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Marathon des Sables 2017 – my race report – part 4

“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.

Al & Mark ready to race for Day 3

Aiden – keeping it real before Stage 3

Matt, getting into the zone for Stage 3

Pre Stage 3

 

 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.

Reaching the top of the first jebel of the day

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.

Heading down the 1st descent

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.

Heading across the crest of Joua Baba Ali Jebel

Views from the summit

Heading across the ridge

The vast expansive view of the desert

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.

Looking back along the “technical” section

The sweeper camels approaching CP1 after their short cut

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.

Jebel El Otfal ahead beyond CP2

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 neverending desert plateau towards the bivouac

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”

(Patrick Bauer, Marathon des Sables, 2000)

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Marathon des Sables 2017 – my race report – part 3

“What are your legs?”    “Springs. Steel springs.”

“What are they going to do?”    “Hurl me down the track.”

“How fast can you run?”       “As fast as a leopard.

“How fast are you going to run?”      “As fast as a leopard!

“Then let’s see you do it!”

(from the film Gallipoli)

STAGE 2

OK – just so you know, I did not run as fast as a leopard. But, Day 2 did have some good running sections in it for me.

Day 2 dawns much the same as Day 1.  Although Stage 1 is done and dusted and competitors feel a little bit more relaxed, it is still only the  beginning of the race and the first stage has shown everyone what the desert has in its armoury. The heat for some people is already proving taxing, the obvious trials of the sand, or for a lot the **** rocks and stones.  And, as dawn broke and the bivouac gradually creaked into life, the adrenalin began to build again.  Being an early bird (yes, I know my family will laugh at that!) in the desert, I eased out of my sleeping bag after a warmer night – though no less noisy amidst the Snoring Choral Society of Tent 115, and headed off to complete my morning ablutions.  I have to say that I was feeling remarkably confident as my legs felt good, as did my back, despite the hardness of the desert floor.  As the sun began to rise and the morning temperature began to warm up and other runners appeared from tents brushing teeth, stretching, eating out of zip lock bags, the sense of ease, happiness and ongoing thrill at being in the desert grew.  Back in Tent 115 the boys were also stirring.  Our tent came down fairly soon this morning, and the daily ritual of repacking sleeping bags and kit into rucksacks ensued – as did my daily wonderment at the size of Mark’s breakfast!

 

Tents down at start of Stage 2


Kevin & Matt – game faces on

 

Aiden, Al & Mark – chillaxed faces on!

The good thing about each stage after Stage 1 is that there is slightly less rush to the start line as we don’t have to get there early to do the 32 formation.  So there is more relaxing and lounging about on the rug and posing without a worry in the world.  No news, no social media, no emails, no nothing – just your pack, your food, your water, your companions and the prospect of heading out across the Sahara desert and wondering what magic lies in store for that day.  Yep – in my head, we were on a Lord of the Rings style quest – The Fellowship of Tent 115 – but more of that later.

Off to the start line for more of Patrick Bauer telling us how many had dropped out during and after Stage 1, (I don’t remember exactly how many) and what excitements lay in store for Stage 2. A blast of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell and we were off.

Stage 2 map:


The word sandy cropped up a lot in the instructions for Stage 2 followed by climb/hill pass/hills/summit along with descriptions of dune fields, jebels, more dunes and towards the end, the El Otfal Jebel.  I have climbed and descended in both directions the Jebel of El Otfal on more than one occasion.  It is tall and steep on one side with a hot stony gorge, and tall and steep on the other side with an almost vertical dune.  So steep that rope is generously provided to assist the climb on one side.  However, the jebel didn’t appear until towards CP3 – there was a whole host of adventure lying in wait before then.

I set off and fell into step with a fine young man called Benjamin from Greenwich.  We talked the usual chatter, where we were from, why we were running the MDS, and keeping a good pace.  Before too long and before the heat really started building we stumbled into CP1 where we parted company.  I stick to a fairly similar ritual at each check point unless there is a need for medical aid.  I get my bottle(s) of water, refresh my drinks, eat a snack, and then push on.  Which generally takes about 10-15 mins.  Leaving CP 1, I headed out across a small dune field scattered with desert vegetation here and there (spiky grasses and thorny bushed) and then headed out across some small dunes and sandy mounds!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I ran initially with a couple of Welsh lads  (Brian & Richard)

whom I yo-yo’d a few times over the course of the week and the set off alone across a long desert plain with the dune field to the left.  The terrain was actually quite pleasant and flattish…  But, vast with runners disappearing ahead of me like a line of ants.

