Saturday, March 31, 2001

RR Ellerbe Springs, NC

Race Report
Ellerbe Springs Marathon
Ellerbe Springs, NC

Hi y'all! How was your dream vacation? (April Fool!).

Our mini vacation was OK but it didn't start out on a good foot. There were severe thunderstorms and lots of rain last Thu & Fri (which we needed) but they caused the cancellation of our scheduled flight on Fri morning out of Sarasota. We had to scramble to Plan B which was drive to Tampa and catch a direct flight that evening to Raleigh, NC. By the time we got our rental car, had some dinner and drove 100 miles south to Rockingham, it was almost midnight when we checked into our hotel.
Then I had to get up at 6am to drive to Ellerbe to find the race location, pick up my race package, etc. The marathon started and finished at the Ellerbe Springs Inn, a 140-year old Inn that is quite rustic and charming.
Fortunately Ellerbe is a small town of only 1200 and the Inn was easy to find and I had lots of time to get ready and line up at the start line with about 200 other runners - mostly locals and in-state runners.
The locals warned me that the course was very hilly for the first 20 miles with one monster hill at 13 miles. They didn't lie!

I decided to run the course smart and easy. Yeh! Right!
Instead I foolishly ran the first 17 miles of hills hard and fast until my body started telling me that it didn't like me anymore! I wasn't surprised when I slammed smack dab into 'THE WALL' at 22 miles. It had been a long, long time since I ran into 'THE WALL' in a race and based on how ugly and painful it was on Saturday; I hope it is twice as long before I hit it again!
I was quickly humbled into walking and running (mostly walking) the next two miles before my body recovered sufficiently to let me run the final two miles.

I finished in 3:46 which was actually a reasonable time for that course and good enough for 1st place in my age group. So I hustled back to the hotel for a quick shower and to pick Nicole up to go back to the awards ceremony. They provided some Southern cooking - chicken and dumplings - for lunch and the awards were kind of neat. Instead of the standard running trophy that I usually give away (or don't stay to collect) they awarded hand-made pottery bowls for baking apples or onions.
The race organizers, volunteers and locals were very friendly and hospitable.
Even though the course is a bitch, I would consider going back to do it again - and hopefully run it smarter and faster!

After the awards Nicole and I explored Ellerbe which took about five minutes - six stores and three of them are antiques! So then it was back to Rockingham to explore that town and that took about ten minutes! If we were race car fans it could have taken longer since Rockingham is the home of the North Carolina Speedway and there was some kind of race going on?

Later we went back to the Inn for a great Southern home-cooked dinner. We asked if there was a theatre in the area and were told that there was a drive-in theatre in a neighboring town. I thought that all of those relics had been torn down? However my legs were still sore and not game for that torture so we had to make do with TV and microwave popcorn in the hotel room!

On Sunday we decided to drive back through Pinehurst to check out the golf courses, clubhouse and hotel. They are all luxurious and elegant and piqued my interest in going back for a golf vacation. Maybe next year we will go for a week - play some golf and run the marathon again. Anyone want to sign up now?

Driving north from Pinehurst to Raleigh we ran into thunderstorms with 1/2 in hail. We had to stop under an overpass to protect the windshield of the rental car! Sunday evening we visited with an old friend and work mate from Dallas who now lives in the Raleigh area.

So other than my encounter with 'THE WALL' it was a very enjoyable weekend and as usual we visited places and saw things that we would never had enjoyed except for my crazy hobby?

Wednesday, March 07, 2001

TR Sahara Desert (Algeria) Part 2

Part 2
02/21 – 03/05/01

Now where was I? Oh yeh! Just finishing off the first full day of my luxurious stay/vacation in Tent #1 in the Sahara Desert. After a few more exciting cultural events in the Sahrawi camp, I decided to explore some more and watched a Sahrawi man building a new adobe hut for his family.
After deciding where he wanted his home he just dug up the sandy, clay loam of the desert at that exact spot – mixed the earth with water and made mud blocks (like we all used to make mud pies when we were young?) and then set them in the sun to dry. The bricks dry hard but very brittle and would dissolve quickly with water. But since it last rained in Oct 99, rain is not a problem! After the bricks harden, he mixes more earth with water to use as a mortar and builds his hut. He completes the hut with a tin roof weighted down with bricks and stones. The hole beside the hut is just left there and the wind fills it in quickly with sand. Now we all know how to build a shelter in the desert –just need to figure out where to get the water?

