On September 10, 2001 I was doing the Desert Cup in Jordan because it sounded like a great race.
On September 12 I wasn't going.
By October 1 shock turned to fear, fear turned to anger and anger turned to resolve. Regardless of what the world was threatening to dish out, I was going. There are certain things in life precious to me. The freedom to travel is one of them.
The flight to Amman, Jordan had three legs: Detroit to New York, New York to Milan, Italy and Milan to Amman, Jordan. Normally only remarkable in its duration, this trip was permeated with a latent paranoia that pervaded every minute. My bag was searched eight times. I was frisked four times. In New York soldiers with assault rifles guarded the guards who guarded the metal detectors. The only crowd in the airport was the line at the X-ray machines. Very few aircraft were on the ground, but one of them was a huge C-5B transport in dark gray camouflage swallowing pallets of mysterious cargo under heavy guard.
Once on the ground in Jordan there was confusion because I had no visa for entry into the country. Several men spoke quickly in Arabic, asked for my passport and disappeared. They returned with my visa completed and no funds owing. We loaded a bus and began the transfer to Wadi Rum, in the desert of Jordan.
Part of the reason I came to Jordan was my love of Sir Lawrence of Arabia. Thomas Edward Lawrence was a great adventurer, soldier and diplomat as well as a writer and intellectual. Sir Lawrence was common to Wadi Rum, and lived nearby. Much of his writing about the desert was done here. I was anxious to soak up the same inspiration that he felt. With the tumultuous international scene, similar to his era, it seemed all the more appropriate.
We rode a bus from Amman to somewhere in the desert. There we pulled over and transferred to a motorcade of four-wheel drives under the guard of the Jordanian Army. I rode with Penthouse magazine writer and photographer Robin Postell of Georgia and a man named Jan from California who was 62. Jan was a veteran of the Raid Gauloises and the Eco-Challenge. He was in ill humor since all of his baggage had disappeared.
Dusty and black, the track to Wadi Rum could be negotiated at no more than five miles per hour. Upon arrival we off-loaded our gear and found spots on the floor in Bedouin tents. These tents were much better than the tents in the Marathon des Sables. They had walls and each of us had a mattress, pillow (!) and woolen blanket. It was luxurious.
We each drew a liter and a half of mineral water and turned in for the evening.
Having read quite a bit about the desert I knew it was a place of great mysticism. Part of what I read I felt was romantic or embellished. My first night in Wadi Rum proved me utterly wrong.
Within minutes the echoesâ€”very loud echoes, of jackals filled the night. With no moon up yet it was an abysmal black. Then the collective moan of a thousand tortured souls drifted into our camp. It sounded like an entire population dying only a mile away- each offering their final, collective gasp. A gentle breeze rustled the black burlap of our tent, punctuated by the pawsteps of jackals. I could not sleep. I was awake in a nightmare world. I drew my heavy wool cover over my face, hoping to muffle the anguished sounds of the night desert.
It was obvious the barking and howling were packs of jackals. Their numbers magnified by the echo effect of the high Wadi walls. But the moans, the horrible, drifting sighs and moans that rode the black wind across the sands to our tent- what was this? I concentrated hard, as if to listen that much more intently would define the source. But it was no use. Somewhere I drifted into sleep in the desert. A warm sleep, but a guarded, nervous one.
A piss-bloated bladder woke me around four. The moon was up and I wondered if it was safe to go outside to relieve myself. The jackals sounded far off now but the screams of the dying were still apparent. I gathered my courage and tiptoed through the other sleeping desert racers to go out. The moon was bright on the surrounding desert walls, probably two or three hundred feet high on each side. When I stepped outside I slowly looked around. Stars showed brilliant. Another man, cigarette an orange spark between his fingers, stood in the center of our large encampment also gawking at the spectacle of the desert at night. I walked out of the perimeter of camp and peed. I came no closer to identifying the anguished cries that still rode the moonlit wind.
