Marathon des Sables
The report below is based around the information I blogged during the race. The original postings may have appeared short but each email was limited to a maximum number of characters and we had to use French keyboards which slowed things down a bit ...oh yes and I was gubbed when trying to write them !
Arrival and Administration ...
Gatwick Airport looked like a Raidlight convention. It was easy to spot who was going to the 23rd Marathon des Sables with the majority of folks sporting similar rucksacks or shoes with Velcro taped round the outside in preparation for gaiters.
Met up with Angie (aka Natasha), Dave and Des on the flight and along with James and Elaine, Tent 82 was formed - we were to meet up with another couple Gav & Shelly out in Ouarzazate.
The Berber Palace was nice...very nice in fact. A large buffet dinner and early to bed since we were transferring to the desert next morning. The journey out was broken up by numerous pee stops - folks didn't want to arrive dehydrated. After about 5 hours, the buses pulled off the road and after a rather dusty ride, we arrived at the first bivouac. The Berber tents are very basic being open on two sides. First evening we were treated to a mild storm which did cover everything in powdery sand.
Administration and the Medical checks were the last couple of hurdles before the start line. I was over the moon when I sailed through both. It would appear that as long as the forms are stamped and your name is on the ECG (and it is ok obviously) then the French doctors don't ask too many questions.
Race Day 1- Oh dear ...what have I done.
31.6 km/ 19.4 miles
Temp at 8.00am 20.8C
Temp at 12.00am 36.8C
The first stage started with a 1.5km "sprint " to the mighty Merzouga Dunes. These brought everyone (whose name didn't end in Ahansal) back to earth. Beautiful, but difficult. There were an amazing number of route choices and it became obvious that fresh sand was firmer to walk / attempt to run on than sand that had been broken up by a couple of hundred runners before you ! Off the dunes and the first control point - here there was a brief medical check and you were supplied with 1.5l of water. The next section on a stony plateau was reasonable and it was good to run a while (previously nearly impossible in the dunes). Thinking of home was too emotional at this time - when it got rough I thought of Charlie Boorman riding a motorcycle 400km in the Dakar with broken wrists ...that helped !
Another CP ...more water then onwards. The last couple of km was back in smaller but equally as sandy dunes but nothing like the earlier ones. Was over the moon to finish still feeling 100% healthy and in great spirits. The feet are manky but that was all - no blisters. The hydration strategy of drinking every 5 mins (Nuun in one bottle and water supplemented by Endurolytes capsules in the other) had kept the pee nice and clear. The legs held up well and with the exception of the gaiters, the rest of the kit seemed to be working as well! My shoulders were a little bruised due to the weight (pack was 10.6kg then add up to 3kg for water). The temperatures were actually ok considering.
It was good to have the first stage out the way.
Race Day 2- First blisters ...
38 km/ 23.3 miles
Temp at 8.00am 19.80C
Temp at 12.00am 40.0C
Stage 2 was a bit easier under foot if a little longer! The dunes on this stage were wee in comparison to the first day.
Had a tough lesson on pace - had a really good first 12km then blew up but with still another 26km to go and the temperature hitting 40 degrees. Took some time out at the 2nd control to sort things out a bit. From then on, I took it really easy and thankfully made a really good recovery. Big thanks to Rich M for the company ! Also learned that if you mess up ...the desert will hurt you but equally, if you realise your mistake early enough ...it can be sorted. We had the first "significant" climb of the race ...up the Jebel el Habet. In the end it was fairly tame but gave some great views from the top !
During this stage the feet starting to fall apart a bit but not a major drama. Blisters on both heals which were drained, friars balsam injected into them (which created a wee glesga sweary moment) then a thread inserted to help drain any further fluid build up. Last job was to tape them up ready for Stage 3. By the end of this stage 7 out of 8 folks in the tent were sorting feet each night.
Food and drink strategy seemed to be still working well.
Race Day 3- Silly heat and water ...
40 km/ 24.8 miles
Temp at 8.00am 19.7C
Temp at 12.30am 48.0C
This day started badly. For a number of reasons, I spent far longer between the start and the first CP than intended ...end result I ran out of water. I got into CP1 in a bit of a state and smiled at the medics before heading to one of the tents to consider the situation. I was fairly dehydrated and not feeling well. Thankfully the water ration was 3L (they give you more if the next section is really hard) and after about 30 minutes I had got enough fluids and electrolytes down me to head out onto the next section. With a bit of damage already done, I decided to take it easy but keep moving and avoid running out of water again.
