Savour not just Suffer…
I knew I wasn’t as fit as I had been in 2016 as training had been hampered since breaking myself in January, then to add injury to injury I slipped & fell while out walking with a full pack landing awkwardly and hurting my shoulder. So, all things considered my aim going into the 32nd Marathon des Sables was to finish and my mantra leading up to it became ‘Savour not just Suffer’
I was soon to find out that this was far, far easier said than done.
Etape 1 – 30.3km – ‘The Easy Day’
Easy [ee-zee] – Adjective: not hard or difficult; requiring no great labour or effort
Unsurprisingly on the first day there were a lot of nerves & I for one hadn’t got into a routine yet. A lot of unnecessary faffing was done in the morning while packing my bag, misplacing kit & trying to eat breakfast… my planned treat of rice pudding & fruit came to nought after my can opener broke in transit so I made do with 2 pots of fruit & a pouch of yoghurt. Excitement was building as Tent 109 made our way as a group to be part of the creation of the number 32 which is photographed from the air before separating to line up at the start in various positions dependant on our race ambitions. We were then subjected to a selection of random and often inappropriately cheesy music tracks and the first of 6 long & repetitive briefings from Patrick.
Finally, the refrains of Highway to Hell were belting out & the countdown to the start was on!
Worried about hydration my strategy for the first 2 stages was to take it easy & see how I coped in the heat. Supposedly an ‘easy day’ it felt long, slow, hot & continuously uphill. I comfortably ran the first 5.5km at a steady pace as we followed an oued, but this dropped after the first sandy climb of the type we would soon become all too accustomed to. From the top, we got our first indication of the sweeping scale of the desert as the train of runners wound away into the distance behind. Midway through I stubbed my foot on a rock, this lifted my little toe and the nail caught on the inside of my shoe pulling it hard. I hobbled for a short distance, but concerned I had damaged it looked for somewhere convenient to stop. Finding a flat rock & lowering myself down to it I managed to pierce my hand with multiple thorns which provided another early & valuable lesson… those things are vicious! Peeling off my gaiters & socks I was relieved to see little sign of serious injury despite the pain being quite severe. Replacing my socks, shoes & gaiters I continued gingerly on my way but was still concerned about the level of pain. The miles were slowly ticking down, but as 5 of the last 6 were all uphill it was a tough battle, finally with a couple left we hit a steep climb and after reaching the summit was relieved to see the second campsite in the mid-distance. I shuffled along slowly having found this ‘easy day’ inordinately difficult & I was concerned how I would cope as the days got longer & harder.
Time: 4:51:19 Position 540th
Etape 2 – 39km -‘The Hard Day’
Jebel ˈdʒɛbɛl’ [jeb-uh l] – Noun: (in the Middle East and North Africa) a mountain or hill, or a range of hills.
I didn’t have long to wait to find out how I would cope as we’d been warned that the second day was tough and it was another 9km further, making it a long hard day 2. It began with a sandy climb, followed by a series of small dunes during which I felt a hot spot form on my heel, which I could feel had immediately opened. I stopped as soon as possible to tape what was a raw but thankfully small open blister. The dunes soon levelled out and after a short distance there was a climb over Bou Laadam Jebel before we began our journey over the first endless stretch of vast emptiness that is characteristic of huge areas of the Sahara Desert. This long psychologically draining flat stretch continued over the horizon and seemed to go on forever and we were just a trail of insignificant dots lost among the landscape. In retrospect, my progress was much slower than it should’ve been but I eventually made it to CP1. More of the same followed to CP2 but rising temperatures and no escape from the scorching sun meant it was hot work to get there, requiring my first rest in a bivouac at a CP for a few minutes to cool down. I poured spare water over me & my clothing & set off again. From CP2 it remained flat & rocky providing good progress & as I started chatting to somebody this section passed quickly and I began to feel positive.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last & reaching a section of beautiful, but devastating sand dunes that rose incrementally I blew up in style as the increased effort to ascend each one & the heat bouncing off the sand literally burnt me up. Finally escaping this sandy sauna, we followed a stretch of single track winding ever closer to the dreaded El Otfal Jebel. Entering the stone gorge marking the start of the ascent was like stepping into a steam room. The sun was reflecting off the rocks and as the ascent began to get steeper, the effort increased again & my core temperature spiked. I had to stop regularly, desperately trying to hide from the sun in miniscule strips of shade in a futile attempt to cool down. The climb wasn’t that long, but it took 39mins to complete one mile before it finally angled out from among the rocks up over a sandy incline to the summit which provided breath-taking views in all directions.
