Wednesday, 26th April
Thoughts penned whilst lying on the floor of the tent after completing the long stage on day 4
The Sahara Desert, south of Ouzarzate
As I write I am lying in an open sided tent in the Moroccan Sahara desert, an indeterminate number of miles from Ouzarzate. I have just run a 90 km race through the desert and the heat of the day (10 am start.) It is a beautiful night. I am in too much pain to sleep (not serious pain, just sore legs). So I thought it would be fun to recap the day and the trip.
The day starts as usual: the sun wakes us in our open sided tent at 5 30 am. I make breakfast from the porridge that I have brought with me. The day will be hot. I had been running well the past few days until the day before, where my race was derailed by debilitating stomach cramps. I am ranked 43rd out of the 1100-1200 runners at the race. Ranked above and around me is an assortment of professionals, North Africans or both (and many French North Africans, a few French, Brits, Americans, Russians, one Belorussian etc.) Rachid El Mourabity, the 9 time winner, is leading ahead of his brother Mohamed. The top 50 will start 3 hours later than the rest of the Marathon des Sables, at 10 am. This means we will start in the heat of the day. Today is the “long stage”—the 91 km toughest part of the Marathon des Sables, styled the world’s toughest endurance event. While there are five stages in total, the long stage is as long as the first three stages combined, and hence is decisive for the overall race rankings.
I start my day by saying goodbye to my British tentmates who are not joining the elites (Mini George Charlie Ollie Tad Barney.) Tad gives me his tasty electrolytes.
I walk over to the elite tent. I pack and re pack my bag and worry about it pacing and calorie consumption. Rob Fiford, my British friend, gives me meticulous race prep: start ultra slow, do very little for the first 60 km which is during the heat of the day. Whenever you go uphill or cross soft sand do not run but walk. There is an enormous jebel at the 20 km mark. Take that very slowly. Take a recovery shake at 2 pm. Take electrolytes and caffeine at 5 pm. Of course regularly take salt, water and calories throughout. Then only start racing for the final 30 km.
Elite athletes start to show up in the tent. I chat to the women’s French trail runner champion, Maryline Nakache. The women’s world trail running champion is also nearby. A very friendly French North African, L’Huitane gives me some advice and commiserates my sub par performance the day before. He is a 49 year old who has run this race 17 times and once finished fourth. I can’t believe I'm in such company. I have my bag weighed and inventoried by the organizers. This is to prevent cheating by having too light of a pack with too little food, because the MdS is self supporting: the race organizers only provide water and a tent, the competitors must bring all food and run with it each day.
As I walk over to the start line, Suspicious Minds by Elvis Presley, one of my wife’s and my favorite songs begins to play on the loudspeaker. This too seems to be a good omen.
Everyone lines up. The fifty best desert ultra runners in the world. I am among them. I take selfies. I take a photo of me and my wife (or rather a photo of my wife that I have carried along). The race director makes a boring speech. I am very emotional to be here. I feel like a pro.
We start. I watch as Rachid runs up the long sandy slope ahead. He runs beautifully. Like a gazelle or a wolf. He runs in wide arcs, navigating strange routes in order to pass through the easiest terrain. Soon he is lost to view.
I fall in with the slowest elites: including Rob. We plan to pace well and do so. The scenery is spectacular. Desert, dunes, ravines and rocks. Walking up to high passes and falling through sand down the far side. The first two hours pass without event. I meticulously track my calorie consumption, my water and my salt. (If one can stay cool, the heat is not a problem per se, as long as one replaces water and salt-sweat). Coming out of the first check point (water refilling station) I throw up. Oh dear. I soldier on but start to feel nervous.
We approach the second checkpoint and the jebel. The sun beats down. It is perhaps 45-50 degrees centigrade and it is noon. The heat is ferocious. We pass many non elite runners who may be young or old, fat or thin, Japanese or French. Some of these people are in terrible shape. They have stopped and are resting in what little shade there is.
At the second check point I refill my water bottles, for 1.5 litres total. The allowance is 3 litres. I dump the remaining 1.5 litres on myself to cool off. It feels exquisite. With Rob I set off along the barren rocky plain up to the jebel. We walk through the ferocious heat. A tough looking Russian, Oleg, runs past. The lead woman, the world trail running champion Ragna from Belgium, seems to be about to pull out, I am not sure why.
I walk up the jebel, sparing my energy. The sun beats down. I eat a Clif bar. Walk. Drink water. Eat a salt table. Soldier on, terrified to exert effort at this early stage and I have left my running partners behind. After an age I reach the top of the jebel, supposedly the height of Ben Nevis, 5 hours and 30 km in. The view is breathtaking. One can practically see the whole Sahara. I ignore the view and rapidly descend the jebel to the valley floor, tumbling down the soft sand. I reach the next check point. It is a mess. People are crowded into scraps of shade. Many suffer from heat stroke and presumably will have to quit. Same routine: fill water bottles, dunk the excess on my head and press on. Ollie is crowded into a small shaded shelter. We exchange encouragement.
