We got to the Petra Visitor’s Center around 5:30 in the morning. 50 runners: 26 for the half marathon, and 24 the marathon. We walked through Petra’s grounds, through the Siq, past the Treasury, past the Roman Theater, out onto the Street of Façades to the Start Line of the Petra Desert Marathon.
The Half and Full marathons were set on the same half moon shaped course around the valley and then up and over the crest of a pretty steep ridge. The Full marathon would break off through the desert in a few places and then an 8k out and back through a rugged agriculture area. Our Finish Line would be at our hotel which was outstanding. The hills were about 1000 times more severe than I had planned for, they were steep and unforgiving. However, I was not there to break personal records, only to cross the Finish Line.
What happened was my body ran out of sugar. You see your brain runs on sugar like your car runs on gas. Burn enough sugar out of your body and your mind will not work right. We have all seen those disturbing videos of the seasoned athletes willowing away, unable to hold themselves up. Late in the day, it began to happen to me.
But lets get there first. The Starting Line of the 2014 Petra Desert Marathon was on the ancient stone “Street of Façades.” The morning was cool but not chilly. I wore a light jacket to the Start Line.
With only 50 people running our group was a good size. Intimate, you might say. Because Petra is an active archaeological site, our run started under a controlled pace for the first 500 yards or so. The Race Director said a few remarks we all counted down and we were off.
We were running the Petra Desert Marathon.
It was at that moment I had an epiphany: I was wearing some of the most technologically advanced running kit mankind has ever created, tracking my every step using a series of robots in orbit who were communicating with a computer strapped to my wrist, which was monitoring my vital signs. All of this was happening while running through a set of stone ruins so old that multiple civilizations have built their lives on top of the dust of those who came before only to perish away themselves. One of the civilizations to live here, were the Romans. I was running by the stone structure called Qasr al Bint listening to “O Fortuna” on my glass iPod. “O Fortuna” is a poem written in the 13th century about ‘Fortuna,’ who was the ‘Goddess of fortune’ and the ‘personification of luck’ for the Roman religion. It was a brilliant moment of recognition where we have come.
It is a difficult moment to reduce to words on a page, but I will try.
If we, as a species, can climb from a stone cave to listening to symphonic music played from a piece of glass, we can cure cancer. Is it arrogant to stand on the ruins of other civalizations and preach of collective intelligence? Am I foolish to believe in hope when faced with the mortality of my current wave of humanity? Do I dare hope for a better future for those to come? I think we must. I believe we can do anything. I believe together we can achieve great things and I believe the evidence of Petra still existing after so many millennia is proof of that.
Anne and I were able to run together for a short while until the Full Marathon course turned further out into the desert. After the split, the only humans I saw were at water stops. I found a few goat herds on the rockier bits, but once the sun crept over the hills they were hiding in whatever shade they could find.
In being a long distance runner I have discovered my body changes how it works over the course of a marathon. Later in the event my body requires a different type of nutrition to keep it functioning. Often you will hear endurance athletes speak of “hitting the wall.” This is typically in the later stages of an event. Typically in a marathon it will be around mile 17, 18 or 19. It is caused by your body running low on sugar and because sugar is what your brain works on, you can’t think straight. Sometimes if you push youself beyond that simple confusion stage, your body begins to shut down. The first thing your brain will shut down is your limbs. They are the farthest things from your vital organs so they get cut off first. These are the guys you see in the videos who wobble and stagger at the finish line. It is what made Julie Moss famous in the Ironman. 50 feet from the Finish Line she collapses and the girl in second place passes her to win. Julie crawled across the Finish Line and into history. It was all filmed and shown on ABC’s Wild World of Sports. Triathlon became a sport after that.
