Running in the desert presents formidable challenges that may be difficult to appreciate fully before coming to a race, no matter how realistic one's training might be. The forbidding nature of desert environment — the heat and the cold, the sand and the wind, the merciless sun, all of these factors combine to make your racing much tougher than the distance itself would suggest.
My short essay is not intended to provide a comprehensive training manual for desert running, since I do not consider myself to be sufficiently qualified to dispense advise on which other runners might build their desert racing strategies. Nor is it a guide for desert survival: while anyone coming to the desert should be familiar with the basic survival techniques, desert foot races, as a rule, are closely supervised events, with professional medical and logistical support sufficient to reduce, if not entirely eliminate, risks to a level acceptable for most of us runners.
Instead, I wanted to put together some of my thoughts and practical solutions that I have come across — used by myself or other people around me — while running in some of these events. Some of them maybe self-evident, others less so. If anyone thinking about running in such races finds this information useful, this would more than justify my effort in putting these lines together. Should you want to provide feedback of any kind — agree, disagree, add your own insight — you are more than welcome to do so, I can be found here.
You absolutely must bring electrolyte replacements to a hot race, or you will conk out. Seen people go through near-death experiences because they loose their electrolytes through sweat, and fail to replace them. In a pinch, you can use plain table salt, but be ready for unpleasant side effects: hands / ankles / other extremities will swell (happened to me). Pre-mixed balanced formulations available from many sports nutrition vendors will do a much better job. This is one aspect of your preparation that you should try to simulate in training: try to find the optimal dosage of electrolytes for a given level of heat and effort.
I shall not dwell long on the importance of regular hydration, it should be self-evident to anyone who comes to the desert. The thing to remember is to use water wisely: racers should reasonably expect that organizers will provide enough water at every check point, however, things happen, trucks get lost, the temperature may suddenly exceed their expectations, etc. See more on this below.
Body cooling. Accepted wisdom says that the best way to cool oneself is to drink water, not pour it on one's head. As Ian Adamson, acting as Course Director for Racing the Planet's 2005 Sahara Race, told us at the pre-race briefing: "you can drink it or you can wear it, but we strongly advise you to to do the former."
Apparently, the US military found as much when they experimented with a liquid cooled vest, here are the results of one field test.
And yet... Sometimes there is too much heat, and the temptation to dunk half of your remaining water supply on your head is too great for your over-heated brain to resist. Unfortunately, not only a lot of water is then wasted, but you earn only the briefest of respites — the water evaporates almost immediately, leaving you as parched as before.
I have found that the most economic and yet effective way to apply water for cooling is by using a $3 household appliance: a hand-pumped spritz (aka mister) bottle head. When pumped, it dispenses a fine mist that maximizes the cooling effect of a given amount of water. Racing the Planet's events are provisioned with regular 0.5 liter water bottles. Before the start of a hot stage, you screw the pump head on top of one of the bottles and put the bottle in an easily accessible secured place. Couple of squeezes — instant relief! Just remember that it won't last long.
Two things to note: first, what part of human body is most responsive to this cooling effect? Your ears, because they are rich in blood vessels, and it is blood that acts as the internal coolant for your brain and other internal organs. Just don't point the spritz nozzle straight down your ear channel, you might get temporarily deaf. If the humidity is particularly low, as it will be in a desert, you may also direct a squirt or two down your nostrils — this should help moisten your mucus membranes a bit.
Second, don't overuse it — believe it or not, it is possible to create too much of a cooling effect, and the temperature contrast will be enough to catch a cold (it happened to me!).
Oh, and one other little detail: if you bring this thing from home, make sure you try it first with the sort of bottle that will be used at the race. It is possible it won't fit :( My understanding that screw caps on water bottle may be different between different countries.
Of course, there is always someone who can come up with an even better idea, and then try to make money off it: here's what folks at this online store came up with — extra neat! It also takes care of the cooling effect for water (see just below).
You can also look at this collection of links to various vendors who sell personal cooling systems, some of these seem interesting enough to experiment with in the actual desert environment.
