Report by Ian Jones
The Marathon des Sables is a 7 day / ~150 mile endurance race across the Sahara Desert in Morocco. All competitors have to carry all of their food and equipment to last the week; the only thing the organisers provide is a water supply and a tent for the evening. Why did I enter for such a ridiculous sounding event? I guess because I saw a documentary on it on TV, and simply thought - why couldn't I do that? It always seems like a good idea to enter at first... It's only 12 months later, when you're on a dodgy charter flight to Morocco that you start to have second thoughts about it!
I'll skip the boring parts of the flight, hotel, and coach ride into the desert - that was pretty much like an 18-30s holiday (minus the booze). The story really starts with 800 of us being dropped off in the middle of nowhere, after 6 hours of bus ride into the desert, with only 20-odd Moroccan army trucks for company. We all had to cram into the back of these ancient looking trucks, which shuttled us from the roadside into the desert to our starting camp.
None of us had any idea what to expect when we arrived. What we actually found was a huge ring of 100 black open-sided tents (8 competitors per tent), with a load of white "admin" tents to one side and legions of Land Rovers. Oh, and a helicopter! We were to spend two nights here doing various administrative tasks, with the French organisers feeding us, before self sufficiency started on the first day of the race.
Tents of 8 were made up by people rocking up in ones and twos until each tent was full. Our tent was as follows:-
- Ian - Doctor of Chemistry from Surrey. Top bloke, nicknamed "Cliff Richard" - on the first day he claimed he never swore and "didn't really like bad language". By the third day he was f'ing and jeffing like a navvy and threatening all sorts of physical violence against the organisers - genius.
- Bob - Lecturer from Norfolk. The heaviest of all of us at 14 stone, not really a runner but a serious walker/hiker. Bob had visited just about every country you could think of, except North Korea - and he had plans to go there next year. He also kept a hip flask of rum for "emergencies". Mentalist.
- Stuart - Cockney Wideboy and martial artist. Top lad, but prone to outbursts of East-End slang (even though he was from plush Wimbledon) which only made him sound exactly like Barrymore - "awwight?".
- Alan - Teacher from London. Lunatic who planned to run the London Marathon on his return (more on that later). Also owner of the weirdest snore ever... well actually more like a strangled cat! Alan was one of the prime movers behind half the tent sleeping outside by the second night of the race, and sod the scorpions (we needed peace and quiet!).
- Simon - Publisher from Surrey. General top geezer and source of dirt on celebrities. He was also the owner of the most toxic a**e this side of a chemical waste dump, which got to be more of a problem as the race went progressed...
- Dave and Paul - Two officers from the Irish Army, who were pretty quickly christened "The McF**k Brothers", on account of their swearing abilities. We initially thought they were from some super-fit, head-banging outfit like the Irish Rangers. When Bob asked them, Dave replied - "Naah mate, we're from the 12th infantry - our motto is 'Who Cares Who Wins?'". Despite blagging some leave from their superiors to train, they'd spent most of the previous month boozing and the furthest they had run was 20 miles... Still, after years of military service they started pretty fit and got better and better as the race went on.
Most of the afternoon was spent with people fretting about pack weights, trying to get rid of as much kit as possible before the morning, when our kit would be recorded and we'd have to carry those items for the rest of the race. Some idiots were carrying a bare minimum daily ration of 2000 calories a day - considering I'd estimated I'd burn off about 38,000 calories in total over the event, there was no way I was going to get by on that little!
In the evening, the French organisers laid on a mess tent and food for us, which was pretty good - Spaghetti Bolognese, soup, bread, cheese... oh, and miniatures of red wine - god bless the French. Being the honed athlete I am, I got a glass of red and got stuck in!
The second morning in camp (and day before the start), we wandered around doing the various admin checks (medicals, ECGs, pack weight and contents) and chatting. There were some great stories and people about:-
- 1) Six Korean girls, who didn't speak a word of English, were wandering about camp aimlessly. They had an unorthodox reason for being here - they'd been on a TV game show, finished last and were given the booby prize of doing the Marathon des Sables - poor sods.
- 2) A team of Japanese models and actresses were being followed everywhere by a TV crew. They also looked bewildered, if a bit more glamorous. They claimed they were famous back home... who knows?!