The heat was building and threatening to become unforgiving.  There was nothing for it but to gain some momentum or fall into a desert like stupor in the heat.  So I began to run and stuck to a rhythm of running for two markers, then walking for one, and then running for 2 and so on.  And I did this literally following the markers rather than the runners.  Runners in races like this are like sheep and follow the leader.  But, not necessarily the straightest route!  I followed the markers and a sparse number of runners with the main pack of “ants” to my right.  This was probably a good thing for my fellow runners though, as to entertain myself I decided to sing.  I have always sung in the desert – it is a strange and wonderful thing, especially as the lyrics to songs I wouldn’t normally sing come back to me.  Not only do I sing the full version of Les Miserables, I also rehash many of the songs from my drama school days – which amazes me that I even remember them.  But with the sand, the vast blue sky as my audience I was able to really belt out some good old musical numbers only vaguely aware of perhaps the odd look from another runner!  It felt amazing and although I was probably only really shuffling along, I felt like I was flying. It was hot though and it has to be said that although electrolyte drinks do not improve with the heat, they still go down quite well and the distance from CP 1 to CP2 was a good 12-13km.  So, getting the hydration right was definitely key as the heat kept rising with very little breeze.

Distraction from the heat came in quite an unexpected manner.  In the distance across the plain to the right where the desert seemed to just disappear in an endless heat haze, I glimpsed some wild camels.

They were quite beautiful as they appeared on the horizon.  Creatures of wonder in this dry, hot, unforgiving environment.  They, however, were not the distraction.  They were quite far off the trail and to go up close to them would have taken me a good few hundred meters out of the way.  Of all the runners striding off to have an up close wild camel experience was a seriously crazy Japanese runner called Yoshizo.  Yoshizo is quite crazy – he has attempted the MDS on more than one occasion, but, not previously completed it.  This is not what makes him crazy.  What makes him crazy is that he does it dressed in a full cow costume – and not a light weight one at that!  So, there he was marching out to the camels adding at least an extra 300/400 meters to his race in the heat of the day.  You might not think that is far in general terms, just to see some camels.  But, in the heat of the day, with a pack, diminishing drink (as we were nearing the end of the stretch to CP2) and wearing a heavy warm looking cow costume complete with oversized head?  Complete madness!

Yoshizo – the mad cow heading off to the camels

Hey ho – just glad it wasn’t me as I passed a house on the right (literally in the middle of nowhere) and jogged into CP2 with a big smile to the CP checkers and medics, and gratefully received my water ration.

Heading out of CP2 we entered a slightly bigger dune field of golden sand, which started out with gentle undulating dunes that became steeper and steeper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I joined a runner called Mark who made me feel hot just running alongside him as he was going for full sun protection kit wearing full length loose trousers and full sleeved top, with his head completely covered.   If I did meet him later on after the race had finished him I would not have been able to pick him out in a line-up, as I had no idea what he looked like!

 

Fully covered Mark

However, he was a fascinating man with many traveller’s tales and it was very enjoyable yomping alongside him, exchanging tales.  The dune fields are interesting sections of the course – some people love them, some people hate them.  I fall into the love them group.  There are no stones and the going is soft underfoot.  I have always found it surprisingly easy once you get into the rhythm of the dunes to get a good pace up.   Some people however, take it easy and go slow through them or even pause to catch their breath or just take in the beauty of them.

 

Happy in the dunefield


A runner taking it easy in the dune field

 

Once out of the dune field though, all thoughts of enjoying the beauty of the desert rapidly vanished against the onset of the increasing rocks as we entered new terrain along an oued bed leading to the gorge to take us up to the summit of El Oftal jebel.

Heading into the gorge…

Rocky stony terrain doesn’t quite do the terrain justice, or the complete lack of wind up the ascent of the gorge.  The lack of chatter amongst fellow competitors as we climbed and occasionally passed someone semi-collapsed at the side.  I passed three runners going up who looked rather beaten by the heat.  I gave one, a Frenchman, some of my salt tablets as he had dropped all his in the dunes somewhere!  You always ask a runner who looks in trouble if they need help, but climbing the gorge you also want to just keep going, concentrating on putting one foot in front of another, sipping water or energy drink every few steps, not looking up to see how far you have to go.  I was humbled at one point as I went past a Mexican runner who is blind, being led by his guide who was describing each and every step.  I greeted them and muttered an encouraging something or other and pressed on.  Other runners never cease to amaze me or humble me.  Coming out of the gorge section you would think there would be some relief… But, it is not the top, not by a long shot. There is still a good scramble amongst big stones that slip occasionally in the sand under foot.  At at this point, you are able to look back and down and take in the incredibly breathtaking expansive view of where we have just ascended.

Looking back…

Still, onwards and upwards. Reaching the summit of the jebel is an extraordinary feeling. You feel a bit like you should have crossed the finish line. But, there is still a checkpoint to come. You are ridiculously hot. Despite some relief from a summit breeze, your legs feel tired from the climb and thoughts of a cool drink certainly plagued my mind – and having to make do with a slug of drink from a warm bottle of electrolytes has to suffice.

