As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, one of my favorite things about running ultra marathons is meeting people from a vast variety of backgrounds, all coming together with the common goal of finishing a race that is harder on the mind and body than most people can fathom. Even more so than during the Gobi March, there was an abundance of people throughout the race in Madagascar that I feel genuinely inspired by.
The Two at the Back
Brandon and Mayra, two of our tent mates, quickly became some of Rich’s and mine closest friends on the course. Not only were they as crazy and quirky as us, but they were also both tough as nails.
The two may have had some of the toughest days on the course imaginable. Brandon, though he seemed to have trained sufficiently, had unfortunately lost a fair amount of his gear courtesy of his flights prior to the start of the race. Though he managed to acquire some of what he had lost from other competitors, he was left without some essential gear, like gaiters, and he ultimately had some really difficult times, especially in regards to his feet.
We don’t know that Mayra really knew what she had gotten herself into until the first day. Her husband had competed in these races previously, but she seemed surprised by how difficult the entire race ended up being and wasn’t entirely prepared for the ordeal.
Neither Brandon nor Mayra escaped pain for a moment throughout the week of the race, waking up barely able to stand, and ending the day with feet that pulsated so badly that you could almost hear them beating. There were nights when Mayra would scream that she wouldn’t keep going on, that that day was her last and she was quitting in the morning. What would her sons think of her, she’d ask out loud, if they could see her hobbling through the jungle, one of the last people to finish each night?
Yet, they both kept pushing on, and going at equal pace, they had each other to walk with and commiserate in their misery. Though they both thought about quitting, they both came to the conclusion, even as 41 others dropped out, that quitting for the sake of quitting was not a real reason to leave. Only severe injury or other medical condition would take them out.
Neither of them quit; they walked together nearly the entire way. After a week of agony and many cries of wanting to quit and go home, they both crossed the finish line.
You always admire the guys at the front, the ones who race ahead of the rest of us, but rarely do we think of the guys at the back of the pack. They’re the real heroes. The ones at the front don’t know how difficult it is to walk for 22 hours straight and still come out of the experience with a smile, or what it’s like to be perpetually on the verge of quitting and thinking that the pain can’t be worth it and wishing it away, and still forging forward anyway. I loved these two. Tough enough to push on, even though the feat they were attempting seemed impossible.
I am certain that Mayra’s boys are pretty damn proud of her.
The Guy Who Came Second
Of course, the people at the front deserve all the admiration that they get. Some of them are in fact naturally gifted, but they have worked for years to be as strong and as fast as they are.
All anyone could talk about prior to the race, in regards to who would be at the front, was Ryan Sandes, and for good reason. Ryan had previously won 4 of these races run by Racing the Planet and is widely considered one of the top endurance athletes in the world. No one ever made mention of Wataru.
When we met Wataru at check-in, I didn’t consider his chances in the race all that much. He seemed like just another very nice and normal Japanese guy. Very down to earth and just excited to be there. There was none of that pretense of superiority about him, the kind that you get with many elite athletes.
In fact, no one really realized how well he was doing and how close Wataru was to Ryan in the standings until after the 4th Stage, when the race organizers introduced the top three men and women to the rest of the field. As he was ushered out to the center of camp, after being announced as in 2nd place, Wataru couldn’t hold back his laugh as his tent mates screamed at him to run faster. Less than four hours later, he beat Ryan Sandes, the Red Bull sponsored athlete, into camp by all of a minute and thirteen seconds.
That was crazy.
Even more impressive though, as we found out from a volunteer during the Long March, the 80-kilometer stage, Wataru had absolutely killed it out on the course that day.
Ryan as expected came through CP7, the final checkpoint of the day, in first place. Wataru came into that final checkpoint five minutes after Ryan, limping badly, apparently looking as if he was on the brink of giving up and taking a nice easy jog into camp, instead of hunting Ryan down.
Chatting with the volunteers and getting a refill of water, expecting Ryan to be about half an hour ahead, and with no chance of catching up, Wataru asked to confirm how far ahead Ryan actually was. At hearing that he was only 5 minutes behind the leader, Wataru took off, limp and all, knowing that a win on this stage might actually be within reach.
Not only did Wataru manage to catch up to Ryan, but he surpassed him. Wataru came careening in and found himself at camp thirty-three seconds in the lead. He really liked to keep it a tight finish…
Ultimately, Wataru did finish 2nd overall in the standings, though only by about twenty-three minutes, much closer to the champ than anyone had anticipated. There is always one person who comes out of the shadows to surprise you, but Wataru’s performance was extraordinary.
