Madagascar 2014

Racing the Planet - Madagascar 2014

August 31st - September 6th

A Walk Across Madagascar

by Brandon Kahler

Early in 2013 I ran my first marathon up at the North Pole on the Arctic Ice Sheet.  One of the people I met on that trip contacted me a few months later and suggested I sign up for an Ultra event in Madagascar.  I pondered over it for a day before deciding what the hell, why not?  

Racing the Planet Roving Race - Madagascar 2014

As part of my preparation I learned I would need to get several vaccinations prior to traveling to Madagascar.  I contacted a travel clinic and arranged to start receiving the vaccinations in November.  The clinician was ecstatic I was coming in nearly ten months ahead of my trip.  Apparently, many people show up days prior to leaving and expect the vaccinations to work. Not so.  I opted to get a whole slew of optional and required vaccinations to cover my bases.  I received the following vaccinations over several months of visits:  Yellow Fever (one shot), MMR booster (one shot), Typhoid (four pills), Hepatitis A/B (three shots), and Rabies (three shots).  Pleasantly, I did not experience any side effects from these vaccinations.  Once I reached Johannesburg I began taking the anti-malaria medication Malarone which did give me a nauseated stomach for about three days.  Thankfully, those symptoms cleared up prior to the start of the event.

My training regimen had been uneven and entirely amateur in nature.  In January I was more than a bit concerned with my apparent lack of progress.  Running even a couple of miles was thoroughly exhausting and wrought with pain.  I had one breakthrough weekend late in January, which was a boon to my attitude.  Training seemed to be a roller coaster of confidence-building and destroying.  One day I was flying high with the miles melting away; the next run I could barely make it out of town to get started.  I was extremely frustrated at times.  Once I began including my backpack on weekend runs my gains were hit and miss, but surprisingly the weight was not the problem.  The biggest hurdle was keeping the bag cinched tight enough to prevent it from jostling around.  It was a fine line between just right and so tight I risked injury from restriction and bruising.  Running with the pack slightly loose not only produced rubbing and chafing, but it also zapped my strength from wasted kinetic energy.

The months leading up to August were spent building stamina and endurance.  In addition to running miles on pavement, a tremendous number of hours were spent at the gym on the elliptical machine.  Once I started spending Saturday mornings on the elliptical in full gear people really began to take notice.  I frequently was asked what I was training for and how much my pack weighed.

Assembling my gear for the trip was a careful and exhaustive process.  The weight of each item was the primary factor driving decision making.  Anywhere I could shed a few ounces was important.  Food was the principal element occupying the bulk of my backpack.  Freeze dried dinners, energy bars, recovery bars, and endurance powders were what constituted my primary meal plan for the week long event.  I planned to supplement those items with snacks purchased locally once I arrived in Madagascar.  A minimum of 2,000 calories per day was the requirement, at least 14,000 calories for the week.

So there I was, a year after signing up, about to set off on a journey that would culminate with a seven day 250 km multistage endurance race nearly halfway around the world.  All that was left to do was board my flight leaving Seattle.

Seattle (5 hours)-> Atlanta (17 hours)-> Johannesburg (4 hours)-> Antananarivo (2 hours)-> Diego Suarez (Antsiranana) = ~28 hours flight time.

Apparently the flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg is regarded as the second longest non-stop commercial flight currently offered, which covers 13,582 miles and clocks in at 16 hours 40 minutes.  My scheduled flights once I reached Johannesburg stopped lining up.  I had an overnight in Johannesburg before heading to Madagascar.  I met a number of competitors while waiting to board my flight to Antananarivo.  Racers were easy to spot.  We all wore odd clothing and carried even stranger backpacks with these bizarre drink bottles attached to the front shoulder straps.

There was a challenge placed before me even before the race began.  My checked baggage between Johannesburg and Antananarivo (Tana for short) did not arrive on the plane with me.  As I stood in the airport watching bag after bag come down the carousel, it became a little unsettling the longer I waited. When I realized no more bags were coming, and mine hadn’t materialized, it became a terrible feeling of hopelessness. Roughly one third of the items I had planned for the race were now missing. There was no hope of the bag catching up to me before the start of the event either.  To say I was angry and frustrated would be an understatement.  I filed a lost luggage report at the airport, then wandered outside to catch my shuttle to the hotel for the night.  Once there, I had a three hour emotional roller-coaster pity party for one in my hotel room.  I finally decided since there was nothing I could do about the bag, I might as well just push on and see where I ended up.  I made a list of all the items I had with me, and all the items I was missing.

By complete happenstance, during dinner at my hotel that evening in Tana, I met a retired couple from Oregon who were finishing up their three week holiday in Madagascar.  I told them about my trip, the race, and my lost bag.  They offered to give me quite a few of their supplies, as they were flying home the following day and had no further use for much of what was filling their luggage.  Their generosity began filling in the gaps of what I was missing.  I still needed several items, but my outlook on the trip improved dramatically that night.

The following morning I had to be back at the airport at 4am for an early flight North to Diego Suarez.  Once at the airport I met up with many of the other competitors and began to relate my tale thus far.  Lee and Tanya were especially concerned for me, but agreed that I was likely to find charity in spades from fellow competitors once we arrived in Diego.

Taxis Cabs in Diego

Rue Colbert

Diego Suarez

Right they were too; once I arrived in Diego, goodwill and generosity continued to flow my way.  Without specifically seeking out assistance, I seemed to habitually sit next to people who wound up having extras of exactly the items I needed.  Between my roommate James having some extra items, doing a bit of shopping around town, meeting people at dinner the first night, and the people I sat next to during the pre-race briefing, my confidence in completing the event rose greatly.

It was a wonderfully bizarre sequence of encounters that made it possible for me to ultimately assemble a complete kit.  Two days prior in Tana I had not thought it possible to find all these items.  This event reminded me just how generous people can be when you simply ask for help.  Armed with these extra items, it was off to the luncheon before my check-in time.

