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Marathon des Sables

The Marathon des Sables is known as “the toughest race on Earth”, running with all your food and kit for 150 miles through the Sahara desert. I broke my foot on Day 5, which added to the challenge for the last couple of days.

I’ve written some tips and tricks for anyone thinking of running the race here.

With thanks to Profeet for providing my excellent footwear.

“What counts in battle is what you do when the pain sets in”
- John Short

“It’s not that we have a short time to live but that we waste a lot of it”
- Seneca

“Run if you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must, but never stop”
-Dean Karnazes (this became our tent motto)

My shoulder hurts from last week’s canoeing race. I have also forgotten to buy peanuts. I’m queuing to check in my luggage at Gatwick airport and everyone around me looks fit, keen and organised. It’s easy to tell who’s off to run the MdS: most of us have thesame bag. Many walks of life, as many different motives to be here, all united by one small red bag that will carry everything we need for the next150 miles of sand. I wish I was as fit, keen and organised as all those around me.

God it feels good to be back in Africa again. Good, really good. Probe a little deeper in the bland, empty, newly-built town of Ouarzazate and you find hanging haunches of red-white meat, motionless men sitting at tables of steaming mint tea glasses, cages of chickens waiting suspicious-eyed for their turn on the weighing scales and the chop. Piles of Brazil flip-flops (“hello my friend! What is your best price?”) and fake Barcelona shirts. Curly-toed slippers and sacks of spices, mounds of dried dates and cheap plastic combs. It’s good to be back.

There are no clouds in the sky to liven up the golden sunset behind the date palms so I head back to the hotel to do some real damage to the all-you-can-eat-because-you’re-jolly-well-going-to-need-it buffet.

No nerves about the race, I’m just so happy to be out here. Today we drive out to the emptiness of the desert so I am conscious of the need to savour all this now. The cool blue swimming pool. Enjoy this now. The scent of honeysuckle, running water and a comfy bed. Enjoy this now. My feet are fine, my belly is full. Enjoy it all now.

*

The drive out to the desert took hours. For the first time since I returned home from my bike trip I really felt a yearning for the road, for the freedom, for the silence, the nights beneath the stars, the interactions at tiny wadi villages, for well water, Coca Cola signs and for all the strangers you meet and smile at as they sit on their haunches watching, watching, waiting, waiting for something to happen in their lives.?We left the villages behind, left the fluttering, scurrying plague of plastic bags, left the road and arrived at our camp on a grey gravel plain looking towards the crisply skylined pink dunes that awaited us on Day 1.

A slung canopy of coarse black sacking and a couple of rugs -Tent 91- becomes home from home for 8 of us for the next week. We pack our bags, and re-pack and then then do it all again for we have over a day of admin to kill and a new manic obsession with trimming weight and maximising calories. We tell my brother that his pack is ridiculously heavy and then eat most of his Jelly Babies to “help him out.” He even throws away his Golf World magazine to save some weight – this must be getting serious!

Every day we are woken at dawn so killing time becomes as integral to the week as sweating, eating and popping blisters. It is a relief to actually begin racing. Each morning the organisers ensured that we did not begin running until the sun was sufficiently high and fierce. They combined Gallic inefficiency, a penchant for long speeches, several multilingual renditions of “Happy Birzday”, and an announcement that one racer had just become a Dad with a daily blast of 80′s Rock Music heralding the start of the 23rd MdS [video]. Helicopters swooped low, we jumped and danced and cheered and all 800 of us set off towards the sand dunes, relieved that all the waiting and dreaming, all the training and dreading and wondering was finally over.

*

The whole event was far more exciting, fun, photogenic and moving than I had anticipated. The dunes were huge and beautiful and hot and hard -everything that I had hoped for- and so by Checkpoint 1 I was hopping about with enjoyment. This was the only Checkpoint I ever sat down at. After that I just kept moving. I sorted out my fresh water bottles, taped some hotspots on my feet, ate a bit, then kept moving.