In the morning I discovered I was bedded down next to Jan and across from Andrew of South Africa. Andrew was just 22 and, like myself, a great fan of Sir Lawrence of Arabia. We chatted about the desert and what brought us to the race. Andrew said,
"Running is my weak point, I don't enjoy it at all, but I thought I'd have a go nonetheless."
I admired his spirit. At 22, he was a gifted businessman and well educated. I also noted his fine sense of humor and that he never missed a chance with a lady.
Jan still seemed understandably bitter that his gear had not shown up.
I asked Andrew if he heard the strange sounds last night.
"The Sirens of Ulysses" He said. Apparently the noise was the sound the wind made as it blew over the openings of caves in the high desert walls. The sounds were documented in many texts of desert literature. Everyone commented on how odd the noise was. There was no explanation as to why it was confined to the night.
The day was devoted to administrative checks and handing in our luggage in preparation for the race start tomorrow morning. We had a fine breakfast at a long buffet table in the middle of camp. The sun revealed a Bedouin camp on the outskirts of our Wadi. Throughout the day we all pulled together and assembled enough kit so Jan could at least start the race. Robin stopped by and chatted for a while. Andrew and her seemed to hit it off.
Without knowing it we had found ourselves in the German tent. The other Americans (six of them) were in the tent opposite us. The Germans were busy with their race preparation.
At the administrative checks I handed in my medical form and gear checklist. Marathon Des Sables race officials searched through our gear to confirm everything was there. At this race they were only interested in our 1-liter water reserve. There was considerable confusion surrounding the 1-liter reserve. It had to be sealed in our packs. If opened we would receive a one-hour time penalty. The race organizers wanted it arranged in two 50ml "bidons". "Bidon" is the French term for "water bottle", but we never got the literal translation. It appeared the French wanted us to use two sturdy 50ml sport bottles they would seal in plastic bags. The Americans never received the particulars of this and were confused. I figured any 1-liter bottle would do and just brought a 1-liter bottle of water such as you would buy in the store. This was not satisfactory and the race officials levied a 1-hour penalty but said it would likely be eliminated since the confusion was widespread and didn't seem to compromise racers' safety. They did not inspect the rest of my gear.
The rest of the day was spent lounging in our tents, shooting some photos and chatting with the other competitors as well as entertaining the press covering the event. No small amount of time was spent in nervous anticipation of the event itself.
Sometime during the day a large Jordanian Air Force Puma helicopter flew around our encampment and landed. This would carry security and camera crews, especially for the start of the event. It kicked up a whirlwind of dust large enough to obscure the entire helicopter.
That evening we enjoyed an excellent dinner of rice, potatoes, pasta and lamb and chicken shish kabob. The kabobs were grilled on burning coals. The smell was wonderful and the flavor even better. While we ate at a low table, sitting cross-legged in the cool evening sand, a pathetic little three-legged cat begged for scraps. Robin, Blaise (another American) and I all offered the little cat morsels. The Jordanians shooed the little cat away, but we took pity on it. So many things in the country seemed to be wounded, and the three-legged cat was no exception.
Following dinner we quickly turned in. It got cold early and I borrowed an addition wool blanket from Andrew as he brought a more substantial sleeping bag than I. Not soon after I got my head down the "sirens" began again and the jackals returned on their nightly patrols. I never actually saw these jackals, but others did, reporting their size from "huge" to "pretty small", owing to the difference in perception depending on a person's level of fear.
Morning came and with it a burning sun. I got up some two hours before the start. These final hours before the start of a race are always the worst. Filled with nervous anticipation and a feeling that something else must be attended too. Overall, there is just a strong yearning to get on with it. I stood with the other Americans, chatting, telling stories, getting to know each other a bit before the start of the race. The media did some interviews, asking our feelings about the Sept. 11 attacks and how they affected our travel plans. A Reuters photographer shot photos of me and an Iraqi runner holding flags of our respective countries, shaking hands, slapping high fives and running next to each other. The Iraqi was a nice enough guy, spoke good English and didn't seem to be weird or standoffish.
Sooner or later we made our way to the start line. Speeches were made in several languages, the Puma camera helicopter took off and circled the start and we were off.
