Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Marathon des Sables 2008 - My Story


Four years ago I literally could not run a mile. I had to stop at 3/4 of a mile gasping for breath on a treadmill, with a personal trainer called Clive probably thinking he had his work cut out here. I had decided to start running, get fit and get some personal training after a health check had revealed me mostly ok but dreadfully unfit for a 30 year old man. So, I started to do the odd short run over the next couple of years and eventually even entered an off-road 10k event. I found those 6 miles so hard I could not understand how anyone could run a 26 mile marathon. I certainly knew I couldn't. A few months later in January 2006 I was watching a TV show on the Marathon des Sables. I was in awe of spectacle and could not understand how anyone could survive such as extreme event. "I'd love to do that some day", I announced. "Why don't you then?" came back the reply from my girlfriend at that time. "OK" I announced boastfully, "I will then". I went upstairs, went onto the internet and downloaded the application form. I filled it in and made out a cheque for £500, the non-refundable deposit sum. The next day I walked to the post box, raised the envelope and let it hover in the slot for a couple of minutes as the enormity of what I had said I would do finally began to sink in. Eventually I pushed the envelope inside. A week or so later I got back a letter. My application was accepted into the 23rd edition of the Marathon des Sables in 2008.

I had two years and 3 months to train from really nothing, to be fit enough to stand at the start line with 800 others from across the world. Now I have no natural or genetic running ability. I'm still not a fast runner at all. I'd have to train the only way I knew how, which was to make a very detailed plan. What I lack in natural ability I make up for in preparation, attention to detail and the ability to stick to a plan to the letter. I'd never miss a training session because "I didn't feel like it today". This was the only way I knew that I could try and get in shape to even show my face in Morocco. Now the information I have researched in my blog, the training I have done, and the equipment I have used has worked for me but it may not be right for you. I have no ultra credentials, I am just an everyday Bob who had an aspiration to acheive something extraordinary just once in his life. If you find something in my pages that helps you then great, but know that I'm just a newbie and I'm learning every day. In other words 'don't blame me!'. I started the search for information on the race, sucking up every detail from every website I found. I read past competitors stories online and even found a few blogs, which I found useful. I closely followed one in particular, Alan Silcock as he trained for his first MDS in 2006. I subsequently got to know Alan and we both took part in this years MDS. Anyway, I decided that I would start my own blog to keep up my motivation for the event which seemed so far away, and also to record my journey as record of how far I would go in two years.

On January 25th 2006 I created my first blog post, and have updated it at least once a week ever since. In 2006 I set a goal of running my first (and still my only) marathon. I built up to 10k again, and then I ran my first and only half marathon in August 2006 in Newark. I ran it in a modest 1:52, which have me some hope I could crack 4 hours in the New York Marathon in November 2006. Just 7 weeks before the marathon, disaster struck and I got Illiotibula Band Syndrome in my right leg during my first ever 15 mile training run. For the next 7 weeks up to the event I could only cover a distance of 3 miles before the pain was too bad to continue. So with just one 15 mile run 'in the bank' I knew I was in trouble. By chance I spoke to my Uncle, a sheffield chiropractor (he is also a York Chiropractor, Doncaster chiropractor and a Hull chiropractor too! ). He told me that he treated this kind of injury, and not just back pain as I had assumed. He have me intensive treatment for a week and the problem went away. Too late for any long training runs, but patched up enough to make the start line. I ran and really enjoyed the New York Marathon but at 18 miles, deep into new mileage territory I hit the wall. I felt sick and terrible but I carried on at a much reduced pace and made it over the finish in 4:10. I was happy to finish, but just a little sad I had missed out on my 4 hour goal.

After New York I entered more Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA) events, and even started to run parts of these events, which are typically around 20-25 mile with a few thousand feet of climbing involved. In January 2007 I found my interest in the MDS waning. I was feeling fitter after 12 months of training and knew that my MDS was still well over a year away. I entered a multi day ultra in France called La Trans Aq in June 2007. It sounded perfect training. It was the same format as the MDS, but a little less distance, not as hot, plenty of sand, but a little less weight to carry in the backpack. I trained hard, and completed my first self-designed ultra distance of 35 miles five weeks before La Trans Aq. I flew to France meeting two other UK competitors at the airport, Anne and Vaughan Wade. They are both superb ultra athletes, lots of experience and they were 2006 MDS successful veterans. I learned a lot of from as the week of La Trans Aq progressed. Despite finding the event very hard, I thoroughly enjoyed it and surprised myself my finishing 86th out of about 125 starters. I had expected to come last!

Brimming with confidence when I got back I then vowed to enter two LDWA events per month until the MDS itself. I would enter all of them as a runner, despite always carrying an increasingly weighed backpack to simulate MDS conditions. I entered and completed a very tough and 'character building' 29 mile event called the Rhayader Mountain trail in August 2007, then three weeks later the 40 mile Coventry Way Challenge. I continued with LDWA events and successfully completed my major goal for 2007; the 50 mile 'Round Rotherham'. I had trained in Tenerife just before La Trans Aq, and returned in December 2007 for another session. It is worth looking over those blog posts for Tenerife, and the close call I had there; That experience was recalled and helped me during this years MDS. I did a few other LDWA events in early 2008, but some injuries prevented me doing as many as I would have wanted. I also had to cancel my entry into the 54 mile Thames Meander, which would have been my final confidence booster for the MDS. Still I had put a lot of miles in and just rested my injuries ready for the MDS. The week before the event I felt fine, no sign of any injury other than that right ITB niggle which didn't feel too bad anyway.

I packed for the MDS; the detailed equipment/food list you can find in a previous blog post and set off for Gatwick on 26th March 2008.

Pre Race

I stayed in a hotel at Gatwick and met a few other competitors that evening, including a top guy known as 'Cookie' who will feature in an MDS documentary, to be shown on ITV 4 in May 2008. This will be worth watching because he really had a bad time of it, but yet made it through anyway, superb. The TV crew got some great footage of him in pieces as he crossed the finish one stage, which will let some of you know how hard this event is mentally as well as physically. The following day all 250 UK competitors flew out to Ouarzazate and stayed at Le Berbere Palace hotel. I shared a room with a chap called Martin, who had failed the MDS on day 4 in 2006. It turned out there were a lot of 2006 abandons back in 2008 to correct their mistakes. Martin knew a couple of other 2006 abandoners; Andy and Ming. The four of us were then joined by Kevin, Hugo and Toby, and later by Michael. Tent 99 was assembled. We ate at the excellent hotel buffet, loading up on calories before getting an early night.

Everyone left Ouarzazate the next day for what ended up being a 7 hour journey, punctuated by water, lunch and pee-stops, and the coach I was on breaking down and holding up the journey for everyone for 40 minutes. The roadbooks were handed out as we departed, and I quickly skipped to stage 4 to see how far it was; 75.5k; 5k shorter than expected. This meant that the earlier stages were longer. I didn't study the roadbook in great detail on the journey down though. The journey was not enjoyable; winding roads over the mountains, and very hot. It was cooler outside the coach than inside. Eventually the coach turned left, off the tarmac road and started to head across the dirt into the desert. We had expected to be put on the back of open-back army trucks for the trip to the bivouac, but not so this year. The black tents of the competitors and white tents of the admin that I had seen a thousand times in photos came into view. I was here. After 2 years of waiting I had arrived in the desert. It all felt strangely familiar because I had viewed so much material on the internet.

We'd get close up and personal with those pretty red hills in the background soon enough. We dragged our suitcases through the shallow sand, into the bivouac and staked our claim for a tent, which happened to be 99. I put my kit on the outside edge of the tent, because I was hydrating like a mad man and knew I would be up in the night for the loo. That's my kit, nearest on the right.

We got to know each other a little better during the evening, and stood in the first of many queues for the organiser supplied dinner. The food was better than expected for the meals though the portion sizes not too generous. If you are a big-eater you might want to bring a little extra food for those couple of days before the race starts. It was dark by 7pm and we all got what sleep we could with a howling wind blowing. The next day was admin day and we all had time-slots to go and get our kit checked. We packed our rucksacks, adding any last minute items in. I decided to add a Helly Hansen thermal top and an extra pair of socks to my equipment, and a single emergency carb-gel. Alan Silcock, veteran from 2006 and 2007 came over to say hi. He was staying in tent 79 and it was good to remake acquaintance. He's a useful man to know with plenty of advice to get you through the MDS.

Here is Tent 99, left to right: Hugo, Me, Andy, Michael, Kevin, Toby, Ming, and Martin crouching down.

After packing, tent 99 decided to go and reccie the Merzouga Dunes which were those pretty red hills in the photo above. We walked the 1.5k to the edge and stepped onto them for our first taste of the finest powdered sand £2650 can buy.

I had a close cut 'racing haircut' done the day before I set off, though this makes it look like I had a close cut Mohican!

I wandered and even ran up and down a few dunes and stared off into the distance getting to know my enemy. 8 miles through the dunes seemed like a rude wakeup call for stage 1. We all headed back to the tent and had a lie down to recover from the reccie!