Raising a smile at the summit


Bivouac 2 in the distance


Another runner approaching the summit

A smile for the photographer is not the easiest thing to produce at this stage. Feet feel hot in your trainers. We headed along the ridge to the dip in the view where the way down reveals itself.  A steep sandy dune initially assisted by a rope and then one just yomps down the dune. It sounds easy.  But, with a good number of runners having already yomped down throughout the day, a lot of rocks had become loose and being careful with ones footing was quite important.  A water bottle tumbled past me as I set off into my yomp, followed by a shriek from it’s owner, Vivienne from the USA.  It was saved and restored to her at the bottom! As I reached the bottom of the jebel dune descent, I had to acknowledge to myself that thinking I was saving money by using my gaiters from MDS 2012 had been a stupid idea.  Whilst they might have looked in OK condition when I dug them out of my drawer, their ability to stick to my shoes over the toes was a different matter.  It felt like I had quite a lot of the sand from the dune in my shoes. But, with just under a kilometre to the CP3, I kept going – heading into what has to be the worst section of terrain in the whole of the desert.  The “stony” terrain is just that.  Sharp stones for almost a kilometre.  But, sharp hard stones that feel like they dig into your shoes with every step – and it looks like you are running on planet Mars – although I must confess, I wasn’t running this section.  My feet were hot, my big toes were hurting as I unavoidably hit more stones.

As I neared CP3 with great relief, I was almost completely alone except for one runner about 50 metres in front of me.  As he crossed the line into the CP he was greeted loudly by all the checkpoint marshals.  He was none other than Yoshizo, the crazy cow dressed Japanese runner.  All the race marshals were comically mooing at him and cheering him loudly.  As I approached the checkpoint, I felt decidedly annoyed as all I could hear was “Aller Yoshizo, moo moo moo moo”.  I thought to myself, this is not good enough.  I want someone to cheer for me!  So, raising my arms aloft, I shut out the increasing pain in my feet and ran as fast as I could across the timer mat into my number channel whooping and dancing as I could.  Whose arms should I run into…?  Those of Patrick Bauer!!!  He greeted me with an enormous embrace and kissed me on both cheeks, cheering: “Aller Harriet!  Quel sourire merveilleux.  Vous êtes fantastique. Aller, aller!”  That embrace made the pain in my feet disappear and I felt as if I was running on air.  It literally made my day, if not the whole week there and then!  Buoyed up and feeling on top of the world, I quickly replenished my drink. I decided that my feet didn’t really hurt and I would push on for the four kilometres to the finish line without emptying my shoes of sand.  They would be just fine.  I was determined not to waste time as there was no way on earth that I was going to let a Japanese man in a cow costume beat me that day!  So, I set off at a storming fast pace.

Euphoria doesn’t last long in the desert.  In fact my speed dwindled distressingly quickly as the throbbing pain in my feet distressingly returned at a rapid pace!  I was joined by Vivienne, the American who’s water bottle had raced us down the dune, and another US runner called Joanna. And, also by none other than Yoshizo the Cow!  We made an interesting bunch.  Joanna was a chatterbox and at this point of the day I had run out of tolerance for overenthusiastic American cheerfulness and chatter.  I stuck with her for about two kilometres.  I was going through scenarios in my head of how to stop her talking without being rude when we came across a beautiful river bed that had some water in it.  It was way off to the left, off the route and I decided to join Yoshizo on his clear intent not to miss anything of any wonder in the desert and go check it out, joined by Vivenne.  Joanna thankfully pushed on for the finish line.  Vivienne, Yoshizo and I returned to the correct trail after our little detour.  We poured some water over a grateful Yoshizo who was sweating profusely in his cow head!  Along the course of the oued/river bed was quite a bit of vegetation.  Hiding behind a bush just over a sandy mound was Steve (the UK rep – he looks after us all magnificently and always greets us with a hearty fist pump), along with his fancy camera.  I hailed him loudly as he snapped away with his camera and paused briefly to chat.  In the distance the tents of the bivouac were becoming closer and closer.  We pressed on, pausing by one of the last course markers to take some photos with Yoshizo in his cow costume.

Yoshizo the Mad Cow from Japan


Me & Yoshizo heading to the Bivouac

 

As we did this, who should catch us up? None other than Al and Mark, striding along. I was amazed as I thought they had long overtaken me.  So, I must confess to being pleased that I wasn’t going to be last into the tent.  But, jointly last with them.  We caught up – they were amongst the crazy runners who took a detour to check out the wild camels!  Crazy boys!  Then the five of us pressed on to the finish line and in the true nature of the MDS we all joined hands as we crossed the finish line.  Hopefully, with the cow in our midst, a good photo opportunity for the MDS website publicity!  Over the line, a wave and a blown kiss to the webcam, we were there – drinking our gratefully received, but still very small cup of Sultan Moroccan tea.  We passed through the water collection point and felt the relief of making it through Stage 2.

