“It’s not the goal, but the way there that matters, and the harder the way, the more worthwhile the journey”.
(Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands 1959)
And so dawned the morning of Stage 3. A mere 31.6kms…nothing to worry about. But if you look at the map this shorter stage of only 31kms contains quite a lot of hills, climbs and not much else, not least going a long way round to ultimately climb back over El Otfal jebel of yesterday’s stage.
Morning dawn’s bright in Tent 115 and the boys come to, in typical manly fashion and the day begins to warm up along with the banter. There is the daily ribbing of a fellow runner we called Mr Creatine. Mr Creatine has for our tent (and perhaps some others too) become a daily source of amusement, bemusement and slight irritation similar to that of the noise of a mosquito humming around at night which you can’t locate. Mr Creatine has a very gym fit sculpted body, eccentuated not least by his very tight fitting choice of tops and shorts leaving no muscle undefined. He would head out of his tent (about 3 down from ours) and start doing roughly 100metre sprints, intervalled with press-ups, sit ups, and a whole range of what would anywhere else, probably be an impressive array of body toning exercises. But at 7am in the desert, as we began to gather ourselves for a new day, watching him quite frankly show off was one of the bizarrest displays of macho bravado I have really ever seen – literally baffling. It’s not like yomping up and down sand-dunes, or jebels is not enough exercise, let alone running with a pack across the hot sandy stony plains! In Tent 115, it has to be said, he became a source of much ribaldry and the butt of many jokes. Still each to their own – and everyone has their own warm up style, but I think it was really because he chose to do his daily macho gym routine right in view of about 10 British tents that really made us laugh at him (certainly not with him!).
Once again, fed and watered, daily ration of water collected from the centre of the bivouac, packs finally beginning to feel a bit lighter we gathered ourselves before heading to the start line. Aiden, Al and Mark have perfected the pre racing chilling.
So, the temperature was already beginning to soar as we gathered at the start line. I lost the boys almost immediately, and fell into a steady pace, once again yo-yoing the Welsh boys Richard and Brian from yesterday. They hailed me loudly and I shuffled along with them for a short while. The terrain was quite pleasant to begin with becoming a gently increasing gradient. I slowly built up my rythym and began again to alternate between distance markers either running or marching. The first “hill” was a bit more than a hill and was quite a long “sandy climb” without any breeze. In fact the lack of breeze was something of an indicator of how the day would pan out with the temperature increasing little by little making each climb harder and harder.After the first ascent there was quite a stony descent and I fell into step with a UK runner called Jane who called out to me asking if I was ok because I wasn’t wearing a desert cap with a flap at my neck – I reassured her that I was fine, and that I was more comfortable just with a buff around my neck to soak up any sweat and a buff as a head band, she asked me several times if I should have a covering over my neck so I pulled out my “This isn’t my first MDS, I will be fine, thanks!” After that we chatted about life in the UK. I was quite impressed with her as she had quite an awkward marching style using poles, and she informed me that she had quite a severe back problem and was in a bit of pain. However, whilst impressive, the pain she was in caused her to yelp out every few paces which was a little disconcerting. I asked her if she had any pain killers, she didn’t, so I said if she needed one before getting to a checkpoint I could let her have one. I then pressed on into a run as the valley spread out ahead of us and picked up my pace bidding Jane farewell. Ahead of me I saw a Chinese runner called Yun, who was wearing traditional desert boots. I had seen him out on the course yesterday and decided to catch him up and ask him why he was wearing them. Apparently his trainers either fell apart, were lost or something by the time he arrived in Morocco and the only shoes he could find were desert boots! Yes, they were hot, and yes he said he did have quite bad blisters…so I said that I only had small blisters as I felt that mine probably weren’t quite as bad as his. As the valley gently became a sloping sandy pass we chatted about where we had travelled and visited. He was from Shanghai, and had travelled throughout Europe and was keen to visit more of Africa. Our conversation was a little stilted due to the complete lack of my ability to speak Mandarin, but we battled on both with chat and the increasingly steep sandy pass that was becoming something of a steep and stony climb. He dropped back and giving him a wave I pressed on up.