- 3) Jack Osbourne, Ozzy's son, was mooching about with an even bigger film crew. He came past our tent and we all said hello - nice geezer (and has he lost some weight!). A vicious rumour that Prince William was competing also did the rounds too, but there was nothing in it.
- 4) I met Rory Coleman, organiser of the Marathon of Britain (also 150ish miles, also yearly, except in the UK). He had some interesting clobber - he wore a Union Jack bowler hat, shorts and carried a flag for the entire duration of the race. Nutter.
Anyway, more on some of these guys later. By 3pm, we had some major problems - the wind had picked up, and suddenly a huge sandstorm hit camp - taking our tent straight down. Here's a tip - don't try and put a tent up in a sandstorm when you're only wearing running shorts. Your skin gets sandblasted, and you end up with sand UNDER the first layer of skin!
When it eventually abated, we had our first (of many) briefings from the race director, Patrick Bauer. It was all in French, with pretty awful translation, but we got the gist. Amazingly, 30 people had been kicked out before the race even started - the organisers had pulled them out for invalid medicals or failed ECGs - gutted. Imagine getting to the desert, so close to starting, then having it snatched away from you.
Then it was time for more food at the mess tent (this was our last night of being fed - for the next 7 days we were self sufficient) - and get this, tinnies of beer. It was rude not to have one, but then I chased it down with a bottle of water and got my head down - I didn't really sleep though. Big day tomorrow.
Day One - Ait Sāadane / Rich Merzoug, 28 km
The day started badly at 5.55am, with the local support crew (Berbers) taking our tent down around us while we were still in bed. We got up slowly, getting our kit together from opposite ends of the tent (I can see why soldiers are so organised now) and got brekkie - Fruit and Fibre, laced with sugar and milk powder for me.
Day One was supposed to "ease us into" the race, according to the dual language (French/English) race brief on the first morning - fat chance! The race started at 9, and what an atmosphere... 760-odd people on the start line, with songs like Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" and AC/DCs "Shook Me All Night Long" blasting over the speakers... Well OK, it's not the kind of stuff I'd listen to at home, but it was a real buzz to be there and experience those sights and sounds.
The start line - 7 days of pain to come!
As we crossed the line, the helicopter buzzed over the field, 20 ft over our heads for the TV camera crew to get a crowd shot - again, what a buzz! I (being the idiot that I am) set off at too quick a pace, although that was a common problem (Stuart nearly blew up on the first day, he pushed really hard and was vomiting for two hours after getting back to camp). We ran through a dried river bed, then over sand and packed ground, passing a few palm trees on the way - just what I was expecting from the race brochure. All the locals had come out in force to cheer us on, and we had Morrocan kids running alongside us shouting "Allez Allez!" and patting us on the backs - Spot on!
Check Point 1 was 9.5k. I felt pretty good, and only stopped briefly for the mandatory 1.5 litre bottle of water. Amazingly (and worryingly for the people concerned), some people were already getting treatment for their feet from the medics... it was to be a tough race for those guys, as one of the major rules of survival was to protect your feet at all costs (more on that later...).
By now it was getting really warm, and I'd slowed down to a trot. The ground was pretty hard packed stone and sand for another few kilometres, before turning into small "dunettes". These were the kind of things you'd see at a beach in the UK, and weren't too bad, especially as we were still fresh at this point. However, we soon arrived at a high ridge which we had to climb and pass over to reach CP2. That was the first real taste of climbing, and in the heat it was pretty difficult, especially for those carrying too much weight.
After a few k we dropped down to CP2. After topping up on water, it was a pretty boring 7k of salt plains and packed ground to the finish. I was the first one back in the tent, and felt pretty much OK. Having sat down in camp, I felt something prick the ball of my foot, so took off my trainer to have a look. I was amazed to find a 3/4 inch nail sticking into the sole of my shoe - how the hell did that get into the middle of the desert?! Luckily for me, it had gone into a thick part of the sole, and only the tip had got into my shoe - it had only gone into the dead skin of my foot. But it really made me think about just what a lottery this race is. One false move, through no fault of your own, and its game over...
By this time, Dave and Paul had arrived, muttering under their breath about the heat. Then everyone else followed, with Stu bringing up the rear. He arrived, collapsed outside the tent and vomited - nice! The poor sod couldn't even keep water down for two more hours, which brought home just how much the heat had affected people.