I have to say – it was awesome to finish the stage with Al and Mark again, and to head back to the tent with them.  The people you share your tent with become crucial to the feeling of solidarity and I was rapidly beginning to realise what an awesome bunch of guys I was sharing a tent with.  We stumbled back to Tent 115 where Kevin, Matt and Aiden were kicking back in the afternoon hazy sunshine, and they greeted us with hearty hails.  Kevin helped me (not for the last time) to remove my somewhat useless sandgaiters.  Not only were they useless at keeping the sand out of my shoes, but the zip to get them off my feet on both had now become well and truly stuck.  I tipped rather alot of sand out of my shoes.  I decided then not to take my socks off but to head straight to Doc Trotters, accompanied by Al.  Al had a blister on one of his toes.  We stumbled off to Doc Trotters’ tent.  The queue was a little longer than the previous night and was still being marshalled by the quite scary French triage nurse/Dr.  We sat down on the stools outside the tent and proceeded to wash our feet in the supplied antibacterial wash provided at the medical tent.  I was just taking off the tape from my feet when I was accosted by the scary triage Dr.  She was really quite frightening and bellowed at me as to why I was taking the bandages off my feet again.  She said I shouldn’t, but leave them on.  Then I wouldn’t need to see the doctors. I looked at her amazed… and said pointedly, that my feet needed redressing as they had got worse.  Al was also accosted by her. But, his blister was clearly visible as it wasn’t already covered by tape.  I took the tape off my toes and that shut her up!  My two big toes looked really quite impressive – from a medical point of view.  The triage Dr conceded in her strong French accent, “OK, yes, you need to see the doctor.  Wash your feet and wait.”  I smiled at her, slightly triumphantly.  The toenails on my two big toes had somehow been lifted away from the nail bed and underneath both of them at the back of the nail, by the cuticle, were large (and I mean large) blisters, rose coloured.  Al looked at me – and we both just laughed.  I didn’t have to wait too long until my ticket number was called.  It feels like you’ve won the lottery when your number is called.  You watch with envy whenever someone else’s number is called and they limp/hobble into the tent.  My mission is to always try and walk normally and not hobble, which is quite difficult.  I eventually hobbled through into the tent and to my delight I had Yo, the same A&E doctor from Paris.  Someone had written on his name badge, so that it read “I love You”.  After the next hour and a half, during which it took to sort my feet out, I also loved Yo and told him so!  He sliced into each blister and drained it and somehow pushed my toenails back into place.  One of them did hurt quite a bit and I did bite down quite hard on my knuckle whilst he grinned at me and laughed.  But that is it – you have to laugh and so chatting with Yo and the medic attending to my neighbour we laughed at everything and nothing – mainly at the state of my feet more than anything.  I eventually left the tent with strict instructions to stop kicking stones!!!

I made my way back to the tent.  The email tent had closed, so I was unable to send a message home.  Hopefully, everyone following the race will have seen that I completed the stage and not worry.  Back at Tent 115, food was of the most imminent importance and swiftly consumed.  The postman had been by the time I had got back to the tent and comedy ensued thanks to my brother James!  It is common knowledge in my family that the one sport I find duller than ditch-water is golf.  But the rest of my family seem to absolutely love it.  Yesterday had been the final day of the US Masters at Augusta.  Did I care?  Not in the slightest.  In fact each member of my family clearly thought it amusing and necessary to email and tell me how exciting the final day’s golf had been and who had won, as if I cared! But, James had decided that as I was in a tent of boys, they probably did like it.  So, he sent me a blow by blow account of the last day which I had to read out loud to Tent 115.  I  ended up having to read it out loud about five times, with the boys listening as if it was an episode of Jackanory at bedtime!  It was full of phrases like ” a lyle putt down hole”, “bogey at 18, play off, birdie” , blah blah blah.  James will be pleased to know that he rapidly became king of emails to the tent.  Although this was also aided by another email he sent ribbing Kevin for his feeble attempt at a “Dab” as he crossed today’s finish line in front of the webcam!

The sun had gone to bed and it is amazing how quickly everyone settles down after the sun.  The night felt hot. But, lying in my silk liner on top of my sleeping bag, feet propped up on my sack, listening to Al rustling on his crisp packet and the initially gentle snores that were beginning, it was beginning to feel very much like home…

 

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Marathon des Sables 2017 – my race report – part 2

“Every morning in Africa, an antelope wakes up.  It knows it must outrun the fastest lion, or it will be killed.  Every morning in Africa a lion wakes up.  It knows it must run faster than the slowest antelope, or it will starve.  It doesn’t matter whether you are the antelope or the lion – when the sun comes up, you’d better be running” – African Proverb.

