Minute-by-minute of a 56mi run through the Desert

A CHRONOLOGICAL NARRATION OF AL-01: COAST OF THE SONORAN DESERT

In the last couple of months, I've had the opportunity to see the white in the eyes of people. I would see the white in their eyes each time they reacted in surprise to my plans of running 56 miles on December 21st, 2015, through the coast of the desert of Sonora, the state in Mexico where I'm from. They would react as if they had spotted a polar bear in Hermosillo.

This is understandable... running those 56 miles was no easy feat. Up until that day, I had only run two marathons (Mexico City and Chicago 2015), and that run alone was like having run both those marathons on the same day, plus another 4 mile run. Add to this the fact that the last 15 miles included 5 miles of going uphill, which isn't pretty after having run more than 40 miles before that.

It was the most difficult physical challenge I have endured in my life.

Still, as with any great adventure that involves a sizeable physical effort, what I experienced that day as I ran those 56 miles was intense, personally enriching, and life-changing. Running through the heart of that unique landscape, so pure and so distant from the urban masses, truly transformed me on the inside and made me what to do it again, even if my body ended up literally shattered.

And I probably will do it again...

PART I: THE NIGHT BEFORE

HERMOSILLO TO DESEMBOQUE — SUNDAY, DECEMBER 20TH, 2015

On Sunday, December 20th, after some mishappenings that made me have to take a red-eye flight from Mexico City to Tijuana and then connect to Hermosillo (don't ask why) and after many preparations of food, energetic supplements and provisions, we left Hermosillo at 2 in the afternoon headed for Desemboque de los Seris. We drove on two all-terrain SUVs through the highway that leads towards the Sonoran coast, and we then shifted north towards Puerto Libertad.

As we drove, some of us runners were getting to know each other, as 3 of the 5 who ran had just arrived from New York for the unreasonable adventure. On the road we even stopped to buy a few beers, perhaps because we needed to take our minds off the fear and anxiety that were making us feel butterflies in our tummies. Desemboque is nearly 3 hours driving from Hermosillo and as we were arriving, the sun was setting in spectacular fashion.

Said sunset merged itself with the stunning remote and virginal desert. The evening tones were rosey, orange and violet and they particularly accentuated the green in the cacti and the grey in the dry tree trunks. Almost involuntarily, we passengers on the cars would suddenly go quiet, as we were fearful of missing a single moment of that unrepeatable scene. As if it were a final finishing touch to the scene, two mule deer jumped out of nowhere as we crossed a dry sandy stream.

Upon arrival to Desemboque de los Seris, the show went on: a dramatic clash between the last sun rays of the evening and the bluest of oceans awaited for us. The beach made us a sweet invitation to stay, so we started a modest fire so that we could better face the cold coastal wind. We then moved to our nocturnal dwelling: a vacant Seri school with lots of floor space for our multiple sleeping bags.

At around 10 pm, the lights went out. The next day we would encounter the most intense of experiences.

PART II: START, DAWN & EUPHORIA

1ST MARATHON (0 — 26.2 MI) — MONDAY, DEC 21ST, 5:30AM TO 1PM

After what seemed like an instant, all of the present smartphone alarms went off at once. The lights came to life again and it was time to prepare everything for the journey.

While some of the runners were busy tying shoelaces, others were already preparing breakfast (pieces of bread with peanut butter, banana slices and honey) and moving necessary provisions to positions of easy access. Some others were loading things onto the trucks and the remaining others were doing routine checks on cameras and documenting tools for the expedition.

At 5:30 in the morning, under a black sky with a breathtaking explosion of stars, we started running into the darkness ahead of us, leaving the town of El Desemboque behind us.

The cold wasn't as intense as we had imagined, which is why we had to remove extra layers of clothing that weren't necessary. The atmosphere around us that morning was one of euphoria; it was like an eclectic very-early-morning party. Endorphins started quickly circulating through our bodies and we were overtaken by an anxious expectation of the emerging morning Sun and how it would majestically illuminate all of that hidden landscape around us.