All of us in Tent 91 had agreed that it was wise to begin the race slowly, and all of us initially wanted to achieve no more than to just finish the race. Across a broad gravel plain, up and down some more dunes, past a few vomiters, share my water with a dehydrated Aussie who had run out and then there in front of me lay the end of Day 1. It had been so much fun and I grabbed my night’s water supplies and headed eagerly to Tent 91 to share experiences with the rest of the guys.

On Day 2 the heat rose, above 40C, and I got my first blister. Water was becoming more precious. I peed only once all day, knocked back loads of salt tablets and gritted my teeth across a never-ending shimmering gravel plain that pulsed heat all the way to the end of the day. Whilst huffing and labouring, slathered in suncream, yearning for my next issue of mineral water, I shuffled past a lady herding her goats. She was barefoot, relaxed and entirely comfortable with her environment. I realised then how unsuitable pasty Brits were for this race. She was tough and her life was tough. She is poor, I am rich. She was working, I was on holiday. She was smiling, I was not.

*

By Day 3 I began to get competitive. I was beginning to move up the field and decided to push harder: I knew that I was easily capable of finishing the event so I might as well try to do as well as I could. The day was more like running on the beach, with stretches of flat, soft sand that wore me down as dehydration pounded at my head and I felt the consequences of running much more than on other days. “Running” is putting it a bit strong: all of us developed our own pace of “Sahara Shuffle” and your position on any day was determined by whether you were able to keep shuffling when all about you had been reduced by the heat or sand to a mere walk or march. The best way to imagine the speed of the “Sahara Shuffle” is to think of the pace that footballers trot up and down the sideline of the pitch before they come on as substitutes. It is the slowest possible jog that you can do once you break out of a walk. It is very, very slow. It is all that you can achieve in the Sahara desert.

*

The MdS is entirely about body management. The key is a total awareness of your mind and body and the discipline to take control of any situations that arise.

If your feet hurt: stop and tape them up. If you do not you will regret it later.

If you are tired, think “why”. Deal with it. Drink more. Eat salt. Eat food. Deal with the situation. If you do not you will slow down and lose places.

If your mind is weak and tired, deal with it. Get a grip of yourself. Remember your motivations. Eat painkillers. Stick on the heels of somebody who overtakes you and do not let them escape until you are strong again. Listen to music and escape it all. Quit whingeing and run faster – it’s the best way to get the day over and done with!

Music helped me that 3rd day as the thermometer nudged the high 40′s, Hoppipolla reminding me of the majesty of the surroundings I was fortunate enough to be be shuffling through, the Twang blasting me back up the field, and the Stone Roses making me laugh at the unsuitability of the lyrics (“the misery dictionary, page after page after page”). Music, Nurofen, stubbornness, the end. Tent 91, banter,boil-in-the bag curry and the amazing amounts of pus squirting from poor George’s blisters all helped to cheer me up in preparation for the big day: 75km awaited us in the morning.

*

I felt nervous in the morning. An old veteran had told me that the race really began with this stage. I worried that my lack of fitness would be shown up today. 75km through the Sahara desert. But I also believed that this was the sort of stage where I could do well. It was time to find out.

I ran, faster than I would have liked, to the foot of the large jebel (mountain). My strategy was to push hard until it was too hot, march fast but steady through the heat of the day, then leg it until sunset and just grit out the darkness until I finished. I had no watch or GPS, I never looked at my map, and I just tried to think only of the 12 or 14km until the next checkpoint. Never think about the end. Just keep going. Checkpoint after checkpoint after checkpoint and eventually the miles will lie behind you and in your memory rather than ahead of you and in your fears. All the life you have or ever will have is this checkpoint, the next checkpoint, this checkpoint, over and over again (I hope) and so you had better be very thankful for it.

