Marathon des Sables 2014
This is a race that I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time. UK places for the 2014 event went online back in June 2012 and sold out in 11 minutes. I was one of the ‘lucky’ ones…
My early thoughts about training were that I would be running most days, sometimes twice a day, just to get in some decent weekly mileage. In fact, my key training period (from Christmas 2013 onwards) comprised four weekly runs, of about 15, 10 (with a back pack), 20+ and 20+ miles. From March onwards I squeezed in as many trips to the sauna as possible. I also did some long walks (30ish miles) with a heavy pack. Back in January, Andrew and I spent a week training on Fuerteventura which was a fantastic break from the English winter.
MDS is a self-sufficient multi-stage ultra marathon across the Sahara Desert in Morocco. It’s not easy! My pack contained everything I needed to survive for the duration of the event with the exception of shelter (open-sided Bedouin-style tents are provided) and water (which is handed out in 1.5 litre bottles at the various checkpoints en route). It weighed just under 9 kg before water. Mandatory items include a distress flare (which is annoyingly heavy) and an anti-venom pump. I carried about 15,000 calories worth of food with me for the seven days and struggled to eat it all. The rules state that you must have a minimum of 2,000 calories for each day of the race – I managed to eat about 1,800-1,900 calories a day, and by the end of the race I had lots of veins sticking out of me that weren’t there before!
You stay in the same tent with the same group of tent mates for the duration of the race. I had already met Brian from Stroud for a beer in the months before the event, and hooked up with a few others via Facebook. Tent 137 comprised me, Brian, Ollie (a doctor), Su, Claire, Iain (biggest man in the race), Philippa and Tamsin. Ollie turned out to be a bit of a racing snake, finishing in 146th place overall. The rest of us had a similar pace and I stuck with Brian (until he dropped out), Claire and Su for most of the race. Tamsin collapsed just before the 3rd checkpoint on Day 3 and was pulled from the race. Six of us made it to the finish line.
Quote from race director Patrick Bauer:
“In sporting terms, there were more retirements than usual. However, we had warned people that we’d be attacking hard from the outset. The first stages were demanding and there wasn’t the time to acclimatise. You had to be ready. It’s a reminder that the SULTAN MARATHON DES SABLES is a sporting event and not a hike across the desert. You have to be prepared when you arrive. Those that aren’t won’t make it through.”
Quote from MDS regular Rory Coleman:
“This little ol’ trot in the Sahara is winning back its ‘World’s Toughest Footrace’ mantle as Patrick Bauer turned the amps up for my eleventh MdS adventure. It wasn’t harder or hotter this year it was just sandier (50% against 15% usually) and CP1 & 2 were 15km apart instead of the usual 10-12km, which meant a lot of the field were destroyed by half way and then struggled on or dropped out.”
I don’t want to bore you with a blow-by-blow account of each stage – it was hot, sandy, rocky, hard, beautiful – so I’ll be as brief as possible :-
Day 1, 34 km
Dunes, lots of dunes…
Day 2, 41 km
Tough day – apparently it got up to 50 degrees. One of the British competitors was air-lifted out during this stage and spent a week in an induced coma. Thankfully he’s on the mend.
Day 3, 37.5 km
Lots more dunes. Brian had visited Doc Trotter’s the previous night to get the blisters on the soles of both feet seen to. He was suffering all day, and then just a few km from the finish he trod on an acacia thorn which went through the sole of his shoe and into his foot. Not good. He somehow managed to get to Checkpoint 2 on Day 4, but his race was over.
Day 4, 81.5 km
The cut-off for this stage is an extremely generous 34 hours. Some people sleep at the checkpoints and then complete the stage the following day. The only problem with that approach is that you don’t get a full rest day. I wanted as much rest as possible, and to get to the finish in the cool of the night rather than spending even more hours under the baking hot sun. I chose to push through the night, stopping for a chicken korma at Checkpoint 4 and coffee at Checkpoint 5. The last part of this stage was a real struggle (there were tears) and I would have been much, much slower if I hadn’t stuck with Su and Claire.
Day 5, rest day
I got in just after 5 am, had a protein shake and some custard and slept for about an hour. I found it really hard to sleep – sore feet, sore hips, sore shoulders – so just lazed about chatting and doing as little as possible for most of the day. At about 5pm we all went down to the finish line to cheer in the last finishers of the long stage.
Day 6, 42.2 km
Marathon day. I struggled from half way and told Claire and Su to go on without me. I think it was the lack of food getting to me. They told the medics that I was struggling and from then until the end of the race I had various race officials checking up on me to make sure I was okay. Crossing the finish line and getting my medal was the BEST feeling ever!
Looking at the stats:
I finished in 673rd place, in a time of 54h 12’ 08”. 1029 people started the race and 917 finished it – the dropout rate was one of the highest they’ve had in years.
I was 73rd woman. 154 women started the race, 128 finished.
Day 7, UNICEF charity stage, 7.7 km
Although the race was over by now, the charity stage is compulsory so we put on our clean tee-shirts and walked the entire 7.7km. All I really wanted was to get to the hotel in Ouazarzate and have a shower and a cold beer!
I loved this race. The desert is beautiful and I met some fantastic people. One of the things I enjoyed the most was being self-sufficient – only being able to use the things that I carried on my back. Life becomes very simple when you don’t have very much.
Eat, sleep, race and repeat.
And I would love to do it all again!
I’m thinking about having another go in 5 years time if anyone wants to join me….
(Matt? Dave the chef? Sampo? Mr Buck? Anyone???)
A huge thank you to everyone for supporting me and putting up with me going on about this race for the last few months. You all helped me get through it, and your generous contributions to my JustGiving page helped me raise a whopping £2190.45 for Prospect Hospice. THANK YOU!