“We have accepted the rules of the game, and the game forms us in its own image. It is within us that the Sahara reveals itself. To approach it is not to visit an oasis, it is to make our religion of a spring” (Antoine de Saint Expury)
So….here it is, my race report, race story of my third adventure across the Sahara desert, in the Marathon des Sables 2017. It is difficult to know how to begin to write this down as this third trip into the Sahara has been an epic one for me in so many ways, and one I felt at the start that I was taking a few risks with.
My training was a bit sketchy, with my mileage quite low since my move to Cornwall, although my long runs had been solid. This time I knew no one else at all really, and had not met any of my tent mates, in fact my only introduction to my tent mates was through an introductory email from a friend of one of my brothers. I invited myself into his tent, and was duly added onto the tent Whatsapp group chat….a chat I would love to share with everyone; but what is said on the Beach Holiday stays on the Beach Holiday! I felt that there was a good level of humour and banter, but I had yet to meet the 5 men I was about to spend week in very close quarters with, and we had two spaces in the tent for two random strangers!
So at 5am in Gatwick aiport I made the way to the check in. It wasn’t difficult to find the right queue. There are two types of people queing for check-in to fly two the MDS. There are those who clearly think that the race starts the minute we touch down in Morocco and were wearing their full race gear, gaiters, shorts, cap, buffs….the works. It was hard not to giggle. And then there’s everyone else, wearing at least some of their kit – and almost everyone had the branded MDS WAA Ultra rucksack, or Raidlight rucksack – making it look like some sort of package holiday, which I suppose in a slightly warped sort of way it was! As for me, well, I was in my old travelling trousers, t-shirt, denim jacket, and just my passport and phone for handluggage and the only kit I was wearing was my trainers, I felt if my luggage went missing that I would most need my own trainers. I should’t be smug, but it felt quite cool answering the endlessly repeated question in the queue “is this your first MDS?” with a quiet, “no, it’s my 3rd”.
The flight was noisy with that build up of adrenalin suddenly releasing from people who have been preparing for this race for up to 2 years, finally realising they were there and on their way, with very few chances left to turn back. I was sat between a Canadian called Ryan, and a girl from the Lake District called Ann Marie. Ryan was quite a cool guy, done lots of races, and had raced in the past with the wonderful Jane Tomlinson, so it was fascinating chatting to him. Ann Marie was quite reserved and not keen on chatting much. There was lots of banter all around, and I felt a little sorry for the air stewards who didn’t really understand this hyperactive crowd of adults they had on board.
We finally touched down around midday and headed out into the heat of Ouazarzate airport, a place that now feels comfortably familiar. Once through customs I saw with some relief my duffle bag which I hoisted to my shoulder and headed to the exit! The best welcome to Ouazarzate and Morocco was waiting on the other side of the doors. A whole group of the volunteers that look after us throughout the week of the race were on the other side of the exit, all in their khaki flack jackets clapping and cheering each runner to come through the doors, and what was even more brilliant was the welcoming embrace of Patrick Bauer himself – to those of you who don’t know, he is the godfather, the big chief, the cruise director, the man, the founder of the race. He welcomed each runner to Morocco (well certainly from the early flights!). We then proceeded onto coaches to be transported to the desert and the first bivouac.
The lads in my tent at this point were just taking off in Gatwick, being on a later flight. The bus journey was hot and long and the roads winding and occasionally bumpy. We had a pitstop for lunch, where people without pre-organised tent groups were beginning to cobble together potential tent mates. I chatted to a lovely guy from Scotland and a young army lad who appeared keen to join in my tent – so with a brief text to my tent lads I stated we had a full 8 man tent.
The rest of the bus journey passed in a hot haze of chatter, dozing and some, I must confess, disbelief at the state of another competitor. A young woman, whose name I won’t state, had joined us on the bus in Ouazarzate having spent a week’s holiday in Marrakech. Stepping onto the bus it was hard to miss her in all her big sunglasses glamour and in an ironic contrast to the racekit most people were wearing she looked like she had just stepped off a flight from Sharm el Sheikh. A brief convesation with her lead me to conclude that maybe it was all a front and that underneath her glamourous holiday wear was a fit athletic runner, and that I was just being judgemental – I mean why should a week in Marrakech, lying by the pool drinking chilled white wine not be good preparation for racing across the Sahara, but I think it was the tiny sentence of “I haven’t done many runs longer than 10K” that made me suspect that this lady had very little idea of what she was about to embark upon!
At about 5pm we finally pulled up on the edge of the desert…..at Bivouac 1, with the wind wipping up a bit of dust and the berbers in full voice greeting us as we clambered off the buses….