I oddly find going up somewhat easier to get into a rythym with, and if I find good footholds then I go up quite quickly – and at one point was ably assisted with much laughter by a Frenchman’s hand on my bottom heaving my up a particularly steep ledge with a very friendly “Whoopla” – fair play in the desert! Reaching the summit of this particular jebel, Joua Baba Ali, was quite breathtaking. Although almost more welcome was seeing the cheering face of Steve, the UK rep, at the top of the crest greeting us and cheering us on – I was rewarded with a great big hug from him which was a beautiful boost and gave some energy to my legs as I headed out across the “technical” stretch over the crest – technical doesn’t quite do it justice – and the descent in the now punishing heat, down loose stones with the heat rising off them was quite draining.Banter amongst runners though at times like this gets you through, and my hug with Steve had created a stir and I ended up hugging about 8 different people along the ridge – it’s amazing what you will do for a bit of an extra boost. Reaching the bottom with about a kilometer to the first checkpoint we could see the Sweeper camels coming round the side of the jebel – it had been too technical for them to climb!
I picked up my pace at the familiar site of the checkpoint flags in the distance and jogged gratefully towards a refreshing and much needed water refill and cheerful encouragement from the checkpoint marshalls. It’s always encouraging to be cheered into each checkpoint, and as you pause on the other side of the barrier and refill drinks and munch on energy snacks (delicious handful of biltong and a slightly less delicious warm energy gel) chatting to other runners who you realise probably mirror you. In otherwords, red faced in the heat, already looking tired even at only CP1, some limping or walking like they are in pain. The medics mill around us smiling, in their blue flack jackets, asking if we are ok – we are well well looked after. I actually felt quite good at this point (absolutely nothing to do with the pain killers I had taken), and feel having come into the the checkpoint that I have lost my rhythm a bit so organise myself quickly and trudge off following an oued that is dry and salty – heading towards what looks like another big ascent – in fact it is the same jebel we have just climbed up and down, but just up a different section of it. I run/slog across the river bed with a fella called John as we stumble up a few small but relentless dunes before heading up the steep stony baking hot climb.
It’s difficult to get any sense of rhythm up this bit as it is quite a scramble and stones and rocks are dislodged by people up ahead. I get sneakily overtaken by Al and Mark who have somehow found a quicker route up amongst the scramblers. I get stuck momentarily behind a couple who decide to just stop in the middle without warning and sit down. Not remotely annoying! Reaching the summit is breathtaking once again and the vast views are epic in their expansiveness, and not for the first or last time I feel aware of how small we really are and how privileged it is to simply be standing on this ridge at the summit of a jebel in the middle of the Sahara Desert. It is hard to find the words to describe the beauty and the emotion that it evokes. But from reaching that second summit of the day, my emotions started to grow a bit. Now, this may have been something to do with the painkillers I had taken, the increasing heat building high into the forties, the distant throbbing of my feet as they began to expand again in my shoes, I won’t analyse why – but the desert began to deepen its grip upon me.
I set off in vague pursuit of Al and Mark – not really intending to catch them up as along the ridge it was single file and I couldn’t see them any longer, and my pace dropped quite substantially. The heat was making everyone noticeably quiet in the trudge along the ridge and we gradually made our way through some very technical sections before a quite suden and very steep sandy descent with lots of dislodged rocks as hidden hazards as people yomped down through the sand. I took my time as I tripped at one point and let out a very loud expletive due to kicking yet another ******* rock. In fact I was overtaken going down this descent by quite a few people as I had really hammered that rock as if it were a rugby ball and I was trying to hit a drop goal! Tears began to well up, and what made it worse was just at the bottom of the dune where it gradually flattened out to a valley there were some race marshalls and a couple of medics hanging about clapping and cheering runners and calling out their names. For some reason I seemed to be amongst a few French runners and the marshalls called out all their names as they went past, “Alle Vincent, alle Jean, Alle Phillippe” and so on. I felt sure they were going to say “alle Harriet” as I stumbled past, but they were already looking past me to other runners coming down the dune. The tears that had welled up in my eyes were now pouring down my face. I stopped and crouched down, laying my hands flat on the sand and just tried to compose myself and steady myself as I let the wave of emotion flow over me. I took on some fluid, swallowed a pain killer and took stock. A few runners went past me, but no one stopped or asked if I was ok and I must confess I felt a little lonely. I looked out across the impending valley which would lead me to CP2 and the base of Jebel El Otfal. It was 5 kilometers, and the line of runners disappeared across it like a line of small black ants. I decided that now was the time to put on some music. I rarely run to music, and save it for those times when an extra beat is needed to find the rhythm. So I dug out my ipod, made sure everything was in place, head phones in and clipped on to my straps securely and hit play not really sure what was going to start playing. BOOM – and I was back. Someone came past me and hailed me loudly, but I was gone as the very first note of the music from “A Bridge Too Far” started to play into my head. And I started to run, with my arms outstretched as if I was flying. 