The Marathon des Sables (MdS) is a 250k foot race through the Sahara Desert spread over 7 days (6 sessions). To make it tougher still you have to carry you own equipment, the only thing supplied is a tent and water which has to be self-managed. Sound like fun still? Well i applied back in 2008 and i have been eager to get started since, bring on the pain I’d say and i wasn't wrong! This year’s MdS was the longest distance from start to finish!
Some terms you might find handy:
MdS : Marathon des Sables
CP : check point
Tent 81 : my tent members
Berber’s : Moroccan men employed to help out moving equipment ie, tents
Bivouac : campsite, tent area
Water ration : 1.5l per bottle
Own water bottles: 1 x 1 liter & 2 x 500 ml
Doc Trotter : medical tent
At the check in zone it was obvious i was in the right place,, Raidlight kit bags everywhere and everyone with big smiles on their faces.. It wasn't long before i started talking to a few people - Duncan was the first, he'd done the mds once before but had to pull out due to food poisoning! I meet a few others that i had been tweeting to and after swapping some stories i began to relax... Scorpions have been the main subject of debate!!! Hmmm
I'm on the plane now already thinking is my kit too heavy, does it contain useless items etc.,, it’s like painting the Mona Lisa, but at some stage, sooner or later, you have to stop and say, that's enough ;)
21.53...we have been at the Berbere Palace hotel since about 5:30 pm. It’s a great place and very welcoming, we helped ourselves to beers and water and paired off for rooms, I’m sharing with Carl. Met a few others as well and we are already grouping up for tents, which we will get tomorrow
Tonight we had a huge selection of foods from a hot and cold buffet, very tasty, take my word ;). Tomorrow we have to be up at 5am to get on coaches for the Sahara so it'll soon be sleep time...
We didn't get a great night sleep, too bad because we are up at 5am and about to go for breakfast... The coach should leave for Sahara at 8am and no power from then on so iphone is on its final charge...
Long day! We transferred from the coaches into army trucks for the last 2 kilometers or so. But we arrived at camp around 4pm ... Carl and i took a tent with a crew friends from Southampton running club.. So are tent number is 81 and here are the people within it,.
Jo, Becky, Sally, Kevin, Em (Emyr), Trent, Carl and myself.
Nice bunch of people.
We have surveyed the local small dunes, sorted out backpacks and had some food.. Food is provided by the organizers up until race day, even some wine tonight!! Rucksack was not an issue but i think i will have another look at it tomorrow; comparing tips with others is a good thing ;)
It’s still early: 20:57 and still warm in fact the thermo says 22C... Its very dark and im going to try and get some star photos now... See ya!
Day 2 at camp, Saturday 2nd April.. Tomorrow is race day and after breakfast we walked and jogged the first 1-2km of the course..
The sand dunes were very hard work to climb and gaiters had a tiny gap in them, back at the tent i realised some sand had got in my shoes, two pairs of socks and onto my feet! That was impressive! So i have had to do a bit of sewing to sort out the gap issue.... Time will tell if it works.. The biggest sand dunes are all on day one!
We are about to hand in our medical, ecg and suitcase.... We will be left with just our race number and kit... Suddenly reality strikes!
April 3 – Race day 1
So we got up at 6am today and we had our first DIY meals...which tasted lovely! This was disturbed however by the Berbers taking the tents away and the carpet at around 6.30... Havoc ensued and we sorted out our stuff in the end but everything got a little sandy.. Race started at 9am, before which we were organised into a human 2 6 and filmed from above waving at the helicopter as it swept by a few times, spirits were high.
The first day was only 33km long, the second shortest of the week, a nice entree we thought ;). Hmmm. Everyone gets a water card and this is clipped every time you collect water.. Today’s stage had two check points at 13k and 26k... We also were given one bottle at the start (bottle =1.5l).
So off we went, helicopter buzzing over to the sounds of AC DC 'road to hell' blaring out from the PA system, the blood was pumping now!
The first part was sand which rose up over one large dune and down the other side to a pebbly plateau, this went on and on so i broke into a little trot, the idea was to do this right up to the check point, which i did... It was cloudy and fairly cool and at CP1 we were offered 2 bottles of water, my water was still half full ( i can carry 2 litres in my own bottles) so i only took one.. Getting to the first CP was exciting as there was huge backdrop of sand dunes behind it, high and of epic proportions. In i wandered, i completely forgot we had 13k of these dunes until this next CP i was just dumbstruck by the landscape...
