Weirdly I was not at all nervous. For my first half marathon and marathon I was incredibly nervous in the lead up. I’ve felt more nervous starting a 10K.Standing in Gatwick looking at the flight details I felt very calm. Well, there was not much I could do! I had done as much training as I thought I needed. I had checked and culled, and rechecked and packed and repacked my kit. All I had to do was get on the plane and run the Marathon des Sables.
The Marathon des Sables is often billed as "The Toughest Footrace in the World" a 230km 6 stage race across the Sahara desert, incorporating one stage at nearly 50 miles. Its also self sufficient so you need to carry everything you need to survive on your back. All you get provided is a tent and water. Google it and severely blistered feet feature heavily.
The set is this: you get on a specially chartered plane full of all the UK competitors which takes you to Ouarzazate in southern Morocco (very short runway btw) and then you get to spend the night in a very nice hotel with wifi, a bar, a shower, comfy bed, loads of food. All the things which you will be yearning for in only a few days time. It was very nice indeed.
The next day you then get on a tortuously long coach ride (even more torturous on the return) which slowly takes you further and further south into Africa and nearer and nearer to the Sahara Desert.
They then make you get off the coach and into a big truck which dumps you unceremoniously into camp.
You still have your luggage with you at this point, and spend two nights under a blanket on sticks whilst everyone else arrives and you go through the necessary admin checks. The blanket on sticks is your tent and home for the week. By the end of the week I loved it very much.
It was here, on the first day I bagged tent 119 with my MdS running buddies, Mark Greenfield, Warwick Gooch, Glenn Bowyer, Keith Lambert, Pete Dudley, Sean Kelly and Cathryn Pritchard. It was a reasonable squeeze but not enough to feel too close or too bothered. Besides, we were about to spend a huge amount of time together and your tent mates become your family for the week. By the end of the week you have pretty much covered many conversation topics, shared all sorts of stuff with them and they have seen you in your pants.
When I woke up on the first morning with sand grit in my eyes and ears, up my nose, and in my mouth I realised just how, well, sandy, the desert is. I knew it was going to be- but I certainly underestimated how much dust and dirt there is just floating in the air. It gets everywhere. There is no stopping it and little point in trying to fight it. It coats everything! Putting in contact lenses every morning without grit was a struggle.
On the admin day everything gets weighed, you kit gets checked, and the doctors talk to you and give you salt tablets to take. They then take away your luggage and you have nothing but the bag on your back to last you the week. I was changing my mind right up until the minute I handed my luggage over!
Our camp was next to a huge dune. I saw people going up and down it! Why?! We had 6 days of that ahead! People dropped out on this day and I heard rumours of 2 people ending up on drips before the race had even started.
Day 1 37.2Km
Looking at our road book – day 1 did not look too bad. It turns out the cartoon- like road book drawings beguile the truth of the desert landscape. After diligently ditching as much as I could, ( cooking mug and extra foot tape went. All, but one of my recovery shakes went, I would regret this last decision in 2 days time) my bag weighed in at a hefty 10kg. Nearly 20% of my body weight. I tried not to let it get to me and ignored it as best I could. Within 3K of setting off, I saw someone throwing up. I decided to take it reasonably easy from this point as I had several days of this ahead. Me and Tent Mate Pete ran it together. The race today gave us a nutshell version of what to expect in the days ahead. Rocky mountain climbs (hard) , sandy dunes (impossible to run up), rocky paths (hurt the soles of your feet) and flat dry plains (extra boiling hot), I took it steady and found it to be not too bad. It was hot for sure, but with all my heat training it was nothing I could not cope with so far. Crossing my first finish line for the week – I got back to camp and set about the afternoons soon-to-become rituals: debrief of the day with tent mates, foot inspection, washing in tiny amount of water, cook dinner, get into sleeping bag and lay still until sleep finds you..
Day 2 - 30.7km
This day looked ominously short compared to other days and previous races. There was a good reason for this. This day, for me, was the closest I came to not finishing. Not because of the heat, or the pain in my feet, or anything I anticipated might be a problem – but because we had to scale some high mountains. Jebels. The first climb was high enough – scrambling up very steep sand dunes and rocks to scale to the top – which we then traversed for about 3 km. It was the second jebel that really made my legs wobble with fear. It was recorded on a fellow runners Garmin as 1.5k from the bottom to the top and climbing up steep loose rocks was very hard work. At the pinnacle, I had to climb a sheer rock face which was higher than me, and I had trouble holding on to it, especially with my rucksack and frontpack on – I’m not ashamed to say I was terrified. Tent Mate Pete had to talk me over it, he was a star.
