25th Marathon Des Sables

5 Jun 2016

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31 April 2010. After all the training, the running, the countless marathons that I had covered, the pounding of so many miles on so many empty roads in the middle of the winter, the date I had been excitedly awaiting for and, to a little degree dreading, finally arrived: The Day I depart for the 25th Marathon des Sables to raise money for FACING AFRICA.

The few days leading up to that day were like a slow motion picture. I spent the past 6 months doing nothing other than working, running for charity, working, running, sleeping, training, buying kit, checking kit, running, working and sleeping – and it had gone in a flash. For some reason one never expect the penultimate date to arrive so quickly. I was prepared, I packed my bag and re-packed it two days prior the trip again, just to double and triple check everything. I preferred to take more than one needs, just to be on the safe side. Looking back now, I should have taken plenty of Coca-Cola and oranges, but little did I know.

Our trip started from Heathrow at 6.10pm with the Royal Air Maroc to Ouarzazate via Casablanca. There were approximately 243 Brits on this flight, all going out for the same thing – attending the 25th MDS. It was a tense atmosphere, lots of nervous happy smiles, saying “oh shit oh shit what am I doing”. It is said that many people participating the MDS are going there to find themselves. Others doing it for the sake of achievement, as a once-in-a-lifetime get-off-your-ass achievement to show their mates that they could run, walk, drag themselves across the hardest foot race in the world known to man and come out the other side and tell the tale. For my part, I just thought “why not”. That was it really, “why not”, and whilst I was there, to raise as much as I can for Facing Africa. Arriving at Ourrzazate Airport at 1am, we spent 1.5 hours going through (the painfully slow customs), it was only a short trip to the Berbere Palace Hotel. I was very happy to get to finally get into bed at around 2.30am.

The next day was for us all to do as we pleased. We at as much food as we could, sat by the pool and thought about what the next week would bring. We’ve heard lots of horror stories and tales of people collapsing, getting lost, the usual high tempo boy’s kind of stuff. But everyone was in a high confident mood of expectations and just wanted to get on with it. That night we had a last big feast – vast amounts of bread, pasta, fresh fruit – you name it, it was all eaten. I got back to the room at 9pm, packed my backpack for the umpteenth time, checked all my safety gear, made sure I had enough food, and got an early nights sleep. We had to be ready to leave at 8.30am the next day.

On the 2nd of April, breakfast was more of the same “eat eat eat”. It was a little subdued as everyone was chomping at the bit to get going. We were allowed to take our suitcases with us for the next two days, so we boarded the coaches and started the 6-hour journey. We had various stops on the way and were given our last proper meal at lunchtime, which was eaten at the side of the dusty road, leading deeper into the desert. Devouring the last taken-for-granted biscuits, oranges, salami, chocolate pancake, fresh bread, babybel, and orange juice. Little did I know that I would be on a massive craving trip in three days time.

We were also given the 2010 MDS road book that included detailed maps and pictures of all the ground and courses that we would cover. It also had all the rules and regulations we had to abide plus penalty points that one could get from various things – i.e. drinking extra water or having an IV drip. All these would be turned into added minutes. Looking at the course that we would be running, it suddenly dawned on me that the ground would not be mostly flat but a lot of hills and mountains too.

After 6 hours of driving the dusty roads and tracks, we arrived on the edge of endless desert dunes. Everyone was keen to get off the coaches and to board on the Army transport vehicles to secure your place in your bivouac. I got settled into bivouac 124 with Rory Coleman and Jenn Salter, both who I already known. Rory had done 6 MDS”s and Jenn was on her second. She came 9th the year before and wanted to get a better spot this year. She was with a friend called Lou, who was also on her 2nd MDS. Our other housemates were Tim, Alex and Andy. We were all at various levels of running skills but we all got on very well and settled into our home for the next week. We got introduced to each other and went off for dinner and were fed well: fresh bread, hot soup, braised lamb & cous cous, apple pie. All washed down with a litre of water and a cold can of coke.

