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 café 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!

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