Friday, November 28, 2008

TR - Suriname

11/19 – 11/24/08

Race Results
Suriname Srefidensi Marathon
Paramaribo, Suriname
Sat, Nov 22/08
Marathon # 311 – Country #96
4:02:16 - 1 AG

Country # 96 – SIX Down – Four to go!

This marathon and country came to my attention and plans when a friend from the Netherlands ran it a few years ago. The first question from many readers is “Where is Suriname”? It is the former Dutch Guiana and is located on the NE coast of South America between British Guyana and French Guiana and bordered on the South by Brazil. It is not easy to get to! After much research I decided to route through Trinidad & Tobago because the connections were easier and cheaper. The next problem was getting information and registered for the race. There is no website or info on the Net but I finally managed to contact a Captain in the Suriname Army who was organizing the race. The race is organized and managed by the Army!

I was on my way and all went well until I arrived in Trinidad and tried to board the connecting flight for Suriname. The airline refused to allow me on the flight because I had no visa! Visa? Somehow it never occurred to me (after all my travels) to check for a visa since most countries in SA do not require one or it can be purchased at the airport if needed. But not Suriname! I had to scramble and develop a Plan B on the fly because it was not acceptable NOT to get to Suriname and run the marathon. All my plans and arrangements were in place to run Country #100 and Suriname had to be # 96!

I checked with Information at the airport to confirm that there was a Suriname Embassy in Port of Spain. It was closed for the day so I would have to spend the night in POS and go to the embassy early. I managed to book a hotel near the Embassy and tackle the next hurdle. Trinidad and POS had been experiencing rain for the past week and the city was suffering from floods and landslides. It took 3 hours for a taxi to drive me 20Kms to the hotel because of the horrendous traffic jams due to streets closed and flooded! I was waiting at the door for the Embassy to open at 8 am. And I was worried because the notice on the door read ” You must apply for a Visa at least one week prior to departure”! I had bad visions of returning home to the US without running country # 96! However I talked to the head honcho, explained the problem and the fact that I had worked with Capt. Klein of the Suriname Army to help with the marathon and had provided free publicity for the race on my website. Thankfully they processed my Visa in 2 hrs and I was ready (and legal) to continue on to Suriname.

It was another 3-hr drive to the airport and a long wait over many Trini beers waiting for the late night flight. I finally arrived in Suriname at 1 am – and 1 day late. The airport was built by the Americans during WWII to protect the bauxite mines that were the main source of aluminum for the war effort so the airport was built near the mines and miles from the capital city of Paramaribo. I finally arrived at the hotel at 2 am and had to wake at 7 am to take a boat tour on the Suriname River. Suriname has a population of 500,000 – half live in Paramaribo with the next biggest city having a population of 8,000!
27% of the people are East Indian, 18% Creole, 15% Amerindians, 15 % Javanese and Chinese and 25% others. Many of the small villages are still inhabited by descendants of the original workers who were slaves or indentured workers from India, China, Philippines, etc. The boat cruised down the Suriname River towards the Atlantic and made a stop at New Amsterdam. The local story is that the Dutch traded New York for New Amsterdam (if so the Brits got the better of that deal). We toured Fort Amsterdam, built to protect the colony and plantations before continuing the cruise to the Commewijne River. We cruised up the Commewijne River where we visited the Frederiksdorp Plantation for lunch and stopped at Margrita and Rust & Werk – small settlements still inhabited by descendants of the original plantation workers. The only access to these villages is by boat and there are no roads in the villages. And no A/C – and the heat is unbearable! (See photos on website).This is the typical tour in Suriname – mostly Eco tours where you cruise on rivers and visit rain forests and Amerindians and sleep in tents in mosquito-infested forests! Not my cup of tea!

On Fri I needed to meet Capt. Klein to get more info on the race so I was not able to take any organized tours. Instead I did a self-guided walking tour of Paramaribo to take photos to share with my readers. I visited the historic section of the city – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I toured the Presidential Palace, Fort Zeelandia, the Waterkant and Independence Square where the race would start/finish. Then I passed a Synagogue and Mosque side –by-side that is indicative of how well the multi-cultural society gets along! I quickly learned that the heat (and sun) was unbearable between 11 am and 4 pm!