An annoying queue to descend holding a rope was awaited, taking much longer than necessary with many nervous people ahead, but the exhilarating descent on loose sand which felt like skiing on the dunes almost made up for it. Reaching the final CP with just 3km left I drank a few big swigs of water, pouring the remaining cool elixir over myself and headed off to sluggishly to complete the second stage.
I’d picked up a few blisters on my toes & the now angry laceration on my heel didn’t look great so I went to see Doc Trotters on my return. After a very long wait I left with some supplies & tape on my heel… not worth the wait when I could’ve been eating & recovering after a long hard day.
Time 12:33:10 Position 616th
Etape 3 – 31.6km ‘The Hilly Day’
Ascent [uh-sent] – Noun: the act of climbing or traveling up
I felt good the next day & my feet, although heavily taped felt OK. My strategy before seeing the road book had been to try a bit harder on Day 3 if I had been comfortable in the previous days. Despite having had a torrid Day 2 and warning that the upcoming stage was also tough I decided that I’d run the early flat stretches at the start of Stage 3 while it was cool. The stage started with a short run to warm up before the short sandy climb up Rich Mbirika Jebel then a good flat stretch leading to the first of 3 big climbs. The tough 18% sandy ascent to summit of Joua Baba Ali Jebel generated a hot spot on my other heel but with nowhere convenient to stop I continued up until it revealed a beautiful technical ridge, shame it was another queue of inexperienced participants ruining what should have been a thrilling and fun skip across the rocks. It was still an impressive section & I took advantage of the slow-moving traffic to look around and take it in, snapping a few pictures and savouring the moment. At the end of the ridge we had a technical descent to CP1 where I should have stopped to sort my heel but was feeling strong so pushed on to make good time.
After another short runnable section a steep sandy 15% climb followed, with another ridgeline and a fast descent before a longer flat stretch to CP2 which I ran/walked between route markers as it was now a lot hotter. After a quick breather and refuel I was off carrying extra H2O for the first & last time. A gruelling, oppressive & precipitous 25% ascent to the summit of El Otfal Jebel, often sandy underfoot with some big rocks to step up on it soon had me blowing out of my arse. Queues slowed progress again but this time I was grateful for them, allowing time to breathe. Reaching the same point we began the descent on stage 2 required hauling ourselves up on the ropes knee deep in soft sand, but the descent the other side the way we’d ascended the previous day was much faster and the rocks were quite good underfoot. The dunes were dispatched with aplomb this time as I took my time & believed that they were heading downhill. Once beyond the dunes I was confronted by a long flat endless finish into the heat haze that showed no sign of ending, head down & despite the soaring temperatures a fast march followed until I could finally make out the train of runners snaking their way up a ridge in the distance. The miles ticked down with the death march and after an eternity I started to climb the ridgeline, once over the top I released an involuntary whoop of joy as I spotted the 4th campsite a short distance away.
I’d enjoyed the day & the terrain had been far more to my liking with much more variety & ascent, maintaining a better pace on the flats & managing to push well on the ascents. Peeling my bloodied socks off however revealed more toe blisters & a large gaping hole on my heel that had been blister but was now an open wound, I immediately applied antibacterial solution & taped it ready for the next day but I knew this was going to cause me problems.
Time 18:53:42 Position: 591
Etape 4 – 86.2km‘The Long Day’
Dune [doon, dyoon] – Noun: a sand hill or sand ridge formed by the wind, usually in desert regions or near lakes & oceans.
