Trans 333 by Mark Cockbain
The longest annual non-stop desert footrace race in the world is called the TRANS 333. Its 333km (210 miles long) and it is usually held in a different desert location each year.
I had entered the 2006 race, which was to be held for a second time in Niger, Africa.
I was amongst 20 runners that had arrived at Agadez airport, just a small landing strip on the outskirts of town, where we were met by the French organiser Alain Gestain, and several 4x4 jeeps that would take us on our long journey to the start.
The race starts deep in the Tenere desert, and consists of 14 checkpoints spaced at approximately 22km each. Here runners can top up their water supplies, and access intermediate drop bags containing energy foods.
Each runner must navigate the course using a wrist GPS, to which the organisers gave us a list of co-ordinates to program into it, which would hopefully guide us back to the finish at the centre of the town of Agadez.
I would be carrying 2 litres of water in my backpack, and another 1 litre in bottles strapped to my front. I had freeze dried food, energy bars, gels, a torch and batteries in my pack along with a sleeping bag, survival gear and a mandatory emergency satellite phone (which I found out was useless later, as it had a flat battery!).
After two days of driving in the jeeps in the red hot day time temperatures, and cold nights of sleeping in the desert, we eventually reached ‘the start’.
The start was at ‘The Tree of Tenere’, a metal post that used to be the only tree for miles around. It was in the middle of nowhere, but apparently it was the only mapped landmark for miles.
We would rest here overnight, and start the race in the morning, with a disappointing route change that would take us on an out and back loop into deep sand of about 30 miles. This would be tough as we would be running into a strong headwind, and then pass runners on the way back to where we started from!
We awoke early, then sorted out our drop-bags, filled our backpack with water and just had time to eat some French bread and jam for breakfast before lining up for a low key start at 8 am.
We set off running straight ahead into a strong headwind, with the soft sand underfoot taking a lot of effort to move through. It felt like I was going nowhere fast, and it was hard to keep up a decent pace.
The course seemed to be slightly uphill here, with rolling sand banks that hadn’t yet formed into dunes.
There was nothing as far as the eye could see apart from the other runners and the occasional mound of bleached white camel carcasses.
After hours of trudging, the field had widened, and I could see the loopback point up ahead. I could also see that there were only two other runners coming back towards me, which meant that I was near the front end of the race.
As I made it to checkpoint two at around 26 miles, I knew that I would need to head off straight away as, soon as I had filled up my water containers if I was to keep up with the two front runners.
A few hours after leaving the checkpoint, I could see nothing around me at all as I stopped and turned a full 360 degrees. It was just flat dusty white sand right up to the horizon. I had never been to a place where there were no landmarks at all, not even a rock.
I was making good progress through the hottest part of the day, with the burning sun deceivingly masked by the strong wind. I thought that I must have widened the gap between myself and the runners behind, as there was no sign of them, but I still couldn’t catch up with the two ahead.
Eventually, the sun started to set on a long day of running, and I took out my head torch just as I spotted checkpoint 3 in the distance. At the checkpoint I was informed that I was in third place and I quickly re-filled my water, and left into the pitch black night whilst eating one of my freeze dried meals, to try and restore some energy.
There was no moon yet, and I could only see the beam of my head torch, as I constantly monitored my GPS for directions.
It felt eerie running into the night, alone in the middle of such a vast expanse of land, and it was becoming much cooler, with a sharp wind. There wasn’t a sound, but it felt like I was being watched.
I quickly scanned around with my head torch beam, and I was shocked to see two bright green eyes shining back at me! They were two low down for a human….but much too large for a rabbit.
Was this a wild dog…….or something worse? I ran a lot faster, then stopped and looked around again, and again I saw the eyes. It was following me!
I had nothing I could use as a weapon, and there were no rocks or sticks, so I decided to hold my emergency whistle in the hope that the noise would scare it off if it got any closer.
I continued running fast, regularly spinning round with my torch, looking for the eyes, but after several miles and to my relief I realised it was gone.
The sand was getting deep again, and I was sliding around making slow progress as I trudged on towards checkpoint four at around 50 miles.
It was approaching midnight and my feet were already swollen and blistered from the soft sand.
Eventually I reached the checkpoint, and decided to take some time to change my socks and eat as much food as I could, as I felt low on energy.
I was surprised to see that I had caught up with one of the other runners, Gerhard Lusskandi, who was resting here in his sleeping bag.
I left the checkpoint with some energy bars to keep me going through the long night ahead, and I expected to reach the next checkpoint at around 5 am.
It was going to be a struggle to stay awake and it was hard not to be hypnotised by the torch beam, but the moon was rising, and soon visibility was much clearer.
The terrain was becoming rocky now, and I knew tiredness was catching up with me as I began to trip up over rocks, so I decided that I would try to sleep for an hour at the next checkpoint, just before sunrise.