I had called Capt. Klein to learn that the marathon started at 5:30 pm on Sat and there was a pasta party on Fri night where more race details would be provided. There was a Dutch Army team staying at the same hotel and I was invited to join them to be picked up by an army bus. There were 3 runners and a coach and all spoke English which was a big help. Dutch is the official language of Suriname but most people in the capital speak English. However the presentation at the pasta party was completely in Dutch so I had to find a few volunteers to learn the specific details I needed for the race! My only complaint about the marathon was that there was NO information before, during or after the race - in English – and that led to a few problems for me! Another complaint was that I had requested Bib # 96 and they did not reserve it for me – although they reserved special bib #s for other racers that were presented during the party?

Sat was M- Day! But the race started at 5:30 pm so I had a whole day to kill? I knew that the city would close down on Sun so I did my final souvenir shopping on Sat morning and stayed in my A/C room for the afternoon. A thunderstorm began at 4 pm that was good/bad news:
Good News: The rain lowered the temps from the low 90s to the mid 80s for the start of the race
Bad News: The rain increased the humidity into the 80s (%) and the temps didn’t drop much after dark.

Fortunately I arrived at the start line around 5 pm because the Dutch coach grabbed me and informed me that I had to weigh in. Nobody informed me of that requirement at the pasta party and I had specifically asked if I needed to be at the start line early? Because of the extreme heat and humidity the weight of every runner was taken before and after the race. If a runner lost too much weight (i.e. fluids) he would be taken to the medical tent for IVs at the end of the race! I was going to make sure that didn’t happen! There was a formal starting ceremony with the Minister of Sports and other dignitaries in attendance. There were about 40 runners in the marathon, 60 in the relay and 80 runners in the Half.
As I was waiting on the start line I met two Old Farts/competitors in my Age Group – one from Barbados and one from Suriname. The Barbados runner stated that he hoped to finish under 4 hrs! I didn’t think that was reasonable (for me) with the heat but I decided that I would try to stay close to him? The race started on time and I passed 1km in 5:03! Way too fast for the heat & humidity! I tried to slow down but passed both AG competitors by the time I reached 3Km in 15:22. Surprisingly/happily there were distance markers every Km which really helped to monitor/control my pace and there were water stations every 3 Km. I drank one bottle of water (500ml) and poured one over my head/body at every station starting at 3 Km – I wanted to make sure hydration didn’t become a problem! I finally managed to settle into a smooth/easy pace by the time I passed 5 Km in 27:06 and 10Km in 53:22. I had been following a group of four young runners who were running a wee bit faster than I wanted to run but it was easier to let them pull me through the course. I was disappointed when they turned off near 11 Km for the Half and I found myself all alone! It had already turned dark and there were no runners in front of me! I ran the next 14 Km alone! Fortunately the course was well-managed with lots of volunteers and police. The roads were closed to traffic and there volunteers at every intersection. The temps didn’t seem to drop much with darkness and without anyone to push me there wasn’t much incentive to hurt so I eased off the pace. And without any runners to follow I had to focus on following the course in the dark which meant I couldn’t let the endorphins lull me into la-la land! I could read my splits but not total time in the dark which didn’t help much. As I approached the Half I could see runners coming in the opposite direction on the far side of the boulevard but I had no idea where the turn-around was or how far they were ahead of me? I reached the Half and stopped under a street light to read my watch – 1:57:28! I was surprised that my time was that fast?

And I was pleasantly surprised when I reached a turn-around point at 23 KM (2:08:08). That meant that there were runners about 1 Km ahead of me – finally some motivation to hurt and push the pace! And for extra and more serious motivation the Old Fart from Barbados was only about ½ Km behind me! Clearly he had been following me and keeping me in sight! I decided to dig deep, push the pace and pull in the runners ahead of me. That strategy should also take care of the competitor chasing me? I caught the first runner at 25 Km (2:19:28) and started pulling in many more over the next 15 Km. However when I passed 30 Km (2:42:21) I could feel my energy waning and my legs started to tighten? I figured it had to be the heat – I was drinking water like crazy and still hadn’t made a pit stop? When I reached 32 Km I stopped under a street light to check my time – 3:00:00! I would have to finish the final 10Km in 1 hour to break 4 hrs! I dug deep again and tried to push the pace but my legs started to tighten up and I eased off! I caught a young runner at 35Km (3:19:02) and encouraged him to stay with me to the finish line. Surprisingly he responded and ran with me. He was from French Guiana and I immediately seized the opportunity to ask about marathons in that country. He informed me that there are two marathons and gave me the website for his running club. Then he asked/demanded that I be quiet to save energy so he could be sure to pull me across the finish line. Sure- right! I dug deep and pushed the pace in response and by the time I passed 38 Km he had mysteriously disappeared?