I was approached by lots of people during the event who recognised me from my photo's on this blog, and we all very complimentary about it. I was surprised by quite how many of you there were. It's nice to know it's not just me and my mum who has been reading this blog for two years! Special hello to the guys from Tent 97, our neighbours, who I got to know a little and frequently bumped into a checkpoints during the week.

A sandstorm blew up during the afternoon, reducing the visibility from miles to a couple of hundred yards. Goggles on and buffs pulled up I realised I didn't like them, even though this was probably fairly low on the scale.

My 3pm timeslot arrived and I dragged my suitcase and rucksack over to the admin tents. I was nervous about my ECG, despite knowing that many peoples showed the same abnormalities. At desk one we got our race numbers and handed in our suitcases, which were packed up on a lorry and sent back to the hotel in Ouarzazate. Next I was given a necklace with a medical card, water (pointing) card, flare, and electronic tag. The tag was new for 2008, and actually just being tested this year. The tag was scanned as we passed into checkpoints and may well be the new timekeeping system in 2009. The manual recording was the system used primarily this year though.
Next I handed in a organiser-supplied sheet of paper to the kit-check desk. I had carefully listed all my equipment, my food and calorie content and the weight of my pack. I had signed the disclaimed to say I had packed all of this kit as well as the required items. They took it off me, wrote a few things down and said that was it. No detailed kit inspection at all. I don't know anyone who had their kit inspected in fact. At the end of the day if you want to cheat yourself out of kit and calories that it your problem I guess? Finally I approached the doctors table, somewhat apprehensively. I handed over my medical certificate and ECG to one doctor, whilst another asked if I had done a marathon before. Not wanting to attract attention I said "yes lots, and also a multi day race in France called La Trans Aq". She seemed happy enough with the response, and I watched nervously as the other doctor traced her pen over the heart-trace of my ECG. She looked up and said "OK" and sent me on my way. That was it, now it was over to me. I headed back to tent 99 and realised when there I had left my flare on the table in admin! oops. A quick unplanned run later, and I had retrieved it. We were told to pack the flare in an easily accessible place in our rucksack. I put it at the bottom, out of temptations way. Call me stupid, but it seemed wise to me (I was right as it transpired).

During late afternoon we all assembled outside out tents for Patrick Bauers welcome and demonstration of how to set off the flare. Second time lucky after they forgot to take the lid off the first one when they fired it. Doh!

Afterwards we went back to out tents and settled in for the night. The wind was high and got stronger as dawn approached. I slept badly, grabbing just a couple of hours at best, which would be a pattern I would repeat for most of the week.

I am going to post the organisers press release for each day, along with the temperatures and map, before my own story each day from here onwards.

30/03/2008 - Stage 1 : Erg Chebbi/Erg Znaigui

Weather conditions at 8.00am: 20,8 °C / 31% hygrometry (humidity)
Weather conditions at 12.00am: 36,8 °C /18% hygrometry

801 competitors, amongst which 94 women, set off this morning for an unusually long and difficult opening stage. With hardly more than a kilometre to warm up, our enthusiastic bunch of runners were confronted with the Merzouga dunes. Those 13 kilometres allowed a clear lead to emerge. Unsurprisingly, at CP1, the favourites Ahansal, Aqra and Ait Amar were on each other’s heels. Starting on the long rocky plateau that leads to the second set of dunes, Mohamad Ahansal moved to top speed and left everyone on the spot. In black and yellow settings (rocks and sand), the race got slightly crazy, exploding with young Ahansal’s incredible pace. He reached the finish line way ahead of anybody else, more than fifteen minutes before his direct competitors, slightly shock shelled from Ahansal’s performance: “I’ve been alone from kilometre 7; of course I miss my brother, we had the same pace, but I’m happy with my day”.
Jorge Aubeso (Spain) also did a fine race. He himself was pleasantly surprised: “I don’t think I’m 1st place material, but my knee’s getting better by the day and I can be a patient man…”
A less pleasant surprise for Jordan Salameh El Aqra’ who found the course harder than expected and also had to deal with tummy trouble.
Today the Marathon des Sables was particularly worthy of its name: sand was on the menu, starter, main and pudding. And it’s only the beginning…

The tent was taken down from above our heads shortly after 6am, but most of us were already awake. There was a high wind and it was a truly demoralising start to the MDS. Trying to prepare yourself as a gale blows all around you wasn't nice. In fact I didn't get to prepare my feet the way I wanted to that morning, forgoing the pre-taping for fear of taping sand into my feet.

I ate my standard breakfast of porrage oats, dried milk and honey-coated banana chips mixed up with about 1 pint of water and boiled up in my MSR kettle. Breakfast went down well and I washed it down with 50g of PSP22 tipped into a half-full mineral water bottle. We all collected our start line water ration which was rather unusually 3 litres instead of 1.5. The larger ration usually indicates that there is a tough section ahead. We had all roughly calculated that we would spend 3 hours in the dunes and so it was clear that the 3 litres would be needed anyway. Below is a shot of the 'pointing card' wore around the neck and clipped at every CP when you get your water ration. Also attached to this was the medical card, but this was taken away during stage 7. The medical card was clipped if you received attention from Doc Trotters. If you look closely you can see on the date 30(th) that 3L is indicated for the first ration.

After getting my water ration I got fully dressed and lay down using my backpack as a wind shield. The sand storm had rattled me and I was feeling a little demoralised. It was not a nice way to start the MDS. I took out a couple of cards and photos that I carried with me, from my family, to calm my nerves. This seemed to work some magic and the wind dropped almost immediately. At 8:30 we assembled on the start line and music played over the loudspeakers. Below you can see my chosen dress for the week. A Railriders Ecomesh shirt, Under Armour vented shorts with Raidlight stretch shorts over the top. Raidlight 30l backpack and frontpack. Outdoor Research cap and Wiley X goggles/sunglasses with light adjusting lenses. 800ml Raidlight bottle in the frontpack, along with a 1.5L water bottle, and I carried another 800ml in hand in that bottle on day 1.

The same tunes were played all week, but the clear winner was AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long". There was a real buzz of excitement on the line as Patrick introduced the race, and his nice assistant Sarah translated into English. Tent 99 shook hands and wished each other good luck, as the countdown began. Trios, Deux, Un and we were off to the loud cheers of everyone. The Eurosport helicopter buzzed overhead and circled us as we crossed the start line and were off. I set my first foot on my rollercoaster ride of the 2008 edition & 23rd Marathon des Sables.
Video of the start
I set off at a light jog amongst the 800 others, waving to the Eurosport copter as it made frequent passes. The first 1.5k was easy flat terrain but bought me closer to the nightmare start-day obstacle of the Merzouga Dunes; up to 150M high in places. I stopped to pose for a photo which really gives you a flavour of the task we had ahead. You can just about make out the field of runners snaking into the dunes.

We had 12.5k of the dunes ahead. Doesn't sound like much does it?

I was with Hugo and Toby as we set out across the dunes, our pace rapidly slowing to around 3mph (less at times), which is what we had estimated it would be. The wind had dropped but was still blustery and depending on the path you selected across the dunes you could be sand-blasted as you crested a particularly high dune. There was of course no path to follow, you just made you own. Most competitors just followed one main 'snake', but sometimes two snakes would appear as some would judge one path easier than another. It was of course hot, but the wind took the edge off. It was by fortune the coolest day of the week; the only day under 40C at 36.7C. It may have peaked higher in the dunes themselves but the official temperature was given as above. I clocked the humidity as being around 18% - 21% which was higher than I had expected. Certainly sweat clung to my skin under my shirt, and I was conscious of maintaining hydration. I sipped my water ration frequently, every 2 or 3 minutes. The dunes rose and fell before me. Sometimes I could see a high one ahead and would hope to view the end from it, but my hopes were dashed when I crested and just saw miles more in every direction.

You can't get a rhythm walking in dunes. The sand density changes from very soft to sometimes firmer. Sometimes it seems firm but gives way half way through a footstep. You feet slide backwards and sideward’s and it is very tiring. Sometimes it is better to step in other people’s footsteps; sometimes it is better to make your own. You learn which as you go, I can't tell you how! Some of the dunes are shockingly steep on the 'downside' once you have crested them. In fact some dunes are actually vertical drops; sheer walls of sand. You will have to see it to believe it.

I had split from Hugo and Toby at some point in the dunes as we had each stopped for the 'loo', or to adjust equipment etc.

After what seemed like an eternity I saw the end of the dunes, and after perhaps another half hour I emerged from them and to checkpoint 1. All the walking seemed to be irritating my right IT band. This caused me frequent discomfort during the week, but was never a show-stopper thankfully.

I failed to notice that you had to filter into a particular lane depending on your race number and was ushered away to the furthest right lane to have my tag scanned, time recorded, and fresh 1.5l of water supplied. It had taken me 2hrs50 mins to reach CP1 at 14k, more or less what I had expected, average speed just 2.7mph by then. My feet and toes felt ok but I could feel my socks were wet with sweat. There are small tents setup at each CP for competitors to use for shade. Here they refill water bottles, eat food, or just generally crash out for a while and recover. There is also a Doc Trotter tent. I got into the shade, took off my pack and swapped my socks for a dry pair, after airing my feet for a couple of minutes. I hung the wet pair of socks on the outside of my pack to dry as the idea to swap between two pairs a day came to me. By the time I had done this and mixed up some electrolyte 10 minutes had passed. I got back on my feet and trotted out of the CP.
The terrain went immediately from one extreme to the other; Now a totally flat stony plain stretching to the horizon. I was finally able to achieve my target pace of 5mph.