We ran at an easy, steady pace, being careful to administer efficiently our energy reserves. The explosion of stars became gradually blurred as the black sky made its transition to a dark navy blue color. Behind the mountains to the east, dawn began announcing its imminent arrival. We runners could hardly contain our child-like excitement.

Our surroundings began to slowly reveal themselves and they seem to emerge more and more with each of our steps. It was an overwhelming scene, it blew our minds and it made our hearts sing. Before us stretched monumentally countless miles of a Lord Desert covered with sahuaro cactus, sand, trees and other spiny cacti. To the west the limit was another Lord Sea of Cortes, with the massive Isla del Tiburón in the distance.

This is how the first 16 miles went whizzing by. It was all euphoric and pure happiness of just being and of gratefulness. Who said tired? We were fresh as produce and ready to engage any distance that wanted to mess with us. We continued this way, as dawn evolved into morning and then into midday.

Without noticing much, we picked up the pace and after a couple of rest stops and almost 4 hours running, we discovered that we were about to hit the first marathon mark: 26.2 miles. Said distance signaled our half-time lunch stop, and it was also a chance to replenish provisions for the second half of the journey.

Just before hitting the half-time mark, a detour to the beach revealed itself before us. Without thinking twice, we took it and we confidently ran toward the coast so that we could have our half-time show by the placid beach.

PART III: THE WALLS START TO APPEAR

THE ROAD TO PUNTA CHUECA (26.2-40 MI) — 2 TO 4PM

After the refreshing half-time rest, which included a cold dip in the Sea, and after having also recovered many much needed calories (we ate burritos filled with beans, quinoa, turkey breast and fresh spinach), we resumed the running around 2pm, now with a moderately hot Sun above us.

It was then when I started running into walls and demons.

1st Wall: I'm still not used to eating and running, so my first struggle as I started running again at a quick pace was keeping the digesting food inside my stomach. All of my focus and concentration from mile 26.2 to 32.3 went to not throwing up. I visualized my body absorbing the food so that they could stop bouncing around my belly. I came out victorious in this battle and there was nothing expelled from my body.

2nd Wall: My second struggle was a psychological one and it had to do with being left behind. The rest of the group resumed the quick and euphoric pace that characterized the morning, but I found myself unable to recover this pace. Thus I faced the near-vomiting and the desert midday heat (there wasn't a single cloud in the sky that whole day) totally on my own, watching my running mates hundreds of yards ahead of me. It wasn't easy.

3rd Wall: Then the trail started going uphill. On top of the two previous walls, the terrain started featuring slopes and that just added to the strength of all of my inner demons.

4th Wall: As the final icing of the cake, a sharp pain began circulating through my legs, coming down from my quadriceps, passing through my kneecaps, all the way down to my calves and feet. I felt the increasing swelling of my feet and my legs grew more and more rebellious, threatening me with cramps and the possibility of turning completely stiff.

This is how I waged a battle against all of these demons, all the way from the glorious dip in the Sea, until we entered the Seri town of Punta Chueca, after 40 miles running. Once there, we had another much cherished rest stop and we remained oblivious to the fact that the most difficult and tough part of the journey was waiting for us a few miles ahead.

PART IV: HILLS, PAVEMENT & AGONY

PUNTA CHUECA TO BAHÍA DE KINO (40–47.8 MI) — 4 TO 5:30PM

Around 16-17 miles separate Punta Chueca from Bahía de Kino. The road is a paved highway that passes through the middle of a few hills, which is why it is a road that goes half uphill and then half downhill. This would not normally represent a problem in itself, but for us runners that had been going on foot for around 6 hours (40 miles), it was a monumental challenge that put our patience, resolve, spirit and physical strength to a severe test.

The second problem was that we underestimated those merciless slopes. Running them was a genuine physical torture. I would only feel how my legs cried in pain and how I was going nauseous due to the amounting fatigue.

Those slopes took our spirit and cruelly smashed our determination. I think I speak for my running mates when I affirm that going up those slopes we seriously considered quitting and dropping out.