As we joined the first of many queues during the two pre-race admin days, the two lads who I thought were going to join our tent approached and said that on their bus they had hooked up with some other guys. No worries, I smiled, and had moments of nervous worry as I thought maybe the boys joining me later might also think the same that they would join up with 3 blokes in their bus and ditch me! Nevermind. I got to the front of the queue and gave in the list of my name and that of the boys in my tent, informing bivouac organisers they were all on a later bus. And so, I was assigned tent no.115.
Lugging my bag I headed off to the large 3 ringed circle of traditional black berber tents, and walking past tents with runners already settling in, unpacking their bags, laughter, shouts of excitement, exclamations in a variety of languages, I found tent 115.
I threw down my bag and flopped onto the Moroccan rug that is the tent floor. The tent sides flapping in the wind with gusts of sand whipping in and out of the tent, it was heaven to lie propped on my bag and listen to the commotion of the camp. I had about an hour and half to wait and finally with 7pm approaching and the sun beginning to dip slowly in the hot blue sky, my boys arrived! Ducking under the tent flaps came greetings from Kevin Smalley no.984, Aiden Bell no.671, Matt Simpson no.977, Mark Pretorius no.940 and Alistair Westwood no.1043. Six we were, and six we were to stay. And to be really honest, my first impressions were bang on, with the easy going attitude and teasing nature of all five of them, it honestly felt like I was about to embark on the race with rather fitter versions of my brothers – only this time I was the eldest. Kevin, who was put in touch with me through my brother’s friend, introduced me to the rest of them – and I seemed to have some standing being an MDS veteran! It sounds much cooler than it is, partly because even people about to embark on it for the first time ask you why on earth you are doing it for a third time (the answer will hopefully become apparent throughout my subsequent writings). Introductions exchanged, and the value of my previous experiences of the pre race days, we settled into a comfortable level of banter as we began to rummage in our luggage, then headed off to the dinner tent for our penultimate evening meal provded for us by the race organisers. I have to confess, I was quite surprised by the amount of food that “my boys” put away, but as I was to learn quite quickly the amount they ate on the first evening was really quite minimal! My first night in the desert with the boys was an amusing taste of what was to come, and a true test of everyone’s bedtime kit!
I was quite surprised that they all had blow up pillows – what a bunch of jessies! My pillow – my day clothes stuffed into a small sack, which made a surprisingly comfy soft pillow. Blow up pillows – well, apparently hard to keep your head on, unless wrapped inside the hood of your sleeping bag. And, there’s always one person who has bought the blow-up sleeping mat that sounds like you are lying on a crisp packet and rustles loudly every time you move. Not that my kit was in anyway superior – my sleeping mat was about 11 years old and had become really rather paper thin – I knew fairly early on that it might not make it back to blighty after this trip! The first night was in fact probably the most eventful in terms of weather as well. Quite warm at the start of the evening, with the breeze having dropped to a gentle gust now and then, we settled down on our old sleeping mats, blow up pillows, crisp packets, and super sonic sleeping bags that packed down to nothing (except for mine!), with the tent sides up to let the breeze pass through – and it wasn’t just for atmospheric reasons to let the breeze pass through. I won’t name and shame, but at either end of the tent on the first night it was quite windy for very different reasons – you know who you are!! However, shortly after midnight the wind kicked up and blew through the tent a tad more violently sending sand and dust throught on every gust. A rapid readjustment of the tent sides, and scooching down deep in out sleeping bags as the temperature also dropped was a barely sufficient solution, but had to do.
Morning on the eve of the race breaks early, there is a sense of people waking from one of the worst night’s sleep they have ever had, as the hardness of the sand, and that little rock that dug into their back all night long are cursed loudly. The realisation that they have woken up on the edge of the Sahara desert suddenly starts to sink in, as does the realisation that when you stretch and peek out from sleeping bag to look out at what is a beautiful view – it is a touch impaired by the view of other bivouac inhabitants performing their morning ablutions in the not very far distance. Yes, it is a fact of MDS that toileting issues become a very key part to most conversations during the week. Dotted at regular intervals around the main camp are canvas cubicles in groups of 3. 3 cubicles for roughly every 150-300 runners. Inside these cubicles are plastic loo frames, on these loo frames you attach a largish brown sac-de-cac (poo sack), which we are instructed to drop a pebble in, to stop it blowing away. Once secured around the loo frame one is able take a seat and have a relatively private, if undignified dump in the desert that doesn’t leave litter or dirt behind, as once finished you simply tie a not and dispose of in thus provided bin, (of which some poor berber has the job of collecting and disposing of in an environmentally friendly way). Not quite as unpleasant as festival portaloos, but, well you get the picture. Once the amusement and novelty wears off, people get down to business!
