Cayuga Trail Marathon

After much anticipation it was time for the Cayuga trail marathon. Since early on in the year I have been slowly increasing my mileage for this event and despite having to drop from the 50 miler to a marathon so I could make a return journey for a bachelor (stag) party I was very much looking forward to the race. 

The race felt like I went from having weeks and weeks to go to nothing. Booking some last minute accommodation and it was suddenly the day before the event. It was Friday and after finishing up work, the evening quickly switched to travel mode with a decent drive to up state New York. In our haste to get on the road we completely neglected thinking of food. Realising our error within a very short period of leaving the house that we were both pretty hungry and had only just started the drive. This was within 20 mins of starting the journey as we hit the first traffic jam. Not wanting to detour too far from the road we opted for the first available standard burger joint. Possible not be best pre-race nutrition nor did it turn out to be that close to the main highway.

Full now of chips, burger and a small milkshake we made good progress up towards Ithaca. The final part of the journey meandering amongst the mountains. Unfortunately we were not able to take in the beauty of the local area with the sun already set. We finally reached the accommodation for the night. Sitting right next Robert H. Treman state park where the race began. It was a perfectly comfortable pre-race spot and despite being a motel had an almost ski chalet type vibe to the place. The car park filled with trucks a few piled high with BMX bikes. 

I had prepared most of my gear and snacks for the race prior to the drive. The next morning was a strong start, trying to make a coffee the filter broke spilling coffee grinds all over my mug. Half a sleep and not wanting a repeat I gave up at this point and instead loaded up on locally made bread and jam. 

Heading over to the start line before 8am and the temperature was already beginning to soar with runners seeking a bit of pre-race shade, topping up with fluids and having a bit of a warm up before the race began. The 50 miler was a qualifier for the US team, so with that came a number of serious athletes to both it and the marathon. Some had opted to go shirtless right from the start, armed only with a water bottle for the entirety of the event. Finally the time had come as all of us huddled together at the start line. With the blow of a ram’s horn the race began. We started the initial trot. Like many races this initial period is always a bit slow off the mark as runners finally get over the actual start line. It was time to get in front of some of the pack before sections of single track prevented it. It turned out as the race progressed that there were more than enough places to over take or be overtaken. 

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The course itself was a gorgeous meandering track through the state park, through Lucifer falls and up towards Buttermilk falls. The route had incredible views especially as the course headed up gorges, past glistening cold water falls and along wooded single track. You certainly couldn’t ask for much more. 

As the day heated up each pool I ran passed became more and more tempting to dive into. Especially as we saw more people out through the day swimming about in these crystal clear blue coloured pools. It was a hard task to run past them. The aid stops came as a perfect treat and distraction from the heat with an array of trays of cut orange, melon and a few other goodies. I have found it pretty interesting over the years how I seem to crave specific foods depending on the event, the weather, terrain and how many miles I have done or am doing. One of the most memorable being a canal race where I gave into my slight sweet tooth. Munching down a whole load of gummy bears at each stop, I later spent the night curled up in a ball with terrible stomach pain. The second day and stage of this event was less than pleasant, the lesson learnt not to always give in to those immediate cravings! Anyway coming out of one of the check points and rounding the corner there was a river to cross. Perfect!!! Despite briefly thinking of the damage that could happen with wet feet I jumped in and dosed my body in some much needed cold stream water. It was invigorating. My feet were going to get wet regardless so why not enjoy the experience. Cooling station down and it was time to jog on, slightly soggy with squelching feet. Back in the UK this would normally mean wet feet for the remainder of the day. However 20 mins or so later and my feet felt bone dry and ready to roll.

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With all race you often end up chatting to some of the runners as your paths cross. I was given some insight into the course that was to come up. I hadn’t realised that the course had a large number of steps. I gave up counting not long after starting when i saw them meandering up the hill side and knowing i was doing a loop to come back down them. We crossed paths with some of the 50 mile runners who were leading the pack and had started earlier in the morning as the out and return loop criss crossed and joined at different sections. I was amazed at their speed and at how little some of them carried. Having got used to everyone using a little body vest with pockets for anything and everything you might need, these guys quite often just had a water bottle strapped round their wrist. Maybe i wasn’t taking enough of a risk and carrying too much on a relatively short course given the number of aid stations. 

