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A window into the world of the Marathon des Sables.
In a word it’s basic, but it was all we needed.
Life under canvas.
We slept under Berber tents on a carpet with a thick wool covering overhead. A series of brashly cut sticks holding the structure up. The long sides were open and only when there was the sandstorm or it was cold overnight did we lower the back edge to afford us some extra protection.
There were 8 of us to a tent and, with space at a premium, being organised was key. We had been allocated our tents prior to arriving in the desert. We lay like sardines on roll mats, side by side, personal space limited to your body length with perhaps a foot either side. Those sleeping at either edge of the tent had limited head space due to the sloping sides. It was a blessing when the Berbers came around at around 6am to remove the heavy black covering and reveal a glorious sunrise.
These tents were great, until they weren’t! Imagine Andy and my sunken feeling when, after hours of being beaten by a sandstorm, we were greeted with a collapsed tent. It lay similarly beaten by the winds, flat and covered with a heavy layer of sand. Putting it up was no easy task, as anyone who has erected a tent in a gale will know. Next it was the duty of clearing stones from our living space. This fell to the first back to camp each day. You’d find Andy and I on our hands and knees removing all offending articles until day 3 when we struck gold and worked out that if you were quick, there were Berbers available to help and they had a special stone clearing tool which made light work of such a job. Result!
How do you go to the toilet?
Again, the word basic springs to mind. There is little room for privacy. Having a wee is easy, though it is funny to see how far away people walked to find a bush and to maintain a degree of modesty in the early days. That distance cut by half and indeed by the end of the week people barely made it beyond the tents! For anything more serious you were issued dog style poo bags, which once used were knotted and put in a bin. Cubicles were dotted around the outer edge of the camp. Inside each you found a collapsible camping chair over which you stretched your poo bag, modesty protected by a plastic flap which you attempted to hold shut with your feet or hand.
Did you wash?
Knowing germs would spread like wildfire, we were religious with our hand sanitiser. Beyond that keeping clean was hard and not a high priority! We had an allocation of 2 Wemmi wipes per day to wipe ourselves down! These little wipes are a very cool little invention. Similar in size to a thick 10p piece, until they come into contact with water and expand to a 20cm cloth. Something that was very noticeable was how little we smelt despite being very dirty!! In the jungle the stech of runners after each day’s effort was horrendous - not exaggerating it could be nausea making. Not so in the desert. The dry atmosphere meant that body odours did not take hold and we were able to tolerate each other, just as well really!
Feet. Blistered, tired feet….
The Doc trotters’ tent is one place most of us wanted to avoid but rarely did. It was here that expert medics got to work on your ‘trotters’ bandaging, piecing, lancing, strapping - you name it they could do it. Once you passed initial inspection you were led to a seat to wash your feet in an iodine mixture, given a number and had to wait your turn like any good Argos queue! I was really surprised to find that I suffered with the same injury to both my large toes as I had on the previous race. Blood blisters and an infection under both big toenails. Drilling holes through the nail was a relief (believe it or not) but when they injected the dreaded iodine under the toenail I must confess to weeping like a baby. Worse than childbirth… say no more!
You got mail!
A highlight of any day was the arrival of post! Lovely messages of support, jokes which were shared around the tent, and news form home was all devoured. Both Andy and I had chosen to not carry our phones with us during the race. If you could bring yourself to walk to the other end of the camp on tired painful feet and wait under the Moroccan sun for your turn, you could email home. Andy and I preferred the ‘no news is good news’ approach.
We were all called to the start between 7-9am. We amassed, expectant and excited in the start chute for the days briefing delivered by Patrick Bauer, race director, standing atop a Landrover! He updated us with the leader board, gave us a daily tally of runners and asked us to spare a thought for those who had had to drop out. We sang to those celebrating birthdays, and on one special day witnessed a runner propose to his girlfriend! Then with the speakers belting out ‘highway to hell,’ we poured over the line.
We faced dunes: sandy, energy sapping, relentless dunes. The smaller ones were best taken at a run to find traction, others were just a long old grind. Running down was so much fun, though needed care, some had harder sand hidden under a soft layer and made for a jarring experience which no-one’s tired knees needed. Others harboured rocks and you didn’t want to land on one of those. The pure sand ones were a joy!
There were many Jebels, aka mountains/hills to the Moroccans. Once scaled these offered amazing panoramic views - on day two the run along the ridge line of one such jebel was truly rewarding the vistas every which way were so vast. Some ascents were rocky, technical, others sandy. One had a rope to offer support as the deep sand combined with 15% gradient made for hard graft. Over the 7 days we climbed 10 jebels and enjoyed all the descents, 20% in places.
Long dried up Oueds or river beds were rocky, gaiter ripping, toe bashing. It was here both my big toes were bashed. They were lovely and flat and wound through the valleys, twice we ran amongst ruins of communities who had once farmed the land.
There were also long, flat sections, barren but for the pink rock piles which marked the route. It was here you needed to break up the monotony and Andy and I would settle into a routine of run/walking and tapping out the Kms to the next welcome check point.
This year, with the race being a month earlier than usual due to Ramadan, the temps were not as high as they have been in the past. Ambient temp in the dunes did rise to 40degrees C but the other times it was not so stifling. But this is the desert and challenges present themselves in many forms. This year we were battered by Sandstorms. These sandstorms were unusual in that they did not blow over with the usual swiftness. On day 2 the sandstorm blew in at 2pm and remained for almost 12 hours. It was formidable, blowing away anything not well fixed, Andy’s water card was one casualty. It was whipped off the back of his pack. It was intense and was hard working against it, sunglasses over eyes, buff over mouth and nose and hat pulled down, it was simply a case of putting your head down and nutting on through.
