In Part 1 of Sports Science Support on Mount Kilimanjaro, Dawn Scott of the USWNT explained the purpose behind the world record attempt and described the preparation behind such a mammoth undertaking. In Part 2 Dawn recounts the climb up to the Kilimanjaro summit, a practice game on day 5 and the world record breaking game itself.
The routine each day was similar with a 6 a.m. wake up and cup of coffee delivered by one of the porters (the mountain version of breakfast in bed!), we would then receive a bowl of hot water for a quick wash. Everyone would then have breakfast in their groups, which generally consisted of pancakes, eggs, bananas and coffee. Myself and the other coach, Kim Smith, would then do a quick round of all of the tents to check in with the players and make sure they had completed their wellness form that day. If any player raised any concerns/issues, then we would update the medical team. While we were in breakfast the porters would dissemble the tents and pack everything up and generally head off to the next camp.
By 7.30 or 8 a.m. each day we would depart the camp, with the groups staggered, heading to the next camp. The guides would lead the trek, and always “POLE, POLE”, and we would stop intermittently for snacks and toilet breaks. For longer trekking days, the porters would set up the meal tents at the half-way point and we would have lunch there, otherwise we would have that on arrival at the next camp. Dinner would generally be around 6-7 p.m. each day and would consist of soup, some kind of protein (meat, chicken), carbohydrate (potatoes, pasta, spaghetti) and vegetables, as well as a vegetarian option where necessary for individuals. Given the challenge of water availability, food preparation, product availability and being at altitude, the food was amazing and nutritious and totally appropriate and plentiful for what we needed daily.
After each dinner, the guides would pass a pulse oximeter round to measure heart rate and oxygen saturation. If anyone’s numbers were concerning, they would refer them to the medical team for further evaluation. The guides would then debrief us on the day we had just completed, and then give us an outline of the next day and what we should plan to wear/take with us. By 8 p.m. most nights everyone would retire to their tents as it got so cold, and we would rest ahead of the following day’s adventures! A few people had some more sophisticated cameras with them and manage to catch some amazing nighttime sky shots as we were above the clouds pretty much from Day 3 onwards.
On Days 4 and 5 , as we arrived at those camps earlier, the guides planned a short afternoon out and back trek each time to a slightly higher altitude, just to help to acclimatize the body a bit more ahead of the summit trek. Also on Day 5, we had planned a practice game to further gauge how each player would cope with the increasing altitude. The age of players ranged from 16 to 55 years-old, so every player was going to cope with it differently given that range, as well as everyone’s individual physiology, level of fitness and preparation strategy. On the trip so far some of the group had experienced some AMS (acute mountain sickness) symptoms due to the jump in altitude in the first few days. The most prevalent symptoms were nausea, vomiting and headaches. Again, the medical team were on hand to deal with all of those issues, and everyone was able to continue.
The two teams were the Volcanoes and the Glaciers (see below). For the warm-up match at the base camp each squad had played one half of the game against the local Arusha team, with three of the former International players (Sandrine Dusang – France), Lori Lindsey – USA and Rachel Unitt – England), completing the full 90-minutes. For the next two games, the teams competed against each other. For the practice game, the size of the area was only big enough for a small-sided match. The decision was made to play 7-v-7 and aim for three blocks of 10 minutes. That way it would give the players an opportunity to experience the surface and running at altitude, and also give the medical team a chance to see how every player reacted physiologically. Kim and I rotated the players throughout the game, and all the players coped well physiologically, and once they had adjusted to the more sand like surface were able to connect some passes and create some opportunities on goal. The Volcanoes narrowly won the game 1-0.
The Record Breaking Game
The day of the game was pretty epic, quite possibly the most physically and mentally challenging day of my life, and I didn’t even play! It started with a 2 a.m. wake up call. At 2:30 a.m. we all sat in silence in our meal tent forcedly eating some food in anticipation of the day ahead. By 3 a.m. we were in our usual single line formation following our trusted guide, Gabe. We trekked up the winding path of endless switchbacks. We all had our head lights on, and all you could see above were small lights and the path ahead, although at times you couldn’t work out if the lights were head lamps or stars! After six hours of walking, interspersed with stops for hydration and energy (gels were slightly more palatable than any other food form for this section) we reached the edge of the crater – Stella Point. This took us to 18,870 feet (5,750 m), and finally the end of the steep track.
There was a lot of euphoria from everyone at reaching this point as it had been a pretty grueling start to the day with minimal sleep and a gradual increase in altitude throughout the climb. This was the first day when I questioned whether I could make it and pretty much spent six hours telling myself there was no way I would be stopping! For six hours, we all took literally one step at a time, with head down following the person’s cadence in front of you, and this was definitely the most mentally challenging day of the trip. Following the hugs and obligatory pictures at Stella Point there was a 10-minute short trek to the Crater Camp, which consisted of soft sands near the retreating vertical ice walls of the Furtwangler Glacier.
