I did it! I ran the Marathon Des Sables.
As I write that title, I still can’t fully believe it, that I made it, that I managed to run 250 kms across the desert in 6 days, carrying my own provisions. And that I did it in good form, with maximum joy and minimum suffering – plenty of pain, but minimum suffering.
I’m not going to try and write down everything that happened but just to try and give you an idea of what it was like, although even that is a bit of a struggle. After day one, Charlie, my running partner and the person who cajoled me into this, and I looked at each other and said, “We can’t describe it, it’s nothing like we expected, it isn’t the same.” Bearing in mind, that we live in Marrakech and had been training in the Agafay desert, and I had gone down to the dunes of Merzouga to run just a week before, that was a bit of a surprise.
I think it was just the sheer enormity of it. When we were standing at that start line on day one with over 1000 other competitors, looking out to our first 15 kms of dunes, with the sun bearing down, and Patrick, the owner of MdS on top of his truck, playing air guitar to ” Highway to Hell”, you could physically feel the excitement and the tension. We set off with a roar and a rush. And that was it, after nine months of training, fretting, cutting down my toothbrush to save nine grams of weight in my backpack, we were actually doing it.
Fantastic. What a feeling. And what a first day. Those first 15 kms of dunes were tough, especially for the majority of people who had just flown in and then were faced with them right from the start. I had done 17 kms the week before very close to the race start, so I knew I could do it, and I knew it would take me about 4 hours, which it did. I actually like running on the dunes because I can do little, baby steps on my toes up and then crash down the other side on my heels. There was one moment that stands out. We came over the first big set and could see them stretched out miles ahead, with MdS runners strung out like little beads ahead and behind.
The day evened out to more stony, steady inclines with some dunes at the end. And it was shorter than expected – 34kms rather than full marathon distance, so I felt comfortable.
Back in the tent, it felt like a rush to get things done. Shoes and socks and calf supports off, compression tights on, no blisters on day one, then lighting up my dinky little stove and boiling just enough water for my chilli concarne – pretty tasty – and a cup of rooibos – very tasty. By the time I had done all that, the boys (Bob the fireman who also owns a pet crematorium, Ally the helicopter pilot, Bruce the big,big plane pilot, Bill ex-services and very naughty, Neil who is both a psychologist and an entrepreneur, and Charlie of www.epicmorocco.co.uk) were already curled up and sleeping, Bob, snoring like a trout even though he claimed throughout the week that he barely slept.
Day two was longer and flatter and stonier and I felt like I suffered more. I made a big tactical error in that I started walking too early. And once you have started walking it can be pretty difficult to get the Saharan shuffle going again. But I got through it and felt good at the end. The messages from home were wonderful, they print them out and bring them to your tent every night. A real spirit lifter.
Day three was a favourite. We had a longish run into the first check point and then some really nice dunes to mash it up a bit. I had mastered my salt tablet consumption – one every half hour – and felt fresh for most of the day. I met some chatty Berber girls who jogged with me all the way to checkpoint three, telling me about their brothers and sisters and what they did at school. The sun was hot but not unbearable except for a middle section along a dried up lake bed. I hit it at around 4pm when it had had the whole day to absorb the heat ready to throw it up at me from below. That was tough. Baking underneath and the sun still hammering down from above. I broke out the shuffle just to try and get to the end as quickly as possible and had the disheartening experience of being passed by people walking. They were Scandinavians with unfeasibly long legs… but still.
All along the route, you meet and share time with different people, all running for different reasons, lots for charity, lots for the challenge and one man I met on that baking lake bed, running in memory of his stepson who had committed suicide a year earlier. He started to cry as he told me his story.
When the socks came off at the end of day three, my heart sank. BLISTERS. For some reason, sheer optimism or stupidity, I had been confident that I wouldn’t get them. I haven’t really had them before, so it was all new and unpleasant territory. Big white bubbles under four of my toes and one on the side of each big toe, as well as a showing on the side of each heel.
