All we were told was “follow the lights”. It was 4 am, we were more than 3000 miles from home and had been for three days as we watched these lights slowly inch their way across the Wadi Rum desert. It was this particular morning that I understood why it was also known as the ‘Valley of the moon’.
Over five days in October last year I was fortunate enough to be part of a strong medical team supporting the super-human efforts of 25 athletes. The organisation was phenomenal with checkpoints lining the route each day complete with logistics, race officials, medics and local desert men. We would establish camp in our pre-arranged location waiting for athletes to pass through before piling into our 4×4 convoy and moving on to yet another breath-taking location.
I think what astonished me the most was the sheer isolation of being in the desert. Despite knowing there was a support team and several other athletes bunched along the route, you couldn’t escape this remoteness, feeling of vulnerability and the superiority of your surroundings.
As a physio I would try to apply the usual practice of what I did at work on a daily basis but in reality the athletes’ need and surreal surroundings completely dictated that. Adapting to this I’d find myself taping in the dark with only my head-torch and the starlight, massaging exhausted athletes as they lay sprawled out in the sand and one of the less kind jobs of aspirating and dressing some impressive blisters that emerged as the week went on. It taught me a lot about managing the ‘there and then’; what could be done to alleviate the symptoms so that they could reach the next checkpoint? My experience with running injuries hugely benefited me here as I was able to observe and analyse a hugely fatigued running gait, link that with their symptoms and prompt the athlete with minor technical changes to help relieve some of their pain. Although the obvious heat exhaustion and more severe cases of hyponatremia, fortunately the race concluded without serious incident or injury. It was an unbelievable feeling to greet the athletes on the finishing line and feel as if, in some small way, we had helped them get there.
Back in England, I reflected on my first Ultra as a physio. I had seen a multitude of the inevitable acute overuse injuries, strapped limbs in weird and wonderful ways, popped blisters I’d rather forget and experienced the buzz of working with an exhausted but humorous bunch of people whilst hammering along the sand tracks of the Wadi Rum Desert in a 4×4.
Most of all, I felt I had experienced an ultra marathon from a different angle to the athletes. Everyone always says that physio treatment can be therapy as people find themselves opening up as trust builds within the clinic. This therapist- patient trust and connection was not only accelerated because of the nature of the event but also stronger because of the surreal experience and memories that we now share.
It was inspiring and motivating to see people achieve the near physically impossible and still cross the finish line with smiles on their faces. It definitely made me re-evaluate what is physically achievable with a different mental strength and realise the opportunities available outside of the usual daily bubble and comfort zone.