The pain from my feet was horrendous and pulling on my shoes for the ‘Long Day’ was excruciating. Nerves and tension were obvious at the start of the 4th Stage, there was a heavy atmosphere among the mid-pack & it was much quieter than usual. Despite my feet hurting I started well, taking advantage of the cool start through the scenic El Maharch Pass, past camping oasis & over the huge dry lake where I spotted my first herd of camels in the distance. Reaching a series of sandy ascents indicated the start of the end of my progress and I wobbled as I climbed, with the loose sand sapping my energy quickly and my feet started to throb with pain. The climb up Mziouda Jebel saw my pace plummet but the technical descent to CP1 that followed was a welcome distraction.
The leg to CP2 was shorter, staring flat but soon incorporating a sandy ascent and the theme of the day was set. It did include a couple fantastic sandy descents but generally it was just slow going, wading through hot loose energy sapping sand up to an isolated CP. I slumped in a bivouac to remove my insoles, before carefully topping up my water & pouring the little excess over my head, one bottle at this point was a bit tight. Immediately after the CP we had another sandy ascent to reach a rocky decent, with feet moving too much in my shoes I fell on the descent cracking my elbow on the sharp rocks. I stopped to put my insoles back in. After the frustratingly slow descent there was a long stretch on big undulating sand dunes, where we were finally passed by the front runners who had started 3 hours later than us. Reaching a track, I hoped to make better progress but it just revealed more sand, the ‘Marathon of the Sands’ was truly living up to it’s name.
I finally made it to CP3, 35km in. I sat in the shade of a vehicle to prepare soup & drink lots of water. After 10-15mins rest I put my music on & hammered the next section, passing lots of other mid-packers and unexpectedly caught Twitter’s Susie Chan, one of my tentmates. I slowed to accompany her and almost immediately blew up after burning though all my energy and not eating enough, spending the next section winding through shrubs feeling tired and sick. We muddled on finally reaching CP4, where I ate and raised my feet for 5mins to reduce the throbbing pain before we set off again. We made slow progress over the obviously sandy ascent up Lahnoune Jebel and the series of dunes that followed as the sun set. Descending from these & reaching flat rocky trails we started to pick up the pace a bit, even running for short stretches until arriving at CP5.
After drinking as much of a recovery shake as possible and taking painkillers we set off into the dark to get this done, but CP5 – CP6 was endless soul destroying sand dunes. If I’d checked my roadbook and had been aware of what was coming up it would have been better, but as it was dark & we couldn’t see far ahead I kept hoping we’d come to the end of the dunes only for the next one to rise in front of us. My head was battered, my feet were in agony & I struggled to find anything positive to latch on to descending into a funk of searing pain, complaining & threats of violence upon Patrick Bauer… not great company for Susie who was having a battle of her own.
After the longest 9km of my life we crawled into CP6 where we both managed to get some fuel on-board and after leaving & following the stony tracks I took point managing to increase our pace to a fast march for a while, even breaking out into a run for a brief stretch. Straight through CP7 and with just 3 miles to go my energy levels plummeted again, my head went & I slowed to a crawl needing Susie to drag me on for a while. The last few miles were tough with a flat section preceding a final short sandy climb before we could see the camp, the last 4km appeared to be flat but incorporated numerous sand mounds, loose rocks and oued crossings which hurt my sore feet and slowed progress even more. Susie & I eventually tottered over the line at about 4am, neither of us even attempting to run and (once Damien allowed us to enter the tent) immediately crawled into our sleeping bags to rest.
Time 38:19:20 Position 558
‘The Rest Day’
rest [rest] – noun: refreshing ease or inactivity after exertion or labour
Waking after just 3 hours sleep I got to work on my feet… which were a mess. The heel had obviously been bleeding and oozing pus all day, which when mixed with the sand had hardened into a concrete like substance which had rubbed my heel continuously. For 54 miles.
The little toes on both feet were red, swollen and inflamed with the right already showing signs of infection. I left my toes to air for the day, but did have to tape my heel early to try to protect it. I tried to eat but noodles and nuts were looking less appetising by now, thankfully salty crisps, Peperami and Bombay Mix still went down well. In hindsight I realise that I didn’t drink enough through the day and as I struggled to eat I didn’t fuel properly… although the Coke was a gift from the heavens.
