On Sunday 3rd April, the 26th Marathon des Sables gets underway somewhere in the Sahara in southern Morocco. Around 1000 runners will be setting off t run 150 miles in six stages at what's often billed the toughest footrace on earth. I'll be one of them.
My running history
Like many runners, I didn't discover running until my late twenties when I became senior writer at Runner's World in 2004. Since then I've completed 16 marathons, from Beirut to Bhutan, Nice to New Orleans, and have run the London Marathon - my 'home' race - six times. I set my personal best of 3:14 in London in 2010, and my personal worst of 6:28 at the Medoc Marathon in 2008 - the 24 'aid' stations serving red wine ad strong cheese definitely slowed me down. In 2005 I was second female in the Himalaya 100-mile stage race in the Indian Himalayas, and in 2006 I was first lady at the North Pole Marathon. I completed my first Ironman-distance triathlon last year, and hope to run this year's London Marathon the week after I return from the Marathon des Sables.
The Marathon des Sables (MdS or Marathon of the Sands) is a seven-day six-stage race held annually across a section of the Sahara desert in southern Morocco. 2011 sees the 26th running of the event that is often referred to as the toughest footrace on earth on account of the 240K (150 mile) distance, brutal terrain and temperatures that can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius.
The exact route isn't revealed until the day before the start and runners have to remain self-sufficient throughout the event, carrying seven days worth of food and all their supplies in a backpack, although the organisers do provide water and tents to sleep in overnight at the end of each stage. The longest single stage is around 90K (55 miles) and the shortest, the last, is around 21K (13 miles) with competitors covering the total distance between 3 and 14 km per hour.
At the elite end, the race has been dominated by the Ahansal brothers from Morocco. Lancen has won the race 10 times and Mohammed, who won for the third consecutive year in 2010 completing the total distance in 19:55:08, has won four MdS titles. The most successful British competitor is double Olympic gold medalist James Cracknell who finished 12th in 2010. You may have seen the documentary aired on the Discovery Channel recently that followed his exploits; my mum said she watched in horror as he pushed himself to his physical and mental limits - and had to look away from the TV on more than one occasion on account of his suppurating, blistered feet...
Find out more at the official race website darbaround.com.
Despite the brutal ordeal that is the MdS, there's a waiting list of several years to take part, which means that most competitors start their training two years before they line up on the start. As a journalist, I found out just before Christmas that I had a place. With just three months to train, I upped my mileage from around 30 miles a week to 50, started to run to and from work with a loaded backpack, and had fun experimenting with freeze-dried food at breakfast and dinner. I tried not to cross the fine line between training hard and becoming injured. I also tried to simulate the conditions I'd face in the desert, but it's hard to train for sand dunes and 40+ degree heat in central London in winter. Laps of the sandy horse track in Hyde Park and a few trips to the sauna at the gym had to suffice.
It has been said that the key to completing the Marathon des Sables is good management - of your feet, your food, your emotions. I simply don't know how I'll react to the dry desert heat; whether my feet will tough it out or succumb to blisters; how I'll feel after 50 miles of running; whether I'll shiver at night in the near freezing temperatures or love the feeling of freedom that comes with being self-sufficient in the desert for seven days. But what I do know is that I'll return from Morocco having 'enjoyed' an awesome experience that is likely to be the hardest thing I've ever done.
Alastair Humphreys, author and adventurer, summed up the challenge neatly when he said: "The greatest attraction I can see of the Marathon des Sables is that it squeezes a lifetime of adventure into just one week."
Check back here every day for a race update. I'll cover what sweets survive desert heat the best (I'm hoping it will be the peanut M&Ms), how many blisters I've developed, how to run like a Moroccan and what it feels like to run the toughest foot race on earth.
Did you know?
Every competitor receives nine litres of water per day (except on the long stage when this rises to around 12 litres).
It does rain in the desert after all - the first stage of the 2009 race was cancelled due to flooding.
During the 1994 race Italian police officer Mauro Prosperi became lost in a sand storm and was missing for nine days, losing 13kg of weight before he was rescued.
The compulsory kit list includes an anti-venom pump, distress flare and at least 2,000 calories of food per day.
Runners are allowed to send one email a day. They're also allowed to receive emails from friends and family. I'm bib 919 if you want to send me a few words of encouragement.