On the second day in the camp it got serious, our suitcases were collected and with an ECG test, passport and full medical in hand, we queued for a running number, an emergency flare, a packet of salt tablets, kit check, bag check, food check and ankle tag to record your every step. We were asked if we were ready, if we were confident, if we were fit enough. The answer to all these questions was yes of course! The rest of the day passed very slowly. Doing nothing was very difficult in this new environment. No laptop, no emails to answer back to… This was a real revelation. I lied down, I slept, I thought and got chatting to the other tent mates. The time passed and before we knew it the sun was going down. So here we were, the night before the day of unexpected everything. This was all new and strange, but I was glad and very excited to be there. Everyone in the tent but me had brought a sleeping mattress. I knew it would be extra weight to carry so I had a number of sleepless nights to adjust to the stony floor. The air was hot until midnight, and then got freezing cold from 1am till 5am. It seemed very strange at first to be tucked up in a sleeping bag at 8pm and getting ready to sleep. Was I nervous? Hell yes! Looking back I was not expecting it to be as hard as it was though, that’s for sure.

DAY ONE: 4th April 2010

We all woke up with the sunrise at 5.30am. I had hardly slept: the freezing cold air had given me the start of a cold and sleeping on a bed of rocks felt like a herd of elephants had done a morning yoga on my back. The burgers arrived at around 6.30am to take away the tent and we were left sting on our bags and a very thin carpet (which became very annoying towards the end of the week). It was still freezing cold and it seemed to take forever to get everything together – it was the first day so no routine was in place. For breakfast we had porridge with raisons, sultanas and a splash of baby milk powder, hhmm yummy. Every morning we got the fire lighters lit on our tiny little stove, filled the kettle with water for the porridge to place it into a cut after bottle base. The routine for the next week.

After breakfast, I checked over my kit, got into my smart brand new running gear (which was completely trashed by the end of the week), my brand new trainers and sorted through my back pack full of food which thankfully became lighter and lighter every day. I put on sun protection and filled my water bottles that we had to collect every morning at 7am. We were given two tags which we had to keep with us at all times: one was for water and one for the doctors. Secured by a pulley string and attached onto our backpack, they were punched at every checkpoint to ensure we were taking the right amount of water. The other one showed how many times we had been to Doc trotters.

Looking around, it was a nervous excitement everyones face. A lot of people had too much food and was left on the ground when they suddenly realized it actually weighed a lot. I also noted that a lot of unimportant equipment was left behind over the course of the week. Every ounce and gram which that wasn’t essential kit counted. At 8.30am we slowly wandered over to the starting line. Both of my bag weighed a lot.They mainly contained, nibbles and snacks, venom pump, ibuprofen, foot kit, sun cream, sun goggles and some little chewy sweets, with two water bottles full of 1.5 litres of water. As the 1,100 entrants surrounded the starting line, ‘We will rock you’ was pumped out over the loud speaks. Patrick Baur spoke not related to the infamous Jack, he said ‘good luck, be careful, drink water, take your salt tablets’. Birthdays were read out and we all sung happy birthday terribly. At 1 minute to 9am, the 60 second countdown begun, helicopters hovered above our heads.What lay ahead was 29km, the first stage in a pretty much straight line all the way from HIS to KHERMOU.

Thoughts were racing through my head as I was running: ‘Shit this is hard’, ‘The ground is bloody stony’, ‘My kit weighs a lot’ and ‘What the fxxx am I doing here’. We ran mainly over stony ground for the first 10km and over Jebels (large hills), which I hated at the end of the week. We also had to climb over large boulders and rocks on this first run.

There was madness to the first race as everyone was super keen, either to get to the front or prove a point. Lots of people were going way too fast and I knew there would be a slowing up later down the field. There were only two Check points (C.P) on this race, on KM13.4 and KM22.2. After this, we reached the first field of sand dunes of many that were to come. This first race was a little teaser. I clocked 3h56min13s on that one and ended at a very respectable 195th. I was thrilled with the result, which I did not find out till two days later.