Between CP2 and CP3 I had been on my own for a fair bit and the demons were out to play. Thankfully, the ipod diverted attention with some Martyn Bennet tunes. For those not familiar with his music, Martyn pushed the limits of traditional music in Scotland and did something different. Nobody had done anything like it before or since his death. I think he would have approved. Sadly he lost his battle with cancer in his early 30s. This stage was respectfully dedicated to his memory.
I rolled in late - it had taken me 9 hours and 38 minutes to cover the distance. Not good - I wasn't bothered about a race position but being out that long takes it toll on the head as well as the body. I got into the camp to find one of our tent mates had been airlifted out and had 5L of fluid via an IV. Like I said ...mess up and the desert will hurt you.
Race Day 4 (long stage)- Team go(oan) have a laugh ...
75.5 km/ 46.3 miles
Temp at 8.00am 17.5C
Temp at 12.00am 34.1C, Humidity 16%
Temp at 2.00pm 47.0C, Humidity 11%
Stage 4 - the long wan. I was pleased that I did the first three stages solo but I was equally please to team up some of the others from tent 82 for this. Team Go(oan) was formed with Gav and Shelly (top couple from down under) and an insane Irish fellow by the name of Des. Gav was a shark at pacing a bunch ...we opted for 5 minutes run followed by a 1 min walk (which gave time to drink or eat). This varied sometimes to 4/2 depending on the terrain but we made great time to the bottom of the El Oftal Jebel - a 25% gradient up sand and rock which even had a fixed rope section towards the top. The descent was fine but a French runner decided that manners were optional (an ex-para gave him a short lesson and order was returned). Through CP1 and we had an 11.5km section across a salt plain which had some great running. CP2 was great ...a wee oasis complete with palm trees! Everyone was starting to feel the cumulative effect of the previous three stages and with still 55km to go ...painkillers were in order. We headed out onto the next section very "jolly" ...so jolly in fact that Des decided some singing was also in order - he taught us a selection of air force songs which I am unable to repeat here (kids might be reading) and gave a great rendition of some punk classics and even managed a pogo or two (which seemed to disturb a Japanese runner a bit).
For this stage, the top 50 elite runners started 3 hours after the main bunch. It was astounding to see them cruise past having caught up in only 2 hours. They hardly changed pace heading up a sand canyon and one Jordanian runner simply took a direct route up a very steep rocky section to hold position. By now, it felt like my gaiters were holding more sand in than keeping the stuff out and I had to stop to empty them at regular intervals (which made me feel crap about holding the others up although they were really cool about the whole thing).
We made it into CP4 in 9 hours - a huge lift in meeting our target time and well ahead of the cut off times. We opted for punching through the control and making best use of the fading daylight. On the next section I bumped into Jim Binks whose son is a friend of a friend ...small place is the Sahara! The darkness slowed the pace significantly and the laser which showed the route to the next CP was simply surreal. Des was still singing and telling jokes ...mainly bad jokes but under the circumstances (we were about 60km into the stage at this point) they all appeared funny!
Leaving CP 6 was brutal. You had an option to sleep a while at CPs but for me completing the long stage in one push was a significant marker in the MdS. Thankfully everyone else agreed. Some time after leaving the CP I really messed up - I didn't realise that I hadn't been drinking enough and was becoming badly dehydrated.
We finally rolled over the finish line around 00:43 in the morning - wrecked but happy. It was a fantastic team effort and we had all looked after each other when one was dropping back a bit. Personally, I had spent the entire time from control 4 to the finish thinking of my Mum and her battle with cancer - it helped even if it was a little emotional. This stage was dedicated to her memory.
Race Day 5 (long stage day 2)- Rest Day
Temp at 8.00am 16.0C
Temp at 12.00am 42.5C, Humidity 14%
The impact of not drinking towards the end of the long stage hit me about 5am - woke up not sure if I was going to spew or crap myself and had a pounding headache. Decided a visit to the latrine was required ...quickly! Back at the tent and feeling a bit better, I got a little water down me but not nearly enough - woke up again around 7am and made up 1.5l of Rego with a mini target of drinking it all by 11am (sounds easy but it was a heap of concentration and small sips to avoid spewing it back up). Thankfully it stayed down. Next target was to get a meal down ...that took another two hours. By mid afternoon I knew I was on the road to recovery and thankfully by the time early evening came felt much better and was able to walk about without feeling dizzy. This was the closest I came to thinking I was not going to finish the event.
