April came around quickly and it was time for the Marathon Des Sables. With all the talking and preparation for the race, I was so excited to get on with it, but not without trepidation that kit choices could be wrong and training might not have been optimal. But I knew everyone would be in the same boat, and now was the time to stop worrying and enjoy the race, making the best of all the choices I’d made and couldn’t change. And I think that’s part of the joy of a race like this. No decisions to make, no work to worry about, nothing really to think or concern yourself with other than running, eating, sleeping, running, eating, sleeping.
If you sign up to MDS through the UK, the package includes return flights from London to Morocco and coach transfer to the desert. They charter 3 flights for UK participants from Gatwick to Ouarzazate (that popular holiday destination I’m sure you’ve all heard of). Walking into Gatwick, the tell-tale rucksacks were ubiquitous, and when I went through to departures and settled down with a drink in Costa, I spied the amazing explorer Ranulph Fiennes. My tentmates weren’t long before they passed through departures too. Most of them were on the earlier two flights so rushed straight to their gates, and Holly and I were left behind waiting for the third.
When we arrived in Ouarzazate, we got straight onto a coach and headed away from civilisation to the Sahara desert and start of the race, with a stop for a packed lunch en route. This saw everyone venturing off looking for a sheltered spot for a wee. You’d see people stop, turn around, change their minds and keep going and going. This was the last time most of us would be so coy! We were given our road books (maps and descriptions of the course for each day), and all flicked straight to the long stage, which had been rumoured to be the longest ever long stage in MDS history, and suspected to be 100km. We were relieved to see it was ‘only’ 91.7km! We got to camp in the dark and being the last to arrive, struggled to find our tentmates. We were told to just find a tent with empty spaces and make do, which we did reluctantly before going for dinner (provided, and I don’t remember what it was, but it was well received!). At dinner, we managed to find another of our tent mates and sort out swaps to all get together in our planned 8.
The tents are actually rugs on the sand, and a large piece of heavy black material draped over sticks with open sides. The first night I had a terrible night’s sleep. It was warm, which I was relieved about, because in the build up to MDS, I’d actually been more worried about being cold at night than hot during the day. I barely spent any time inside my sleeping bag, let alone needing to use my sleeping bag liner or Tyvek suit. The next day was admin day, ie. queues galore. We had to check in our drop bags which would be taken back to Ouarzazate for us to be reunited with at our hotel at the end of the race. So this would be the end of our decisions, after a “practice night”, we had an idea of what the temperature would be like, and could select what we actually needed to keep for the week. Then we had our race bags weighed to ensure they met the minimum weight of 6.5kg (and to be laughed at wished good luck with a smirk when yours was way over), had our ECGs and medical certificates checked, and signed forms declaring everything in our packs (thereby preventing jettisoning items during the week to reduce pack weight). Finally, we had our pre-race photos taken. After all the beaurocracy was dealt with, we were able to wander about, and enjoy an evening’s entertainment of live music and dancing. Already, I felt like I never wanted to leave, and I knew that there was no way that this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime, tick-it-off-the-bucket-list thing as I’d intended it to be – I’d be back. We were given breakfast, lunch and dinner on this day including a small bottle of wine with dinner, and that wine made for a much better night’s sleep the second night.
Day 1 – self sufficiency starts and there’s no turning back. Each stage starts with everyone piling into the start area, and listening to a speech by Patrick Bauer (of whom MDS is the brainchild), followed by a rousing rendition of ACDCs Highway to Hell. The distance was 31.6km. I ran the first leg of 14.6km and then found my dexterity was suffering and my hands were getting puffy. I’d read that using poles would help keep the hands elevated and improve dependent oedema, so I got my poles out and walked the next 12km. I began to feel sick, thirsty but sloshing and so full of fluid I couldn’t take on any more. I was unable to eat and just felt worse and worse. At check point 2, a medic sat me down and made me eat something. I felt like a sullen, stroppy teenager taking a grumpy bite and chewing slowly and in a completely over-exaggerated fashion. I managed to keep down my bite of cereal bar and was allowed to continue. I put my poles away and hoped to pick up some speed and make progress along the final leg. I finally arrived back, feeling absolutely exhausted, and finally understood all the constant advice to keep the pack as light as possible. I’d spent all day planning what I could get rid of or pack better to reduce and redistribute weight. My sleeping back had been slung under the bottom of my pack and my sleeping mat strapped onto the front, and the wobbling sleeping bag had taken a few adjustments along the way and was driving me potty. Given I’d not been able to eat anything all day, I was planning on throwing away a significant amount of food, but when I got back I scoffed all my snacks and felt much better. Each evening, the volunteers bring around communications from home, emails sent through the organiser’s website from friends and family at home, printed at camp and handed over. I received emails from my parents and a few friends which were lovely to read. Again, I got a reasonable sleep, though it was cooler and windier, and woke up to find the Berber’s had adjusted our tent without us even noticing. When the winds pick up, the long sticks in the middle of the tent can be angled so that the material is closer to the ground (and our faces) to stop so much sand blowing in (and the tent taking off).