And the final activity of the day is to eat our scrumptious 8pm dinner at 11pm and then climb into our soft beds on the desert floor for another night’s rest. Nothing like a good hot bowl of camel stew for your bedtime meal? It was winter in the desert so the temperature dropped to the freezing level each night and the days warmed up to the low 60s. Our host told us that the summer highs would normally reach 50 degrees Celsius (about 120 F)! I wore a warm-up/jogging suit for PJs and that combined with the single heavy blanket our host provided, was comfortably warm each night. My only complaint or discomfort was the pillow – made from the same material as the carpet and filled with the hardest substance known to mankind? Fortunately I had brought along several old running T-shirts to give to the refugees and I used them to fashion a pillow. So nobody got any T-shirts until the final day!

On Sunday we were advised that the marathon was being moved up one day –from Tuesday to Monday. We were also advised to repack our bags because we would move to a new camp at Smara where the race would finish. The rest of the day was spent enjoying more Sahrawi events, lots of napping/sleeping and waiting for meals. I gave up on dinner after 8pm, ate two power bars washed down with a carbo drink and went to bed early to get more sleep.

Monday! M-Day! Load our bags on to some trucks to take them to the next camp and head for the start line. Lots of Sahrawi dignitaries including the President and other politicians (all military types). Also lots of camels and riders dressed in their tribal colors. There are about 200 marathoners at the start - 110 foreigners and 90 Sahrawis. There is also a half-marathon and 10k race that start at a later time. A total of about 400 runners –half are foreigners. The marathon actually starts on time at 9am!!! In retrospect the change of date turned out to be very fortunate for us! The weather was great – sunny, about 40 degrees at the start and most importantly the wind was not strong enough to stir up the sand. I had purchased a fanny pack with two water bottles and a pouch capable of carrying an emergency medical kit, compass, etc. It also carried my turban in case a sand storm came up during the race. The fanny pack turned out to be a necessity because the airline had lost all the paper cups that we had brought for the race. There was lots of bottled water for the water stations but no cups. So every runner was advised to carry a water bottle to refill at the water/aid stations. Although the pack was useful it was a royal pain in the butt-literally and figuratively! It was very heavy and bulky and the damn water bottles kept falling out? I guess it had been designed for hiking – not running! So I struggled with damn thing for 26 miles and didn’t really need it except for the water bottle! But I didn’t know that until the end and I wouldn’t have been willing to risk running without it. But now for the race!

The first 1k out of the camp was run on a soft sand road/track that led to a paved highway (I assume a paved road between some Algerian military installations?). We turned on to that road for the next 3k and I’m thinking, “Gee, this is not bad at all – except for my damn water bottle falling out of the pack every 500 ft”. But that was soon to change! At 4k the course turned north into the wind at headed straight across the Sahara desert – no road, no tracks, no trail – for the next 38k! Part of the desert was hard, compacted sand covered with billions of small sharp rocks and the rest was soft, deep sand! I was glad that I had worn trail shoes because the rocks were very treacherous to run on - but the sand was worse. It seemed to take two to three times the effort to run through that sand. A lot of the course was flat but there were also many, many hills or dunes that just seemed to roll on and on forever! The course was marked about every 2 miles with rock markers and/or old tires and water/aid stations were set up about every 5k. I always had another runner in sight ahead of me so had no problem but a few of the runners did get lost for a brief period. But nobody got seriously lost or injured.
There were few mile markers so it was difficult to tell where you were in the race. As I passed through the Half located in another refugee camp called Aoserd I was shocked and dismayed to discover that my time was 1:59. I was running as hard as I could and already my legs felt like they had been beaten with a 2X4. My quads and calves were both killing me – they normally never hurt during a race? I knew at that moment that it was going to be a long tough day and that a sub-4hour marathon was not going to happen for me. I resolved to just keep on running for as long as possible and not to walk!