The pre-race check-in consisted of verifying that my medical forms and documentation were all correct, receiving my race bibs, and getting my equipment checked off.  For the gear check, I plopped myself down on an empty spot of floor and essentially dumped out my entire backpack worth of gear.  A staff member came by with a checklist which I systematically worked through showing them every item I brought.  There was a long list of mandatory equipment that every competitor must have.  Beyond the mandatory list, I could bring whatever else I liked, I just needed to be cognizant of how much my pack ultimately weighed.  My pack officially weighed in at 14kgs (~31 lbs) which was significantly more weight than I had originally planned or trained with.  Since quite a bit of my stuff had now been donated I wasn’t going to be too picky.  So with my pack sorted, and check-in complete, the event officially began.

Pre-Race Briefing

Bag Check Chaos


Lounging Poolside

Outside the Grand Hotel in downtown Diego, the street was lined with mini-buses and vans to take all competitors to the first night camp.  Vehicles were loaded by tent assignment, two tents per vehicle.  I met my tent mates and we all hit it off immediately.  Whomever arranged the tent assignments has my deepest thanks for a job well done.  Many of us were first time competitors with no clue what to expect.  The first camp was 20km (12 miles) from Diego and took about 45 min to reach.  I was presently surprised at how organized and orderly the camp was laid out.  At the center of camp Easy Up tents were set up where hot water was available for drinks and rehydrating meals in the mornings and evenings.  The medical staff had an area for instruction, evaluations, and treatment of injuries.  Most injuries mainly consisted of blisters.  A cyber tent was available in the evenings with laptops for people to read and write correspondence and blog postings.  The lovely latrines were set up 100 feet from camp.  Black nylon fabric was pulled taut over metal rebar poles to form cubicles around each hole in the ground.  An ad-hoc marker system was adopted by competitors to signal that a latrine was occupied.  Hats would be hung on the rebar poles, or water bottles placed at the entryway to the cubicles sufficed to gain yourself a brief bit of privacy.  The accommodations were eight man expedition style canvas tents from Kodiak Canvas.

Enroute to Camp

Camp 1 "Oranges"

Welcome Party


The first night was at an old Gendarme base situated right at the mouth of the bay leading toward Diego Suarez.  The wind blew strongly all night.  The sides of our tent bent significantly from the winds, but the tent did not budge, break, or tear.  I may have been the first in our tent to sack out that night, but I remember not sleeping very well, as a combination of nerves, anticipation, new environment, and sounds all contributed to a poor night's rest.

Day 1 - Three Bays by the Indian Ocean

I woke up eager to meet the day and whatever may come.  I had developed a meal strategy during training that I was comfortable with.  One hour before the start of the event I would eat a Clif Bar for breakfast.  A small meal, just 220 calories, but enough to stop the fast and kickstart the day.  Once the race started I began steady sips of electrolytes and Perpetuem drink mix which provided a continuous supply of calories and nutrients during each day’s stages.  This was a plan that had worked remarkably well during early morning weekend training runs.  So long as the Perpetuem powder supply held out I was confident I would not starve.

The first day was peculiar in that I had no notion of what lay before me, or even what was really going on.  We all gathered behind the start line at 8:00am.  Everyone was so clean in their brightly colored lycra clothing, well prepared with their full packs, and myself quite naive about the future.  The countdown commenced, the flags went up, and the herd was off.  The race had begun!

Morning Briefing

Clean and Naive

Anxious to Start

They're Off!

The first few hours were spent moving in a pack as people found their pacing and took things slowly at first.  This did provide a nice opportunity to chat with people.  The whole first day was along a coastal route with beaches, lava rocks, and small villages.  The copious amount of sand so early on presented me with a difficult realization.  I had the wrong kind of shoes for this event, and I would not be doing much running if the sandy paths persisted.  I did not have gaiters to keep the sand out of the top of my shoes as they were in my lost luggage.  Also, my shoes had a mesh top above the toes which allowed sand and dirt to easily enter.  In hindsight, I should have used some of the gaff tape James gave me to cover the mesh on my shoes from the inside.  Regardless, I walked the whole of the first day, and ultimately the entirety of the race.

I was walking alone much of the time between Check Point 1 (CP1) and CP3 on that first day.  I would see people in front and behind, but few were ever within talking distance for very long.  I did have one traveling companion who was a constant throughout the race, Robin the Beanie Baby.  A few days before I departed Seattle I picked up Robin from a grade two classroom at a school I work with.  Robin routinely goes on trips with people to far flung and amazing places around the globe.  This was Robin’s third such travel adventure with me.

I was walking alone much of the time between Check Point 1 (CP1) and CP3 on that first day.  I would see people in front and behind, but few were ever within talking distance for very long.  I did have one traveling companion who was a constant throughout the race, Robin the Beanie Baby.  A few days before I departed Seattle I picked up Robin from a grade two classroom at a school I work with.  Robin routinely goes on trips with people to far flung and amazing places around the globe.  This was Robin’s third such travel adventure with me.

By CP2 I was already developing hot spots on my feet from the abrasive sand accumulating in my shoes.  Try as I might to empty out my shoes and socks at the checkpoints and along the way, it was a hopeless battle.  The beginnings of blisters were taking hold of my poor feet.  Had I known there was going to be so much sand I think I would have trained barefoot on the beach back home.

At CP3 I stayed a bit longer so I could remove my socks and apply a bit of moleskin to the hot spots on my feet.  As I gathered my gear and made ready to depart the checkpoint one of the competitors, Lisa, asked if she could walk with and pace me into camp.  Lisa was in worse shape than I was, terrible pain in her feet.  I did my best to keep lively conversation going for those last two hours until camp.  I was as appreciative of the company as I think Lisa was.  We reached camp just before 5:00pm and Lisa made a beeline for the medical tent.  Camp that night was situated on a beautiful beach along the Indian Ocean.  Unfortunately, this meant windblown sand went everywhere.

