The Marathon des Sables 2015.
by crawlingkiwiMay 17th 2015
My Marathon des Sables account. A tale of dirt, grime, poo bags, sand, hills, poo bags, mangled feet and madness. (Very long - originally written to be read to my father who is blind)
It started on the Thursday night, when I had arranged to meet up with some others who were also planning to predominantly walk the course either because that was always their plan or they were nursing injuries. That was great, because it meant I could put names to faces and we were planning to share a tent together. On the Friday morning I went to check-in to be met by the longest queue imaginable - I was a bit concerned because everyone looked unbelievably athletic and toned, but I joined in and soon was on the plane. When we arrived in Morocco at Ouzarzate (pronounced woozarzat) I discovered that my very expensive prescription running sunglasses were NOT in my bag. That could have been absolutely disastrous but fortunately I was able to buy some MdS desert goggles which looked a bit weird, but protected my eyes for the race.
From the airport we were loaded onto coaches and after sitting waiting for about an hour, we eventually headed off into the middle of nowhere. At one point the coaches stopped for a loo break (men on one side of the road and women on the other). This was to become a regular sight - bared buttocks everywhere and after a while you pretty much stopped noticing. We realised that where we had stopped, there were camels just chilling at the side of the road! The tiny towns and villages we passed were extraordinary, flat roofed buildings, many crumbling as they were made from a sand mix, but then a replacement home would be built next door. After EIGHT hours (we had been told it would take 4 hours) we arrived at the first camp. The competitors all sleep in black open sided Berber tents which are arranged in three circles, with the Brits always in the outer circle. We had to find an empty tent and claim it as ours! As it was already dark and as we were dragging suitcases along it was a bit tricky, but eventually Tent 150 became ours for the duration of the race. Me and 6 other men. I had taken a tiny lightweight half length air mattress and had a brilliant sleeping bag so we got set up in the darkness and settled in for the first evening.
Because the race hadn't started, the organisers provided dinner. And because it is a French event, the meal was superb and even included wine and beer (not that I was prepared to touch that). The most extraordinary moon came up that night and it was so bright I couldn't see the stars properly. It was after that first night that we realised at least two of our tent mates were massive snorers ... there was a lot of finger pointing the next morning and this certainly became the theme for each morning of the race.
The next morning (Saturday 4th) things started in earnest and we had to go through registration, show our medical checks, had our bags checked and weighed (they had to be more than 6.5kg, but for most of us the difficulty was keeping them below 10kg, although you were allowed up to 15kg). We had to be able to show that we had 2000 - 2500 calories per day with us. My food bags consisted of 2 protein shakes per day - for breakfast and supper, 100gm of mixed nuts and fruit (including high calorie macadamia) 100gm of skittles, some gels, 2 mini pepperami and one mini malt loaf with a handful of energy gels for the low-energy moments. That was my food for each day as I opted not to take the freeze dried stuff plus a mini oven. I also had 100gm of granola, but I only ate that on a couple of days (washed down with some of my protein shake). I had some energy bars and so on with me, but I threw most of those away as I just couldn't get them down.
During registration I kept running into Sir Ranulph Fiennes (the legendary polar explorer plus former SAS man and numerous other things) but after he pushed in front of me, I decided it was game on and despite his age (72) I was out for a blood match.
Once again, the meals provided on the Saturday were great and instead of cutting back on coffee, I was making the most of it which of course led to a pounding headache at the end of the first race day!!
Sunday, and day 1 of the race. We had been given special tags which listed all the water we were allowed and when we were allowed it. On Sunday morning we duly lined up for our morning's rations and had our cards clipped to show we had taken it. The local berbers started dismantling the tents at about 6am and we had a nervous wait until the race was due to start at 9am. (I should add in here that all the local volunteers were allowed free dental care throughout the race, from a specially provided dentist - I loved that.) Finally a very nervous group from our tent made their way over to the start, where Patrick Bauer (the man who started all of this nonsense 30 years ago) addressed us, standing on the top of his truck. This is the pattern at the start of each day, he would go on and on and on, some of it would be translated into English, but we would also hear how many people had dropped out, who had birthdays, what the time cut-off would be for that day and so on. It meant that every single day we were late to get going. For the first day they had arranged a display with galloping horses and people to wave us off, but because we were standing right at the back, I was unaware of quite what was going on at the front until I saw the pictures much later.
