About 4 years ago, together with my friend John Pearson, I signed up to have a go at the Marathon Des Sables (MDS) in Morocco. At the time there was a 2 year waiting list and I was due to take part in the 2013 event. However I was struck down by a horrible Chronic Fatigue condition which I still have but have learned how to manage and keep at bay. So it was April this year that I finally set off to Gatwick airport to begin the adventure. I am sure most people will know that the event is over 6 days and covers approximately 150 miles, plus an additional 5 mile charity run on the 7th day. Competitors must carry everything on their backs except a tent which is provided each night at the daily “bivouacs”. This “everything” includes 7 days worth of food, sleeping bag, first aid kit, distress flares – the works! The MDS for me was exactly what I expected it to be; a very very long slog but by no means unachievable if broken down into psychological checkpoints!
Management is key, and ensuring feet are kept in good condition and hydration levels in the body are kept topped up will help an individual get through. Having suffered on many occasions from cramp at the 22 mile point on standard marathons I took no chances and invested in some excellent compression socks, tons of SIS hydrate powder sachets and religiously took salt tablets every 90 minutes. I was dead pleased that I encountered zero hydration/cramp problems over the whole course. In fact I had no injuries or niggles on the course at all (except my feet, more about that later) which was a real surprise as I suffer from a dodgy left ankle and had to visit the podiatrist several times during my training for him to “tap” my ankle back into the correct alignment!
For me it was very much a “tortoise v the hare” approach to the MDS and being the tortoise I always got to the end of each stage with a smile on my face, reserve water still on me and more or less ready to keep going, whereas some of the “racing snakes” had sprinted off on maximum power only to find themselves in a medical tent on IV drips a few hours later. One of the best bits of advice I was given by John Pearson (who did complete the MDS last year) was to forget road training and to take to the hills. That is exactly what I did, and for about 6 months I would trek up to Horton to run the 3 Peaks or Osmotherley to do 25+ miles of the North Yorkshire moors, with a pack on in the rain and cold, this undoubtedly helped me enormously when it came to the stamina required each day – particularly the 52 mile stage which took me 20 hours and through the night. The race terrain was described to me before I left for Morocco as roughly a third mountains, a third sand dunes and a third on open plains. Whilst I was prepared for the mountains and had accepted the craziness of the sand dune effort, the “open plains” did surprise me as most of them were covered in rocks of varying sizes which meant following extremely narrow tyre tracks left by vehicles to get any kind of pain-free pace going.
My only slight disappointment of the MDS was the lack of navigation skills required to follow the course. Whilst you get issued with detailed easy to use maps and have to carry a compass the whole course is well marked out and you would only need to navigate if, for example, a sand storm blew in or you fell asleep on your feet running through the night and woke up lost! The MDS is therefore a race across difficult terrain rather than an orienteering event like the OMM (although the OMMs are very good training). Having completed the long day on day 4, and rested on day 5, I made my way to the beginning of day 6 which was the final full marathon. My feet which had swelled and blistered over the proceeding days were very painful and it took me a few miles to begin to run. It was slightly overcast initially and the route relatively flat so I began to pick up speed and pushed hard for about 19 miles until the sun came out and we hit an awful “never ending” stretch of sand. Imagine yourself on holiday walking from your beach towel up to the beach bar across 20 yards of sand. It’s not fun is it? Well, the last 7 miles of the MDS was just like that – it was soooooo slow, hot and painful, destroying any hope of a fast finish. I eventually finished the race (and therefore the whole MDS) mid-afternoon, having tried to improve my position by overtaking individuals, only to be overtaken by them a few minutes later – the competitive demon striking again arggh!!
Day 7 was the additional 5 mile UNESCO charity stage which finished in the local village where we were picked up by coaches and taken back to civilisation. I can honestly say I have never before had to hobble 5 miles in so much pain and at such a slow pace. It was clear to me at that point, that I had some kind of nerve damage on the soles of my feet but there was no way I was going to quit, and having finally crossed the finish line I was very pleased to see a small shop selling beer just a few yards away. I got to my “beach bar” after all!
An event of this magnitude was a great opportunity to raise money for a Charity; I chose to run for Shelter because I wanted to highlight the predicament people can sometimes find themselves in when they lose their standard of living through no direct fault of their own, and find themselves in poverty. I have to-date raised just under £2000 and thank everyone that has supported me, and Wetherby Runners for all the additional mid-week training runs and races that I wouldn’t have undertaken if I hadn’t joined the club.
All in all the MDS was absolutely brilliant and an experience I will never forget. The organisation of the race was faultless, and the people I met and shared my tent with (all strangers at the beginning) have now become lasting friends. The positives far outweigh any of the unpleasantness; the country, the people, the complete detachment from your normal living, are all worth the effort. Would I do it again? Absolutely – YES, and I am more than happy to advise anyone wishing to undertake the event, and if I can find the money, I’ll join you!