When I reached the final water station at 39 Km I stopped to check my time. It was actually 3:43:11 but my old eyes misread it to be 3:45 in the dim light? I would have to run a 5 min/Km pace for the final
3 Km and I didn’t think that was possible. But I wouldn’t know unless I tried so I dug as deep as I could and lowered the hammer. All went well for about 1 Km and then both legs started to tighten and warning signals were going off to indicate that they were both close to cramping! I didn’t want to risk a serious cramp or injury just to break 4 hours so I wisely backed off the pace and continued jogging. When I reached 41 Km near Independence Square I tried to pick up the pace again in response to the cheers from the spectators but again my legs sent warning bells that they were close to cramping and I wisely jogged across the finish line in 4:02:16.

I was escorted directly to the weigh station where I learned that I had lost 1.5 Kg (3.5 lbs) in spite of drinking gallons/liters of water during the race. Fortunately it was within safety limits and I didn’t need any IVs. Since I had no idea what the Age Groups were or if there were any awards I decided to go back to the hotel for a long hot shower. I returned about one hour later and was grabbed by the coach of the Dutch team who explained that I had just missed the awards for my age group and had won 1st place! He accompanied me to the podium and helped me collect the 1st place trophy for Men 55+ and an envelope. I was shocked when I opened it and found $200 (US) cash! Well I had plenty of extra money to buy Suriname beers to celebrate! When I finished a (very) late dinner and beers at 2 am they were still drinking/partying at the outdoor cafes and in the streets?

On Sundays the country and city closes down. There are no tours, no shops open, etc. I tried to relax around the hotel pool with a beer but Maddog could only stand inactivity for about 30 minutes and then we explored another section of the Historic city and took more photos to share with my readers. I enjoyed a seafood dinner at a nice restaurant overlooking the Suriname River - a local fish called ‘bang bang’ – OK but not great! Since I had an early (6am) flight the hotel shuttle left for the airport at 2:30am!

I am back home and catching up on sleep after all those early mornings! I have three weeks to rest and prepare for the final two marathons/adventures before the end of the year. Fortunately the next trip will be a quick/easy direct flight to Puerto Rico. I think I can see a light at the end of the tunnel?

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

TR - Tunisia - Part 2

10/25 – 11/5/08
Part 2

Now where were we? Oh yes! It was Sat and Race Day in the Sahara Desert!

The races were scheduled to start at 8am so we were bussed out into the desert near Nefta to a location close to a highway where the final 10Km (that we had driven a few days before) began. The weather was nice- sunny and in the high 50s (F) around 8 am – and no siroccos! I expected the marathon to start at 8am but instead they ran a few fun races for the kids. I was concerned about the delay and missing the cool morning temps but it was fun to watch the kids participate with their parents and all the runners cheering them on. The marathon/half/10K finally started at 8:45am.

Although there were water stations every 2.5 Km I wore a water belt for two reasons:
1) For safety (I wanted a supply of water with me at all times)
2) To carry a new, small compact camera I had bought with the intention to take photos along the course (if the race wasn’t competitive)
There were two loops/courses – a 10Km loop and a half-marathon loop. We all ran the same course to the 4.5Km mark where the 10Km runners turned left for the shorter loop. I let the 10Km runners surge ahead and lead the way. Jean Jacques had warned me that the course was difficult and not to expect to finish under 5 hours! From what I had seen of the course I agreed and figured 5 hours was a reasonable goal?