And then, the music 'Highway to Hell' was played, there was a countdown and we were on our way. I had expected that everyone would go charging off and I would be on my own at the back trotting along, so I was really surprised to find that my 'trotting along' speed was actually faster than many others. This was to be the case throughout the week - while there were obviously a lot of runners who had planned to run the whole thing, the vast majority ended up walking most of it, interspersed with some running. I was quicker than many run/walkers and when I looked at my stats, I maintained the same pace pretty much every day, which given the state of my feet by the end, really pleased me.
The first day was tough. Really tough. To Checkpoint 1 was fine, but between CP1 and CP2, it was unbelievably difficult terrain, baking hot and just bloody hard. I couldn't see how I could possibly keep that up for 6 days and was starting to berate myself for not training harder. But then I reached CP2 and heard everyone else saying how tough they found it and I realised I wasn't alone, we all felt the same. But I was still damned pleased to reach the camp.
The camp itself was extraordinary. In addition to the hundreds of black tents for competitors arranged in three concentric circles, there was a massive 'village' of white organiser and media tents, medical tents etc etc. Each day, these would all be dismantled from around 6am and would be rebuilt in exactly the same format (so we were always able to find our tent number 150) by the time the first runners reached the new camp. It was an extraordinary feat. The infrastructure for the race was astounding. There were so many jeeps all in MdS colours(20? 30? not sure exactly how many), trucks, convoys of vehicles, helicopters... It also meant that even while we were in the depths of the desert, we always felt totally supported. We had transponders which constantly pinged our location and as well as being for safety, it meant friends and family could track us. Guy was even able to see where in the camp I was sleeping!! As we would be plodding along, a vehicle with medics would be available and if there was a real emergency, we had an SOS button on the transponder and someone would be on their way. Even on Day 1 I passed a young woman passed out, but with medics looking after her and a helicopter ready to take her off. When one of the leaders nearly killed himself by trying to pass people on a near vertical slope and went face first into the rocks (my friends who saw it happen actually thought he was dead), a helicopter was there within minutes. He didn't die, but broke bones and damaged himself very badly.
At the end of day 1, unfortunately I had managed to get blisters, I think I hadn't taped one of my toes properly and hadn't realised I should have taped all of them which was a real pity as that oversight caused me big problems. A visit to Doc Trotters to get my feet treated and taped up and then it was time to try and get some sleep before Stage 2. I was dreading the second day as it had three major climbs on it and I HATE hills. But all too soon we were lined up at the start listening to Highway to Hell (that was played every day) and then we were off. When the first big hill loomed I attacked it and was really delighted to make it up without incident, to stupendous views. Somewhat further on, after crossing a small river and a creek (quite unexpected and the only water I saw in the desert) we had another climb. I decided to break it into small chunks which in retrospect was a bit pathetic, but I managed to get up over the sand and to the start of the rocks, which we had to scramble up. I really enjoyed that, although given my dodgy balance (as a result of the viral meningitis I had years ago) I had to use my walking sticks all the way. At the top we had quite a hair-raising walk along the top, with sheer drops on either side and rocks and shingle to walk on - which were constantly tumbling down to the depths below. I couldn't possibly let myself get nervous however, as I discovered I was behind Blind Dave who was being talked through every step by his two guides. What a truly inspirational man - he has done a lot of ultra events, but this was treacherous and I was truly in awe not just of him, but of the man and woman who were supporting him. This section of the race was quite slow, but I absolutely loved it. We came off the cliff edge and had a chance to pretend we were 4 year olds (or perhaps that was just me) as I was able to bound down - just mildly out of control - a massive dune. We had quite a long period to follow across some salt flats and I think this was the day I was told they were 53 degrees. So really quite hot!
