Marathon des Sables A Year on Reflection

Last week I met up with some of my tent mates from the marathon des sables and chatting to a competitor this year with some last minute tips. It got me thinking about this this time last year and since.

Even before finishing the marathon des sables last year my mind was already whirring with ideas for possible races, expeditions and trips. Just meeting all the people who made it to the start line and hearing many incredibly inspiring stories made we want to experience more challenges.

Since then I completed my 100 mile race, completed an ultra running event called the Hardmoor 55 (still writing the review) and dipped into adventure racing. Also over the last 6 months or so I have spent a wee bit of time researching and discussing various ideas about adventures with some of you (hopefully your reading). I am sure many of you have your own ideas for adventures, challenges and dreams to fulfil over the coming months of 2012 or maybe you have plans for past that point to which is even better. The next challenge will be announced soon....

Whats your next challenge? Have you got plans for the year or maybe a longer term vision? Would be great to hear about them as I know many of you have got them lined up.

Mt Everest
Mt Everest

The Finale of The Worlds Toughest Footrace

Having travelled 250km through the world’s largest desert, running across munro sized sand dunes, over jebels, through wadi’s, in +50°C whilst carrying all our food, equipment and clothing for the week the beginning of the end was approaching. After almost 2 years of dreaming, planning and preparing the end was clearly in sight and yet even though it was close it still seemed far as the effects of the mileage were taking their toll. It had been a rough and restless night but the final day had finally arrived as the sun rose over the camp for the final time. As it was the last day the Berbers left us with the tents for slightly longer than customary upheaval of just after 6am. Instead they and all the volunteers did a victory lap round the camp in the lorries, cars and on quad bikes beeping the horns, clapping and shouting. All the runners stopped their normal routine to join in and soak up the spectacle.

For the final stage the initial section of the run had been marked out to go straight through the centre of the camp and the bottom 50 were given a head start in the hope that the field of competitors would finish closer together. Many of these competitors were in the band of the walking wounded including the two British women who had persevered to finish the long day alone in just over 30 hours (the top guys took just over 20 hours running time for the whole thing). The remaining competitors lined the running track to send them out the camp. Already a bit of a party atmosphere was building.

We got final photos in the desert and of our tent mates before trudging over to the start line for more photos. After 7 days in desert our tent group had gone from a mixture of meeting each other occasionally at a race of two or of never meeting before to being a tight knit group after experiencing the highs, lows and intimacy of being chucked into this environment.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

With thoughts of only 17.5kms of arid desert separating me from the finish and the sudden realisation that in a couple of hours time we would leave what had become the norm of eating, sleeping and running made it an incredibly exciting point in the race. The nerves and a restless night had taken their toll and made it very difficult to stomach my final meal, not a mild curried beef but a chicken tikka after trading the previous night. As I strolled to the start line I realised I was feeling the effects of living off minimal calories for the week as I my body felt weak.

No more mild curried beefs left in my pack and the thought of tasty food in a few hours time was something to be very happy about!

We stood on the start line in the group that had formed tent 76 for our last experience of “Highway to Hell” in the desert. The final countdown started “TROIS, DEUX.... UN” and we were off. We were off at a seriously quick pace which I was sure and hoped that people wouldn’t continue it after the 1st mile. It stayed fast for the entire way. It was almost a sprint through the checkpoints, grabbing water, getting the water card punched for the final time, grabbing a quick bite and then continuing on. It was turning out to be one of the toughest days with so many miles already in the legs it was all adrenaline that was pushing and driving me to the finish.

The run was tough but certainly going well and the reintroduction into society saw us travelling from a mixture of sand dunes and rocky, scrubby flats to small and secluded villages. Running past kids that seem to come from no where, wells that just dropped deep into the ground and mud built buildings. The final couple of miles brought us from rural morocco to the outskirts of the town that we were to finish in. Running past kids, chickens, goats and ancient cars and lorries chugging out fumes. The rich mix of smells awakening the senses.