Day 2 – I woke up and trimmed down my mat, removing two of the sections and an inch from the side, feeling that every little would help. Another 31.1km to cover today, but far more technical than day 1, with two climbs (the size of Snowdon my grandad had heard and informed my dad who mentioned this in tonight’s email), the first being rocky and followed by a narrow ridge plateau; with a long salt plain in between where temperatures reached in excess of 50 degrees. The climbing forced me to work earlier, keeping my pace more even, and allowing me to be more disciplined in drinking my water, taking my salt tablets and eating at regular intervals. The end of the last climb involved a rope to help us up to the summit, and then the descent through the sand was fun, but the undulating sand dunes afterwards seemed neverending, and it was quite the celebration when the bivouac (camp) finally came into view. I arrived back 51st lady on day 2, and 58th combining day 1 and 2. My run snacks for day 2 had included M&Ms, jelly babies and dried pineapple and papaya. My dinner of spaghetti bolognaise with parmesan went down very well, despite being a little crunchy and failing to hydrate properly. This night there was a big storm, even windier than the night before, we lowered the tent down so that it was right above our faces, and still the sand was whirling in and getting in my eyes and teeth.
Day 3 – I chucked my (still unused) Tyvek suit, and managed to fit my sleeping bag inside my pack. The 36.7km stage started with a long flat run walk, over which I enjoyed some (slightly melty, but rather delicious) dark chocolate and mint M&Ms. There was a big steady climb to the finish, when I kept thinking the camp would be just over the next ridge, ok the next one, or the next…. I couldn’t stop peeing today, but still felt a relentless thirst. I had a snack of crunchy Pasta n Sauce on arrival at camp, and then enjoyed a spicy chicken tikka and rice dinner. I went to bed really apprehensive about the long stage coming up the next day. This stage saw the arrival creation of a small blister on the top of my left 2nd toe just proximal to the nail, but all in all my feet and body were still in good condition.
Day 4 – The long stage, and this year the longest ever at 91.7km. The top 50 placed runners from the 3 liaison stages start with a 3 hour handicap on the rest of us. One of my tentmates Tony, had done really well, placing 35th on day 1. He tried to drop back a little on day 3 to avoid the late start, and came in 54th after 3 days, but unfortunately 4 of those were women and they made the decision to set off the top 50 men and top 5 women late, so we waved him goodbye as we set off to tackle the longest distance I’d ever done in one go. We started with an uphill sandy slog, followed by a steep rocky ascent, heading back the way we’d come in the previous day. I had planned to keep going, no stops, no meals and certainly no naps. This plan adapted significantly as the miles ticked by. I stopped at checkpoint 1 for a quick snack, to pour water over my legs, and to soak my cap and buff before putting them back on my head and round my neck to cool down as I had at every checkpoint. At checkpoint 2, I stopped to check my feet and change my socks. Seeing the lead runners pass by was inspiring. At checkpoint 3, I broke my first rule of “no cooked meals” and had my beef stroganoff noodles, rehydrated with lukewarm water I’d been carrying since the previous checkpoint, and to me at the time, it tasted truly delicious. Leaving checkpoint 3, I turned on my mum’s iPod. I never usually run with music, and have always struggled with finding headphones to fit my tiny ears, but I’d loaded up a good playlist and saved the iPod until now. I picked up the pace listening to 99 problems, sweet home Alabama, hot right now, purple hills, since you’ve been gone, warwick avenue, on the floor, and zero to hero from the film Hercules. Running along, a few people clapped and congratulated me, obviously thinking I was one of the top 5 ladies, when in fact I’d just got second wind. I had running through my head “this is amazing and so am I”, “relentless forward progress”, and “time stops for no man”. Then just before checkpoint 4, the iPod battery died. Blow! I was keeping pace with three Moroccans but they weren’t very chatty with eachother, let alone me, the leader just announcing “cailloux” every now and again to the two behind him. So I pressed on and caught two Brits, who again weren’t in the best spirits or particularly welcoming. Soon afterwards, Ludy caught up with me and we chatted all the way to checkpoint 5, where they’d set up deckchairs and were giving out mint tea (the delicious sweetened mint tea they