Where does one begin to write about such an amazing adventure that I was able to experience during the 4Deserts Sri Lanka 2016 roving race? I am not always known for being very prolific with words but will try to convey my sometimes exciting, sometimes harrowing run through the many landscapes of this beautiful country. Hopefully, what I am not able to explain in words you can see through photos.
All of the participants convened at the hotel, Mahaweli Reach in Kandy, which was a 4-hour drive from the airport in Colombo. Mind you this drive was nothing like we would experience here in the states…cars, motorcycles, buses all vying for position…quite scary for this horrible back seat driver. I chose to sit where I could not see what was coming our way and sparring everyone in the car my screaming. After a wonderful dinner and breakfast the next morning it was time to check in and have the contents of our backpacks weighed and all mandatory items accounted for. This went well so then onto the bus for a 4-hour drive to camp 1.
We spent the night at a local Sri Lankan Scouts camp. We were indoors however; our accommodations were hard concrete floors. Not great nights’ sleep as the cold from the cement crept into and through my sleeping bag but managed to get at least 4 hours of shuteye. It was finally good to begin this journey but not without a bit of trepidation as we were all about to have our first glimpse of what running in a true jungle would be like. Our shoes were coated with a purple soap hoping to keep the leeches away, quite surreal for sure.
My strategy for the race was to not think about the big picture but to take each day checkpoint to checkpoint. Heading into checkpoint 1 the terrain was extremely difficult, climbing over rocks and then bushwhacking through single track jungle for approximately 6k before coming out into a valley, then climbing again through beautiful leek fields. Leaving checkpoint 1, we headed on the road, a welcome feeling for my already sore legs, towards the train tracks and checkpoint 2. Checkpoint 2 to 3 was run alongside–or at times for me, on–the train tracks. I could not always find even ground, and it was easier to navigate the boards, always listening for the oncoming trains…just a bit of tension! We followed the tracks to a very high train bridge, which lead into a tunnel. My heart was in my throat, as heights and the thought of an oncoming train scared the living daylights out of me.
Somewhere in the jungle I took my first fall trying to help another competitor who had been attacked by a large tree branch in the face. I jumped to assist and then took a very hard fall hitting my face and nose once again. Reminiscent of the Gobi Desert, I now had what I thought might be a broken nose (happily it was not but very bruised). Still a bit dazed, I continued on the train tracks only to fall once again and happily be saved by a local businessman who helped me up. Once I reached checkpoint 3 the doctors were kind enough to check my nose and with no real complications but broken pride, I continued on to checkpoint 4. That was the end the adventure of day 1.
After spending the night in an abandoned tea factory (a little more sleep but still on hard wood floors) we arose to what I believed would be an easier day than what we experienced in Stage 1. We started on cobbled mountain roads, which were not flat, so some more climbing involved. Again, focus was on getting to checkpoint 1, then 2 and 3 and the homestretch at 4. Not sure why, but Day 2 is somewhat of a blur for me. It was extremely hot and humid passing gorgeous waterfalls and running through tiny villages. One of the many memorable things is the Sri Lankan people. The women and children are beautiful, and they were excited to see us running through their streets. Everyone was helpful and encouraging as they continued on about their daily lives. We headed to a school campground where open-air tents and my trusted noodles awaited.
Ok, back to the jungle and river crossings! On this stretch into the two jungle sections, I used the assistance of a member of the Sri Lankan Special Forces. He was so kind and willing to help me navigate through. While running out of town he and I met up on the road. It was really funny because with his limited English he started to engage me by asking how old I was. “Well, I’m a grandma,” I said, to which he looked at me not truly understanding what that meant. I used my fingers to put up 6 and then 3, which he understood, then stopped and said “NO!” I laughed and nodded my head yes thinking that at that point he might drop me and run ahead. To my dismay, he stayed with me prodding me run, run, run, a healthy dose of motivation! So through the jungle we went, over rocky water crossings. This is where my pole cracked and I was now down to using one. My poles truly help with my equilibrium problems so losing one was a bit devastating for me but I was able to overcome that. Seeing large, fresh elephant droppings kept my attention and when a very large iguana crossed my path I thought I might lose it, but I continued on. The day was filled with challenges, but once I overcame them, the feeling of accomplishment was almost overwhelming. I could only think of what my family would be thinking at that moment watching me jumping over large rocks, running through jungle and basically feeling like a kid all over again, it was priceless! All that I endured was worth the beautiful campsite at the Blue Reservoir. We had real tents to sleep in and gorgeous surroundings to look at. All was well with my world that night!
Stage 4 was actually a pretty fun day. From checkpoint 1 to 2 we ran through sugar cane fields and just when it was quite hot/humid we crossed a small river. I used this time to actually dip down and cool off before forging on. Heading to checkpoint 3 there was jungle on both sides and an electric fence to keep the animals away. I must say that I was a bit tenuous going through this area because I was, for the most part, alone. It took all I had to not let my mind get the better of me. It’s truly amazing what one can accomplish if we put our mind to it. I believe I ran faster through this section just because I believed that I might be able to catch up with another participant, which I actually accomplished.
My mind was finally a bit more at ease, but by the time I reached camp, my blisters were beginning to become an issue. I took the time to wash my feet at the medical tent and then let them dry while lying down. My body finally caught up with my mind and uncontrollable shaking began. As it turned out, the muscles in my legs were so tight that the shaking occurred. A bit frightening at first but once the doctor stretched them out the shaking subsided. The blisters were taped, a hot meal was eaten and my head was down on my sleeping bag. Day 5 was just around the corner but I knew that the halfway hurdle had been jumped and we were heading down the home stretch. Two more long days ahead and the finish line waited. It is thoughts like this that help my body to regroup and get up to run another day!