Etape 5 – 42.2km ‘The Marathon Day’
Marathon [mar-uh-thon, -thuh n] – Noun: a foot race over a course measuring 26 mi. 385 yards (42 km 195meters)
My feet were in absolute agony as I lined up for the start of the last timed stage, I had taken pain-killers although these did little to keep my suffering at bay. As we had an early start I wanted to take advantage of the morning cool and grit my teeth to run for as long as possible. The terrain was the most forgiving of the week, generally good running with the odd technical section and I went well to CP1. I continued at a reasonable pace and despite the discomfort covered the first 13miles in 3 hours, unfortunately after CP2 we hit a section of sparse sand dunes on a flat which broke my rhythm and the wheels fell off. I struggled for a while, particularly over a section of big dunes and I hadn’t recovered before we ascended through a gorge to CP3. Most of the final stages were on good rocky trails but featured several gentle climbs which felt like full on mountain summits, as I crawled towards the disused M’fis mine & the first sighting of the finish line. I Shuffled down through an old village & completed a walk/jog for the remaining 3 miles before crossing the line, where underwhelmed but relieved I claimed my finishers medal & traditional bear-hug & kiss from Patrick. I didn’t slap him but did tell him he was a sadist. I then made my way unsteadily to Tent 109 for the final time, collapsing in a heap, hot & dehydrated.
Time 45:05:50 Position 563rd
Etape 6 – 7.7km ‘The Charity Day’
Solidarité [sol-i-dar-i-tee] – Noun: union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests
Otherwise known as the pointless day as the race & timing had ended the previous day. My feet were uncomfortable and I could barely get my socks & shoes on but we were provided with fresh t-shirts! I didn’t relish a final 5 miles on sand but the dunes we crossed in this stage were stunning and it was a fitting end to an epic week. Damien accompanied me throughout and although not racing, we made good progress to beat the crowds & get back to the hotel in good time.
My 18 month journey was finally over. I had completed the Marathon des Sables.
Adjective, Also, epical
- noting or pertaining to a long poetic composition, usually centered upon a hero, in which a series of great achievements or events is narrated in elevated style: Homer’s Iliad is an epic poem.
- resembling or suggesting such poetry: an epic novel on the founding of the country.
- heroic; majestic; impressively great: the epic events of the war.
- of unusually great size or extent: a crime wave of epic proportions.
- spectacular; very impressive; awesome: Their burgers and fries are epic!
Epic used to mean something. It used to describe works of fiction and films that were massive in scale, with endless sweeping vistas containing stories of immense heroism. Now, the term is overused; it is one of superlatives that is bolted on to describe many things from rain to burgers and fries… however this race truly deserves the nomenclature. In every sense of the word the Marathon des Sables is epic!
But does it live up to its self-promotion as the ‘toughest footrace in the world?’
It’s something we discussed a lot during the week. It’s all relative, for many this will be the hardest thing they ever undertake but the toughest in the world? No. Probably not.
Make no mistake though, this race is tough. The heat is testing but was only a concern for the first 2 days, after this I got used to it discovering I didn’t need to drink too much to stay hydrated, getting into the habit of using excess water to cool down. Having to carry all your own kit adds to the challenge, to keep weight down you make do without food… by Stage 5 I was running on empty. As the week wears on the rucksack weighs less & after the ‘Long Day’ it only weighs marginally more than a standard ultra-marathon vest. However, the terrain is brutal. Of all the challenges faced this was the one I found most difficult to overcome, especially with the inconvenient discovery that I was rubbish in sand and this edition featured a LOT of it… particularly the long day which incorporated more sand and dunes than anyone could remember before.
I like a challenge otherwise I wouldn’t have signed up for the 32nd Marathon des Sables in the first place… but here’s the rub, being brutally honest, I didn’t enjoy this race. In general, the terrain didn’t suit me as I am happier when a route features more ascent (and descent) as this plays to my strengths more, Stage 3 was the only one that I enjoyed and this was the only one that included real climbs. The scenery is exotic, enthralling & expansive but we saw it all in Day 3 alone so I found I wasn’t getting the same kind of inspiration from my surroundings as I do when running in the mountains.