I was on that hill and I could swear I was just sitting in a chair. I saw it. I felt it. It was a wing back, claw foot chair upholstered with paisley flowered fabric. I knew I had just been sitting in it and that the brick fireplace was right in front of me. It stopped me in my tracks. I shook the cobwebs from my head. I snapped back to reality. For a moment I had faded into the ether of memories because that chair and fireplace was in the house I grew up in which my parents sold 20 years ago. I was 2/3rds of my way up a nasty, steep 3k hill in a desert in the Middle East and it was kicking my butt. The girl I had been running with was now no where to be seen. Poof. Gone. Woosh up that hill like it was nothing. Maybe I had been in La-la Land a little longer than I had thought. Julie Moss popped into my head. I heard her say “You have some Pepsi in your Fuel Belt.” I did. I had a small bottle of Pepsi I had opened the night before and let it go flat so it would not foam over when I was running. I took a few sips and within a few minutes I felt like a new person. The reality that my nutrition was not tuned in came to my mind and I had another sip. I read Chris McCormack’s book “I’m Here to Win” and in it he proclaimed that soda had made the difference for his late marathon issues. I had tried it before, but this was irrefutable proof that the man knows what he was talking about. Thanks Chris. Thanks Julie.
Taking stock, I felt exhausted. These hills were much more than I had prepaired for. Being reduced to walking many of the hills and running down them reflected a hole in my training. My legs burned with lactic acid, feeling heavier and heavier with each step.
The top of the hill finally came and the race doctor was there with some Jordanian men. At each water stop they had given us two small bottles of water, one of which I would promptly dump on my head. It was shockingly cold and would cause an involuntary grunt. Over the last of the marathon I had begun to look forward to it. The doctor said I was in good order. I handed her my iPhone and asked her to take my photo. I wanted to remember that damn hill.
I was off the road now, on some goat path. It wound around and up a little further over the summit of the ridge. Now I could see the town in the valley below. The road I was on was loose dirt mixed with large stone and all I could think of was my ankle twisting. A quick glance of my watch and a half hearted attempt at math and I was instantly worried that I would not make the 7 hour time limit. I drank the rest of the Pepsi and began to run. Soon my heart rate was off the chart and I was forced to walk again. I finally came to the 3k to go marker. This was the last water stop. I got my two bottles and said a silent prayer about finding the strength to finish what I had started. When I looked down at the little trash can that was sitting there for my bottle, just on top of everything else was Anne’s water bottle with all the LIVESTRONG decals on it.
The Jordanian guy manning that water stop did not speak English and he probably thought I was a freak for laughing that loudly about trash, but it was what I needed to see, when I needed to see it. Funny how things like that work out, eh?
Of the last 3k 2 were down a very steep loose dirt and stone road. They had said the last kilometer was uphill.
That’s when I saw her. The girl who had left me in the dust on that awful hill. I had to catch her. Faster and faster, stumbling and making unashamed grunting noises I blasted down that hill. I imagined myself as the Road Runner with a cloud of dust behind me. The road became even steeper and suddenly I was on pavement. There was the police station. I was coming back into civilization. Then I was beside the girl in blue. “Where did you come from?” She asked. “Pepsi!” is all I remember telling her. Then there was the bottom of the hill… and the sharp left turn… and the road so bloody steep I wanted a ladder. Blue girl was in as much pain as I was, so I just kept saying things like “You can do it, c’mon! We’re almost there!”
I suffered. I just can not convey that fact through words on this page any more than to say it was harder than anything I’ve ever done. I was giving her words of encouragement so that I could hear them too. We topped that damn hill and turned toward the hotel. It was also uphill, but at least it undulated a bit…. A bit.
When we crested the last little bit I caught a glimpse of the other runners who had finished long before us. The Finish Line was a welcome site. Anne was there and I shared that I had seen her water bottle in that trash can at just the right moment. We had a laugh about one person’s trash being another person’s treasure.
The Petra Desert Marathon was a life changing event. The event itself was an ongoing struggle with myself asking and answering the questions of “Can I” and “Why.” Petra itself is a statement of foundation, and the ability to endure. I will relish my time there and always see it as a life event others pale in comparison to. My visit to the Middle East brought new and different questions to my mind about possibilities and the future.
My thanks to my friend and fellow LIVESTRONG Leader Anne for her invitation to this event and her encouragement during and after. She held her own and kicked my ass. This adventure would not have been the same without her.
Winston Churchill said: “If you‘re going through hell, keep going.” Cancer robs us of joy. It does not care who you are, what your goals are, who you love, or who you pray to. Cancer takes away choices. When I set out to run this marathon I knew it would be difficult, but it was easy compared to what someone suffers with cancer in their life. I support the LIVESTRONG Foundation because they directly help those families who suffer cancer with navigation services. If you know someone who is going through the hell of cancer please put them in touch with me, or call 1-855-220-7777. Thank you.