I started by walking, but walking pretty fast. The terrain was poor- lots of loose sand. For the first few hours it became a good bit hotter (someone said it was 82 Fahrenheit at the 8:30 AM start). I moved quickly, but mindful of my pace and the incredible distance.
After what seemed to be a good bit longer than I originally thought I hit the first checkpoint and got through it quickly, filling the water bladder inside my pack and transferred some snacks to the pack I wore on my chest. It was much slower going than I thought, and much harder than the Marathon des Sables, owing largely to the loose sand.
I saw Tim, a financial manager from (ironically) Detroit. I passed him, but some half-hour later decided to step behind a rock for a bathroom break, and Tim overtook me again. When I finished, I caught him. He said, "This is some hard groundâ€¦" as I passed. Blaise and Anita were up ahead by about a minute so I started chasing them. It was the last we saw of Tim.
An important tactic in this race is to begin preparations for the "dark phase" early in the day. For me, this meant finding a group I could link up with to go through the night. Blaise and Anita were moving very well so they looked like a good opportunity for a group in the dark. Both Blaise and Anita are very experienced and both are American so it seemed like a good match. We spoke briefly about our plans and made a loose alliance contingent on how we worked together throughout the day.
They were moving very well and Blaise was an excellent motivator. She devised a schedule whereby we ran for a few minutes (sometimes 10, sometimes 15) and then walked for a few. She also stipulated that we run the downhills or the areas where terrain allowed easy passage. On this rotation we made excellent time, hitting checkpoints almost exactly every two hours. Somewhere along the way we hooked up with Ric, a Merchant Marine from Florida. I took an immediate liking to Ric. He was enthusiastic, cheerful, had a good sense of humor and a tough streak a mile wide. He also seemed exceptionally determined.
Our new team of four made further rapid progress. We soon picked up Phillip, a Canadian Army officer and elite level biathlete (ski/shoot). We had lively conversation and continued at a sporting pace. Although the race was hard the true toll of the event had yet to weigh on us.
At this point it was utterly straightforward. Nothing unusual. The terrain was softer than expected- almost entirely loose sand. This was a problem for me since I did not wear gaiters and my shoes filled with sand constantly. I tolerated it and stopped to empty them only when I could combine it with a group bathroom stop for a few seconds so as not to delay anyone else. The sand problem notwithstanding I was feeling good and my feet seemed to be doing well. I had begun to fuel myself with a trickle of calories from energy bars chewed while moving.
The nature of events like this is there are times where, owing to fatigue or boredom or the haze of memory, you forget long stretches. The hours before sunset seem to be like that. We just kept moving. It was unspectacular. This is not to say that the landscape was unspectacular. It was stunning. Huge rock plateaus jutted out of the sand at random intervals. These were massive formations, rising several hundred feet each and dotting the landscape. In the days of Sir Lawrence it was easy to imagine waging a desert guerilla campaign. The scene had changed not at all since that day. It took much longer than I expected to go from "point A" to "point B".
Between checkpoint 5 and 6 it was incredibly dark. Oddly, we crossed a railroad line. I thought about the scenes in the desert movies where men like Sir Lawrence blew up the railway line to foil their enemies. I also recalled times from when I was a member of a National Guard Long-Range Recon Patrol, and we would be doing things exactly like this in the dark. Another book that inspired me to race here was Chris Ryan's incredible "The One That Got Away". Ryan was a British SAS Recon man trapped behind Iraqi lines (a few miles to our north and east) during the Gulf war. He successfully escaped and evaded to Syria (to our north now). His total escapade was over 200 miles, a grueling survival ordeal compounded by enemy troops stalking him and no ready supply of food or water. His ordeal was a major source of inspiration for me.
Following the railroad crossing we found ourselves in a dry lakebed. This was a pleasant surprise as the area we were in now was depicted as "mud" on our maps. Obviously the mud had dried up. We made quick transit of the dry lakebed, but had long since given up on running due to fatigue and sore legs and feet.