The course had been laid out with Quads that had left a track across the desert that was also marked with blue plastic bags. At first everyone ran in the tracks made by the Quads thinking that they had compacted the sand and made an easier path? I soon learned that it was easier to run off the tracks on the virgin desert. The desert had a thin crust on the surface. The Quads had broken through the crust and the tracks were soft and deep! However if I ran on the hard crust the footing was much better and faster! As we reached the turn-off point at 4.5Km for the 10K runners I thought I might be lonely until four runners passed me and continued on the half-marathon course. There were two females and two male runners and one male looked like he was in my Age Group? They were running just a wee bit faster than me so I decided to drop in behind and follow them. A pattern quickly emerged. I would catch up to them at each water station where everyone would stop to drink water and leave the cup at the station (environmental rules). It would take them about 30 secs to drink their water and take off again and build up another short lead on me. I also stopped at each water station even though I was carrying a full bottle of water – don’t know why? When we reached a water stop at 9.5Km (52:15) we turned into the desert towards the Chott el-Gharsa. The next 5 Kms of the course crossed a series of small sand dunes – called ‘dunettes’. That was tough running! The dunettes were only 1 to 3m high but were continuous – like running a washboard! It was difficult to maintain any kind of rhythm and I soon found myself falling farther behind the group of four in front of me. After a few Km they had increased their lead to about 250m and although I could see 10 Km across the desert I had difficulty finding them in the dunettes. I needed to close the lead and pushed the pace! I passed both females in the next 2 Km and the young male runner as we approached a water station at 14.5Km (1:26:16). Only the ‘old fart’ remained ahead of me and when he saw me closing the lead he pushed his pace and increased his lead again. At that point the course left the dunettes and ran across the Chott el-Gharsa. On this section of the course it was easier and faster to stay in the Quad tracks since they had compacted the soft lake surface. We reached the next water stop at 17 Km (1:36:47) where the course left the Chott and started into a series of huge BASDs (Bad Ass Sand Dunes)! They were the same ones we had surfed a few days before and ranged from 10 to 20m in height! I wasn’t sure how to run/tackle those BASDs? I tried to run in the Quad tracks like the old fart ahead of me. Disaster! I quickly sank up to my knees in sand! I moved out of the tracks and looked for an unused (virgin) route up the BASDs. I learned that if I stayed on the crust and landed ‘softly’ and moved my feet quickly they would barely sink into the sand and I was able to climb those BASDs quickly and easily! Descending was trickier because gravity and momentum caused the foot plant to be heavier and it was necessary to turn my feet over faster to prevent them from sinking into the sand once I broke through the crust. Using this desert strategy I caught up to the old fart at the top of the final BASD! He responded by taking off like a scared rabbit?

He had a slight advantage – he knew I was running the marathon but I wasn’t sure if he was and I didn’t want to waste energy trying to pass a half-marathon runner. I decided to follow him to the (Half) finish line (21Km) and if he was running the marathon I would need a better strategy than just chasing him? I decided in the 2nd half I would start using my water bottle and skip the water stations which would save me several minutes. I followed the old fart into the water station at the half finish line in 2:03:03! Damn – that was a lot faster than I thought possible for that course! And I finally got a look at his Bib #2 – that meant he was running the marathon! I skipped the water station and continued through the finish line to begin the 10Km loop. I wasn’t surprised when he charged by me around 22 Km. This SOB was not going to give up! I decided to run a smooth easy pace, drink water from my bottle every 15 minutes and follow this worthy competitor through the first section of the 10Km loop. It was easier to follow him than trying to follow the Quad tracks and spot the blue course markers. Once we returned to the Chott and the BASDs I could take the lead. When he reached the first water station on the 10Km loop he made his first mistake – he skipped the water stop because I was too close? Hydration would be important by the end of the race! When we reached the next water station at 25.5 Km (2:31:40) he was forced to stop for water and I passed him. This was the point where the 10Km loop turned into the desert and started into the dunettes for the second time. I was happy when he came charging by me again to take the lead through the dunettes because it was easier to follow him than to follow the course. When we left the dunettes and started across the Chott for the second time he made his second mistake. He ran a tangent or short-cut across the Chott! Initially I followed him but quickly realized the surface was too soft and required a lot of energy/effort to run and moved back to the Quad tracks. I ran farther but expended less energy. When we left the Chott and started up the BASDS for the final time he had increased his lead to 250m but I used my proven desert strategy and looked for virgin routes up and down the BASDs. I caught him again at the top of the final BASD. I expected him to take off again but this time he ran with me for the next 1 Km back to start/32Km point?

I was going to ask him what age group he was in so we could determine if it would be necessary to kill each other over the final 10Km but then I thought to myself “No I don’t want to know. He has pushed me through this course faster than I thought possible and he is hurting me – but he isn’t killing me! If I find out we are in different age groups I will probably slow down!” I decided it was better if I believed he was in my age group and I had to beat his ass! We reached the water stop at 32Km in 3:11:11. We both stopped for water but he gained a logistical advantage when there were no bottles of water readily available to refill my water bottle. By the time I refilled my bottle and looked up he had established a lead of 250m! He had thrown the gauntlet down! It was clear that he was not going to quit and it was going to be an ugly/painful pissing match for the final 10Km!