18 months ago as we entered the church at my daddy’s thanksgiving service we played this marching tune at the start, from his favourite war film. No better music could have filled my head. I suddenly no longer felt alone, but as I reached my arms wide I literally felt like Daddy took my hand and was right there beside me. I felt the tears in my eyes, but this time they were joyous and strong. As the wonderful marching tune faded, it was replaced by another of Daddy’s favourite songs from the 50s, and I simply gave into the music and began to dance my way across the desert. And for the next 5 kilometres I danced across the sand, across the desert valley dancing with my Daddy, jiving and occasionally jumping up in the air and banging my feet together in a victory leap! I was oblivious to the claps and cheers as I streamed past other runners who had all past me on the way down the previous jebel – I was even unaware of dancing past Al, Mark and a Canadian runner Clare – but Mark told me later they saw my dancing leap in the air and cheered as I went past. Dad stayed with me for the full 5 kms and finally as I danced and jived my way into CP2 I was greeted by the marshalls with laughter and amazement. One called Matteo, as he stamped my water ration card, asked me how I was – I laughed and said “I’m on top of the world, it is beautiful here and I feel wonderful”. And at that point, I really did feel like I was on top of the world.I then looked up ahead and saw the immense vastness of Jebel El Otfal. As I refreshed my drinks, took some salt tablets and snacked on some liquorice sticks I chatted to Rory Coleman (legend of the MDS), but decided not to hang around as there was only 11 kms left to go to the bivouac. It felt like it was going to be just the other side of the jebel, oh how wrong I was. As I set off up the ridiulously steep sanddune (described in the handbook as a “difficult climb with a 25% average slope until summit, alternating rocky and sandy parts) I did not realise that I was starting out on what was one of the most long sections of the whole race for me. The first section to the summit was technically very challenging, especially in the heat. There seemed to be no breeze and once we got past the dune bit and hit the rocks it was slow going and laughably difficult in places, quite literally heaving up great boulders, turning and pulling the person up behind you, shoving the person up in front of you – hands on the bum in front of you was quite the norm. I added my own sound effects of grunts like a professional tennis player as I clambered up the rocks, I found expelling air loudly as I heaved myself up helpful for some reason – can’t explain it! Reaching the summit felt like a huge achievement, especially as the last few hundred metres you have to literally haul yourself up via a rope that has been handily placed down the rock face of the jebel. The sun was beating down on us relentlessly, and never had water seemed such a precious commodity. At the summit I gulped back some of my warm cherry flavoured energy drink and consumed a warm peanut flavoured energy gel – mmm a delicious combination. To my surprise I saw Al and Mark – they kpt popping up, I think they were stalking me! We set off down the canyon on the otherside of the jebel, the rocky descent that we had ascended yesterday. Today going down it felt at least 10 degrees hotter and there was not a breath of wind. I don’t like going down, my feet slip forward in my shoes and my toes began to feel pressured with all their bandaging and blisters. I dropped back from Al & Mark, and lost myself in a haze of heat and delirious thoughts of ice cold drinks, swimming in the sea and long showers. There was an American girl about 15 meters behind me, and she didn’t stop complaining about the heat and feeling dizzy literally all the way down. It took quite a lot of concentrating to zone her out of my head. Going down through the canyon, however hot it was and however irritating the American was I do remember being amazed at the beautiful pink and purple desert flowers that were blooming behind rocks and in small crevices – and no I wasn’t hallucinating. Reaching the end of the canyon’s descent we then had to traverse a long and very very stony plain. I don’t like stony plains…at all. The canyon had been 53 degrees hot and was energy sapping. I remained lost in my own world of I don’t know what and literally spent the next couple of kilometers simply focusing on putting one foot in front of the other until reaching a small but beautiful golden dune field for another two kilometres. As I entered the dune field I hit play on my ipod again and again music came on that lifted my spirits, this time it was a recording of Wang Wang Blues from the film The English Patient and there I was flying across Saharan dunes, shimmying my way up and down, lost in a new rythm, the pain in my feet briefly vanishing as the softness of the sand gave some relief from those sodding rocks and stones. But the relief was shortlived, and the dunes all to sadly gave way to a “slightly stony plateau”.
