Marathon des Sables - The Forgotten Marathon

Now your probably wondering how can you forget a whole marathon, but it not only happened to me but many of the other competitors. There was so much anticipation and mental preparation followed by serious amounts of physical and mental exertion to finish the "long day" that the focus on the ultimate goal of finishing was momentarily lost. However waking up just before 6 as usual I was brought straight back into the thick of it. The day didn't exactly start well. I woke up to a stomach that felt like it was doing back flips and trying to get down my 3rd from last mild curried beef down was certainly a challenge, made marginally better by it at least being served hot this time.

Now stomach problems seem to be quite a common thing when it comes to ultra running. However when you aren't sure whether its from the fact that you have been running in the desert and this is the effect of the distance and heat plus 10 mild curried beefs, a number of gels and cereal bars as well as an unknown number of salt tablets or the starting of a nasty stomach bug getting ready to cripple my race I decided not to take chances and load myself with antibiotics. This is certainly not the recommended approach medically but a personal twist on making sure I made it to the end.

I reached the start line and wasn't sure whether I was aiming to sprint to the nearest toilet or start the race till I remembered that the toilets had been taken away and what had become the classic and number 1 hit of the week "Highway to Hell" started blasting from the speakers.  I had missed my chance, the race had started.

I got a good trundle on, almost surprisingly good as we made it up and down several hills before tracking a long a ridge towards the 1st of several check points for the day. The views from the hill tops especially as the helicopter shot overhead were spectacular. But even still there was a nagging feeling of imodium or not to imodium, looking back the fact I could even ask myself this question meant there was no need but with only 1 pair of shorts it became a critical decision.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

This coincided with the hottest day easily hitting 54°C in the shade which was affecting every competitor except the top few who it seemed were just having a run in the local park. At some check points I saw competitors being led off by doctors . As my diary points out:

"It was unbearably hot and towards the end even a light jog was hard work"

Coming round the final corner I thought they had pitched our camp next to a massive lake... it took a bit too much convincing to put my mind straight.

I was running with another Brit and we guessed that the finish was about 2km according to his watch and my guess on timings. It turned out we were wrong on the distance it was more like 4 or 5. At the time it certainly felt like the longest 2 km I had ever done. This didn't stop a sprint finish to try and overtake a guy in front of us. I cant remember if we did but I can remember that the cup of mint tea on crossing the finish line tasted amazing. I finished in just over 5 hours 20 mins and was lying in 124th overall, I was really chuffed as I was still n the top 150 with only 1 day to go.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

As it was the penultimate day sponsors had arrived and a surprise was on the cards. You could tell they weren't racers or organisers by the fact that they weren't limping or covered in bandages but had gel in their hair, aviators on and generally looked far too clean.

It turned out they wanted us to get new numbers on our front and back to look good for the cameras at the finish. Under the circumstances its very difficult to convince a load of tired and weary runners that this is a good idea. So a touch of bribery or a good wee incentive, depending on your thinking, was used in the form of what I hoped was an ice cold can of Fanta. Ok it wasn't ice cold but it was delicious.

The icing on the cake was the surprise, the Paris Orchestra had been brought in and set up with a desert backdrop. It was such a contrast; the desert, a lot of very tired walking wounded men and women and this pristine orchestra. I walked back to my tent under a blanket of stars, with the music in the background and was greeted to a sea of head lights. You cant ask for much more.

Check a video of the opera out, by clicking on this.

A further treat for the night, I managed to swap my last 2 mild curried beefs for a vegetarian curry and a chicken tikka which tasted amazing. It certainly made a very good change, as my tent mates kindly pointed out:

"Variety is the spice of life"

It was the final night and a mixture of emotions was coming with it. Excitement having made it so far, apprehension if I don't finish the final stage (as that would have been soul destroying) and sadness that it would be coming to an end. Sleep wasn't going to come easily.