The advance party had left an hour ahead of us, and as we all arrived at the Crater, they were marking out the pitch using flour so as not to spoil the environment, and building the goals which had been carried up the mountain! The players were given food (the obligatory pancakes, scrambled eggs and bananas) and fluids, and an opportunity to rest ahead of the match kicking off at 12 p.m. Prior to the start of the warm-up, the players put their GPS unit into their vest and all completed a five-minute walking test with pre-and post-oximeter readings analyzed by the medical team. Any players with any abnormal measures were further assessed by the medical team who then made recommendations in terms of that player’s involvement in the ensuing match.
The surface for the match was soft sand with very little sturdiness, which made quick, explosive movements even more challenging for the players. The warm-up involved some movements to get a feel for the surface followed by the normal dynamic stretching, then the match was underway. The medical team consisted of five staff, two assigned to each team, and a head physician. They fully briefed the players and coaches throughout, and the players knew at any time to signal if they needed assistance or to leave the match. On the 10-minute mark all of the players were asked to give a ‘thumbs up’ that they were okay, and the match continued. In total 28 players took part in the match, with 17 of the players completing the full 90-minutes.
Throughout the match, the medical team were on hand with oxygen tanks if any of the players (or support staff/supporters!) felt the need for oxygen at any stage of the match. Halfway through each half of the match, the referee called for an environmental break, standard by FIFA rules, at which point all the players came across to the sideline where fluids and oxygen were available as required. Similarly at half-time both teams retreated to their tents for fluids, snacks and oxygen as required.
The game itself started slowly as the players got used to the surface, bounce of the ball and lack of oxygen. But after the medical check early on the players gained more confidence and both teams had good opportunities. Maggie Murphy of the Glaciers broke through on goal following a pass from Jasmine Henderson, as she got one on one with the goalkeeper you could visibly see the energy drain out of her from the heavy surface and lack of oxygen and her shot on goal rolled wide. Kim and I both rotated players based on any advice from the medical team, as well as any feedback from players verbally or visually.
As the game progressed the pace of the game visibly slowed as the players who had started the match had decreasing levels of oxygen available for substrate utilization. As Lori Lindsey (ex-U.S. WNT) said, ”I have put my body through some intense physical tests preparing and playing at the highest level but the game at the crater was something else. It was hard to breathe, sprint, recover but at the same time there was something so thrilling and a lightness about it, knowing that we were attempting something that had never been done before.” The general feedback from the players was that they had shortness of breath due to the lack of oxygen available, and if they did a short burst they couldn’t sustain it for very long and/or took longer to recover before they could complete a high intensity effort again. At the final whistle, there was euphoria by all at the achievement of completing the 90-minutes and setting a new World Record, a feat that many doubted could be accomplished.
Back Down the Mountain
Following the hugs and celebrations, and some refueling and rehydration, the players dusted themselves down, and then trekked the final hour to the summit! Of the party of 64, only two players didn’t make it to take part in the game or reach the summit, which is testament to the preparation, diligence and mental resilience of everyone in the group, as well as the support of our trusted guides who led us to the summit. The summit was incredible and like a sea of never ending glaciers way way above the clouds!
By now it was 4 p.m., and the final part of the day involved a two-hour descent back down to the Barrafu Camp. The terrain on the descent was pretty soft, and most of us either pretty much ran down the mountain side or used our poles to ski down, descending much quicker and happier than the early morning trek up earlier that day! We finally arrived back to camp at 6 p.m., completing a 15-hour day. Dinner that night was pretty much in silence, as the physical exertions and exposure of the day had overtaken the euphoria of the mission accomplished and everyone was experiencing varying degrees of AMS. There was silence throughout the camp that night and we were afforded the luxury of a 7 a.m. wake up the next day!
The next morning, every single person in camp was buzzing at the accomplishment of the previous day! The hike that day was a gentle three-hour downhill trek to the final camp before the last leg of the trek. That night we thanked our army of porters and guides as the trek and game would not have been possible without their support. The final day involved an early wake up and five-hour downhill trek to the Mweka Gate, where every group that arrived was greeted with cheers and hugs!
Once everyone was safely back down, the buses loaded with our gear, achievement certificates given out, the buses took us to a hotel for the night and our final night together, this time however in the luxury of a bed! Quite possibly the best night of sleep I have ever had! The next day everyone dispersed back to their 29 countries slightly more weary than 10 days earlier, but with memories that would last a lifetime and euphoric at breaking the World Record!
For even more on this project look out for Part 3 in which we will be sharing more detail and examples of that data collected during the climb and the game. In the meantime, you can read even more about the journey and Equal Playing Field using the links below.
Equal Playing Field: http://equalplayingfield.com/#hike
The full BeIn Sports documentary: http://www.beinsports.com/en/other-sports/video/equal-playing-field-documentary/621520
Climbing Mount Possible: https://www.climbingmountpossible.com/single-post/2017/07/07/We-Set-the-Record