Off to Doc Trotters, the medical tent. There, you wash your feet and don a pair of blue, plastic booties and then wait your turn. There was a scream from inside, and someone came out saying that when they pierced his blisters the fluid shot right across the tent. Not helpful. But inside, I met Aurora, who was as gentle as could be and stroked my feet when she put the iodine into the wounds to make me feel better. It did.
Day four was the long day and we were all apprehensive. Mainly because it was a totally unknown quantity. I really wanted to do it in one, partly for the experience and partly so I could have a day off in the tent to recover. I had decided to not put any pressure on myself but just to go at it as well and steadily as I could and try not to stop.
MdS gives you no quarter on the route and we climbed our biggest hill of the entire competition near the beginning of the stage. They had fixed a rope at the top of the rocky, scrambly slope and we all ended up in a big queue with only a few intrepid souls trying to go off piste. Looking down on the helicopter and the competitors all crossing the plain below, and looking up at the queue of runners with their gaiters, hats and sunglasses waiting to summit.
The going up was easier than the going down. My feet protested as they turned on rocks and mulched down on already stressed skin, but there was lots more to come.
The day wore on, with salt lakes, rocky stretches and another Jabal. I kept going, just stopping at the check points to fill my bottles. My legs were strong and as the heat of the day ebbed, I felt a renewed surge of energy. There were some very magical moments. I walked through the sun setting and through the next day’s dawn rising. I ran down a dune into a valley in the dark, with just the tips of other dunes showing in the shadows, everything in total silence, all sounds muffled by the sand. I felt utter despair when I thought I was lost and could no longer see any guiding lights or head torches and then utter joy when John in his camouflage kilt turned up. I walked with Lynne, who set a cracking pace and got me through 20 kms much faster than I could have done it alone. And then I walked smack into a sand dune in the dark and did that whole British thing of looking behind me in case anyone had seen me. Should have gone to Specsavers.
I never wanted to give up or stop although the night did stretch on endlessly and my body hurt a lot. I could feel that there were bad things happening in my shoes but there was no point in looking as I just had to get through it and I knew that my feet were well taped. The company helped, and when John and I sprinted for the finish, we raised a cheer for Scotland.
Then the low point. I took my shoes off back in the tent and it was Armageddon. The feet were a disaster. Thick white skin and lots of fluid in the blisters, blood and pus around the heels and balloon-like swelling. We still had the last marathon the next day and I didn’t know how I would do it.
Because I had missed a whole night’s sleep, I slept brilliantly, and woke up without any soreness or tiredness, but my feet were really hurting. I stuffed down my porridge and hobbled to the start with Charlie. I knew I would do it and that I would finish but I was trying to get my head round the fact that I was going to be in serious pain for the whole distance and that it would probably take me the whole twelve hours to complete.
I had decided to try and run as walking was too sore even with the sticks and my shoes – Hokas – are a mid strike shoe so were hitting at the least sore part of a foot. And then a miracle occurred, ten minutes into the race, the pain killers kicked in, the shoes did their work, and the pain in my feet eased. I felt light and free and ran past check point one, check point two and on to check point three. And then there were only 10kms left of the Marathon Des Sables.
As I was walking up towards the crest of a stony hill, the man in front of me started jumping up and down and cheering. I knew he had seen the finish and so I ran up as fast as I could. When I saw the bivouac in the distance and heard the music playing, I felt like my heart was going to burst out of my chest with joy. Those moments only happen occasionally in life. All the training and long hours of slog, the humiliations and difficulties, the soreness and the exhaustion, were paid back, in full and with interest.
We all take on challenges in life, I was lucky enough to have this magnificent, glorious race as one of mine, and I hope that whatever yours is, it brings you as much reward.
If you enjoyed the blog, you might like my book Dodging Elephants – an 8000 mile race across Africa on a bike!