At the final checkpoint of the day we were given additional water, because we had the highest climb to get over. I had been told this jebel is the height of Snowden, although our starting point was higher than it is at Snowden, but it was a damned high sandy climb. I would like to go back and do this one again, because within a couple of days I had discovered a technique for attacking these climbs and became really good at them, but on day 2 I was still verging on the pathetic and again, did it in tiny chunks, letting lots of people past me while I rested. The climb went on and on, but once we came to more rocky terrain I was much better. The upper reaches were so steep that there was a rope to hold onto - it was best not to look to our left at the sheer drop net to us, but just to keep focused on putting one foot in front of the other. There was a woman receiving treatment from a medic at the side and I am not sure if it was she or someone else, but a little later someone had a massive panic attack on this section and no-one could get past for a while. With a strict cut-off for time, it really impacted on some of those at the back.
At the top of this jebel, I swear I felt invincible! I was so thrilled I had made it despite all my misgivings and I met one of my tent mates at the top, where we took a few minutes to recover and enjoy the views. There was a reasonably technical descent over a lot of rocks and we could see the camp in the distance. But then there were a load of sand dunes to get over before we reached the end. At this point I didn't know the technique for blitzing my way over the dunes, so it was just damned hard work and made it difficult to appreciate the beauty. Back at camp, it was another trip to Doc Trotters to sort out the feet which had been hammered during the descent. That night like many, there were sandstorms which blew right across us (given that our tents had no sides). You simply had to pull the sleeping bag up and over our heads and wait for it to be over. I didn't actually mind the winds as the noise blocked out some of the snoring from our tent!
Day 3 and another 37km. I really felt my backpack should have been feeling lighter at this stage, so was disappointed each morning to feel it was as heavy as ever, especially once I added the water to it. This day went well, although it was exceptionally hot. Occasionally there would be moments of wind, which made so much difference.
In our tent, we were 7 very different people but who all managed to get along incredibly well. At the end of Day 1, Aaron had finished and was given his water, whereupon he promptly collapsed. He was helped to his feet and although he couldn't even speak, someone helped him back to our tent rather than directly to the medical centre. I was in Doc Trotters when he arrived, but fortunately others were there, as he was in really bad shape. He was totally unable to string words together (and Aaron always had a lot to say), was freezing cold, shaking and had pins and needles. Dave put him into the recovery position, managed to get him sipping water and help was summoned. It all seemed to take a long time but eventually someone came to him and he was taken off in a vehicle to the medical tent. We were all extremely concerned that this might be 'game over', so there was relief all round when he was delivered back to the tent at about 11pm. It turned out that while he had been drinking properly, taking his salt tablets and paying attention to his hydration, he had only eaten 6 M&Ms. No other food. And he was carrying an inordinately heavy pack with far too much in it. I had been told previously that for every 100gm, you could add 20 minutes onto your daily time. The next day he was still feeling a bit unwell but was determined to start. We were all nervously checking for him at the end of the stage as time just kept ticking away and the relief when he appeared just 15 minutes inside the cut-off, was immense. After that we knew he would be fine. (Aaron is a survivor of the Tsnunami, which killed many of the friends he was with - so has extreme reserves of strength. He said that that experience is what had ultimately led to him taking part in the MdS).
Day 4 was the longest day and, we were proudly told before we started off, this was to be the longest stage in MdS history. Super. 92km. We started (after the obligatory Highway to Hell) with quite a climb up a dune. I stayed with two of my tent mates for this and literally put my feet wherever Phil put his. And I made it right up the hill in (for me) record time and without stopping. I couldn't believe it but realised what I needed to do and the technique to get me up hills. This would become very important later that night! I couldn't quite maintain the pace of my tent mates so let them go as I knew I had a long long day ahead of me and needed to maintain my own pace to get me through it. This was when we hit the dunes which had upset me so much on day 2, but I went back over them (with my new technique) and really enjoyed it. Then the massive descent of day 2 had to be attacked in reverse, which also meant a wonderful descent down the dune on the other side. On this day the top 50 men and the top 5 women, set off three hours after the rest of us, so we had the wonderful experience of watching these exceptional men and women go flying past us. This was the jebel where one of the leading men had nearly died, but by the time I reached it all was fine. I have to say I loved running down these vertical dunes and was only ever slightly out of control.