I was not concerned for two reasons:
1) We had driven the final 10Km a few days before and I knew it was a 4X4 track used by all the tour groups to drive back into Nefta. It was firm and compact and that section of the course would be more like a road race – my preference and strength!
2) The final 10Km would come down to guts and willingness to accept pain! I had all the confidence in the world in Maddog’s willpower and ability to accept pain.

Let the pissing match begin!

I lowered the hammer and began the chase. My heart monitor started beeping wildly to warn me that it had exceeded 90% Max. I ignored it and continued to push the pace. But each time I would close the lead to 100m that SOB would respond and push harder! He had earned my respect but Maddog was pissed and even more motivated to bury his ass! We dug deeper and pushed harder and ignored the frantic beeps of my heart monitor (now at 95% Max) and were rewarded when we noticed that the old fart started to fade around 34Km! At 34.5Km he made his final – and fatal - mistake! He skipped the water station! It was now Noon and the sun was getting hot - hydration would be critical over the final 7Km. Sure enough he soon faded - the lead closed and I passed him around 36Km. I was sure that he would try to respond and stay with me so I accelerated when I blew by him to discourage any response. I never let up or looked back for fear he would consider it a weakness!
When I passed the water station at 36.6Km (3:42:34) I hoped that he would be wise and desperate enough to stop for water? I continued to push the pace and did not look back until Jean Jacques came by in a Quad. I stopped to refill my water bottle and stole a glance back. I had a lead of 250m but the old fart was still coming after me. Jean J informed me that I had about 3 Km to the finish line and I was in fifth place. I now had a full water bottle and a good lead for the final push. When I reached the Palmeraie and made a left turn at 40Km I stole another glance over my shoulder – my lead had increased to 500m. I knew I had him! I looked at my watch – just over 4 hours. Damn - if I could hold a fast pace I could finish under 4:15?

The final 2Km through the Palmeraie were on a firm service road shaded by palm trees so I allowed myself to slow just a wee bit to ease the pain level and quiet my heart monitor! When I reached the end of the Palmeraie and started up a short steep hill into Nefta I could see a course marker indicating a sharp left turn and it read “Arrivee a 100 m”. I glanced at my watch – 4:12. I decided to sprint up the hill and the final 100m. All was going well until I reached the top of the hill and changed my momentum to make the hard turn. My right hamstring cramped and locked up! I tried to ignore it and limp across the finish line but the cramp/pain was so severe I was forced to stop 50m before the finish line to stretch and massage the leg for one minute to ease the pain enough to limp/drag the leg across the finish line at the Hotel Caravanserail in 4:13:27!

Needless to say I was happy – ecstatic – with my race. That was one of my best and most satisfying race performances in a long time! I had finished 5th Overall and my time of 4:13 qualified for Boston. In fact I was the only runner in the marathon (including the Tunisian who won in 3:37) that finished that tough desert course with a BQ time!

I walked/limped around the finish area to wait for my friend/competitor to finish in 4:18. I finally asked him his age? SHIT – only 52! But I didn’t care and I thanked him for pushing me to a fast finish. I am not sure he shared my appreciation? We both waited for the winning female to finish in 4:37 before we enjoyed a log hot shower and a nice BBQ lunch at the hotel – washed down with a few COLD Tunisian beers of course! After lunch all runners were bussed back to our hotel in Tozeur to rest and prepare for the awards ceremony and post-race party on Sat evening.

Sat evening started with an awards ceremony that was well organized and began with awards presented to the kids for the fun run. Since I did not finish in the top three I had to be satisfied with an award for winning my AG. It was a lovely ceramic plate hand-made by a local artisan. I like those kinds of awards. Following the ceremony we enjoyed a great post-race dinner and party with champagne/beer/wine and dancing. It was my farewell dinner with my new friends.

On Sun morning we were bussed back out to the Jebel en-Nebeg Range near Degache for a short hike into a canyon. The tour staff had driven 4X4s into the canyon and set up a stereo/PA system so we could listen to classical music in the canyon (with amazing acoustics) while sipping champagne for a final toast to friends and a great week! I had to pack and leave for the airport after the hike since I was flying back to Tunis. I had decided that if I was going all the way to Tunisia I might as well visit Tunis for a few days?
The main tour group left Mon so I figured I would be alone on the flight to Tunis but the winner of the marathon – a doctor from Tunis was also on my flight so we enjoyed a long discussion about the race and marathons. I now have a good contact in Tunisia for future info on Tunisia and N. Africa.