Then, just when I thought the worse was over we had to pull ourselves over the tip of the mountain by way of a rope on a deep sandy surface. People were admiring the view at the top, but I struggled to get up off all fours with the fear! Down the other side was much less steep but huge, huge, HUGE rocks. These took an age to get over, and hurt my feet. Eventually you could see camp! However as soon as the rocks finished the dunes started. They were not too big, but reasonably hard to get over. As the finish line neared I started to run for it, me and Tent Mate Pete and 2 Japanese runners all bombed it to the finish line, hand in hand. A lovely moment!
Later, after we clapped the last few runners over the finish, the cut off time was reached they dismantled the finish line. We could see head torches out in the dunes. These unlucky runners would not make it. If you don’t get to the finish line in time you were disqualified.
There was a blind runner, and a team of firemen carrying a child in a sedan chair. There was also a man dressed as a cow, all were through! What heroes! I have no idea how the man dressed as a cow must have suffered in that heat. When he was asked what charity he was running for he replied. “Charity? I Just like cows!”
Day 3. 38km
I will remember day 3 as the day all my perceptions of time and distance slid into an imperceptible quantity. This day was all about the long flat stages. You would know that the next checkpoint was just round the corner from the mountain in the distance, and that was about 10km away. I can run 10km in 40 minutes. This means nothing in the Mds. You would plough on for ages through the shifting sands and after an age look up and the mountain would still look miles away. Every stage from day 3 was like this.
I also neglected to bring a watch. If you are doing the Mds bring a watch. I would find it difficult to judge time. You are supposed to take salt tablets every hour and at checkpoints. Distracting myself with thoughts about anything, I found it hard to know how long I had been shuffling along for. “Is it salt tablet time?” I would ask Tent Mate Pete thinking an hour was up. “No we’ve only been going 25 minutes!” Alternatively sometimes you would be going along and then all of a sudden its 2pm. I saw a dot on the horizon, and as it came into view, it was a boy on a bicycle, wearing a JUMPER! Where on earth did he come from?! He silently watched the runners go past him. Back to the shuffling.
The finish line always brings out extra energy, today's was a welcome sight and I did airplane arms for the benefit of the webcam over the finish line.
Today was the day I finally got my first blister. The foot toughening regime I had adopted for the month before the race had done me proud though. I saw some feet in an utterly shocking state, I have no idea how some people were even walking on them.
Day 4. 75.7km
Apparently on the 4th day god created lights and stars (which look fantastic from the Sahara), but on the 4th day in the Mds, race director and founder Patrick Bauer created the long stage.
This is the one I had been secretly daunted by. You get a healthy 34 hours to finish this stage so it is quite doable. You need to get to the 3rd checkpoint by a cut off time. Some people choose to stop and sleep here for a few hours. I wanted to do it in one hit. If I did, then I would get a whole day off tomorrow.
Me and Tent Mate Pete set off. This day the top 50 elite runners leave 3 hours after you – so you get a chance to see them bolt past you at a pace that is frankly hard to believe. When the lead guys came past – it was incredible to see how fast they were actually running!
Then in the middle of the day the going suddenly got very, very tough. The mercury had hit 54 degrees Celsius and people were struggling. The lead lady – who had won the last few years in a row, collapsed near us, and got stretchered out the race with heat exhaustion. It was impossible to run in the heat. I saw one guy go from fine, to dizzy, to vomiting to out the race in less than an hour. I took it slow and steady power walking until the main heat of the day passed at 3pm. At checkpoint 4 I ate a hot meal, and teamed up with a Hong Kong runner (Jeff Cheung) and the only Bulgarian in the race and together with Tent Mate Pete we decided to do the last 34km together. After checkpoint 4, Km into the day – there are a lot of sand dunes. Miles and miles of them. The sun went down and we headed towards a giant laser beam in the sky marking the next checkpoint across the dunes. The next few hours blur into one memory – not stopping at all unless at a checkpoint, ignoring the pain, and just keeping going, keeping going. Looking round at fellow runners we all looked ridiculous, caked in dust, filthy, smelly and exhausted. I wondered more than once why we were all doing this to ourselves.