This pleasant terrain continued until for the next 10k. You can see this stony flat terrain below with a photo looking forward, and back (where you can see the end of the Merzouga Dunes).

It was plain sailing across the flat to CP2, where I swapped my socks for the now dry originals, refuelled with another electrolyte and set off again. I would be eating on the move; a small mouthful of food every ten minutes or so to stay topped up on fuel. Thee k's later I crossed some sandier terrain again, which for all purposes may have well as been full on dunes. I was getting a little tired by now. The early dune onslaught and then quickened pace across the flats to recover time had taken it's toll, but I was still feeling ok. That was until the sting in the tail on day one came into sight, another 2.5k of substantial dunes. They can be seen in the distance, ahead of a couple of locals.

The dunes really wore me out and once again with every crest my hopes for it being the last dune were cruelly dashed by tens more. Finally I crested a dune and spied the finish line. Energy returned to my legs and I managed a jog up a down the last few dunes and across the line. I finished in 05H51'58' average speed of 5,39kph.
A word about the average speed at this point; sometimes this differs from what I posted in my nightly updates. This was because the stage lengths were not always exactly as advertised in the roadbook, versus my GPS measurement. Some were slightly short by a few hundred metres, and some were longer (such as day 5 and day 6).

I was then ushered through to collect my 4.5l water ration to last to the following day. There is nothing crueler than handing a tired athlete an additional 4.5 kilos in weight to struggle with back to his tent. I stripped off my shoes and socks, and checked my feet. They were fine. I aired them whilst I had a Rego recovery drink, and then ate my Mountain House 800 kcal meal within the hour to replace my carbs as quickly as possible. The others all came in at various times in good order, but we were left missing Glaswegian Michael and Banbury-based Ming. Both of these guys were sporting hefty rucksacks and we were concerned for them. Michael eventually arrived beating the 10 hour cut-off. In fact as long as it took Michael to complete some stages we always knew he would make it. This guy is slow, steady and unstoppable; The Terminator. We knew if there wasn't a way over the hill, he'd smash his way through it to get home.

Ming however, was a different story. A few of us gathered on the finish line as the deadline approached and then passed. Dusk came, went, and pitch darkness fell over the dunes. How demoralising to be finishing your first day in total darkness, and have to be using your head torch. Ming had failed on day 2 in 2006, and it looked like he could go out on day 1 on 2008. A few competitors abandoned and were brought back on quad bike leaving Ming the only person left out there. Many people and camera crews gathered on the finish line, as did Race Director Patrick Bauer. There was some concern Ming was lost for a while, but then he was found and apparently abandoned, but then it was announced he had rejoined the race to cheers from everyone. A head torch blinked into view in the distance and a camera crew raced out for some advance footage. Ming, walking sticks in hand, was on autopilot, marching towards the line. He crossed the line without stopping 40 minutes after the deadline. He was walking with his eyes closed! He was totally out of it and didn’t know where he was, and afterwards had no memory of that evening . He was stripped of his pack by the doctors and half carried into the medical tent where he was asleep before his head was on the bed. We were all worried but doctors assured us he was fine, but exhausted. He went back to our tents positive that was Ming out of the race, either by time elimination or medical direction. Once again I slept on the outside edge of the tent, and kept awake by the raging wind that picked up during the night.

31/03/2008 - Stage 2 : Erg Znaigui/Oued El Jdaid : 38 km

Weather at 8.00am: 19,8 °C / 40% hygrometry
Weather at 12.00: 40 °C / 16% hygrometry

Runners awoke with a smile on their lips. The dunes belonged to the past, but they did some damage (6 competitors gave up), cooling down the least experienced competitors’ ardour. Today’s stage, with less sand and more rocky surfaces, was done with at infernal speed (13,5km per hour) by the lead runners, and most notably the two favourites Mohamad Ahansal (1) and Salameh Al Aqra’ (71) who never let go of their top positions. On the finish line, the Jordanian competitor, who seemed happy enough with his second rank, paid homage to his Moroccan rival: “yes, yes, he’s the champ”. Mohamad looked at him, thanked him, but didn’t seem to believe him: “the race is far from finished”. The Spanish runner Jorge Aubeso (622) gave renewed proof of his great shape, with a beautiful third ranking. He’s now fully reassured as to his knee trouble and can officially admit at last he would like to finish amongst the first three.
On the women’s side, Toda Didi keeps shining. Not only was she the first woman to reach the finish line, but she came 33rd in the general ranking.
Runners went through a village called Jdaid where a cooperative workshop, a day centre for children and a health centre were built in 2007 thanks to the work of the EAUSOLEIL charity Yet another sign that the Marathon des Sables is not just a sport competition…


I didn't awake with any smile on my lips. I was tired. I had got 2.5 hours, perhaps 3; broken sleep that did little to repair my mind or body for the day ahead.
On the flipside, the course looked easier despite the increased distance. I foolishly hoped that I could complete the day faster than the previous one, despite the mileage difference. The problem with the road books is that you can never tell what the terrain will really be like.

Much to everyone's amazement Ming came back to the tent, announced he was still in the race, ate some food and strapped on his pack. We were amazed and impressed at his resolution. Patrick Bauer announced at the start line that Ming's effort was so impressive that he had waived the cut-off time as it was the first stage.

I had the time to prepare my feet properly today; pre-taping all the areas prone to blister. I was tired but breakfast perked me up and we wandered over to the start line at the earlier time of 8am to stand amongst ropes to spell out the number 23 for the helicopter.

You know it is strange; you feel tired from the previous day, you tell yourself to start slow, maybe even walk, but the music starts, the countdown begins and you find yourself running across the line.

Nevertheless I could see there looked to be a lot of 'runnable' ground, at least for the first half of the stage so I decided to adopt a run/walk strategy. In the cooler temperatures of the day I ran for the first 45 minutes, walked for 5 minutes, and then did a 20 minute run and 10 minute walk strategy all the way for CP1. The ground was good, but stony, as can be seen below.

A cushioned shoe with a sturdy sole to prevent bruising is what was required this year I thought. The New Balance 1100MDS is just what the doctor ordered for me. Three people in our tent used them, and they had no complaints. I had not ingressed any sand from yesterdays dunes, which meant that I was unlikely to all week. The Raidlight gaiters were glued and stitched and were working well. Hugo in our tent was in Trabuco's, an MDS competitor favourite, and he suffered on this type of ground. His gaiters were fine, but his shoes caused him problems as you will read later.

At CP1 I swapped my socks as was now my routine, mixed up my electrolyte and carried on. I continued on, maintaining my run 20, walk 10 strategy which felt comfortable initially, but became tougher as we entered Wadi's (dried river beds) which typically have sand maybe a few inches deep at most, but making progress difficult much like dunes. I decided to slow down and walk the last few k to CP2 to conserve energy. It felt hotter that the previous day, but it wasn't affecting me too much I thought. I flipped between 10 mins running and 10 walking as I crossed the furnace like salt plains which seemed to radiate heat back at you.

After the salt flats I was slightly anxious about an area marked 'crevasse, difficult passage'. This turned out to be little more than a 3 or 4 feet drop into a 15ft wide track and 4ft climb out the other side. Worry over, easy.

The other side there was mud flats; packed dried out earth. It kind of looks like broken chocolate doesn't it? No Steph, you can't eat it!

After that there was a short section with some vegetation used for camel grazing, on the lead into CP2. At CP2 they made the mistake of announcing to everyone that it was 40C. It was only when I sat down to swap my socks that I suddenly felt very hot and uncomfortable. I hadn't really noticed the heat much whilst on the move. A hot wind blasted through the tent. I aired my feet and took an extended break. I upped my fluids and ate extra food. After 20 minutes I felt fine again and continued on, though more cautiously.

I had read in the roadbook that there was a 300M over the El Habet Jebel (hill/mountain), so my pace was slightly more cautious mixing in a little more walking to conserve energy on the way to CP3 at the foot of the climb. Across the stony plains the climb came into view; the hill crossing to be made where the ridgeline dips in the middle.

That doesn't look like a 300M climb I thought to myself as I approached? In the middle of the desert there were kids that would line the route, appearing from nowhere, no houses in sight and as young as 3 or 4 years old. Some would just watch and clap, but most would beg for 'Bon bon' or 'Gateaux' or anything they could get in fact. Also, they all wore jumpers? Some competitors would give them half empty bottles of water or energy bars. I would avoid high-fiving them for fear of catching infection. I'd just give them the thumbs up usually.

I spent my now customary 10 minutes at CP3 with the foot airing, sock changing and refuelling. I felt pretty good and looked up at the hill absolutely sure that it was nowhere near 300M. In fact 100M gain was more like it. I strode out as I ascended and even though it was a sandy climb I made it in good time and wasn't at all fatigued. I took this shot looking back down the way I had come, CP3 in the distance.