The bivouac still nowhere to be seen. I left my music on, and tried to get back into my old rythym of running and marching between distance markers. But I was struggling. Ahead of me to my right I saw Clare, the Canadian, hobbling with her walking poles, stopping, starting, hobbling, stopping and clearling struggling. I decided to go over and help her, genuinely out of concern, but also to distract myself from the increasing discomfort in my own feet. Clare had a blister on the sole of her foot which was becoming very painful. We stopped together, and I got out some wipes and bandages from my kit to help her dress it and give it some padding to make it as far as the bivouac, which we estimated was about 2kms away, if that. As we tended her blister, Al & Mark appeared again as if summoned by magic! Al was suffering from the heat, and looked very dizzy, but he said he was ok. Once Clare’s foot was back in her shoe and she was up on her feet we all set off again. But I simply couldn’t keep pace, and drifted off from them. Mark turned and checked if I was ok, and I nodded, saying I just couldn’t keep the pace going, but they should keep going. A small voice in my head had a little tantrum as I felt I had stopped and helped someone, and I wanted someone to stop and help me, but the boys and Clare were just pressing on. I didn’t feel like putting on my music and was just coming to terms with the concept of feeling like I was crawling slowly to the bivouac when I was rescued.
I was rescued by two of the most lovely people I think I have ever met – a big tall strapping fellow Brit called Phil and the wonder that was Ignacio from Argentina (although confusingly his race number said he was from France!). They approached me and Phil hailed me loudly. They fell into step with me and for the next what felt like forever they literally kept me going. The most amusing thing was that they were both carrying rather large old camel bones that they had come across in the desert – only complete nutters add to their weight in the desert. Phil’s exuberance and humour was fantastic, and both his and Ignacio’s energy was contagious. I did have to grit my teeth to maintain their pace but I didn’t want to lose them and wanted to feed off their energy to get me to the finish.
The race organisers are cruel at times, as there was a small rise as we crossed the plateau and so the bivouac did not come into view until we were almost upon it. As we approached another French runner was just ahead. Phil decided it would be funny if we three, and we had pronounced ourselves as the Three Amigos, joined hands and ran and pipped him to the post just before the finish line. And so we did, crossing the line as the Three Amigoes, arms aloft and running. I blew my kiss to the webcam and exchanged embraces with Phil & Ignacio, my heroes who saved me from despair. We parted company as we approached the line of tents, and as the adrenalin of finishing the day trickled away I stumbled off to my tent. As I tottered in, I was reminded by how simply gorgeously lovely my tent boys were. It had been an emotional day and I was exhausted, in pain, happy and relieved and quite literally all over the place. Matt and Kevin helped me off load my pack, unclipping all the annoying straps as I collapsed down onto the rug. It felt like coming home. As I made my recovery drink we exchanged tails of the day – everyone had found it tough going up and down the jebels and the rocks. A few blisters were in evidence. But everyone was quietly aware of it being the eve of the big stage. I tottered off to Doc Trotters, where a lovely Portuguese doctor called Maxou tended to my feet – he did slightly less bulky dressings, but no less painful, in fact when he cut into the blister on my right big toe I had to bite down hard on my lip, I lay back on the matting closed my eyes, and just let him get on with it. When he had finished, he heaved me to my feet and gave me a pat on my shoulder and wished me luck for tomorrow. I walked out smiling, as the pain began to fade into a memory. I made it to the email tent, and fired off an email to my brother Nick to post and headed back to the boys and emails from home and some supper and a cup of tea. Amidst laughter and music and the now cooler heat of the desert we settled down to the night before the big one. Tomorrow we had to run 86.2kms, and we are given 35hours to do so. I lay back on top of my sleeping bag, legs raised on my rucksack and listened to the sound of the bivouac at night and the noises of the desert – the gentle snores and grunts, the occasional footsteps of someone heading out into no man’s land (the space beyond the tents) to have a pee or a poo, and the rustle of Al’s crisp packet sleeping mat, and as I lay back I reflected on the day, dancing with Daddy across the desert valley.
“The desert is where the craziest, wildest and most beautiful dreams blend”