It was quite a sight not only entering civilisation but passing through some incredibly deprived areas with a number of kids begging. We rounded the corner and joined the 1stand only section of tarmac of the race. Running with Si and Karin, two of my tent mates, we ran along the streets passing coffee bars, pizza places and shops selling cold cans of cola. My focus at this point certainly seems to be on one thing only. All that remained was the sprint to the finish; regardless of the miles already covered or how tired our legs felt it had to be done as the 3 of us cranked up the pace to towards the finish line. Besides there were still people to overtake. The last couple of hundred metres were of running through a festival atmosphere passing musicians, locals and family who had come out to welcome in the finishers as we joined other competitors in the finish area.


The next wee while was a whirl wind of collecting the medal off the organiser of the event Patrick Bauer, being funnelled through quickly to collect the packed lunch, have a quick relax and a bite to eat before jumping on the coach back to the hotel. The next couple of days were spent taking in copious amounts of food, drink and sleeping.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

I finished the event in 127th overall, 2nd U25 and 15th Brit with a time of 36 hours, 1 min and 16 seconds.

As it has come to the end of this chapter I would really appreciate it if people left their own comments on anything they have finished, challenges they have done or coming up or any comments on reading about this adventure.

Minty Whiskey in The Desert

It all started on the evening before we had to hand in our extra kit. As we all checked and rechecked our equipment, clothing and food for the week in a bid to ensure we had everything and that it was as light as possible I was feeling how heavy my old faithful hip flask felt. It had been on many challenges with me including upBritain’s three highest peaks amongst other places. As most competitors continued these checks or beginning to look at the map, talking of race strategy and cooking I was hunting round camp for an alternative to old faithful. After carefully consideration and searching the only option was my half used toothpaste tube. With the help from my fellow tent mate Andy we managed to clean it out and make a clever contraption out of a bottle top to fill the tube back up with single malt whiskey, Old Putney if anyone is interested. With only a small toast to the desert (for good luck obviously) followed by one to Andy and myself (also for good fortune) the task was done. Fast forward to the end of the race….

After catching my breath I took out the victory whiskey, unscrewed the top and took a swig. The taste wasn’t quite the same as when I had first filled it. In the heat of the sun the concoction had warmed and over the course of the week had taken on a new minty characteristic. It wasn’t the celebratory drink I had envisaged when I first packed my hip flask in my bag for the journey over to morocco. It still tasted sweet though, especially when it was added to the mint tea that was provided at the end of each stage.

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.

Marathon des Sables - Resembling A Disaster Zone

You have almost 2 days ( 34 hours) to complete the "Long Day" on the Marathon des Sables, and a number of people do manage to finish before sun up the following day. These lucky individuals then have a day of rest to catch up on sleep, e-mails, eat, drink and chill out watching the day fly by as the remaining competitors demonstrate huge amounts of courage and endurance making their way to the finish. Many of whom will have been on there feet for over 24 hours in the heat of the desert while some choose to bed down for a few hours before finishing the remainder of the distance. I managed along with all my tent mates to finish well before sunrise on the 2nd day, so a rest day for all.

The day went very quickly, however there was a noticeable difference with people hobbling around, covered in bandages (not just on their feet but all over where bits of clothing or bags had rubbed their skin raw) and looking incredibly dirty. It was also the day that saw some tents lining up in a row and using spare water to wash butt naked in the middle of the desert.

I spent a happy day eating (only 3 mild curried beefs were left by the end of the day), watching the hobbling people about camp and a spot of cleaning. I was hoping this would improve my now salt, sweat and dirt encrusted clothing in the and that they would feel as good as new when it came to wearing them the following day.

There was also the need to sort out our feet, with most of our tent now suffering from blisters. However having wondered round the camp I noticed how lucky our tent was I met many who's feet were practically falling apart as blisters developed under more blisters. All the running was definitely taking its toll on people as the medical tent was packed from dawn till well into the night as a stead queue of people entered it suffering from everything from blisters, to upset stomachs and heat exhaustion. I certainly felt very lucky having not suffered too badly.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

Marathon des Sables - "The Highway to Hell"

The long day had finally arrived it felt like all my training and preparation had been for this very day. Hence a very restless night thinking of the following day and how it would go. On finishing the stage I felt like having a single line in my diary:

"The long day can only be described as very hot and very long"

However after a wee break (sleeping solidly till the next morning) I managed to fill in the details.

