Time to get anal….. This is what worked and what didn’t work for me for running the MdS. I was really lucky in that I got to try everything out in the exact conditions that I would be running in, as I was able to go down to Merzouga near where the race starts, a couple of weeks before.
The other thing was that I tried everything out/on. I didn’t buy anything online. The one big unknown was the multi-day aspect and how my equipment would be over the whole week, with me getting progressively more tired. I soon found out…..
Look away now if you don’t like detail!
I have updated this blog to give close alternatives in addition to the original products as new stuff comes out. If you find a broken link, please message me! firstname.lastname@example.org
I started off with the Inov-8 lightweight mountain bag , which I thought felt the most comfortable when I tried it on in the shop. The straps were good over my chest (something the women have to think more about than the men) and it fit well on the shoulders and wasn’t too big. But when I tried it out with a 10kg load of brown rice and couscous in a half marathon in Marrakech at the beginning of the year, it was horrible. It bounced around everywhere and was just too loose. There weren’t enough straps to fix it and it was too long. It makes a great mountain hiking bag though, which is what it was designed for and what I use it for now.
Amine Kabbaj, a veteran of a dozen MdS races, lent me one of his old MdS bags to try out. It was a 20L WAA ultra bag. It was love at 20km. Really comfortable fit with no chafing, I swapped out the bottles for 750ml raidlights as I had already bought them and found that on the high setting they were just right for me. I liked all the different pockets so that I could really organise everything and also the way it zips open for ease of packing. When I had loaded it fully, everything fit inside the bag, with medical and food in the front pouch as well as my phone for pictures. For the first three days, I had my sleeping bag on top and then as the food emptied out, I put it inside to stop things moving around.
Sure, my back hurt a bit during the race but only from tiredness at the end of the day, and not that badly. The bag was absolutely great and I still use it all the time.
I burn easily and wanted to keep cooler so had a long-sleeved Marmot top in white. It was kind of a reddish brown by the end but it was light and unfussy and worked well.
I had tried out a top with a funnel neck but found that the zip scratched my chin a bit. I had a regular sports bra from Sweaty Betty. I wore a buff to cover the back of my neck and also to wipe my face with. I had a Nike cap with a longish visor made from a perforated material. I didn’t need a kepi as I was protected by the buff and I have long hair so that helped.
Considerations for shorts for me were chafing and sunburn. I didn’t want to carry lots of suntan cream and I wanted to cover up from the burn of the sun so I wore compression shorts/capris – not that expensive – from Under Armour and they were great. They were the longer ones to minimize exposure of white legs to burning sun.
Compression calf sleeves https were life savers, mine were from compressport. I would put them as a must have. I didn’t suffer from calf pain at all, and although my legs were tired every night, they were fresh by morning.
On Martin Like’s advice, I bought my first ever pair of Hokas and used them for my training and the event . I was convinced by his argument that the big sole would take some of the strain and also guard from the heat. Because, the terrain is sandy and rocky but not tricky like mountain or fell running, the clumsiness I felt in the big shoe, wasn’t a problem. The Clayton or the Clifton, which are both road shoes, would be my choice if I went for Hokas again but the person to really ask about this is Elisabet Barnes, 2 x champion! I bought them 1 1/2 sizes too big in the men’s shoe and definitely needed that extra room as my feet swelled but also the bandages for blisters as the race progressed meant I needed the space. They never felt too big, however there is a lot of debate around this as some people feel that the bigger shoe causes blisters. During the race, one of my laces broke and I didn’t have a spare with me, so ended up with a slightly freakish knot which just about held together.
If I did it again, would I use them? I don’t think I would because there is a lot of walking on relative flat on MDS which is not ideal with a mid-foot strike shoe but I DO think the cushioning was useful. If you are thinking of going down the Hoka route then talk to your local running shop about which Hokas would be best – you do not need technical trail shoes for the MdS since there is no slippery rock or nasty, stone descents, it is all about comfort in the heat. I would go for Brooks next time I think and I wouldn’t get them quite as big.
I had a two sock system: a pair of Injinjis and then some lightweight Bridgedale hiking socks over the top . I took one extra pair of socks – just ordinary sports socks in case I got blisters. I didn’t use them, as the advantage of the Injinjis was that they kept my toe bandages in place. Yes, I did get blisters and they were pretty nasty, but they weren’t terminal so I think the sock system worked reasonably well. I had to leave my Bridgedales off on the last full day as by then my feet had swollen a lot and I had bandages on almost all my toes and both heels, so I couldn’t fit them on. I don’t think you need extra socks for the race, the ones you wear are enough. They do get dirty and bloody but it doesn’t really matter.
