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  • Sussanah Chan

32nd Marathon des Sables

What goes around comes around.

Sand dunes are not fixed things. They shift, grow and move with the winds. Running in them is both beautiful and difficult. Having completed both the 28th and 30th Marathon des Sables, my memories of the Sahara Desert and its dunes are good ones. The race is a favourite of mine, I've enjoyed it immensely. I have even told people, with a vague whiff of arrogance, the race is not that hard. It's fun! Well, what goes around comes around and like the dunes of the Sahara, things shifted and moved for me.

The Sahara was about to teach me a lesson. A lesson that would make me bite my tongue, regret my cavalier approach and take me back to basics. It turned out not to be the race I wanted, but the one I needed to happen.

Leading up to the race I had given myself scant time to prepare. Most of the things required for the race were lurking in my cupboards, but there were last minute things such as gaiters that needed sorting out. I ended up buying some race food at the airport on my way out. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail apparently. I trusted my past experience on getting me through and felt comfortable about the impending week.

The race is self sufficient. Water is rationed by the race and rudimentary shelter is provided to sleep under but everything else needed for the week must be carried with you. Sleeping gear, food and survival kit. The trick is to carry all this as lightly as possible. Which is quite tough when you need to nourish yourself for a 150 mile week running in tough conditions.

The thing I did do diligently was heat training. A must for anyone heading out to the Sahara were temperatures edging over 50 degrees Celsius.

Bag (generally) packed, I came together with Damian, Nathan, Jeff, Johan, Paul, Mark and Mark to make up tent 109.

Things were notably smoother in organisation this time around. Although well organised, with over 1100 competitors and up to 700 staff, there can be a fair amount faff and queuing. 2017's version seemed to involve much less queuing and much more time to laze around on the admin day (race registration, kit check, bags weighed etc.)

I ditched more weight (cheese, nuts and recovery shakes, which turned out to be a huge mistake) to try to get my bag under 7kg.

Race day was upon us. 1200 runners, laden with our rucksacks, stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the scorching sun. AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" played us out as we ran into desert. My first day went reasonably well. I had not actually eaten that much on the move, but felt comfortable in the heat and with the weight. However, my trainers had pinched. This was odd as they had seen me through the Costa Rica multistage. I put it down to a poor sock choice and lamented over day 1 blisters. I only had this single pair of socks for the week. I would have to tough it out.

Day 2 was when things started to unravel. I removed my insoles to give my toes more space which helped a little bit. Again I didn't manage my race food well and didn't eat much. I only had 5 sweets in 5 hours. By the end of the day I was feeling pretty miserable as I was reduced to a walk, low on energy. You would think I would have learned, but no. I was feeling sick from not eating and couldn't eat because I felt sick.

By the start of Day 3 I realised something beyond my sore feet and lack of appetite was wrong - my head. I was really struggling this time. I found it hard to focus on anything positive. Trudging along by myself, losing places made things worse. There was added pressure having been named in the press pack as one to watch. The race slipped from my vision and my confidence nose-dived. The slower I got the more I wanted things to go wrong so I had an excuse. I had been invited to this race by the excellent WAA and I felt like I was letting them down.

Things came to a head on Day 3. Once again, I messed up my race nutrition and hit a wall. I was wobbling around 3km from the end when a kind runner propped me up and gave me a gel. When I finally crossed the line and passed out back in the tent. My lovely tent mates looked after me and I ended up in the medical tent. Lying there in a petulant self indulgent fug of misery of my own making, I tried to pinpoint the exact moment things had fallen apart. With the long stage looming the thought of 55 miles while in this kind of head space filled me with absolute dread.

By the start of Day 4 I had lined up all my excuses to drop out and justified every single one of them - "I've done this before. Nothing to prove. I'm not feeling well. I can't eat." Etc, etc.

With a show of fake bravado at the start line I focused very hard on trying to stay positive. It was not to last long, by checkpoint 2, I was hell bent on stopping. Then, like a little ray of sunshine, a girl by the name of Catrin started to talk to me. Just being with someone else made a huge difference. My spirits lifted. Still struggling to eat, liquid calories would get me through the day. Carbohydrate powder and recovery shakes fuelled my run. The miles passed as we chatted. Then Jeff joined us as the evening approached. My energy was on a razors edge for the rest of the stage, with Jeff gallantly giving me his poles as we death marched towards the finish line, me in Jeff's wake, trying to keep up.

As we had completed the long stage in one go, we had earned the rest day. Word had obviously got back home that I was not in a good place. During this race communication with the outside world is sparse and often one-way. The highlight of the day is messages from home. I was so happy to get the long day over with and now knew that I was going to finish. The soreness of my feet was surpassed by my bruised ego from my poor performance. It was becoming nearly impossible to keep internalising it. Then the messages arrived. Hundreds of them from well wishers telling me funny, silly, sincere things. Telling me to keep going. It was humbling. I realised how this was all my own doing. I realised that my mistakes with my nutrition were mine only and only I could ensure all this effort wasn't in vain. I realised I was making all sorts of lame excuses to hide the fact that my head had gone and that my poor performance was entirely my own fault. I realised how fragile my run ego was and how it affected my confidence levels. I realised what a fantastic opportunity I had been given and I could work to redeem myself. If anything I should do this for all the wonderful people who had written to me and for WAA who perked me up daily.

Messages of support - over 50 pages of them! On marathon day they all went in my bag. Rather than get annoyed about the weight of my bag at the start line, this time the extra weight reminded me what a privilege it was to be in this race. There were so many other people in the race: Duncan Slater, Louis, Kevin Webber, and my lovely tent mate Johan, who were just getting on and doing it. The marathon stage was to be for all those who sent me a message. I started running, and for the first time that week, diligently paying attention to my nutrition (forcing the shot blocks down) and kept running and running. By the half marathon point it was becoming a joy. Toes numbed I ran up and down dunes towards the finish. The knot of my own vanity undone and I ran for the joy of running again.

The Marathon des Sables - it turns out you can't wing it. The desert took me right back to basics and knocked me down a peg or two. What goes around comes around. I'm glad I finished, a poor race result is much better than letting the DNF demons win.

I acknowledged my mistakes and will take all of these with me into future races. Not every race goes your way. Never has my head gone so badly in a race, and am so glad, with encouragement from all my brilliant tent mates and messages, the finish line was reached.

There are many stories from the Marathon des Sables. One of the beautiful things about this race is not what number you end up in the rankings, but what you learn about yourself on the journey to the finish line. In this race I had learned that more than any other.

Thank you once again, Marathon des Sables.

A HUGE thank you to WAA and the Marathon Des Sables for the opportunity; thanks for the unwavering support during the race.

My brilliant tent mates - "Eight or zero, guys!" Every day the thought of getting back to our squashed space and your terribly lame banter drove me on. Thanks for looking after me. Well done on outstanding performances. Apologies for my sweary language. You are all gentlemen.

Thank you to everyone who sent me a message. I still have them now. You are all absolute darlings x x x

Steve Deiderich & RunUltra. Thank you for the repeated pep talks and sorry for being an admin nightmare.

Thanks to Becs & Carole. Sorry for stressing you out.

Shaun & Lily. Thank you for everything EVER and making sure the fridge was full upon my return.

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