Water cooling. With the air temperature averaging 40°C, the average temperature of bottled water distributed to racers will not be much different. While the race staff do make a reasonable effort to put water into shade, it doesn't really help. Often, bottles would sit in the sun for hours at a check point before you collect it. As a result, what you get is warm water which tastes like, well, warm water. After a while, you start to crave for a gulp of cold liquid — where do you find it in the middle of the desert?
You get cool water by using your spare socks: simply place one of the bottles inside a sock and drip some water on it. Better yet, use the mister that I have described above to keep your magic cooling sock moist. As a result of evaporative action, your bottle will cool down, and in some 30-40 minutes you will enjoy its fresh content. Once you make it to the camp, you could do something even more effective: instead of your sock, wrap a bottle in a couple of layers of toilette paper, and then moisten the paper. Results are guaranteed.
Those who prefer to rely on a factory-made product, can find a cooling sleeve here or at a similar store.
And then, of course, there is the old trick from the school chemistry course, something to do with barium hydroxide and ammonium thiocynate. Just make sure you don't drink it...
Eyewear. Deserts tend to have lots of solar radiation, direct — from above, and reflected — from below. Protective sunglasses are obviously mandatory. I once watched a world-class competitor in a state of near panic because she misplaced her shades, and fully understood the implications. Luckily, one of the staff members had a spare. To avoid such a mishap, I have used a pair of Shields glasses (unfortunately, this company is going out of business :(. They provide a good wrap-around protection, and their best feature is the permanently fixed strap that is easy to adjust. When you don't need them, you can drop them on your neck, and they stay there. You can probably find a great pair of quality sun shades from the multitude of reputable brands (or make do with a $5 pair from your friendly sidewalk vendor), just make sure you have them on your nose at the start of each stage.
Long sleeves/pants. This might seem obvious, but I would strongly suggest to wear only long-sleeve garments in the desert, no matter how much you like the sun. I have seen people don their racing tees and end up with ugly burns on their arms. I have also seen people withdrawn from a race because of excessive exposure to the sun. Try to find a well-ventilated shirt, something like Railriders' Eco-mesh shirt, and get your suntan in a controlled environment (e.g. beach), not in the scorching desert heat.
My opinion on wearing full-length pants is not as firm. I myself wore racing shorts both in the Gobi March and the Sahara Race, and did Ok — but then Nature blessed (or cursed, depending on circumstances) me with hairy legs. That, and sun-blocking lotion, provided sufficient protection for me. If you are sensitive to sun, you may want to wear long pants.
Sunblock. Same story: find the one with the highest protection index and use it liberally (see Gary Johnson's 'kabuki' face at the Sahara Race), and don't forget to re-apply it when/if it wears off! In 2005, the Sahara Race went through an oasis with a compulsory pit stop of 45 minutes near an irrigation ditch, everybody took advantage of the flowing water — it felt great, but it also washed away sunblock from my skin. 15 minutes after I left the stop area, I was forced to stop and re-apply a layer of protective lotion on my exposed skin.
Personal shade. No matter how well you cover yourself with proper clothing and sunblock, at some point direct sunlight, as well as reflected glare, will make one's life really miserable. This is what happened to us on the hottest day of Racing the Planet's Gobi March, when the temperature exceeded 50°C. We were running through 'the Oven' — salt flats of Tarim Basin, the second lowest place on earth. I felt my brains starting to boil. I believe what saved my bacon on that day was my survival blanket, part of our mandatory gear list. I unfolded it and carried it over my head. I was careful not to wrap myself into it, as that would have quickly turned me into a baked potato (sorry for the excess of culinary metaphors). Instead, I tried to carry it over my head, with air flow un-impeded. In the Sahara Race, I saw a female competitor use her space blanket as a skirt — I guess that worked for her too! One may also try to rig a kind of an umbrella, fixing the blanket to a walking pole (or poles) — this, of course, would require some advance practice.
