Marathon des Sables 2019 ~ Steven Ladlow
I first learnt about the Marathon Des Sables watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel about ten years ago. The show detailed a week long self-sufficiency race in the gruelling conditions of the Sahara Desert, it was clear this was a legendary and outrageously difficult event. The adventure of it certainly piqued my interest and I guess in that moment a seed was sown.
A few people I knew took part in the MDS in the years that followed and that in turn inspired me to consider applying. Sadly, for various boring reasons and a healthy dose of fear I ended up shelving the plan and doing other things.
Years passed but chance reminded me of an unfulfilled dream. A trip to the Oval in 2017 and a beer fuelled chat with a friend who had completed the event put the MDS back in my head. I suddenly started to contemplate it properly, but was also wrestling with the scale of the challenge, could I really hack it? Instead of letting the fear put me off I researched the event in detail and after attending the Expo in 2017, I realised it was something I could achieve if I put my mind to it – decision made!
I had completed a few endurance challenges but certainly nothing on this scale. I therefore decided it would make sense to work with a running coach to help get me strong enough to survive a week long self-sufficiency race in the Sahara. Fortunately, I had the contact details for Kerry Sutton from the Expo and we quickly built up a good rapport and agreed to work together. The big goal was the MDS for 2019 but this was still a year away so we created an interim schedule across 2018 as the build-up. We started the coaching with a plan to compete in a series of UK ultra-marathons: Race To The Stones, Thames Path 100KM Challenge and The Druids Challenge. With each of these events I improved and it built my confidence that I could run ultra-marathons.
The training relationship with Kerry had a number of elements which you could describe as monthly training blocks with running but also strength and conditioning work – they were carefully planned around the events I had signed up for. We also took time to discuss the mental side of ultra-running and had conversations that focussed on how to stay strong during the events. To a novice ultra runner, I would highly recommend coaching and it really helped to have a support network and also accountability for the training. I felt like I needed to hit the plan each week and this gave me a real discipline.
The final months before the MDS were the toughest as I had lots going on in my personal life, some serious MDS anxiety and also a couple of really annoying injuries. Whilst my training was affected, I worked with Kerry on a positive mindset and fortunately the injuries cleared up just in time for the desert. Deep down I was worried the lack of running in those final months would be a problem but there was no way I going to miss that flight to Morocco!
It is hard to describe the event itself in words and do it justice – but it was a truly magical and life affirming week. Taking part in such an iconic event and running in the Sahara was ridiculously exciting but it was all of the other elements that add to its greatness, in particular the moments I shared with tentmates are the bits I now really treasure. Overall the challenge was super hard and there were of course difficult times but the mental focus I had worked on with Kerry kept me strong. I broke the race down and kept focussed on winning each moment – it worked and I finished in the top half overall, this was way above my expectations.
The defining experience for me was the last five or so kilometres where I came together with two other tentmates – we were all shattered but our chat and encouragement pushed us right to the finish – it was pure joy and was impossible not to cry!
So that was my dream and adventure finally achieved. It made me realise if you have a big goal simply trust yourself, break it down and you will get there.
If I can do the MDS – a dream I almost let sit on the shelf forever -anything is possible!