32nd Marathon Des Sables.
Southern Moroccan Sahara.
This race does not hold the moniker ‘The toughest footrace on earth’ for no reason …….
Unlike some I never really held any long-standing ambition to run this ‘race’. I entered at a time when I didn’t care about much, or about what would happen to me, I guess I entered without too much thought about what was to come.
So, I originally made mention of the race to the wonderful people of the BCRC and I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised when within a few days one of the group had signed up ! ….. so I was almost left with no choice. As it turns out if you’re going to do this ‘race’, it’s definitely better to do it with friends, and having a Danni as a friend is a pretty special thing.
After signing up myself, Graham jumped on board together with a couple of his friends and Hari soon followed. No matter how much research you do into a ‘race’ like MDS nothing will ever quite prepare you for the utter brutality of it. Read all of the books you like, listen to people’s personal experiences, but at the end of the day ….. as with any race, you just have to go with what works for you personally. Pretty much all of us had differing approaches to MDS, but the one thing we all had in common was some apprehension about what was to come.
The approximately eighteen months leading up to the race were obviously pretty busy race wise for me, and so whilst it was always somewhere in the back of my mind, it kind of crept up on me very quickly after completing my year for Sharon. I decided to jump on a plan in the new year for Barcelona, and fortunately I reaped the rewards from that race setting up my plans for 2018.
With goals achieved and back home with a cold after overtraining, MDS came starkly into view.
Graham had been great in prompting me to get kit sorted and encouraging me to do some specific training, and from afar Danni, Hari and Penelope had been a wealth of knowledge testing products and kit combinations. As it turned out, other than one sandy training run and some valuable, and uncomfortable (!) heat chamber sessions, I would be going into the toughest multi-stage race in the world slightly underprepared off of a heap load of marathons and some ‘hide the thermistor’ sessions !
Kit all assembled comprising a compulsory kit list to include an anti-venom pump, survival sheet, compass, sleeping bag, head torch, knife, signalling mirror, whistle, lighter, and a minimum of 2000 calories worth of food for each day, I attempted to fit it all in my 20 litre back pack a few days before we were due to leave for Morocco.
A few tantrums and swearing fits later and after binning my walking poles and stove I managed to squeeze it all in with seams seemingly at breaking point all over.
A few people didn’t want me to take part in this ‘race’, me included …… things had changed somewhat since signing up, and whilst I still experience some pretty rubbish days, I’m rarely in the place I was back then. And so catching the taxi up to Gatwick in the early hours of April 7th for our scheduled flight to Ouarzazate, the gateway to the Sahara, I was feeling a mix of emotions and I don’t think excitement was really one of them.
I travelled with Graham and two friends, who by association and shared experiences to come would soon become friends and a mutual support. It’s not surprising how quickly you get to know someone when you sleep next to them whilst getting sandblasted, slice open blisters on your toes whilst borrowing their iodine, and give each other that knowing glance when you trot off with crap bag in hand ! This was going to be close quarters battle …… a battle against the elements, the environment, the fragility of our bodies and against our minds …. this race in all of it’s beauty and brutality would test every part of us and at this point we had little idea quite how much.
After a pretty smooth flight and six hour coach transfer …. yep six, we arrived at the bivouac where we would stay for a couple of nights completing all of the admin including submitting our ECG and medical paperwork for scrutiny and re checking our kit was in order for what was to come.
We had been given our Roadbook by now, our essential guide to the ‘race’ detailing a typical days routine prior to the start of each stage, how each stage would look in terms of terrain and distance and what you could be penalised for (in time or money) …. no sleeping bag or compass = 3 hour penalty, No race bib = 1st warning, 2nd out of race, Lateness of more than 30 minutes at departure of stage = out of race, Receiving extra water = 1st 30 minutes penalty, 2nd 1 hour penalty, 3rd out of race !
