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Blogging from the Sahara for Hopkins

May 08, 2008

Sahara desert in Morocco. Excerpts from Jeff Arricale’s emails home during the Marathon des Sables, Mar. 28-April 3, 2008, during which Arricale, with the help of colleagues, family and friends raised more than $80,000 for pediatric pulmonology at Hopkins Children's. Learn more about the Arricales.  

Stage 1  Americans Survive  

This Marathon des Sables (mds) first stage is the hardest run of my life. Only 19 miles, but incredibly tall sand dunes. It took me 6 1/2 hours. Two women in our group are in 10th and 11th place. One man in our group is in 29th place out of 802 competitors.  Twenty-two Americans started the race and as of this post 20 are fine. One person is in the medical tent and one unaccounted for. Several competitors dropped out. Tomorrow is longer over 20 miles, but flat with few sand dunes, thus I hope easier.   It was over 110 degrees today and I fought back the urge to vomit later in the race.

Stage 2  Salt Pills Rule  

Second of six stages was 23 miles. The terrain was much easier than yesterday. No sand dunes but much hotter--125 degrees most of the day. It's a struggle in the heat. Completed today's stage in seven hours 40 minutes. Walked a lot and focused on proper amounts of water, electrolytes and staying healthy since I had an issue yesterday with my stomach. It's very beautiful outside. Tomorrow's stage is 25 miles with lots of sand dunes. Lots of people in camp are beat up.  One fellow dropped out with severe diarrhea; total of eight dropped out yesterday, but all 22 Americans are still in.

Have learned that the race "doctors" treat any ailment with salt pills.  If you're depressed "take a salt pill," if you have blisters "take a salt pill." The salt pill will obviously cure all ills.

The people here are amazing. Ran today with a gentleman from the Canadian Judo Olympic development team. Met a woman who has climbed all seven summits and she is not even 30. My Goal is to beat the 72 year-old great grandmother from Japan that is in the race!

There is an ABC film crew following my every move.  Trying to have some fun with it, though very weird.

My feet have some blisters, back hurts from the pack, and it feels like I'm in a microwave oven--hot. Just trying to drink, eat, maintain nutrition and make it to next point.  Very, very difficult.  Sleep is awful as well.  We are 8 to a tent and the ground is very hard.  Lucky to get a couple hours at a time.

Stage 3  Sand Dunes Rule  

Please, please keep the e-mails coming through Friday afternoon. I really look forward to them at the end of the day.

Very difficult day. 25 miles over 110 degrees. Two stages of sand dunes. One very tall rocky mountain.  Several competitors dropped out. Took me nine hours, 40 minutes to complete course.  Everything hurts....a lot. French continue to recommend salt tablets as universal cure all. Comfortably ahead of 72 year-old great grandmother from Japan, but was passed by guy without eyesight.

  Day 1  I learned humility. Attempted to run when I should have  walked.

  Day 2  I learned something, but I forget.

  Day 3  I learned patience as running 25 miles well...should take less than four hours, but it's impossible to run in the sand, in the heat with a pack.  So I walked more than I ran and stopped and took a lot of pictures along the way.

Tomorrow is the 50 mile stage and it will crush many people. There are still runners as of 8:20 p.m. this evening coming from today's 25 mile course which means they have been running for almost 12 hours.  Tomorrow they will need to do 50 miles. I expect it to take me between 18-20 hours. Biggest concern is nutrition...it is hard to eat in the heat. Will eat 200 calories an hour. Second biggest concern is the heat. But whatever the amount of suffering I am going through, there are dozens and dozens of competitors in much worse condition and they manage to keep going, so I know I can too.

Stage 4 News of Gracie  

Shortly before starting Wednesday's stage, found out daughter Gracie was back in the hospital. I was unable to get through to my wife Jessica on her cell phone or the house.  When I asked the race organizers for a satellite phone they said "Got to the tent, rest, and take 4 salt tablets per bottle." Fortunately, the wonderful cameraman from ABC named Bruno, who is also a dad, took pity on me and smuggled a satellite phone for me. Now I am able to get through to Jessie to keep tabs on Gracie who remains in the hospital.  As hard as this has been physically the situation with my daughter made things very difficult and there is an outpouring of support from my tent mates, fellow racers and ABC camera crew.

The race organizers are very strict with penalties. First two bottles of extra water requested are a half hour penalty. The third bottle--you are out of the race.. They allow one IV for the entire race and if you have a second you're out. It took me nine and a half hours to run the 25 miles. Started at 9 a.m. and got in early evening. I said a quick prayer for Gracie and tried to go to sleep. Somehow my request for a healthy Gracie must have been confused with a request for a plague...because we had a sand storm that blew down our tent, blew away some of my clothes, and left me huddled inside my sleeping bag, clutching it closed while the storm raged. So no sleep Tuesday night...and I need to run 50 miles in the morning.