Now, an elegant way to do it would be to carry a real umbrella, as some people did in the Sahara Race. The trouble with it, of course, is that it incurs a weight penalty, and weight is of paramount concern in self-supported races. One also has to be careful with umbrella in case of a strong wind. I think that what might work is a walking pole / umbrella combo. To take it one step further, the umbrella could also be fitted with a flexible solar battery, to feed your Mp3 player, GPS and maybe even personal neck cooler. This might slow you down a little, but then you'll travel in luxury!
The time of wearable solar batteries, I think, has come. One of the competitors in the Gobi March had a Brunton flexible solar battery attached to his backpack, to power his iPod. Again, ideally it should be integrated either in your clothing or backpack (something like this), not to detract from your payload. And since the U.S. military is already funding R&D into the subject, we should expect such items commercially available soon after the Army deploys them in large numbers.
Shoes. The biggest question of any hot and sandy race has to be: to Gortex or not to Gortex? While the idea of wearing Gortex in 40°C+ temperatures seems ridiculous, Gortex has a legitimate claim to usefulness when it comes to footware. Since it is designed to resist water, it will also prevent sand and dust getting inside your shoes and wreaking grave damage. The flip side of this is that Gortex shoes will not be as well ventilated as regular mesh-top shoes — meaning that they will feel very hot, and a lot of moisture will still get trapped inside the shoe. This may result in severe blistering. I personally favor non-Gortex shoes, preferring to deal with the consequences of sand/dust/rocks inside my shoes rather than with blisters (I guess I get more upset looking at other runners' blisters than at my own black toe-nails :).
What happens when sand gets inside your shoe? Firstly, it tends to act as a kind of abrasive substance, badly affecting any raw or exposed flesh that you may have due to the wear and tear of the race (that's why pre-taping your toes is strongly recommended). Secondly, the accumulation of sand in your toe-box means that your toes will get squeezed. As a minimum, you will be forced to stop to empty your shoe. Black toe-nails are also almost guaranteed. In some situations, when the sand is clear of sharp stones, thorns, poisonous insects and not too hot, you may try to take off your shoes and walk in your socks, just make sure you watch carefully where you are stepping.
If sand inside your shoes is so bad, then why not wear Gortex? Well, maybe I am prejudiced or simply wrong about this, but I am concerned that my feet will simply cook raw inside Gortex shoes in 50°+ heat, and I've seen enough of these in the medical tent...
Gaiters. Two factors to consider when deciding what style of gaiters, if any, to wear: (1) the sort of terrain you'll be running on, and (2) your personal tolerance for debris getting inside your shoe (see above). As far as the terrain is concerned, as relevant to your choice of gaiters, deserts come in two main varieties: either mostly small rocks and some sand, or it will be mostly sand and some rocks. To keep small rocks from getting inside your shoes, you may want to use light-eight ankle-high gaiters, such as those made by Outdoor Research, or Raidlight. These won't protect you though against sand and finely crushed chalk (plenty of that stuff in the Western Desert). Does that mean the only protection available to you is Gortex, with all the blister problems (see above)?
Maybe not. Some of the racers swear by their home-made knee-high gaiters made from 'parachute silk' (or at least the fabric that is usually described as such. Modern parachutes are no longer made of silk, instead, hi-tech synthetic materials are used to manufacture canopies. One of their most distinguishing characteristics is air-tightness, a popular brand is called 'Z-P' — short for 'zero porosity'). The bottom of the gaiter is permanently glued to the perimeter of the shoe, and the top is fastened with velcro or elastic band just below the knee. Hopefully, I shall be able to track down the instructions and post them here later.
Socks. One word: Injinji.
I had one the lightest packs among the racers in the Sahara race, and it still weighed in at about 7.5kg (16.5 lbs) on the start day, and that's without water &mdash enough to break your back over the 20-25 miles of rough terrain. What I believe helped me is a distributed load system — essentially, a front/back pack combination. These people make an ultra-light racing system of this kind, I am sure that there are other vendors with a similar product out there. The main benefit of this is that the weight of the pack is more or less aligned with the spinal column, and does not pull you back, as it would with the conventional backpack system.