However, once everyone was in, I looked at my trainers and realised I had a problem - my gaiters were in serious trouble. All competitors wear some form of protection to keep the sand out of their shoes, and mine was a loop of parachute fabric that was made to sit on the top of my calves, with the bottom glued to the soles of my trainers - it made a seal to keep out the sand. However, despite two layers of Araldite during construction, they were already coming away from the soles of my shoes. Blind panic set in, and I set about them with the "emergency" glue I'd brought with me. Hopefully, the repairs would hold. Once all this was done, I sat down to tea - a king size bag of cashew nuts, along with egg noodles in beef sauce (it sounds nicer than it was, believe me).
The day was ended by a trip to the latrine tents - the less said about these the better. However, I mention it because some poor bastard managed to drop one of his running shoes into a latrine pit and had to retrieve it that first night - I do not even want to THINK what that was like.
Bed at 9pm. No blisters had sprouted by this point. Plenty were to come however!
Day Two - Rich Merzoug / Ma'der el Kebir, 35km
6am - and we all had a rude awakening as the Berbers took the tent down around us, leaving all of our gear scattered on the desert floor and us looking at the sky. Breakfast was again Fruit n Fibre. However, many of us had hit upon a problem already - lack of water. We'd received three 1.5 litre bottles of water on returning to camp the night before. However, in my case (and many others) I'd had to drink more than one of those bottles before I could pass any urine - and it certainly wasn't at all clear. You were then in the unenviable position of worrying about trying to make your water last instead of drinking as much as possible.
Consequently, many of us were poorly hydrated. I'd got by simply by scavenging what I could from those who weren't drinking as much as others; but it was a bad omen for the days to come. The French organisers had a rule that if you had to ask them for a bottle of water above your daily ration (this was to about 9 litres/day at the start) then they would penalise you an hour's time per bottle - to avoid you wasting your ration of water. This was fine if they were giving us enough in the first place; not so good if the daily rations weren't enough due to the unexpected freak weather...
The route on the second day ? from the 'Roadbook' given to all competitors
We set off at 9, and immediately started to climb a huge ridge. It lasted about 2.5 km of steep ascent, and was tough going in the early morning heat. I could see plenty of runners heading off at speed, but I resolved to keep to a fast march for now - I wanted to keep something in reserve for the rest of the race. On reaching the top, we quickly dropped back down some tricky rock (someone had already sprained their ankle, I remember them weeping as I went past) and onto an immense plain, stretching off into the distance over huge cracks in the ground. We crossed a dried out riverbed after a few more km, and eventually reached our first checkpoint at 12 km.
Looking back on the second day's start from Rich Merzoug
A quick pit stop to fill the Camelbak, and straight off again, sucking on a salt tablet as I headed east. The next two checkpoints were to introduce us gently (although we didn't think so at the time!) to the wonders of sand dunes. All the way to CP2 they were pretty minor, and had a few palm trees chucked in for good measure. However, once I reached CP2 at 23km, I knew we were in for a tough next stage - we had to head south, into the teeth of a sandstorm, across 12km of serious dunes. I'd arrived at CP2 with Ian, but he wanted to rest - I just wanted to get the day finished, so set straight off into the wind.
The sandstorm was tough - walking into that wind with sand underfoot was hard, and the sand on your exposed skin was painful. I ended up with sand under my skin, which took a while to come out. Different people had different solutions to the sand getting in your eyes. Some had £100 specialist sunglasses. I had a £2 pair of sandblasting goggles from B+Q - I looked a of a tit but they did the job! I pushed on through the next 10km, which at times was fairly packed sand, but at other times your feet just sank into it - a real killer. Just before camp, the sandstorm dropped away, and I was treated to the sight of an (almost) grassy plain with about 40 camels grazing on it... not what I was expecting!
Packed ground and scrub on the second day
I reached camp mid afternoon. I was again the first back from our tent, but I had other fish to fry - I had blisters on both feet, about 6 of them. I mooched over to the medical tent, hoping to have some beautiful nurse tending to my feet. The reality was a bit different... a surly French male nurse grunted at me, gave me a surgical blade and iodine, and told me burst them and dress them myself. Cheers fella.