Climbing dunes is not easy, either place your feet in the persons footprints in front of you or, tread lightly on un used sand.. Neither of these made much difference and as the temperature crept up to 35C on sand dune became another and the stage seemed to go on forever... The backpack was at its heaviest today and the straps cut into my shoulders like knives, suddenly i realised i was already in trouble! Taking to people along route helped but soon i had to stop and take off my pack to have a breather, i was down to about 500ml of water: why didn't i take the extra bottle?? I knew it couldn't be long but the time seemed to stop and the dunes everlasting.. The low point was walking around the top of a dune and seeing our tents at the finish in the far distance..! However, another 1.5km later and i arrived at CP2! What relief!
One bottle had about 200ml left but my shoulders were hurting the most... Into a tent and off with the kit!! I was very distressed and it took me about 30 minutes to bring myself back together: and this was day one! I found Becky and Kevin from my tent and decided to power walk the last section with them.
It was only 7 km so we got the job done pretty quickly, we were all glad to be back at the bivouac after a tough first day, everyone found the dunes tough going apart from Carl who said he zipped through them... Personally it took me 3 hours on just that section alone.
Times then for tent 81 on the first day:
Becky, Kevin and me 6.39
April 4 – Race day 2
Today was much easier than yesterday although the pain was more severe! I was woken by sand in the face from a huge sandstorm, the tent tried to take off and Em and i had to re-tie it down again.. The sandstorm persisted through breakfast and prevented me from heating my water.. So cold porridge it was :(
Anther sandstorm and the start and we were off! 38km to cover today, a few sand dunes but nothing like yesterday... The first two sections i found easy after using my Baffins as shoulder pads, the pain started later in the last section on my feet and toes..
It seemed endless and although only a 7km section, it started to drag, even when i saw the finish line it took another hour to reach it,, soul destroying! Still, a similar time to yesterday over a longer distance- so I’m happy :)
After finishing we had another huge sandstorm which destroyed many tents, ours was ok but yet again needed repair with help from the Berber’s .
Next i checked my toes to find a huge blister lurking under one of my nails!! Ouch! Ok i have decided not to see the doctor but given it some air and poured some iodine on it... Will that work? I doubt it very much, more on that storey tomorrow i guess,,
April 5 – Race day 3
A good day for me.. Others had problems though. Day started as normal although i didn't want all my porridge, answer - leave it. I was worried how my toes would fair today , in fact that was the last issue. After my feet had swollen i only used one pair of socks today, after 10 mins my right heal developed a blister,, annoying! So i stopped and did a rolling repair, this lasted about 15 mins before it started hurting again.
My aiming point was the first check point at 13km where the doc trotter awaited... I decided to start shuffling and in the end broke into a run and although in considerable pain was at the checkpoint soon. Doctor taped me up and the stop delayed me 30 minutes - well worth it! After that i got the trot on and mainly shuffled in until the end. The last section had a large climb in it which I am pictured on here:
My highest placing so far; second in our tent for a change ;)
Unfortunately Becky , one of our tent members had a very bad day and although she made it in before cutoff is very unwell in the clinic as i write... More on this later
Tomorrow is the day everyone has been waiting for.. Race day 4; the double day session which is just over 51 miles long.. Im going to try and do it in one go but we shall see.. Night night x
April 7 – Race day 4 / rest day
Day 7, rest day... Rest that is if you finish early, let me explain. Yesterday we started off on a 51 mile run, it takes a while so they do it over 2 days.. I came in about 01:30 this morning however, some people are still out on course now and it is 10:30 now , Becky from our tent is one of those people.. One of her blisters became infected- medical dealt with it and she turned up at the start with the rest of us.
Out in the race it was exceptionally hot, between CP 1 and 2 i had a really tough time , you just have to stick with it and eat and drink regular - hard in temps of about 45C as it was.
me resting at CP4
CP4 was tough too i hadn’t eaten much before and had to cool down before trying , Peporami to the rescue!! Once I’d downed that I got my hunger back and tucked into a few carb loading items.. the next section felt easy so I really got the stroll on and even joggled through the dunes at the end of it.. My shin started to hurt after the next checkpoint and the joggle became a walk - became and hobble... Worst point was the laser guiding you through the final 10k obviously it was dark by then.. Walking towards it just seemed to go on forever and as if it was being carried away from you all the time.. Argh! Agony on the morale!