Race coordinators come around, greeting us good morning, giving us information about the day ahead of us with registration times, medical checks, bib number collections etc. and of course when we hand in our luggage that we no longer need. There is the ongoing panic by most runners, that pervades the pre-race days of every MDS and race like it, the all consuming questions of how heavy is your pack, how much food are you taking, are you taking this, or that, do you need this or that. I had slimmed my pack down substantially from 5 years ago – and my food was only just above the minimal requirement of 2000 calories per day. But still I was weighing in at a little over 10kg which was mildly annoying as I still had to add the weight of my water to that – any my water regime was about 3.5litres (3.5kg). Still, my pack felt comfortable and sat reasonably well on my back, but I confess to eyeing Kevin and Aiden’s packs with some envy – and yet they didn’t seem to have a great deal less than me!
We all had varying registration times, mine was later on in the middle of the day, so I had time to go through my kit, sort out my food more thoroughly and change into my racekit – saying farewell to daily fresh underwear, the luxuries that would await my return to Ouazarzate, including my phone, a quick text to mum to say farewell and sign off and it was turned off and thrown into my bag. That was it…for me anyway, it is part of the challenge and the magic of the desert not having the temptation or ability to contact anything so luxurious as home except through the MDS email tent once a day after each stage. I headed off to register with Mark and Alastair and join the relevant number queue, signed my life over to the gods of the desert and the MDS, and posed for my profile picture:
and Mark, ready for action in all his kit:
After that, the rest of the day is free, and it warming up, the sense of how hot the desert is going to be is creeping into our consiousness, walking around the camp, greeting people, meeting people, watching as people begin their preparation in more seriousness. Some begin to prepare their feet, applying tape to individual toes to protect against chaffing – tape is applied to all sorts of body areas for this very reason. Some walk out beyond the bivouac to have a “shower/wash” with a bottle of water. Greeting/meeting the sweeper camels and their keeper:
The camel keeper has been there, I believe since the first race, he was certainly there, 10 and 5 years ago for my previous MDS’s…
…I’m not sure if it is the same camels but they have a certain something about them and they do like to pose for a photo!
At around 5.30pm, we are encouraged to gather in the centre of the bivouac, with all runners coming together to be greeted by Patrick Bauer speaking to us from the top of his customary landrover alongside his interpreter. One of the key moments of the MDS, and one that never ceases to amuse me is that Patrick’s interpreter is never that good at translating from French into English and on more than one occasion she said “oh, you know what he is saying…” Every country’s name is read out, and it is quite an impressive list from each and every continent, and as always the biggest contingent comes from the UK! There is music, excitement and expectation as Patrick greets us all, reads out notices, introduces us to the Doc Trotters, the technical crew and those that are there to help us on our journey through the desert. We are given an ironic demonstration of how to use the sac-de-cac. We are introduced to runners that make most of us feel humble. Two blind runners, a runner with no arms, Duncan Slater from the UK a doubleleg amputee, a French team carrying a disabled child, Rory Coleman running his 14th MDS (I think), David the oldest UK runner at 76yrs old – just to name a few people who are heroes before they have even started. Everyone cheers, everyone looks clean, excited, fresh, ready to go….
As the gathering came to an end we headed back to our tent, the atmosphere bristling with the nervous but excited air of expectation. Tents more secure against the potential night winds, and the sun slipped out of site as we headed to have our final meal in the dinner camp, head torches in tact and working. We did almost have a moment of disaster in Tent 115 on this final night before the race, in fact we very nearly had no tent at all. Five of us had been lead to believe in our pre Morocco chatand banter that Mark in our tent was the equivalent of Bear Grylls, and that we were going to have at the very least a decent and sizeable camp fire every evening. Well after a certain amount of friendly pressure Mark succombed and sourced some firewood (twigs!), and built a fire (don’t think Tom Hanks in Castaway!), and in the process built it quite close to the tent, in fact so close it very nearly burnt down! It is not something that I feel he will be allowed to forget. As we settled down, it was quite a perfect site to see people silhouetted against the desert night – until you realised that some of them were just standing in what we called No Man’s Land, having a piss!
And so, as Aiden played a track from Mary Poppins of all films (some things are best not to ask why), we settled down to the rustle of Alastai’s crisp packet, Mark & Matt’s farts, and the general snoring chorus that comes from practically every tent in the desert. Tomorrow was waiting and coming very quickly – this was it, and how did I feel? I felt at home, back where I belonged, I felt excited and full of anticipation, ready to face what mysteries the Sahara might reveal to me, what challenges it would lay down, and what beauty would unfold before us when the sun would rise in the morning.