I arrived at my hotel in Ville Nouvelle in time for a late dinner. I ate nothing but seafood for the 3 days I was in Tunis – a whole grilled fish with a bottle of wine cost less than $20 – and I was sick of buffet food! Tunis is the capital of Tunisia with a population of 2 Million. What a difference from Tozeur. The traffic and streets were so busy there was no way I could run. I decided my legs deserved a few days to rest!

Tunis dates back to the 8th Century BC when the Phoenicians founded the city of Carthage on Byrsa Hill. At the end of the 3rd Punic War in 146 BC the Romans destroyed Carthage and built the 3rd largest Roman city outside of Italy on top of the ruins. In the 4th and 5th centuries Carthage was ruled by the Vandals (Vikings) and the Byzantines before being captured by the Arabs in 695 AD. The Arabs destroyed the Roman city and used the building materials to build a new city in Tunis in an area called the Medina. In the 19th Century the colonizing French built Ville Nouvelle (new town). Medina is now a listed Unesco World heritage site.

On Mon I walked through the Port de France into the Medina and followed the advice of my guide book and wandered aimlessly among the Souks (markets) and back alleys of the old city. I visited the Zaytouna (Great) Mosque, the Place de la Kasbah and other tourist sites during my walking tour. I was not worried about getting lost because I could always ask for directions to the Mosque or the Port de France! After many hours of wandering and getting lost I finally had enough harassment by the souvenir hawkers and scam artists and decided to retreat back to Ville Nouvelle to visit the few tourist sites in that section of the city. Ave Habib Bourguiba – the main boulevard- is lined with shops, bars and cafes. Most of the bars and cafes have outdoor patios on the Ave. It seemed strange to watch the locals sipping coffee and water at the outdoor patios. A strange Islamic law forbade alcohol outside. It was permissible to drink a beer inside the cafĂ© but everyone smoked and the bars were not pleasant to sit in!

I was supposed to meet up with a German friend (travel agent) who was escorting some clients to the Sahara Desert but somehow we mixed up our dates and never did connect? However he had kindly arranged for a private English-speaking guide to tour me around the sites outside of Tunis on Tue. The guide picked me up at 9am and we drove directly to Byrsa Hill in Carthage. We visited the Antonine Baths, the La Marsa Cisterns and the Musee de Carthage. The Roman ruins were a disappointment (for reasons given above) especially when I have seen very well preserved Roman ruins in other parts of Africa and the Middle East! The modern suburbs of Carthage built around the ruins are now an exclusive residential area for ambassadors and the wealthy of Tunisia. The location and views are spectacular - just like they have been for thousands of years!

From Carthage we drove to Sidi Bou Said, another suburb located on the coast. All the buildings are painted white and blue (by law) and it is very picturesque with stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea and Carthage! Because of the setting it is home to many artists and poets.

We concluded the tour with a visit to the Bardo Museum. It is housed in one of Tunisia’s finest palaces – the former residence of the Husseinite beys - built in the 12th century and refurbished in the 17th century. The palace is magnificent itself with Moorish tiles on the walls and artwork and sculptured ceilings and it contains the largest collection of Roman and Byzantine mosaics in the world! I am not much of a museum person but I was awed by all the magnificent mosaics – many looked like the day they had been made. There were also exhibits of Phoenician and Roman antiquities. And the oldest exhibit I had ever seen – a religious monument that was supposedly 40,000 years old!

After a hard and exciting day of tours I returned to the bars/cafes of Ave Habib Bourguiba to relax and enjoy a few COLD Tunisian beers- and a delicious seafood dinner! It was time to go home!

I am back home with only a few weeks to train for the next marathon/adventure in South America!

Stay tuned!

Monday, November 10, 2008

TR - Tunisia Part 1

10/25 – 11/5/08
Part 1

Race Results
Defis Du Chott
Nefta (Sahara Desert), Tunisia
Sat, Nov 1/08
Marathon #310 – Country #95
4:13:27 - 5 OA – 1 AG

Country # 95 – FIVE down – FIVE to go!