Checkpoint 5 was also pivotal since it was my first sock change. Caring for your feet is critical in this event. I had terrible experiences from Marathon des Sables. I adapted a different strategy this time. In this case I wore the fine Montrail Vitesse trail shoe. I used different socks, the Wigwam Ultimax Coolmax sock, and most importantly, I used Mitchum Sport anti -perspirant on my feet. Blisters are a conspiracy of heat, friction and moisture. Using the anti-perspirant would provide lubrication inside my socks and also reduce the perspiration making my skin soft. It worked perfectly. My right foot was utterly pristine at the first sock change. My left foot developed the slightest blister at the ball, not slightly large enough to be a bother. My feet were sore, but holding up perfectly. Although my stomach hurt I could process food no problem. I was comfortable as the night cooled off.
My spirit was flagging somewhat however. Even with my cohorts it was terribly lonely and I was far away from home in what felt like an unfriendly land. I have done so many of these things that my life seems to be one continuous ebb and flow from preparation to execution to recovery and all over again. Add to this the stress in getting ready for the event and the fact that no one at home shared my sense of adventure for it. Under this cold, dark desert sky many thousands of miles from home I felt very, very alone. I knew everyone just as soon preferred I abandon the whole affair. No one supported my attempt. As it always was and it always would be- it eventually all came down to me. In the middle of the Jordanian desert late at night it feels very lonely. There was nothing more to do but keep my feet going.
The distance from checkpoint 6 to 7 was somewhat desperate. We were passing through kilometer 78 (mile 48) and, although making good and steady time, everyone was beginning to feel the effects of fatigue. We agreed to take a one-hour nap at checkpoint 7, almost exactly mile 50.
It was cold now, having been dark for some time. We saw several magnificent falling stars and told many stories on the way to checkpoint 7. Blaise came up with the idea of each person telling his/her biography, and we did so in turns. As with all ventures such as this, each biography was fascinating. Boring people don't do these events. The information was disclosed strictly under the trust that it would not leave the group, and that after the race, all disclosures would remain the affairs of our secret society. Nothing would be said. In honor of this, I give no details here, except to say the stories spanned the gamut from touching to riotous. Following our individual narratives each subject was interviewed by the other members, and bound to answer every question with utter candor. Our deepest secrets lay in trust with the members of our small party and the Jordanian night.
At checkpoint 7 the Bedouin tent was packed with the bodies of exhausted racers. We went around back and arranged ourselves around the tent skirt as best we could. We did everything quickly and efficiently. Within two minutes everyone was in their sleeping bags. Andrew remarked at how quickly I could fall asleep. The hour passed in thirty seconds. I woke with a start, woke Andrew, and quickly packed my reflective foil survival bag and began to strip off the extra clothing I wore for the cold nap. It was only a half-hour from sunrise. I had an incredible sense of urgency, not wanting the group to leave me behind, and I packed as quickly as I could. We headed out of checkpoint 7 after an hour's nap on compass bearing 286 degrees.
The next 11 kilometers were flat, open and featureless but punctuated with frustrating loose sand. The sunrise was beautiful and revealed a desert of changing colors. A few other racers overtook us, having also napped at checkpoint 7. Our next objective was a bridge under a road that gave way to checkpoint 8.
We were told checkpoint 9 was a turning point since the loose sand ended here. That would be welcome. I changed socks again, having carried three pair. I would rotate between two and then switch to my final pair during the last 30 kilometers in the mountains. This leg was utterly endless. Conversation among our group had long since ended and a couple people began to suffer with their own afflictions: A twisted ankle, blisters, sore feet and general difficulty.
We did eventually sight power lines, then our bridge. We transited under the bridge and directly to our checkpoint. I changed socks (or rather, rotated) again at checkpoint 8 and we struck out pretty quickly for checkpoint 9 and the promise of firm terrain. It was a long slog over more loose sand to checkpoint 9.
There was a desert settlement here consisting of one low building, some ruins and a pitiful attempt at cultivation that resulted in little more than a rearrangement of sand. We had linked up briefly with a woman from Malaysia named Huda. She was entertaining but probably found our group a bit mad and was reluctant to join in our tradition of revealing her biography, although she did so eventually.