I passed people who had just stopped and lay down exhausted. When we finally made out the finish line we all broke for it. Running towards that finish line that day was the hardest I ran the whole day. It was the best finish line I had ever crossed. I was utterly elated. It felt incredible. Me and the guys had a group photo at the end. Amazing!
When I got back to tent I just had the energy to inspect my feet (not nice) and wash my face before I fell asleep. Whole day off tomorrow!
There were rumours that we get a can of coke on this day. I really hoped this to be true as I somehow had made an error with my food. You are supposed to have a minimum of 2000 calories a day – which I had – but apparently you had to start the marathon stage with 2000 calories in your bag. This meant if I ate my 800 calorie breakfast I would not have enough. I had to not eat breakfast on my day off to make sure I had enough calories for the last day. I was starving. We all sat around pontificating on the best dinner we could not eat and sorted our feet out. Mark gave me a cup-a-soup and I was so happy to see it I took a photo of it. The can of coke arrived, thank goodness. I couldn’t face my nut bar though, and only ate 1000 calories. This, I found out, was not a great pre marathon stage strategy.
People were still coming over the finish line until after lunchtime. It was impressive to see how determined fellow runners were. I did a few slow walking loops of camp to keep the legs ticking over.
Day 5 42.2KM
At the end of this day we were going to get our medals. There was no question in my mind I would not do this. But, good grief this day was very hard work. Looking round at my tent family it was apparent how much weight had been lost in the week. I was very hungry and my energy was low. I had hoped to attack this stage with everything I had left. The reality was slightly less enthusiastic. It was another 50+ degree day and Tent Mate Pete had picked up an ankle injury. After the week we had running together, we decided to see this stage in together too.
In terms of what the course had – it was similar to the first day with a bit of everything. My leg had started to hurt. My feet really hurt. The blisters hurt, but you sort of stopped feeling them after a while. The balls of my feet ached a huge amount from the terrain. My trainers, virtually brand new at the start of the race were in a terrible state. Your feet hurt when you get going, then they kind of numb after about 20 minutes. The problem was when you stopped at a checkpoint – they pain started all over again. Today I saw the most heart-breaking of race drop outs. About 1km from the end of the whole race, I saw someone just ahead collapse. Two people ran to help him and I tried to flag down a doctors car. In the end his flare went up and the helicopter came to his assistance. He had got to just 1K from the end not made it.
I ran towards the finish line and got a double kiss from the race director and my medal. It was done!
Later that evening, despite the pain most of us were in, the whole camp was in party mode. The last runners coming over the line were rewarded with a massive fanfare, all the support cars beeping their horns following them in, loud music was playing and were mobbed by the TV crews, race marshells and fellow runners. Even thinking about the atmosphere of that moment now makes me feel elated.
This is what the MdS was all about. Its sounds like a crazy race, but anyone with the right approach can do it. They organisers want you to finish, they look after you and keep you going. They check on you and cheer you. The camaraderie of fellow runners is like nothing else I have ever experienced in any race I have done. You are all in it together. The scenery is sweeping, epic and so beautiful it is almost surreal. Even with sore feet, starving hungry, and knowing I had another untimed 7K Charity Stage to complete tomorrow. It was the best feeling.
Day 6 7.7Km
This day was a charity stage and not timed. We were treated to breakfast! A fried egg sandwich! Tea!
Everyone got a blue T shirt to wear and we all set off (everyone was walking) over the dunes for one last hurrah before we got on the coaches back to 5 star luxury. I remember looking at my rucksack and thinking you really do not need much to survive. Food, water and somewhere to sleep, and good company are all you need.
Today the whole of the Tent 119 family walked together. In any blog you read about the Marathon des Sables people will say about how you become firm friends with your tent mates, and its so true. My goodness they all stank, but not once was I ever fed up with their company. You really do go through it together. We walked towards the last finish line together – and crossed it hand in hand. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Hugs and beers all round.
The cow made it too.
In my next blog – I will post my MdS training schedule and thoughts on anything I would have done differently, and what happened next.
My one bit of advice to you if you are thinking about doing this race is, don’t think just do. You wont regret it, I promise.