The day started very well with another chorus of "Highway to Hell" as we all ran out under the start line. The biggest issue today being that the top 50 competitors (who knew the route) started at midday. This lead very quickly to a small issue, no one really knew where to go, as 3 groups quickly formed none of which were taking an obvious route. I ended up going with one group who went straight through what felt like several large hedges. It also turned out we were all going out rather quickly, including myself as I bumped into a Scot who was always in the top 100. Normally in a race I would say this is a good sign when your near the front but when  you remember there is still 80 odd km it kind of changes things. Anyway we were off to a flying start with  as the sun kept rising into the sky and the temperature along with it hitting about 50C in the shade (I think), it was just incredibly hot. This along with a few more passes through hills and over them (as if the day wasn't hard enough) was making for a very challenging day.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

I passed the time chatting initially with a guy whose experience was in the much colder climate of the Arctic and later on another guy joined us who normally competed in endurance motorbike races. You do really get people from all walks of life. It was too hot during the middle of the day to run, so we ended up briskly walking across the desert. As temperatures cooled (still in the 30's) we reached the dunes and luckily for us before dark. It turned out some local kids moved all the markers come night fall.

The sun began to set over the desert and the first stars became visible, it was an incredible sight but unfortunately the end was still no where in sight and there was still a couple of check points left to go through and a huge laser display to follow into the finish line.

At this stage I realised I had hardly eaten any of my days rations and was beginning to feel the effects of this, the heat and the distance. So I began stuffing my face with the one luxury for the week of cashews nuts. They tasted incredible.

As the night set in I was passed by Britains best hope of making the top 25 Tobias Mews and decided that I had done enough walking through the day and it was time to run to the finish. I started chasing down the  white bobbing lights of the head torches a head of me. I felt strong and the constant changing target of those up a head kept me going. Features and things oozed out of the dark, like the big rock you dont see till you have gone over on your ankle, the odd camel skeleton or the sudden appearance of a 4 * 4 with flashing lights on. I reached the final check point and could finally see the sight I had been wanting to see all day a massive laser shining into the night sky and highlighting the route into the finish line. After a very quick refill and a chat to a fellow Brit I started making my way into the finish now knowing it should be only an hour to 2 hours away at most. Just before the finish I met my fellow Scot who I had run with at the start (who was not only in the top 100 but also had a pacemaker, a truly amazing effort ) and we crossed the line after sheering heat and 82 kms of desert in 12 hours 40 mins. I was over the moon and wondered over to my tent to congratulate 3 of my tent mates who had finished a head of me. This was quickly followed by removing my trainers, which felt incredible to be finally out of them and collapsed into my sleeping bag for the night.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

Day 3 - Blisters and The Doc's

Unlike day 2 I wasn't woken to the sounds of a gale or my tenting flapping in my face but to glorious sunny weather... it appeared that the end of the week was going to be hot. However even with relatively still conditions my fuel did not want to light again so another morning of luke warm mild curried beef. Only 8 mild curried beefs left and more importantly the pack is feeling much lighter but my kit doesn't seem to pack any easier into it. The day started really well, I was taking it easy as day 4 was "The Long Day" and I wanted to be as fresh as possible so I could make some real gains. I ended up running and walking with another brit for most of the day. The heat seemed to be particularly strong today which wasn't helped by having to climb a few large hills. However the views from the top of each was more spectacular than the previous, with views of the desert flats. Looking back along the route I had just travelled I suddenly appreciated how many people were in the race with a line of participants going in both directions. Rachid the eventual winner was no where to be seen.

I finished the race feeling great and only at that point did I realise that I had some blisters, its amazing how your mind blocks out the feeling of discomfort after a while. I decided to try the "doc trotters" who I had been told had a reputation of slicing and dicing peoples feet. They were fantastic though queuing briefly before shuffling in front of a nurse who was quick to get my feet up and got to work on them by bursting them with a scalpel before before injecting this pink antiseptic into them. Compared to the antiseptic I had brought this stuff felt considerably less painful but it did make your feet look like they were bleeding and dyed anything they touched pink.

