know it makes you sick, the damage is probably not life threatening, and it’s not our fault. Gahhh!!!)
Part II: The Adventure, or “A Welshman, an American, 2 Peruvians & a Turk are piled in a taxi…”
Lucky for me, I had met two extraordinarily kind-smart-funny-did-I-mention-kind? Peruvian runners, Bamse & Claudio — who were also heading back to Lima. We teamed up for the trip – along with Nick, a runner from Wales & Ozgur, from Turkey.
And that’s how we came to be: all 5 of us + the taxi driver, crammed into a small 4-door Mazda, gear tied to the roof, hurtling through the mountains in pitch black night, racing to overtake a bus to Lima that would be stopping at the next town an hour & a half away.
Horribly smelly, laughing so hard there were tears, checking in with each other along the way & then through the night, taking care. Realizing in that moment that this was why I was there: grace, adventure, the magic of new and good friends, extraordinary kindness.
So while I did not have the race I had hoped for, the desert once again gave me exactly what I needed.