I arrived at lunch time and went straight to the tent to take off my bag, shoes and socks. And there were no blisters, no marks, nothing. Who said your feet get trashed? Mine were perfect! Jenn Salter was already in the tent, followed by Rory Coleman. I stuck my legs in the air against the poles supporting the tent. It felt great!

I closed my eyes and took a nap. After an hour I got changed into some skins recovery pants. They really helped. My knee was giving me a little grief so I stuck the tens machine on it for 30 mins. This is a little hand-held electrode device, which sends electric currents via copper wires through your skin into the aching joint.

I then stoked up the little stove, made myself a lovely chicken Korma with crushed salt tables for dinner and it tasted like heaven. I highly recommend expedition meals to anyone, they are all delicious. The sun came down at 6.30pm. I looked at the next day of 35.5km, 3CP’s and a mother of 25%-gradient hill at the end…oh what Joy! I laid with eyes shut, ear plugs in, eye mask on, felt like I was in a BA lounge. Hhmmm hardly. The ground was bloody stony and I slept terribly. It was hot and muggy till midnight then again freezing cold, body vest came on and I got into the bag. Trying to find a place between the pebbles niggling my back was not easy. I guess I had 6 hrs sleep tops, but it was nice not to be doing anything else than resting.

DAY TWO: 5 April 2010

35.5km from Khermou to Jebel el Otfal…this was going to be a hard day. We were told it was going to be 46C. I was trying to get into a routine now. I woke up at 5.30am, with blocked nose after another bloody cold night. Stove on, breakfast by 6am, tent taken away by the berpers and there we were again – open to the cold. You start getting warm on the face by 7.30am. After a mint tea I got my kit together, massaged the bottom of my feet and put on my shorts, top and socks.

We took it in turns to get the water. We had already figured out it was pointless to queue for water, a typical English thing to do even in the desert. So we waited now till 8am to collect our 1.5 litres of water. ½ decanted into a 750ml bottle and the remaining mixed with electrolyte in the other bottle.

We ran the first 3.8km on stony ground, which was very bad for the feet. I only realized the damages caused later in the week, when they completely deteriorated. We ran over the Jebel Amessoui and descended the other side into a field of stones. It was like someone had placed them exactly one cm apart, so there was never a clear path for your feet.

The first CP was at 11km. Filled up on water, I took a tablet of salt and popped another electrolyte into the other bottle. We then had dunes ahead and mountains to climb. I started to climb up Hered Asfer Jebel and it was another 8 odd km to the next CP. This is where I came into trouble. I was running along the very stony path and twisted my bad right knee badly. I had a shooting pain through the knee, it was agony. I took two ibuprofens to try to halt the pain. This was a little silly thing to do, as I took them on a fairly empty stomach. Yet, I carried on and kept taking water and electrolyte. After an hour, the pain was still there so I took something even stronger.

This next stretch of desert was long and straight on deep sand with stones, the sun was beating down on us and I started to feel a little sick and exhausted. I found drinking water more difficult and I got to a point where I could not take a simple gulp anymore as it made me gag. My head was dizzy, perhaps I had pushed myself slightly too much at the beginning. I could see CP 2 ahead in the distance and felt relived it was near. I started to walk as the legs just packed up. I tried to eat a cereal bar but my mouth was too dry to swallow anything. I thought this was getting a little worrying. Passing through the CP I collected my water and had my card punched. The doc looked at me and pointed to my very raised veins and said that I was dehydrated. I went to the medic tent and sat down. I was so tired I took off my bag and closed my eyes as the doctor came over and said my skin was thin because of the dehydration and therefore had to take some water before I could leave. I tried to drink but got sick – the worst thing one can do when dehydrated and meant that could not leave for at least an hour. I slept for an hour, took some water and a pill to stop me vomiting. I was told to drink a litre before I was cleared go anywhere and to eat a snack and to take on salt. I was very pissed off with myself, wasting a lot time sitting inside when I was loosing my great position.