All of that agony shaking our will notwithstanding, we did not quit. I was fortunate to be running side by side with Knox, who literally didn't let me quit when I thought I couldn't go any further up that hill. Knox went into coach mode and found a way to convince me to go another 100 yards, then another 100 yards, and then another 100.

And thus we kept going, until we reached the top of that soulless hill.

PART V: SECOND BREATH & FINISH

THE FINAL MILES LEADING TO THE OCEAN (47.8–56 MI) — 5:30 TO 7PM

Once I had conquered the toughest slope I had ran in my life, I was witness before me of the most beautiful of views: it was what it seemed like miles and miles of nothing but downhill road and no more uphill slopes.

Even if it was the most motivating of sceneries, the truth is that when I stopped to rest, my legs violently gave up on me. My right leg got cramped up and turned stiff as cement; it was as if my joints stopped functioning. At the same time, an excruciating pain took over my left knee that made me have to limp and sit just to avoid the horrible feeling.

My Mom came to the rescue and applied some muscle relaxing lotions on my legs. While my Mother was helping me out, one of the other runners got to the top of the hill, took his running shoes off and threw them on the ground while declaring that he had had enough of the madness.

One man down. Spirits were flying dangerously low and on top of that were losing one of our own in the battle. There wasn't much to do. I was more worried about my legs, especially because I wanted to carry on running, but how could I if my legs went out of service?

A deep anguish got hold of me.

That was when I tried walking again. The pain ceded and suddenly became more negotiable. My remaining running mates suggested that we walked for a while. I kept analyzing the great downhill road before us. We walked around 300-400 yards. I felt better. They asked me if I could do a light jog. I decided to give it a try. Again, I felt better.

Out of an unknown corner of my mind, body or spirit (not sure which of the three), came unexpectedly a second breath. A soon saw myself running at a apace similar to the one that characterized the morning, when the covered miles were few and the euphoria was abundant. I suspect that the fact that I saw that downward slope in front of me was what filled me again with endorphins that allowed me to overcome the pain in my legs.

After this dramatic episode, things got much clearer: we had to go all the way to the Sea at Bahía de Kino. We advanced through the final 8 miles, which of course seemed endless and slow. Alas, we steadily went on.

CLOSING THOUGHTS ON FINISHING

ONE OF THE HAPPIEST MOMENTS OF MY LIFE.

The Sun set behind the nearby mountains, this time on the western end of the sky. The evening scenery once again changed into its desert tones of a pale purple merging with a soft pink and an increasingly dark blue. When I saw the Sea before me, just a few miles ahead, I felt how some inevitable tears ran down my face.

The finish was right there ahead!

We got off the paved road onto another dirt road that ran behind the beach houses which are characteristic of Bahía de Kino. As I ran, I silently prayed that we didn't get attacked by some belligerent stray dog. The road suddenly diverted towards an exit to Kino's main road: it was the signal we had been waiting for. The beach was right there after passing that main road.

We crossed the Paseo Mar de Cortés. We passed the beachfront houses. Then finally, our feet arrived at the soft sand of the goal. Before us, there was nothing more than the Sea, the majestic evening sunset and the silence of that sublime and important moment.

We made it. After 8 hours and 18 minutes running uphill, downhill, through heat and cold, we had arrived to the place we had set out to arrive. All the way from Desemboque de los Seris to the beaches of Bahía de Kino. 56 miles total on foot and countless lessons learned along the way.

With tearful eyes, I let myself fall on the sand and I clumsily tried to untie the laces of my destroyed running shoes. I then removed my socks and my hydration pack. In the way a zombie would, I stumbled towards the Sea with my arms raised in victorious manner. The water was freezing cold, but I couldn't care less. All I wanted was to feel the sweetness of the goal, the culmination of all of that physical pain and effort.

That journey transformed me and taught me countless valuable lessons for my life, but that will be the subject of a future post. This minute-by-minute narration thus comes to an end with that happy moment in which those 3 runners, along with all of their supporting crew, culminated their adventure with that memorable encounter with the Sea of Cortés.

Post written by Manuel Morato.

Photos by Daniel Almazán Klinckwort.

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