The Marathon des Sables
The Marathon des Sables (MDS) is known as ‘The toughest foot race on earth’ and I can now see why. Having completed the Race Across Europe relatively recently (Click to read our RAE blog), we were both fairly confident in our ability to solider on and get through it, but I don’t think we quite imagined how hard it would be. We bit of more than we could chew on this one. It is hard to put into words our experience in the desert but I will do my best to tell you our tale.
We both got up exceptionally early and headed to the airport hoping we had remembered all the important bits of kit we required. With the Race Across Europe, if you needed something, within reason, you would be able to find something in a town or shop nearby, but in the middle of the Sahara desert, if you don’t have it, you don’t have it! Once we got to the airport it was fairly obvious where we should head. The serious amounts of gore-tex jackets and people with big backpacks, were a very clear tell-tale. It seemed as though everyone was definitely more prepared then we were, which only added to our nerves.
As soon as the aeroplane doors opened you were hit by the oppressive heat from the African desert. The next leg of our journey was a 7 hour drive to the middle of nowhere. The views out the window as we crossed the country were truly captivating. Switching from lush oasis’s to vast barren flats with stunning hills on the horizon. We finally arrived at the bivouac (the camp) after the sun had set and the camp was organised mayhem. Trying to find a tent proved rather tricky. We stumbled around and found one half empty so decided to dump out kit there. After grabbing some food, we came back to finally meet the people we would be enduring this event with. We were exceptionally lucky as it turned out that everyone else in the tent was awesome.
Given we were miles from civilisation and any light pollution, the stars at night were unbelievable to see and made the place look magical. The tents however were not the most luxurious places, a rug which had seen a lot better days, with a heavy bit of black fabric covering you, being barely held up by different bits of wood, but it would do the job! Having had quite a full on day we were happy to get into our sleeping bags with thoughts of what tomorrow might bring.
Despite sounding rather romantic sleeping under the stars, I can’t say it was the most comfortable sleep, with rocks digging into your back and intermittent sand storms covering you and all your possessions in sand. But we were glad to have got through yesterday and were ready for the day of admin. It was at this moment when the serious nerves/panic set in: “Do I have all the mandatory kit”, “Should I take this bit of kit”, “do I really need all these meals”, “should I cut this bit of the bag to save some weight” …… the list goes on.
But after all the panicking we were finally signed in, given our bib numbers and were good to go!
THIS IS IT!!
Even after watching videos, reading other blogs and looking at photos of the MDS you can never really grasp how it feels to actually be there. It's a combination of pure exhilaration and fear all wrapped into one. After a fairly nervous sleep we woke ready to face Day 1!
If this was an episode in a TV series it would be called something along the lines of “The Wake Up Call”. After trying to ram all our various bits of kit into our backpacks and collecting our water, we were ready. How hard can this really be? Is only a 257km race through the Sahara with 11kg on your back!
The atmosphere at the start was electric, everyone excited to set off, after months/years of prep. The big test on day 1, were the dunes. We had seen these towering over us in the distance the last couple of days, but now we were going to head straight over them. Check point (CP) 1 was 15km away, 12km of which would be made up of exceptionally hilly dunes! It is hard to explain quite how tough these are, the sand out there is like walking in flour.
One thing we got wrong early on that day, which nearly caused us to pull out, was to not drink enough water. Having not drunk enough early on, it meant we were playing catch up all day. At one point we had drunk over 10L and not relieved ourselves once. We were given a rough guide for hydration from Paddy’s dad who is a doctor: If the colour of our urine is like champagne = Good, if its like ale = bad. So the fact were producing none, was not a good sign at all.
The other major issue were the sand storms. Sods law they were always head winds and constantly threw sand aggressively into your face, which only added to the pain. The last 5km, were a serious struggle, and there were a lot of moments where we were thinking we might not finish this! Stopping every 5/10 metres to catch our breath and try not to throw up from the dehydration, was testing. But eventually by dragging ourselves metre by metre we got to the end of the stage, knackered and realising we had better sort ourselves out tomorrow otherwise it would be a short week. There was a very real feeling of fear that we should not be there and were not up for the challenge.
We woke up with some pretty serious nerves on day 2 really questioning our ability to finish. But we soon came to realize how much the human body can handle when you put your mind to it.
We were both extremely militant about our water intake, which meant we were in a much better place. Day 2 also started with a long checkpoint through more compacted dunes, which meant the sand was slightly firmer, making the going a little bit easier. Getting to CP1, we were both feeling good, but knew this could quickly change. CP2 as always was a tough one. At CP3 we finally caught up with Brad, from our tent and we decided to tackle the reminder of the stage together.
Today was another extremely hot day. CP3, was relatively kind in terms of terrain but finished with a decent climb up a large dune. This kicker at the end was tough, on already tired legs, but we got there all confident we could get to the last check point.
The last 30 mins of that day were seriously tough and required a lot of dogged determination to get there. Even though you know you are near and can rest up soon, your mind keeps trying to tell you to stop. But we got there.