Unfortunately the 2nd half of the course was harder than the first. By 18 miles I started to go out of my way and off course to find rocks to run on because it was so much easier to run on the rocks than the deep, soft, sucking sand! That turned out to be a slight tactical error because I tripped on a rock and fell and at that same moment both of my calves cramped and locked up in excruciating pain! I dropped immediately on to the desert looking for a position to ease the cramps and pain and trying to stretch and massage both legs. Fortunately I was able to massage the cramps and ease the pain so that I could walk (gingerly) in a few minutes. And soon I was back to running with only minor discomfort! The last 10k of the course followed an ancient riverbed into the camp at Smara. It was flat but really, really deep soft sand! As I approached the camp I could see the finish line with lots of people and flags, etc. Time – about 4:25! I might break 4 ½ hours!
As I neared the finish line a volunteer approached to inform me that I had to make a 90 degree turn and run another ¾ mile scenic loop through the camp BEFORE I reached the finish line. If I had a gun I would have shot her for this cheery, innocent news! I have never been so pissed off and frustrated at the end of a marathon as I was at that precise moment! But I struggled on and finally crossed the finish line in 4:33:58 – the longest time I have ever taken to complete a marathon! At first I was very disappointed in my time and performance – until I talked to the other runners and discovered that most runners took 1 ½ to 2 hours longer than normal. Many of the runners complained that the course had to be at least 5k too long?

Now it was time to find my bags, my new home/tent in Smara, enjoy a promised shower and rest. Yeh –right! Little did I know that my frustration was just beginning! It would take too long to describe all the problems and issues in detail. But here is a quick review of the highlights! Took over an hour to find my bags with my soap, towel, fresh clothes, etc! Discover there are 12 outdoor shower stalls for 80,000 refugees and 400 runners. No problem – the refugees don’t shower and most of the runners are still on the course. Find the showers, strip and wait along with other naked runners for the next shower to become available. There’s one. Oops – a female runner from Italy (no, I can’t tell from her boobs silly –she speaks Italian!) rushes into the shower ahead of me –strips in the shower and begins to bathe! I ask her if I can share the shower (to conserve precious water). She doesn’t understand English but must understand my look/request because she smiles and nods her head as if to say “No, but thanks for your good intentions”! So I have to stand there buck-naked and watch her finish her shower. Now it’s my turn! Damn this water is cold but it feels sooooooo gooooood! Still, I am done in a few minutes because I feel guilty about using too much water? But I feel clean for the first time in 2 days and believe I just might live? Now I am hungry. They promise that a meal will be served at 3pm – in 20 minutes. 4pm – we’re still waiting for the meal! 5pm –they finally bring out the meal and surprise – there is lots of food. I actually get half a chicken and some baby back camel ribs – and rice and some French fries! The best meal and the most food I have eaten in the desert. OK – I’m ready to go to my new home! No! – the Sahrawis and race organizers are not ready for us to rest – doesn’t seem to matter that we are tired/exhausted? We don’t know where our new home/tent is so we are captive. They decide to have an award ceremony (and political speeches) that takes about two hours – no place to sit or lie down – stand for the ceremony! Finally about 8pm (remember, the marathon started at 9am and we have been on our feet with no rest since then) we are shown to our tents by our new hosts. Announcement that a dinner will be served at 10pm. Screw that – I eat a power bar and fall into my new bed/blanket and sleep! Believe me – that is a day that no marathoner would ever want to endure or repeat (except maybe the part with the Italian runner and shower?).

Tuesday –Sahrawi National Day! The itinerary says that there will be lots of celebration events starting at 10am. A parade finally starts at 12pm. The Sahrawi government/military marches almost their entire army and military equipment past us for four hours. Soldiers, camels, trucks, tanks, missile launchers – even mobile SAM missile launchers! I’m not impressed – the army is poorly trained and the equipment is out-of-date surplus Russian hardware. I spend most of the time talking to an American soldier (from Chicago) attached to the UN delegation who gives me the low down on the true situation in the camps. The 12 pm lunch is served at 4pm and again there is lots of food.
There is another parade scheduled for 6pm where the Sahrawi civilians/refugees will do their tribal dances, etc. It finally starts at 9pm and goes on to 3am. I give up and go to bed at 10pm with another power bar because the 8pm dinner has still not been served. I wake up at midnight when I smell something good in our tent. Our hostess has prepared a camel stew for her guests. Damn, it smells good. I eat some –very tasty- and go back to bed to be lulled back to sleep with the celebrations going on till 3am!