We passed a little Jordanian girl, 19 perhaps, who was doing the race under what seemed like duress. She was not reveling in the experience at all and seemed to be suffering heavily, her feet a mess and one thigh bandaged. We thought she would abandon for sure.
As soon as we left checkpoint 9 we were on a hard packed road. Ric took off running and immediately put some time on us. Andrew and I had new purpose to our stride and knew the next two checkpoints were separated by a daunting 15 kilometers. This would include the brutal climb from checkpoint 10 to 11 up the mountain to the highest point of the race at over 3,500 feet. It was quite hot out now but Andrew and I made excellent progress.
Soon it became apparent our little group was no more and the secret society was dissolved. Ric disappeared up the road. Blaise, Philip and Anita drifted somewhere behind. Andrew and I felt "steady as she goes" was the best tactic.
We found checkpoint 10 just before sunset and decided on another nap. It was a total of about two hours in the bivouac, with the wind building and the temperature dropping the entire time. I slept well and nearly stayed warm. I envied Andrew's lightweight down sleeping bag. My foil survival bag was good, but not quite good enough. Maybe this was better, as the only way to really stay comfortable was to keep moving.
We left checkpoint 10 ready for the trip up to 11 moving well. It got dark instantly and was pitch black with no moon up yet. The road turned immediately upward, often on very, very steep grades. At least the road surface was good.
Runners were treated to a Middle Eastern banquet on the eve of the race.
These dark hours passed in utter silence. Our world was confined to the small pool of light from our headlamps. It was very tough going. I was breathing heavily and hoped it didn't annoy Andrew. The wind was really picking up and was now a constant 30 m.p.h.
It seemed to take forever to reach checkpoint 11 at the summit of the mountain. On the way we crossed paths with a race official vehicle headed down the track we were climbing. I tried to sneak a look at his GPS display but Andrew just came right out and asked "How far to the next check point?" It was obvious the man's first language was not English. He told us there were ten more kilometers to the top. We continued on in shocked silence. There was no way it could be ten kilometers; we had already come so far. I was resigned to it, but Andrew finally spoke up and said, "There is no way it could be ten kilometers to the next checkpoint!" We surmised the man meant we had gone ten kilometers since the last checkpoint. At least that's what we hoped.
We did eventually make it to checkpoint eleven and it was a horrible place, wracked by a frozen desert storm wind and freezing in the dark night. The low moon was concealed under the surrounding ridges so it was painfully dark. The place was void of any warmth or comfort. Without a word we got into our sleeping bags. I pulled a section of Bedouin rug over myself but still was some distance from warm. Consciousness traded with shivering for the next two hours as we tried to get some rest before our push to the finish. Andrew was comfortable in his bag and I swore I would never race again without a reasonable sleeping sac, no matter what the weight or space penalty. We instructed a man in the tent- race official, to wake us in one hour, but we slept through his wake-up call. He said he woke me and I responded, but I didn't remember it. Instead I woke an hour latter, freezing, and went about the task of fixing my feet from the well-stocked Doc Trotter medical supply box in the center of the tent. By now I had managed two decent blisters on opposite sides of my left foot. I did a fine job patching then woke Andrew. He was a bit shocked we (I) missed our wake-up. We had been on a schedule to finish in perhaps as little as 43 hours. This would be impossible now. I hoped he was not too frustrated since it was my fault.
Since it was so cold it was painful to get going. I was freezing and was now wearing my full windproof suit with a heavy fleece jacket and tights underneath. It would be a long slog to the next checkpoint but Andrew and I kept a steady pace and made reasonable progress. For the most part the terrain was utterly barren, but there were occasional reminders we were in the Middle East. It was good to know we were bringing the number of c heckpoints down. There was realistically only two left.