Despite being a very tough day, it showed us both that if we were careful with our water intake, we could get through it. It would be thoroughly unenjoyable and tough, but it would become more of a challenge of mind over matter rather than our bodies calling the shots.
Today the road book had the stage as only 35km, but the terrain was unforgiving
This was another day littered with large dunes and continuous soft sand. Today also had our first Jebel (mountain) ascent. This was hard going. We got into a good rhythm and managed to get to the top, which was a welcome relief and the views were stunning. Unfortunately being at the top you were able to see what was in store for us. On this day it was clear to see we would be heading straight back into more dunes. Given how tough getting up the jebel was, this meant we had to be extremely strict with water before the next check point, which brought terrifying thoughts of day 1 flooding back.
Due to the amount of climbing we did this day, the going was arduous and at times very monotonous. Whilst heading up yet another dune our thoughts of pain were relieved for a brief moment where out of nowhere someone behind us started to whistle the hymn Jerusalem. It is amazing how such a small thing can perk your spirits up and it seriously helped us get to the other side of the dunes. Once we were back on the less inclined, but still sandy path, we had around 1km back to the bivouac.
This was a great day to get under the belt, however crossing the line our thoughts immediately turned to the big one (the double marathon day) just around the corner. Much of that evening was spent talking about the strategy of how we were going attack the double day. We all had a read through the road book (map) of the course and with every other word being sand or sandy, we managed to completely terrify ourselves of what lay in store. We all kept telling ourselves if we had got this far, we could make it through the next day. Each evening you would also receive the emails people had sent you. These emails of support from friends and family really helped fuel our determination for what lay ahead tomorrow.
The double day!!! When you hear stories of the MDS, this is the day everyone talks about. Everyone out there is pushing their limits to see how far they can go and day 4 provides the perfect canvas. Don’t get me wrong all the previous days are tough, but the thought of doing 84.3km in the Saraha, with limited water and all your food on your back is a different ball game.
It is easy to say that this was the worst day of our lives. Our tactics this day were to take it easy during the hottest part of the day and then go for it when it cools down in the evening. Stage 1 was a fairly simple flat section, but immediately after CP1 came the famous El Otfal jebel (see below - you can just about make out the people)
There were two options to tackle this beast, either go up the near vertical sand dune, which was less busy, or join the slow queue of ants up the less steep rocky part of it. Our decision was to stick with the ants, as we still had another 70km to go. Getting over the top of this jebel, was the first major challenge of the day and it was a relief to get over it in one piece.
Due to the disparity in people’s abilities, the organisers hold the top 50 runners back three hours on this day. Seeing these athletes come past you is really a sight to behold. They effortlessly glide over the sand, travelling at quite unfathomable speeds.
The next couple of stages came at the hottest part of the day so we maintained a steady pace. We had planned to stop at CP4 as that was roughly half way. Reaching this point started to cause problems for Paddy’s recently injured knee. The terrain consisted of pure sand on a slope as we were circumnavigating another hill. This combined with yet more inclines didn’t bode well for the health of our legs.
Once we got to CP4, it had started to get dark. We managed to get some food on board (Mediterranean vegetable pasta, does not sound like much, but bloody hell it tasted good) and fortunately we had caught up with most of the others in our tent, so we decided to tackle the second half together. As we set off it was clear Gemma (our tent mate and absolute legend – more about that later) was on a mission, so off we went following her. Given it was now dark and your head torch only gives you a limited view, it often felt like you were on a never ending uphill sand treadmill.
One thing we found out whilst in the desert was that everyone was quite susceptible to nose bleeds. This was prevalent throughout the race but Paddy got one at the top of one hill, shortly after the CP, which just would not stop. Frantically trying to find some paper to stop it, an amazing US lady came past and offered a tampon, which worked a treat.
Having sorted out the nose bleed, our motley crew kept pushing each other. At CP5 we took a quick break to fill our water bottles and take on a small amount of food. We were all too nervous to take our shoes off as we could feel a couple of fairly hefty blisters and thought if we took them off we may never get them back on again. As we were getting our backpacks on to start the next stretch it became apparent Gemma was in pain. Having thought she had aggravated an old injury on her leg, She decided she would stay a bit longer at the CP, to try and get it in a better shape. The rest of us set off and tried to keep at the same pace as we had before. This was exceptionally tough, but was great to pass others who were going slower. The next few check points were simply horrific. I don’t think our bodies had ever been in that amount of pain before for such an extended period of time. When everything is screaming at you to stop it is your mind that must be strong enough to keep you going. I can’t express enough gratitude to the crew around me for keeping me going through these moments.
Once we got to the final check point before camp, we knew we had broken the back of it and were nearly there with only 9.5km to go. We could see the bivouac in the distance which was a welcome relief. This however quickly turned out to be torture as it felt as though it was not getting any closer. This was when having others around really helped. Given none of us wanted to let each other down, we just got on with it and after c.21 hours we crossed the finish line. This was a mixture of elation and pain, as our minds relaxed slightly and the adrenaline faded the pain in our bodies started to scream even louder
We had succeeded in our strategy to make good time back to the camp, so we were able to have more time to sleep and recuperate. Having eaten, our thoughts quickly turned to Gemma, who had not made it back yet. Someone came past our tent saying she was near the finish, so we decided to get to the finish line to cheer her across.