hand out at the end of each stage). We felt good and decided to press on, but as soon as we left I realised, we’d made a mistake. All the way to checkpoint 6, I felt like I was staggering and imagined myself as being like a dinosaur you see in documentaries, stumbling around on the verge of extinction. I kept thinking “I could just lie down there and have a little nap”, and then chastising myself, realising how stupid that would be. In the dark, we were guided by yellow sticks tethered to each runner’s bags and green glowsticks attached to trees, sticks and rocks and various intervals. Just before checkpoint 6, Tony caught up with me after my 3 hour headstart, and he looked like he was suffering too. Ludy and I agreed on a 30 minute power nap and I set my phone alarm to get up. There was only room in the tent for one more, so Ludy settled down leaning against a 4×4 and I got into my sleeping bag in the remaining space. My alarm went off, I groaned and hit snooze. 10 minutes later, I switched it off. After a while Ludy came over to see what was going on, and I waved him on as I was desperate for more sleep. I ended up staying for 4 hours, shrouded in my sleeping bag through a sandstorm. As I left the checkpoint, just as it was getting light, I spotted my tentmate Alan just ahead of me. It turned out that we’d been sleeping next to eachother and he’d been there 6 hours. We stuck together until approximately 1 mile before the end when I knew I was holding him back and let him power on. I completed the stage in just under 25 hours, absolutely exhausted. I now had a rest day in camp and another night’s sleep before the marathon stage. I had a makeshift shower stabbing holes into a 1.5litre bottle of water with my knife and holding it above my head. It felt blissful to get some of the sand off and cool down a bit, as did the can of coke we were each treated to.
Day 6 – Marathon stage. I don’t remember much about this stage in terms of route or terrain. Again the top runners set off later than the main pack, but this time the top 200 and only 1 hour. This included tentmates Ben and Holly. Ben caught me just as I was approaching a group of hundreds of camels and I’d stopped to take photos. I ran with him a little while before letting him go on. Holly caught me a little later, and she was suffering with severe chafing on her back from her back, having to hold it away from her back with her hands. We ran together for a while catching and passing another tentmate Aaron, before we hit some tough going sand dunes and she headed off in front of me. I’d done this stage sans-bra as I’d washed it the day before at camp, and decided not to put in on still damp, but started to suffer between the last checkpoint and the finish, so like Holly had to run holding my top away from my body. As soon as I saw the bivouac, I picked up the pace for what at the time, felt like a sprint finish, but was probably more of a lollop! I passed under the finish gantry and was handed a medal by a volunteer (though didn’t get my kiss from Patrick Bauer). I waved and smiled at the webcam, hoping my parents at home would be watching at the right time. I was done! I’d completed the marathon des sables!!
But all was not over; I then followed the usual routine of queuing for my three 1.5litre bottles of water and heading to our tent for “tent maintenance” ie. lifting up the rug and clearing the stones and spiky seed pods from beneath. These seed pods were the bane of everyone’s life called various things from “death stars” to rather less polite names. They were round discs about the size of a penny with loads of spikes on them, hidden in the sand ready to impale themselves in an unsuspecting foot. After dinner, we had the prizegiving and saw footage on a big screen from the past week (tears all round), before going to sleep prior the final charity stage.
Charity stage – a shorter 10-15km “fun run” wearing UNICEF tshirts, which doesn’t count towards race positions, and so groups run and walk it together without competition, allowing for group photo opportunities, and posing with the helicopter which had been spotted overhead all week.
We then had a long coach journey back to Ouarzazate and a couple of days R&R in a lovely hotel.
I finished the race in a total time of 51 hours, in 775th place out of 1237 finishers overall (a further 100 odd had dropped out at various stages along the way), and 77th female out of 186 who finished.
It was such a come down for it all to be over, after months of planning, training, discussion and anticipation. But I can honestly say, it was the best week of my life, and I will definitely be back! I learned a lot, and there’s things I’d change next time (to be discussed in my next blog).