Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Running the Sahara, Part 6

by Jeffrey S. Peterson, MD

As our entourage approached Cairo, it was decided that the running would be timed to enter the sprawling, polluted, and congested city at dawn. Thanks to police and army escorts, the run passed through the city without dangerous incident, despite dense auto and pedestrian traffic. In the city, we paused only a couple of times for brief rest, nutrition, and medical care (including once on a bridge spanning the Nile River, an experience that can only be described as surreal).

From there, we began the run’s last 36 hour leg down a four-lane toll road leading to the Red Sea. The runners had decided to run non-stop to the finish for the last 48 hours. Despite our hope that evenings and nights would be calm due to reduced traffic, we were sadly mistaken, and spent the night barely sharing the road with non-stop, speeding 18-wheel truck traffic; the roaring and booming passage of which not only buffeted everyone in its wash, but which also proved unnerving to the runners so close-by and unprotected.

By this point, all of the runners were on minimal doses of oral narcotics to deal with their pain and prednisone to lessen the severe tendonitis and general swelling that had become debilitating in each of them. This is not surprising, given the fact that they had run more than 4,000 miles in 110 days.

Overnight and into the next dawn, all three runners had nearly ceased communicating with one another, talking instead to family, friends, and supporters. One began to hallucinate and was frequently disoriented. Several times during the night, he lay down in the middle of the toll road in search of rest. After appropriate caffeine, hydration, and emotional support, he would continue on.

Athough the runners were within 25 to 30 feet of one another, they were in their own worlds; at times, they were disoriented and psychologically isolated. Miraculously, despite the near-misses, dangers, and craziness of the night, dawn arrived without a major incident. With daylight, the trucks left the toll road. As our escorts didn’t want to pay the tolls, they also departed, leaving our group alone on a virtually unused road. It had become abundantly clear, however, that two of the runners required some sleep if they were to finish the remaining 50 kilometers.

One of these men, however, was very concerned that were he to stop running and rest, he would be incapable of re-starting and once again gaining momentum. Consequently, he wanted to continue walking—making minimal progress—as he waited for the others to catch up.

It was decided by all three runners that two men would stop on the side of the road and rest for one to two hours, while the other proceeded on. This was calculated to be acceptable, given the extremely low pace being kept by the sole runner, who sported a painful abscess on his left foot. In all the stopping and starting, his determination to regain momentum was the only thing propelling him forward.

Prior to this period, it was clear that the road warrier's once angry-looking blister had turned into a very frank abscess draining purulent fluid. Severe pain associated with the affliction led to significant alteration in gait and stride, initiating an entirely new series of over-use injuries.

Perhaps it was attributable to disorientation, a desire to end the pain, end the run, or innate hyper-competitiveness, but before long our man began to pick up his pace. Soon, he was covering 15 kilometers an hour or more. After a quick calculation, I radioed a relay signal to the remaining (resting) runners through a unit of the film crew trailing us. They had overslept.

My apprehension and fear were replaced by jubilation when I looked in the rearview mirror and saw two small figures rapidly approaching from behind. We estimated that, in order to catch up, they covered 18 to 20 kilometers an hour. They rejoined their companion eight kilometers from the Red Sea. Upon reaching him, with wide grins on their faces, they said in unison, “Are you headed to the Red Sea?”

At this point, the runners were nearly totally spent, and covered the next few kilometers with a gradually slowing pace, spurred on by the watery finish line in sight. With merged support teams—African, Taiwanese, Canadian, and American—cheering them on, everyone stepped from their vehicles to walk the last three kilometers with the runners in support of finishing this epic run and journey. At the Red Sea, each runner dipped his hands, and after 111 days of every roadblock, logistical nightmare, and impediment imaginable, the expedition had succeeded. The physical achievement and psychological stamina were unrivaled in my eyes.

On February 20, 2007, just a few hours before sunset, it was complete. The remarkable runners had covered 6,920 kilometers (4,300 miles). Aside from the accomplishment of finishing, the expedition saved the lives of two, changed the lives of many, and in the future will hopefully improve the lives of countless, through its mission of supporting integrated sustainable water programs in Africa.

photo above by Jeff Peterson

Thanks, Jeff, for this fantastic series. You are a phenomenal storyteller, and we look forward to learning about your next adventure.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.