I needed time from the finish line to reflect on this, for the blisters to heal, the legs to stop aching and the mind to unwind from what is a truly unique event. I loved it. But at the same time it was a week of purgatory – that limbo state in between heaven and hell.
I knew I’d leave with only the fondest of memories, but I’m determined to hold on to the overall experience, which included a fair amount of lows to go with the highs. They say the body doesn’t remember pain; that was one of the things that I thought of during the many long hours of running and trudging during the Marathon Des Sables.
The Marathon Des Sables, as you might know, is entitled as the toughest footrace on earth, being approximately 150 miles over 7 days in the Sahara desert of southern Morocco. Combined with that is sleeping each night in the most basic of accommodations, being a bedouin type village comprising 150 odd competitor tents of a simple rug and tarp construction under the most amazing of desert skies. It is without doubt the most famous and iconic footrace / adventure race (call it what you will) going, and that forms part of its appeal. It satisfies both the inner urge to test oneself, and also a level of vanity that many runners get as they progress in their fitness and the sport.
You carry your own food and any spare equipment and clothing in your
backpack, which thankfully reduces over the week, as you eat your provisions, from a starting weight of approximately 8-12kg. There’s a mandatory kit list which includes an anti venom pump, a signalling mirror in case you get lost (this has happened!) and a flare in case the shit really hits the fan. This DOES happen!
If that’s not enough to make you wince, the temperatures will. Being held in the desert, the weather certainly lives up to expectations and on one of the stages we had to endure temperatures of over 50c. You might think this leads to balmy night time conditions, but not so. The sun sets quickly at about 7pm leading to a speedy drop in temperature. That, combined with a huge calorie deficit and a general malaise that prevails under such conditions leads to pretty cold evenings and nights sleep. Leggings and micro fleeces might be required… or not if you’re a tough sort.
But without a good night sleep, are you really going to perform well on the next run? So do you pack extra clothing to keep warm and also a proper stove and stacks of food? Seems like a good idea right? Well, maybe, but then that extra weight is going to make your running during the day all that harder. As if it wasn’t hard enough. These factors all go towards what makes the Marathon Des Sables a fascinating and fantastic foot race. It’s a full on assault on mind, body and soul. I’m sorry if that sounds cheesy, but it is.
The first 3 days were tough. Very tough. Between 20 and 24 miles and with varying levels of ascent and descent. You might not know that the desert contains some pretty serious hills, as impressive as anything our Lake District can offer. However, this is all a pre-cursor to what is the defining part of the MdS: Day 4 – ‘Long Day’. It varies in length each year at +/- 50 miles and fortunately this year was on the lower side of average. Still, miles of sand dunes and 50c+ made up for any shortage of distance.
Day 5 is rest day, although not for the poor souls who took a couple of days to finish Long Day and had to camp out at one of the checkpoints in the dark of the night. And day 6 – just when you’re broken and mentally shot after Long Day…well, day 6 is marathon day. But what gets you through that is the knowledge of it being the last full day in the desert. Day 7 this year was a 7km charity walk with the thought of a change of clothes and shower being not far away. Bliss.
Ultra runner coach and 9 times Guinness World Record holder, Rory Coleman, was there for his 10th time and rated this year as the hardest of his decade of Marathon Des Sables running. This year they upped the length of the first day from a customary half marathon to just short of a marathon length distance. The last day was shortened to accommodate this, but by then the field had been stretched and exhausted to breaking point. Rory reported that the terrain was some of the worst, and with a day time high of 54c, then the 2013 MdS will be remembered for some time to come.
I managed to squeak in the top 150 out of over 1000 runners, and I’m a bit ashamed to say I was more interested in my result than I had planned on being when I set out. But I guess there’s a competitive streak in most of us. But really, finishing, making new friends, and forming bonds through shared adversity is what it’s all about (Hi tent 110!).
So, 2 weeks on and the body is back in one piece. The 50p size blisters are fading, and with all the physical evidence and pains slowly ebbing away, all will be left are the friendships and memories. And I’m damn sure they’ll last far far longer.