Marathon des Sables – 250km of running over 6 days, carrying all your kit and equipment, rationed water and living in Bedouin tents. Oh and it takes place in the Sahara!
That, in a nutshell, is what I have just completed. Classed as ‘the toughest foot race in the world’, over 1300 competitors took part in its 30th edition, covering terrains from soft sand to mountain climbs and everything in between.
After a flight and 8 hour coach journey we arrived in the desert at our first camp site. There we spent two days sorting out kit and finding a tent to stay in. Once we were happy with our backpacks we had to hand over our remaining luggage to be stored away until the finish. We were then given our salt tablets, gps tracker, had our medical forms checked and given race numbers. It was a slow and tedious process and gave us a chance to experience the heat that would accompany us on our runs.
After all was done my pack weighed around 7.9kg without water which was just right for me. Some people had packs weighing 14-15kgs! Insane! I was in tent 141 sharing with 7 other people who were all great. We had some top laughs over the week and rallied together to support each other when help was needed. The only downside was we all made an agreement that the first person back each day would clear the stones from under the rug we slept on and collect rocks to hold the canopy down when it got windy. Who got back first each day? You guessed it!
So now that all the checks were done, we had our tents sorted and had one last proper meal, it was time to turn in ready for day 1 of the race.
Day 1 – 36.2km with 2 checkpoints. I was awake at 5am and didn’t sleep too well as my stomach hadn’t been right since I arrived. I was straight into military routine, started the food cooking while I washed myself, brushed my teeth and sorted my kit for the day. This became morning routine each day and was like second nature to me. I then went and collected my 3l of water for which you had a card that got punched each time you were given the allocated water. From there it was a brief bit of relaxation before heading to the start. This is where all 1300 runners converged to listen to Patrick Bauer (race organiser) give us a brief about the day, tell us who’s birthday it was that day and any other announcements. He did like to talk! I just wanted to run! However it wasn’t long before the countdown began, ACDC’s Highway to Hell started playing full blast and I was running.
The route was fairly straight forward with the majority of it rocky and flat. There were some small climbs and some soft sand but on the whole a fairly steady introduction. I was feeling great the whole way round and kept up a good pace (the pace I practiced) but it caught up with me towards the end. I finished it in 4 hours and 40 mins placing 136th but it was too fast. I felt rotten when I got back to the bivouac and having to clear stones and collect rocks was a mission itself!
Day 2 – 31.1km with 2 checkpoints. This was known as the Jebel (mountain) day. We had 3 major climbs that day – all were challenging in different ways with some longer but more gradual and some short and steep. It was tough going but my steadier pace served me well and I felt good the whole way round. I completed the day in 4 hours and 43 mins placing 216th. I also felt much better in camp!
Day 3 – 36.7km with 2 checkpoints. My stomach was still really bothering me and I just didn’t feel up for it. I think I was also very apprehensive about the long stage the following day. The route had a LOT of soft sand and dunes and the temp apparently reached 51 degrees Celsius! I struggled to gain any momentum on the sand and it just sucked the life out of me. It was at this stage that I also realised I should have added some more carb based snacks to my food supplies as I was crashing. It wasn’t helped by the fact that I struggled to eat my Clif Bars out there, something I could not have foreseen. The route finished with a horrendous climb up a soft, sandy Jebel with 2 false summits! I was in auto pilot at this point, head down and just get over the finish line. I never felt like quitting, but the last few km were mentally challenging. I completed the course in 5 hours and 41 mins and came 344th, a bit of a drop in the rankings but I was more concerned with what came next.
Day 4 – 91.7km with 7 checkpoints. I was nervous all through the night before and the morning leading up to this one. I had never ran this distance before and I knew there was a lot of soft sand on this stage. The route was 26 miles more than I had ever done before so basically a marathon on top of my longest run! I had sorted out a trade with one of my tent mates and got some gels and energy shots to help me along the way. I got a good routine going with the food and by CP 4 I was feeling great! Between 4 and 5 was a bit of a struggle with the soft sand and dunes but with the right food I battled on. CP 5 was amazing. There was a small jazz band playing live with deck chairs laid out. It was so surreal when you looked around and there was just desert as far as you could see! I only stopped for about 8 mins so didn’t get to fully appreciate it but it was a great boost!
From there it was getting dark and there were lots of times where all I could see were the faint glow of a light stick in the distance marking my route. I was mainly alone for the rest of the race but felt great and picked up the pace for a strong finish. I completed it in 14 hours and 46 mins placing 167th which I was so chuffed with! It was a huge weight off my shoulders. I went to sleep but a few hours later one of my tent mates arrived and then shared some McCoy’s crisps with me and it was THE best moment ever! We both sat there staring at the floor, minds blank, savouring the flavour of flame grilled steak. I say sat there, I was wrapped in my sleeping bag only my eyes showing while he posted McCoy’s into my hand through the gap.
Day 5 – 42.2km (marathon) with 3 checkpoints. I felt really good as we had had a full rest day (well some of us had) and also enjoyed a cold can of coke! The route was relatively flat and stony but with some dunes. I was determined to go hard and that’s what I did. I dominated the dunes and finally got a good rhythm going to finish the course in 4 hours and 37 mins and placed 98th! What a finish! I got my medal and I genuinely wanted to cry, I felt so emotional and it didn’t feel real at first. I had done it! I completed MdS! Not only that I felt great, my feet were good, my kit worked well and my body felt ready to do more. All that was left was an 11km walk for charity the next day but I knew I was going to take that one easy.
Overall I came 163rd with a total time course time of 34 hours and 27 mins which I couldn’t be happier about. I had a goal of top 500 which I was well within and obviously I survived.
The race was, in my opinion, all mental toughness. There were generous cut off times each day so you could walk the whole thing and complete it. So you could make it as hard as you want to which is where the mental side comes in. There was one point on the long day where I was actually shouting at the sand, cursing it for its existence as it sucked the life out of me. Those are the kinds of challenges you deal with. Living in shitty conditions for 7 days, eating freeze dried meals and carrying all your gear adds to that challenge. However it was more than worth it. I spent so many occasions just looking to my left and right, taking in the beautiful, quiet surroundings, no music, no technology, just me and the desert. It was an amazing feeling, something I will never forget and to be honest, already miss.
When I was training for it, I said never again after all the stress it caused me, but now that I know what I’m capable of there is a feeling of emptiness and wondering what to do next. It won’t be for at least a couple of years but my thirst for extreme challenges wasn’t quenched by MdS.