Marathon des Sables: The Greatest Journey

RW staffer James lays bare his Marathon des Sables experience - and his battered feet

by James Fricker

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Stage 4 – 51 miles

The long stage had arrived – the day MdS runners fear the most.

My preparation was not ideal: we had a sandstorm during the night during which I scratched my left cornea, which left me in great deal of discomfort and unable to get much sleep. To make matters worse I had to have a hole burned into my toenail to relieve the pressure from a blister underneath it. It was going to be a long day.

I remembered my life philosophy: Life throws loads of shit at you, but it has to - it’s god’s way of reminding you that you are alive. Because to be alive you have to feel pleasure and pain, both elation and the emotions that you don’t want to think about. And that tomorrow is another day, but one day there won’t be a tomorrow, so accept that day’s fate and look forward to better times.

I accepted my fate and got on with it, hobbled until the toe went numb and ran until my legs couldn’t anymore. Passing through CP3 I felt strangely strong, but the pain in my feet was becoming unbearable. A trip to Doc Trotters and another 30 minutes in the tent made me more content to push on at a good speed. I was in the top half of the field and had a top 300 finish in my mind and set out strong, however I had a small mishap around mile 20, I won’t go into detail but it wasn’t pleasant...

After cleaning myself up, I pushed hard again. I’d never run this far before but I was in a good place - until we hit 22K of dunes. I started to struggle once my rhythm was broken into a walk/climb. It was then I saw my first mirage. It was CP4 I was sure of it, it had to be! I roared out to the desert and picked up the pace towards it. As I neared it, I realised it wasn’t the checkpoint at all but a Bedouin settlement. I was pissed off, big time. But there were many more miles to cover so I picked up the toys up that I had thrown out of the pram and trudged on.

Then something strange happened. Very suddenly I went light-headed, the blood drained from my head and hands and I literally crawled up a dune as night started to fall. My body was closing in on me, I needed food and. At the top of the latest in the stream of horrid dunes I sat there, threw a Powerbar down my throat, donned my head torch and attached the glow stick to my backpack. Supressing the urge to stay sat on the dune and blub like I child I picked myself up and resumed through to CP5. The next checkpoint was 10K away, it was relatively flat and soon one of the front runners passed me (the top 50 start 3 hours later than the main field). As he did I noticed his pace was only marginally faster than mine. I’d got through nearly 40 miles on my own, I thought, let’s see if I can test myself. I clung onto him for the majority of the section and it was a massive thrill to be running with one of the ‘elites’. We went our separate ways at the last checkpoint - he carried on straight through and I went to cry in a tent for five minutes at the thought of still having to run another 10K. It was now 9pm, I was ahead of my target time and all I could think about was it all being over – I ventured back onto the course, stumbling, running, walking and crawling my way to the finish line. I crossed it just after 10:30 at night. I was in a whole world of pain but my efforts had given me a top 200 finish.

Stage 5 – 26 miles

“It’s only a marathon - think about what you’ve already achieved, it should be easy,” my friends and family urged me. How wrong they all were. I never let myself think about what I had already done, only what I had to do to get to the next checkpoint.

The marathon stage broke me - but a good friend fixed me. My legs left me at mile 17. I’d gone out hard to try and prove myself but so did everyone else, so when I hit the long climb to the final checkpoint I started really struggling. My tent buddy Luke (whose IT band blew early in the week) ran past and dragged me to the checkpoint. Without him I think I would still be out there. From there we helped each other and ran over 80% of the way. We crossed the finish line in 5:25, not the fastest marathon I have ever run but I was satisfied to think that it was the fastest I could have done that day.

Stage 6 – 10 miles

By this point, everything was in pain. Muscle fatigue coupled with blisters on top of blisters made each step agony; I just had to keep moving and tried to get the final stage out of the way as quickly as possible. The first checkpoint was after 6K, at which point you don’t receive water and head into the biggest dune field in Morocco. Those 10K of dunes was horrible - it was a culmination of having ran 140 miles, being dehydrated and just being in bits. If anyone is going to the desert any time soon, my soul is scattered around there and I would like it back please.

The dune field for the last 5K went like this: run down a steep dune, crawl up the other side, see the finish point and be happy, run down a steep dune filled with hurt and sadness, crawl up the other side, see the finish and be happy – repeat till finish. I managed to kick on for the final bit and cross the line looking strong, even though inside I was a broken man.

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Discuss this article

James, thanks for sharing your story I got a real sense of you in it. Well done for completing it does not come close to how proud I hope you feel for what you have done
Posted: 26/04/2012 at 20:54

That sounds like one hell of a journey you have been on and conquered - respect and well done.  Take a bow.

Posted: 26/04/2012 at 21:02

Well done! It sounds like such an utterly memorable experience. You should be VERY proud of yourself for what you've managed to acheive.
Posted: 27/04/2012 at 08:38

What an amazing journey. I can't fathom the strength of will you must have to keep running on numb feet and mutinous legs, anyone who does MdS and has such a brilliant finish has my utter respect and admiration! Well done to you!
Posted: 27/04/2012 at 10:54

Incredible performance, James. Absolute respect.
Posted: 27/04/2012 at 11:52

Thanks for sharing - a truly brilliant experience!!!!
Posted: 27/04/2012 at 13:35

Some classic lines in there: "Crucially, she didn’t say I couldn’t do it, so I had the all-clear" and "After cleaning myself up, I pushed hard again."

Great writing - even better running! 

Posted: 27/04/2012 at 16:04

Thanks for all your kind words - 4 toe nails now lost in total, but back to feeling normal and more importantly, running again. Hoorah!
Posted: 30/04/2012 at 09:45

Amazing achivement. Just proves to me that when i say I don't want to do this race I am right....

Well done you. 

Posted: 10/05/2012 at 12:16

Did you win????
Posted: 30/06/2012 at 23:03

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