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I ended up with a few runners who seemed to be at a steady pace to myself. We tended to split up a bit on the hills between the up and downs but as soon as it flattened out we bunched back together again. It always helps pass the time chatting to someone new, hearing about their stories of past events, adventures and life in general. The girl in the group worked on a vineyard in the area. So we got a crash course in wine making and how the season was going for the grapes given the unusually wet summer. 

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The group dissipated and feeling like i had regained some strength in my legs I sped up. I had a brief spell feeling like i was about to get cramp in my calfs. Particularly after tripping on a couple too many roots, but after munching down some salty nuts I was picking up again. 

Towards the end of the race I came across a few guys who were going at a good speed to finish off the final few miles. I thought this was probably how the race would finish up for us. Chatting all the way to the finish line. This was almost the case until the final mile or so. Slowly but surely i felt like i was dropping off the back of the group. Initially I put this down to beginning to get tired. I put in a burst of effort to catch back up with them and I realised this was not the case. The chat had stopped and instead the pace was slowly being cranked up. Again naively i thought it was good to have a strong finish but at least the three of us would be crossing the line together. I come to this thinking because we were ahead of the mid pack but still a long old way from the leaders. Maybe this is where I go wrong in races as I like to do well but the difference between say 30th and 31st or 32nd is still a long way off top 3, 10 or even top 15. Any way it is safe to say we looked awesome sprinting into the finish. I crossed the finish line just on the tail of one and slightly a head of the other. Elated, incredibly hot but still feeling like i had more than enough in the tank to keep going. Maybe i should have sprinted harder. 

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Overall i finished 31st out of 153. 10th in my age group  or 1st scot (I am assuming there were no other recent expats from Scotland at the race!)

Until the next race, it would be great to hear whether you compete against others in races or purely against yourself and the clock. 

Tesla Hertz 50km Ultra Run

After building the training up bit by bit and a half marathon as a warm up the next stage was a 50km ultra marathon out on Long Island. Its called the Tesla Hertz ultra race. Making it sounded like an exceptionally well sponsored event!!

Unlike the last race, being point to point, this was a steady 10mile loop with barely a hill to match. As bizarre as it sounds having some hills makes for a nice change on the body along the route. However with it still being hot and this being one of my first ultra's back in a while not having to carry a huge amount round due to it being laps was definitely going to be a big advantage. 

Friday night and with everything finally packed for the weekend I headed out first to get some last minute supplies and then onwards to Long Island. One of the key things after almost getting cramps at the last race was some electrolytes. Back in the UK I had found the cheapest and best solution to be dioralyte, designed for dodgy stomachs it seemed to hit the spot every time. Searching for something similar in the US I have come across something called pedialyte. Pretty much exactly the same thing with a different name. It's also rumoured to be an excellent hang over cure. I don't think it beats irnbru on that front though.

Arriving at a massive campsite for the night I setup camp for the night with the occasional bug bite in the process before jumping into my sleeping bag. It was incredibly humid and my sleeping bag designed for Scottish summer meant I was roasting. In the process of this restful night's sleep I jumped out mid way through the night for a bathroom break and in the process stubbing my toe on the only curb around. Back into my hot and sweaty sleeping bag with a throbbing toe it felt like no time at all before my alarm was going off in my ear. A slightly unique alarm sound to wake up to. If your interested check it out below.

Getting out I was greeted to a thick blanket of fog wrapped over the forest. Taking the tent down whilst trying not to wake the rest of the campsite. A quick bite to eat and I was ready to  head to the start of the race. I made the short trip to the start of the race, bumping into a few fellow competitors before a quick sign in. As we signed in people who had started in the early hours of the morning doing 50 miles, 100kms or 100 miles crossed over the start line for another lap on route to the finish. Greeted to a round of applause it was inspiring to see. 

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The tesla hertz race had a attracted a wide variety of people from all over North America to compete in. Located near the historic site of tesla tower a radio mast that was originally aimed at sending messages back to the UK it was a very fitting event. 

