I am alive. Just.
Firstly a huge shout out to all those who took part and a special mention to the tent mates who I have grown to admire over this last week. In no particular order, thanks to Kev, Jeff, Chris, Rory, Selina, Phil and Rich. You guys made the trip a great one. Enjoyable, perhaps not. For those people in the world that haven’t run MDS, it is simply tougher than you can imagine. Speaking as a runner who has run a lot, A LOT, I was humbled and shocked by the extreme conditions. I underestimated this beast but loved the experience. I constantly asked myself ‘Am i enjoying this, the heat, the hills, the sand, the thirst, the hunger, and basically the answer is NO, didn’t enjoy it as such but the adventure was more than memorable.
So let’s talk about the race, if you can call it a race. A race where it takes 6 hours to hobble 10 miles. Some facts to bring this to life; I had 22 blisters, it took me nearly 40 hours to complete and an average speed of about 21 min miles. Oh and I fractured my ankle about 50 miles from the finish.
10 Days of Sand and Pain
09/04/2016 – Contrôles/Check-up day
My race day pack weighed in around 7.5kg on day 0. I had around 16,000 calories to last me the 7 racing days. I snipped bits off my bag, made final adjustments, said goodbye to my holdall luggage that was to be sent back to the hotel and then waited, waited for the morning water to be distributed to each competitor the following morning. That night I have about 20 mins sleep, possibly excitement, nerves and certainly because I made the decision to not include a bed roll.
10/04/2016 – Etape/Stage n°1 – OUEST ERG CHEBBI / ERG ZNAIGUI : 34 Km
Morning of Race Day was windy and hot, but not too hot (yet).
As the MDS official news quoted: “The mystery guest of the day: the wind! The first stage was magnificent, as expected, with the dunes of Merzouga and the village of M’Fiss.”
07:30am the water rations were complete and the race briefing would take place at 08:40. Just 20 mins before we set off for the first 34Km of the week. Little did we know but this step us up for a tough day. A day when at least 25 people dropped out. The dunes were bigger than you could imagine and relentless for the first 15km. At this point however I was knackered but in good shape and managing my 1.5L water ration well. By the end of the first day and having only ran 21 miles something which I thought I could run in 4 hours I ran in 5:35 and was left entirely depleted of energy and incredible sore feet. All this despite months of training, heat chamber sessions and the specially designed gaiters. I spent the first night nursing a few nasty blisters. I finished 170th so far. Here’s the course map and official video of day 1.
11/04/2016 – Etape/Stage n°2 – ERG ZNAIGUI / OUED MOUNGARF : 41,3 Km
Day 2 was the point where most competitors realised this wasn’t just a race, this was MDS.
We had again to face the dunes, cross the old village of Taouz, then follow a river to sleep again at the bivouac…
The famous line of the toughest footrace on earth came to fruition and like me everyone started to realise what they had signed up to. Completing this 25 miles on little food, little sleep and scorching temperatures was incredibly hard. Words don’t do this justice. That evening there were one 150 participants queueing to see the onsite doctor and nurses to sort their feet. For me this was the start of a daily occurrence and the beginning to a painful race. I finished around 226th I believe. Having run many races, fell, off road, road, long, short etc, this race was more of an ugly painful hike. I spent close to 7 hours dodging large rocks and managing my water.
You can see from the map below where the check points were situated and as each footstep was taken I naively believed that the checkpoint must just be over the next dune or around the next horizon line. The answer was frequently no, no it wasn’t. As yet my water management was proofing good, and at each checkpoint i’d use about 3 mins of time to refuel my water bottles, add the nuun electrolyte tabs, pop a few salt tablets and then step once again into the heat, knowing that water wouldn’t be given again for another 10km or thereabouts. 10km i hear you say, that’s not much. You’d be right in normal circumstances but not in the desert. I originally thought I could run 10km in about an hour, turns out I averaged more like 2.5 hours. 21 min per mile. So the next checkpoint felt like a lifetime away. Here’s the map and vid of day 2.
12/04/2016 – Etape/Stage n°3 – OUED MOUNGARF / BA HALLOU : 37,5 Km
The words of the official news from MDS to the subscribers, and followers back home read like this “The runners will cross the dunes, then will climb Jebel Foum Al OPath and dunes, dunes and more dunes. The landscapes will be beautiful, but the feet may get scratched a little.”