Wednesday's stage was 50 miles. I started it at 9 a.m. and only finished at 5 a.m. this morning.  19 hours. My training and preparation paid off as my coach Lisa counseled me to avoid sleeping at the aid stations and just keep going. I am glad I did this, as difficult as it was, because I now have a full day of rest before the marathon stage (26.2 miles) on Friday.

My feet and stomach are much better than most of the competitors who are suffering a great deal. The highlight of the 50 mile stage was two fold. I got to climb the tallest mountain I have ever climbed. I got lost only once for about 15 minutes. All in all the worst is over and barring a freak accident I should be able to finish. Only 37 more miles to go.

I really appreciate the e-mails. Please keep them coming!!! I read and re-read them to keep going when the going gets tough...which is all the time.

Today is tending to my feet, washing clothes, taking in as many calories as I can and resting. Some of the competitors are still coming in...27 hours after the start. I can't imagine how bad they are hurting. It's fairly consistent across the dozens of countries represented, that the women are tougher than the men. They complain less about the same ailments (blisters, back, heat stroke, etc, etc). They keep plodding along, while the men are more inclined to verbalize their suffering.

Thanks for all the e-mails and support!!  I can't wait to get back to Baltimore.

More thoughts on Stage 4  (after so much needed rest)  

On the long stage on the mountain climb a few other things came to mind...                

Mountain was very steep and treacherous with lots of sharp rocks and sand. There were safety cables to hang on to and at various points there would be a bottle neck of runners. At one point the French runners were screaming at the Italian runners. The Italian runners were screaming at the French runners.  The British runners were off to the side saying ‘F-it, just go around.’ There was also an old Italian runner at every checkpoint smoking a cigarette.   He has done numerous MDS races.

We went from running in the heat of the day at almost 130 degrees to getting so cold at night that I had to run with an emergency blanket (basically a foil wrapper). I had given away my lightweight sweatpants to one of the girls in the tent who was very cold.  The temperature really dropped after midnight which I wasn't expecting at all.

Lessons Learned So Far:  

Day 1 Humility

Day 2  Don't remember

Day 3  Patience.

Day 4  Determination and the value of planning.  The refusal to quit and realizing that you are totally capable of the task at hand was all in the execution of the plan. Had been planning for this stage for month. The training plan included two electrolyte tablets/hour, one salt tablet/hour, one bottle of water/hour, eat 200 calories/hour etc., etc. I have no idea what I will learn on the final days.

Stage 5  125 Degree Hallucinations  

Day 6. Today was 26.2 miles. The marathon stage. It was 125 degrees. Took me just under nine hours to complete. The day for me progressed as follows: run, puke, walk, run, puke, repeat. I ran out of water between the 2nd and 3rd checkpoint, but made it through OK and am looking forward to the final 11 miles tomorrow and getting home.

At the second checkpoint a woman on the French medical team said to me "You make wee-wee?" and then something else in French. Thinking she said, "You make wee-wee on me," I stopped. I looked at her: “No, thank you. I don't do that.” She had a blank look on her face, then replied: “Take three salt tablets."

In the heat of the day I had my second hallucination ....I thought I was walking on stilts. Even while I was hallucinating, I knew I wasn't walking on stilts. It was the strangest thing. I knew I was walking on the ground, but at another level I saw my shadow and it looked I was walking on stilts.

The first hallucination, which I think I forgot to write about, took place in the middle of the night of the 50 miles stage when I had been running for 16 hours. I was running along and thought I was passing a Bedouin camp. Interestingly, the fellow I was running with at the time saw the same thing. As we approached the Bedouin camp we were actively talking about it and then realized it was a few trees. Now you may think I am crazy, which is fine. But my colleague who saw the same thing is an emergency room doctor in Canada, and  probably shouldn't be seeing patients if I'm nuts.

The donations for Opportunity International, Special Olympics and Johns Hopkins are pouring in and it warms my heart. However, the e-mails from all of you are what get me through. I read them again and again and again....

Final Stage   Crossing Over  

The final stage was eleven miles over relatively easy terrain. I finished in two hours, 40 minutes. Overall I think I finished in 580-something-place out of 802. As promised, I beat the 72 year-old great grandmother from Japan. I had also hoped to finish in the second quartile (200-400th place), but the race, the desert and the stronger competitors humbled me quickly. Crossing the finish line is more than fine now that I know first-hand how hard the race is and how tough the other competitors are. I will never, ever do this race again. It’s just way too hard with way too many variables that can send you home prematurely (feet, stomach, ankles, rashes, infections, temperature, wind storms and viruses that spread through camp very easily, to name just a few).