I get myself through these stages by breaking the day into smaller sections. Each checkpoint was about 12-14 km away and I knew I wanted to reach CP4 (50km) by dusk. And I pretty much did. I had to get out my head-torch just before the checkpoint, but it was a real relief to realise I was more than half way through. Between CP4 and CP5, there was 14km (I think) of sandy climbs. It was tough, but in the cooler evening I was flying! I was passing everyone with my new technique and no-one passed me. When my head-torch picked out some scary scurrying creatures in the sand by my feet I consciously avoided looking - or thinking- about them. Even when they were BIG. I reached CP5, to be met my a live band, lights, deckchairs(!!!!!) and Patrick Bauer himself. A lot of people had decided to have a rest and a sleep at this point, but I was feeling so strong and positive I really wanted to push on to CP6. And then the wheels came off.
Somehow I found myself pretty much on my own, there was no-one else clearly in sight and the markers showing the route were few and far between. The moon which had been unbelievably bright on the first night, was half behind a cloud so there was minimal help from that. The stage just seemed to go on and on and on. It was only meant to be 11km, but it felt more like 18km. At one point I came close to some other competitors and vaguely followed where they were going but when they took a sudden left turn having gone wrong, I realised I was just wandering about in the desert in the dark on my own, going in the wrong direction. By this time I could see the glowsticks from a line of other competitors behind me and who were going in a different direction, so I reversed and headed back over to intersect with their route. This was a tough stage having done around 20km of continuous climbing on deep sand, I was starting to feel exhausted; I am not sure just how many hours it took but I think it might have been around 3. I found myself contemplating taking a lie-down in my sleeping bag in the dunes but I knew that wasn't entirely safe and having seen the creatures scurrying around in the dark, I wasn't prepared to risk it, so I ploughed on.
When eventually I reached CP6, I was very tired but hugely relieved. There was a film crew there filming me as I crossed the line. I was still keen to push on to try and get the stage done in under 24 hours, so I rested for about 15 minutes to eat a little and to try and recover. I was sitting with two other competitors, one French and one British who looked even more exhausted than me. When I tried to stand up and was struggling, the British man looked at me and said 'I would love to help, but I can't move even an arm'. The film crew delightedly filmed all of this - I think I was interviewed at this point, but to be honest I am not completely sure! Back on my feet, by now it was 2.45am and I desperately wanted to be on my way. But as I stood in the middle of the checkpoint, swaying somewhat, I looked at a number of people who were just lying in their sleeping bags in the dirt and sleeping. It looked so good. I decided I would lie down for 30 minutes to see how I felt. In my sleeping bag, sleeping rough in the desert, it felt so very comfortable (fortunately it was quite a sandy surface) and after 30 minutes, I decided an hour would be better. And then 2 hours later I poked my head out of my bag (to be met by that damned film camera again) and I realised it was far too cold to get up, as I had no additional jacket other than my combi sleeping bag (it turned into a rather large puffy jacket). Anyone who knows me is aware of how much I loathe the cold and even I did find it funny that I was able to have a whinge about the cold in the middle of the desert, but I tucked my head back into my sleeping bag and had another hour's sleep. In retrospect I should have forced myself to get on my way at that point, but by 5.45am after three hours of rest I was up and getting ready to leave. Sir Ranulph had caught up with me at this point and was having a rest and although I knew my sub 24 hour target had gone, I felt absolutely refreshed and ready to go. I only had 17km in total to go and the relief of knowing that I was going to make it, was immense.