That phrase of ‘feet getting scratched’ was an understatement to say the least, By the end of day 3 we had lost over 100 competitors, sore feet, exhaustion and the heat took our friends. For me Day 3 was bonding day, the routine of visiting Doc Trotters had set in, and the feet were utterly ruined, but the tent mates had well and truly got to know each other. Mates I will never forget. I walked back from the docs after 3 hours of waiting in line and finally received treatment from the highly patient, highly admirable volunteer nurses and doctors once again. Having shuffled across the camp, which was only about 200 meters but took at least 10 minutes, I made my slowly to the email tent to write home.
So bonding day was truly a turning point for me and most of camp, we had come too far to quit and the big day, the long day of 84km was looming. I went begging around camp to ask for scraps of food to fill my tummy for the next day ahead, having struggled to ram my food own disgusting food in. Everyone hated their food, it was a strange situation, most people took their favourite nutritious meals and within 3 days we all hated it. Variety is the spice indeed.
A few food donations later from kind and generous people looking to shed bag weight I scoffed down a small pack of parmesan cheese which tasted life heaven followed by my treat for the day, about 20 twiglets. I went to sleep with almost every toe and most of my feet covered in bandages. Despite this, I strangely looked forward to the long day, because I was good at longer distances, needless to say I was wrong, very wrong.
13/04/2016 – Etape/Stage n°4 – Long Stage 84,3 km between Ba and Hallou Hassi Tarfa.
This is the stage feared by all runners: run at night, alone in the desert, alone with the desert silence. An extraordinary experience, typical of the MARATHON DES SABLES.
It is safe to say this is where the wheels well and truly came off. My plan was similar to most people, get through this long day. 52 miles of heat, pain and suffering, all in the name of running/walking. Everyone knew this is when people drop out big time, the long day is the one people fear. I didn’t fear it too much because I knew I could do the distance. However I should have feared it more. My plan was to take the daylight slowly, the heat of the day needed to be managed. And this long day, the sun was hot, really hot. My original target before setting out for MDS was 11.5 hours, I quickly amended this to 18 hours. Starting a little after 7 in the morning I focused on counting down to 12 midday. then all i had was potentially 12 hours to go. Mental really. So 8 hours later at checkpoint 3 my feet were screaming at me to stop, to soak them, to go home and to give up. I could feel my feet were in a very bad way but didn’t want to look at them. I found shade at the checkpoint, refueled and did my best to drink as much water as I could in the heat of the day. By now the nuun tablets, no matter how great, were starting to taste disgusting and sickly. I managed to get a cheeky pic with Patrick along the way though.
I popped more salt tablets as I did every morning, every checkpoint and every evening. I consumed over 150 tablets in my week in the desert. Remarkable really, considering how we are supposed to cut salt out of our diet usually. Anyway, sitting for 10 mins in the shade I felt a tiny bit better, but standing up my feet shocked me, the blood had start to change in my feet and the pain was ridiculous. I was still about 30km from the finish of the long day. I ploughed on and running became walking, walking became hobbling, and hobbling because a slow shuffle through gritted teeth.
A few hours later the sun started to relent, dropping behind desert mountains a quick pit stop to pop the head torches on, drink more, pop some more pills and we all became a snail trail of bobbing lights in the distance.The stars were incredible, but i couldn’t look up that much because any slight knock to my feet would leave me biting my lip of swearing loudly. At this point the doubt started to knock on the door heavily. The pain of my toes were so bad it wasn’t fun, enjoyable and like others I found myself thinking why am I hear. I don’t need to do this. It’s just a race.
I attempted to block this internal battle with music, donning the earphones and getting my head down had to be the way forward. It worked for about 1 mile which equated to about 30 mins. Chris, a guy who i grew to admire over the week, who was a tent mate, spent most the journey with me that day, he was in less pain, and supported me. Several hours later and only a few miles covered hobbling,a fellow brit passed me and said something along the lines of “It’s best to get them seen to before you attempt another 25km. It’s a long way.” So i did, 5k ish later I stopped at checkpoint 6, called for the doctor and tentatively slipped my trainer off my right foot. My foot was mangled, blasted everywhere and one huge one on my big toe.
The fantastic staff sorted me out, filled me with pain killers and I started to move slowly towards the exit of the checkpoint and back into darkness. At this point I asked Chris to go on, I didn’t want to hold him up any longer. After about 10 steps i stopped, turned around and decided that was it, my mind had buckled. Pain killers hadn’t kicked in and I didn’t want to hack this any longer. I don’t know why or how but within a few steps I changed my mind, I wasn’t going to quit now, i turned and ran as fast as I could until I reached the next bobbing head torch in the distance. The pain was incredible and it seemed like my lungs were going to jump out of my chest. After a brief chat with the 2 brits i caught up with, I tagged along, they were marching in formation, also in pain. We had 20km to go. We marched for 4 further hours, every step I made was placed in the footstep of the guy in front of me. I didn’t look up, we hardly spoke. about 9km from the end we saw the finish, It felt like relief but after an hour, it didn’t seem any closer, we were annoyed frustrated and in pain. I noticed a pain in my right heel, i had been marching on my heels of my feet for hours, just to keep the pain from my toes. We finished, and even managed to run the last 100 meters crossing the line together. A huge thanks to Roland and Keiran for getting me to the end. 18 hours and 53 minutes, crossing the line at 03:05am the following day.
