Colorful spirits 

By Alicja Barahona

It was early in the morning when I landed at the Indira Gandhi airport in Delhi.  I was on my way to the start of the Trans 333 kilometers non-stop running race. It took me two days to get there from New York. It was not because I had to fly to the other side of the globe but because the race organizer changed the itinerary two weeks prior to the race.   London was cancelled and Paris became the rendez-vous place for the runners.  

Delhi was waking up and so was the sun.  The sun’s disc was barely detectable through the blanket of fog and pollution. The noise of the city and fast moving vehicles slapped against my eardrum.  I was immediately awakened. Just my red eyes gave away my tiredness.  Still, I had a day long bus journey to Bikaner: a gate to the Rajasthan, and to the Thar Desert.  I was hoping, with trepidation and excitement, for some free time before the race to visit the temple of Karni Mata.  This is the only place that offers sanctuary to colonies of rats, which are revered and wandering free.  But regrettably, there was not time. 

Many of my friends couldn’t understand why I chose to run in this part of the world.  “Desert”!  It was my answer.   Since, for the first time I saw the endless sea of sand I followed in love with it.  I have run in the Sahara and the Arabian Desert.  This time, I received a ‘call’ from the Thar Desert.

A few hours prior to the race, my adrenaline began to rush through my veins when I hear the announcement that we would have to run on a main asphalt road from Bikaner to Jaisalmer!  ‘Is this a bad dream?’ stroked my mind.   I came here to run on yellow sand that shimmers like gold in the sizzling sun.  I came here to run on the duns, which like water waves, change shapes by the blowing wind.  I didn’t come here to run on the road!  The race director was mumbling about dry season, about numerous tracks, about too many wild dogs, about the possibility of being attacked by the dogs, and getting lost by not following the precise track!  All it was nonsense and a cheap excuse.  It was devastating news to us….we are extreme runners, we love challenging environmental conditions but not a ROAD.  Being there already, we had no choice but to run the race.  Anyone, who has traveled to India, knows that the most dangerous places there are the roads.  It meant atrocious running conditions.

A short nap, and there I was at the starting line among other competitors from ten different countries. Start!  After, we left behind the luxury Laxmi Nivas Palace, where we stayed for the night; the sweet smell that was carried away by the wind filled our nostrils.  Later, I realized that the smell was coming from burning, dry cow dung.  Commonly, poor people used such material as cooking and heating fuel. The bitter black fumes from cars were settling inside our lungs.  Looking at the people, I had the impression that men competed the women in the finery of their radiant turbans, earrings, neck and ankles bracelets.

Again, I was upset that I couldn’t just allow my mind wander through the endless dunes; instead, I had to watch for a string of overloaded passing trucks.  At night, I desperately searched for the shooting stars on the dark sky; instead of I was blinded by long beams of approaching cars.  The Desert Magic wasn’t there.

Several miles into the race, I started my collection of blisters on my feet.  My running shoes were excellent for pliable sand but not good for the rigid asphalt surface.  Next, my stomach went on strike and refused to accept even dry biscuit.  I was still in the lead.   But like a car without gasoline, without food I couldn’t last too long. I was forced to stop and take care of myself. Once toes were patched and my stomach cured, I encountered a new setback. A muscle spasm in my back!  This became more serious than I first thought. My torso, from the waist, was bended forward.  I was slowing down and with a little pinch in my heart I watched as faster runners passed by. 

In the desert, wood is a scarce and valuable commodity. Yet, with a great difficulty, I arranged a stick.  It reminded me of Mahatma Gandhi’s stick.  With it supports I was able to keep my posture upright.  Forward, forward to the finish line this thought was preoccupying my mind constantly.  The physical struggle continues but I become undaunted.

As I ran along the highway, I saw countless number of peacocks running freely between thatched houses surrounded with dust covered bushes.  There was virtually no green in sight.  Sacred cows with neck humps rambled between scrawny plantations.  Loud, lively music carried away from colorfully painted trucks.   Women wearing colorful dresses, and jewelry literally from head to toe, with water jars on their heads, spread out much like a rainbow upon the white sand of an ancient land.  Occasionally, I was surrounded by groups of giggling children, barefooted, with hair that never saw a comb and curious eyes on a beautiful faces.  They were thrilled running with a woman wearing shorts.   Once however, stones were thrown at me by angry boys when I refused to let them search my backpack.  Luckily, I was rescued by a passing military vehicle. 

The finish line, in the 12th –century Jaisalmer, came like a blessing as my back collapsed completely and I was dangerously bent in half.  I was still the first female to cross the finish line but 8th overall with a total time of 67:38. The winner Teo Schmidt from France finished in 48:23, the youngest runner Mikkel Gormsen from Denmark finished in 86:23 and the oldest Jack Denness from the UK in 107:15.   The next day, after a night of good sleep, I was again on my blistered feet I was admiring havelis, the fort, and temples build from a golden-yellow stone.   At the market I met Balagi, a nine years old mute boy with a heart melting smile, who belonged to the poor of the poorest.  I went to his home located on the outskirts.  It was a one room-home plastered with cow dung, clay mixed with pieces of hay, and painted with colorful motifs.  The entire community, women and children, gathered around.  They all wanted one thing:  to touch me.  An intangible spirit went a long way in communicating with them.  Hopefully I will never forget their liveliness, their ability to laugh and their excitement when they touched me.  The colorful motifs on the walls, the bright, colorful dresses they were wearing, entirely covered the surreal poverty. I was totally captivated by their colorful spirits that disguised their harsh lives.

This was my second race in India. The first one was the Himalayan 100 kilometers race with breathtaking, spectacular views of the highest mountains and curios but with greatly reserved people.