 

So, Race Day Stage 1 of MDS 2017 – dawn broke early, around 5am (ish).  After a marginally warmer night spent dozing between bouts of listening to the Snoring Choral society, and Al’s crisp packet, and occaisonally being rolled into by either Kevin or Aiden on either side of me, I gave up with the whole sleeping pretence and slithered out the cocoon of my silk liner and sleeping bag and headed off the the loo cubicles – note well, it is key to go to the loo cubicles early for two important reasons – once folk start to wake up, queues start to form, and knowing that there is a line of runners all needing the loo whilst you squat over brown sac-de-cac in a plastic canvas cubicle is hardly private or conducive.  And it is funny how some people like to queue rather than walk a few extra yards to another set of canvas cubicles that are empty! (a conundrum that confounded tent 115 almost every morning).  Business done and disposed of I returned to the tent as the boys began to emerge from their slumber and worm like sleeping bags.  Everyone appeared cheerful and excited, and each one of us went through their own individual routines of preparation, breakfast, etc.  Down the far end of the tent were Mark & Al – the messy end of the tent – their kit looked like it had exploded all over the tent, Aiden and myself in the middle – Aiden relatively tidy, me a little chaotic, then Kevn busy taping his toes, and Matt who was very tidy and seemed to have everything in order.  Everyone’s breakfast varied – mine a self made mix of granola, chopped dried fruits, goji berries, chocolate and protein powder mixed with water.  I was impressed although not envious of some of the other breakfasts being consumed in my tent – beef curry for breakfast anyone!  Mark has to be noted for the size of his food portions – my main meals were roughly 500calories worth – Mark’s were 1000calories worth (and to be fair, I do believe his pack was heavier than mine!)

At about 6am, the Berbers began their very efficient routine of taking down camp – to be fair to them they have to take down the whole camp – runner’s tents, medical tents, organiser’s tents, support tents, etc. which all has to be packed up and moved onto the next bivouac and be rebuilt by the time runners start arriving.  So they start early, and kindly they start with different tents each day – but they move fast, and before you know it your tent is lifted off and taken down right around you, and leaves you sitting on the rug in whatever state you may be.  The first time this happens everyone tends to panic that they should be ready to go by the time the tent comes down – but we still have about an hour to go before we have to gather at the start.

The sights reveled as the tents come down is somewhat amusing.  Some people in various states of undress, packs still unpacked and with their contents strewn over rugs whilst owners start trying to cram everything in, in some semblance of order.  Our tent seemed quite calm – although we did attract quite a lot of attention due to Mark – topless he is quite eyecatching due to the artistry going on:

Henry in Henry IV, Part I, Act I, scene 2, page 8

And throughout the week, each day a different member of the Race MDS media would appear at this time to take a photo of Matt’s tatts, which certainly served some amusement.

Now normally I wouldn’t slag off or criticise another runner, but it cannot really be avoided in this instance.  When the tents come down, it is hard not to glance across at other tents to see how frantic other runners might be, to check out the size of other rucksacks, and honestly size up the competition.  Our tent came down, and it was hard not to be somewhat agog at the next door tent.  The girl who I had met on the bus was busy with her toiletries applying a full layer of makeup and mascara, complete with mirrer compact, her somewhat substantial amount of kit still surrounding her on the rug.  Now, everyone can bring with them what they like to the desert, I remember in 2007 someone had a cricket bat and ball, and in 2012 one very admirable (or not) runner had an ironing board and iron with him.  But, it must be said that seeing a full make-up bag amongst her detritus of her heavy looking pack was quite surprising – not only was it going to be hot (the rapidly increasing early morning temperatures were just an indication of what was to come) but surely worrying about how one looked in the desert was not really an essential priority.  It just seemed an odd choice – and dare I say it, a fairly unique one as almost everyone else in site was busy checking how they had packed their kit so that essential items were easily accessible, or checking the roadmap for the day’s route, filling water bottles, etc.  We mulled over her a while in tent 115, and definitely wondered if we would be seeing her that night in camp! Still each to their own.

Roadmaps – the MDS Race Handbook which we get given has geographical and handdrawn maps of each days stage.  I don’t know who the cartographer is, but it has always been my belief that the person who draws the maps for each stage is a devout follower of Tolkien and loves Lord of the Rings as much as I do.  As when you look at the maps you do think (well I do), that they have simply ripped a page out of the Lord of the Rings and simply changed the names from Mordor to names like Bou Laguedad Oued! The drawings of the dune fields, the oueds, the jebels are distinctly like hills, mountains, valleys and rivers in LOTR.  And the descriptions of each section do make it feel like you are embarking on some dark quest:

Kilometre 4 – leave the oued from the left side, go south over invariably stony plateau.

Kilometre 5.5 – hilly passage.

The helpful descriptions like stony terrain are but a mere indication of what is to come.  Memory from my past two MDS races is no real help – the terrain in the desert is vast and varied – and not just sand as many people mistakenly think.

So, rucksacks packed, Kevin, Aiden & Matt headed off quickly to the start line.  It being the first morning, all runners had to be at the start for about 7.15am to gather in the formation of the number 32 – it being the 32nd MDS.  It takes a while for 1200 runners to get themselves together and organised.  Myself, Al & Mark were a bit less organised that the others and squeezed under the rope as the chopper was circling overhead taking the the airshots for the press:

Gathered in 32 formation at start of Stage 1

Alastair & Mark at the start of Stage 1

Me – fired up and ready to run for Stage 1

Tent 115 – Me, Mark, Alastair, Matt, Aiden & Kevin…

Sandclouds raised by the media chopper – thanks!

