I've been running for more than 13 hours in the Sahara desert, fighting the wind, exhaustion, hunger and a painful knee. It's dark, about 9:30p.m., and I have about three hours more to go before the end of the fourth stage of what has been dubbed the "toughest footrace on earth.''
In between mouthfuls of cold macaroni and cheese, I converse with a fellow competitor, an Italian named Alessandro, at a checkpoint. After being largely on my own for the past 50 kilometers (31 miles), I am grateful for the company. "Are you running or walking?'' he asks. "Meta-meta,'' I say, in rusty Italian. "Half-half.'' We decide to stay together.
The alliance works. His head torch is brighter than mine and lights up the dips and rocks. My eyesight is better than his and I can make out the dim glowticks that mark out the course of the Marathon des Sables, a seven-day, 250-kilometer (155-mile) race in the Moroccan desert where competitors must carry their own food. Today's stage is the longest ever in the race's 30-year history at 92 kilometers. My new friend and I spur each other along.
"For me, the best aspect of the Marathon des Sables was the camaraderie,'' Gemma Game, a 35-year-old fund manager at Norges Bank in London who placed 87th out of about 1,300 runners and was the fourth woman, wrote in an e-mail. "A passion for running united men and women, transcending differences of language, gender or nationality.''
After a couple of kilometers, Alessandro and I catch up with Darren Welsh, 47, and Sam Mitchell, 25, with whom I've been sharing a tent every night. (Competitors sleep in about 300 eight-person, open-ended Berber tents set up in three concentric horseshoes).
Sam and Darren have largely quick-marched the stage because Darren is injured. I've mainly been running, but took long breaks at checkpoints to rest the painful knee and eat a few mouthfuls of that life-saving mac 'n' cheese.
After getting an unexpected second wind, I press on, leaving Sam, Darren and Alessandro behind. I cross the stage's finish line at 0:22 a.m. after more than 16 hours of running. I'll confess to shedding a couple of tears, a first. Those were tears of relief. I've never run this far before.
At about 7 p.m. - I have by then slept and rested - race marshals go from tent to tent alerting us of the arrival of the last few runners. Hundreds of us turn out at the finish line to clap the stragglers and greet them like rock stars. To a background of pounding music and bright lights, they get their reward: a kiss from Patrick Bauer, the French race director.
The race isn't over. Tomorrow's stage is a marathon (42.2 kilometers), followed the next day by a non-competitive 11-kilometer charity leg to raise money for UNICEF.
Ask competitors what was the best part of the race, and you'll hear that word again and again: camaraderie. Aaron Jerling, a 31-year-old engineer, marveled at "the speed at which friendships were formed under adversity.''
Two of my tent-mates, Ben Peresson and Henry Potter, shared an undesirable experience: dealing with a scorpion. Ben, who beat me by half an hour on the long stage, had gotten rid of the unwelcome visitor by the time I got in that day. That was after Henry, the fastest of the three, had struggled to re-erect the tent blown down by the strong desert winds.
"It didn't matter if you came in in three hours or 10 hours, there was a mutual respect,'' said Potter, a 25-year-old ship broker. "The scenery, the heat, the people were all amazing and it was like nothing else I've every experienced.''
Scorpions aside, there was plenty of adversity from the course itself. Arduous climbs punctuated the second stage, when the race marshals told us temperatures hit about 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). That was balmy compared to the 51 degrees they logged the following day, when I shuffled the last two kilometers in a daze.
Dealing with sand storms every night was the worst aspect of the race, said Andrew Edwards, 41, chief executive officer of Monecor Ltd. "I hate being dirty and I like my sleep.''
British explorer Ranulph Fiennes, more famous for his polar exploits, said the hardest parts were "the soft sand bits and the climbs.''
At 71 and under doctor's orders to keep his heart rate below 130, Fiennes mainly walked the course to become the oldest Briton to finish, raising more than 1 million pounds ($1.5 million) for the Marie Curie cancer charity.
"I wanted to beat the camels - which we only just did,'' Fiennes said in an e-mail, referring to the animals that walk at the back of the race. If the camels overtake you, you're out.
We all learned lessons along the way. Fiennes said that, given time, he'd have done more heat training. I, too, would have liked to - the U.K. winter is hardly the ideal climate to train for a Saharan footrace.
Competitors must carry food, clothing and required items such as a sleeping bag and anti-venom pump (for those scorpions!). Stressing about what would go into my backpack dominated the last few weeks of my preparation for the April 5-11 race as I weighed and reweighed every item. With hindsight, I would go lighter, leaving behind my camera and the storage charger I carried to ensure my GPS watch wouldn't run out of battery.
For all the hardships, the experience was unforgettable, with magnificent desert vistas and the stage-start buzz every day as race director Bauer played "Highway to Hell'' by Australian rock band AC/DC over the sound system. Without the barrier of a 3,600-pound fee ($5,400) for race entry, flights and accommodation, I'd certainly run the race again, and I'm not alone.
"Definitely, I'll do it again,'' said tent-mate Peresson, 41, Venezuela's only entrant. "It was one of the most intense experiences of my life.''