Malagasy Village

Blister Care

Camp 2 "Emerald Cove"

Day 2 - Path to the Baobabs

The second day started off poorly, and declined as the hours ticked by.  Everyone had hung up their socks and clothes on the outsides of the tents hoping they would dry a bit overnight with the wind.  Sadly, this was not the case.  Everything was just as wet, or perhaps more so, in the morning.  Shoes as well were damp and sandy.  I did the best I could to clean and bandage my feet.  I put on my only other pair of socks and hung the previous pair on the outside of my backpack so they could dry in the sun.  Sand was everywhere.  It was a lovely start to the day.

Immediately outside of camp there was a traffic jam of people along the coastal route.  I suspect no one thought to check tide tables.  Any hope of keeping my feet reasonably dry vanished ten minutes from the start line when many of us got caught by a wave rushing up the beach.  Once past the beach, we scrambled along rocky coastal cliffs, then inland through thick underbrush.  This is where I picked up my walking stick.  I had no idea at the time how valuable this walking stick would become during the rest of the race.

Stroll on the Beach

Mind the Waves

Red Dirt Road

I knew I was moving slowly and was somewhere near the back of the pack, but  I tried to not let this bother me, and instead focused on maintaining my pace.  Even in the early morning, it was stupid hot outside.  Once inland from the coast, the roads and paths we followed were mostly hard pack. This was a fantastic and welcome change.  There were only a few dusty or sandy paths for the first two checkpoints.  By CP2 there were already people dropping out of the race.  There was an older woman who was diabetic that another competitor and I helped along before CP2.  She wanted to stop and rest, though we tried to keep her moving.  We sat her down under a shaded tree and made sure the roving medical team found her.  She was fine, but did drop out of the race after that.  Others had tendon problems or severe blisters.  One person fainted, presumably from the heat or exhaustion.

Checkpoints largely consisted of a truck with Easy-Up tents on either side.  There were a few camp chairs, straw mats, and some shade under the tents.  We were given a water ration of 1.5L at each checkpoint.  Also, there was a member of the medical team present along with a few volunteers in case a competitor needed assistance.  Most of the time I spent about 10 minutes at a checkpoint.  Just long enough to refill water bottles, eat something, cool down a bit and re-wet the buff around my neck.  It was nice being part of the walking group.  The slower pace afforded us time to chat with and get to know the checkpoint staff each day.

Just past CP2 was the first real challenge of the day--a rice paddy crossing.  The earthen dividers provided a walkway, but the far end was nothing but a soupy, muddy mess.  The result of two hundred people running through ahead of us slow pokes.  Mayra and Cynthia both wound up stuck in the mud.  It took quite a bit of effort to free them, and their shoes. Cynthia also had some trouble negotiating a pool of water before an embankment climb.  My walking stick came in handy for assisting people out of the bog.  Thankfully, not far from the rice paddy was a clean running river which we all used to great advantage as a bathing spot.


Baobab Forest

Muddy Rice Paddy

River Bath

From this point on Mayra and I pretty much stuck together for the remainder of the race, which was nice since we were also tent mates.  The latter half of the day mostly consisted of dry sandy paths that seemingly went on forever.  We'd walk and walk and the checkpoints never seemed to materialize.  Before CP3 there was another significantly larger rice paddy, but this time no soupy mud to contend with.  The earthen walking paths were still intact, allowing us to traverse easily.  There were a couple of natural bridges of felled trees across rivers, but nothing too nerve wracking.

This was our first day being out after sundown as well.  Being so close to the Equator, there is nearly no lingering daylight after sunset.  There were four checkpoints instead of three that day, which for us meant a long day of walking.  Beth caught up to Mayra and me just before sundown, and the three of us stuck together until camp.  We passed through several villages that night, and quite a few locals were out and about on the paths we were walking.  Many locals were dressed up on their way to some kind of festivities.  

As we walked along the sandy road at night, I kept seeing these tiny dots of brilliant light shining back from the glow of my headlamp.  I idly asked what they could be, to which Beth responds “Those are spiders.  Their eyes reflect the light.”  Oh.  We walked past thousands, tens of thousands of points of light that night alone.  I occasionally inspected the lights more closely, and sure enough the dots were the eyes of spiders.  Mostly I saw tiny spiders hidden in the sand along both sides of the path.  Once in a while there would be a large spider sitting in the path itself.

As we neared camp we encountered six different water crossings.  Six!  At first we thought the water was surely a cruel joke.  Certainly the organizers did not mean for us to wade through long pools of water at night?  Alas, they did, so in we went.  Some crossings were shallow, others thigh deep and several were 50' or more to the far end.

Very near camp we encountered a group of local ladies.  Just out of sight I heard the sound of clanging pots and a flurry of voices.  One of the ladies, speaking Malagasy quite quickly, was trying to explain to us what had happened, but I had already deduced it.  One of the ladies had been carrying a basket of pots on her head when she lost the load.  I pantomimed the basket falling and said "plonk" to the woman trying to explain things.  She immediately bust a gut laughing, then turned and said the same thing to her colleagues.  An uproar of laughter commenced.  We moved past but continued to hear "plonk" and laughter for several more minutes.  I like to think I contributed to the local lexicon, and that "plonk" will be making the village rounds for some time to come.

The second day was brutal, and not just for me personally.  Quite a few competitors dropped out of the race for a variety of reasons.  In the tent that night I tended to my blistered feet as best I could.  Laying down to sleep, my feet pulsed and throbbed with every heartbeat.  A preview of the days ahead.

