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The rise of ultra running: 'I am never doing anything as stupid as that ever again, I say to myself'

In an extract from his book, Adharanand Finn describes competing in the Oman Desert Marathon.

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from The Rise of the Ultra Runners: A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance by Adharanand Finn. 

I’m slumped on the ground, my back against a mound of sand, staring out through smudged, yellow sunglasses.

All I can see, as far as the sky, is sand. Sand with scratches of dry grass. A wasteland. A faint trail runs through it.

Tyre tracks that suggest civilisation can’t be far away. But I’m not moving. My legs are like two bits of rusted machinery I’ve been dragging along with me for days. It feels good to put them down.

My groin, right where the front of my left leg fuses on to my body, screeches and grinds with each step when I run, but sitting here, it becomes a faint, almost pleasurable pain.

My thoughts seem to exist outside myself. My essence, my core being, is just sitting here, melting into the sand, too exhausted to think.

But the officers in my head, those left in charge of making sure I stay alive, are in frantic discussion.

I can’t sit here all day. I’m low on water. The sun is too hot. I’ve come too far. Think of all that distance you’ve run. Countless miles across this soul-sapping sand. You can’t stop now. The end, the beach, the sea is only a few miles away. You can do it, one small step at a time. You didn’t come all this way to quit this close to the finish.

I recall vaguely the various strategies I’ve used to keep myself going up until now. When things first got tough, around Day Two, I got myself pumped up.

‘Come on, tough guy,’ I told myself. ‘You can do this. You show them. The desert may be tough, but it won’t stop Mr Finn.’

I actually called myself Mr Finn. The race was already twisting my brain. By Day Five, though, the bravado had been replaced by tenderness as I cajoled myself along through the night stage.

‘It’s OK, don’t worry, you’ll make it. You’re going to be fine, just keep moving.’

The night lay dark and still around me. The sand under my feet brutally soft. But I got through it. 26 miles in seven and a half hours. But I got there. But now, so close to the end, my will has run dry. The voices in my head are futile. I’m not moving.

That’s what you’re supposed to do, get up and drag yourself to the finish. But why? Who set up these stupid rules? You don’t have to play along like some prize poodle.’

This is interesting. I shuffle myself around so the grass is less spiky, stretching my legs, pushing my feet out in front of me. My shoes are full of sand, like they’re about three sizes too small. I’ve been coping with it like this for days.

It’s a minor irritant, among everything else.

‘The really courageous thing to do, right now,’ the genius in my head continues, ‘would be to listen to yourself, not everyone else. Everyone else will tell you that you have to finish, that nobody quits this close to the end. But you’re different. You play by your own rules. You have nothing to prove. If you want to stop, you just stop.’

Sitting here, not moving, is beginning to feel like the ultimate act of rebellion. I’m quickly turning into the James Dean of desert running.

Someone will come and find me eventually. They’ll try to egg me on to the finish, but I won’t play ball. I’ll show them. I play by my own rules.

‘Hey, Finn!’ I look up. An elderly German couple in their sixties are standing over me. I can’t quite tell if they’re smiling or grimacing. ‘Are you OK?’ Gudrun asks me kindly. She looks in shock.

‘Come on, get up,’ barks Hansmartin. ‘Follow us.’

Before I know it I’m hauling myself up and we’re walking off in single file. Wading through the sand again, my groin wincing.

Everything, my clothes, my backpack, my headscarf, is stuck to me with sweat. For days the sun has had me in its vice, slowly squeezing, wringing both my body and spirit dry. But now I’m up and moving again, following Hansmartin’s commanding footsteps.

Nobody speaks. They’re nearly as exhausted as I am, but we plough on. It’s only walking, although they have poles and are striding along fairly seriously.

I watch Hansmartin’s lolling backpack as he picks his way through the tufts of sand. And, eventually, I begin to recover. I begin to feel a tiny spasm of life return to my legs. My head starts to clear. Without even meaning to, I start to trot.

‘Ah, good, good,’ he says. ‘Go. We will see you at the finish.’

And with that I begin to run. The dunes are rising up like mountains now, the biggest dunes of the race, but I can almost smell the sea.

I take off my glasses and shove them in my pocket. The sand is white. I scale the giant, shifting slopes, skipping and stumbling down the other side. I imagine I’m a child, excited, running for the sea.

A few times I think I’m there, but another dune looms up before me. But I’m high on adrenaline now. I can sense the finish, calling to me. And then, suddenly, I’m there. An arc of balloons. Tents.

People lolling in the waves. I’m almost the last finisher and most people are already relaxing in camp, cooking food, washing their clothes.

A couple of Dutch runners spot me crossing the line and offer me a muted round of applause, but they’ve long since lost their enthusiasm for cheering people across the finish.

A bored photographer steps out from his seat in the shade and points his camera at me. He asks me how I feel. For the race video, he says. I don’t know what to say. After everything I’ve been through I should be bubbling over with emotion, but instead I feel strangely muted.

‘That was hard,’ is all I can muster. ‘Bloody hard.’

And with that I unclip my backpack and stumble down the beach and walk straight into the cool waters of the Sea of Oman, collapsing into the waves. I am never doing anything as stupid as that ever again, I say to myself.

The Rise of the Ultra Runners: A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance by Adharanand Finn. More info here.

Initially published as an extract on the42.ie

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