Finally it is Wednesday –time to get out of here and back to Madrid. The original planned two days would have been just right! We pack our bags and give everything we don’t want to carry back to our host family and the Sahrawi kids. We all chip in and give our hostess about 15,000 pesetas which is a lot of money for them. Hopefully they will eat very well for the next year! We load the trucks at 10am and get on the buses – and wait for about an hour until our armed military escort shows up to take us back to the Algerian base at Tindouf. We decide to hold a raffle to determine when we may actually leave Algeria (the charter is scheduled for a 1pm departure?). I almost win with a guess of 4:12 pm – we finally get off the ground at 3:52pm!
Sometimes a planeload of passengers will applaud when a plane lands safely – this time we all applauded when the wheels left Algerian soil!

I must admit that I was kind of sad to leave my new girlfriend, Clyde the Camel (whom I think I ate in that farewell stew); but I was very happy to return to the luxury and comfort of Madrid. As soon as we arrived back at the hotel I enjoyed the most wonderful cold beer with many of my new friends and then we all scurried to our rooms for a lonnnnnngggg HOT shower. I can’t describe the look that I gave to Nicole when she innocently asked “Why are you so late –you were supposed to be here hours ago”?
Remember – she went to Barcelona –stayed in a 4-star hotel while she toured Barcelona and Montserrat, and sure as hell didn’t enjoy camel stew? Nobody can ever claim that lady ain’t smart?

But now we have 5 more days in Europe/Spain to tour the country. As I indicated before I had visited Spain previously so decided to take Nicole to Cordoba, Seville and Toledo. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate well as it rained all 5 days. But we still managed to tour all those cities and enjoy all the main attractions. We took a tour bus from Madrid to Seville via Cordoba. In Cordoba we visited the Cathedral and historic Mosque and walked around the Jewish Quarter. We overnighted in Seville before visiting the Cathedral, the bullring, the Real Alcazar, Plaza De Espana and other tourist sights. We caught an AVE (high-speed) train back to Madrid on our own, rested up and left for Toledo the next day. We stayed overnight again in Toledo so that we could casually stroll around the 1,000 year-old walled city and enjoy a typical Toledan dinner at one of the best restaurants. It was the best meal I ate during the trip – even better than camel stew!

And finally it was time to return home! As usual we were looking forward to returning to the comfort and familiarity of our own city, home and friends. And there was no doubt in my mind when I thought of that oft-used expression “What a great country we live in”!
Time to rest up, plan and prepare for our next adventure – to ?

Tuesday, March 06, 2001

TR- Sahara Desert (Algeria) -Part 1

02/21 –03/05/01

Now let’s see. Where do I start? Sometime back in the fall when a few of my running buddies from the BBR called me with a request. They had visited us in Europe in 2000 and we had all run the Paris and London marathons together and had enjoyed a great camaraderie. Thus they requested that I find a spring marathon in some exotic or adventurous location so we could do it again in 2001. I soon discovered a first-ever marathon to be run in the Sahara Desert in Feb. Everyone agreed that this would be a real adventure –we would share a tent in the desert and sleep with Clyde the camel!

However very shortly one member of the team (no names given to protect the guilty – er innocent) backed out with a feeble excuse that he planned to run Boston. Come on, Boston is in April which provides lots of time to recover! Buddy # 2 suddenly decided that he had to go on a motorcycle ride in Mexico at that time? But buddy #3 hung in and said that he was looking forward to the trip and adventure. So the village idiot went ahead and purchased non-refundable air tickets and a non-refundable marathon package! When it got real close to the deadline for the marathon entry and buddy #3 had still not confirmed his entry, the village idiot finally realized that he was going to have Clyde the camel all to himself! A second wonderful surprise came in the form of an announcement from the race director that all runners would spend four days in the desert instead of two as originally planned!

The village idiot’s devoted wife/travel companion/sports manager had decided not to accompany him to the desert since all his running buddies would be with him? But she did plan to travel to Madrid, Spain where the race was being staged from and tour Spain while he enjoyed his adventure in the desert. Also by that time he had discovered that at least three members of the 50+ DC Club were running the marathon and he would have some friends there. So off they set on Feb 21st for the first leg of the journey.