Our legs hurt now, we had been on them for over 40 hours nearly non-stop. I was running out of food, down to only energy gels. I was looking forward to a warm shower, some food and sleep. We were on a steep hill on the circumference of a huge mountain ringed in a double barbed wire fence with imposing concrete stanchions, obviously a military installation of some type. At the top of the climb was some sort of settlement. Except for a few dogs, it was too early for any movement. We found ourselves on some paved streets, and then back on the dirt track. We entered checkpoint 12 and agreed to just refill our water containers and shove off. The change took only a couple minutes. Once outside checkpoint 12 we overtook several racers including one doubled over, coughing. I heard Andrew say, "Ric, you sound horribleâ€¦" and I realized it was Ric who had left us earlier. Anita had somehow passed us in the night also, perhaps while we were sleeping, and joined Ric. We overtook the two and I realized I was now the best placed American. I wanted to hang onto that so Andrew and I moved with new purpose.
"This is dry pain." Andrew said of the sensation in our legs as I fed him painkillers and took them myself. We were at least doubling the normal dosage and it was working half as long. I briefly took a bathroom break and I recall Andrew's apparent embarrassment at my openness to just drop my trousers by the side of the road and attend to my affairs. He strode up the road a few paces and seemed to stare awkwardly into the distance. Perhaps, I thought, South Africans are a bit of a straight-laced bunch. I'm a former Army Ranger, so I didn't give it much thought.
The sun was up now but offered little warmth this early. Our legs and feet hurt so badly it was almost entertaining in a weird way. I recall some attempts at conversation with Andrew as he described some amusing incidents from his youth in South Africa including one where he managed to swamp his girlfriend's father's expensive Toyota Landcruiser in the ocean during a date. The truck sank, completely submerged, and he was forced to run three miles clad only in his soaking underwear back to her father's house and report the incident. Can you imagine? It hurt my ribs to laugh so hard. He recounted the rescue effort as well, but the truck was a loss. He broke up with the girl. Andrew also revealed that his success in business had also started with local production of soft-core adult films. I couldn't help but think what an astonishing group of characters we all were. Here I was in the middle of the Jordanian desert on the eve of WW3 with a South African pornographer, no food, sore legs and a ways to go. Remarkable.
We were walking on a road that skirted low mountains. We saw a Jordanian man ahead loading a donkey with big sacks of something. He pulled the sacks from some type of large black wooden box by the side of the rough dirt two-track trail. As I got closer I noticed a women completely draped in black fabric crouched by the side of the box. As the man loaded his donkey the woman screamed orders at him (or complaints, I couldn't tell) and gestured wildly with one hand. This seemed a turnabout to the traditional interaction between Middle Eastern men and women. The man seemed unaffected by her or ation, as though he was accustomed to it all. When we drew even with the man I said "Sabahol khair", or "Good Morning" in Arabic. He smiled and jabbered away, pointing off in the distance. I told him "Ana la Atakallum al arabiyya jayyidan" or "I don't speak Arabic very well". He still seemed please to see us and went about his loading as we passed.
The distant horizon was now spectacular, something like the Grand Canyon in the U.S., but on a much larger scale. We paused for a moment to photograph the panorama. It seemed to stretch off to the East all the way to Iraq. Deep canyons were cut into the ground by millions of years of erosion and tectonics. The landscape was barren of any vegetation. We continued on.
Soon we walked up on the man with the donkey again. He was riding it now, down the left side of the road. In very good English he said, "Where are you from?" Andrew said "South Africa" and I told him proudly "The United States of America". He nodded in approval, "Ahh, good, good, we are peaceful here in Jordan, you are always welcome in Jordanâ€¦ Welcome to Jordan!" He made a sweeping gesture indicating the landscape. "It is spectacular, beautiful. Thank you very much. Shokran Jazilan (Thank you very much)" I told him. He smiled and nodded his approval and we turned back to our route.
In short order we entered a town, very built up, after climbing a murderously steep dirt road that gave way to pavement. Then we rounded a corner and were right in a modern city just walking down the street next to the curb. We climbed a very steep street, turned a corner and found a German sitting on the curb tending his feet. This looked fine so we sat on the curb for some of the same. I pulled a layer off as the sun was rising and getting warm quickly. Our arrival in this city seemed to signal the final phase of the race. I felt somewhat of a second wind but I don't think Andrew was as enthused, he lagged just a bit-a few steps maybe, behind me.