Although this trip and marathon turned out very well, planning and booking the trip was one of the worst nightmares I ever experienced in all my travels! When I was planning my final schedule to break the world record I needed a marathon in late Oct/early Nov and there were only two options available – Tunisia and Kenya. Kenya never responded to my emails so Tunisia became the only option. I located a tour agency in Paris that was organizing a tour and marathon in the Sahara Desert. I contacted them and quickly negotiated a package to join a French tour/running group in Tunisia. And then the nightmare began! The tour operator insisted on payment before making any arrangements (reasonable) but demanded payment in cash! Attempts to wire the funds and send a bank draft both failed (and cost me more than $100 in service fees) – and the agency’s (arrogant and uncaring) attitude was “not my problem – no money – no trip!” I desperately searched for an alternative trip/marathon rather than risk losing more money trying to send money to the uncaring and unprofessional agency and fortunately I found another tour agency in Paris offering a similar marathon package in the Sahara Desert at the same time? I contacted that agency and they worked hard to develop a tour package around the flights I had already booked to Tunisia and accepted payment via credit card. The staff of Hypervacances were professional and a pleasure to work with. The reason I tell this story is to warn all my readers to avoid an agency called ‘Association Carthago’ and the owner Azdine Ben Yacoub unless you want to risk losing your money and suffer a similar nightmare in service!

After I solved my nightmare I was able to relax and go on to planning other marathons/countries until it came close to trip time and I had to train for a marathon in the desert. Fortunately I had run a previous marathon in the Sahara Desert (see Archives March 01 - Algeria) and knew what to expect. Thus when I returned from the marathon in Nicaragua in early Oct I trained for two weeks on the beaches on Longboat Key to get my legs and ankles accustomed to running in the soft/uneven sand. I also confirmed quickly that my trail shoes offered the best support for running on sand. I was ready!

My modified tour package had me arriving in Tozeur in Southern Tunisia one day before the main group arrived from France. Philippe, the tour operator, picked me up at the airport. He spoke very limited English so we communicated in French! He informed me that one of his staff spoke good English and would arrive on Mon evening with the main group. Since Mon was a ‘free’ day for me I woke early and enjoyed an easy 10-mile running tour of Tozeur and the Palmeraie. Tozeur (35,000) like all towns in Southern Tunisia is located on an oasis and has the 2nd largest Palmeraie in the country with 250,000 date palms. The dates were being harvested while we were there. By the end of the run I was familiar with the layout of the town and the main roads through the Palmeraie and later that day explored more of the town on foot. By the time the main group arrived I was ready to move out of our 3-star hotel – the TV and A/C didn’t work? When I complained the manager explained that the wind had damaged the Satellite system (and he wasn’t optimistic or concerned that it would be fixed soon?) and they had turned the A/C off for the winter? The TV I was willing to live without because it meant I would get no political/election BS from the USA for one week but the A/C was a bigger issue. It was still hot during the day and the rooms had no windows to open to let cool air in at night! I was hoping that the main group would also be upset but neither of these problems got fixed during our week-long stay?

When the main group arrived Mon evening I was relieved to meet Jean Marie who did speak good English so I could learn more details about the itinerary. On Tue we would visit the desert in 4X4s and he asked me to join him in his 4X4. For the first few days I stuck close to Jean M because few members of the tour group seemed to speak English? My French is OK for basic conversation but not good enough to understand lots of details! On Tue morning our 4X4 caravan headed out into the Chott (Salt Lake) el-Gharsa. There are two large Salt Lakes – Chott el-Gharsa and Chott el-Jerid near Tozeur covering
5,000 sq KM. The caravan stopped along Chott el-Gharsa so that we could ride Quads (ATVs) on the salt beds. The next stop was Ong Jemal (Neck of the Camel) – a rock formation that looks like a camel that overlooks Chott el-Gharsa and lots of sand dunes. Close to Ong Jemal is Mos Espa – a very well preserved Star Wars film set. After enjoying Star Wars we headed into some massive sand dunes to surf the dunes in our 4X4s. That was a lot of fun but some of the 4X4s were driven by race staff whom were not experienced in the desert and we spent a lot of time digging and pulling 4X4s out of sand dunes! There is a technique to surfing sand dunes that I learned from Bedouin drivers in the UAE a few years ago and the French drivers did not know it!