The organisers gave us a treat ...a new race number and a can of Pepsi. This might not sound a big deal but it gave everyone a big lift. They also showed some clips of footage taken earlier in the week... watching folks leave the tents to go as see the films reminded me of a scene from Shaun of the Dead ! It was obvious that all feet were not all in good shape.
Race Day 6 (Marathon Day)- Only a 26.2 miler ...
Temp at 8.00am 16.0C
Temp at 12.00am 46.7C, Humidity 12%
42.2 km/ 26.2 miles
Fully recovered, the marathon stage was a blast - hot but finally acclimatised Team Go(oan) had a great stage and we ran everything that was runnable. CPs seemed to come and go quickly and even the sand seemed lighter underfoot. With the majority of the pack weight being food, even this was getting lighter.
With only one "short" 17.5km stage to do ...lots of runners were starting to celebrate. We were a little more cautious - there was still a heap that could wrong.
We were treated to an opera - no seriously ...the organisers had flown in a cut down Paris Opera ensemble to entertain us. It was good but along with a few other people, I chose to go and clap the last runners in over the line.
As I drifted off to sleep I could only thing of the title of a Lowell George Song - "Feats Dont Fail Me Now"
Race Day 7 (Final Day)- Nearly time to go ...
Temp at 8.00am 16.0C
Temp at 12.00am 46.7C, Humidity 12%
17.5 km/ 10.8 miles
The start of the last stage started the same as the previous stages ...the sounds of AC/DC "You Shook Me all Night Long" blasting through the PA turning zombies who could barely walk into folks well up for a hard run. As Patrick Bauer counted down to the start, the atmosphere was incredible ...lots of cheering and even the occasional "hooch" fae the Scots contingent :-)
We had agreed that at some point Des and I would split from Gav and Shelly to let them finish as a couple. Shortly after CP1, that time came. We exchanged hugs and best wishes and with Des full of painkillers, we headed off towards the town of Tazzarine. There is a bit of a debate as to who started increasing the pace but by the time we reached to outskirts of town, it had become a matter of national pride and the sprint finish was on. Had we checked the roadbook, we would have realised we still had 3km to go !!! Despite having covered 242km and being shattered we somehow kept the pace going and crossed the line still bouncing ! Gav and Shelly did the same about 10 minutes behind. Everyone was very emotional as we got our medals - a dream come true indeed.
Time to go home ...
Finishing was what it was all about. I doubt a day had gone by in the two years since getting an accepted entry that I hadn't thought about, trained for, read up on the Marathon des Sables and now it was over.
As it stands, I wouldn't do it again. Kinda hard to explain here but I am happy with the two years which led up to that week and even happier with how the race panned out. Going back, I would be constantly comparing it to the 23rd edition (in terms of tent mates, route, stages, how I coped etc ...) There is also the obvious danger of not completing if I went back ...that would be very sore. I spoke to a lass who was there for the 3rd time - she completed the first two and went out on day 2 of this edition. There were a heap of people out there this year who were chasing demons having been pulled / given up in 2006 (bad humidity year). Having said all that ...if there was a "reason" to go back, I would certainly consider the situation. MdS is the biggest of the desert races and an absolute classic for sure.
I am proud to have done it and proud to have shared the experience with so many fantastic people. This year was the 23rd edition of the Marathon des Sables and was also the longest in the history of the race. I found it very hard - both mentally and physically. But to try and put "my" feelings into a description that would make sense is impossible. Equally impossible to describe is what a difference to morale receiving emails at night makes - it turned "how am I going to get through tomorrow's stage" into "bring it on" !!!
If I have one lasting memory of the whole experience it is how humbling all the support was - it came from so many different people. It turned a wee ramble in the Sahara into something very special indeed - THANK YOU !
Thank you also for the kind sponsorship - all money raised is going to Macmillan Cancer Support. Still got a few cheques to come in but I am hopeful of raising somwhere around £4600 .
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