Walking on the concrete was, if anything, worse than the dirt track. It was early morning and traffic was light but everyone who saw us seemed to know what we were doing and waved at us with big smiles, sometimes calling out something, presumably encouragement.
We were tired now. Very tired. The fact that the finish was at hand wasn't much consolation in our current state. We were just beat. It seemed to take an interminably long time to cover any ground on the road. On any normal day I'm sure it would have been a short walk, but with over 98 miles in our legs, almost no sleep and not much food this felt really hard. Our final destination (before the finish) was the last checkpoint. Our course book told us it would be on this road that hugged the side of the mountain. We walked in front of a nice hotel and I started thinking about showers and beds. After a few minutes we saw the checkpoint and walked to the two Landrovers that marked its location. A smiling pair of race officials manned it. This was largely an administrative effort as no one would really stop at this checkpoint. At most, people would grab a liter of water and press on. We filled our water and made our way over to the beginning of a terrible treacherous, steep descent of large, loose, sharp rocks the size of bowling balls.
On sore legs the descent was tedious and uncomfortable. Andrew was openly cursing the race organization for putting us down this slope, calling them "cruel" and "irresponsible". Well, in the end, it was just another feature of the event. There was a very narrow path that cut improbably into the slope and was clear of menacing rocks. We walked around the slope on this trail, searching for the first signs of the steps that led down into Petra.
I came around a bend, and there in front of me was a poorly cut, heavily eroded oddly spaced but nonetheless man-made step. We had made it to the entrance to Petra.
I had heard that during the descent to Petra you were "stripped of all the illusions you have about yourself". That's clearly a scary prospect, but hey, I was up for anything at this point. The stairs became larger and at more uneven intervals. They were smoothed and worn. Everyone in a circumstance like this tries to visualize the thousands and thousands of years these stairs have been in use. You try to see, in the eye of your mind, who the people were who walked these steps in antiquity. What it may have looked like. The enormity of it is too much and you are simply left with the impression that this is something rare and special and a beautiful place.
We encountered a couple tourists on their way up the stairs and they stood in awe of our efforts. Occasionally a group would politely applaud and make remarks in their language. For the most part we had the place to our selves. I shot a couple photos, but my enthusiasm for photography had long since faded, as my discomfort became more apparent.
The sun filtered through the rock into the narrow canyon and along the stairs. There was some strong, viney plants growing out of the walls. This was the place the last Indiana Jones movie was filmed, and it definitely had that feel and look, like we were the Raiders of the Lost something.
After a long time on the stairs we reached the floor of the ancient City of Petra. I'm sure I still had some illusions about myself, at least I didn't feel any being stripped away. I was tired though. Maybe I never had any to begin with. There was no mystical transformation on the way down the stairs though.
As we reached the floor of the canyon there were a lot of groups touring the city, browsing the archaeological sites, snapping photos and strolling about. When they saw us they broke into applause. One woman with a British accent said, "It is grand, just great, what you are doing!"
There were groups of Jordanians and a large class of Jordanian schoolgirls on a class outing in the ancient city. They shot us guarded glances and shy smiles. Many of them were darling.
Andrew was feeling better now, fortified by the short distance to the finish. He wanted to run. I didn't want to blunt his spirit so, even though I couldn't imagine myself running, I decided to give it a go. It was very unpleasant. Every corner of my legs hurt urgently and the process felt very awkward, as if I were about to fall. Our second wind didn't last long. Some men began to tell us the finish was only a kilometer away. We were deep in the narrow, slot canyon that made up the ancient city of Petra and passed fantastic ruins, some enormous. Sunlight did not penetrate into the narrow canyon so there was cool shade and a breeze that moved softly as though the entire canyon was air-conditioned. This felt really great.
I became concerned that my emergency reserve food supply of 2000 calories was not going to be adequate if the officials inspected my gear at the finish. I asked Andrew sheepishly, "Do you have any food left?"