Stage 5 proved to be another moderate day passing through houses and plantations. The challenging part for me was again, was the high, hanging bridge that we had to cross. Anyone who knows me is aware that heights, bridges and open railings are absolutely frightening to me. Not sure where this ever came from, as I have never had any bad experience with this but to say that my breathing stops is an understatement. This bridge even swayed which created a whole new dimension for me to explore. Happy to say that I just did not look down, or too far ahead, but put one foot and hand in front of the other until I was on the other side, then let out a huge sigh of relief! The day’s mileage took us to the Yala National Park and our campsite.
The final long day. Because of the animals surrounding this stage of the race, we were given very strict cutoff times through checkpoint 4. The course was also changed to include 11 miles of road. One would think that this could be a good thing however; it was so hot/humid that the radiant heat off the ground with absolutely no shade was almost unbearable. Once off the road we headed through small villages and loads of tut tot’s passing by as well as the many dogs guarding their territory. I was so focused on making each cutoff with a good amount of lead way time that I didn’t even notice one single elephant or animal along the path. To my dismay, I made each cutoff with plenty of time to spare. My feet by this time were so badly beaten up that even a shuffle created loads of discomfort. This was the only stage heading to checkpoint 4 that I experienced even the slightest bit of dehydration kicking in. Fortunately I was able to notice the effects and that my blood sugar was hitting some lows that I chose to stop by a shaded tree, rest for a moment, hydrate and eat a sesame snap. That bit of sugar gave me the push I needed to regain myself and continue on to the checkpoint.
Once at Checkpoint 4 we were all to wait for others (at least 8 to 9 people) and then walk through the Yala National Park with the jeep behind us. This portion of the stage was not timed, and competitors not to the final campsite by 5:00pm were picked up by Jeeps and driven the rest of the way. This section was like a tunnel with the heat radiating down inside and no change on either side to distract you. Everyone was supposed to walk or run according to the speed of the slowest person in the group. With my badly blistered feet, guess who was the slowest? No mystery there! The jeep picked me up and I drove the last 3 hours in the safari so that everyone else did not have to suffer along with me. Wasn’t a good feeling however, my pride did not matter at that moment. I was ok with being driven especially since this section and time did not affect the outcome of the race for any of us.
Our last campsite was beside the Indian Ocean. What a beautiful and welcomed site it was. I have to say that I was so fortunate to have the most amazing tent mates. Over the course of the 7 days we laughed so much that my cheeks were actually hurting. Even on this last night when we all thought we’d get good nights sleep the universes had a different scenario waiting for us. In the middle of the night, the winds began to kick up and a huge rainstorm ensued. Sandy screams that the tent is collapsing on us to which we all jumped up to see that we had the entire Indian Ocean entering our tent. Instead of crying or complaining we all created a water bottle dam (which was not very effective) and laughed as all 5 of us huddled around the pole in the middle of the tent and tried to sleep. I am trying to convey how funny this all was but unless you were present I don’t think I could do any of this justice. Needless to say that we all became very innovative in finding a piece of land within the tent to call our own, and arose knowing that we had less than one mile on the beach to navigate to the finish line. Again, it still amazes me how much discomfort one can take and look at it as just something minor to endure if the end result is so amazing! Proof to myself that I can live with minor necessities, but boy do I appreciate a bar of French milled soap and ice cubes!
I need to give a big shout out and thank you to Generation UCAN for once again keeping me fueled throughout the race. My nutrition each day consisted of the following:
2 UCAN packets for breakfast
1 UCAN packet 2 hours into the run
1 Cinnamon UCAN bar 2 hours later (which was amazing and held up so well)
1 Protein UCAN upon arrival to camp for recovery
1 noodle packet for dinner
1 sesame snaps for my reward each evening
Thank you to Bob Seebhoar (nERGY Performance) for your continual guidance with my training. I know that it is extremely difficult to work with not only an aging athlete but also one whose travel schedule is all over the place. Bob has continued over the years to get me ready to tackle whatever event I have set my sights on and has done so with fresh and an innovative approach. Thank you my friend.
To Hoka One One for continuing to save my legs so I can keep running. My blisters were a direct result of not drying my feet after a few water crossings and also for engaging in more walk/running than I would have liked. I used the Speedgoat model and truly appreciated that the water did drain from them so no creepy crawly things were living in my shoes when I took them off. They absolutely served me well and were donated to the Sri Lankan people at the end of the race so hopefully will be traversing the countryside of Sri Lanka long after I have left.
And last but not least, thank you Sandy Suckling for your enduring friendship. Watching you perform was amazing. You were always there to greet me when I came into camp and your smiling face was such a welcomed site. A huge congratulations for your win, it could not have gone to a more humble and beautiful woman, I am lucky to call you a true friend.
I did not write about Walter and Patrick in this blog, as they both will be posting their thoughts and feelings about their Sri Lankan adventure. I was so impressed with them both on how they approached each day, their strength and ability to adjust to what truly was way outside their comfort zones. It was an honor to have been a part of this experience with both of them and I look forward to reading their thoughts along with you.
So another chapter in my adventure book is closed, I wonder where my next will be! Time will tell, but rest assured there will be one because to DREAM BIG is life to me, it’s what keeps me feeling happy. I hope this will prompt those reading this to find their own adventure, whatever it may be, and dare to DREAM.
Until next time…Runwell,