Check Point Care

Rice Paddies

Long Water Crossing

Camp 3 "Camp Zebu"

Day 3 - The Red Tsingy Valley

As we walked those first few kilometers after leaving the start line, Mayra and I could see the number of competitors had thinned significantly. Before long we were essentially the last two on the course.  We passed through mud flats and empty grassland areas.  The density of palm trees increased as we neared the coast.  CP1 was situated right on the beach of a beautiful bay.  We walked along the beach for about 3 km while I spent a good deal of that distance splashing through the light surf to cool my feet.  I simply did not care any longer if my shoes were wet.  The bay was an idyllic setting that belied the torturous conditions yet to come.  The staff at CP1 had told us to savor our time on the beach.  This was the last time we’d see open water or beaches for the remainder of the race.

Once we turned and left the beach, conditions inland began to deteriorate.  We were stuck slogging through a soft sandy track in high heat for hours.  We finally reached what appeared to be a dry riverbed that led to CP2, but it was more of a muddy red clay than dry earth.  As we began to negotiate the mud I looked back to check on Mayra when to my astonishment I saw the two pink shirts of the sweepers descending the sandy path towards us.  “Crap!”

Each stage of the course was marked by pink and blue flags or ribbons tied to trees.  There was no navigation requirement for this event, simply follow the markers.  After the last participant left a given checkpoint, two staffers would don pink vests that said Sweeper on them.  Their job was to collect all the markers from the course, and to escort any stragglers to the next checkpoint.  Basically, if the sweepers caught up to you, you were moving too slowly to adequately continue with the event.  You got swept.  In practice however, the staffers did everything they could to help and encourage you to push on and continue the race.  Only if you were obviously struggling would you get swept and disqualified from continuing the event.  Regardless, seeing sweepers coming up behind you was a clear indication you needed to pick up the pace.

We were getting close to the time cutoff for CP2, but I thought we were physically closer than it turned out we were.  We pushed on, finally arriving at CP2 10 min past the cutoff time.  The sweepers walked in almost immediately after us.  I was certain the staff would say we were done and unable to continue.  I had resigned myself to the fact we would be swept and disqualified from continuing.  I was okay with that for the simple reason I had been able to help people along the way.  I had given everything I had up to that point, and was not going to be ashamed of my performance.  To my astonishment the staff encouraged us to push on, but to do so quickly.  They saw we were still physically able, walking well, and in good spirits.  So, after replenishing our drink bottles and eating a bit, Mayra and I set off with new found encouragement and determination.

Nutrition was a difficult balancing act.  My established meal plan left little wiggle room for miscalculation.  I had made the mistake of only pouring in a half packet of Perpetuem power at CP1.  This meant I had fewer easily accessible calories between CP1 and CP2.  I definitely felt the deficiency too.  I knew I had to carefully ration certain food items if I was going to make it to the end of the race.  Depriving myself of too much was a poor choice as well.  It was curious that by day three I began to think of food as little more than calories.  It largely did not matter what I ate.  Only the calorie count mattered.

Next came the Red Tsingy canyons and some moderate rocky ascents.  We savored the views of the Red Tsingy rock formations for as long as we dared.  Turning to continue on the path, we briefly walked in the wrong direction.  I was on point and had not realized the flags marked a sharp turn up a rocky ascent.  Thankfully we did not get too far down the canyon before realizing there were no more marker flags ahead of us.  The ascents were moderately steep but not terribly difficult.  Still, I turned and offered a helping hand to Mayra and the other few competitors walking with us.  The path through the rocks took a circuitous route, which at one point was leading us back toward CP2.  I questioned if we were going the correct way, but we stuck with it and the path did turn uphill once more and away in a new direction.

At the top of the canyon the terrain flattened out.  As I looked off to my right I could see off in the distance the ocean and bay we had walked along earlier.  We had come quite a long way inland already.  I was amazed at our progress.  I had a strong desire to pick up the pace, but I was torn between leaving Mayra, or being held back.  She told me to go if I felt like I could push on.  Some minutes of hesitation later I reluctantly set off at a pretty good run.  I'm fairly sure it crushed her to see me take off with apparent ease, even though I only managed a running pace for less than ten minutes.  My feet hurt as I pounded along, but the exhilaration of moving swiftly helped counterbalance the pain.  I passed two people who were just ahead of us, then settled into a brisk walking pace once I reached a dusty dirt road.  Later Mayra told me she broke down and had a good cry once I parted company.  She said it gave her renewed strength once she pulled herself together.  Sure enough, about 30 min later she had caught back up with me.  We stuck it out from then on, because clearly my pushing ahead did not gain much.

As we neared CP3 we descended down a curved red clay road.  I rounded a corner and found the event photographer Zandy laying in the road waiting for people to happen by.  I got really excited to see him.  I began dancing and calling out to him because his presence meant the checkpoint had to be near.  Mayra had not seen him yet and later commented she thought I had finally cracked under the stress.  At CP3 we met up with Beth and Cynthia who we then continued on with until camp that night.  It was a lovely evening stroll through a rocky canyon, then a dirt road all the way to camp in the dark.  The unfortunate part was the enormous river crossings right before camp.  Someone had the bright idea to take our shoes off and let the river rocks massage our feet.  What a load of crap that was.  Crossing those stones in just socks was positively excruciating!  I nearly toppled over into the river on numerous occasions from the pain, and would have done so had I not kept that walking stick with me.  For the second river crossing I put my shoes back on.  I did not care that they would still be wet in the morning.

My end of day camp routine was pretty well established by this point.  Reach camp, grab my water ration, drop my gear in the tent, eat dinner, clean my feet, go to sleep.  Unfortunately, there was not much time for socializing.  That night I chose to sleep on the floor of the tent.  No sleeping pad or sleeping bag.  I pulled the silk bag liner out and slept in that.  I left my sleeping bag in the compression sack and used it as a pillow.  The firm earth under the tent floor covering felt perfect that night.

Red Tsingy Canyon

The Long Road

Canyon Run

Camp 4 "Savannah Sanctuary"

Day 4 - Route to the Sacred Lake

I slept all night with my feet unbandaged so the blisters could weep and clean themselves out.  Unfortunately this meant that the foot of my bag liner that I had slept in all night was now stained and stuck to my feet.  My plan had been good for my blisters, but bad for the silk bag.  I cleaned and bandaged my feet, ready for another day.

