You may remember an article earlier this year about one of our parents to be (will be as of September 2014), Nick Saunders. At the time he said: "I’m off to run a rather ridiculous race in two weeks. Looking to raise a whole load of money so would really appreciate your generosity. In memory of my Dad who died from cancer ten years ago, I'm off to Morocco on 6 April 2014 to run the Marathon des Sables (MdS) - a six-day ultra marathon across the Sahara." Below is Nick's account of this gruelling challenge...
The Marathon des Sables (marathon of the sands) is a gruelling 6 day ultra marathon event held in the formidable landscape of one of the world’s most inhospitable climates – the Sahara desert.
The "race" (that's a joke, obviously) consists of running a marathon a day for 6 days, totalling 156 miles. The fourth day is the longest stage, consisting of completing two marathons back to back in one hit. The Marathon des Sables is known as “the toughest footrace on earth” – with a 2 year waiting list to enter.
1029 competitors from 50 nationalities were registered this year. The youngest was 16 (running with her parents) and the oldest, a French gentleman aged 76.
The rules require competitors to be totally self-sufficient - you have to carry everything you need on your back (except a tent). A 13kg backpack will contain:
Funnily enough it gets hot in the Sahara, so the French organisers decided, in their wisdom, to make it even more challenging by limiting the daily water intake. If you want more than the allotted amount of water, you get penalised one hour per bottle.
If you require a saline drip, you are penalised 3 hours per drip.
If you don’t complete each day by the official time, you’re disqualified.
If you let off your flare in an emergency, you’re disqualified.
If you get lost and need assistance, you’re disqualified.
If the camels at the back overtake you, you’re disqualified.
You sleep in a large tent (bivouac) with 7 others, get up at 5.30am, have breakfast, run a marathon under the scorching Moroccan sun (average temp 42 degrees), finish, collapse, eat, go to sleep at 9pm, get up, have breakfast, run a marathon…
You run/walk/shuffle through a variety of desert terrain; saltpans, vast dunes, jebels (desert mountains with 30% slopes), rocky paths, oueds (dried, sandy river beds - nightmare!), valleys, dry lakes, dirt tracks, stony terrain…….. and a lot of sand!
Food consists of mainly dried, packaged meals that you add water to. I listened to advice and took meals with high calorie content, mainly curries. This was an excellent idea for evening meals………but not so good for breakfast. I was the cause of much amusement from my tent mates as I tucked into my chicken tikka masala at 5.30am every morning. Friday nights at the local curry house have been banned.
I reckon I walked 60% of the race and ran 40%. “Running” is putting it a bit strong – it’s more like a “Sahara Shuffle”. It’s 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.
Get on with it
The MdS is entirely about mind/body management. The key is a total awareness of your mind and body and the discipline to take control of any situation that may arise. If your feet hurt – deal with it. If you are tired – deal with it. If your mind is weak and fatigued, deal with it. Eat painkillers, drink some more water, have some jelly babies, turn up the volume on the I-pod, stop whingeing, run faster and NEVER STOP.
The eve of the start
The eve of the start is the day when you find your bearings, choose your bivouac (No. 136) and new neighbours - all strangers but all become friends as the as the week progresses. It’s also the day for administrative checks, handing out of emergency flares/salt tablets and the final packing of backpacks.
In contrast to previous years (where the course gave runners the luxury of a gradual introduction to the adventure), this year we faced a toughie from the off! Day 1 was a long stage of 34km starting with the negotiation of the Merzouga dunes, the highest in the south-Moroccan Sahara. Over 12km to be covered in a sweltering heat without the slightest shade.
The dunes were huge and beautiful and hot and hard. After only one hour, I came across a friend Hazel who was really struggling – dehydrated, feeling sick, close to fainting and running out of water. I stayed with her (what a hero) and we moved on SLOWLY………………..….so slow a man dressed in a cow costume passed us. It took us five hours to reach the first checkpoint – it should have taken two.
The long day
The fourth day is a real challenge - a double marathon in one hit (82 km). We started at 9am and I finished at 2am (17 hours later - with just two 20min breaks). That was actually a reasonable time; some poor souls took over 32 hours and arrived at sunset on the next afternoon! The entire camp turned out to applaud the last ones home, because to finish so late meant they’d suffered/endured much more than the rest of us. Running at night was magical – a full moon, silence, cool temperature, thousands of brilliant, sparkly stars. I was energized and felt great, a real buzz.
We were allowed one treat during our time in the desert. On the rest day, we were each given an ice cold can of Coca Cola. Never before has one small drink tasted so refreshing, so invigorating, so rejuvenating, so goddamn delicious – and I don’t even like Coke. It was heaven.
The local wildlife
Two guys were bitten by scorpions but we had our own little visitor who came to our tent. We were getting ready for bed when one of our gang, Felix, suddenly let out a mighty scream. Just above his head was a large, poisonous camel spider. I have never seen a man move so quick.
The Moroccans were all friendly and welcoming. At one point, I shuffled past some kids herding goats. They were barefoot and relaxed, I was in expensive trainers and in pain. They were cool in the midday sun, I was sweating profusely. They were working, I was on holiday. They were smiling, I was not.
My lowest point of the whole week was the finish. This was a real shame as we had all talked enthusiastically about how we’d feel when crossing the finish line. But my body had had enough with 10km to go. I hit the wall. I had nothing left to give. So I stumbled my way across the last dunes and finished feeling completely empty. No joy, no anger, no tears, no emotion……….nothing! I soon perked up and when I received my medal 20 minutes later, I was buzzing and thrilled!
In summary I ended up finishing 492 out of 1029 - so very pleased to be in the top half. Actually, very pleased just to finish! (114 dropped out – over 10%). Also, through the fantastic generosity of friends, I raised £15,000 for Marie Curie – which was a really satisfying feeling.
Was it the most amazing adventure? Yes.
Would I recommend it to anyone? Yes.
Would I do it again? My wife Helen says no.