Marathon Des Sables

So here it is! Not a full race report, 7 days worth may be a bit dull! Will save that for a chapter in the book, available in all good book stores…obviously! This is a synopsis, some feelings and maybe some takeaways for those that end up  heading to MDS in the future.

The four of us; Nicky, Daf, Steve and I were all fortunate to be on the same plane – 7.50am from Gatwick.  As we arrived at the airport, a sea of yellow rucksacks faced us – Logistics were not going to be an issue this week – Crowds and Queing certainly were!!


Marathon Des sables

As we took off from Gatwick, every passenger, an entrant to MDS, there was certainly an air of apprehension.  This, as they say, was it.  Training done, packing done, counting and weighing of food well and truly done !! As the seat belt sign pinged off, Steve looked to us all, leaned inside his bag and pulled open a gift wrapped box.  Tomorrow was Steves birthday and his wife had handed him his gift as we left for the Airport.  “Shall I open it now?” he asked.  As if we were going to say wait !! I know what it is anyway, continued Steve.  Sharon said I can use it in the desert.  Its a GoPro!!”.  As the wrapping was peeled back, Steve went from certainty to a sense of horror as he pulled a bag of Werthers Originals from the box! A quality moment to lighten the mood!

As we entered Morocco, the first signs of what was about to set the scene for the rest of the week became apparent.  Over an hour wait to get through customs only to board a bus and be held for a further 90 minutes while we waited for every other flight to come in.  Then and only then could we continue on our 6 hour transfer! 6 hours gives you plenty of time to get to chat to others and we made full use of the time getting ourselves a great tent!! Tents are made up of teams of 8.  We needed 4 more and there were strict regulations!! Fun, Fun, Fun and Fun – And we drew ourselves an A Team!  Vicky and Angharad from Wales were first to be quickly recruited – Then Mark and Katie (whom Steve would call Lisa all week!) Katie a welsh girl too and Mark had done MDS before – Instantly promoted to Captain!

Marathon Des Sables

 

On Arrival at Camp; the bun fight continued with a free for all to find a tent in the Dark.  We soon got our bearings, unpacked our bags, sleeping bags out and assumed the roles of 9 year old children on camp for the next hour!!

The first day in Camp really is about sorting race logistics.  My race check in was 8.30am.  Luckily I was about 5th in the queue. By 8.30am the line was almost 500metres long.  Our final luggage was thrown on a lorry to head back to our Hotel for the end of the week.  We then Queued again for our race numbers, pack weighing, our race chips and transponders, medical and finally a photo.  90 minutes later I was through – fortunate to be in the first group.  Others were out in the Sun for almost 4 hours.  It does seem this race has grown out of hand to over 1300 runners, but the organisation really is still only geared up for a few hundred.

Marathon Des Sables

 

Race Day 1

As day 1 arrived, the camp woke quietly.  Finally, we were here for what we had come to do.  At 7am the tents are removed, whatever you are doing they simply take them down around you. As we waiting on the start line for what was going to be a week of late starts and our Race Director rambling on for what seemed to be for the benefit of no-one but himself, finally we had the off! For us, Day 1 was simply run your own day.   I had no idea how long my knee was going to hold out this week, so I decided just to run a steady pace for the day.  23 miles on day 1 was was comfortable, if a little harder than I wanted to go really.

Day 2

When running events like MDS it is so easy to get tied to your watch ! Just looking at pace etc.  This is the Sahara and on Day 1 with the surface as it is and head in run mode, I probably took in very little of the surroundings and the event.  So I decided day 2 would be a Kick back day – Photos, video, run with new people and take in where we are.  A stunning day to do it too, with some incredible climbs.Marathon Des Sables

Day 3

Day 3 was the day before day 4 – And Day 4 is Long Day ! This is where the top guys can really roll the dice.  For me, I had never run almost 60 miles in one hit, let alone in Temperatures of 50 degrees!! However, it was day 3 that one of our team really had come down with poor blisters! Steve was running in Newtons and they simply had melted and fallen apart in the dessert!! The result was not only blisters, but the sand and dust had caused really bad infections.  This is what the dessert can do.  you feel great, but if Lady Luck decides against you – your journey can take an abrupt U turn.