Aside from my sore feet the fourth day started out fantastic.  Mayra and I kept such a strong pace to CP1 that we arrived 30min before the cutoff, which was quite the accomplishment for us.  The whole way to CP1 Mayra was insistent that Becky and I come visit her in Mumbai, an open invitation with guest room and tour guide.  At the checkpoint, Samantha, the race organizer, thought it was fantastic that we'd only recently met and were already planning holidays together.

With positive time gains we set off for CP2 with vigor, however, the heat of the day was debilitating, and any gains we had quickly vanished.  After about two hours of walking we spotted the white flags of the checkpoint ahead.  What we could not see was the small canyon we’d ultimately have to cross to get there.  My spirits were dampened when we reached the rim of the canyon and saw the descent we’d be making through boulders.  At the bottom was a small creek that thankfully had stepping stones across it.  The ascent in the midday heat was difficult, yet rewarding once complete.  We arrived to CP2 with essentially no time to spare before cutoff.  Sitting under the shade of an enormous tree we replenished water bottles, ate a bit of something, and set off as quickly as we could.  Departing CP2 we traveled a ways along a hard clay road down to a river crossing.  Having wet shoes and feet is a pain.  The dampness exacerbates blisters.  It was a true slog to CP3 that day.  We passed through an area with sparse shade. There was no cover to speak of from the intense afternoon sun.  We finally reached CP3 with mere minutes to spare before cutoff.  A large group of locals and children greeted us at the checkpoint.  Since we were the last few competitors of the day, it was impressive to us that such a crowd was still hanging around.


Morning at CP1

Crowd at CP3


The last 10 km of the day had us going uphill and around the Sacred Lake.  We had been strongly cautioned not to detour down to the lake, or approach the shoreline in any way because the lake was inhabited by crocodiles.  By late afternoon none of us were in the mood for a detour anyway.  On our way around the lake we encountered the Japanese TV crew who were filming a documentary about the race.  They followed us for quite a long time as we made our way through the waist high grass.  I put on a good show with my walking stick, occasionally stopping to strike a befitting pose and gaze out at the horizon.

After the lake we entered the most significant city on the course, Anivorano du Nord.  It was early evening when we arrived and a massive number of people were out shopping the street market.  The road was paved, though erratically so.  We walked along the pavement but had to remain vigilant of buses, cars, and large trucks.  Several trucks passed by me rather too close for comfort.  The camp was only a short distance past the town, but we still arrived well after sundown.  Mayra and I were the last competitors to arrive that day.  Only the two sweepers arrived later than we did.  I went to the medical tent to get a professional evaluation of my feet prior to the Long March day.  To my amazement the medical staff gave me a thumbs up on my blister care thus far.  I washed my feet and again I slept without any bandages so the blisters could clean themselves out.  I also ended up getting the sleeping spot in the tent with a massive boulder underneath.  There was no way to dislodge or remove the boulder either.  It took a while to find an orientation that was even somewhat comfortable to sleep in, but eventually I managed.

Sacred Lake


Camp 5 "Ankharana Farmlands"

I’m going to take a few moments here and discuss pain.  In my normal day-to-day life, I experience aches and pains the same as anyone else.  Perhaps my shoes do not fit quite right and I have sore feet or hips at the end of a work day.  Normally I stretch a bit in the evening and following morning, maybe take a few pain medications if the aches are really bad, but generally the pain subsides and life goes on.  During this event however, pain was a perpetual companion.  There was no escape from pain, no reprieve, at least not for me.  I would wake up barely able to stand, and end the day with feet pulsing to every beat of my heart.  This was my endurance challenge for the week.  It wasn’t the mileage, it wasn’t the heat, it wasn’t even the terrain, it was pain management and finding a way to stay positive with each passing hour out on the course.

Prior to the race, competitors were sent a litany of information about all manner of subjects, from equipment selection, to foot care, and more specifically pain management.  There are two primary pain medications available over the counter, NonSteroidal Anti Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) such as Ibuprofen, and Paracetamol (also known as Acetaminophen).  Paracetamol processes through your liver, while NSAIDs process through your kidneys.  Due to the nature of this event, it was not advised to take NSAIDs during the race because your kidneys would already be stressed from heat, exertion, and dehydration.  This meant that Paracetamol was the only recommended pain medication to take while moving on the course.  NSAIDs were reserved for once camp was reached and you were no longer exerting yourself each day.  The unfortunate part was that Paracetamol only dulled pain to tolerable levels.  I had to plan out when I would take Paracetamol each day since there are limits to the amount you can safely consume in a 24 hour period.  There were several checkpoints where I had to deny myself pain medication so I would still be within dosage limits when I reached camp.  The choice between pain now, or pain later was sometimes a tough one to make.  There was no escape from pain.

I will admit I was doped up on pain medication pretty much the entire week.  Prior to this trip, my doctor prescribed me some Steroidal Anti Inflammatory Drugs (SAIDs) in the form of Prednisone.  I’d start the day taking three Prednisone to help any joint pains I may or may not experience.  That was then augmented by one or two Paracetamol every couple of hours in an effort to dull the pain in my feet to manageable levels.  I’m not sure the Prednisone was necessary since my body felt fine all week long.  It was my feet that plagued me.  

To get moving in the morning was extraordinarily difficult.  Just standing up in the tent for the first time each day took tremendous effort.  I had originally planned to wear sandals in camp, but since my sandals were in my delayed luggage I was forced to slip on my shoes just to move around camp.  I sort of shuffled around like a 90-year-old man early in the mornings.  I summoned the strength to force myself to remain on my feet after putting shoes on each morning.