And as the chopper flew off to hover over the first few 100 metres of the course, Patrick Bauer greeted us all from atop his customary landrover, setting out the course for us, wish happy birthday to anyone whose birthday it was that day (a daily ritual), and then as people’s adrenalin began to pump and the familiar smell of pre-race sweat pervaded the air, ACDC’s Highway to Hell was blasted out from the speakers and the countdown 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 was bellowed out.  We all fist pumped each other, last minute kick checks, photos, declarations of good luck to each other – Kevin disappeared to get to the front, along with Matt, and then we were off.  Months, and in some cases years of preparation was done, gone, history – everyone surged forward and headed over/under the inflatable start line, waving at Patrick, waving at the camera men, cheering, waving at the helicopter as it flew sideways away from us heading along the course of dusty stony sand towards the “stony plateau”.  We were off…!!!!

Heading off, in the first section of Stage 1

I felt quite emotional – couldn’t quite believe I was really there again in the desert running past Patrick Bauer on his landrover, MDS volunteers (commissaires) cheering us all on, media, Berbers chanting as we streamed past, and the roar of the helicopter above.  Was I really starting out again on 150 miles across the Sahara Desert – I raised my eyes to the skies, and smiled – I felt that Dad was up there this time, watching me and no matter what, I’d be ok.  So I wasn’t quite as fit as I was 5 years ago, and I knew that I would most likely be walking quite a bit of the race this time – but here I was, the sun was shining and getting hotter, the sky was as blue as a sea of bluebells in springtime, and I was heading out into one of the most beautiful places in the world – with expansive landscapes, vast skies and a variety of fellow human beings to be my various companions along the way – what could possibly be better!

Looking across the desert as we head out in to the first stretch of 13kms to CP1

However, what I had forgotten (conveniently or not) was the stones – the stones and rocks that litter the desert far more than most people realise became the bane of my life throughout the race.  As the desert heats up, and as you are on your feet permanently, walking or running, your feet heat up as well and become tender.  The majority of runners go for trainers 1 or 2 sizes too big to allow for this swelling, as had I.  However, once your accidently kick one stone with one or other or both of your feet it begins to happen again, and again…..and again….and again.  You run along trying to keep looking up at the wonderful scenery that you are passing through, but every time you take your eyes off the track in front of you, you invariably stub a toe by kicking the one stone or rock in your path that is sticking up.

 

However, stones aside, the first section that we ran through was a mere warm up for what was to come.  It was quite a long first stretch of 13 kms to Check Point 1 through stony plains and gentle dunes, but it was good to settle into a stride as the field of runners stretched out ahead and behind like a line of ants disappearing into the distance.  And runners began to chat to one another and exchange stories and motivations for the race.  Having started around 8.30am it took around 2 hours to reach CP 1, and the heat was rising.  And 13kms is a lot longer in the desert than it is back in the UK, and you are straight away aware of the need for your drink and hydration.   And the sight of flags, landrovers, and white tents of the check point looming into view was a very welcome one.

Check point 1 homing into view

As always, it was my plan to stick to my routine, go through the number barrier and collect my bottle of water from the cheerful Check point guards who greet each one of us warmly, as they stamp our water tickets.  Head for a bit of shade to refill my drink bottles, eat a couple of snacks, make any necessary adjustments to my kit and head off again.  However, I made something of a school boy error and having refilled my drinks bottles which were in the holders on either side of my rucksack straps, I bent down to pick my snack bag off the ground and realised too late that I hadn’t secure the lids back on my bottles – suffice to say that most of my drinks poured out as I bent down and I looked rather silly!  I luckily had just enough water left to top them up – but only just enough! I certainly wouldn’t make that mistake again!!!!