Now, we knew what each stage held on paper. Stage 1 = 30.3km, Stage 2 = 39km, Stage 3 = 31.6km, Stage 4 = 86.2km, Stage 5 = 42.2km and the Charity Stage = 7.7km, all stages being described in more detail as containing a variety of sand dunes, stony plateaus, hills, rugged terrain, and jebels (mountains) ….. the odd phrase did stick in the mind …. “CAUTION ! Technical descent of over 20%. Sandy then Stony” or “Go SW for difficult climb. 25% average slope until summit. Climb alternating rocky and sandy parts” or one to sharpen the senses “CAUTION ! Imperatively follow markings to stay on track and avoid crevasses” …….. expletives consumed my thoughts !
I’ve written too much already and could go on forever, but you’d get bored and I’d have nightmares ! so I’ll write what I wrote each evening in the roadbook at the end of each stage word for word.
Stage 1 = 4 hours 1 minute. Ran well up to 14 miles, walked dunes, very hard in sand, walked 4 miles, hot but breezy.
Stage 2 = 7 hours 40 minutes. Started with Danni and Hari walking, walked mostly, big dunes, mountain climbing !! Didn’t want to run. One blister on top of toe.
Stage 3 = 5 hours 7 minutes ? Started well, mostly ran, beautiful views on Jebel’s, very technical climbs with ropes, 46 degrees celsius, blisters.
Stage 4 = Ran first 10 miles, then sand, horrendous, back at 0330 hrs, hardest physical effort ever.
Stage 5 = 5 hours 20 minutes. Marathon, great day, not much sand, I’ve done it !
Stage 6 = Tent 134 stroll in the dunes – Happy it’s done.
Now, to say I had tears in my eyes when just writing about stage 5 might go some way to expressing just how hard this ‘race’ was.
It tested me absolutely, I had moments when I didn’t think I could take another step and I had moments when I just didn’t want to. It was without doubt the hardest physical effort I have ever subjected my body to. The shiny website and emotive video’s produced for this event should not be misinterpreted and entry into this ‘race’ should not be underestimated. It will test you to your limits and it will try to break you. People had to be removed from the race due to heart attacks, toe amputations, dehydration and pure exhaustion.
You were soon forced into getting used to the daily routine. Having your tent taken down around you whilst waking up or preparing breakfast, the queue for your morning water ration, the sand getting everywhere, chatting to tent mates about shared experiences, waiting for emails from home to lift you at the end of the day, wondering what the hell you were doing trying to run day after day in scorching temperatures ! The bivouac soon resembled a refugee camp with people hobbling around on blistered feet in filthy clothes looking dazed as the sun rose over the dunes. This scene was repeated as the camp moved further into the Saharan desert.
That said it did provide moments of beauty and wonder, and quite simple things like a cold can of coke after the long day took on extra significance, as did a cold beer after stage 5.
Running across the ridge of Jebel’s with sheer drops on either side was a highlight, the camaraderie, the shared experience, the sense of achievement, pushing the boundaries of all that you ever thought you were capable of, the daily emails and encouragement from friends and loved ones at home …… but one moment truly stood out for me, a moment I’ll never forget. Standing on top of a high dune alone in the darkness on the long stage I took a moment to stop and look out at the hostile beauty of the landscape. Now I don’t have a spiritual or religious bone in my body, but in that moment I felt closer to Sharon than I’ve ever felt since February 24th 2015. It was like she was right there telling me it was ok, that I was going to be ok and not just in this race.
For that moment alone I will forever be thankful that I took part in The Marathon Des Sables. This brutal ‘race’ will not build character, it will expose it and force you to re-examine who you think you are.
I doubt I’ll ever take part in anything of it’s like ever again. I’m an MDS finisher, and I have the utmost respect for anyone who’s even willing to toe the start line of this ‘race’. I can’t keep referring to it as a ‘race’ ….. it ends up just being about survival, a perfect interpretation of life I guess.