Once across the start line each day the real challenge began.  It often took a kilometer or more for my feet to find a threshold of pain that I could then classify as the new normal.  Only at that point would my pace switch from a quick shuffle to a semi-normal walking stride.  Every single step hurt.  Somehow I kept finding ways to push past or ignore the pain.  Conversation helped tremendously, as did recording video diaries as I walked.  The scenery around me was amazing.  I also focused on being the friendly American.  I wanted to single handedly try to reverse the typical arrogant American stereotype.  I greeted every local I passed and every village of people I saw with a broad smile, a wave, and a hearty ‘Bonjour!’.  Nearly every person I greeted returned my greeting in kind.  Mayra at one point suggested I should receive the Mr. Congeniality award.

For 67 hours I coped with feet that screamed at me to stop; feet that begged me to call it quits.  On quite a few occasions I had the quitting conversation with myself.  The simple fact was, there were people significantly worse off than I was who were still competing in the event.  Quitting because I did not want to go on anymore was not a good enough reason to stop.  Only injury or a serious medical condition would be sufficient to drop out of the event.  I was not crazed.  I would not continue if it meant doing serious harm to myself, but I was there and intended to finish.  Back on day three Mayra and I had made a pact.  We would either succeed together, or fail together.  We both intended to succeed.

Day 5 - The Long March through the Grey Tsingy Reserve

The Long March day was especially trying. This was due to duration rather than difficulty of terrain.  It was mostly sand or dirt tracks the whole way.  We passed through many small villages, and negotiated a few creek crossings without getting our feet wet.  The temperature gradually rose throughout the morning hours, much the same as it had done the previous four days.  There were no major challenges and the first four checkpoints went by relatively easily.  Mayra and I kept a decent walking pace all day.  I tried to focus on the next checkpoint rather than think about all the miles left until we reached camp.  I’m somewhat glad I did not have a GPS unit with a screen.  I think if I had known actual distances remaining it would have been a far more difficult mental challenge to complete each stage.

Broad Vista

Big Kid Bike

Grey Tsingy Mountains

High cloud cover moved in during the early afternoon which brought the temperature down dramatically.  Mayra and I pushed to try to reach the two river crossings before nightfall but we were unsuccessful.  After sundown, and walking with our headlamps on, we had some difficulty with the dusty dirt roads.  There was a stiff breeze which whipped up the dust around us.  I could not discern any detail about the path in front of me.  The dust in the air was like a dense fog, and I couldn’t see much of anything.  Our pace slowed significantly at this point.  I found the dust a tad disorienting at times.  We kept on and soon the breeze died down enough that we could see once again.

A short while later we came upon the first river crossing which was shallow and wide.  This was immediately followed by a deep muddy river crossing just prior to checkpoint five.  Samantha was stationed at this crossing to help guide and instruct competitors on the best way to cross.  CP5 was the designated dinner and/or overnight point of the Long March.  A few tents were set up if anyone wanted to grab a few hours sleep before continuing.  We met up with two other tent mates, Richard and Elisabeth, who had been slightly ahead of Mayra and me most of the day.  We all agreed to only stay about an hour before pushing on together for the additional 30 km to camp.

Mayra had her feet tended to by one of the medical staff.  I removed my shoes and socks to just let my feet dry out in the cool night air.  Removing those wet socks was incredibly painful.  Zandy, the event photographer, was at CP5 and got right in close with his camera to capture my pain.  Once my feet were free I laid back and put them up on a camp chair.  Being horizontal and off my feet was incredibly rejuvenating.  The unfortunate part was having to stand up afterwards to begin walking again.

Muddy River Crossing

Inspecting My Shoes

Wet Sock Removal

CP5 at Night

The staff at CP5 were gracious and brought hot water to each competitor for dinners rather than making us stand in line for it.  Dehydrated meals may not be the best tasting food ever, but I truly savored dinner that night.  After resting for an hour, making the decision to continue was exceedingly difficult.  Committing myself to hours more of walking after being on the move all day was a daunting prospect.  We knew if we stayed for a longer rest we would have a terrible time getting moving again.  We decided it was better to push hard and enjoy the entirety of the rest day at camp doing absolutely nothing.  So we left CP5 at 8:30pm as a stronger group of four.

I had changed my socks at CP5 because I thought we were done with river crossings.  I, along with the rest of our group, was apparently mistaken.  About 6 km from CP5 we encountered a swift flowing river with no dry way to negotiate a crossing.  A line of stepping stones extended 3/4 of the way across, but there was no way to bridge the gap to shore.  We pondered this crossing for several minutes since none of us wanted wet feet. Sadly, there was no other alternative.  We plunged our feet in and just got it over with.  It was a 12 km stage between CP5 and CP6, though it felt considerably farther. Wet feet did not help.

As I walked late at night the southern sky was breathtaking.  There was zero light pollution.  We were far from any major towns or sources of light.  Every village we passed through was utterly dark.  The cloudless night sky was awash with stars.  Even with my eyes adjusted to the light of my headlamp it was effortless to see the Milky Way emblazoned across the heavens.  I was befuddled by the view above since I was woefully ignorant of southern constellations.  Thankfully, there were no wisps of wind.  No noise to speak of.  Nothing much happening at all as our group of four walked on through the night.  

The late night checkpoints were a different experience entirely compared to daytime stops.  The mood was less hurried.  The tent area was quiet, almost serene.  While at CP6 Mayra and I both laid down and put our feet up on camp chairs.  Soft music was playing in the background which I found exceptionally soothing. Had I not forced myself to stay awake and in the moment, it would have been easy to fall asleep. 

As we left CP6 at 12:30am we all opted to listen to music for a while.  Throughout the race I had not listened to anything.  Music was my ace in the hole for motivation when I really needed it.  The last stages of the Long March, in the wee hours of the morning, seemed the appropriate time to play my ace.  I’m not entirely sure what she was listening to, but Mayra began dancing and moving at a quicker pace. I picked up my pace to stay with her and take advantage of her newfound energy.  We covered quite a bit of ground together with our respective inspirational music.  I remember listening to quite a bit of U2, Flogging Molly, and Eric Clapton, though I’m sure there were other artists as well.  We reached CP7 at 3:00am.  Richard’s feet were in a bad way so we all rested for half an hour before pushing on toward camp.