Final Entry   Jessie Runs Her Own Marathon  

Greetings from a soft bed in Ourzazate!! This will be the longest and final entry. I do plan to post some pictures eventually to put faces with the names I have been describing. Tomorrow we turn in our flares and have closing ceremonies.  Most of us will begin the long trip home at about 3 a.m. Monday morning. 

For me, the news from home continues to be more dramatic than the events in Morocco, which I will detail in a bit.  Good news: Gracie came home from the hospital Friday morning. She is, however, on oxygen 24/7 right now until she gets healthy. We have her isolated on one side of the house and will likely have a full time nurse at the house for a while as she needs to be monitored and cared for and kept away from the other kids. I have no doubt that Gracie will grow strong like her brother Jake who, at 6 years old, really wants to "do good on his sleep study" so he can come off of oxygen completely.  Jake had his first baseball practice ever the other day and is a natural (dad missed the big day obviously--sigh-- but MPV neighbor Glenn Thomas pinch hit for Jessie and me).  Jake also started up his second season of lacrosse and continues to get stronger and stronger. I think Gracie will be just like him in due time.

Bad news (again): as Jessie was driving Gracie home from hospital, our 3rd child, Sami (2) was splitting her face open on a piece of bluestone on the side of the house. Ambulance came and took her to the hospital. Jessie and our God-sent friend Charlene Lowry took Sami to two emergency rooms, ending up at Johns Hopkins where Sami had plastic surgery at 5 a.m. this morning to close up her forehead. The cut was not jagged and should heal very well. She is home now and doing fine. I spoke to her hours ago and she said "I go outside, I fall down, I get boo-boo daddy...!"

So, it seems that this past week Jessie has run her own Marathon des Sables at home and I admire her for it.  She is more tired than I am right now and I have been running for seven days. I had the joy of my once-in-a-lifetime experience at the finish line today to pick me up and all Jessie gets is a much needed good nights sleep in her own bed tonight so she can gear up to interview some nurse candidates for Gracie on Monday. Just as Jessie can't imagine running 152 miles in the desert with a backpack, I can't imagine sitting in hospital rooms all day, every day for weeks at a time and, when not in the hospital, driving from one doctor appointment to the next, before stopping at the pharmacy administering tons of meds to two kids and getting all everyone ready for bed. Jessie has an amazing ability to sit patiently at the hospital for loooong stretches—I do not. I could, I am sure, if our kids were in immediate danger. But with chronic conditions-- where we are on a long road with a good prognosis, I leave Jessie or our wonderful nanny Victoria to endure while I keep moving-- holding down the fort at work and at home and hanging out with the kids. I am lucky Jessie is so very talented at and committed to running the "marathon des hospital." I could never finish this race.  Well done Jessie!!!  

A few thoughts:  

I have figured out that the majority of Australian males are well over 6 ft tall, have washboard abs, and did their first ironman competition before they learned to read. I think the late Steve Irwin of crocodile hunter fame is really British. Way more of the 250 Brits in this race resemble Steve Irwin than the super-fit Aussies and would, on the surface, appear more comfortable ordering a blooming onion and about six beers from Outback Steakhouse than ordering up a blister sandwich and an iv from the medical tent after the first 100 or so miles at the mds. Moreover, "Higgins," the British house man from the 1980s show "Magnum PI" may as well have been living in the tent across from us as he talked from 5 a.m. till noon on our rest day after the long stage. Nobody in his tent was even answering him, but Higgins kept on going, finishing the marathon of the mouth stage after about seven hours. Jay in our tent put ear plugs in after two hours. In the end though, the British were amazing--waving the flag, having a great time, suffering with dignity, helping out fellow runners from around the world, and doing their country proud. It can't be easy training for mds in the UK--especially London-- and these men and women struck me as a very well prepared and adventurous bunch. One of my favorites is a 28 year veteran police detective with two girls in college and a taste for American heavy metal music.  We shared hours together on endless salt flats during the marathon stage and he helped get me through that day. Scotland Yard's #1!

I had the pleasure of having one British guy in my tent, a builder from London and now a good friend. Toby has now done four mds and I think each one puts him one step closer to the grave. He is 50 years-old and by stage 4 he was suffering from a flare up of his ruptured Achilles that exploded on him last April. He had a high fever and swollen glands. He couldn't swallow and developed an ear infection on the long stage. His face looked like an inflatable pillow. I thought he would have to drop out. Out of a deep concern for myself, I  kept spritzing him with Purell while he slept. And I think I forced some of my deodorant on him when he was weakest. Toby, like the vast majority of the competitors, demonstrated an amazing ability to recover after a setback with a little food, a few drugs, some shade and some rest. He finished the marathon stage and final stage strong. After a shower and a meal back in town looks it looks like he has been on a relaxing vacation. Wow. I'll be seeing him on my next work trip to London and can't wait to meet his family.