My Raidlight desert gaiters were totally sand proof. When I first saw them, I didn’t believe they could be. Charlie took our shoes to a local cobbler in Marrakech and he stitched on the Velcro. You must do this, glue is not strong enough and it will melt. Then, once I had practiced getting them on to the Velcro snugly, they worked perfectly. I trialled them in the dunes a couple of weeks before which gave me a lot of confidence.
I didn’t go for the painter’s overalls favoured by the French as I was worried about peeing! I used Under Armour full length compression tights to help with leg recovery, a lightweight Montane men’s mountain jacket, a precursor to the Starlight pull-on which is gorgeous!, for the cold and some flipflops for my feet. I used my buff as a night hat. You do need the jacket and tights for the first half for warmth, it was cold. But I was really warm for the last couple of days so dispensed with the jacket when I was in my sleeping bag. The flip flops were a mistake, slip ons would be better as then you can keep on the little blue plastic socks they give you when you go to Doc Trotters to get your blisters lanced and bound. Girls, take a comfy bra to change in to – worth a little bit of extra weight.
I had a fantastic sleeping bag – a Marmot -1 ultra lightweight down. It was really expensive but worth it for the weight to warmth ratio – I HATE not being able to sleep because I am cold and even thought it was baking during the day, it DID get cold at night. It didn’t feel constricting, as some bags do. I used a silk lining. I also bought a sleeping mat but this was a fail. It was a thermarest which is a brand I love but this one didn’t work out.
It rustled like a crisp packet in a quiet cinema and kept me awake. It also made me really self conscious as I was sure it must be driving my tent mates crazy. I abandoned after day two and just slept on the tent matting which I found absolutely fine. So, I would argue you do not need a mat. If you do go for a mat, seriously check on that rustle-factor. My Marmot Cumulus blowup pillow with its fleecy cover was a necessity. 140g may seem like a weight luxury but it was worth it. It is hard to sleep because of all the adrenaline and because you hurt, so that made a real difference and also meant I could use my bag to elevate my legs and feet.
There is a bit of debate as to whether you should bring the dried food and a stove to cook or save on the weight. Bring the food! Keep to the lowest calorie count and vary it, but bring the hot food. It is really, really hard to eat on MDS and you will need the energy. You are much more likely to be able to force down a hot, reasonably tasty pasta than something cold and not cooked. Trust me on this!
I have used them a lot since as well so I think they were worth the money. One fuel tablet cooked a full cup of water (750ml) which was enough for one dried meal and a cup of tea, so I took two for every day, including the double marathon day. Don’t take extras, you won’t need them. You do need tin foil though, to put around the stove against the wind, two strips is enough, and a throwaway lighter.
Saw the end off your toothbrush, it saves 9 grams of weight! I had a tiny tube of toothpaste and I rationed my toilet paper to one tissue a day and one Wemmi wipe a day. These are little round tablets which expand into something like a Jaycloth with a few drops of water. I could use the Wemmi to wash my face in the morning and then as my loo roll later. I was gambling that I wouldn’t get a bad stomach, and I didn’t. I also brought a tiny micro towel which I used to wipe my face down with some water and any other necessary bits.
Because of the salt tablets and the heat and effort, you will find that you are crusted in salt, so something that can wipe down a bit is useful. I also brought a tiny bar of soap but didn’t use it. Too much effort at the end of the day and I was quite comfortable in all my dirt. I had the 50ml tube of suntan cream which I found wasn’t quite enough. I ran out on the second last day. I only needed it for my face, hands and knees, but I was reapplying it a couple of times during the day which I hadn’t bargained for. My tent mate, Ally, bailed me out and I swapped him a couple of Wemmis.
You have to take the compulsory kit listed and they do check, so have it with you, but even here you can save weight. I took just one nozzle for the venom pump, the smallest possible amount of disinfectant, and no blister plasters as they would never survive the pounding. I did take rock tape after a lot of humming and ha-ing but I didn’t need or use it. Likewise duct tape. I took 6 x 200mg painkillers for each day, ibuprofen, paracetamol and codeine. I took two ibuprofen every night as soon as I came in after the race to help with the swelling and during the long stage I popped 4 during the night. On the last running day, my feet were a total mess and extremely painful so I totally fuelled up on them, taking two tablets every two hours and four before the start. I mixed it up between paracetamol and ibuprofen and actually had no bad effects as it was over such a short time. I also took a syringe and needle so that if necessary, I could treat my own blisters, and I did use that to suck the liquid out of a really big one on my toe on the second last morning. When, I say, I did, what I mean is that one of my lovely tent mates, Bruce, did it for me, while I closed my eyes and tried to think of puppies and rose petals and how I would spend the money if I won the lottery.