He answered, "I have a couple Powerbars and stuff." I described my concern and we briefly stopped, took off our packs and quickly began to rearrange our food reserves. This was an incredible gesture on Andrew's part. Any moment a race official could walk around the corner, see our trade in progress, and levy serious penalties against both of us. As it was, I was the top American finisher and Andrew the top South African. This, of course, was a bigger deal to each of us than we would admit openly. It was, however, part of the basis for our joint operation. Andrew handed me precious 600 calories worth of energy foods and I tucked them into my "sealed" reserve food container. We continued up the narrow canyon and then out onto a flatter plain with lower, wider spaced rock walls on either side. It was sunny and spectacular. The strolling crowds applauded our effort.
From outside of Petra, before descending into the lost city, we glimpsed what we though was the finish line from about two miles away. Based on that observation it seemed like the finish should be much farther away.
And then we rounded a corner and it was there. Andrew said, "Shall we finish it up by running?"
"Absolutely." I said. And we jogged to the finish. In honor of Andrew's spectacular effort over the previous 50 hours and his youth (he was only 20) I stayed behind while he crossed the finish line, then crossed immediately following him. After 50 hours and change it was over.
There was a chair and I sat down, removing my pack. To my surprise, the race officials were there at once to inspect my water reserve and food cache. There was a brief discussion about my food but seemed to be dismissed after a brief moment of tension. They gave us a big, cold 1.5-liter water bottle, which I drank almost completely. Following that we were photographed extensively and interviewed for Jordanian television and for a video of the race itself.
We were dusty and dirty but happy nonetheless. Almost as soon as we crossed the line the effort seemed to leave me. Sitting felt great. A van drove us to our hotel only a couple minutes away. The hotel was beautiful and featured a helicopter pad for our Puma helicopter. As soon as I entered the lobby I felt filthy in these clean surroundings. We had a choice of who to room with so I chose Ric, the sailor. He and Anita had just finished as we were leaving the finish area, about an hour behind us. This would give me an hour to finish my shower and straighten up the room for Ric when he arrived.
The shower felt wonder. Hot water washed dirt, sand, fatigue and soreness off my skin and from my spirit. I stowed my dirty clothes, wrapped in a clean towel and watched the BBC World News on Jordanian TV. It seconds I was asleep.
I woke to find Ric coming out of the shower. We chatted for a while then Ric told me everyone was meeting at the bar for lunch. We all sat around the bar eating hamburgers and drinking Cokes. Phillip, the Canadian Army Officer, had been joined by his parents who drove down from Damascus, Syria to greet him at the finish. I told them what a great job he did and the courage it took to finish on a sprained ankle.
That evening our meal was a luxurious banquet of Western and Middle Eastern delicacies. The food was excellent and plentiful. All the Americans sat at a long table together relating tales of this and many other adventures. I really enjoyed our dinner.
The following day we rode horses down to the floor of Petra. I joined Andrew, Blaise and Robin (of Penthouse magazine). It was fascinating and beautiful. I was surprised that we were allowed to simply wander through these archeological digs with no restrictions. At the bottom of the city was a Roman coliseum. I scooped a Ziploc bag of sand from the floor of the coliseum as a souvenir. Jordanians were singing and clapping in the coliseum seats. It was very festive.
During our return to the top of the city canyon Robin and Andrew and I started chatting with two men, one a Jordanian Policeman. They were Palestinians from their comments, and they were not shy in their criticisms of the U.S. It was difficult to hear their comments, especially when they said the U.S. "deserved" the attacks of September 11. I told him, firmly, there was no one who deserved to suffer attacks like the ones in the U.S. on September 11 and there could be no justification for them. We politely (but quickly) got up to leave. We were guests, but insulted guests nonetheless.
I left the Middle East with an uneasy feeling, not a feeling of peace. The man on the donkey in the mountains had been so kind and warm, the men in Petra so bitter and hostile. Everywhere there was uneasiness. Decades, if not centuries of conflict, have left the area with an uneasy undertone at best. At worst, a war ready to boil over at any second, the result of a hundred wars left unresolved. I was very grateful when our wheels touched down in New York.