The shame shot with me spoiling the photo, sorry.

This one looks forward over the next few smaller climbs and into the distance to the finish some 5k away.

I ran down from the summit and across the stony ground hoping to finish the whole distance running. However about 1.5k before the end the faint path in the stones vanished and there was just rocky ground, with stones the size of tennis balls. Running across it was risky in my tiring state, so I opted to walk it in and ensure I didn't turn an ankle.

I crossed the line in 06H28'52 with an average speed of 5,86kph; a faster average speed that the previous day. I was happy enough with my performance, not too tired, but still annoyed at having to carry 4.5l of water back to my tent. Martin had arrived before me, having passed me during my extended 20 minute rest at the second CP. He'd had a better day, opting to run more and walk less. He was a 2hr 45 marathon runner before being the victim of a hit and run accident which left him in a coma. Still, he miraculously survived and resumed running managing to do a 4hr30 marathon and then a 3hr 15 marathon. He's hoping to improve further at his next event.

The others came in over the next couple of hours, even Ming who made it in on time. We were impressed with his effort. He had a better day and looked to be on the road to recovery. Everyone ate and settled in to sleep as the sun set on day 2.

More high winds kept me awake, and gave me another poor nights sleep.

01/04/2008 - Stage 3 : Oued El Jdaid/Ba Hallou : 40,5 km

Weather at 8.00am : 19,7 °C / 24% hygrometry
Weather at 12.30 : 48 °C / 11% hygrometry

Today’s heat was simply stunning, with incredibly beautiful and ever changing landscapes. The desert is most certainly not some boringly lengthy flat piece of land, far from it. Here, one goes within minutes from golden sand dunes to black marbled mountains, from a white dried out lake to reddish peaks that wouldn’t be out of place in classic Western movies. A feast for the eye. Both for onlookers and for competitors, who were taken by today’s course through most of what the desert can offer in terms of relief. Only 787 of them were left on the starting line this morning, and those were rather anxious about the long and hot stage ahead. Salameh Al Aqra’ (71) didn’t mind, choosing today to challenge Mohamad Ahansal (1) : he started off at full speed and kept the lead all through the heat, winning it with panache but not managing to shake off the Moroccan favourite. In Mohamad’s words: “we played cat and mouse”. Spanish competitor Jorge Aubeso (622) got a bit lost in the dunes of the Easter Erg, ending up in 5th position, and rather tired too.

The bivouac is set at the foot of the impressive bar of the Jhing El Jebel, which means runners will have a very precise view of the 1000 metres sandy climb awaiting them tomorrow, as opening for the long 75km stage. Looking up to the mountain, Mohamad Ahansal speaks of “bou’ou”, a monster scaring children off in the Moroccan oral tradition. Like everyone else, he can hardly think of anything else but tomorrow…

As a special treat to his runner, Patrick Bauer ran today’s heat. Tapping into his last reserves, he reached the finish line just one second behind Patrick Haddock Paddy Haddock, as he’s known to his friends, advised our very own Pat to drink lots of water.

I sat up, rather than awoke, having been awake for what felt like hours. I had stomach pain for much of the night, and took some Imodium when I got up. Also, I was going to sleep in the middle of the tent from now on I decided. I was sick of taking the full force of the wind. I lay in my sleeping bag and took a photo of the camp at dawn.

I managed to get out of my sleeping bag and took a couple more. The white tents are the admin tents, except that little white square tent by the black ones which is a toilet tent. These were not as bad as I had feared. They had a plastic floorboard with foot outlines to stand on, and a hole in the middle with a pit underneath.

I managed to eat my breakfast ok, but was fatigued and knew that I would struggle today. I looked at the roadbook and knew there was a lot of sand today, and people around camp were already referring to it as 'Dune Day', as if day 1 hadn't been enough! I started off at a jog as usual, but this soon became increasingly broken by the sandy terrain encountered in the first 9k. It was all sandy wadis and Glen's; like a series of small dunes with a bit of gravel in between. It wasn't enjoyable and I switched between walking and running to suit the terrain.

The mixed terrain continued until the dunes proper came into site at 9.5k.

We entered the dunes and already it felt hotter than before (it was 48C that day and some people registered 54C in the dunes!). I took this shot just entering them, plus the second shot looking back at the last fairly (and I use the word loosely) good terrain we would see until mile 18!

I took this a few kilometres in, looking back. Sometimes the dunes were not always high, but walking in sand is never easy anyway.

On stage 1 I talked about climbing a particularly high dune, hoping to see to the end of the dunes section, but just seeing more dunes. This is what I meant.

After 4.5k CP1 came into sight, but much to my dismay the dunes continued immediately. If I had studied the roadbook more closely this would not have been such a shock.

I was feeling rough at CP1, and had to take 30 minutes rest to clear my head. The tiredness from lack of sleep was beginning to catch up on me, so I upped my fluids and ate more food to compensate. I got to my feet and ploughed back into the dunes for the next 5.5k. I didn't know it at the time but the slight dip in the mountain in the background (top right) was where I would be climbing about an hour later.

As I got closer to the hill, wading through the soft dunes, I did put two and two together and realise that was where we were headed.

If you look very closely you can just see the little dots (people) on the top of the 200M climb, which really was 200M this time and not a misprint (I assume) like yesterday.

It was a very steep ascent; a mixture of chunky rock at the base and a little sandier with boulders further up. Hands were needed to climb here, the first bit of scrambling all week (but certainly not the last!). This sequence of shots gives you a flavour and hopefully illustrates the steepness of the climb.

The way down was a slow, picky descent, amongst the boulders to reach the basin the other side which offered no comfort as it headed straight back into yet more dunes.

As a walked through them I noticed a young child, carrying something on her head, glide along the dunes some 100M to the right. I don't know how she moved so fast on the soft sand, and with no water either, but I felt very inadequate. 3k later the dunes gave way to CP2, and I took 20 minutes this time adding some additional tape onto my feet in areas I felt hot spots appearing. 400M after CP2 it was back into dunes again for another 3k. This really wasn't funny anymore. The slipping and sliding around was tiring me out, and I wasn't very awake to begin with. Mercifully 3k later the dunes ended for good. It was mile 18 (29k), and it had been soft sand and dunes all day, as well as baking hot.

The dunes gave way to flat ground, initially with a light dusting of sand and then to dried packed earth and finally something that resembled runnable for me.

The packed earth continued all the way to CP3. My taping had done the trick, with no foot problems seen when I swapped my socks, so I continued on after just my regular 10 minute stop. I didn't time the 10 minutes, but by the time you walk over to the tent, detach yourself from your pack, sit down, change socks and then mix up some electrolyte, then put yourself back in your pack and shoes, 10 minutes had passed, always. This is one of the reasons that average times for the day always look slow. People are running, but stops at checkpoints drag the average speed right down and it looks like you are out for a stroll every day.

I left CP3 but it was back into a sandy wadi, and fairly soon passed the Ba Hallou ruins.

We then crossed small dunes, but I had got my second wind at this point and was running, regardless of terrain. I had lost stacks of time that day and wanted to make up a few places. I ran virtually the whole way from CP3 to the finish, peaking at 6mph at times and taking about 30 places. 30 places doesn't mean much when you are in the 400's, but if kind of makes you feel a bit better! I finished the 25.5 mile course in 08H08'56 with my slowest average speed yet of just 4,97kph.

Martin was already in, and had been in about 40 minutes I think he said. I was clearly getting slower and suffering. I drank my daily Rego, dehydrated and ate my meal as everyone else drifted in. I was obliterating my food every day, and not leaving a morsel. I thought that 3000 calories would be enough, but it clearly wasn't for me. Others felt sick and could not eat, but I was permanently ravenous. I was obviously burning a lot more calories than I had to consume.

Ming did not come in before the 11 hour cut-off. Once again it went dark and we got concerned. In the end he came back in a total time of 12hrs 15 minutes, a hour and 15 over the allocated time. He had got lost in the darkness and we think poorly directed by an official who also told him not to worry as there would be no penalty and he was fine. We were pleased to see him back and settled in for the night.

It was no surprise that I slept poorly again, even though I moved to the centre of the tent; 2 hours sleep again. That was about 6 or 7 hours sleep since I started the MDS; not good, and it was about to all catch up with me.

02/04/2008 - Stage 4 : Ba Hallou/Oued Ahssia : 75,5 km

Météo at 8:00 am : 17,5 degrés et 23% d’hygrométrie
Météo at 12:00 am : 34,1 degrés et 16% d’hygrométrie
Météo at 2:00 pm : 47,0 degrés et 11% d’hygrométrie

It’s obviously the « main course » on the MDS menu, the mythical stage everyone is most longing for or dreading: 75,5 km to pit oneself against the desert and, even more so, against one’s own resources. Rather merciful weather conditions allowed both waves of runners to set off with a smile, at a three hours interval. An opportunity for the slowest runners to admire the leaders’ pace and, often, to stop and cheer them.
This stage is a “tour de force” not only for the runners but also for the organisation: everyone has to give its best, especially in the night time. A laser will be guiding the competitors who also have luminous sticks and distress flares. Doctors and race officials are spread along the course in six check points. They will not getting more sleep than the runners, staying up all night, under the supervision of two most useful helicopters. Today more than ever, managing the race is a real challenge. Some competitors plan to run straight to the next bivouac; others will be making good use of the last three check points to get some rest and have a bite to eat.