The next two stages passed quite quickly and while I could feel that my feet were in a real state, it was just a matter of hobbling on until they went numb and I could walk at a better pace. On the final stage some local children started running along by me and chatting to me in French. It was quite sweet although they really only wanted my buff, but I wasn't prepared to hand that over until the end of the race; once they realised that, they switched their attention to the next person coming along. On the very final stretch where I could see the camp (which never seemed to get any closer), I passed a husband and wife from Surrey. I had to apologise for not walking with them but I knew that if I changed my pace I might keel over in exhaustion! They are both experienced ultra runners but Julia had experienced such bad tendonitis or shin splints, she was struggling massively, but typically, kept on going. And then finally, I was at the end of the stage. To my delight someone was calling out 'Kathryn' and I saw one of my tent mates Dave (who was a proper runner and came 412th overall) cheering me over the line. I must admit this was the one time I felt really quite emotional finishing, not least because I knew I would be able to finish the entire race. Dave was also a bit of a star a bit later on, when I discovered I would have to walk all the way back to the reception tent to get my water ... my feet were so bad at this point I couldn't face it and had a 'final straw' moment. He went and retrieved my water for me AND collected my can of coke, which was our special treat for finishing the long stage. I remain always in his debt for this! In the end I took 25hrs 45min and although I wish I hadn't slept for so long at CP6, I was more than 10 hours within the cut-off time and finished positively (aside for the 'I can't go and get my water' moment later on).
After Aaron made it back, he provided me with one of the funniest moments, the memory of which has made me giggle throughout the following days. I haven't mentioned the 'lavatory facilities' yet, which are rudimentary, to say the least. Circling the outside of the competitor tents, there were white tented 'cubicles' with a small brown plastic stool in each, with a big hole in it. We were given longish brown bags, which fitted over the stool and once you were finished doing your business, you took your poo bag, knotted it and put it in one of the bins next to the loos. These contents were then incinerated. Anyway, after Aaron had arrived back, he was obviously exhausted and sorted himself out and went to sleep. I arrived back in the tent after getting my feet bandaged to find Aaron snoring away (he snored a LOT, prompting huge amounts of teasing each morning), but he had one of the plastic poo bags tied around his head. We were all a bit mystified and some time later after he was up and about we asked him why on earth he had tied a plastic poo bag around his head? It turned out he was so out of it when he finished, he had thought it was his buff, completely failing to notice it was actually brown plastic.
And then it was day 6 and just a marathon to get through. My feet were in a total mess and I started quite slowly as I was really hobbling on the hard rocky surface. Today it took quite a while for my feet to go numb to the pain, so it was a good hour before I could speed up and start to make progress. Once I got into my stride though, I was going well. I had very bad stomach problems which started on this day, so the entire stage was sponsored by imodium and painkillers... I had to keep an eye on the cut-off times (every day people were pulled form the race for missing the cut-offs) but once I hit my speed I knew I would be fine. Over each hill I would scan the landscape to see if I could spot the final camp, but there was nothing. Over the last hill and again, nothing ... but then suddenly it loomed into view and was actually incredibly close. That was an emotional moment, I was just a few hundred metres from finishing. As I came down the final hill I picked up the pace and decided to run - my legs actually felt incredibly strong at this point even after 250km - and then there I was, crossing the finish line and getting a medal hung around my neck. I missed the webcam that day in amongst all the well-wishers and cameras on the line, which is a real pity as I had been able to wave for Guy and the girls most of the other days. We were given our tiny cup of delicious Moroccan tea (which greeted us at the end of every stage) and handed my allowance of two brown poo bags. To my amusement, my official finisher's photo shows me with my medal around my neck holding a tiny paper cup in one hand and two poo bags in the other! A permanent record of the loo facilities in the MdS.
I felt a little bit unwell that night - it was all a bit of an anti-cllimax - and I ended up in the medical tent being checked out. There were some very ill people in there including Sir Ranulph who somehow managed to finish despite all his medical problems. He looked in a right state, but somehow finished through sheer bloody-mindedness (albeit 14 hours slower than me... just saying) I had a very high temperature which they were concerned about but when they couldn't decide what was causing it (it was my infected feet I think), I just went back to my tent to sleep. Julia (my fellow Surrey competitor) ended up in the tent next to me getting some treatment for her damaged leg and I was amused to find that we ended up having the sort of conversation all Surrey mothers have - which local secondary school her children would be going to.
