Marathon des Sables: Beyond the Running

VIRB Picture

Circus – [sur-kuh s] plural circuses

Noun: 1. large public entertainment, typically presented in one or more very large tents or in an outdoor or indoor arena, featuring exhibitions of pageantry, feats of skill and daring, performing animals etc, interspersed throughout with the slapstick antics of clowns; 2. troupe of performers, especially a travelling troupe, that presents such entertainments, together with officials, other employees, and the company’s performing animals, travelling wagons, tents, cages and equipment; 3. a circular arena surrounded by tiers of seats, in which public entertainments are held

The Marathon des Sables is not just a race, it’s an event. Before I went others had likened it to a circus and now having done it I can understand this analogy… it almost seems obvious.

It is a huge operation that includes a lot of tents (always pitched in a perfect circle), it travels in convoy to each new location after each show, Patrick Bauer holds thrall in the centre as the Ringmaster and of course, it also features performers. Most of them are related to marketing and promotion, from the creation of this year’s edition number using the participants, the low flying helicopters that swoop overhead and kicking up huge clouds of sand and dust at the start of each day (probably more for those that are running at the front) and the video of our daring are all impressive shows utilised to promote the circus to the next wave of would be MdS entertainers. Because of course, the participants are also performing; apparently far more so than previous years but the cameras are never too far away & it seems that the entrants are all too willing to put on a show for the lenses pointing in their direction.

To make the most out of your time in the desert you should embrace this lunacy & become part of the circus. You could even dress up as a cow… or a clown.

VIRB Picture
Queue – [kyoo] 

Noun: A file or line, especially of people waiting their turn.

As a Brit, I consider myself semi-professional at queuing, it’s almost instinctive, see a line join it… the longer and slower moving the better. So, it was with some disappointment that the legendary MdS queues in the baking midday sun never materialised.

The organisation was far better than feared, on the admin day we were split by numbers so some had to register in the morning while those that remained went in the afternoon. We were then further filtered so only selected numbers went through each marquee reducing the length of time waiting, we handed in our forms declaring we were carrying all the mandatory kit & the required number of calories before having our bags weighed (mine came in at 6.94 without sleeping mat). We then got our ration card, medical card and were issued with salt tablets & GPS Spot tracker. Finally, we got hold of our precious numbers. The longest queue was for the photo which we all thought was a completely pointless exercise, but discovered on our return to civilisation that it was used for our profile on the tracking website. This left all afternoon free to relax & chat… out of the sun & off our feet.

At the mealtimes before we were self-sufficient they had 3 or 4 entrances leading to tables laden with all the same options, making progress quick so once open we didn’t have to wait long before getting our hands on our sustenance… and regardless what you may hear from the doomsayers it was all good too. Collecting water in the morning was pain free, it was just better to wait until the hordes had already collected theirs & then go to the commissaries at the sides who always seemed to be free.

I did wait for a long time when I visited Doc Trotters to have my feet looked at but this was by choice & as they do operate some form of triage if you are most in need you’re whisked straight into the tents behind & treated immediately. I did go back after the race where they bandaged my mangled appendages & send me packing to continue eating & drinking with antibiotics in hand to treat the infection.

The biggest queue of the week by far was for the bar after the final timed stage & it was also the most chaotic but think most would agree that it was totally worth having your already totalled tootsies trodden on repeatedly for your choice of beer, Coke or Orangina!

All things considered, I was impressed with the organisation of the Marathon des Sables. In many ways, it runs like a well-oiled machine. Watching the methodical deconstruction of camp each morning, knowing it will all be set up & ready just a few hours later in a new location is remarkable.

Tent 109
Tribe [trahyb]

Noun: Any aggregate of people united by ties of descent from a common ancestor, community of customs and traditions, adherence to the same leaders, etc.

The focus in preparation is obviously on the race… what to wear, what to eat, what to carry… but one of the most important factors of this race is who you will share it with.

Your tentmates. Your troupe. Your tribe.

I was lucky. Twitter’s Susie Chan had asked me the week before the race if I had arranged tentmates, as I hadn’t she invited me to join her & a couple others and I accepted. I had met several other MdS’ers in the preparation & thought that I wouldn’t be lost for options but it was suddenly a relief to have something sorted.

The occupants of Tent 109 were a disparate group of individuals with a massive divide in our abilities, ambitions, personalities & vocations. Between us about the only thing we had in common was that were all in the 32nd Marathon des Sables, but in just a few days we became a tribe. You spend a lot of time under what is essentially a large black blanket held up by sticks with these 7 other people and as you have no technology or distractions you’re forced into holding conversations. Among the joking, talking about food (far too much) and oversharing you also find out a lot about each other in a short period of time…

Among the delightful nuggets I discovered; Damien ‘Poohead’ Hall is a magnus opus of bad jokes and poor timing, delights in sitting on the fence, is endlessly positive and a phenomenal runner. Nathan ‘Justin’ Montague is also an incredible athlete and possibly one of the humblest individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, showing strength of spirit and body throughout but unfortunately reads the Daily Mail. Paul ‘Showtime’ Broadway was relentless in his resolution and could eat more than anyone else I know while Twitter’s Susie Chan is remarkably sweary, enjoys repeatedly kicking you in the head at night, is averse to being woken up with loud farts and is the greatest company you could ask for on a long day. Cheesy Mark got the name from his penchant from sleeping with cheese triangles, had the most mischievous sense of humour and may be a little bit racist, Cheeser Mark had the coolest job I’d never heard of, was quietly obstinate in proving his doubters wrong and got his name from the size of his smile after the long day. Johan who of all of us faced the greatest challenge in the desert & yet showed unflinching courage and was unwavering in his resolve, remaining upbeat in camp all week becoming a massive inspiration for me on my own journey.