After CP7 we raced the sun to the finish line.  We decided our goal was to reach camp before sunrise.  We pushed as hard as we could through the pre-dawn hours.  My problem was, I was running on empty that last 8 km to camp.  I had nothing much left to eat while on the move.  My supply of Hammer Perpetuem drink was out, as were nuts, jerky, and energy bars.  I had eaten a tiny bit back at the checkpoint, but it was not nearly enough.  I could feel myself becoming weaker as my body began scavenging fuel from fat and muscle tissue.  About 2 km from camp I took the only thing I had available, one last energy gel.  My thought was it would be just enough to keep me going at the brisk walking pace we had settled into.  How wrong I was.  Not three minutes after consuming the gel I felt a surge of energy and my body took off at a dead run sprint!  The simple act of running flat out in the dark was exhilarating and liberating after all those days of walking.  It did not matter that my feet hurt as I pounded them into the ground.  The feeling was amazing.  

The energy burst was of course short-lived, maybe 100m down the road I hit the proverbial “wall” and slowed back to a walking pace.  My tent mates quickly caught up to me since now I was moving even more slowly than I had been before taking the gel.  They were astonished at what had happened, said I took off like a rocket, a car with a supercharger, etc.  I realized later that I had taken a pure sugar gel, rather than a complex carb gel.  I had responded to the infusion of energy, and my body, not my mind, made the choice to run.  The energy from the gel had to go somewhere immediately.  We stumbled across the line into camp just before 5:30am.  We did in fact beat the sunrise!  I was exhausted, tumbled into the tent, and promptly passed out.

Long March Complete


Moments Beore Sleep

Camp 6 "The Malagasy Camp"

I awoke a few hours later needing to wee.  In the bright morning light I lumbered out of the tent toward the pee trough near the latrines. Yes, there actually was a sign that read ‘Pee Trough’.  As I did my business I started getting light-headed and feared I was about to pass out.  I held myself together knowing that if I did pass out I’d never hear the end of it. Once finished, I turned around and sat down on the ground outside the latrine.  One of the camp volunteers noticed and walked over to check on me.  I asked them to please escort me back to my tent.  One of my tent mates saw I was in a bad way and gave me a Cliff Bar to eat.  I fell right back to sleep immediately after eating the bar.  The Long March took everything I had to get through.  I was wiped out.

Later during the rest day I needed to do something about my lack of food.  In the early evening, when some strength had returned, I got up and went begging.  I struck out in a clockwise direction moving from tent to tent asking for any extra food people might have to spare.  To my astonishment it only took about ten minutes and half a dozen tents to source enough food to carry me through to the end of the race.  My tent mates were rather impressed by what I managed to bring back and share.  I learned, yet again, to never underestimate the generosity of others.  The remainder of Friday passed uneventfully.  I pretty much slept the day away dozing in and out all afternoon.

Day 7 - Final Footsteps to Ambilobe

The following morning was the final 10km to the finish line.  The organizers started groups at different times with the intent of everyone finishing nearly at the same time.  Those of us Turtles all started at 7am, while the faster folks started at 8:00 and 8:30am.  I figured on seeing the first runner pass me around 8:30, and sure enough at 8:25 I heard from behind "What's the time mate?" as a runner passed me by.

Mayra and I had started together, but it was soon obvious she had far more strength on the final day than I possessed.  I was moving slowly, unable to achieve a comfortable walking pace.  Mayra gradually pulled away. Even though she shouted back words of encouragement, I was unable to close the ever widening gap between us.  Ultimately, she left me behind, ditching me while she had the chance.  We had stuck it out through thick and thin all week, yet in the end she left me in her dust.  No loyalty.  I made sure to guilt trip her at the finish line later.  In truth I was quite proud of her for finishing the race so strong.  Both of us had low moments during the week, and neither really thought we would complete this race.

The finish line was in the middle of the city Ambilobe.  The main road was lined on both sides with locals out to watch and cheer on the competitors.  At one point a young Malagasy boy, perhaps four years old, ran out of a doorway waving his hands.  He quickly ran up next to me.  I stopped, crouched down, and he held out his hand closed in a tiny fist.  We fist bumped, he smiled wide, and ran laughing back toward his mother standing in the doorway.  A precious moment.

Coming up the main road, rounding the last corner, and seeing that finishline banner in the distance was incredibly motivating.  I summoned what strength I had left to push on at a modest jog; crossing the finish line relieved this journey was finally complete.  A large medal and ice cold drinks awaited me.  Neither time nor place in the race mattered to anyone at that point.  Smiles, hugs, and laughter abounded as people reveled in the joy of completing such a monumental challenge.

Unfortunately, showers had to wait a bit longer as the bus ride back to Diego Suarez was a mind numbing five hours.  The only thing I wanted was a hot shower, to put on clean clothes, and find a pair of sandals to wear.  Time passed slowly.  We finally arrived at the Grand Hotel around 3:30pm.  James and I grabbed our stuff and hustled down the street to Hotel Colbert where we just so happened to get the same room as before.  James was gracious enough to let me shower first while he did a bit of shopping.  The banquet dinner wasn’t until 7:30pm so after getting cleaned up I did a bit of shopping around town myself.

The banquet dinner at the Grand Hotel was fabulous.  It was a delight to see everyone cleaned up and dressed in normal clothing.  I became accustomed during the event to identifying people by the sport clothing they wore.  I nearly did not recognize some people who came up to me to chat.  Everyone ate and drank their fill that night.  A few people commented to me at the dinner that I looked thinner than the first time they met me before the race.  I did not know it until later, but I had lost 8 pounds during this event and it was mostly caloric rather than water weight.

