Desert Storm: Taking on the Marathon des Sables

One hundred and fifty-six miles across the Sahara Desert with limited water supplies in the blistering heat (and with blistering feet)...fancy it? Only masochists need apply.

by Alison Hamlett

After three days of running, my feet were such a mess that it was hard to know where one blister ended and the next began. As well as the blisters on my heels from the first stage, underneath and between my toes had become swollen and raw on both feet. They would hurt even more though if the blisters became infected so at the end of each day I forced myself to clean and disinfect them with iodine before leaving them to air overnight before the stage that everyone had been dreading: the long stage.

Most runners opt to tackle the entire stage - this year a grueling 82K - in one go, starting at 9am and arriving at the bivouac in the dark. But since there's a generous time limit, as long as you arrive at the finish line by 7pm the following day you can divide the stage into two sections and sleep at a checkpoint or even in the desert if you like. By the time I arrived at checkpoint four, 49K into the stage, my feet were so sore that I couldn't walk another step.

It was 8pm and I'd been walking in the dark for an hour, using my head torch and following the glow sticks that marked the course to guide me. I was too tired to eat so I drank a recovery shake then lay down and slept until 5am before setting off to complete the final 33K of the stage. Dividing the long stage in two turned out to be a good decision - although it wouldn't be if you were interested in your overall finishing time. By the time I set off again, most runners had made it to the bivouac, which meant I had the desert to myself. With around a thousand runners taking part, the race can sometimes feel a little like a conveyor belt so to be able to turn 360 degrees and experience nothing but space and quiet was a huge treat and one of the most memorable parts of the race.

I was still relieved to see the giant inflatable silver teapots of race sponsors Sultan that marked the end of each stage though. Crossing the finish line of the long stage felt like a small victory: just the marathon stage and the final day to go. I celebrated with a small paper cup of strong, hot mint tea - served from a small van at the finish line on every stage - only to throw the liquid back up onto my dusty trainers moments later. Instead of sympathy from my tent mates, they were amused that I hadn't even managed to avoid throwing up on my own feet. Hours later, at just after 6pm, the whole camp came out to cheer the last finishers across the line.

Staying positive and keeping things in perspective is just as important as being a good runner at a race like the MdS. I made friends with a French runner called Didier who'd done the race several times, despite being blind. Every time I saw him - he was usually ahead of me - I would shout "hello" and recognizing my voice he would call back "Alison, ca va?" I tried to imagine completing the race without being able to see where each foot would land. It put my own suffering into perspective.

I planned to walk the penultimate marathon stage, but after a few kilometers I became bored of shuffling along and broke into a jog. Ignoring my throbbing feet, I ran most of the first 20K along craggy ridges where the path was only wide enough for one runner, through dry valleys flanked with palm trees and past small villages of untidy  mud buildings. I experienced a completely different side to the MdS: people actually ran.

Up until that point, I'd always been towards the back so it felt good to be with people who were taking on the desert and winning. But it was also frustrating: I wanted to run like this every day. I walked the second half of the marathon - when the temperature topped 50C and the paracetamol wore off - but running for a few hours felt great and made me think that I'd like to go back and run more of it.

After I got back, a friend asked what I'd learned from the experience. It taught me that I'm tough - I never once thought I wouldn't finish - and I learned that life is simple at a race like the MdS. You miss that simplicity when you return to the real world. The intensity of the experience is hard to emulate in every day life. When your sole purpose is to finish a race, life can feel empty once you've achieved your goal. It also taught me I need to carry my own supply of paracetamol if (when?) I do the race again.

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