To be honest, it was fine. Bursting blisters doesn't hurt, and the iodine only stings a little (some army guys in tent 93 had an interesting alternative solution - they used a syringe to suck out the blister, then re-injected some antiseptic called "Benzotinct". God knows if it worked, but they screamed like stuck pigs when that stuff was injected - sod that for a lark). Besides, I had nothing to complain about - a Welsh guy next to me had an ankle with a huge swelling bulging out of it. The doctor came in, took one look and simply said "Fin" and shipped him out. Another one bites the dust.
He wasn't the only one though. When I got back to our tent, Alan had dropped out due to the heat, (he still managed to do the London marathon two weeks later!) and I realised that the problems with water weren't going to go away - everyone was dehydrated, and about 50 competitors had dropped out. This was way more than normal, and the organisers knew something was amiss - they gave us an extra bottle each that night, which to be truthful still wasn't enough - I was still rationing myself.
Tea was cous cous and peanuts. Nice. By now I was getting sick of Go Bars, I'd been living off them (and raisins) during the two days and they were beginning to get on my nerves. Unfortunately for me, that was all I had for lunch for the next 5 days! On the food front (and in fact kit in general), most people were frantically checking their bags for any excess weight they could dump. The extra bag of raisins, that other T-shirt etc. were all being binned at a furious rate, and people were already swapping food rations. I grabbed a load of Skittles off a bloke who wanted to bin them to save weight - not the sharpest tool in the box, obviously (and they really helped me later on!)
Amazingly, the gaiters had held up through the day. Hopefully they'd do tomorrow too...
Day Three, Ma'der el Kebir / Maharch, 38 km
The day started again with a 6am wake up call, and again cereal for breakfast. I now had the added task of dressing my blisters however... and my feet had swollen and were a lot more snug in my trainers.
This was the day when things really started to go ever so slightly mental, although we didn't know it at the 9am start. It was hot, really hot even at this point in the morning, easily into the 30's. As the gun went, we all streamed forward over undulating packed sand, heading south across a huge plain. It was pretty easy underfoot at this point.
After a while, I came to two wells literally in the middle of nowhere - God knows how the locals knew there was water there. We turned south east at this point, heading past banks of vegetation and a dried out lake before reaching CP1 after 12k.
After refuelling, I headed on up the slopes of Jebel Zireg. This was a real b***ard, for want of a better word. The climb was steep, and very soft underfoot, and by this point the sun was really fierce and temperatures into the 40's. We climbed for 9 straight k, with the last one being up the side of a steep cliff. The checkpoint was at the top, and it was like a war zone - people collapsed everywhere, the medical teams looking concerned, one girl bawling her eyes out. I stayed for about 15 minutes, checking blisters, gunning a Go Bar and raisins, and rehydrating. I then set off down the other side of the Jebel.
Sand - and lots of it! Just try running on this...
However, no-one really knew what we were in for in this section. The map said it was a 12k stretch, in reality it was more like 14k, with only a litre and a half of water to cover it. I pushed on down the hill, across stony, undulating ground and over some large rises.
Between CP 2 and CP3, I hit real problems. It was as hot as I'd ever known, and I was drinking water like a demon. Unfortunately for me, I ran out about 6 k from CP3, which is a long, long way in the desert. Although other competitors were around, I wasn't going to bother anyone unless I was in real trouble - everyone else was in the same boat with the water. It was then that I decided I really wasn't bothered about penalties - I was going to get an extra bottle of water from the next marshal I saw, and take an hour's penalty - I'd rather finish the race than collapse.
Unfortunately, it took me another 3k to come across one, and by then I had a mouth like Gandhi's flip flop. He was a big surly French git, with "Directeur" written across his back. I asked him for a bottle, and (pretty reluctantly) he gave me water and took my number for the hour's penalty. While I was there, I told him (extremely politely) that in my opinion there wasn't enough water on the course, and that people were suffering. He looked at me, scoffed, and said "Ha, zis is ze Marathon des Sables, it iz always like this. It iz supposed to be hard".