I shuffled into the checkpoint tent and was again surprised to see the French front runner Claude fast asleep in the corner.
The checkpoint staff had prepared some ‘fish pasta’ here, and gave me some to try. Well, it certainly wasn’t tuna, and a few mouthfuls were all I could manage before I got into my sleeping bag and tried to sleep. I was paranoid I wouldn’t wake up, and after nodding off a few times I saw that it was getting light and that Claude was about to leave. I wished him good luck, and decided to get myself together. I also noticed Gerhard had caught up, and was asleep in the corner.
I inspected my feet and found plenty of blisters to burst, and again put on a fresh pair of socks.
My shoulders were sore with the weight of the backpack, and my nose and ears were full of sand dust.
I hobbled out of the tent. My feet were very sore, and it would take a while before my leg muscles loosened up.
A huge black mountain dominated the horizon, and there were now large mounds of rocks and hills, and the GPS was taking me on a direct line over them.
There was no wind today, and it was feeling hot already as the sun peaked over the hills.
I was running up and down rocks and sand making slow progress, whilst heading towards the black mountain, which would hopefully lead me to flatter ground.
Behind me I caught a glimpse of Gerhard catching me up. He was looking strong and was soon parallel to me crossing some nearby hills. We waved at each other and continued pushing on ahead to a sandy track that would lead all the way to checkpoint 5.
The sun was very strong, and I was drinking as much as possible and swallowing electrolyte tablets to prevent dehydration. I could feel my arms burning so I applied some Kiehl’s factor 30 sun block.
It felt great to get some shelter from the sun as I reached the checkpoint. My fingers and face were swollen with the heat, and my feet felt as though they were on fire.
I removed my shoes and socks and put plenty of water on my feet to try and cool them, as I began drinking as much as possible to replace my lost fluids.
Gerhard was here too, and was also suffering with the heat. We didn’t stay too long, and I left shortly behind him.
The next section was a long dusty winding track, which was easy to run and seemed to be slightly down hill, before heading up again across vast open range and through a heard of camels, which noticeably had their front legs roped to prevent them wandering too far.
They must have been owned by some desert dwellers.
I was getting a reading of 42C on my thermometer, and I was feeling a bit dizzy. Gerhard was a long way in the distance, and I just kept my head down and ran whilst following his footsteps, which was easier than looking at the GPS every few minutes.
I was glad when the mid day sun had passed its hottest point again, and it was starting to drop in the sky, just as I arrived at checkpoint 7, at around 90 miles.
It was time for another freeze dried meal, before cooling off my feet and heading off into the night.
It wasn’t long before it was pitch black again, but this time it wasn’t flat at all, and I kept arriving at huge mounds of white rocks that I could only cross directly, as I couldn’t see around them as I followed the GPS.
After several hours of climbing over mound after mound, I was starting to think that my GPS co-ordinates must be wrong, and I checked them against the master list.
They were right, but because it was so dark I couldn’t see an easier route, so it was slow going.
Every hour or so, I stopped to rest on a rock and get my breath, before stumbling off again into the night.
It was late evening when I saw the lights of checkpoint 8, but I was now over half way and I aimed to try and get to checkpoint 10 without sleeping.
This turned out to be harder than I thought, and after a few hours of leaving the checkpoint I was struggling to stay awake, almost falling asleep on my feet.
It was around 2am, and I was starting to hallucinate. This wasn’t a problem, as I had experienced it many times before, but I was now starting to walk a lot more, and making very slow progress.
The occasional small bushes looked like crouching men, and I swear that I saw several sleeping ducks, which I now realise, were definitely rocks!
I then entered a small grass hut village, and I kept as quiet as possible, as everyone seemed to be sleeping and I didn’t want to disturb the locals!
This section seemed to go on forever, and when I eventually got to checkpoint 9 at around 4am, I knew I needed sleep before I could go on.
I stumbled into the tent to find Claude and Gerhard sleeping, and I lay down and shut my eyes for about an hour. I woke with a start, hoping that I hadn’t overslept, but Claude was still asleep, and Gerhard was just leaving, so I decided to move on as well.
My legs were very stiff now, and it took a while before I could run to eventually catch and pass Gerhard, then he would do the same to me and move off ahead.
We were back on flat open desert, and it was good for running, but my feet and legs were so sore that I was very slow.
The sun was baking hot again, and I could see the heat rising from the ground ahead.
In the distance I saw what looked like a brown tidal wave heading towards me, with white tips at either end.
I couldn’t understand what it was, but as I got closer, I could see that it was a huge heard of hundreds of camels, that were being ‘driven’ at each end by men on white camels.
I had never seen so many camels, and I needed to veer several hundred metres off course as they passed by and the men waved at me!