I was being followed by BBC5Live and also Radio Manchester, so I had to take my iphone, to do radio interviews and take pictures. I needed to keep it charged and I used a solar charger from Power Traveller That was really my luxury. It was enough to charge my phone and also my garmin every night if I used my phone conservatively – ie turned off all signal and just used it for pictures and then any interviews I was doing. I had headphones, as I had put on a couple of Churchill’s speeches to keep me going if I thought I was in danger of giving up, but I never got to that stage. I didn’t listen to any music either as I found that my head was in the zone pretty well all the time and music would have been a distraction not a help. What was a comfort though, was to be able to look at pictures of friends and family at night.
Poles and torches
I ummed and ahhed about poles as I just wasn’t sure I would use them but I knew that if I got injured they would save me. A few years ago, I was hiking in Patagonia and fell and broke my fibula, but was able to keep going for four days because I had poles to support me – I even made it up Los Quernos. I decided to splash out on some very lightweight Mountain King poles and thank goodness I took them! They helped with changing the pace and varying my gait. I didn’t really use them in the dunes as I thought they didn’t help when I was running up on my toes and then plunging down on my heels. I liked them for the big salt flats and I found them invaluable on the long stage, when I walked through the night. I got a bit disoriented at times and they kept me stable, although they didn’t stop me walking bang into a sand dune. They were also great when my feet got really sore, just for keeping the weight off.
My headtorch wasn’t strong enough, it was a regular Petzl. I ended up switching it off completely at some points on the long stage and just using the moon – also not strong enough, hence the sand dune incident. Then I met up with John and he had a megatorch which gave enough light for both of us. My recommendation would be to bring the strongest torch you can, if you are going to be going through the night on that long stage.
The other thing I took was swimming goggles (tinted) in case of a sandstorm. That meant I could just wear my regular sports sunglasses for the race. Didn’t use the goggles but there are storms and so I felt they were worth the weight.
Do not take too much food! I took exactly the recommended amount of calories and it was still a tiny bit too much. Several of my tent mates were ditching food by the end. The main thing you need to know is that you just won’t want to eat it, whatever it is, after day 2 and a half. Bring as much variety as you can. For example, I brought porridge for every breakfast as I love porridge and ate it every day at home. Note the ate. By the last two days, I was literally holding my nose and forcing it down. I still can’t eat it with any joy eight months later! The Clif and Bounce bars also stuck in my throat after day 3 so vary it! I used Extreme Adventure Food and they were great, I would suggest you get their MDS pack, I didn’t but I should have as it was cheaper than buying separately
My daily diet was:
1 Clif Bar
1 Bounce Bar
6 x dates
6 x salted cashews
1 x Rego recovery drink
2 x rooibos teabags
4 x Nuun electrolyte tablets http://www.nuun.co.uk/ Mix up the flavours so you get a surprise.
1 x hot meal in the evening
I found the spicy ones or ones with “real” stuff like rice or pasta were better than the potato ones such as shepherd’s pie but do try them out.
For the long stage I had:
2 x Clif Bar
2 x Bounce Bar
12 x dates
12 x salted cashews
10 x Nuun electrolyte tablets http://www.nuun.co.uk/ Mix up the flavours so you get a surprise
2 x liquid cereal for during the night as I was determined not to stop.
The only problem with the liquid cereal was getting it into my plastic water bottle – I had to use a page of my day book as a funnel but I managed and it meant my stops were absolutely minimal as I funnelled and then walked and drank.
1 x hot meal for when I arrived back in camp
1 x Rego recovery drink for back in camp
The final thing to say about the food is that you MUST take it out of its foil packets as they weigh quite a lot. You can wrap them in freezer bags and then reheat them by pouring your hot water into them using half a plastic water bottle and covering it in tinfoil for a lid. It works a treat.
Weight really, really matters. Every gram counts. I am eternally grateful to Charlie Shepherd of Epic Travel for phoning me up daily to ask me how much every item weighed and his sharp intakes of breath………
So, good luck to you! It is an AMAZING race. Prepare well and then just enjoy the experience of a lifetime
If you want to explore a bit about Morocco before you come and also read my experience of the race, then check out my new book, My 1001 Nights, which is tales and adventures from Morocco. There is a whole glorious chapter on blood and blisters – and the stunning beauty and peace of the desert, even when you are sharing it with 1000 MDS runners! Good luck!