A nice bloke obviously. I didn't waste any more time with him, but carried on up the jebel Ras Khemmouna, to a summit 1.5k further up. On the way I saw a distress flare go off - trouble (every competitor is issued a flare for emergencies). When I got to the top, one of the German teams was there, with three girls surrounding their mate who was unconscious, lying on the sand. I asked them if she was OK - bad timing on my part, because, as I said it she suddenly went from limp to rigid, and started convulsing violently - just like something out of a TV show. I let off my own flare, told them I'd get help and set off sprinting down the hill. It took me about 5 minutes to find a Land Rover and marshals, who promptly shot off to help her. However, the sprint had absolutely shafted me, and by the time I reached CP3 I was absolutely dry again - I took another penalty to get an additional bottle of water, as I wasn't confident of my ability to do the last 10k without it.
At CP3 I chatted to a Paratroop captain, who was spitting bullets about the organisers. He said that the British Army Officer's Handbook requires a minimum of 12 litres required per man to operate effectively in the desert - the organisers weren't giving us anywhere near that. Apparently his Corporal had already dropped out due to the heat (they were a team of six), and his Sergeant had nearly sparked out a Marshal who had tried to stop him getting some additional water. Madness.
Once I'd cooled down, I pushed on to the finish. By this point I was tired and was walking along at about 5 km/hour. I was somewhere around the middle of the field, but was walking by myself for large sections through brush and rocky outcrops on either side all the way to the finish.
There was an evil mood hanging around camp that night though. I was happy that the girl I'd seen was OK - one of the lads had seen her sitting up, with a nurse plugging a bag of IV fluids into her arm. However, the following had also happened during the third day:-
- A Finnish girl had run out of water, just as I did, but decided she didn't want to take a time penalty for getting an extra bottle. She carried on, dehydrated and collapsed. When the docs got to her they found she had suffered a minor stroke. It took her a few days to recover, with her under close observation from the medical team.
- Even more seriously, an Irish guy did exactly the same thing and collapsed, this time into a coma. He had to be helicoptered out to a university hospital in France, and was in intensive care for a few of days. Both competitors recovered OK, thankfully.
Ha Ha indeed, Monsieur Directeur. It was all so avoidable, and the organisers as much as admitted so when they announced they were going to up our water rations by 3 litres per day for the remainder of the race. It wasn't enough for the 130 competitors who'd dropped out by this point, unfortunately. The real bad luck story on day three was that someone had managed to knock himself out of the race with his own distress flare. He'd intentionally set it off whilst trying to help someone else in trouble, but fired it pointing the wrong way round - the flare exploded into his shoulder, and broke his collarbone on impact... So, I counted myself lucky that I was in one piece. The one good thing to emerge from this mess was that water rations were increased across the board and no-one struggled for hydration from this point in.
The sweep camel - fall behind this and you?re out!
By now, we all had settled into some kind of routine. Get to camp, have snack, stretch, check feet, get feet seen to, get sleeping bag and kit sorted, cook tea... and only then could you sit down, and it was generally time for going to sleep by this point. I found time to fire out a couple of emails at the computer tent, then collapsed into my bag.
PS Gaiter Watch - amazingly, they were still holding at this point, which was a real bonus! The longer you can protect your feet for, the better (and there were some pitiful sights knocking around - one guy was down to raw flesh on his heel).
Day Four - Maharch / Jebel el Mraier: 72 km (well 61km actually...)
... 61km because the organisers knew the weather was going to be at its worst today, and shortened the course accordingly. The purists weren't too happy, but most people could see the sense in what had been done, especially with all the dropouts.
10am - heavy rock music at the start line again. Again we set off into the desert, across a huge plain flanked by huge mountains off in the distance. This continued for the first two hours or so. Us "mortals" were being set off 2 hours before the current top 100 placers in the race, the theory being that we could get to see them overtake us.
A few hours in, as we were crossing a series of dunes, sure enough those guys started to whizz past us. Alright, it wasn't as if they were doing 4.30 minute pace across the dunes, but they just seemed to zip past you, which in the heat was unbelievable.
The first checkpoint was about 12km, with the second on 25km set in the ruins of a village in the middle of some sand dunes. I was happy to stop for a rest at CP2 to be honest, since yet another sandstorm had dropped on to us and the wind was blowing directly in our faces. Once I set off, it was down a stony track for 4km, then the killer - 8km of dunes before the next checkpoint. For all of this section, I was chatting to a triathlete called Michael from Preston, which obviously helped pass the time. As we entered the dunes the sandstorm dropped, and the afternoon sun started to blaze down... and that was where the trouble (for me anyway) started.