 But there were eight of us tent mates.  The dynamic in the tent was the highlight the trip and the most difficult to articulate in way that a reader can get a feel for--eight of us (two girls and six boys)  jammed into this tent that collapsed twice. …No problem.... Not one single argument or hint of tension over eight nights in the tent/sardine can despite dirt, heat, and everyone hitting their low points at different times. There was a non-stop stream of jokes, selfless sharing of scarce resources (food, foot repair gear, water, personal hygiene stuff), and tons of patience and mentoring demonstrated by race veterans for the benefit of rookies like me.

Jay, Ed, Toby, and Steve taught me much and helped me in too many ways to name. Ed and Steve, both from Chicago, make a 30-something year-old like me look forward to turning 50 and are surely two of best guys you could hope to meet. They took such good care of me when I struggled. I think they both can tear a phone book in half with their hands. Ed likes to play hockey year-round back home with college level players and has been the oldest player in his league for the past 100 years. He shakes off the occasional shoulder surgery and picks up his skates again. I hope his kids are proud of him--what a rock of a man.

Terry is a deceptively fast ultra runner and has quite a few age-group victories in his future in my opinion.  As I shared my sadness over my baby Gracie's situation and my guilt over my notable absence from duty at home, Terry--a very private guy--shared with me two or three sentences about what it feels like to have your child die. I quit feeling sad at that point as I remembered that Jessie and I are dealing with runny noses and scraped knees compared to that.  Each day these two guys ran the race about 50% faster than I did and spent their free time helping everybody else in the group rather than resting their feet. I hope I can repay them some day. 

Aaron, the other first-timer to mds and a friend of mine from Death Valley running camp, is a 40 year-old trauma doctor in Canada and is known back home for his prowess in the ironman. Specifically, Aaron, using any means necessary, finished the Canada ironman ahead of Sister Madonna Buder, the 75 year-old Canadian nun who does triathalons in spandex. Way to go Aaron! Aaron and I spent quality hours sorting out the 50 mile stage wrapped in emergency blankets and hallucinating. After the race I got to meet his excellent wife, Rhonda, a fine surgeon with decidedly poor navigation skills.

And what about the two girls in the tent? Kay and Laurie kicked a!*. Kay did this for her 50th birthday, knew the fewest people in the tent, never complained and yet looked like she just had a pedicure and facial  pretty much all the time as she cranked out good day after good day with poise and impressive times. Then she was ready to socialize, while guys like me were strewn about groaning in pain. Laurie, who came over celebrating her 40th, never stopped showing her beautiful smile and proceeded to crush virtually every other woman (and most men) in the race with her amazing skill and power. She finished ridiculously high (10th or 12th) among the women along with some other amazing women in our group (but not my tent), Chloe and Michelle.

Chloe (who ran with her husband Jeff and invited me to fish at their home in Montana thank you very much) and Michelle (a West Point grad who won several ultras and has never had as much as a blemish in her life I suspect) weigh about 180 lbs between them and placed very high in the race (easily top 15 I think). They made most of the average guys like me look like buffoons. They proved they are elite athletes and pulled it all off with a genuine sense of modesty and ease.

Did I mention Leigh? Leigh is 40-something with four teenagers and as beautiful on the inside as out. I have run with Leigh at a couple camps/races and marvel at her kindness and understated determination. She was nearly killed in a car wreck with severe head injuries. Now she has done mds (with ease by the looks of it) and a host of other 50 and hundred milers and I was so happy when she said she was proud of little me!! 

I could go on and on. I’ll end with George. George is in his 50s and has done lots of ultras. I have also seen George a number of times and admire him more and more each time we speak. He is also one of the kindest souls you will meet. As we talked about how nice it would be to have a shower, he shared with me some of his time in Vietnam--like when he went 58 days without a shower in Cambodia, got shot and then hit with a grenade. George shuffles along with a severe limp. That's what happens when somebody almost blows your leg off I guess.

In closing..  

If one is ever interested in seeing the triumph of the human spirit played out so many times you just can't process it any more, consider joining the MDS as a participant or a volunteer. It will probably change your life.

Note: Jeff Arricale is a portfolio manager for T. Rowe Price in Baltimore. To date, with the help of colleagues and friends, Arricale has raised more than $80,000 for the pediatric pulmonary team at Hopkins Children’s. Read more about the Marathon des Sables and Arricale’s earlier Great Wall of China marathon,  which raised more than $60,000 for Hopkins Children’s. Send Arricale an email.