I then remembered that there was a 25% incline over the mountaintop to the decent to the camp and I knew I needed my strength. I set off again in the searing heat and it was very tough. I lost valuable minerals and water and was felt like shit. Starting the climb it was sand first, then rocks all the way up to the top. This was now mountaineering not running, the last part was so steep that we used a rope to pull us up. The view was stunning at the top. I could see the camp in the far distance and it was only 5km to go. I got to the camp in 7h5mins in 550th place, not quite happy but relieved that I was back. I went to get a cup of sweet tea, which was delicious and a pure sugar rush, which made me feel better. Back at the tent I was told that I looked pale, withdrawn and tired. Still feeling weak and in need sugar and food, I took off my bag, shoe sand socks. The toes where now looking a little sore and blistered so I cleaned them up, dabbed them in iodine and wrapped some of the toes in gauze and tape. There were a few small blisters on the base of the feet which was all I wanted. My mouth and body craved for lemon, orange, a coke!

Instead I stoke up my stove put on water to simmer and got out a chili beef, added 3 crushed salt tablets and ate it all down in a few minutes. The salt tasted like heaven, but I was still not looking or feeling any better. We had on the camp a Del boy or Rodney trotter called Robert, whom could get anything or at least try.

Rory in our tent asked me if I cared about my time as he said that I should get a drip, but I did not want a penalty of 2.5 hours, so he very very kindly asked for a can of coke for me. He said he would see what he could do and returned 30 minutes later with a chilled can of coke. I looked at it for five minutes and asked all the Tent mates if they wanted any, they all very kindly turned it down. I took a first taste and it was heaven, pure sugar rush to the body, I felt a million dollars. I drank the coke slowly and enjoyed every drop. The blood came straight back to my head and also the colour to my cheeks. Then it was a pepperami and a big cup of sweet tea, all this extra sugar was did the trick.

At 7pm we got emails – it was a joy to read so many messages from my family and friends. It made me smile and happy to get best of luck wishes. The routine continued the same, getting ready to sleep by 8pm slept a little till midnight, then into bag and sleep another few hours.

DAY THREE: April 6th 2010

The same procedure in the morning, blocked nose, freezing cold night and bloody stones sticking into my back all night. We had 40km today – from Jebel et Otfal to Mouchanne. I was getting sick of porridge by now and started to swap them for something savoury for breakfast instead, which was a much better way to start the day with more salt. I was a little stiff today so I used a tennis ball on my glutes and the back of thighs. It hurt like hell but the pain lasted a few minutes. The body was getting used to the running and extra exercise.

Today I knew was going to be tough, I sill wasn’t on top form and the weather was going to be a staggering 48C. I had to be careful to drink the right amount of water today and to make sure that I ate as I ran. The starting time was 9am. Kit checked, socks and trainers on, sun cream on, bottles of water filled we headed to the starting line. All the birthdays were read out again together with anything we needed to be made aware of. The music started and the 3rd race begun. Today was a much simpler course with no dunes in sight but there was a dried lake to go over in the middle of the day when the temperature would be touching 50c.

Bad news: the first 12.8km were on ruddy stones. My feet were starting to feel the pressure of all the running, I took my two salt tablets between each CP with 1.5 litres of water, continued to nibble on 1 pepperami a day and a cereal bar and felt good all the way to CP 2. We then had the flat dried lake to cross. There was nothing around at all in any direction. You could close your eyes do a 360 degree turn and get lost very easily, as every direction looked the same. I waited for a tent mate and we decided to do a very quick walk to save energy, the heat was really killing. So we kept on the water and salt tablets and kept on the quick march. At this stage it seemed to go on forever. I still did not feel all that great and by the time we reached CP 3,covering 35km, I was done. The heart had knocked in me for six and with 5km left to go the end was a very nice site.