A quick photo from the start and brief before we made a start. Bizarrely I found myself near the front of the race. I say bizarre as I've normally sat around the top third to top half. I was happy enough though and was making good ground. The blanket of fog slowly lifting from the trees and replacing it with an ever increasing amount of humidity. It still felt like pretty ideal conditions. Running through the cushioned hard pack trails past trees starting to show glimmers of fall. The ground littered in a variety of fungi. My knowledge in this areas is low to none (basically don't eat the red ones...) but I'm sure for the experienced picker this could have looked like a natural feast. 

Making to the first check point I was excited to see whiskey and an array of treats. Including Swedish fish and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. This is not an early American conversion but something that had been growing on me for quite a while. Fortunately this is considered a perfectly reasonable lunch request or sandwich/ bagel deli request. For those used to running events particularly road running events these aid stations might seem strange but for longer races the prospect of being sustained on energy gels is not particularly appetising! I made a fairly quick transition through this not wanting to loose much time before heading back the way I came. It was a cool feature of the race being able to see how far behind the next competitors is. The answer was not much. 

Running further along and we started coming across more people out on their morning cycle or run. The day was definitely heating up bit by bit. Coming up the brow of the one and only hill was a perfect little break from the constant flat gradient. Crossing lap one I and they had water melon! I may have ended up eating too much this race but watermelon on a hot day was seriously refreshing! 

 

Lap two and I could feel I was slowing a little bit. The competitors in front I would briefly see running the opposite way just before the aid station and check point on the lap. But apart from that it felt like I was alone in the woods running round the trails. It was at this stage that the sun had finally broken through at it was hitting the high 70's low 80's (high 20's/ low 30s). My water consumption had suddenly gone through the roof and my top was soaking. It was time for my top to come off. I've generally not had the need to do this back in the UK but the heat was pretty intense. Once it was off I immediately felt cooler.

The one and only hill came and went by slower than the first. Before lining up for lap 3. It was at this point and I am not sure what triggered it maybe the fact I hadn't been passed by anyone but I wondered if a lap was 10km not 10 miles. Checking out my watch and asking a couple of people I pasted about what distance they were doing and I was pretty sure I was on track with it being 10 miles. I grabbed some more electrolyte at the start line for lap 3 and a bit more food and water before the making a start on the next one. Despite not doing an ultra for a while the idea of constantly fuelling the body is something I haven't forgotten. I knew that especially on a hot day like it was missing the opportunity to eat and drink could catch up with me quickly. 

The final lap was by far my slowest, admittedly it was what I was expecting to average for all the laps it just worked out that my first two were much quicker. Being out in front though kept my mind thinking that if I could just keep a steady pace I should finish in a good position and ideally hold where I was. I hadn't seen the guy up a head for quite a while and as I made my way up towards the aid station I wasn't expecting to see him as for the entirety of the race he had been up a head by an ever increasing amount. Just as I reached the station though I reached him. Not only that but I was surprised by my wife, Laura, who had after a red eye flight driven out to Long Island to see me running. The final chunks of watermelon and pb & j sandwiches consumed before heading back out onto the course for the final 5 miles ish. On my way back out I passed a few people who had made ground on me but I was confident I could maintain the gap  for the moment at least. Not long after I came across the guy who had been a head race. We ended up running most of this final stretch together passing the time chatting about various races. Towards the end he managed to pull away, my legs no longer feeling fresh and not much left in the tank I didn't manage to close the gap as we headed up towards the finish line. Finally crossing in 5 hours 27 min.

I was elated about finishing and even more so for being in 2nd place. As we walked back to the car for a celebratory chocolate milkshake I cramped up crossing the road whilst stepping up the curb. Almost falling back in could have been a bit of a disaster but fortunately Laura was there with a helping hand. 

The drive back was long but pain and cramp free!! 

Sky Run - Peak District

With trail and ultra running ever growing in the UK it was only a question of time before the sky running series made its way to our shores. Big in the Alps the race formats are normally marathon plus distances in the mountains with the aim of taking in peaks and ridges along the way. At one extreme you have the Salomon sky run along the Aeonach ridge, a grade 3 scramble to others which are much less technical. This weekend was much less technical in comparison but with 29 miles and 2000m of ascent it wasn't to be sniffed at. Especially when this height gain to distance ratio puts it in a slightly more aggressive category than UTMB or the Lakeland 100. Admittedly despite that fact being floated about, those races are a much more incredible feat of human determination and endurance.