So as I headed off I glimpsed Aiden, Mark & Al, but headed on out in the direction of a “slightly stony plateau”  the description slightly simply means small stones rather than rocks!  CP2 was just 9 kms away, but it was getting hotter, and there’s no point going to fast on day 1 and knackering yourself – there are after all 6 more long days to come.  I fell into stride with some other runners from the UK, France, Japan, Hong Kong, USA amongs many other countries – Freya from the UK, and Jody from Jersey – he was running for his sister’s little girl who has Epidermous Bullousa and was yet one of the many runners I met who with his determination later in the week when he hurt his achilles, made me feel quite humble.  The 9kms passed without too much incident, and although I could feel a couple of blisters brewing on both of my big toes thanks to repeated stone kicking, I felt quite strong and comfortable – almost like singing – yes, for those of you that don’t know, I apparently have a tendancy to sing in the desert, and as I approached a stretch and was alone for a bit I gave full voice to my rendition of Les Miserables and a couple of other songs!  As CP2 approached it was pretty much the heat of the day, and due to my wastage of drink at CP1 I was quite pleased to arrive there.  However, just as I was coming out of the water collection point, ahead of me a fellow male runner collapsed to the floor.  Several of us in the vicinity shouted immediately for help, and within seconds the medics (Doc Trotters) were surrounding the guy, and before you knew it he was cannulated and a drip was up (those of you who know me as a nurse will know that I found the speed of cannulation very impressive, being something of a vampire!) and he was quickly stretchered into the medical tent.  However, once there the doctors & nurses proceeded to commence CPR (chest compressions) on him, which went on for I would say a good ten minutes.  During this period Al, Mark & Aiden appeared through the Check point,  we all stood quietly refilling our bottles and munching on our snacks. It was quite sobering, not least because the runner was with his wife who was quite understandably very distraught.  It brought starkly into reality that this race is by no means a walk in the park and that the conditions and temperatures that the desert lays down as challenges to us, are to be taken seriously, and the self sufficiency is all about managing yourself with your nutrition, hydration and endurance along the way.  One of the things we are provided with by the race is a small bag of salt tablets to take every hour or so to help prevent too much salt loss as you sweat – I necked back a couple as the four of us headed out of CP2.

We had about  7/8kms to go to the bivouac.  It was hot and I lost pace with the boys, and fell into step with a charming Frenchman called Vincent and an American called Edward, and a young man from Cambridge called Robin who was a policeman. We shuffled along amicably, striding through a hot windless dunefield, along through a deep gorge, again with no wind, and followed a sandy oued (dry riverbed).  Towards the end of the gorge we had to cross a “slightly” stony gorge – well it said slightly in the handbook – but quite frankly judging by the amount of stones that made contact with my feet it was a little more than slightly! We reached the top of a small hill, and over the rise was a beautiful sight to meet the eyes – in the distance was the Bivouac!

Bivouac 1 just appearing in the distance…

And, just ahead of me – well about 400metres ahead I could see Aiden, Al and Mark so ignoring what was now becoming a dull throb in my feet and the fact that I felt quite hot, I gave a small push, picked up my pace and ran to catch them up – as I ran up behind them, relieved that they were ambling along at a rather sedate pace the bivouac loomed ever closer.  As we approached the finish line we all crossed together – although on the official times it logs me as the 4th one of us to cross the line – now who was being ungentlemanly – the boys or the timekeepers!  But we had done it, we had completed Stage 1, and it was brilliant to cross the line with 3 of my tentmates.  We walked past the webcam, I blew a kiss to my family (and of course to any of you who were managing to follow the race!) and walked gratefully to the tent where we were given a tiny cup of Moroccan tea.  It is delicious tea and quite refreshing to drink at the end of the stage – but it is a very small cup, and no amount of persuading & pleading will gain you a second cup!  So we each headed through the water station collecting our 3 bottles of water each for then night and headed to our tent where we found Kevin & Matt relaxing having made it in quite some time before us – the speedsters.

De-rucksacking, and collapsing on the rug is heaven.  Post run routines of making protein drinks, quick snacks of biltong, energy bars all consumed.  Then for me, taking off my shoes.  This was quite a mission, as I had thought I had sensibly saved a bit of money by using my sandgaiters from 2012.  Not such a great idea.  The zip on them was quite, well, knackered and difficult to undo, and the velcro on them was also beyond its best and so didn’t stick well to the new velcro around my shoe – suffice to say they were more of a disastrous orange fashion statement than effective sandbarriers and to boot bloody difficult to get off due to the sticky zip!  Once off, it was heaven to remove my shoes and my socks.  I had taped my toes, but in vein – I knew that lurking under the tape on my big toes and at least one other toe were evil blisters.  In this circumstance it is best to let the experts do the job, so I decided before having my main meal I would visit Doc Trotters.

Doc Trotters is the medical tent and experts who look after all out medical needs – which mainly consists of feet problems.  The queue can be long to get into the main medical tent. So outside they have to lines of chairs and plastic crates, you sit and get to wash your feet with a solution which cleans and somewhat disinfects them as one of the docs acts as a triage nurse and checks out why you are there and what you need.  The triage nurse/doctor was an exceedingly fierce and actually quite scary nurse and over the course of the days she made more than one emotional runner cry, demanding if their feet were really in need of the doctors.  She approached me and demanded to see my feet, upon doing so she actually quite quickly agreed that I needed to have them dealt with.  Luckily with it being the first stage only, there were not that many people queing and I went through into the main tent quite rapidly.  To be treated by a lovely French A&E doctor called Yo. He was an expert, and had a good sense of humour – and although he laughed when I cursed the desert rocks and stones, he did slightly raise his eyebrows when he took off the tape over my toes, as did I.  At the back of each of my big toenails, and my middle toe on my right foot were three very beautiful and very large pinkish fluid filled blisters, already lifting the toenails from their beds!  Drained and cleaned and taped in a jiffy.  My only concern now was the size of bandaging that Yo stuck around them.  I was wearing individual toe socks and it was something I had forgotten to think about was getting my socks on over individually bandaged toes.  Hey ho, didn’t need to think about that til the morning!