After we (now you know who the village idiot is) arrived in Madrid we had two days to recover from jet lag and explore the city and area. Since I had spent considerable time in Spain and Madrid on previous trips I knew what the main attractions were. We visited the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo in El Escorial. It is known as the 8th wonder of the world. Completed in 1854 by Felipe II as an act of thanks for the victory of San Quintin, when in 1557 the Spanish army conquered the French on the 10th August, the feast day of St Laurence. All the Spanish monarchy are buried in the Royal Tombs.
Then it was on to the Valle De Los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) where Franco built a huge cross (150 meters high) and carved a church inside a solid granite mountain to commemorate those killed in the Civil War. It also serves as his mausoleum. Since I have already provided considerable details on these and other Spanish sites in my previous trip report on Spain I will only gloss over these same attractions in this report.

The marathon package/tour required that all runners be in Madrid for the departure of the charter flights on Friday Feb. 23. On Thursday night the race organizers held an informal dinner in Madrid where they gave us last minute details and fed us a typical local Spanish meal. Since the charter flights left at 6pm, Nicole decided to stay over in Madrid one more day to tour the city and then move on to Barcelona where she would stay until I returned on the 28th. As I and other runners left the hotel for the airport we began to get an idea of how disorganized the race organization was and how frustrating the next four days would turn out. We were left on our own to get to the airport and for some of us smart enough to reserve an airport shuttle we were asked to carry at least one box of race supplies with us; e.g. Paper cups/plates, bottled water, etc. Upon arriving at the airport and going to the Air Algiers counter for a 4pm charter flight we were advised that the flight was two hours late. We finally left at 7pm. Fortunately they did feed us a dinner on the flight and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they even provided wine –on an airplane owned by a Muslim country going to a Muslim country?

We flew directly to an Algerian military base at Tindouf. It is the closest airport to the refugee camps and the most secure since Algeria is experiencing many problems with Muslim terrorists/fundamentalists trying to overthrow the government. Since the Algerian government supports the refugees and supported the marathon (more on this subject soon) we had no problem with immigration or customs. In fact the normally-difficult procedure of getting a visa beforehand had been rubber-stamped for all runners and even the $50 visa fee had been waived. We were passed through quickly and after we unloaded our own baggage and supplies and loaded them on to trucks, we were loaded on to buses and provided an armed military escort to the refugee camps.

What refugee camps you ask? Twenty-five years ago Spain pulled out of Western Sahara and left the country and people to rule themselves. Morocco immediately invaded the country claiming that it had been their territory before Spain took it away. To make a long story short, Morocco kicked the shit out of the Western Saharan people, the Sahrawis. They bombed, burned, looted etc. About 1/3 of the one million Sahrawis fled into the desert in the eastern part of the country. Morocco then built a 10 foot sand berm down the middle of the country from north to south (Morocco to Mauritania) and continued to bomb the Sahrawis in the eastern section causing them to flee further east into the Sahara desert inside Algeria’s borders. Morocco cannot touch them there without creating a war with Algeria. Algeria, Russia, Spain and Cuba are some of the countries that backed (and still support) the Sahrawis –the US and Europe support Morocco and most of the world don’t care!
The Sahrawis have settled into four camps in the Sahara Desert in Algeria named after the hometowns that they fled in Western Sahara. They have no money, no resources and few belongings. They depend solely upon the UN and their supporting nations to exist! The UN provides them with shelter, food and water. Their allies/supporters provide education, training and arms for their military. But the Sahrawis claim that they would rather live this way than live under Moroccan rule!
They know that they cannot beat Morocco in a military war so they have wisely decided to try a political path. They are trying to be recognized by as many countries and world organizations as possible. The Sahara Marathon is a subtle attempt to get recognition by world sports organizations and to be accepted as an Olympic country into the 2004 Olympics.

Now back to our arrival –at 1am- to our first vacation home at the Sahrawi refugee camp in L’Ayoun. The camps have limited electricity and other facilities so there are no streetlights and it is very, very dark! We had been advised that we would be housed in tents and hosted by a Sahrawi family. In actual fact, a Sahrawi family gave up their home or tent and moved in with their family or friends so that six runners could be housed in their home. Each camp is comprised of communities called ‘Dirrahs’ made up of about six families or homes. A group of 3 to 6 runners were assigned to a Dirrah with a host that spoke the language of the runners. I was in tent #1 along with 5 other male runners from the US. After we found our baggage and were introduced to our Sahrawi host, he led us through pitch-black desert to our tent. I was so tired by this time that I just accepted my sheet and blanket, laid them out on the desert floor and went to sleep.