We saw her cross the finish line and shortly after we learnt about what had happened, once we had left her back at the earlier check point. The pain in her leg was in fact from a spider bite. After taking some medication, she had an adverse reaction and collapsed with the finish line in site. The medic cars and helicopters were called in and gave her some much needed medication. She was however told that her race was over and she would need to get to hospital. Gemma though had very different ideas and like an absolute hero, said NO, got up and finished the day and eventually completed the whole thing. The picture below shows how bad her leg had become, so to have pushed through it all was hugely impressive. I’m not sure many of us would have had the bravery to keep going if we were in the same boat.
Whilst waiting for Gemma at the finish line we were lucky enough to witness a truly heroic and humbling moment. We were able to see Duncan Slater cross the line. Duncan had lost both his legs below the knees whilst in Afghanistan, and was taking part in the MDS for Walking with the Wounded. Seeing him cross the finish line really put things into perspective and showed us the level of determination he had and what you can do if you put your mind to it. There are many memories we will take from the MDS and this is certainly the most inspirational and something that will stick with us forever.
As with the Race Across Europe, this proved to be the toughest part of the challenge. We were near the finish, and could almost taste the cold beer, fresh food and feel the cooling water of a shower but we still had a long way to go. As with all the other days, we just put our heads down and trudged on. This was another super hot (45°c+) day. There was also little breeze combined with more endless dunes, so ensuring we stayed on top of our hydration was key. We had not endured everything for the last week to fall over at the last hurdle!
As with the long day, all the elite runners set off a little while after us, and watching these guys sprint off, still with endless energy amazed us.
Shortly after the check point, Seamus blew his nose and as had regularly occurred with everyone he got a nose bleed. However unlike previously it was not stopping and a worrying amount of blood was pouring out. Out of nowhere our guardian angel came around the corner offering another couple of tampons. This meant we could carry on, but it became quite alarming as the bleeding would not stop and we still had half a stage to go.
We made it back to the tent and Seamus took himself off to the medical tent to get his nose looked at. Watching the medics take the tampons out of his nose was gruesome. Once he had cleared his nose, the medic clung on to it to stop the bleeding. Alongside this, she prepared a load of gauze to go up his nose, to protect it for the next day. The amount that went up was similar to Fagin’s hanky in Oliver, never ending!
This day had been one of the tougher stages, not just because of Seamus’s blood loss, but mentally given we were so close to the finish. Due to the race rules, you theoretically have officially finished the race at this stage, however you do not receive your medal until the following day after the charity stage, so it was difficult to comprehend. The next day was meant to be a short charity “fun run”, however given it was a half marathon and at the end of everything we had done so far I didn’t think there would be anything ‘fun’ about it
There was however a general sense in the camp that we were almost there and peoples spirits started to lift…..
The charity stage, is a “shorter” stage. Officially the race had finished, so there was no competition on this day, but a good chance for people to walk together as a tent and chat about our experiences over the past week. We were given a fresh t-shirt with the MDS’s charity, UNICEF logo on. Now this might not seem much, but when you have worn the same top 7 days on the trot, this felt amazing.
Fortunately this stage was relatively flat, but the heating was on full blast. The feeling of actually finishing the race and not having to worry about getting through another day, helped everyone have a little spring in their steps.
After a few hours, we eventually saw the finish line and were presented with our medals. This was a great moment, and one we will never forget. We both knew it was going to be pretty tough, but with the medal around our necks we were so glad we would never need to go through that again. It truly is an amazing race, going through an unbelievable backdrop, but boy is it tough.
The first celebratory drink was truly magical, and after about 3 showers we felt almost clean. We were so lucky with the rest of our awesome tent, the epic tent 149. Below L-R Paul, Dain, Adam, Gemma and Brad. They all massively added to the whole experience and helped us get through the week, so thank you!
It is such a great feeling to be two challenges down and we are both ready and raring to go for our final one – the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. This is the main reason that we got into all of this, so to be finally focusing on it, is great.
We thank you for all your support so far and look forward to keeping you all up to date on how we are getting on.
Finally, quite a few people have asked us for advice on the MDS, so here are a couple of tips if you’re considering doing this event yourself:
Get a sweat test done – You can get these done in heat chambers around the place. It will mean you know how much you sweat as well as how much salt you lose, which is crucial to staying hydrated in the desert
Food - Take a variety. Expedition food is great, however when training we thought the oats/porridge was great, but when we were out there due to the excessive sweating we really craved salty food. So I would take more main meals or other options such as instant noodles and cuppa soups.
Kit – Read up about your kit as early as possible and train in it. A useful blog we used was the MyRaceKit Blog (Click here). One other major bit of advice is that, once you have bought your kit do NOT keep reading all the blogs about kit, it will only make you second guess yourself.
Enjoy it - There were a couple of moments where this is exceptionally hard to do, but when will you ever be in a desert again? Take a moment to really appreciate where you are and how lucky you are to be there.