The nerves for the long day the following day were showing with everyone deep in thought and preparing

Views From the Top
Views From the Top

physically and mentally for a big push.

Day 2 - Blown Away in The Desert

Carrying on from the 1st day we finished in this barren landscape of flat black rock. My first thoughts were "I am going to have to resort to the the toilet cubicles as there was not a single tree, shrub or hillock to go behind". The evening was spent relaxing, eating and trying to work out how to stop my back being bashed by my bag. I also began thinking how nice some pepperoni would be, despite a plush diet of 12 of the finest mild curried beef boil in the bag meals for breakfast and dinner for the rest of the week. We noticed that evening that the following day was meant to be a bit longer at 38 km but significantly less dunes (or at least supposedly). Through the night I was was woken to the odd slapping on my feet and head, my bum had also started touching the floor as the air had leaked out of my air mattress. Now I assumed this was my team mates trying to tell me that I was rolling onto them and a sign to get off them. After a while I heard a lot of commotion so took my ear plus out and pulled the hood of my sleeping bag off my face to a view of black cloth hovering just above my nose. It took me a bit of time to realise that everyone else had woken up due to our tent blowing down on top of us. In any normal situation I would have put it back up however we all decided it was much warmer like this so went straight back to sleep.

The actual morning at 6am didn't start much better as my fuel didn't want to light and after burning my thumb I gave up on the idea of a hot breakfast consisting of my 3rd mild curried beef. Instead I ate partly rehydrated, luke warm and slightly crunchy mild curried beef. It was becoming quite a delicacy. Or so I told anyone that asked. We packed up trying not to let anything blow away and with my desert goggles on I was standing on the start line ready to go.

The race started and much to my amusement and slight concern 2 groups formed going off in slightly different direction. Luckily I chose correctly and suddenly found myself pretty close to the front. I felt like it was going really well, possibly too well as I recognised the group around me as being the "faster" lot. I decided to slow down a bit as it was still only the second day. The day was highlighted by one individual deciding it was quicker to pee whilst running rather than stopping, even with several competitors pointing out that that there were places to go just off the track.

I crossed the finish line very happy that the day was finished and that I was feeling good with only a few blisters. This happiness was short lived when I saw the state of the tent which was being held up just by 2 remaining sticks. As the rest of my tent mates arrived we sorted it out, so well in fact that the local berbers spent the rest of the evening popping their heads in to check out our efforts. We also got a roaring camp fire going which certainly made my 4th mild curried beef taste even better. Before settling in to a now slightly smokey tent, I am certainly glad we were beginning to accustom to the temperatures and more importantly the aromas of each tent and its members.

Building before the Storm
Building before the Storm

The sand picking up before the winds hit the camp

Heat training with Bikram yoga

As it has got closer to the Marathon des Sables my thoughts have switched to how I can maintain my fitness without risking injury and how do I prepare for the extreme temperatures of the Sahara desert. There is a lot of research out there on training and tapering so I am not going to cover that.The only point I will make is I have found that by listening to how my body feels whether it is hungry, I have a craving for a particular  food type or tiredness. It may not be the most scientific method but everyone is different so what works for one person may not necessarily bring out the best in another. More importantly its a bit late to be thinking of what training I could have done and concentrate more on what I can do. On that note there is the heat training side I do think I can make some changes to my training to aid with my preparation and acclimatisation before I reach the desert. I have heard of people paying to go to the Porshe performance centre, others building heated rooms round gym equipment and I have been allowed to take a bike into the sauna at my local gym. However I have decided to make use of my local Bikram yoga centre which not only aids recovery, increases flexibility but also has the added benefit of heat training. Bikram yoga is made up of 26 Hatha yoga positions whilst in a room heated to 40°C. The positions help to stretch and strengthen muscles, ligaments and joints while the increased temperature allows you to get deeper into the positions. I havent been doing it for long enough to really appreciate the benefits however I have met a lot of people from your average joe all the way to ultra runners and rugby players who find it benefits them. I am certainly interested as to how the extra heat will help me whilst I am out in the desert so watch this space.