Coursewise, the heat is in two phases: an extremely difficult first one, with a terribly steep climb (25% slope factor), and an easier 2nd one, with flat and straight grounds, an opportunity for the lead of the race to have a bit of a fight.

One thing’s for sure though: tomorrow night, all competitors will be champions.


I felt shattered in the morning after my broken and worthless sleep. I had 47 miles ahead of me and they weren't easy miles either. The course looked tough and where it wasn't hilly it was sandy. I decided to start the day walking instead of running, a change from every day so far. I reasoned this would enable me to stave off fatigue for longer. I fully intended to go straight through to the end and estimated that at an average pace around 3.5mph or a little less I would finish in under 14 hours. I knew I would be out for a long time, and with less running to focus my mind I decided to use a small MP3 player I had packed. This was suggested by the students at MMU. I had been breaking up the sections between CPs with landmarks as they suggested, so using the MP3 player was a new weapon today.

We got a shock about 7am when race official came to our tent and said to Ming "You do know you are out of the race don't you?" What followed was a two hour battle which sadly ended in Ming's elimination for coming in 15 minutes outside the already 1 hour extended finish time. We all felt for him, as he had failed in 2006. To get this far and to fail on a technicality and not for a medical reason was terrible. He went back to Ouarzazate that afternoon and we didn't see him until our return there.

We set off at 9am, 3 hours before the top 50 athletes, who lined the start to wave us off. I enjoyed the MP3 accompaniment as I walked along that morning. I was tired and apprehensive, but cheerful somehow.

From the roadbook I knew there was mostly flat stony ground for the first 7.5k before we hit the biggest obstacle of the week, the El Oftal jebel; a 1k climb of average 25% gradient. I set off at a quick march, around 4mph and watched the jebel approach.

The rocks turned to boulders on approach, and the pace slowed and became much pickier. There was a shallow valley on the route just before the main climb, as if to add insult to injury.

After the valley we began the ascent proper, everyone choosing a route they deemed best.

The boulders gave way to a pure hill of sand for the second part of the climb. It doesn't look much but this was a draining climb.

You may get a better perspective looking back down.

I met Martin adjusting his pack near the top of the sandy section, and took these shots looking up to the third and most dangerous section of the climb.

Most people went to the right and climbed the rocks, but a few brave souls climbed the much steeper sand to the left. It was undoubtedly quicker but what cost to the level of exertion I don't know? I took the rocky path. Half way up it became a full-on all four limbs climb; pulling yourself up with your hands. It was a little scary, as wearing a backpack if you overbalanced you could fall backwards and go sailing down to certain injury and even taken tens of runners (well, climbers at that time) with you! The rock once again gave way to a steep sandy climb that warranted a rope being fitted by the organiser. It would have been way too dangerous without it.

I took this photo looking down; the rope is just obscured by the athletes, but is about 10M lower. Long way down eh?

Here, a 180 degree turn and view of the very slow and picky rock-strewn descent.

By the time I hade made the descent an hour had passed since the climb began. My GPS had shown an average speed of 0.0mph when climbing; that is how slow everyone was going! It had been a slow process queuing up the slope. Someone more impatient had taken an 'off-piste' shortcut, dislodged a large boulder which nearly landed on a guy behind. I was told he picked up a 5-hour time penalty for his trouble.

A short rocky plain gave way to more dunes at the base of the descent. I had been steadily pushing calories into myself to cope with the increased exertion, and had felt well hydrated up to this point. I didn't realise quite how much of my snack ration I had got through though, until later on.

The dunes lasted only 1.5k and then CP1 sprang into view.

It had been a long haul, those first 12.5k to CP1 with just 1.5l of water, which would not have been enough. I had saved extra from the night before in order to stay hydrated. 3L was given at the CP in recompense. I didn't stay at the CP any longer than normal and decided to push on. The next section was absolutely flat, another stony plain. I really enjoyed this section. I was doing a fast walk, still maintaining around 4mph and literally skipping along to the sound of Renaissance Classics on my MP3 player. Oh, when I say Renaissance I mean the dance club and not classical, sorry! I sang along to my favourite records from 15 years ago, including the awesome uplifting Yeke Yeke by Mory Kante. I also put on my favourite trance track of all time, Delirium - Silence; has to be the 'Tiesto in Search of Sunrise Mix', or it's not worth listening too! I was really happy as I went along. People I passed and passing me, must have thought I was crackers!

The sole of my left foot felt very sore as I crossed the plain and I was certain I had picked up my first blister. 10.5k of stony plain later I reached CP2, which was next to a solar pump paid for and installed by the MDS organisers from proceeds from the race.

I went to the recovery tent and stripped off my shoes, saying hi to my Irish friends from Tent 97 who I kept bumping into all the time. The sole of my left foot, right between my big and second toe did appear to have a blister. I got out my hypodermic needles, fitted one to syringe and pricked it, but nothing came out. I pricked it a few more times, nothing? I decided to play safe and inject some Friar’s Balsam into it anyway. I had forgotten just how much this hurts. Forget the red iodine that Doc Trotter put on your blisters; that it like being tickled in comparison to the intense burst of pain you get from injecting a blister with Friars Balsam. I made a strangled cry as the liquid filled the blister and sealed itself back to the skin. I put on a small dressing and put my shoes back on. The stop had cost me about 30 minutes, but it is better to repair than to soldier on and make it worse I thought.

A packed earth track and slight incline lead out of CP2, and I passed a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Wonder if it gets much business?

Then the terrain gave way to a salt flat. I distinctly remember looking at my watch and seeing that I had been going for exactly 5 hours at this point. I remember it distinctly because I was passed by the first of the Elite athletes, who himself had only been running for just 2 hours! What surprised me more was that it was not Ahansal in the lead, but number 4 who was some kind of a long day specialist I was later told.

The flats continued until the Ras Khemmouna jebel came into view; we would cross in the centre on that sandy pass.

Although nowhere near as high as the big climb earlier, this was still a taxing ascent, being mostly sand climbing again. At the summit I reached into my snack supply for the today to find that it was gone. I had eaten my thousand calorie supply after only 30k? I'd also eaten one of my Peperamis, but had one left so ate that. I was now worried at how much I had gotten through, and that there was 45k still to go.

Of course the other side of the hill, there was always another hill, albeit after a short stony plain! I was in CP on one of the days when I guy asked "what's the next leg to the CP like?" to no one in particular. A girl answered "A bit sandy, a bit stony, couple of climbs". He said "You made that up", she replied "yes, but I'm probably right!"

Now, accept my apologies for a gap in the photo's here. It was in the next 5k that the wheels came off the wagon. This was despite having a few minutes amusement as a local guy came riding past on a pink moped, to the howls of laughter from competitors. After the next jebel pass the ground was mainly stony, with a slight incline and it was around then I started to feel strange. It was just a 'I'm not right' feeling. This got worse, so I upped my fluids in case I was dehydrated. By the time I got to CP3 I was feeling pretty terrible. I went and sat down under the shelter, stripped off my pack and shoes and hoped to feel better. After 30 minutes I wasn't feeling any better. I decided to use my one and only rescue carb-gel for whole week. I ate it and I guess I was hoping for an instant response, to spring to my feet and feel fine again. I didn't. I thought maybe I was dehydrated, and this worried me. I asked a guy to keep an eye on my pack for 10 minutes and went to the doctor’s tent. I told them I didn't feel well at all, and I wasn't sure what was wrong. I actually asked for an IV, but she said I did not appear to be dehydrated, so I asked if she could test my blood sugar, which she did. In hindsight I think the gel I had consumed gave a bit of an artificial reading, because she said it was ok. She offered a dehydration sachet, but I said I had my own Diorolyte. I went back to the shelter tent and had the Diorolyte, and maybe 10 minutes later I felt well enough to carry on, but by no means that great. I had spent an hour at CP3 already, and knew I had to get moving.

What I didn't know, again from poor study of the roadbook that day, was that the terrain between CP3 and CP4 was very difficult. First there was a climb up the Mhadidd El Elalhau jebel which was long and taxing, followed by a series of very slight descents immediately followed by another climb. It was like you took 3 steps up, 1 down, then 3 more steps up over again, all over the next 5k. I was back to feeling dreadful by now, really not right at all. I was worrying more because I had upped my fluids, but was passing water almost immediately after drinking. I knew that if you had not taken enough salt the body would dump water, and also if you had taken too much salt the body would dump water. I didn't know which it was, and I knew both were dangerous. This caused a knock-on stress effect, which was actually worse in hindsight, that any actual symptoms probably. The light was fading now, and I was in single file marching behind about 10 others. My mind was racing and I was convincing myself that I was very sick and in trouble. This just created a spiral effect and I was getting rapidly worse. It was at this stage that I thought I was going to have to quit the race.

