It’s taken a while to digest and process the whole experience and now write about it, but I am a Marathon des Sables finisher. It took so long to prepare for and so long to arrive and there it was gone in a flash. It lived up to and exceeded all expectations. It tested me physically and mentally. I shared the experience with some incredible new friends in my tent and in the camp. The setting was majestic, beautiful, harsh and barren. The organisation was amazing, the people were supportive, caring, full of love and humour. I run out of superlatives and it is difficult to know where to start… I took a full month off all exercise after the event and then, because I am useless at running for the sake of it, I have entered the Bournemouth Marathon this October to give myself something to aim and train for. It would be a great shame to lose all of this fitness and health after all of the hard work I put in to achieving it.
So here goes with an abridged account. I stayed at a Gatwick Airport Hotel the night before the early morning flight to try and ensure at least one good night’s sleep before the race. This also gave me the peace of mind that any delays were not going to be down to me.
An early start at Gatwick and a check-in with everyone else. It was great to see people from my heat acclimation at Roehampton University. Everything ran like clockwork and our charter flight landed on schedule in Ouarzazate. There was a short delay while two plane loads passed through immigration in this tiny airport. Then we decamped on to a fleet of coaches that drove us for six hours into the middle of the desert and to the first camp. On the bus, we were given our roadbooks which described the route and contained the maps. This was the first time we knew for sure what we were up against. We self-allocated tents and introduced ourselves to our tentmates. Food was laid on for the first two nights so we weren’t yet required to dig into our rations.
The second day was an admin day. This involved a kit check to ensure that you had all of the mandatory kit, such as snake venom pumps, safety pins, whistles, etc. and having your rucksack weighed. I’d managed to keep mine down to 7.8 kg. This would be the heaviest it would be all week since most of it was food. We then had our medical declarations checked and our ECG traces examined by the medical team, before being issued with our salt tablets for the week. These would be critical as we would be sweating gallons of salty water in the desert heat. Our rucksacks were also fitted with an electronic tracker and emergency radio beacon. Finally, we were given our race numbers and then we were good to go. One sleep to the big day!
After we were all corralled into a large ’33’ for some nice aerial shots from the race helicopters, they played the customary ‘Highway to Hell’ and then we were off. Some people were walking the race in its entirety because of the generous cut-off times. Walkers still had to be slightly wary of the camels sweeping up at the back, which if they caught you meant automatic retirement from the race. Others were running mighty fast. I decided to run within myself as the whole experience was a bit of an unknown quantity. After a few dunes to start with, we were running across a salt flat for much of the route. This was a nice easy introduction to desert running. It was nice and firm under foot, if a little stony, but really good. Then the second half of the route was through sand dunes. This was a whole different ball game. Really slow progress for me, and energy sapping as I couldn’t settle into a rhythm with the slogging up and running down on soft sand. I would later figure out a technique for this by the third day which would make life much easier. Then the first day was over in a little over 4 and a half hours and I had the whole afternoon and night to recover and most importantly, to eat.
Day two would be our first encounter with Jebels, or mountains. After a long salt flat we went through some dunes and then arrived at the foot of a jebel which we then proceeded to climb. After 2000ft of rocky ascent the summit views were incredible, and the plunging steps in the sand on the other side to descend back to the desert floor were a great relief and great fun. Day two ticked off in 6 hours 18 minutes.
Overnight the camp was decimated by a sandstorm which pummelled us for hours. The only thing to do was to put everything we owned into our sleeping bags, zip-up and hunker down. People lost kit and the tents weren’t much protection. Strangely, when the storm had passed, some berbers collapsed our tent over us and pegged it out flat so that we were effectively pinned under the tent. I don’t know if this was in anticipation of another storm, but it turned out to be unnecessary and not a little claustrophobic. When dawn arrived the camp looked like a disaster zone with everything covered in an inch or two of sand.
Day three was full of mountains. A steep rocky ascent out of the camp over a small jebel down onto a salt plain before another long steep sandy ascent onto a beautiful ridge before descending again to climb another jebel before dropping back down to the desert floor to cross a salt flat and then another huge 2000ft sandy climb and down a rocky gully to the sand dunes before the luxury of a long salt flat before camp.
It was slower progress over the ridges as the runners bunched up in the narrow sections but the views were spectacular.