After enjoying lunch at a Bedouin camp we participated in camel races. That was lots of fun and served as a good way for the group to meet and bond. A few people even started talking to the ‘ugly’ American – in French and English! Jean M informed me that some of the dunes we had been surfing were on the marathon course and on the way back to the hotel we drove the final 10Km of the marathon course into Nefta – another Oasis town. During happy hour I met a few couples/families from the French Riviera (Nice and Cannes) who invited me to join them for dinner. We became good friends during the week and invited each other to visit our homes.

On Wed we loaded into the 4X4s again for another trip into the Sahara Desert - only this time Philippe changed all the groups to force people to meet others in the group. We drove along a causeway that separates the Chott el-Jerid and provides a spectacular view of the Chott and salt piles that look like snowfields. We stopped at the small oasis village of Bechri where winds had sculpted the sand into rugged and magnificent natural shapes and sculptures. Then we continued south through Kebili into the Southern Sahara to Es-Saiba where we encountered a sirocco – a sandstorm! The Bedouin call it “la neige de sable” – “the snow of sand”! I sucked in enough sand to coat my lungs with a permanent sand filter and will not have to worry about digestion for awhile! I prayed that the weather was better on race day! We quickly left Saiba to drive to Douz – the gateway to the Southern Sahara and the Grand Erg Oriental – the largest sand sea in the Sahara. Douz has the largest Palmeraie in the country with 500,000 palm trees. We ate lunch in Douz but the sirocco was also blowing there and we ingested lots of sand along with our food! After returning to the hotel it took me 30 minutes to wash sand out of every orifice in my body!

Thu was a ‘free’ day for the group so I decided to make one final easy 7-mile training run through the Palmeraie before spending the rest of the day walking around Tozeur to take photos to share with my readers. Tozeur is famous for its amazing traditional brickwork that is unique to that area of Tunisia. I spent a few hours touring and taking photos in Ouled-el-Hadef (the old quarter) where the brickwork and doors are spectacular! (See photos). Since most meals were included in the tour package I figured lunch on my free day was the best opportunity to enjoy a Camel steak. It was delicious – better than any buffet meal I ate at the hotel! After lunch I finished my walk/tour with a visit to the Belvedere Rocks – an outcrop of rocks with the head of Abdulkacem Chebbi (a famous Tunisian poet) carved into one end. Steps carved into the rocks provide a spectacular view of sunsets over the Palmeraie and the Tozeur golf course.

On Thu evening the rest of the tour group arrived – mainly hard-core runners who signed up just for the races! I was eager to find out how many more runners had arrived and how many were running the marathon. Most of the guests in the initial tour group were not runners and had joined the tour to play in the desert. I had not met one person running the marathon? When I picked up my race bib (#95!) Jean M informed me that there were a total of 115 runners – 12 in the marathon- 30 in the Half and 70+ runners in the 10Km.

Fri was another group activity – a hike into the Jebel en-Nebeg Mountain Range near the Algerian border. It sounded interesting so I decided to participate even though it was the day before the race.
We arrived in Chebika at the foot of the mountains at 10 am – it was cold and raining? We started off in a canyon below the ruins of old Chebika and past a spring-fed stream and brilliant blue pools. Then we started to climb into the mountains. After crossing two ranges I started to wonder if I had made a wise decision? The views were awesome but it was not an easy hike – and much longer than I expected?
Finally (3 hours later) we could see our destination in a canyon in the distance – Tamerza – and started our descent into a magnificent canyon. It reminded me a lot of the SIQ in Petra, Jordan. At the end of the canyon we emerged into the oasis at Tamerza with the green Palmeraie and a waterfall – a very contrasting and spectacular view! We enjoyed lunch in Tamerza while being entertained by some locals jamming with drums and flutes. A fun time – only hope it didn’t mess up my legs too badly?

There was a pre-race meeting on Fri evening (in French) followed by a pasta dinner. I got together with Jean Jacques whom laid out the marathon course to clarify some specific details that I needed to prepare for the race. I was ready!

Sat was Race day! However I will leave the exciting details of the race for Part 2 and let you rest up for the excitement!

Stay tuned!

A quick side note. During my stay in Tozeur I noticed many signs advertising the ‘other’ marathon. The Tozeur Trail Marathon was also being run on Sat and it started at the Ong Jemal – close to where the Defis Du Chott started? Yes – there were two marathons being run on the same day by different organizers! The ‘other’ race was of course the event that I tried unsuccessfully to register for. The Defis du Chott has been held for 15 consecutive years – the ‘other’ race is only three years old and the race operator is trying to put the older/established race out of business. Good luck with his arrogant attitude!