Marathon Des Sables
Steve’s Feet!

 

 

 

Steve and I have run lots of races together including 3 in 3 and did my 10th Ironman with him. This was a time for Friends to stick together.  Its not so much the distance out here.  Every night you clear a patch of stones to sleep on the floor, the winds bash the makeshift bivouacs, the sand covers you head to toe; needless to say you don’t really sleep.  Every day it takes a little bit more of you.  Throw in infected blisters and you can imagine you need a friend!

We had a blast!! Met some great people along the course and listened to some really inspiring stories.

As we crossed the finish line together that evening as we have done so many times – We both knew tomorrow was coming – But we also both knew we needed to celebrate today first and deal with that beast in the morning !

Day 4

MDS is all about long day.  This was the longest and toughest day in the 30 year history of the event.  And yes we were here ! All 4 of us knew that we would all have bad patches today, we knew all 4 could finish and was strong enough and daft enough to get through.  We also knew Steve was about to have the most horrendous day of his life!!

Marathon Des Sables
Sandstorm!

 

Checkpoints 1 and 2 came and went really quickly….then the sun came up ! Like it knew it was day 4 and it had an integral part to play in taking out as many runners as possible! It was hot…Checkpoint 3 Steves feet began to hurt and Daf had his first wobble of the entire week.  We had pushed it a little, time to enforce a 1 checkpoint compulsory walk!! None was to run until the next checkpoint.  Walk, feed, drink and recover.  Today was about finishing strong enough to hit the marathon day.  Today was about backing off, we knew what could happen, we knew what probably would happen, we could see it unfolding around us like the desert taking people out the race 1 by 1.  Stay strong, stay fresh, stay together.

Marathon Des Sables

 

As we hit 30 miles we jogged comfortably into the checkpoint.  This time Nicky wobbled a little.  He needed food, we all needed food and this was our planned stop.  What happened in the next 40 minutes I cannot tell you – but it was a mistake to stop ! We jogged into the check point and simply crawled out of it 40 minutes later.

Marathon Des sables
Dunes!!!

 

Nothing seemed to work! 26 miles to go, it would be dark within 2 hours and we were entering the Dune stage – 16 miles of the Bxxxxxxs!! I have never felt life drain from my body so fast, so far out from home in all the time I have been training or raced. It was as if we had all been drugged at the checkpoint ! And this is what we had really come for – the test!

Checkpoint 5 – Dark and about 20 miles to go! Steve was in agony and we were sticking together.  One thing he could do was climb like a mountain goat ! I must lack an entire muscle group that fires any form of hill activity.  Flats – fine and will run all day. Stick in a steep one?? Even Steve with no feet and a walking cane was bashing past me.

Personally, I was going through what I had left in the bag in terms of food.  How can I break the miles down with my food.  Eat every 2 miles, 4 miles or treat every 5? All decisions to try and keep the mind active.

Dafs feet were beginning to play up too.  He spoke to us and then for some reason, simply began to run for the next aid station so he could get help.  5 minutes later we passed him; standing, still simply staring at the floor.  He had gone! A quick chat, force feed him beef jerky, some reassurance and a “come on lets move your ass!” –  we moved to station 6.  It was beginning to feel like every station would somehow take you to a new low !

In the desert we take Salt tablets.  2 per hour for the first 4 hours and then 4 per hour after.  Less in the dark. 30 minutes after leaving check point 6 – Daf and Steve were together but behind us.  I was with Nicky. I reached for the salt tabs.  Pulled out 4 and simply stared at my hand as I attempted the huge task of dividing four by 2.  I was going!! One treat left – Pork Scratchings and they were shared at Mile 52! As we approached check point 7, the last one – we could not see Daf or Steve.  We had walked the entire stage, attempted to march it, but GPS said otherwise!!  As we hit the final checkpoint we added clothes and sat by a fire waiting for the lads.  4 miles left.