One day, just once, I’d like to be that person, but there is a lot of training that has to be completed before that happens…
During the Gobi March, one of my tent mates told us about how, prior to the race, one of his colleagues asked him if women competed in these races. After giving her an affirmative answer, this colleague inquired to how women could carry all their make-up around. We all thought this was an incredible joke. What woman would run around in the desert with a face full of make-up?
Of course, there was nothing wrong with wanting to feel fresh-faced and beautiful during a race like this, but we couldn’t fathom why someone would want to carry all that extra weight around or spend the time each morning to put on make-up. It seemed more sensible that they might want to sleep in a bit or use that time to take care of their feet.
Then we met a woman I’ll call the Dane running through Madagascar with us. The Dane initially caught my eye at camp during the first night. As she wandered around, I assumed that she must have been a volunteer. I couldn’t imagine that someone walking around with a wide-brimmed Chanel hat could possibly be racing. It looked like it was about to blow right off!
We didn’t think about her much after that, but during Stage 3 of the race, Rich and I started hearing talk from the volunteers of a woman who was running the race in full make-up, complete with a wide-brimmed hat, Chanel sunglasses and scarf, and pearl earrings. We couldn’t believe it. There was no way that someone had the time or the energy for that!
And then we saw her, in all her glory, out on the course during Stage 4. I was floored. She looked spectacular, maybe a bit out of place for the circumstances, but she was stunning nonetheless. Rich and I were there, mud from days earlier plastered on our faces and arms, skin burnt, hair absolutely disheveled, and likely wreaking of urine, and then there was this 50-something Danish woman who looked like she was ready for a champagne brunch in Paris. When the rest of us had given up on hygiene, she had gone above and beyond to maintain hers.
I doubt I’ll ever be ambitious enough to wake up early and freshen up in such a manner, even outside of racing, but I love the lengths she went to in order to continue to feel good about herself. Even if I’m not one for make-up and designer-wear, I like now feeling that I am allowed to feel good about myself, even in tough conditions.
I sure as hell found myself some wet wipes as soon as I could.
Every year, there is one. There is always one Japanese guy (in some occasions a Korean) who decides that it is a good idea to dress up in costume and keep that costume on, never breaking character for the entire race. When I competed in the Gobi, we had a Japanese demon running around in a full bright blue leotard, leopard print skirt, flaming orange hat, and club. In another race, there was a guy in full spiderman kit. Legend has it that he never removed his mask, just pushing it up enough to eat and drink.
This year was the cow. The cow was a lovely Japanese man who chose to wear a cow suit, complete with tail, and a massive horned head, his face protruding from the cow head’s mouth. The cow was an experienced racer, having previously completed similar races, like the Atacama Crossing.
Unfortunately, he was clearly struggling throughout the race; the 40ºC heat made his suit stuffy and uncomfortable, quickly causing him to become dehydrated. Yet he would not take the head off. Each time that he entered a village, you could hear the delighted cries of children from hundreds of meters away. As he’d come into a village, he’d always rush immediately to the children who gathered to see all the foreigners come through. Some of them could barely contain themselves, running around, with one hand pointing at him, the other holding their stomachs, as if they would keel over from laughter at any moment. The cow would then give the kids candy and play with them.
My goal for most of the race was to stay ahead of the cow in each stage. I wanted to watch his antics, but knew that we couldn’t move ahead too slowly. Instead we saw him at nearly each checkpoint, as we were preparing to leave, and as he was coming in. I was always quite happy to see him when he’d come through.
When the entire day is filled with mental anguish and pain from taking all those steps in soft sand, seeing someone who was probably hurting a lot more than most of the field bouncing around and bringing joy to these little village kids was hugely uplifting. He was a massive bright spot on the day for everyone who encountered him.
Sadly, the cow didn’t make it to the end of the race. He had to be pulled from the race during Stage 3. The sweepers, who collected all the course markings after the last competitors passed through the course, had caught up to the cow, who was visibly struggling with the heat and moving at a sluggish pace. The race organizers decided that he couldn’t be left out on the course in such a state.
Most of us were hugely disappointed that he couldn’t continue; he was that great spirit we were all getting used to and enjoying having around. Lucky for us though, he stayed with us instead of choosing to go back to the city, and sent us off each morning with a smile and a wave in that great big suit of his.
He was always able to put on a smile and a show, even when times were tough and everything hurt. I think that’s pretty darn amazing. I certainly don’t think I could take on that role.
Like I’ve said before. The people in these races are unbelievable, just really stunning individuals. Even though we’ll never see many of the people we met here again, I’m really happy just having come in contact with them for a short week. They’ve all left an impact and I hope they know how much they inspire others.