Up and over the jebel. Through the sand dunes. Across a gravel plain. Keep up with the blokes ahead, but don’t get caught up in a race too early. Across a salt plain. Up another jebel. Pace yourself, take it steady. And all the time I managed to keep on shuffling. I barely walked at all and just kept singing to myself “keep on running, keep on running” which must have been irritating for those I passed and a good incentive for those who passed me to crack on out of earshot. I began pushing myself harder and harder, developing a dogmatic mantra of “don’t stop, don’t stop”. I paused at checkpoints for no more than a minute. I ate on the move. I was too hot to need to pee. I ate salt. I kept drinking. I turned the music up to full volume, I ate painkillers, and I drove myself on across a shimmering plain towards Checkpoint 4 with the mantra of “don’t ******* stop, don’t *******stop” running through my head. Music and painkillers: a powerful cocktail. Head down. Think of nothing. Just keep moving.

Swing your arms, stretch your stride to steal every extra inch, save seconds and hoard them into minutes, keep moving, keep competing. I once read an Army book about a long course the author was trying to pass. The advice from that was “Don’t stop, for if you stop once you’ll stop twice”. So it became a point of pride for me to try to barely stop moving, to never sit down and, above all to never, never, ever ******* stop!

*

Sunset and I was racing well. I was running now, faster than I had done all race, faster than I had done for months. I still felt great. I even thought that perhaps I could finish before night fell and that really was an incentive to get moving. With 5 miles to go a fellow Brit caught me up. We did not speak (for I had my headphones on full volume). We did not need to speak and I just tucked in on his footsteps and tried to keep up with the brutal pace he was setting. Settling into a rhythm we began to push each other harder and harder. The sun was gone, the glowsticks bounced on our packs, our weak head torches picked a vague route through the gravel and soft sand. And we ran. We were racing for the finish and bed. I felt absolutely glorious. Because of my injury I had not run this fast for 9 weeks. We were hurtling along far faster than 3-hour marathon pace. It was so absurd and so magnificent and I will never forget the adrenalin and the gratitude I felt to be able to push hard like that. It was slightly too good to be true and, about half a kilometre from the finish I began retching violently and had to let my fellow Brit push on alone to the finish. A couple of minutes later I crossed the line, shook hands with my lunatic pacemaker (thanks, Henry!) and felt enormously relieved that the brutal day was over. I ate but could not sleep because of nausea and because the painkillers were wearing off. My knees and hips throbbed. But I enjoyed welcoming in all of our tent members and hearing their tales. We were all so chuffed to have got the big stage out of the way.

*

Because we had done well we had the whole of the next day off as the long stage had a 34-hour time limit (I took 10h20). We ate and slept and traded Peperamis for Haribo and dehydrated porridge for dehydrated chilli con carne. We popped our blisters and filled them with iodine. Tom gave himself a huge red iodine moustache and we slobbed and laughed and began to dare to think about the end. Many poor, brave souls were still plodding on, with the last people not arriving until sunset on the NEXT afternoon! The entire camp turned out to applaud the last ones home, because to finish so late meant they had suffered and endured much longer than all the speedier runners.

*

The next day we only had to run a marathon. That I say ‘only’ is a great indication of how the MdS allows people to expand their parameters and their perception of their own boundaries. I found it to be the hardest stage of all. I pushed hard and made it round in about 4.5 hours, but on the last leg I was absolutely haemmorrhaging time on the scoresheet. I could not run, I wanted only to lie down in the sand and pour water all over me. I shouted at myself, I made pacts with the devil, and I tried to just keep forcing my legs onwards. I marched as fast as I could for I could not make my legs run anymore. Seeing the camp, the end of the day, salvation from the pain and from my slowness was a gigantic boost and I managed to run fast to the end, Eye of the Tiger thumping in my ears as I crossed the line. The biggest problem of the day was that my old foot injury came back, pain shooting up my shin as I ran. Still, nothing that painkillers could not overcome for just one day more!

*

That evening was my favourite of the whole event. I had loved the desert, thrilled over the thickness of the stars, and relaxed at not hearing a telephone ring once. So for an 18 piece orchestra to appear, (looking clean and female and lovely and distracting us from their music) and to lie back in the desert and stare up to the stars as they played was absolutely incredible, if a bit surreal. The first piece of music they played was simply gorgeous (here it is).

