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  • Writer's pictureSusie Chan

30th Marathon des Sables

The Marathon des Sables is a race of extremes.

This year was the 30th edition of the iconic race in the Sahara Desert, and the second time around for me. Participants do not find out the exact route until in the Sahara, but it generally follows the same 6 day format. 1 day of a bit of everything, a really hilly day, a day of flat long bits, an ultra marathon, a marathon day, and a fun run at the end. These all add up to 150+ miles. The pre-race hype had promised the longest stage in Mds history, with rumours flying around of a 100k day. In reality when we got the road book it was 93k, but still the longest in the race’s history. Competitors are required to carry everything they need for the week, sleeping gear, food and compulsory safety kit. We are supplied with water and a rudimentary shelter.

The terrain of the Sahara is extreme. It is changes from super soft and fluffy sand, to hard sharp rocks quickly. The geography of the Sahara is beautiful and changes much more than you expect. When you get fed up trying to run in the dunes, you wish for some flat. Then flat landscape makes the glaring sun seem hotter and you wish for rocky passes and the tiny cool blocks of shadows they throw. However these mean climbing rocks, and you are back to wanting soft ground. It is brutal on your trainers. Large lumps can get ripped out. You’ll see box fresh trainers at the start, good for the bin at the end. People fret about the sand in this race, but it’s the rocks that do the most damage. What the race can do to unprepared feet is well documented.

The weather this year seemed more extreme. Not the heat, that is a given, it is the Sahara Desert after all. It was much colder at night this time around, me and my brilliant tent mates were freezing. We also suffered with very windy sandstorms. These happened mainly overnight, making the shelters flap and creek. It was like being hit repeatedly by a rug whilst trying to sleep. The worst storm was during the long stage, making it especially hard on top of the extra miles. It was like being sandblasted for hours, and my lips blistered.

The whole Mds camp life is extreme. You begin the week sort-of-knowing your tent mates, by the end, well you’ve pretty much seen it all. They are your best mates in the whole world by this point. By the beginning of the week, people are very coy and walk very far away from camp to have a wee, by the end you’ll lucky if they go more than 5 metres away. The food journey is quite something. Going from famine to feast in 24 hours of crossing the finish line. Competitors are required to carry 2000 calories minimum daily. To keep my bag weight down I rationed myself to just over this. I had bought nut bars and pot noodles. My tent mate James had vacuum packed chorizo and parmesan (oh my goodness!) Tent Mate Danny Kendall survived on an awful lot of shot blocks (we joked is rucksack was half shot blocks, half loo roll) Danny had spent many hours cutting every single bit of excess material from his rucksack to keep the weight down, whilst one lady had actually packed some weighing scales. After starving on a restricted diet for a week, the arrival at the 5 star hotel after the finish – the buffet is joyous. Food never tasted so good.

The race itself sends you on an extreme journey of emotions. For some they make it through feeling good, and getting no injuries at all. I ran a lot with 9th fastest lady Emily Foy. She was a force of nature, relentlessly positive and focused. She managed to recite an entire Roald Dahl long poem to me and fellow runner Holly in the last few miles of the Long Stage. I was so addled at this point I could barely recall the alphabet correctly. She was such a wonderful person run with. Some people struggled enormously. We heard about someone who had fallen on sharp rocks and managed to split their stomach open (urgh!) A UK runner who had broken his leg and carried on. This is testimony to the brilliant support in the race. You are never that far away from a doctor, and they talk to you at every checkpoint, making sure you are taking your salts and are OK.

My own race experience went from one extreme to the other. Planning to run the whole thing with partner Shaun, things went very wrong for him on day 2. He was very sick and we decided to split. I spent much of the race worrying for him, wondering how he would make it from checkpoint to checkpoint having seen him throwing up water. My own race came together in a way I had never dared dream. As my pack got lighter, I worked my way up the placings. Running with and feeding off Emily’s brilliant enthusiasm we ran together from day 3, geeing each other along. We both enjoyed the race, and managed to finish in the top 10 women on the arduous long stage along with hard-as-nails Holly, getting in before a storm hit at 10.30pm. We also managed to make it into the prestigious Elite start on the marathon stage, and finished in the top 10, somehow managing to beat 2 previous female Mds winners on that day. I have Emily to thank for this.

All the while I was running, I was worrying about Shaun, who was having a terrible time of it, battling passing out, nausea, faking jollity to the doctors so he wouldn’t get pulled, feet so swollen I had to cut his trainers down to slippers so he could get his feet in them. The worry turned to jubilation however, after he passed the last checkpoint of the last day – I ran out to meet him and we did what we always planned and crossed the finish line together.

It wasn’t just us that went through this. You see the extremes of racing from all the competitors.

Elisabet Barnes dominated from the front, winning every single stage, showing the world just what a class running act she is. Tent-mate Danny Kendall, the most modest man you could meet and best Brit ever at the Mds, ran a strong race despite a puking into, then falling into the a large hole in front of our tent after the Long Stage. He finished 8th in a very competitive field. Both of these people are remarkable running talents. Then there was the utterly amazing Cheryl. Her second attempt at the Mds, she was on her feet for a longer time than anyone on the last Marathon stage. She battled the most terrible foot pain for 26.2 miles of sand and rock to come over the line to a fanfare cavalcade of blaring horns and flashing lights of all the support vehicles behind her, into the jubilant cheers of the camp. A hero’s welcome that befits the honour. UK females did extremely well this year, it was so pleasing to see 5 out of the top 10 were Brits!

Everyone that crosses the Mds finish line has tried their hardest, first or last, and everyone gets the same medal. The Mds remains one of my most favourite races. The spirit of camaraderie and support is exceptional. It is extreme, but ultimately, it is worth it, it’s wonderful. The Marathon des Sables 2015. It’s been emotional.

Other thanks: All of the tent group. Supportive, funny, and smelly– you lovely bunch. Special thanks to Emily Foy for dragging me round, and for Shaun Marsden for being unbelievably romantic after being so unbelievably sick.


Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20

X Bionic Fennec Top

Lululemon Pace Setter Skirt

Hoka One One Stinson trails

Runderwear Crop Bra

Sandbaggers gaiters

Injinji Trail socks

Inov8 Race Peak 30 cap

Ulimate Direction 750 ml bottles

Any more kit questions please contact me

@susie__chan on twitter

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