The next day would be the big one. 86.2 km with a 35 hour cut-off. There were lots of different race strategies among the runners. Some would be getting as far as they could before nightfall, then eating and sleeping at a checkpoint before completing the stage the following day, others would do similar but with several smaller sleeps. I decided to push through and do it all in one go, that way I could spend the whole of the next day recovering. I would adopt a run/walk strategy as well, walking every uphill, and there was an awful lot of uphill. My Garmin had registered nearly 5000ft of climbing by the time the battery ran out, and I’d only done 37 of the 54 miles and that was before the really big climbing started out of checkpoint 5. Doing it all in one go meant a lot of running through the night. This was probably one of the most memorable and significant passages of my life. There would be long periods where I would not see another human being. All there was was the circle of light from my headtorch and the huge night sky. Nothing provides perspective like the entire cosmos viewed from a huge, featureless desert, when you’re exhausted and hungry.
The desert floor comes to life at night. You see scorpions, beetles and snakes, and there are these tiny, very cute rodents with big hind legs. It all adds to the deep connectedness that you feel with every part of the universe as you pick your way through this barren landscape. It changes you, hopefully forever, although I’m not sure I will ever experience that feeling again, certainly not with such clarity nor for such an extended period. I called upon the emergency play-list. It was an eclectic collection of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and then a fair dose of Fall Out Boy and Eminem. The Fall-Out Boy lyric ‘If I can get through this, I can do anything,‘ had particular resonance in my emotional state as did Eminem’s ‘One Shot 2 Shot‘.
The lights of the camp seemed like a mirage on the horizon that never got any closer for about 2 hours, but eventually I got home in the early hours to a warm welcome from the lovely, supportive staff manning the line through the night.
I was able to spend the entire next day recovering, eating, reading emails and chatting to camp and tent mates, as well as cheering in the runners who continued to come in all day from the long stage.
In the early evening, the entire camp gathered at finish line to welcome the last competitor home on the long day. This really got me. There was nobility in Mahmut’s dogged determination to complete the long stage and then something magical about the response from us 1000 or so fellow competitors to spontaneously welcome him over the line and see him safely back to camp. Thinking about it still makes me cry.
Day six was marathon day. The story of today was the wind. We started off in a sandstorm and faced 20-30 mph headwinds for nearly all of the day. The road book made this stage sound a lot worse than it was with lots of dunes and jebels, but the dunes turned out to be really good fun. You could accelerate down them and have enough momentum to take you up the next one and then accelerate down it and so on. The jebels never really appeared and the climbing was nowhere near as bad as that on days two and three.
Every day of the race, competitors shared sweets, food, drinks, painkillers, stories and moral support. As with the long day, the elite runners set off a couple of hours later than us, so we experienced them running past us at various points during the day. As Rashid and Mohammed, the brothers who would go on to win the event, ran past with their beautiful economy of movement almost gliding, they took the time to cheer me on, shouting ‘Come on Damo!’
This was the last day of the Marathon des Sables so you could empty the tank and put everything into it safe in the knowledge that you would get your finishers medal at the end of the day. I thought that I would be an emotional wreck at the end of the race, but I managed to hold it together, even when being kissed and congratulated by Patrick Bauer, the founder of this crazy event, when he presented me with my medal.
The final day is known as the charity day. We decided to walk this short 8 km as a tent, especially as it didn’t contribute to our overall MdS finish time. There was a joyous atmosphere to this last leg, not least because we’d each been issued with a clean t-shirt. Everyone was relaxed, we’d done it. We were contemplating our achievements, thinking ahead to getting a shower in the hotel, thinking of home, maybe even starting to consider what’s next.
We crossed the line, had a cup of sweet Moroccan tea and got on buses that took us the 7 hours back to civilisation in Ouarzazate.
The four star Berber Palace Hotel in Ouarzazate was the perfect way to decompress before heading home. We ate our own bodyweight in delicious food and sank the odd beer by the pool, which helped to focus the mind on the next challenges which became more ambitious as the night wore on. Our bodies started to heal and we started to come to terms with the enormity of what we’d achieved.
I thought that I might get some spiritual awakening during the run in the desert, but this never happened, so I thought it might be deferred, and that I’d get back to my desk at work and have some kind of existential crisis, but that hasn’t happened yet. So I guess that means that things are pretty okay?
It’s not too late to sponsor me, especially you skeptics who were holding back until I’d completed the race. You can do so here.