The checkpoint was in sight, and not a moment too soon, as my water was running low in the extreme heat.
I could see a figure in the distance behind me, and soon realised that it was Claude, who eventually caught up and jogged into checkpoint 10 with us.
It was the hottest day so far, and I took time to cool off, and re-hydrate myself before leaving just after Claude and Gerhard, but it wasn’t long before I was moving along side Gerhard again, and he suggested we could run together, which I said was a good idea.
Gerhard was a policeman from Austria, and although there was a slight language barrier, we got on well, and we both agreed that it was a very tough race.
We were both suffering from bad blisters, which were getting worse because of the sharp stone covered hills that we had to cross.
Both of us had slowed right down, as we tried to look for an easier path to follow to avoid the painful rocks, each of us cowering to keep our faces down and out of the sun that blasting directly at us.
After a long painful afternoon, we reached the shade of the next checkpoint and collapsed down exhausted inside the tent.
Here we saw UK runner Jack Dennes, who had been forced to pull out of the race earlier, and he gave us plenty of encouragement to spur us on before we forced ourselves to get moving again.
I was aching, and I knew Gerhard was too, but we kept quiet about it and pushed on through another grass hut village, where we were greeted and waved at by friendly locals, bemused at our self inflicted sorry state.
We were back on to deep soft sand as night fell, and we tried to follow some jeep tracks to keep us from going through the scrubland on either side of us.
Up ahead, we came across a couple of jeeps, one of which had broken down. The drivers were trying to fix it, and we could see a huge machine gun in the back of it. These were probably hired guns to protect international workers, but we didn’t hang around to find out!
The deep sand was making this the slowest section so far, as we reached the 160 mile point. It was pitch black again, and we had stopped chatting long ago, as the hours passed by, and we struggled to stay awake. The ‘sleep monster’ had caught up with us, and we just wanted to sleep. I found myself hallucinating again, and I tried to fight it, but we both decided that we needed to sit in the sand and just rest for a few minutes.
This was the routine we had for the next few hours, until our GPS told us we were only a mile from checkpoint 12.
This next mile we later labelled ‘the longest mile’, as it seemed to take forever to shuffle into the checkpoint, where we desperately needed to sleep, and we told the checkpoint staff to wake us in an hour.
This was my lowest point in the race, as I could hardly put my shoes on because of my swollen feet, and once I stood up, it was taking me longer and longer until I could ignore the pain.
Shuffling off into the night, we knew that if we could make it to the next checkpoint before dawn, then we had almost beaten the race.
We kept a steady pace, and tried to motivate each other, taking the occasional break to get our breath back again, and after a long night we came into the checkpoint, again resting before setting off on the last 26 miles towards Agadez.
There was no sign of Claude, and we apparently had a three hour gap between us and the next runners behind us, so we just held a steady pace and concentrated on reaching the last checkpoint.
There were now a few signs of life around us, like some goats, the odd grass hut and the occasional camel rider.
Our moral was high, as we talked about finishing in about ten hours time, then having a wash and a good nights sleep.
We were on a major track now that was nice and flat, and we were soon approaching the last checkpoint, where Gerhard was greeted by his wife Lisa, who had unfortunately pulled out after 222km due to sickness.
Gerhard had been making a documentary about the race, and his cameraman was also here to film us together at the checkpoint, as we gathered up our last water supplies to take on our final leg into town.
After a few hours we were delighted to just make out the box like sandy buildings of Agadez on the horizon, but we were also in the hottest part of the day again and desperately low on water.
My water was just about empty, and Gerhard was also looking worried, as we just sipped what we had left.
We could see the town a lot clearer, but we were just walking slowly now trying not to overheat.
Then, luckily Gerhard’s wife and cameraman turned up in their jeep, and passed us some spare water, which we gulped down.
We were exhausted, but there were only a few more miles now, and we followed behind the slow moving jeep towards town, which was guiding us and filming us.
On the outskirts of the town, children were playing in the dirt. This was a desperately poor country, but at least they looked happy.
Children came up to us, intrigued by the sight of two dirty looking Europeans carrying backpacks, and being filmed.
I gave out whatever energy bars and gels I had left to the children, along with my empty water bottles. It was heartbreaking to see such gratefulness at the smallest of gifts.
I wasn’t sure if we were still on the same planet as we eventually turned down one of the busy main streets, where we were welcomed and waved at by the friendly locals. These people had nothing, but were still very well dressed, and courteous.
As we turned the last corner, we got our first glimpse of the finish line, and we grabbed each other and with our last ounce of energy, we ran over the line together, in second place!
It had taken us 81 hrs and 34 minutes.
It had been an eye-opening adventure, with lots of highs and lows, but with a unique finish that I will never forget.
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