After the awards were given out to the top finishers there was the requisite photo slide show.  The evening carried on for a while longer.  I was beat and really just wanted to go sleep.  The eight of us from Tent Ramena all gathered together for some group photos.  It was fantastic to have spent the week with such extraordinary people.  I could not have asked for a better group of people with which to share a tent.  There was a moment, once the photos were done, where we all just stood around next to the pool at the hotel.  We shook hands, gave hugs, and then parted ways.  Thomas later described it best, calling it our “Oceans Eleven” moment.

Awards Banquet

Good Friends
Mayra and Beth

Oceans Eleven

A Long Way to Walk

The following day I began my journey home.  It took four days to reach Diego Suarez from Seattle, and it would take four days again to get back.  During the race I had become quite attached to the walking stick I picked up on day two.  All week long people kept commenting to me on how great a stick it was.  My tent mates began calling it my Gandalf staff.  Somewhere along the way I decided I would try to bring the stick home as a souvenir.  I knew it was a long shot expecting the stick to survive four flights and two customs checks, but I figured the worst that could happen was I would lose it along the way.  Best case, the stick would make it all the way home with me.  While at the airport in Diego I checked the stick as luggage for the first leg of the journey home.  Fellow competitors thought I was mad, but wished me luck on the attempt. 

There were a few times along the way I thought I had lost the stick, or I was certain I would never see it again.  The customs agent in Johannesburg was reluctant to let me keep the stick until I assured her I was not staying in South Africa, merely passing through.  Once I arrived in Atlanta I had to wait in line for an hour at customs, but I had three hours before my flight home so I didn’t mind so much.  The customs agent inspected the stick under a microscope, found no insects present, and let me keep the stick.  I checked the stick as luggage one last time for the flight to Seattle much to the amusement of the baggage handler.  I was overjoyed in Seattle when the stick appeared at the oversized luggage counter.  My journey was complete, and that trusty stick made the perfect memento.

One unforeseen side effect of this journey were the intense nightmares post race.  A tiny case of PTSD I think.  The dreams started a few days after the race when I reached Johannesburg.  I would dream about being out on the course walking at night.  I would startle myself awake.  I’d panic thinking I was at a checkpoint with 30km still to go before reaching camp.  I’d thrash around in the bed looking for my backpack trying to figure out where everything was.  The disorientation would only last a few seconds, but it certainly felt like an eternity.  I remember seeing points of light in rooms and thinking they were headlamps of other competitors.  The dreams lasted for about a week after the race.  I only recall waking up three or four times, but each time was utterly frightening.  Each time I was immensely relieved when I realized I was safely in a bed and the race was indeed over.

People ask me why I chose to participate in an event like this.  I tend to not really have a satisfactory answer for them.  At its core I suppose it's simply a test of my will and endurance.  A way to prove to myself that I am able to persevere and overcome to achieve a goal.  In our modern world I find there are few instances where I face situations that truly test what I am capable of.  Daily life is rather insular in general.  I also enjoy these types of events for the people I meet.  So many stories of people from a variety of countries and walks of life.  Amazing people.

Below is a Google Map of the race course and all the places I traveled on this journey.


On my journeys I try to bring along tools that will help me record and later tell my story in interesting ways.  On this trip I brought four items to do just that.  The first was a GPS datalogger.  A simple device with only an on/off button.  Its sole job is to record GPS data.  It runs off a single AA battery.  I had planned to use Lithium AA batteries since they tend to last upwards of 18 hours each.  Unfortunately the Lithium batteries were in my delayed luggage so I was stuck using Super Alkaline batteries that I purchased in Diego.  Alkaline batteries only last about 11 hours each.  The result was some missing GPS data on the long days because the battery died before I reached camp.  My tent mate Richard was kind enough to send me his GPS watch data which helped fill in the gaps.

The second device was a temperature and humidity datalogger.  I thought it would be interesting to see a plot line showing the environmental conditions I experienced each day.  It was also enlightening to read the display at each checkpoint to find out the current temperature.  Sometimes I wish I had left well enough alone and not looked at it though.

The third device was a Fitbit pedometer.  I had forgotten about the Fitbit entirely until CP7 on the Long March day.  I dug it out of my pack, pushed the button, and to my horror it told me I had walked 105,893 steps that day and burned an estimated ~7000 calories.  Yikes!  So much data was recorded during the week that all the hourly breakdown data was overwritten.

The final device was a GoPro to take pictures and record video diaries.  I had intended to record significantly more than I ultimately did record, the reason for this being the solar charger I packed was also in the delayed luggage so all I had were two batteries to last the entire week.  I used the GoPro sparingly and the two batteries did, in fact, last all through the week.

Those four devices, plus a Moleskine notebook helped me keep track of and make sense of this incredible trip.  Some may wonder why I did not simply use my iPhone for all those tasks.  The main reason was battery life.  Especially without my solar charger there was no way my iPhone battery would have lasted each day recording all the different data points.  Sometimes a small dedicated device is still the best choice.

Three Months Later

My feet healed up nicely.  My little toes had reduced feeling on the outer edges.  They were effectively numb for weeks after the race.  My doctor was confident the numbness would subside and was a result of copious new skin during the healing process.  Thankfully the numbness did indeed subside and my toes have returned to normal save for the slight reduction in feeling.  As a bonus none of my toenails fell off.

Immediately after the race I was adamant I would never participate in another such event.  That resolve persisted for almost two months.  Now though I’m leaning toward the possibility of another Racing the Planet event.  The 4Deserts Races don’t much interest me, though some of the scenery looks breathtaking.  I’m thinking the Roving Races may be more my speed.  The 2015 race in Ecuador is too soon for me, and not as appealing due to the altitudes involved.  I’ll wait and see where the 2016 race is to be held.

I put together a shadow box display as another memento of this amazing trip.