It was a tough night, as Aaron was extremely unwell and he and Phil went to try and get some help at around 1am, but he was sent back to the tent. At about 5am, Mark went off to insist someone came out and eventually two doctors arrived and took him off to give him a couple of drips. We all had to do the 'fun run' and I must admit none of us really felt the fun in it. By now, I had taken the insoles out of my shoes to try and get them onto my feet and I must say, they did really hurt a lot, particularly on the hard ground or on any of the downhills. Each morning in camp, it was looking more and more like a zombie apocalypse or a camp of the living dead, with everyone hobbling around on stiff legs. It was really very funny. On the final night there was live entertainment and they showed the first cut of the video, but I was too exhausted to move and I was still burning up from my fever, so I hunkered down and tried to sleep.
The fun run was fine - again, it took an even longer time for my feet to go numb and although we had another massive range of dunes to get over, by now I could attack them with vigour and even had time to appreciate just how beautiful they were. I stopped at one point to gather a little of the orange sand into a bag and also collected a little bit of the wild camomile - who knew the desert would smell of camomile?
Eventually I could see the finish line but in true MdS fashion (we felt they were forever playing with our heads) it never seemed to get closer with dune after dune to get across. But eventually there we were and although we had finished the official race the day before, we had now finished the entire event and would be allowed our finisher's t-shirts. From the finish line it was directly onto a coach - still in kit, shoes, gaiters - and a 6 hour journey back to Ouzarzate. You can imagine just how swollen how feet were after sitting for that long!
Then it was onto a hotel where I was fortunate in spotting one of my tent mates so at least I had a familiar face, and most importantly it was onto a shower. I was able to phone Guy, which was the first contact I had really been able to have with the family. They were able to track me, see me on the webcam at the finish and most importantly, to send me emails (along with friends) which were delivered to me in our tent each evening. Those messages of support were incredibly important and really picked you up when you were feeling tired and exhausted and wondering how you were going to get through the next day. I had been able to email once, but generally I missed the time-slot as I was queueing to get my feet sorted out.
Once I was showered - this was my first wash in 8 days - I couldn't believe how well I felt. Yes my feet were knackered, but I didn't have so much as an ache or a pain anywhere, which I thought was amazing lucky.
While everyone else had Sunday in Ouzarzate to recover, flying back on Monday, I had to hire a taxi to take me across the Atlas Mountains to Marrakech so I could fly home in time for work on Monday morning. It was a hairy trip over the mountains, lots of passing on blind corners, but what stunning scenery. At the airport it was all quite odd - I looked like every other middle aged tourist in linen trousers and a t-shirt (there were no other competitors about anywhere) and just my disgusting looking feet poking out. There was a moment as I was going through security when the official said I hadn't filled in where I was staying while I was in Morocco. I was in the desert I told him, but 'which hotel?' None, I was camping in the desert ... he looked mystified until I said Marathon des Sables and showed him my feet. Then I was allowed through.
It was wonderful being met at the other end although I made the idiotic decision to drink Moroccan coffee before I left and a huge Costa latte when I landed, so my sleep that night was rather poor!
And yes, by 7.15am I was back at school on Monday morning, albeit in flip flops. One week later I still haven't been able to get shoes on, but the anti-biotics I managed to get on Monday are working and there are just two very dodgy toes now.
It was a truly amazing experience and I am already looking for my next project... The photos can't capture the majesty of the desert and I feel incredibly proud that physically I have stood up to this so well and that mentally I think I have shown great strength. It thrilled me to be able to finish faster than many blokes in their 30s, who are reasonably good runners and while I probably wouldn't go back to this particular race again, I can see why some people are drawn back. the desert is an extraordinary place.
The stats: 966th overall (I had hoped to make the top 1000), in 56hrs 44mins; 110th woman (out of around 220 I think) and 17th in my age division (out of more than 40 starters). The organisation of the race is astounding and they take extreme care to leave no imprint on the desert at all. All rubbish is taken off and they keep it all to an absolute minimum.
It was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.
And now I am looking for my next adventure...
watch this space...
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