Over the last summit there was a very long unpleasant sandy descent. Half way down there was a doctor in a land rover asking how people were as they passed. I indicated I needed assistance and he took me over and sat me down on the floor by the car. I explained my symptoms of continually passing water and just generally feeling dreadful. I had got it into my head that only an IV would rescue me, and so asked the doctor for one. He said that they only had them at the CPs. I started to shiver now, as the light failed and day cooled, and my body cooled rapidly after the tough ascents of the last 5k. I was shivering too much for the drop in air temp. The doctor put a thermometer under my arm and it read 35.3C. That's too cold, and I knew it. I sat on the floor feeling like I was dying. I stared off into the distance and pondered giving up right there and then. It would be so easy just to say "Finished", and they would pack me off in the car and take me to a CP. They wrapped me up in a blanket, and I had the presence of mind to retrieve my Tyvek suit which I put on, before going under the blanket again. The doctor suggested that I eat something, but I told him I had eaten all my snacks already. He said "don't you have anything left in your pack". Then I realised of course I did, I had food and snacks for 3 more days. I reached into the pack and took out rest-day 5's food. Inside was my temporary rescue remedy as it happened, Pop Tarts. Now these saved me in La Trans Aq last year. They are quick calories, and lightweight too. I forced them down me over the next 30 minutes. I asked how far it was to CP4, the doctor said 7k and it was all flat (he lied to me, or maybe I assumed flat meant not sandy!). I told him I didn't know if I could make it, but he just said try and make the CP.

I finished the second Pop Tart and also ate two Peperamis from other days rations. I didn't feel a great deal better, but I knew I had to get up or I would be out of the race. I had warmed up again by then, and got to my feet, the doctor helping me put my pack back on. He radioed my number ahead to ensure a medial check at CP4. By now it was almost dark and I could see people ahead with head torches on, and glow sticks attached to their packs (they were provided at CP3). I set off down the sandy descent but could not raise the effort to stop and locate my head torch, which I had unwisely packed it inside my kettle (to save space), somewhere in the middle of my pack. In the distance a laser came on at CP4 (and CP5) to guide athletes in.

The descent through the soft sand was awful, and the flat was just as sandy. I started to feel worse again and fumbled around in my front pack for more calories. I thought maybe I dropped my MP3 player, but it was dark, and I really was beyond caring by then. I heard other things fall to the floor but it was too dark to see them without a torch, so I wandered on. CP4 just wasn't getting any closer. The green laser just seemed to always be the same distance away. I knew I had to find more calories, so I opened my pack and took out half a dozen electrolytes from other days. Over the next hour I would tip them into my bottle, mix with 50cl of water (just a mouthful of water) and just drink them, trying to get a rapid sugar hit to carry me through the next 10 minutes. I considered just pulling out my flare and quitting, but I had wisely packed the flare at the bottom of my pack, and it was hassle to get it out. Also I figured it would take help as long to reach me and take me to medical as it would for me to get to CP4 on my own.

I was continuously going to the loo; I think this was a stress reaction, rather than any physical problem. I began to recognise that fact, and think back to my brush with death training session in Tenerife. I questioned myself. Did I feel as bad as I did that day? Probably not. I kept repeating to myself that my body was strong, and it was my mind that was weak. My mind was the problem here. I was stressing, I was panicking, and there was no genuine problem. I repeated this for what felt like miles, but in reality was just a few k. I had little care for my belongings and even self esteem but was having trouble seeing where I was going in the darkness. I found the glowstick was given, and lit it. Rather than put it on my back as directed, I used it as a torch of sorts. Also I reasoned that if I collapsed, they would have a better chance of finding me with a glow stick lit.

I staggered on for what seemed like an eternity, continuously drinking, then passing water straight away, and overdosing on sugar. None of this was probably helping in hindsight. Slowly CP4 got closer, and I wanted to break into a run to get help but it was too dangerous in the dark. I had a single minded focus to get an IV, sure that it would rescue me. This thought kept me going as I wandered into CP4. I asked for medical straight away and they took me into the Doc Trotter tent. I explained my symptoms and asked if I needed an IV, but also this time I said "I don't think there is much wrong with me, other than I have got myself into a panicked state". I sat down and unwrapped my foil blanket to avoid a repetition of the earlier temperature drop. The doctor looked and my eyes, tested my blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar and everything was normal. The doctor's demeanour was excellent, and he reassured me there was nothing wrong. He thought I was likely exhausted and probably needed some food. This made sense to me. Just a few hours sleep in the last few nights and my voracious appetite for calories had come to a head. I was irrational due to tiredness and low on calories. He said I need to stay at the CP and sleep. He gave me a 1/4 of a sedative, but I later lost it (probably a good thing). He took me to the rest tents where many competitors were sleeping. By chance Andy from my tent was there and he agreed to help me cook a meal. I thanked the doctor and asked his name. It was "Jan", pronounced "Yan". This was a good omen. My grandfather’s name and my middle name is also "Jan". When you are feeling low, sometimes good omens are what are needed.

I opened my pack and took out my food for day 5. There were two meals, one of which I cooked, the other of which I must have accidentally lost or thrown away in the darkness there (I didn't realise until later). The Mountain House meal tasted amazing and it wasn't long before I actually felt good again. A lesson for everyone and one that I mentioned in previous blog posts: I always knew that my mind was the weak link. My body would be convincing me that I was dying but my body was in fact much stronger than I gave it credit for. As you are going through that feeling, it is so hard to convince your mind and this is where mental strength comes in. If I had not had such traumatic episodes in my training then I would have likely thrown in the towel that night. Try and endure some misery in your training, because if everything always goes well you will be ill prepared for when things go wrong. Most important of all, just don't whinge and moan in self pity, get your head down and get on with it. Lesson learned, again.

It was 8pm and I should have set off straight away, whilst feeling good again, but the doctor had told me to rest and so I did. Andy said he was going to leave at 11:30pm and I asked him to wake me. I rested poorly, maybe grabbing half an hour’s sleep and when 11:30 came I had crashed again and wasn't feeling like getting up. I told Andy I would leave later on and tried to sleep again. The tent was getting crowded by then as more people tried to rest. I didn't get any sleep of worth, my mind continuously saying I should get going. Eventually I got up at 2:30am in the cold of the night. I lacked motivation and again it crossed my mind to just quit. However, I wasn't that weak anymore. I recognised I needed more food and ate my breakfast for day 5, cold; eating from inside my sleeping bag to stay warm. I got myself together, slowly, putting on my Tyvek suit, attaching the glow stick to my pack this time, and putting on my head torch. I looked around and miserably realised there were just 4 people asleep at CP4. I was at the back of the field after being at that CP for 7 hours. I had lost an hour at CP3 and another half hour with the doctor en-route to CP4. I had lost 9.5 hours through weakness of the mind; idiot.

I was feeling pretty sorry for myself as I set off alone from CP5 at 3am, heading towards the laser at CP5 which was 12.5k away. Luckily I didn't know it was that far, otherwise it would have made me more miserable. The course flags every 500M had orange glowsticks. It doesn't show up, but this was a typical course marker that night.

I was wallowing in self pity and being on my own with 20 miles left to go, and even made a video where I generally sulked about my current state, and moaned that I had so far to go all alone. I was however not altogether 'with it', and the camera was set to photo and not video, so I just ended up with a black photo! So you have been spared listening to me being a sulky child. During those cold lonely hours I pulled out this more than a couple of times. My mum had written a note on the back, but it was the verse that was extremely appropriate and gave me strength. Sorry it's in such bad shape, but it had been through a lot. Click to enlarge it.

I realised I had lost my MP3 player, much to my annoyance and so I sung to myself. It probably was a good thing I have no video of that too!

CP5, like CP4 never got any closer as I walked on in the cold night. The laser failed at one point and I was forced to take a compass bearing to keep me on track. They revived the laser about 15 minutes later so all was well. I looked at my compass and saw that East was behind me. I kept glancing back waiting to see the first light of dawn. Eventually a faint light appeared and I just about captured it.

Seeing the first light of dawn, made me feel much better. It was a new day, light was returning and things would be ok. I approached CP5 alone and asked the checkpoint staff if I was winning? They all laughed. I didn't notice but the official photographer caught me there and they posted up a picture of me on the Darbaroud website.

There were lots of people asleep at CP5. I guessed at about 30, but it must have been over 100 because my placing leapt up from 4th from back, right up to 652 overall that stage. I didn't spend long at CP5. I just removed my Tyvek jacket and set off. A few minutes later I took off my head torch too as dawn had well and truly arrived.

I was walking at about 3.5mph at that point as I headed into the horrible sandy wadi that would take me to CP6 and beyond. I passed the Geordie guy 'Cookie' who was limping along with his sticks with ripped up feet, doing about 2mph. He was surprised to see me and I told him the wheels had come off my wagon. He later told me he was secretly pleased to see my suffering as it made him feel better! Still, at least I helped someone that night! I moved on and through the wadi trying to stick to what would have been the river banks and the firmer sand. I took this shot just to show you my 30ft shadow in the early light!