After about 4km of dunes, I started to feel like I was running out of energy - odd, as I'd been eating properly. I put it down to day after day of glycogen depletion, and resolved to eat more at the next CP. However, by the time I got there I was in a right state - I could hardly think straight. I thought I'd feel better after 10 minutes of sitting down, but was gradually getting worse - it was only when I happened to put my hand on my forehead that I realised I was burning up. I'd pushed myself too hard and into heatstroke territory. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to get in the shade, get my shirt off and start pouring water over myself. As soon as I did, I started shivering violently - another sign that my body had lost track of its temperature control mechanism...
Luckily for me, a nurse called Katie (a fellow Cumbrian, from Kendal) had arrived by this point, and she sat with me for an hour making sure I was OK - what a superstar. As I started to cool down, it was obvious that I wasn't the only one in a mess. A writer from the Sunday Times was in exactly the same state as me, with one of her mates pouring water over her to try and cool her down. A guy was propped up in the shade with a re-hydration drip in, and the medics were crowding round someone who was in god-knows what kind of state.
All in all, by the time I left CP3 I'd been there for about 2 hours. I counted myself lucky though; my race might have finished there had I been less fortunate. By this time it was dusk; I walked northeast with Katie and Graham (a Welsh copper) at an easy pace through some small dunes and across the occasional rocky outcrop. As night fell, the organisers turned on a green laser beam which shone 20 ft above our heads, pointing the way from CP3 onwards towards CP4 - it looked amazing, and it was nice not to have to worry about navigation for the next few k's. Katie, Graham and I were absolutely goosed by this point, and we had no concerns about trying to get a good time - we just wanted to finish the stage.
Dusk on Day Four - and miles to go yet!
We arrived at CP4 9km and 1.5 hours later - that was how slow we were moving by that point! I broke out my stove, and we each had a Pot Noodle (the food of choice among MdS'ers) to keep us going till we reached the end. As we tucked into them, Katie nearly sat on a scorpion which was nesting in the rocks near her - the blokes in the medical team were laughing, until it scurried under their Land Rover and they all suddenly scattered - big girls!
Darkness had well and truly fallen by this point, and you could see head torches bobbing up and down into the distance both in front of and behind us. We packed up and set off again to cover the final 7km to camp, following our compasses and the glow sticks which had been set on the ground at 500m intervals ahead of us. As we walked, we began to see figures moving in and out of the shadows on either side - local villagers, who then came over to say hello in French and ask us how we were. They had just been to the village the other side of the Wadi and were walking home when they came across us. God knows what they thought of us though - we looked like 3 extras from Mad Max...
We finally got into camp at 2am. I gave Katie a big hug and Graham a big handshake, got out my sleeping bag and fell asleep outside tent 96 within a minute or two (I wasn't going to bother disturbing the lads already in there!).
Day Five - Rest @ Jebel el Mraier
I was rudely awakened by the sun at 7am - I got out of my bag, got into the tent and went back to sleep!
I got up about 10.30am, and got some breakfast (you guessed it - Fruit and Fibre with brown sugar... Why? I can't even look at the stuff now). Today was a designated rest day, as long as you finished Day Four in time... however there were still people out on the course from the night before, so for them this was a continuation of the previous day's stage - poor sods.
Wandering round the camp, you saw some interesting sights - loads of people hobbling on bandaged feet, one person weeping, people collapsed and snoring inside and outside of tents and, unbelievably, some City Banker (no pun intended) phoning his stockbroker on a satellite phone to check how his shares were performing - what's all that about lad, you're in the middle of the Sahara!
I had to visit the medical tent too - apart from more blisters on my feet, the skin on the backs of my calves had blistered badly due to the rubbing from my gaiters - about a fifth of the skin had bubbled up. I went in to Doc Trotters, and was sent to (yet again - why do I always get them?!) a surly French bloke. I showed him the blistering on my calves - his eyes went wide and he said "C'est Bizarre!" - Nice bedside manner there, fella. To be fair, he sorted out both the calves and my feet as well, and I was confident they wouldn't bother me till the end of the race.