The camp rang with end-of-term-itis. People recklessly threw away every possession they could spare. We ate all our remaining food, squeezed trainers on to long-suffering feet and lifted our packs for the last time. Just 17km remained. Nothing could stop anybody anymore. I ate far too many painkillers, a few Haribo, and limped on to the end. My legs were empty of gas, my foot hurt and I was happy to see the final finishing line. Everyone in Tent 91 had pushed so hard to get where they had and it was a proud feeling to share a team photo at the end, as well as a photo with my bro, a couple of charity snaps, and a picture for Profeet whose brilliant shoes had ensured that all of us got through with minimal blister issues. Now, back to that all-you-can-eat buffet. It was going to take a beating from us all!

—–

I was chuffed to finish the race. I hope that it can generate some support for Hope and Homes for Children (donations welcome here). I did well in the end (just missed 100th spot but got into the Top 10 Brits) but I have a couple of regrets. I wish I had been able to train for the event. Being injured meant that I missed out on 2 months’ training. It is the sort of event you want to be able to give your all to. I wish also that I had gone far harder on Day 1 and Day 2. I over-estimated the difficulty of the race and wish I had legged it from the start. But overall I was very happy with my performance.

Home again it is fun to reminisce, especially as my foot turned out to be broken and so now I am in a plaster and therefore forced to sit still and reminisce. The MdS made me realise how much I had enjoyed my 4 years on the road, and made me dream of more. But I also realised that the massive appeal of the MdS is how accessible it is. Yes, it is expensive (I recommend you try and sign up through a different agency than the pricey UK one). Yes, it is tough. But it is not that hard. It is a race accessible to all. People in their 60′s walked it, finished it knackered and were rightly proud and fulfilled. Racing snakes pushed hard, tested themselves, and were proud of that. Even those who did not finish (perhaps that should be ‘especially those who did not finish’) learned so much about endurance and determination. People certainly expanded their parameters.

But the greatest attraction I can see of the MdS is that it squeezes a lifetime of adventure into just one week. For those too busy at work, too tied by their families, too scared, too lazy or too busy to take years away from the conveyor belt I would highly recommend the MdS to you. It compresses so much into a short space of time. There is the dreaming, the planning and preparing, there is a taste of new cultures and foreign landscapes, there is hardship and doubt and difficulty. There is triumph and relief and camaraderie. There is the sweet feeling of coming home more grateful and appreciative than the person who left for the race ten days ago.

Here’s some tips on equipment etc for the MdS.

The toughest race on Earth? It is always possible to run to collapsing exhaustion, even during a 3km fun run. So there is perfect scope for pushing yourself hard in the MdS. But it really is not that hard to finish (unless you are injured). If you are fit and healthy, if you could run an ordinary marathon (at any speed), if you’ve got some determination, then YOU can do this event. Go for it! It was lots of fun.