8am. Time to get up. First thing –morning duties? Where is the bathroom –obviously not ensuite! I am directed to a small adobe hut about 200 feet from the tent. Looks like the outhouse at my grandparents’ farm –except no bench – just a hole in the desert floor! Thankfully I brought toilet paper with me. Now to wash. Am I crazy? The UN has to bring in water from wells located at Tindouf and distribute it to metal drums located throughout the camp. The refugees go to the drums with a bucket to collect the water needed for their home. Wash? A waste of precious water! We quickly discover that the refugees don’t wash or bathe – they just spray themselves and their clothes 2 or 3 times a day with perfume to mask body odor. We are offered the same amenities. Again, thankfully I have brought a box of handi-wipes to at least clean my hands and face.
Now for a scrumptious refugee breakfast. Some homemade bread that is actually very tasty if you can forget the grit of the sand that has blown into the dough. It is served with honey or maybe some goat cheese and a cup of coffee. We assume that the host family has been paid or given extra money from our entry fees to cover the cost of feeding the runners – otherwise they would never have had enough food?

Now that my tummy is full, it is time to explore my new vacation home. My host stops me before I can leave the tent. It is dangerous to go outside without glasses and a turban –glasses to protect your eyes and a turban to protect the rest of your head. From what? SAND! There is always a wind blowing and the sand is so fine that it gets into every pore and opening in your body. Fortunately he gives all his guests a beautiful black turban and teaches us how to put them on (we of course insist that he accept payment for the turbans). Now it is safe to venture outside. I explore by myself and soon find myself on the edge of the camp where they house the animals –camels, goats and a few chickens. The chickens provide eggs, goats provide milk and camels are used to carry people and supplies. And, as I was soon to discover, all three provide the only meat and protein available to the refugees! As I am walking around several children approach me and ask many questions – in Spanish! It turns out that the three basic Spanish lessons that I took before the trip were very helpful as I was able to carry on a very basic conversation with the kids. We had been advised to bring presents for the kids and I proceeded to hand out a lot of pencils and crayons which made the kids very happy.

Time to go back to the tent and determine what the agenda is for the day. And time to learn the next most important lesson of the trip! Time has no meaning in the desert and especially to the Sahrawis! They have been sitting/existing in the desert for 25 years with absolutely nothing to do but try to survive. If an event or activity –say a meal or festivity – is scheduled for say 1pm; you can count on it being at least 2 to 3 hours late. But late is a civilized concept! If your main concern is staying alive, you don’t really care if you eat at 1pm or 4pm – as long as you eat! But they tried to fool us by providing us with an itinerary for our four-day visit. We quickly learned that the only useful information on the itinerary was that a specific event would happen that day! As an example – a serious example- let me tell you about our first lunch. The race organization decided that the best way to feed 400 runners would be a community buffet for lunch and dinner. Our first lunch was supposed to be at 1pm. We waited at the designated site –a community admin center for three hours and finally they opened the doors at 4pm for lunch. Fortunately I was near the front of the line and rushed to a buffet table where you had to quickly grab whatever food was available and eat standing up. By the time the end of the line got to the tables there was no food left!

What was the food? Near as I could tell without wasting time to do a survey (and go hungry) was bread, some salads with mostly onion and tomatoes, a stew and typically a roasted meat. The meats as discussed were either camel or goat. I only saw chicken at one meal. And believe me goat and camel are tough and stringy no matter how they are prepared. I had great difficulty cutting off a chunk of camel or goat from a roast let alone chewing it once I got some on my plate!
Every meal had bottled water or coke to drink. I refused to eat the salads because I was afraid that they had been prepared with local water? I stuck to the bread and camel/goat and never had any problems with my intestines.

During that first day in the camps the Sahrawis had some local cultural events that were very interesting such as camel races, dances, etc. You just had to show up 2 or 3 hours late to enjoy them.

Since this report is taking longer than I expected I will split it into two sections. Section 2 with the Marathon and National day Celebrations will follow later.
Adios for now!