I made my way to the doctors the next morning after immediately collapsing and sleeping till about 6 in the morn. (yes only 3 hours sleep) No food that night either.
Rest day. The reward of finishing the long day in one go meant while I was sleeping in camp, obviously covered in sand as always, others were still slogging it out on the course. A number of competitors had stopped and slept at checkpoint 5. Thanks to Rory’s advice I didn’t stop, and woke up knackered in pain, but at least the long day was over. I felt immense pride having got through that tough night. And thanks to all those who helped.
I managed to get up and make my way to claim my free can of coke. This was the reward for getting through the long day. It was amazing. Just a cold fizzy drink made all the difference. Although today was positive, it had it’s draw backs.
As the day went by I noticed a pain in my ankle, something which wasn’t a blister. I thought about seeing the doc but couldn’t face the effort of moving. So I didn’t, we waited for the rest of the competitors to finish. 33 hours was the final person over the line. They had walked through the night, through the morning and into the afternoon. As a tent, we had some laughs that night, we were on a high from completing the ‘hard bit’ and whats more, we all made it. Huge respect to Jeff with 2 false hips. Legend. So day 5 over, and we all new the race finished after day 6. Even if we did have the charity stage of 17km to go on day 7.
Day 6 Final Day, Final Marathon
The last 42km of MDS 2016. And surprisingly this day felt great, for the first 2 miles. My foot started to give me grief again, the blisters, my head, my feet felt like they were on fire. I ran out of water before checkpoint 3, and a fellow competitor gave me what they could spare. So grateful. Needless to say, everyone knew it was nearly over, and the distance didn’t feel like a marathon, in contrast to the previous 2 days it was a doodle. Can’t believe I can say that.
Despite the positivity something wasn’t right. My foot was in so much pain, I hobbled and limped to the finish. Straight to doc trotters, the prognosis was a highly suspected fractured ankle. I can confirm now, back home in the UK it is indeed fractured. So here I am being told my foot is screwed, and although the race is complete, the medal is only given to all participants who complete the charity day on day 7. This is a 17km walk with the entire group of 900ish wearing our unicef T-shirts. I must say that this was poor planning my the organisers. And although we all knew it is a great way to raise money for the charity, we were all broken. If I didn’t do this 17km I wouldn’t get the medal I so desperately craved.
So I had no choice. Using crutches, I hobbled the 17km at the back of the pack for nearly 6 hours, over dunes and rocks to the finish. Finally complete. Medal around me neck, relief, actual relief. My foot was ugly swollen, but with the help of Richy Rich, was had private transport from the finish, with beers, drinks and food, to the hotel for our last night in Morocco. Thanks Rich, you made 7 very tired, hungry, and thirsty people very happy.
So a day and night in the hotel, hobbling around on crutches, and not able to use the pool, the tent mates chatted, arranged to meet up in the future, and dozed in the sun, waiting for the final leg (excuse the pun) of the journey home. A decent chat with some happy participants on the plane, a quick nap, and some plane food later we were in cold, England. Perfect.
I’d like to thank all the sponsors who provided me with gear, and support over the last 18 months, My family and friends for all the great emails and notes I reviewed while out there. It made a huge difference. My tent mates, lasting friends and truly remarkable people. The blog will be full of stories of them over the coming weeks. A special mention to the number of people who read my blog, but I don’t know in person who sent me good luck messages. And lastly thanks to all those people who donated to my charities. It is hugely appreciated.
Since MDS I have released there are other charities that also need support, so in the near future I am opening up this site so you can donate to a range of charities. This is by way of thanks to all the spacial people I’ve met in the last week or so. I look forward to working with you all and supporting your charities in the future.
A mention to Big Moose and Prostate Cancer. I’ll be dedicating a page to you both this week and a lifetime of dedication to ensure the Big Moose gets the publicity it deserves and Prostate cancer gets the awareness it needs. Jeff and Kev high five.
Big Moose Link Here http://www.bigmoose.co/#intro
Please keep following me on twitter as I now plan my next adventures. I still have 16 races booked this year including my world record attempt in September. Keep and eye out, more details coming soon.
Thank you all.