At the CP I collected my 1.5 litres water which most of it I used to doused my head in – it was heaven. I also poured some of it over my tired limbs and sat down for ten minutes. After a couple of bites of pepperami and another salt tablet we carried on. We passed a castle in the middle of the desert over a sand dune and the finish line was in sight. I then ran the last km, I had not put in a great time, but seeing as the next day we were covering 85km I thought this was wise. I crossed the line in 7h10mins and my position for this day was 504. Off to the tea van for the sweet mint tea and to collected water I went back to the tent noticing that my feet where getting worse each day. I stuck them up against the tent poles for 30 minutes; it was such a delight as they slowly came back to life. I wandered off to the doctors and got them treated; neat iodine placed onto raw feet is one of the most painful thing ever, till u get used to it of course. Time went very quickly in the evening as it just took forever to do anything. I massaged my legs, knees and thighs with the tens. It felt good. I ate two dinners tonight, washed down with ½ litre of sweet tea. I felt very sleepy and laid down outside my sleeping bag at 7.30pm. The emails came around and the messages were so nice to read. It was great to have contact from the outside world. I stuck in the earplugs and eye mask as I wanted to get a good rest for the next day of 85km, the camp can sure be a noisy place.

DAY FOUR: 7th April 2010

All I wanted on this day was to finish it (well). The body felt good after a good night of sleep, the muscles were not aching and it just seemed like routine now. It was weird as there were no aches or pains at all, the backpack was getting a little lighter and it felt a damn sight easier to run with. Another savory breakfast of spag bol, crushed salt added and 1/2 litre of sweet tea – divine. I then threw away everything that was not really needed: the solar power charges, the iPod and iPhone arm band holders, some bandages, anything that could get the weight down I got rid of.

I looked at my feet, they were not looking any better. I took a reel of tape and protected them as much as I could by padding each toe and heels. This was going to be the test of all tests. 85km in one stint with 6CP’s. Most of the field would take at least 20 hrs to complete this stage. The real athletes or pros started 3 hrs after us. We left Taourirt Mouchanne at 9am to gp to Oued El Jdaid. The horror of this stage was the 25km at the end. We went through some amazing landscapes and I felt the body was now in tune with drinking 8-12 litres of water and taking salt tablets.

I did not run much of today and marched like a lunatic instead. I drank the right amount of water between each CP, took all the salt I needed and ate every 5 minutes. I even treated myself to two pepperami’s. I listened to music all the way, striding and running to the music, the time flew by. We had a large amount of dunes today and after CP 2 the leaders of the race passed me on a large salt flat. It was Mohammed Hansel, he was almost floating on air. The bad news today was the amount of flat ground that was covered with little pebbles that you had to run and walk over; this was the most painful thing ever. My feet were at a breaking point, but you just push on without pain killers this time.

Reaching CP 4 it was almost getting to dusk and the feet were now hurting badly. I found a couple of sticks that I used to help me walk and take some pressure off the feet. This helped hugely but the pain was still intense so I stopped at the doctors to get them treated. Strapped with fresh bandage’s and tape around the sole, socks back on and away I continued the remaining 25km of sand dunes. We were marching on in the dark with our head torch to find our way, guided by the lights of the runners in front. Once I had reached CP 5 I stopped and took the bag off, lit my stove, boiled water and had the most delicious Shepherds pie. I had also saved a little pckt of hot chocolate from the hotel, saving it for exactly this moment. The smell was beautiful and it tasted heavenly, followed by a ½ litre of sweet tea. While I got my kit together, someone saw me getting up with sticks and lent me their poles which they where not using. This was just magic, it made me even quicker and I passed a lot of people using these. The night was very dark and eerie as there were many times when I was on my own. It happened at daytime as well but it was fine as you knew you were not far from anyone. But at night you could not see a thing. The sand dunes were hell, I could feel my feet screaming at me to stop, but I just kept going. I felt the left heel give way a little and was sure that it was fine. I carried on into the night and crossed the line at 1.30am with a time of 16hrs 38 minutes. I came in 313th.

Back at the tent the pain in my feet was brutal. They were sandy and dirty, torn to shreds. The pain I felt in my heel was because I had 3 large holes in it and the flesh was ripped, the skin on the soles of my feet near the toes had gone, the toes looked like they had been hit with a claw hammer. I thought, sod it – get to sleep, deal with it in the morning so I just cleaned them and doused them in Iodine, I was happy with today and the next day we were off. A day of rest oh what joy.

