Marathon des Sables: The Greatest Journey

The greatest journey I have ever been on is over, and it feels hard to get on with a life without the Sahara. It’s a journey I’ve been on since October last year when my place in the 27th Marathon Des Sables was confirmed. It’s the toughest footrace on earth - why wouldn’t I want to give it a go?

First steps

My first challenge was breaking the news to my girlfriend, who while incredibly supportive was less than impressed by the documentary I showed her of James Cracknell’s adventures in the 2010 MdS.
“So let’s get this straight,” she said, “it’s 151 miles across the Sahara in temperatures up to 52C and people have died doing it? You’re going to do what you want anyway but just so you know - I don’t want you to do it”

Crucially, she didn’t say I couldn’t do it so I had the all-clear.

All that remained for me to do was train, get kit together, perfect my nutrition strategy, find footwear and gaiters that worked, fill out all the relevant paperwork, book my annual leave, enjoy Christmas and ask people to sponsor me. It was a busy seven months.

'Insert Training Montage Here'

I started off slowly, averaging around 20 miles a week and ramped it up to 70 miles a week. With two months to go I introduced the backpack and a bit of weight and even tried an ultra-distance race in Devon. I felt like I was slowly becoming a running machine...

By race week I was as ready as I thought I could be - I’d just comfortably paced sub-1:30 at the Hastings Half-Marathon, completed a marathon in Devon and done seven runs of 20-22 miles. I was injury-free and I felt ready.

On My Way

After a lovely send-off (including the helpful comment “it feels like I’m waving you off to war”) I found myself in Gatwick, milling around with other ultra runners all desperate to get on the charted plane to Morocco.

What instantly struck me was the average age of my fellow runners. Compared to my 25 all the other runners seemed to be in the mid-30s – I took this as a sign that I could only get better with age, something to look forward to!

In Morocco we found our tent buddies – I teamed up with two marines, two guys from the navy, Rob the South African, Luke the Aussie who was aiming for a top 50 finish and a BP worker called Adrian who I wrongly accused of overinflating petrol prices. The eight of us were going to share some interesting times together in the desert.

Stage 1 - 21.5 miles

The first day threw everything at us - dunes, jebels (mountains), salt flats and rocky terrain. It quickly dawned on me that it was going to be a tough week. The flat sections were rocky and the heat really made the going tough. After starting fully hydrated, it wasn’t long before I was longing for the first checkpoint and my gift of 1.5 litres of water. I struggled through day one and was elated to see the finish line. As I crossed it I threw my leg out to hear that joyous beep checking my time in, but heard nothing - I’d lost the chip on the course. I was gutted. It had been a long day in the sand and morale hit a low. Mentally I was prepared to take it one day at a time, but finishing stage one all I could think about was how I was going to make it through the week.

Stage 2 – 23.5 miles

After struggling through Stage 1 decided to be sensible and walked the first half. I stopped thinking ‘one day at a time’ and went for ‘one checkpoint at a time’ instead. The first half was really tough - I hadn’t trained to walk, I was tired and my bag was heavy. Upon reaching halfway I decided enough was enough - I needed to start running to get the pain out of the way quicker, so run I did. I glided past the majority of the slower runners and coming into the last checkpoint the pain in my legs from the first half had reduced enormously - but it had transferred to my blistered feet. I reluctantly made the decision to visit Doc Trotters on course at the third checkpoint. After half an hour and a fair bit of tape around my toes I was off again feeling strong. I counted runners as I passed them and finished strongly, but for the pain in my feet.

Stage 3 – 21 miles

Things really heated up today and I decided it was my day to push on. We were told at the start we would receive an extra bottle of water as the temperatures would reach 50c (eventually 52c) which is normally unheard of – not my brightest idea to stretch the legs but I felt good and wanted to make amends for previous days’ poor performance. With the sun beating down on me I plodded along as hard as I could, ignoring my painful feet and felt like I flew round while taking in the beautiful surroundings. I kept saying to myself, only 13K to the next checkpoint, only 10K to the next checkpoint, only 9K to the finish. I had my chip back on and was keen to show a good performance, partly to make up lost time from the first two stages and partly to steady my mum’s nerves as she eagerly awaited my spilt times. I obviously over-achieved that day as my brother had to call my mum to let her know I’d finished the stage - she was expecting me an hour later! It felt good to be running but the day’s elation was quickly replaced with ‘long stage dread’.

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.

The Aftermath

I was elated for about 10 seconds, and then it was over. Seven months of hard work had come to an end. I couldn’t help but feel sad - it was like having a pet, nurturing it, watching it grow up and then having it taken from you. Don’t get me wrong - I was in pain, 24 hours earlier I couldn’t wait to finish but rather unexpectedly, I was sad it was over. Does this mean I’ve been bitten by the ultra-running bug? I bloody hope not - I can’t afford to keep doing these events!

Would I do it again? I’d never say never but perhaps I’ll try another challenge instead. If there is a next step up in adventure racing, I want to take it.