I'm not sure what time I got to CP6 but I guess it was about 6:30. I was going just to truck straight through and calculated at my pace I could make it back by 8am. Then Alan Silcock came out of the rest tent and saw me. He and his pal Westy had just arrived there. They had not stopped at all since the start the day before, they had just kept on moving, but at a slow pace because of Westy's destroyed feet (He ended up in a wheelchair after the event incidentally). Westy was totalled and was staying to sleep. Alan asked if he could come along with me, but he was not moving that fast. I figured sure, I had lost so much time it didn't matter anymore and it would be good to make it to the finish with Alan anyway. We set off in the sandy wadi still, and Alan gave me one of his walking sticks. I used it now and again, but I was pleased I had decided not to take mine in the end. I had definitely picked up more blisters that night from all the walking. It began to get warmer quite quickly and I stripped off my Helly Hansen top that I had also put on at CP4.

The wadi path dragged on, but eventually we emerged onto the flat stony plain and saw the finish in the background. That's Alan with the white tents of the bivouac and finish just visible.

I took this tongue in cheek video near the end. Me and Alan decided to run the last k, and I professed we'd trucked right through the night!

Running that last k felt good; some kind of redemption. We were both tired, Alan's feet were a lot worse than mine, but we ran about 5.5mph right the way through to the end to claps and "Bravo" from competitors who had finished 12 hours before us, and knew we had had a rough time out there. It's a nice feeling, the camaraderie out there. Me and Alan shook hands and went our separate ways.

I finished in 23H39'10 with a woeful average speed of just 3,19kph. I should have finished in less than 14 hours, what a disaster.

Everyone in our tent was back, except Michael the unstoppable who came in later. I rehydrated, but then realised I had lost some food. The excellent Best of Morocco rep, Rob, managed to get replacement food for me that was donated by others. A big thank you to everyone who donated stuff to me; without your help I would not have had enough calories for the last couple of days. I discovered 'cliff' energy bars from a donation and they were wonderful; highly recommended.

Day 5 was spent resting and repairing my feet. I'd picked up a few blisters, some especially deep ones on my soles at the base of my toes that I had to get Doc Trotters to treat. They did a good job, even if the nurse stuck the scalpel into some healthy tissue! I gave out a healthy yelp! I was shuffling along at about 200M every 10 minutes wearing some borrowed flip-flops. Do make sure you pack some, or even better some slippers. Walking around in your running shoes, even if you put your feet in a plastic bag first is not nice or easy. Take slippers, you have been warned! One tip, the Hotel in Ouarzazate 'Le Berbere Palace' will give you some if you ask. Take them out to the desert with you. I only found out about this when I got back from the desert.

My feet were fine compared to Hugo's, who was walking on raw meat. Here are his feet bandaged up. He was missing about a 1/3 of the skin on his soles.

I shuffled along to the internet tent and wrote my daily update, wondering how my sore feet would carry me through the marathon day the next day. As usual I got lots of emails that night. You all did me proud. I got the most in the tent every day. I was kind of hoping I would get tons of pieces of paper and after reading them, shove them into the storage bag for my sleeping bag and get a nice squishy pillow. Sadly my plans were scuppered where they put about 10 or 12 emails on every page! Still I got 4 or 5 pages on most nights. Thank you so much. There are far too many of you to mention, but it was nice to hear from complete strangers as well as good friends. You all really helped, trust me!

I took a shot at sunset.

That night I fell asleep at 7:30pm and was told I was even lightly snoring imediately; unheard of for me! I was totally out of it and got an incredible nights sleep; the sleep I had badly needed all week.

04/04/2008 - Stage 5 : Oued Ahssia/Isk N’Brahim : 42,2 km

Weather conditions at 8.00am : 16 °C / 24% hygrometry
Weather conditions at 12.00 : 46,7 C / 12% hygrometry

After the mythical 75,5 km stage, completed over two days and causing 19 competitors to give up, comes the classical 42,2km marathon stage. This year’s edition of the MDS may have been lucky enough to be spared violent gusts of wind, but it got its full share of heat: temperatures went wild today, turning the race track into a proper furnace and giving each runner the feeling to be “sous le soleil, exactement” (“under the sun, precisely” as the Serge Gainsbourg song goes).
Today’s stage winner, Moroccan runner Aziz El Akad, is a true “classic marathon” expert ; he was extremely motivated from the start. Together with Jordanian competitor Salameh Al Aqra’ he gave on-lookers the surreal spectacle of a final sprint. Mohamad Ahansal, happy to follow the fight from close behind, was escorted by many children all through the stage: “that’s what I did too, many years ago. I hope that one day they can run the MDS as official competitors”. Fellow Moroccan runners El Akad and Ait Amar consolidated their 3rd and 4th position in the general ranking, right before Spanish runner Jorge Aubeso.
As to amazing Touda Didi, the fireworks go on with no true challenger: no one can doubt she is simply the best.

I woke a little early that morning, but I was refreshed. I took this from the comfort of my sleeping bag, which if anything was too warm that week.

The tents came down and I took a few photos and a video to give you a flavour of camp life in the mornings.

Others in the tent were apprehensive about the 26.2 miles ahead (actually it was 26.5), mainly due to their ripped up feet. I however wasn't nervous, and I said I was after a good time that day. I had destroyed any hope of a decent placing overall because of the day 4 wobble. The other days I had finished in the 3 and 400's, but on day 4 I had come in 652nd; a disaster. I could not do anything get back the 9.5 hours I spent lounging in medical tents, but I could make myself feel better by running the marathon stage to my expected ability. My feet were sore, as were everyone’s, but after painkillers for breakfast you strap you pack on, get into your shoes and the pain mostly goes away, at least until the finish line.

I didn't care much about the final stage, because it was so short, everyone would come in within an hour or so of each other, so this was the stage where I was going to perform. I said I wanted to finish sub 8 hours, but actually I wanted sub 7 hours. I analysed the roadbook in detail, something I should have done on previous days, although even analysis didn't always tell the whole story sometimes. I could see that the first and last legs were good, but from CP2 to CP3 it was a sandy wadi that would warrant caution to avoid exhaustion. I had plenty of on-the-go snacks donated by competitors, enough to fuel me through the day.

We lined up to AC/DC's music once more and were off. Today felt different. It felt like a race, and everyone went off fast. My sore feet gradually numbed themselves and my average speed rose from 4.5mph up to 5mph; my training pace. I ran the first 4.5k to the base of the first hill. I slowed to walk for the ascent and also added a few extra minutes walking as a rest. I resumed running after 5 minutes and then did my run 20, walk 10 strategy. Stony plains followed on the way to CP1.

Today I didn't stop to change my socks at the CPs; the damage was done as far as I was concerned. Besides, today I was running more and walking less which would cause me less problems anyway. I mixed up an electrolyte on the move and headed straight out. I was feeling good. Straight after CP1 was another short climb.

The other side of the hill was a sandy section, then a sharp sandy climb.

The descent from the hill was another slow one, picking your way down amongst the boulders, but a welcome stony plain lay ahead; good running terrain.

Just before CP2 we entered the wadi and the inevitable sand.

At CP2 I mixed up more electrolytes, took a few bites out of the Cliff bar and headed back out. I knew we now had a 9k wadi stretch. We were also travelling 'upriver' so to speak, so it was a slight 9k incline. I made a tactical decision to walk the majority of this section. The sand wasn't too deep, so I could maintain about 3.8mph.
Shortly after CP2 I passed the Aït Kherdi ruins.

I was still feeling pretty good. I knew it has a hot one that day (almost 47C) but the heat wasn't affecting me. I was single-minded in wanting a good time and ploughed on regardless.

Eventually the wadi gave way to a palm grove just after some ruins, and then finally CP3.

I had no electrolyte left by CP3 having dropped half a sachet by accident but I did have a donated gel, as well as the remainder of the Cliff bar. Back running, I headed out and across the stony plain that would lead all the way to the end of the stage.

I ran most of the way, but built in a few 5 or 10 minute walking breaks to ensure I didn't tire myself out. I finished alongside a Frenchman, who I had caught up over the last k. I suggested we finish together rather than I overtake him a couple of hundred metres short of the line. We enjoyed the camaraderie of it and congratulated each other at the finish.

I finished in 06H33'40 with an average time of 6,43kph. My GPS logged the overall distance as being a third of a mile more than the 26.2 advertised, so I read a slightly higher average speed of exactly 4mph. This was the kind of performance I was more than capable of each day, but through fuelling mistakes and fatigue, failed to always live up to my potential.

I was first back to the tent, and thankfully everyone else made it in on time too.

I had crossed the line on stage 5 and it was all over bar the shouting. Stage 6 was an 11-mile fun run and I was going to just enjoy it. I slept ok that night; not great, but not too bad. There was a concert from the Paris Philharmonic orchestra and an opera singer, but I wasn't too fussed about it to be honest. I could hear it from my tent anyway. Some people got up and sat in front of them and maybe soaked up some atmosphere, but the connection between the MDS and a classical concert was a little lost on me. I'm obviously lacking a romantic soul.