DAY FIVE: 8th April 2010

Rest day. I had my feet treated and looked after, I massaged my legs and knees and ate well all day. The tent stayed up and we were not disturbed. We were given a soft drink, either fanta, tonic water or coke. Well I can tell you that the coke was consumed within seconds. It seemed that the amount of water that had been drunk had intensified the taste buds and everything tasted just sublime. The bag was getting lighter and lighter. I slept a lot that day it was so nice for once not to run.

DAY SIX: 9th April 2010

I bandaged my feet up heavily to calm the pain. The only problem was that I had to run them in to get the binding soft which was oh so painful. Running on bare flesh almost is one of the painful things that I have encountered. The bag was lighter the food was fast disappearing and the end was in site, today was 42.2km from Owed El Jdaid to Erg Znaigui. Another day in the desert.

We set off at 8.30am after the role call of birthdays and we disappeared into the desert. This was a great day. I ran the whole stage and felt good. Everyone I think felt good after the day of rest. The day went to plan: drank well, fed well…But the ground was horrendous on the feet. It was like walking on hot coals and having daggers stuck into the feet at the same time. I pushed myself hard this day and I took just over 6h to complete the 42.2km, crossing the line in 382nd place. Got my hot tea and water and headed back to the tent. So here we were, after a very very mad week of ups and downs, the feet getting trashed, getting sick on the 2nd day, did I enjoy what I had put myself through? Yes I loved it! Doing something extraordinary like this was sheer madness but why not? How often do you get to test yourself mentally and physically like this? Most likely never! It was a feeling of sadness as well as absolute happiness. I had been away long enough and it was time to head for that finish line.

DAY SEVEN: April 10th 2010

The last morning of the last day started with the usual routine of waking up at 5.30, getting breakfast and having a large brew of sweet tea. I finished with the chilli con carne and peered inside my bag. It was empty, it weighed nothing. I dumped anything else that I could, any extra food that was not needed, I bandaged the feet again and I had to take the soles of my shoes out so the feet could fit into the trainers. As this was the last day, the tent stayed up. I filled my two water bottles for the last time and smeared on the last bit of sun cream and headed off to the starting line. There was an air of relief and pleasure that this was to end.

People were battered, bruised and looked so tired. Many minds had been tested to their limits. Many people had dug so deep to find the courage and strength to carry on when they knew they should have stopped. So here we were, the last 21km to the end from Erg Znaigui to Merzouga. Off we went with ‘We will rock you’ banging out loudly. Many many happy faces, mine included. I walked the first ten minutes to get the feet soft and pounded, then started to run. I was overjoyed: this was the last day and I was going home.

Everyone was quick today, the whole course was sand dunes and more sand dunes. Once more, they picked the hardest ground for the last stage, after the first CP you could see the finish line. You don’t know what this was like. I almost choked. The end was there, the big silver teapots that marked the end were in sight for the very last time. When I was almost 1 mile from the end I just sprinted to the end, I did not care that my feet were almost going to drop off, the pain disappeared with the thought of ending this race. When I saw that line and had 100yrds to go I got immensely sad and tears started to well up. My feet were throbbing like hell. I just kept passing people who must have thought I was mad. I crossed the line in 2hs 30min.

I was almost hyperventilating with the pain in my feet. I had a chap from discovery channel with a camera in my face, tears running down and wheezing like an old man. I said did you get that!!! I laughed out loud and thought to myself ‘God! what an adventure and how lucky I was to be able to do this’. Would I do it again? Yes I really would.

I collected my medal personally from Patrick Baur and with one of my tent mates wandered over to a hotel 50yrds away whilst we waited for the coaches. I ordered 4 cokes and drank them instantly, it was heaven, just heaven. I removed my trainers and place them under the table, my feet also knew that this was it, no more running. I left them there under the table and walked away. The best place for them I thought. I came 344th total, which was not bad at all for a beginner…. Thank you all for all the messages and for those who sponsored me in AID OF FACING AFRICA.