This camaraderie combined with the individual, yet somehow shared, trials & tribulations we were facing during the race created a strong bond, you look out for people who were for the most part were complete strangers just a matter of days ago & you would do anything to help your tentmates & ensure they all make it to that finish line.

After each stage I was greeted by delighted tentmates, whose enthusiasm never dwindled and you would be looking forward to this for much of the day… in retrospect I feel guilty as I’m naturally a bit of a miserable bastard so I spent an inordinate amount of time complaining & swearing at camels but I do hope that this was recognised as ever so slightly tongue in cheek. Damien & Nathan always cleared our shelter of the stones & thorns and when I finally crawled in hours later they couldn’t do enough to help me get comfortable.

Except after the long day when Poohead essentially told us to go away as we tried to drag our broken bodies into the bivouac.

When I look back my most memorable moments, the highest & lowest points of the week, are not directly related to my own race, but those of my tribe. Coming back from my best day to discover TSC in the tent after her worst was a huge blow and a stark warning that this race can get the measure of the best of us. In contrast, watching Mark & Johan come over the line after completing the marathon stage with all of tent 109 will stay with me forever & I still get emotional when I recall it now.

Blister ˈblɪstə

Noun: A small bubble on the skin filled with serum and caused by friction, burning, or other damage eg “his heels were covered in blisters”

Foot-care is all important in the MdS and bad feet can end your race, I knew this all too well & planned to look after them carefully during the week. Unfortunately, the Sahara had other ideas for my feet.

I may have mentioned this already, but the terrain is harsh. If you’re not picking your way across endless plains scattered with shards of deadly rocks intent on piercing the soles of your feet or tearing your gaiters then you’re sliding around on never-ending sand dunes ensuring your feet move around in your shoes creating or aggravating existing blisters to the point of submission. Added to this, due to the heat & reduced breathability thanks to the (torn) gaiters your feet are sweaty & swollen which can (and does) make your feet far worse.

I had a combination of problems, from a lot of small blisters on my toes which was just down to them being wet, battered, rubbed & smashed all week but these were easily treated & caused no major problems and may have been avoided by taping. The Velcro stitched & glued to the shoes had changed their shape a fraction, not enough to notice when training at home but once my feet started swelling it meant they were pressing on the little toes on both feet, this caused multiple blisters and led to infection.

The worst was self-inflicted & could should have been avoided, I got a small piece of grit embedded in the heel of my shoe on day 3. I ran through the signs as I was going well & this meant the blister ripped open & left an open wound which got progressively worse as the week wore on. A schoolboy error.

The problems with my both little toes & heel meant I was hobbling & this in turn caused further blisters… by the end of the week I was in a lot of discomfort, just getting my socks on was agony and it was excruciating to squeeze my feet inside my shoes each day.

I was an idiot and didn’t look after my feet as well as I should but some of the issues would have happened even if I had been more attentive. Prevention is better than cure so learn to tape your feet and train in your chosen shoes combined with gaiters in advance. Try to replicate the expected circumstances as closely as possible to identify if your shoes will try to amputate your little toes after 20km and you may escape with as little as 3 blisters.

Hygiene ˈhʌɪdʒiːn/

Noun: Conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease, especially through cleanliness eg: “poor standards of food hygiene”

This is one of those areas that you might not consider until you get to the desert, you almost certainly won’t have thought about it before you sign up but it’s worth being informed before arriving…

Toilets are essentially blocks of 3 cubicles made from PVC, placed 100metres away from the camp. Some have a hook to close the entry flap but most don’t and the ‘toilet’ consists of a small plastic stool over which a provided biodegradable bag is attached. A small stone is placed in the bag to avoid unwelcome re-entry when the wind blows & you perch above this contraption to dispose of your unwanted extra weight, the now heavier bag is then placed unceremoniously in a bin just outside avoiding eye contact with those queuing for their turn outside.

All things considered this process is far less painful than you’d imagine.

Numero uno’s are made wherever comfortable… this gets ever closer as the week wears on and by Day 3 even the womenfolk are dropping the draws without making any effort to hide from view on the trails or in camp.

Take antibacterial hand gel. It will be very useful for washing hands to avoid illness and as I found out useful (but unpleasant) to clean open wounds. I took wet-wipes…  and it was a delight to remove the worst of the grime at the end of each day with them, Wemmie Wipes were popular in the tent & I would consider these in future but some form of cleanser is a godsend.

Sand does get everywhere. It will be covering your clothes and your bod, it will fill your shoes and coat your hair, it will be in your food all week and you will be finding little pockets of it appearing in your home for weeks after you return. When it starts it’s like the desert is taunting you, reminding you of your weakest moments, but finally you start to warm to it and eventually it provokes pleasant memories… viewed through thick rose-tinted glasses.

You should expect to be a stinking shell of a former human by the end of the week, your clothes are a bio-hazard and should be burnt, ideally after creating an effigy of Patrick Bauer with them. You’ll lose your self-dignity as you become less self-conscious of your personal hygiene practises, exposing yourself to strangers & new friends alike without consideration and you become stripped back as you adjust to surviving on the bare minimum and the usual constraints of society are removed.

This is a good thing. Welcome it, savour it and remember it,.

For this is what the Marathon des Sables is about.


One thought on “Marathon des Sables: Beyond the Running

  1. Pingback: A Mid-Pack Marathon des Sables | The Unprofessional Ultra Runner

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