I get an email every couple of weeks asking for advice about running the Marathon des Sables (“the world’s toughest race”). I decided then to create a list of tips and thoughts about the race. I am well aware that there are forums online with way more up to date information about specifics of clothing and kit. There are countless people who know more than me about nutrition or elite training. So this is just a few lines of generic advice from a ‘normal’ person, albeit one who trained hard and pushed themselves very hard during the race (I was one of the Top 10 Brits to finish in the year I ran; my best marathon time is 2’58).
  • If you are fit enough to comfortably finish a normal marathon then I think you can do the MdS.
  • I believe that training for the MdS is not massively different to training for a normal marathon. In other words you need to learn to (1) run far, (2) to run fast, and (3) to run far fast. Your training should reflect this [e.g. (1) long runs, (2) speed sessions - I joined a local athletics club for a weekly torture session on the track, and (3) fartlekking / hill reps].
  • In addition to ‘normal’ marathon training I would suggest focussing on learning to run far day after day (back to back long runs), running with kit (spend a few weekends walking for long hours over the hills with a heavy pack), dealing with the heat (run with stupid amounts of clothes on and maybe a bin liner too), and water management (learn to drink enough, but no more than enough).
  • Running with a pack places a strain on your body. Improve your core strength (plank etc.) and also your leg strength (lunges, squats, deadlifts).
  • I used Profeet.co.uk for my footwear. I swear by them (even before they kindly began sponsoring me). Really worth the money.
  • Key to the MdS is how well you recover in time for the next stage. Work on your flexibility and suppleness – stretching, pilates, yoga, deadlifts etc.
  • Race tips: Start slowly. Really slowly. Spend the first half day (even the first day) feeling a bit frustrated at yourself for how slow you are going. I promise you can make this time up later. Get acclimatised (especially if you are a large, pasty white person), pace yourself.
  • My policy throughout the race was this: run the flat and downhills. Walk ALL inclines or soft sand parts, even if they were only for 10 metres. It worked for me. Not much of the race is on soft sand. I decided that the time saved was not worth the energy lost in running those bits. When I walked I ‘speed marched’ (like those silly rich housewives you sometimes see power walking round the park and gossiping on their phone). When I ran I actually ‘speed shuffled’ – there is not a lot of flowing Farah-esque ‘running’ for normal people wearing a pack in a desert. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
  • Pace yourself. It is a marathon (several of them, actually), not a sprint.
  • If your feet hurt – STOP. NOW. Not later. RIGHT NOW. Stop, remove your shoes and socks. Tape up your feet. And do it NOW. Looking after your feet might well be the Number 1 tip for making it through this race. Do not wait until you have a blister. As soon as you feel rubbing, stop and tape it up. Watch James Cracknell’s South Pole show to appreciate how stupid a false economy it is to try to be tough and macho about sore feet.
  • Get good at water management. Sip regularly. I had one bottle of pure water and one with electrolyte solution. Be ruthless and strict with yourself. Don’t drink too much. Don’t drink too little. Don’t be shy of rooting through the rubbish bins each morning – a great source of illicit extra water for large, pasty white people who feel the heat a lot!
  • You will have one night out in the desert before you begin. It’s so hard to guess how many clothes to take / what gear to take. So if you can be bothered (and if you are lucky enough to have loads of gear) I’d really recommend taking two lots of things with you out to the desert. Two sleeping bags. Two warm tops etc. You’ll have that one night to decide what you really need.
  • Err on the side of a too-thin sleeping bag with a too-warm top to wear in the evenings in camp.
  • A Buff is a really useful piece of kit. Ideally every bit of kit should be multi-purpose.
  • People worry about Thermarests popping. I’d dispute this. Take a NeoAir if you can afford it.
  • Throw away your stove and build a stone from small stones instead.
  • Throw away some of your fuel and supplement it with little twigs.
  • Take less clothing than you think you need and more food.
  • I used an MP3 player that ran on an AAA battery. Worth its weight in gold. (But don’t forget to embrace the silence at times too).
  • Take a real variety of food. Variety is king. Haribo, dried apricots, salted nuts, biltong, flapjack are all good things…
  • Finish each day with a protein recovery shake.
  • Fuizion do the nicest dried food I’ve ever tried. Worth the money.
  • Take some tinfoil to make a pan lid and also a windshield to wrap round your pan.
  • Consider taking a packet of instant noodles for each day as a pre-dinner treat – don’t overestimate the satisfaction of getting some bulk into your belly. It helps you sleep better.
  • P20 suncream was good enough for this pasty white man – very impressive stuff.
  • Take earplugs and use your Buff as an eye visor.
  • It’s hard to know how much warm clothing you need. So I’d recommend taking an extra top on Day 1 that you are willing to chuck in the bin the next morning if you decide you don’t need it. You don’t want to be cold in the evening. But nor do you want to carry extra weight merely because you are too tight to chuck it away!
  • Enjoy it. It’s a crazy- expensive race, but the memories linger long after you have repaid the money. Savour the experience.

Have you run the Marathon des Sables? Please leave your own tips in the comments section below.

See my photos from the race here. There are also some really great pictures from the 2008 race here.

With thanks to Profeet for sorting out my feet.

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