As I say I finally got home at 01:30 and was able to get some rest – it’s hard to think that as I woke up and through my whole day of rest and recovery, people were still on the course taking up to 33 (thirty three) hours to complete it… truly inspiring stuff if you ever needed it.
Throughout today my ankle area seemed to become worse and at 9pm I went to Doc Trotters to see what they thought.. Not much was the answer and I came away with painkillers – they also told me to see the doctor on route tomorrow if it got worse…. Hmmm
April 8 – Race day 5 (Marathon Day)
I gathered all my strength, I knew this was going to be tough.. and as we started the painkillers told a hold and I was able to walk the first section fairly normally… Up over a large rocky mountain and off into the desert once more, luckily Dave from the Scot’s tent was on hand to lone me one of his walking poles .
I had some Paracetamol – and I took two at CP1 as I changed my water.. It was another really hot day – my thermometer said 40C as I walked and as I walked I started to hobble once more – the pain was biting through the drugs and I must admit to having a few emotional moments…
Near the end I was given a different painkiller, this one worked really well! I can’t remember the name but what the heck, I was limping but without much agony which is always a good thing… the time passed by and the last section I did with two guys Chris and Gordon – we played a game where you guess what famous person you are – you know, you say, are you alive or dead etc.. we did this for the final few Km’s until the finish and it really helped get me over the line – it seems such a small thing now but that was hard… 9.30 hours to cover 42kms … I hobbled back to the tent, took my gear off and had a good cry.
So getting caught crying is a bit embarrassing as a rule but it didn’t seem to worry me at the time – after all – everyone else seemed to have an emotional moment at one stage or another.. However, Trent was there in the tent – he knew I was having a bad time with my ankle and told me to go see Doc Trotter.. which I did straight away.
The Doc’s were great and I was looked after by Eva who suggested my leg had an infection and I needed some anti-biotics to sort that out. She also changed all the bandages on my blisters + found some new ones and dealt with them! ;) More pain-killers, a slap on the back and job done!! Hobble back to tent to have some to eat before bed.
April 9 – Race day 6 (Last Day)
I took the pin-killer that Eva had given me spare about 30 minutes before the start.. the ankle felt awful.. I could not bent it – it felt and looking heavy and the pain was intense in the shin area, not a great start to the day – however, this was only 17.5km… but it still had to be done.
Today I started as I went on – very slow.. I was aided by the same walking pole borrowed from David. Pretty much everyone steamed past me at the start but I just knuckled down and kept hobbling on.. At one stage in the first section I was over taken by the camels.. what?! Well I just had to laugh, you can’t take it too seriously when that happens – people were still behind me and I wasn’t last by far but the determination was high and I reached CP1 before long – I was over half way!! Today I took no extra pain-killers at CP1 I just rode out what I had in me.. the final section was still tough – the pain got worse and so did the heat.. A few others caught me – Penni & Dale, then Mark & Nigel.. I saw them start to get away but that upset me again so I dug deep and started to stride out a bit faster.. after about 1km I caught them and we started to chat as we got nearer to the finish line… It finally came in the village of Tazzarine – we ALL took off and ran the last 50 meters or so over the line – an immense moment I can tell you.. The feeling was just a numb one – no emotion just a little punch in the air and a slight smile. I collected my medal, meal, water and wandered off to find some shade on my own – it felt like an empty shell of myself – nothing to say, all out of pain, all out of emotion. The food we were given didn’t last long at all I can tell you! Then there was the coach trip back to the hotel where finally it began to sink in what I had achieved…. After I’d had a little snooze ;)
Timings for the race:
Race Day 1 (33km or 20.5 miles): 06H39'38
Race Day 2 (38km or 23.6 miles): 06H35'40
Race Day 3 (38km or 23.6 miles): 06H45'12
Race Day 4 (82km or 50.9 miles): 16H12'58
Race Day 5 (42km or 26.2 miles): 09H24'13
Race Day 6 (17.5km or 10.8 miles): 03H43'34
Overall : 49H21'18 (250.5km or 155.6 miles): Position 478
In summery I was elated – it just took time to sink in.. the moments, the landscape, the people, the emotion, the determination and the organisation all went together to provide the most memorable race I have ever been involved in… would I do it again? Ask me in a few months ;)