I press on, alone. I fall in with a tough elite Spaniard. He is walking through the heat of the day, I take a cue from him. The heat has become spectacular and there is no longer a cooling breeze. I carefully manage my water between checkpoints and monitor salt and calorie consumption.
An hour or so later the Spaniard and I are far across the valley floor. I keep behind the Spaniard and then overtake him.
I pass Charlie and Mini and they shout words of encouragement. They look well, I am very glad. We are 45km in. It is now around 4 30pm. I feel cool, rested and strong. I am excited. I have started to run slowly.
Shortly after, Rob and the Spaniard overtake me. So does a French North African and a Moroccan. I suddenly feel dreadful. Have I mismanaged my calories, salt or water? I stagger behind a tree and throw up my entire stomach. This is a disaster. I can barely walk. I cannot retain fluids. I am physically and emotionally spent.
What to do? I suddenly hear in my ear the voice of my tent mate George. He says his favorite catch phrase: “come on old mate!” George is not really there. But I vow to dig deep and press on. I have put so much into this endeavour. I have done so well. I will not quit. I take an Imodium and a caffeine tablet. The time is now 5 pm, so caffeine is allowed because it is cool enough that caffeine will not appreciably raise my body temperature.
I limp to the next check point. I put Tad’s electrolytes in with my water. I have to replenish my lost fluid as fast as possible. Coming out of the check point at a slow walk, I pass a Moroccan pro going even slower than me. I experiment with a slow jog.
Somehow I feel fantastic. The electrolytes sooth my stomach. I realise that with only 55 km and 6 or so hours passed, there is everything to play for.
I spend the next few hours running through sand dunes as the sun sets. Under foot the sand is unstable but I am able to run well and push on. The view is beautiful, the golden sunset lighting the perfectly shaped dunes. I ignore the view.
Suddenly I pass Tad, George and Barney. Tad and Barney look strong. George looks defeated. They holler encouragement, which I return. I thank Tad for his electrolytes and run on.
Suddenly it is 60 km in and dusk. The true race has begun. And I feel fantastic. I put on my head torch. As the night falls I settle into an easy rhythm. Less salt now that there is no sun. Still calories and water. Running steadily and feeling better and better.
I start to pass non elite runners who I know to be quick. There is the French women who inexplicably wears long sleeves and leggings in the desert. The crazy Japanese man who insists on a large red wig. It is the first time I have seen him take it off. I pass my friends Laurie and Marco, who are some of the fastest non elite runners. At the next check point I overtake Joseph, a fast elite American. My confidence mounts.
Now I am running alone, across empty sand dunes lit by moonlight. The path is well marked. I feel unstoppable. If I could stop for a second the view must be beautiful, but the way could be treacherous, with the sand and rocks. I fix my head torch on the path.
Very occasionally I pass other runners, some elite and others non elite. Many shout encouragement. One of the fastest women on the course does not. She must have paced wrong for she can no longer run.
Suddenly I overtake Rob. He is exhausted and staggering. We mumble quick words to each other, but he can barely speak and I press on.
The feeling is sensational. I am in a trance. I could run forever. It feels transcendent. When I try to walk, my legs do not want to slow. I am barely thinking. I am close but still 15 km out. I want to push hard, to empty the tank. I am scared my body will fail. My stomach gurgles. I pray it will hold.
I start to flag. Time slows to a crawl. Why won’t the kilometres, which I track on my GPS watch, pass faster? As I reach the 80th km I feel a sudden worrying lull of energy. No matter. I inhale my final Clif bar, and another caffeine tablet. I start to feel strong again.
Now I am running fast, really fast. Coming into the final check point, I overtake a host of elite runners, including the lanky and friendly Frenchman Quentin, who shouts encouragement. I politely barge past two elite and friendly Moroccans. I snatch my water allocation out of the surprised course steward’s hand without breaking pace.
I leave the checkpoint. Now I am even faster. Two runners approach in the distance. One is L’Huitane! “More faster!” He shouts out as I pass him.
2.5 km from the end, as the faint sound of the finish line emerges through the night and the dunes, I realize I cannot sustain the pace. I slow to a shambling jog. I want so badly for the time or the distance to go faster.
Suddenly, 1 km away, the end line appears. The sight is majestic. I take out the photo of my wife and snap a shot.
I jog in and collapse on the floor. The course stewards cheer me. I have finished 22nd. I am ecstatic. I cannot believe that I have finished at all, let alone at such speed. My legs start to hurt badly but it is good pain—no injuries, just soreness. L’Huitane arrives. I pose for a photo with him. I limp to my tent. And here we are.