A short recce the day before took me to the top of the first climb, Solomons Temple near Buxton with great views over the course of the following day. A final bit of race preparation was enjoying an incredible meal at the Samuel Fox inn, potentially a tad much for a pre-race meal but with this being my first outing back into ultra racing for a couple of years my aim was to enjoy the day and start getting back into it.

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Wondering amongst the competitors it was great to chat and hear stories of competitions completed and planned for the coming year. From quick dash fell runs to the rather more brutal races such as King Offas Dyke 185 mile race or the 268 mile Spine race in January along the pennine way.

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The race commenced and we made our way quickly up to Solomons Temple with short pauses as we were funnelled onto single track. Despite the forecast being of overcast conditions I was glad I had packed some sunglasses for the day with the sun beaming down on us. As we rounded the temple with a bagpiper playing up top we began to spread out as we started our decent already. This was going to set the stage for the day with every ascent marked soon afterwards by a descent and slightly demoralisingly loosing all the height just gained.

The route took a course along ridges, through moorland, bogs and of course up a number of hills.

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With a well marked course we could concentrate on the running and getting our feet in the right spot. With plenty of opportunities for twisted ankles amongst the rocky tracks being light on our feet and an emphasis on twinkle toes was the name of the game.

The only slight mistake came when chatting to another competitor about his up coming race in Oman. Taking the wrong turn we led out towards a farm building only to realise we had gone half a mile in the wrong direction. Slightly devastating as was the sight of maybe 20 odd runners who had followed on behind us. Quickly making up the ground we had lost we all made our way back into the course and meandered back down the hill side.

Running through one boggy area I came across a pair of Oakley sunglasses that had clearly dropped off one of the runners in front and were gently perched on some long grass. Picking them up I handed them into a later checkpoint. You never know when you might be in a similar situation. I didn't have to wait long!

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About 10 mins later the course was incredibly beautiful and one I would have certainly wanted to capture more of it wasn't for the fact I dropped my phone. Fortunately it was picked up by one of the other competitors not far behind me. A quick snap and with it firmly packed away for the remainder of the race after learning my lesson and not fancying a repeat before heading on.

The course meandered on and my pace ebbed and flowed as the terrain and distance took its toll. The three food and drink checkpoints on the route hit the spot every time. With the opportunity to refuel on chunks of banana, succulent orange slices, flapjack, soreen and of course a wide array of other goodies. I try to make these as quick as possible and continue to eat as I walk along out of the checkpoint. Partly this is to not get too comfortable and I would much prefer to finish sooner.

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Chatting with some of the fell runners it was great to see them descend in front of me. I still don't understand how they did it so quickly other than through a bit of experience and raw tenacity to descend quickly! I envisaged face planting a rock face first if I tired the same so clearly an area I can improve on.

The route went past quiet a few climbing and bouldering spots with chalk marks on some and people clambering about in the sunshine on others. Unfortunately it would have to be  for another time.

As the day wore on I went over on my ankle. With my run going well this was pretty disappointing but deciding to walk it off for a bit I soon managed to break into a trot again. Some of the rocky ground though became much trickier to negotiate as my ankle seemed to get twisted on even the smallest of stones.

Finally the town of buxton came back into sight. I was delighted despite not being able to increase my pace a huge amount. One guy asked if we were to have a sprint finish. As much as I wanted to my legs and ankles had run out of juice. I was happy to finish the race at a plod.

Within moments of crossing the finish line I was welcome by a flat coke, my trainers coming off and my wife looking at me in a slightly sorry and apparently "grey" looking state.

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Despite the ankle it was awesome getting back into the running again having been out of ultra running for a couple of years. I was remembering all the elements i had learnt about through training runs, competitions and chats with numerous runners and trainers. I finished middle of the pack which may not have been my best result ever but it was one I will certainly remember. I would certainly recommend checking out the sky running series with a greta mix of terrain and distances.

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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.

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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