We also had a light smattering of rain and rainbows! The few drops of water meant dormant buds blossomed. Sparse blades of grass poked up through the sand, bushes unfurled small thorny leaves, little flowers were dotted about. It gave the desert a light green hue. Occasionally wild camels appeared elusive on the skyline, and if you were quick you caught a glimpse of a shy lizard. But there was not much more, this is a hostile land. I for one was glad I was moving over it and not trying to make it my home!
The gantry was a welcome sight at the end of each stage. As with all finish lines, you had it in your sight a good 3km away. Crossing the line was a moment of pure joy. Andy and I relished each one of them. Pausing for a smile at the camera knowing this allowed those at a home glimpse of how we were feeling! Next we moved to a small marquee offering a sugary sip of Moroccan tea, and we were then loaded up with 4 1.5l bottles of water. Cradling them in tired arms we made our you way over to our impermeant home.
The MdS is a self-supported race. This means you carry everything you will need for the 7 days The only thing the race provides is rationed bottled water.
Every item you chose to take adds to your pack weight and therefore needs careful consideration. Andy and I spent a good deal of time on spreadsheets working out weight/calorie ratios and creative ways of shedding grams. The rules stipulate your pack must not weigh less than 6.5kg. I got mine down to 7kg, whilst Andy’s was nearer 9.5kg due to him requiring a larger quantity of food.
It is mandatory for each runner to have a minimum of 2000 calories a day. This is not enough considering what you are putting your body through. I aimed for around 2200cal, whilst Andy pitched for 3000 cal.
My morning started with a Complan shake and a tepid cup of sugary coffee, one of those pre-packaged things. Andy needed more and threw down a porridge meal starting his day with a 1000cal hit.
Whilst out on the course we kept our reserves topped up with snacks. Dates, peperoni, pork scratching’s, sweets, Chia bars, tailwind and a continuous supply of salt tablets. It’s amazing how your desire for certain foods changes in these circumstances. I wouldn’t choose to put anything like peperoni or pork scratchings near my mouth at home but in amongst the sand dunes of the Sahara I full on loved them!
Recovery is crucial, so after crossing each finish line, we both bolted a Complan shake, before setting about our camp tasks. Whilst surprisingly not starving, we usually had our rehydrated meal at around 5.30pm. You can rehydrate these meals with cold water, but they are far nicer if you use warm water. We set about collecting sticks and heated water in our titanium pots before eating out of cut down 1.5l water bottles. Both of us made sure these evening meals contained a whopping 1000 cal. Andy topped up by treating himself to a freeze-dried pudding adding another 500cal on a couple of evenings.
In the main this was ok. We were losing weight but managing to maintain our energy levels. The second day was the only exception. After a testing day on the dunes, some impressive sandy climbs and being pummelled by the sandstorm my reserves hit a low and I had an almighty bonk. Andy was the perfect support. Whilst struggling to speak and not able to feed myself Andy held it together and fed me a continuous supply of sweets which raised my glucose levels enough to allow us to limp back to camp. Oh the joys of finding the balance between a light pack and not enough food. In this instance I slightly undershot!
Andy and I took on the 2022 MDS fulfilling a promise we made each other in 2012 when he accompanied me on a training run as I trained for my first MDS.
In those intervening 10 years a lot has happened in both our lives and to stand on the start line with Andy by my side was a hugely emotional moment. We had prepared as best we could over the last 6 months. We maximised time we had together over Christmas, training with rucksacks and testing out food. Andy then did what he could but with a full Uni timetable and playing competitive sport, time for long runs was short. Andy’s longest run had been a half marathon in 2020. So we were both under no illusion as to how hard this was going to be. We planned to be wise, to play the long game and see how his body (and mind) held up day on day.
Andy and I had agreed that both wanted to complete the race together. Riding the ups and downs as a team. We took the first two days at a steady pace, we didn’t need to dip into the reserve bank ahead of the long stage. That was always going to be the real physical test.
We found a good flow during the stages. Our strategy at checkpoints was keeping them punchy. Simply filling our bottles and charging on through. Remembering that this was Andy’s first ultra, I was impressed with his strength, mentally and physically, to keep moving and not be lulled into the tents for a rest, especially during the long stage.
Andy and I spent most of the time chatting and focussed on the route. We turned to music only once during the last 20km of the long stage. With an ear bud each we turned on the tunes. This is a memory I will treasure - me and my son, alone together, pushing hard to the end of an 86km ultra, singing in the middle of the Saharan dunes, dark but for the luminescence if the moon and stars…. Not much will top that.
Andy’s is a cup half full kinda guy, rarely will you hear him complain, moan or fall into a ‘woe is me’ mentality. Anyone would be totally forgiven for having a moment of self pity on something like this. His fortitude makes for a strong competitor and not only that, it makes for a brilliant teammate. At 21 and under such extreme testing conditions, it’s an admirable that he was so calm, kind and positive. I can’t thank him enough for accepting to do this with me, for making it such a rewarding, fun and bonding experience. He is one of a kind and I will forever cherish those 7 day precious days.