Thankfully, what makes the Marathon des Sables so epic is everything beyond the running itself, camp-life is the saving grace of this event & I loved this aspect, the bond that developed with my tentmates, being cut-off from the real world & deprived of food & luxuries is what makes this race special & it’s only after it’s all over & you have time to recover and reflect on the time here that you realise how much (or little) all this matters.
For me was what the Marathon des Sables is all about.
I went into this with the personal mantra of ‘savour not just suffer’ and I did manage to savour some of this race, I even enjoyed some of it… however I suffered far more than I savoured.
And got so much more from the experience because of it.
My Marathon of the Sands Kit List
Montane Shark Ultra Tee – Performed well, high UPF so I didn’t burn, breathed well & despite going through the ringer didn’t smell too bad by the final day.
Skins DNAmic Superpose Half Tights – My go to shorts, did the job although could have been more breathable.
Injinji Midweight Socks – My feet fell apart but I don’t blame the socks… although I would wear the lightweight option if I ever returned.
Chaffree Boxers – Love them… sadly mine died on the third day but I could still wear them for the remainder of the week. Will definitely be replacing them!
High UV Buff – I think it’s an essential bit of kit, I wore mine around my neck for most of the week but it was used to cover my face from sand and a sponge to cool my head & as a hat in camp. Take one!
Outdoor Research Sun Runner Cap – I hate wearing caps when I run but this was lightweight & unobtrusive so I never really felt the need to remove it. it comes in different sizes so I could get a size small enough to fit my freakishly little head.
Raidlight Gaiters – Did the job but were falling apart by the end of the week, I opted for the ones WITHOUT a zip & this was the right choice (despite the inconvenience) as the sand destroyed the zips.
Compressport Calf Guards – Still no evidence they do anything for me but I think I suffer from less cramping when wearing them so I will continue doing so.
Inov8 Race Ultra 290 Shoes – these were the only piece of kit that really didn’t work for me in the desert. Had no problems in advance but they didn’t combine with my feet & the desert at all.
I also took a Ronhill windproof & a cheap light pair of shorts for camp which were both used all week & I was happy to have them… particularly the jacket.
Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 – excellent, perfect size and lightweight. I’d removed the back ‘padding’ to save weight and from experience knew I needed to tape my shoulders to avoid chaffing. as the straps are minimal. Would still like more pockets up front but got used to the side pockets over the week.
Alpkit Pipedream 200 Sleeping Bag – cracking bit of kit for the price, weighs 525g so a bit heavier than some available but a fraction of the cost & I was warm all week.
Thermarest Prolite – I opted for the full length self inflating mattress & it served me well, I packed it as a back protector in my bag each day & slept fairly well on it but it is quite bulky & weight could be saved by getting the short option. I would consider an inflatable alternative in future.
Exped Air Pillow – Complete luxury but at 25g it was oh so nice to have! Far better then the alternative of your running shoes in a poo bag.
Mountain King Trail Blaze poles – were useful but probably not essential and I found I was less likely to run when they were in hand.
Alpkit Gamma Headtorch – not the brightest but lightweight & reliable don’t think a heavier & brighter headtorch would have provided any benefit during the long stage.
Raidlight 750ml Bottles with Straws – the top was a bit fiddly & one leaked regularly ut as I planned on taking the poles I wanted bottles with straws and these worked.
Mandatory Kit: Silva Field Compass, Bic Lighter, Inov8 Whistle (from the Ultra Vest), Small Kitchen Knife, 30ml Surgical Spirit, Venom Pump (Ebay), Signalling Mirror (Ebay), Sea to Summit Survival Blanket, 50ml Kids Factor 50 Nivea Suncream (great… one application a day sufficed).
Extras: 3ml superglue remained unused, portable battery pack to charge my Fenix, Garmin Virb to take photo’s & video… I only wish I’d taken more of them! Earplugs where a godsend and for 3 grams also essential! First Aid; painkillers & tape were used a lot, other medication wasn’t… but if it was needed I would have been very glad of it! Toothbrush & toothpaste, there are limits to which even I go to save weight, although they were both lightweight travel versions.
And don’t forget toilet paper…