The day was spent eating, snoozing and chatting. I seem to recall the last competitor coming in at about 1pm, but it could have been later - either way, that's over 24 hours out on the course, and the "less fit" guys actually did it tougher than anyone in the race. At 4pm we were given a free can of Coke, courtesy of one of the sponsors. It was hilarious seeing the effect the sugar rush had on some of the competitors - and I've never seen someone have the p**s taken out of him as much as the lad who asked for a Diet Coke - come on pal, if there's any time you can eat what you want to it's now! Team Tent 96 finished the day cooking and chatting about films.
Day Six - Jebel el Mraier / Kourci dial Zaid, 42.2 km
Marathon day! We had about 42k to do today, and psychologically we knew if we could get through today, it was in the bag since the final day was only a short 12k stage to the finish.
AC/DC again (oh yes) on the start line, along with some (shockingly) Bryan Adams "Run to You" - bloody French.
The final morning - I'm the idiot in the headscarf (575)...
The start was over undulating small dunes (think Blackpool Sands). I set off at an easy run, and felt a hell of a lot better than the fourth day. In time the dunes gave up into packed sand and rock, mixed with the odd palm tree in the distance. The first checkpoint of the day was at 10.5 km, and came pretty easily, much easier than I expected but I guess the day off must have made a big difference.
Once I'd picked up more water, I set off East and then North East across a huge plain. You soon began to find that in the desert, you can see vast distances but when you're trying to reach something in the distance you can run/walk for hours and it never gets any bloody closer! This was certainly the case here, as we were heading towards a water tower at CP2, and it took ages to get there. I'd travelled most of this distance with Ian and Mike, but when I got to CP2 decided to let them go ahead and travel at my own pace - I'd learned the lesson of pushing myself too hard on day 3.
I headed off from CP2 and shortly hit the b****d section - 7km of dunes to reach CP3. These were the worst yet; really tall, and every time you tried to move up one, your feet sank in and you were slipping back down. The best solution seemed to be to plant your feet and walk up slowly - running was completely out. The weird thing was, there was no "right" way to pick your way through the dunes; with no navigational features and nothing to see but sand, you had to find your own way, and there were pairs of footprints going everywhere!
After a real slog (that was one of the hardest sections for me) I eventually reached CP3. It was again incredibly hot in the post-lunch sun, and there were quite a few casualties knocking around. Also, since this was the penultimate day, the organisers had shipped in all of the event sponsors for a day to see what their money was being spent on. Consequently, there were loads of "civilians" milling about at CP3 - and they were all looking at us like we were aliens. I can't say I blame them though... none of us had had a bath for a week and we'd raced about 130 miles through the Sahara by this point. Someone from a sponsoring company was walking about draped in gold chains and huge Sophia Loren sunglasses. I talked to her briefly - she told me "there iz much longer to travel to the finish for you, I think"... Well thanks very much my dear, you've really cheered me up there.
Into the desert again, this time NE towards CP4, with pretty much flat territory between me and the end. I was still moving quickly after about 30km, but all of a sudden bonked (that's ran out of carbohydrate energy for any non-athletes) in a spectacular way and slowed to a crawl. To be fair I hadn't eaten particularly well that day, but it's strange how day after day of hard exercise takes it out of you. I got stuck into the emergency bag of skittles in my pack, followed by a bottle of super-strong energy drink. (I have even greater respect for professional cyclists who race day after day now - the demands on your body are unbelievable). I also opened the "Open in case of emergency" letter that Cat had given me before I left the UK - reading that gave me a big boost to keep moving to the finish.
By CP4 I was marching along with no pretensions about running. I didn't stop there, but just kept on moving for the finish 4km away (a guy there was in a right state though - his mates were trying to get him off the ground to do the final 4000m and he just couldn't stand up). Finally crossing the line was a surreal experience - for one thing all of the people from the sponsors (New Balance, Buff, Coca Cola etc) who'd landed on camp were lined up on the approach, and you got a real reception as you came in to the stage finish. But more, it was a feeling that the hard work has over now; the finish was only 12km away over some dunes, and was so close you could taste it.