05/04/2008 - Stage 6 : Isk N’Brahim/Tazzarine : 17,5 km

Moroccan competitor Mohamad Ahansal won his second Marathon des Sables, treating himself to a stage victory, and the crowd to a splendidly accrobatic cartwheel on the finish line in Tazzarine. After a long series of MDS coming second after his brother Lahcen, this child of Zagora demonstrated this year a great strategic sense. He took a clear lead on the first stage, gaining 17 minutes over his challengers, and then simply kept control over them. Despite his best efforts, Jordanian runner Salameh Al Aqra’ could never make up for his stage one defeat, although we owe him much of this week’s excitement. Just like last year, Aziz El Akad won a well deserves third rank.

On the women’s side, no surprise: Touda Didi from Morocco won all the stages way ahead of her competitors. It’s her first MDS victory, but most probably not her last, considering her utter domination of the race. After her come Simone Kayser and Lis Kayser, ex aequo – mother and daughter ran together all week long.

On the finish line, competitors expressed their joy, their pride or their relief in various fashion. Many broke in tears in the MDS director Patrick Bauer’s arms. Many also chose to pay homage to their country, holding out brand new flags, from Morocco of course, but also from the UK, Jordania, Colombia, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Luxemburg… Families were there to share the runners’ joy and many competitors held their children’s hand to run the last few yards taking them to the finish line.

Some kissed the ground while others, despite their exhaustion, insisted on a final sprint.

Thus this 23rd Marathon des Sables comes to a close: once again, the human and sportive adventure was completely out of this world. Our 1200 runners and organisers will be going home with stunning images and extremely moving memories. No doubt they’re already thinking about the 34th edition. In Cha Allah.


The tents stayed above our heads this morning and we got ready in relative comfort. The Berbers came around collecting items from the camp. People donated food, and even bed rolls, pots and pans, all sorts.

Michael, obviously eager for the off, snook away before we could get him for the final-day tent 99 survivers photo. Ming of course had gone on day 3, so we are left with: left to right

Me (sporting a buff instead of my usual cap today), Andy, Kevin, Martin, Toby and Hugo.

After that we gathered ourselves together and everyone headed out for the start line one final time.

A shot as we stood waiting and a video as we all soaked up the atmosphere to the sounds of AC/DC, one final time.

A video and picture of the final coundown, the Eurosport copter buzzes overhead and we move forward to cross the start line one final time.

I set off at a nice steady 5mph. Many people dashed off at best speed, but today wasn't about time for me, that was yesterday. I set myself a goal of 2hrs 30 and headed out. We were warned the ground was very stony today and to watch our step to avoid turning an ankle. All the more reason to take it steady I thought. Imagine breaking your ankle with 11 miles to go? There was some mild undulating terrain, but mostly it was stony plain all the way into CP1 where our medical cards were collected. I thought of poor Hugo's feet. Hugo loved the soft sand now, and not the rocky ground.

I refilled my water bottle at CP1, took a few bites of energy bar and then set off on the last lag, across the plain with the town of Tazzarine in the distance.

Just before the town we left the plain and I walked along the packed earth road that lead into the outskirts.

The houses on the edge of the town are little more than mud-brick buildings, the kids have no shoes and there is certainly no sewerage. I feel sad as I see the people who live there, knowing I am going back to a life of luxury in comparison to theirs. I have saved a few energy bars and drinks powders which I throw out to kids, as I walk this stretch and head towards the tarmac road and 1.5k to the finish line.

I walk the first few hundred metres and then break into my 5mph jog. I'm not interested in snatching 1 or 2 places, I just try and gather my thoughts and feelings about the upcoming finish line which still lies out of sight around the corner. I think I'm more emotional about the thought of crossing the finish line, than I am when I cross it. The last week has been very tough, I got very low on day 4, and I have been on quite a journey. I pass Mohamad Ahansal, however he was walking back the other way! He is posing for photos with locals and other runners. I give him the thumbs up as I pass, which he does back to me. I turn the final corner and the finish line is ahead. I can't help myself and double my speed to almost a sprint, only slowing to avoid overtaking a couple of other competitors. I slow and cross the finish line behind them and Patrick puts on my medal and hugs me. For some reason I find myself thanking him over and over again "Merci, Merci", for the torture he has put me through! I get someone to take a picture of the moment for me.

I finished in 02H23'06 in an average speed of 7,34kph. My quickest average, but it was only a fun run after all, and I really didn't put in a great deal of effort for a time either!

Overall standing: 53H35'42 with an average speed of 4,58kph. Position 556/802.

I thank Patrick again and filter down the finish to pick up a packed lunch and a timed-departure bus ticket.

I am a little overwhelmed by the amount of people at the finish. It is a scene of chaos as competitors try and find a bit of space to sit down. I find a spot but as soon as I open my packed lunch I am swamped by kids begging. There is no way I am going to be able to eat it, so I just close it and send them away. I reflect on my achievement.


The coach journey back was only 3 hours, thankfully. I took the photo with the medal you saw on the earlier blog post whilst in my hotel room. I got showered and washed the desert out of my hair and body. We descended on the hotel buffet like a plague of locusts. The sweet trolley got a severe beating especially. Most were too tired to prop up the bar until the early hours and headed to bed, me included. The following day we wandered round Ouarzazate, and believe it or not, there was a hailstorm! I managed to upset a few locals with my aggressive haggling, to the point where one guy refused to haggle. "Won't haggle!?" I thought; sadly lost on him. Back at the hotel I successfully put back on all the weight I had lost that week at the evening buffet and then went to bed. The journey back to the UK was a nightmare; a 5 hour delay leaving Morocco, £110 extra for a new flight to Manchester after a missed connection and even that was delayed. I got home at 10pm to get a call at half past that my son and his mother were on the way to A&E in an ambulance. I was at the hospital until 2am, they are both fine now, some kind of respiratory virus.

The MDS was a tough week, and the difficulty I had on day 4 should have made the achievement of completion that bit sweeter. However, after 2 years of training "just finishing" turned out not to be enough. My target of finishing outside of the back 100 was acheived easily, but if I would have not lost those 9.5 hours on day 4, in the medical tents and CPs then I would have finished in the top 400. OK, there is not much difference between 556 and 400 in real terms and if I would have finished in the top 400 I would have thought I should have finished in the top 300 or 200 probably. Everyone is their own worst critic and I should be content with my achievement and look at where I came from; from nothing, someone who could run about 3 or 4 miles two years ago. I've moved the goalposts as time has gone by and I have got fitter. I have yet to realise my full potential, I know that. I could get fitter and faster. What will I do next? I don't know at the moment. Maybe nothing, maybe endurance knitting? I set out to complete the MDS and complete it I have. I may well revisit this post later and add more, or post my thoughts as the days progress.

Over two years of training, and for the last few months training has felt like my full time job. 80 miles a week; it's felt like I was training like a professional. I've used up a lifetimes worth of babysitting credits with my parents, and my son deserves to get his father back at weekends. I will phone up my friends and see if they still remember who I am too. I have now got my life back from the MDS which has been all-consuming. I'll make one final post though with my thank you roll call, because there are a lot of people who deserve to share this medal with me, for their help along the way.

I was asked to attend Blackfriars School (the charity I ran for) acheivement awards last week.

I did so and they kindly said thank you to me up on stage and gave me a huge card from the students and staff.

It's shown below.

It's a really nice gesture I think. I thought you'd like to see it too!


Dan said...

Hi Rich,

I just wanted to drop you a note and say what a brilliant report. I've read your highs and lows over the last 8 months or so and it's been a real rollacoster just to read. I've gained so many tips and advice from you and it's given no end of things to think about and I'm sure will really help me as I progress over the next year.

Thanks for the support as well on my blog, it's appreciated.

All the very best mate in whatever you chose to do next.


Anonymous said...

From tent 95, great report

Soak it up, it feels great

Anonymous said...

wow , this post shows the real strength of man .

Tanja said...

one word...AWESOME!

tanja (Devon UK)

recon i'll be attempting this in a few years...

first challenge is
kilimanjaro adventure challenge:
climb - cycle - run...

Clellyrunning said...

Well done and an extremely informative blog of what it takes. You have given me loads of tips for 2011.

Life is like a box of chcolates, you never know what your going to get and this race is one big box of quality street

DL said...

Hi Rich,

I just stumbled upon your blog and I have to say it's fantastic. Your journey is nothing short of amazing and I applaud you for your dedication and hard work to complete a goal you set for yourself. WOW!

I'm doing the Gobi Desert March 2010 in June and I am starting on my training. I've never done much running; in fact I've only completed in a 10km fun run - no marathons! It will be a fantastic challenge, and after reading your blog I am more inspired than ever to do what you did :)

Thank you for sharing.

Rich said...

Many thanks for your kind words Denvy. All the best for the Gobi desert. You've got plenty of time to train and get your kit together, and I've heard it's an awesome race. It's on my list!

Good luck!

Unknown said...

this is an awesome story, it really is. I sat a few times with tears in my eyes with pure admiration. Try before you die...