We waited, 30 minutes passed and then we began to panic.  We knew they would not be lost.  We just wanted them still in the mix.  We had all come so close. It was freezing, our bodies shaking, struggling to speak; the Marshals told us we could wait no longer and we had to move. We agreed to wait for the last 2 head torches we could see in the distance….It wasn’t them.  Personally, I had gone beyond freezing.  4 miles to go and still it seemed an eternity away.  Move and move fast was the call!!

We moved on and headed for the tent.  We knew they were together, they knew we were together.  Our team was fine.

As we crossed the line, we marched to our bivouac –  not solely to get our heads down, but to make sure Steve and Daf had not retired.  The Bivouac was empty, sand everywhere, stones all over the place – but we were happy! They were still out there.  If they were out there, they were going to finish.

As i said this is where MDS chips away at your spirit.  You return, not to a warm bath, but a floor that requires you to drop to your hands an knees and clear the floor of stones and rocks for the team.  Bash hell out of a blanket and relay it.  Rebuild the supports on the bivouac and then and only then may you slip inside your sleeping bag and dream of cold beer ! Brilliant !

In the Bivouacs you grow close to your tent mates.  tent 133.  We were all coming home and none could truly rest until all were home, nestled in our sleeping bags in a row of 8.  Steve and Daf appeared through the night, at first light Vicky and Angharad appeared and then too did Mark and Katie – To the sound of Steve shouting “well done Lisa!” Tent 133 was going to smash Marathon day up!!

Marathon and Medals day

As strange as it is  – At MDS you get your medal on the last but one day.  As we packed our  bags for what would be the last time in any form of race mode – Steve told us all to have a run today.  He had a new stick, had befriended a few other blister torn athletes and wanted to run with Lisa!

For me, today ,I had to leave it all in the desert.  Checkpoints at 8,8,6 and 4 miles. It seemed short compared to what we had done 2 days previous. And it went fast too! Just run, take it all in and enjoy.  This last day was for Mum! My charity for the year is to raise funds for Thyroid cancer trust Wales.  My mum has a Medullary form of Thyroid Cancer – As it’s Rare they do not know a lot about it.  Time to run, think and plan!!

Marathon Des Sables
Marathon Day!

What a day it was ! It had everything on the course.  The elites started an hour behind us and the leaders passed us just as we were coming in towards the finish line.  It was great to cheer them on and to a man they all talked back, returned the good wishes and continued to glide on into the distance!

The finish that day was strange.  No-one there. A medal, a photo – yet we still have a charity day left!  We returned to the bivouacs, moved the stones, did the rug thing for one last time.  It was over.

Marathon Des Sables
All Over !

Marathon Des SablesUnicef day

As Steve and Katie woke, it was clear that today may well be one step too far.  The organisers came to our tent and took both away for a medical.  They had a choice.  Miss out today and DNF or walk and finish.  We had already agreed we were going to walk todays stage as a tent, as did the other reaming 1000 athletes.  All athletes confused as to why or what we were doing.

Then as we lined up so did a man, on crutches in plaster! He too was told walk it or DNF! He was going to walk it !

A crazy end to a great week of running through some incredible elements.

But the startling organisational element was then back in play.  logistics.  They do not do.  It is clearly a machine that has a demand that far outweighs the need for any form of system or levels of service. 6 hours back, but not allowed to leave until all the other coaches are ready! Bags thrown in a car park and then queue again for another bus journey to the hotel! Wake up and queue for another 2 hours for a finisher T shirt…..I could go on but I wont. Because we made great friends, experienced places we had never been before and will have special memories.

For me this is event 1 of a year of events to raise funds for Thyroid Cancer Trust.  It gave us all time to think, push and learn skills that training simply cannot deliver.

Marathon Des Sables
Tent 133

 

Would I do it again? MDS – no.  Would I recommend it – MDS – no.  Would I recommend a desert race ultra. – absolutely.  But for me MDS has run its spiritual course, we were probably 10 years too late and now it is a corporate machine, milking the fact that until you tick the box, people will always ask………….. have you done MDS?

Now I can say yep, change the subject, but smile and know I would never change a thing about tent 133 !

Next stop on the Thyroid Cancer Trust Year is London Marathon…12 days to get ready.

You can donate at www.captaincymru.com/donate or simply click the link in the sidebar!! Thanks

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