I headed off to the email tent and sent my message to my brother Nick to post here on my blog for me – and then headed back to the tent for supper – beef shepherd’s pie (or so it said on the packet).  The cry went up for the last runner approaching the first day’s finish line, as the light was beginning to fade – and some of us headed over to cheer him over the finish line.  He was a Brit called Andrew, and bless him he looked tired as he came in, but buoyed by all the cheering he got from everyone around him, as the sweeper camels gently strode off to their part of the camp having done their job for Stage 1 and brought up the rear just a few paces behind him.

The sun sets early and quickly in the desert, so after a long day it is best to head to bed quite quickly, and it is surprising how quickly we all settle down.  We did establish that our erstwhile neighbouring tent had all made it in before the cut off – only just in a couple of cases.  But tomorrow was another day, and as we settled down reading our messages from home which had arrived, and the rustle of Al’s crisp packet became our nightly lullaby there was the sense of relief at day one being done, all surviving and now knowing a little bit better what to expect of day 2 – a longer day with a big old Jebel (hill) in it (a Jebel that I had a distinct memory of from 2012).

The adventure had begun, and as my brother James commented in his email to me, my photo on my MDS profile place clearly indicated that I was in my “happy place”. Yes, how right he was – a very happy place, in a dusty sleeping bag, with the warm desert breeze gently blowing through the tent, the stars coming out twinkling in the twilight, the gentle noise of chatter around the camp, the comfortable and easygoing banter in the tent – what could possibly be better!

Part 3 coming soon…

 

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Marathon des Sables 2017 – my race report….part 1

“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….

Patrick addressing the field of MDS 2017

Fresh legs & blister free


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!

As the sun goes down…


Dusk over the camp

Bear Grylls at work

Night settling on the eve of the race…

 

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.

 

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Marathon Day and oh what a day it was!

Started off stiff and had difficulty fitting my feet into my shoes. But, with the Stage starting early at 7:30, everyone was a bit slow getting going.

Gentle dunes to start with and after about 10 mins. or so, I fell into step with Ignacio, who I finished Stage 3 with. We stuck together and decided to push it a little bit to see how we felt.

We felt epic and ran 95% of today, (obviously more of a shuffle than an actual run!) until it got hot. At about 1PM, we were cruising. However, a few hitches due to the heat – I had a rather drastic nose bleed and only peed blood at one point… But, do not fear – all has returned to normal now.

Ignacio cruised in ahead of me. But, I got THE BEST HUG ever from Patrick Bauer as he gave me my medal. I believe the media took a good photo of us. He told me my smile lights up the desert every day!

Just a light jog tomorrow across the biggest ever dunes and one more night in this incredibly beautiful place.

The desert has excelled itself and I will be back to this EPIC LAND. X

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HELLO!!

Sorry for no mail yesterday… Had to visit Doc Trotters – have some “jolie” blisters!

So, end of Day 3. What can I say? The MDS is living up to its billing as the toughest.

Yesterday was long, hot, sandy and tough. But, I got a hug and kiss off Patrick Bauer. I ran with some wonderful people, not least, Yoshizu from Japan who is dressed as a cow – we finished the stage together, alongside Al and Mark from my tent and Vivienne all holding hands.

Today may have been shorter, but, it had three ridiculously big climbs and tricky descents. The final descent down the canyon from the peak (after a ridiculously steep climb) hit 50 degrees and felt every bit of it. But, despite the toughness, it has been a glorious day. I put on some music and the first two tunes were my Daddy’s and I literally danced across the desert plain to Check Point 3, running past everyone (although not for long). I finished today with Phil and Ignacio. They totally saved me in the last 2 kilometres.

It is magic here and I love you all. Jim – golf email very popular!!

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SALUT!!!! Hello from the beautiful Sahara Desert, at end of Stage 1.

It is incredible to be back here in all the sand, dust, heat, smell of tent mates, energy food, blisters and general bivouac banter and MDS magic!

Arrival into Ouazarzate on Friday morning already seems like a long time ago. I was on the first plane and after a long hot bus journey with lots of first time MDSers and all their nervous energy. We arrived at our first bivouac at about 5pm. My fellow tent mates arrived later at about 6.30pm. And what a wonderful tent we have. We are just six of us as there have been some withdrawals over the last couple of days. So, my boys are: Kevin, Matt, Aiden, Alistair and Mark. We have barely stopped laughing! And, we are a very supportive tent.  Kevin and Matt are the speedsters. The rest of us finished a hot, dusty first stage together!

Very sobering at CP1 when someone collapsed in front of me and within seconds was receiving CPR! It was a slow but steady pace for me…  It’s only Day 1 after all and S2 looks big. X

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