I was seriously tired though, so I found our tent and went to sleep for an hour. I woke up with Bob's sweaty feet half an inch from my nose (nice) - enough of an incentive to break out the stove for one last night to cook some noodles.
After tea and sorting my pack out, it was pitch dark. Unbelievably, the organisers had shipped in about 20 of the Paris Symphony Orchestra and various opera singers, to give us (or, probably more accurately, the sponsors) an open-air concert. The stage was set up in the middle of the competitors' tents, and at 8pm I took my sleeping bag into the open air to sit out and watch the show. It was a magical way to finish the day; the music and setting was spectacular. Also, although I didn't want to count my chickens, by this point you could be fairly sure you were going to finish barring a freak injury on the final day.
There was a definite change in mood around the camp that night. Upbeat because I'm sure we were all confident of finishing; but also a hint of sadness because this was the last night of the race, and one way or another it would be all over the next evening.
Day Seven - Kourci dial Zaid / Merzouga , 11.8km
One last early morning (5.30am) start. One last breakfast of Fruit n flipping Fibre. One last trip into the dunes for a toilet stop. I wasn't going to miss any of those things, believe me! We all got our kit together, cleared the tent, and watched as the Berbers took all 100 competitor tents down for the final time. It was a shame that not all of the 8 of us from Tent 96 who started the race managed to finish; but 7 out of 8 wasn't bad going.
The final 12k was a blur; despite all the efforts on the previous days and the dunes at the end, I ran it at sub 8-minute mile pace and so did a lot of other people. As usual, you just get caught up in the atmosphere and push yourself that bit harder.
The finish line suddenly appeared out of the dunes at about 12km, and I put in a sprint finish to just pip another Brit to the line (we hugged after we'd crossed the line though - so much for that stiff upper lip). The finish line was a scene of utter lunacy - people laughing / crying / hugging and taking photos (and also some enterprising Moroccan kids selling soft drinks).
The finish line!
I found out later I'd finished in 436th position, well down the pecking order and in more than double the time of the eventual winner. However, I honestly didn't care. I'd crossed the line intact, and that was good enough for me.
It took a 6 hour bus journey through the desert to get back to our hotel - by which time we had all stiffened up and could hardly walk. Having a shower back at the hotel was great - though it took two attempts to get clean! I'd also managed to lose at least half a stone (if not more) in weight over the event, and most of my body fat seemed to have disappeared.
I made up for it at dinner that night - I think all the competitors ate like they'd not seen food for a week. Also, most people (me included) got drunk on two beers and went to bed early!
The real party was the next day. Like any good Brits/Irish, Tent 96 found an off licence (not easy - you try finding somewhere to buy booze in Morocco), got a load of tinnies in and sat in the sun having an afternoon drink reading the papers. The party carried on till about 2am that morning, though it got a bit hazy by then...
The race director Patrick Bauer, had this to say about the 2006 race:-
"With 731 at the start (from 32 countries) 585 finished the race, so 146 pulled out. This unusually high level was due largely to extreme weather conditions as from day one: high temperatures (up to 42°C), sandstorms and very high hygrometry levels (up to 35%). Nature took over. You realise how small you are compared to the elements. In these conditions what counts is having good mental and physical preparation. We saw that some competitors weren't as well prepared as other years. The majority however did manage their course well and I take my hat off to them."
What are my thoughts on the experience? Now I've been back a few weeks, I can put the whole thing into perspective a little easier. The whole experience, from stepping off the plane into a wall of heat at Ouarzazate airport, to drinking our last beers at 3am on the final night (including a 17 stone Kiwi doing the Haka in the hotel bar) was amazing, and I would recommend it to anyone. I definitely had a few hard times, chief of which was blowing up due to the heat on the fourth day. However, I made myself a promise at the start that as long as my body was still working I'd keep on pushing, and it eventually carried me through. Post-race (a bit like a new mother I guess) you conveniently forget all the pain you pushed through, but you remember all of the great experiences. The camaraderie and team spirit shown by complete strangers was brilliant, and it was a privilege to be involved in the race.
PS If anyone is thinking of doing this race, please drop me a line and I'll be happy to help in any way I can. You CAN do it, it isn't just for super-athletes - I'm certainly not one of those! Also, thanks to everyone for the inspiration to do this race, and to keep on training.
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