Tag Archives: Desert

Back to the Desert

Hip X-Ray - March
Hip X-Ray – March

Five years ago, in 2008, I ran the MdS, the fabled Marathon des Sables; 150 miles across the varying terrain of the Sahara desert in Morocco, carrying everything necessary to survive for a week, excluding water and a rudimentary shelter. During that event, I managed to pick up some debilitating blisters and, to cut a long story short, didn’t really feel I had given the race my best shot. As a result I planned to do the race again, but this time with my wife, Liz.

Life is what happens in between the plans you make, and despite booking to revisit the desert together in 2011, we had to reschedule that commitment due to the minor medical inconvenience of a broken leg, mid-2010.

I was barely off the operating table when Liz visited the desert for the first time on her own in 2011, but I was with her in spirit. For obvious reasons, I had to defer my entry and two years time seemed more prudent than one year given that I had been on crutches for 9 months and was not to be allowed to run for 6 months from the date of my operation at the end of February.

In August 2011, I excitedly started running again and slowly ramped up my Training and distance to the levels approaching those before my ‘incident’ in 2010 and so it was that I found myself on route to the Sahara again on 5th April 2013.

This is the story of my adventure.


5 April 2013 – Travelling Day

It was an early start to Gatwick airport. The children were still on Easter school holiday so we had all come on my final journey before the start of my adventure proper.

Ouarzazate Arrival

After checking in, which for a change was most dignified due to our early arrival, we found somewhere to have breakfast together, but then before we knew it, we were saying some tearful goodbyes and I left them waving me off at the newly refurbished immigration control at Gatwick North terminal. A few last minute shopping items were the first order of the day (camp flip flops and maltesers) and then after a quick chat with Mark Gillett the GB photographer, I followed the general throng of MdS, Raidlight, OMM and WAA backpacks which were starting to move en masse towards a far away departure gate.

A week before our departure date, I had been contacted (via an MdS iPhone App!) by Charlie Wakefield, a local runner who I now met up with in the departure lounge, although it was tricky to find someone you don’t know when the other 300 people in the same space are also trying to achieve similar aims, using various combinations of texting, hand signals and good, old fashioned shouting. Charlie was accompanied by Mark Hutchinson and Steve Vinall, who also lived in the Bramley / Wonersh area, only a few miles from Guildford and through which I have run many, many times. They had all met up with Alastair Prain and James Robson at James’ Restaurant in Mayfair earlier in the year, as they were all running for the Charity Mencap and so had agreed to tent together.

There was much discussion, already, over the extent of experience that people had of similar events or Ultramarathons in general, and what training people had completed on the run up to the point at which we all now found ourselves. However, as we had all booked in separately, we got split up on the plane and I sat next to and chatted with an Irish chap, Daragh O’Loughlin who was doing the race for the first time. He was ‘most’ interested in my training hints and tips for the race, although I don’t think he could quite understand my foot preparation strategy, i.e. harden for 2 months, then apply cream to keep soft and flexible!

The first thing most people noticed upon disembarking the plane after the 3 hour journey to Morocco, was the icy wind we were subjected to crossing the Tarmac where suddenly it seemed like the fridge door had been opened, rather than the oven we had been expecting. There was a slight air of disappointment!

[singlepic id=604 w=320 h=240 float=right]We then had a short coach journey (literally 3 minutes) to the hotel, during which I met up with David Perryman and arranged to share a room and discussed a potential tent space which we confirmed shortly afterwards with the rest of the guys. Having carried out a superficial unpack for an overnight stop in our luxurious, but temporary accommodation, we had a relatively quiet time over a Casablanca beer or two as everyone was quite reserved to start with. Andrew ‘Roo’ Landells, a fireman from up the north of the UK, also joined us at this stage to make a tent of 8 (although he subsequently defected to a ‘younger’ tent)

Dinner was a lavish affair, a massive eat-all-you-can-manage-cos-you’re-going-to-be-in-the-desert-for-the-next-8-days buffet and we all suspected at that point we were not the only people who were going to be arriving back in the UK after the MdS, having actually put weight on – still, we were putting the feast and famine theory to the test. There were also some keen discussions around the origins of the ‘lamb’, the thigh bone of which would easily have put a camel to shame.

[singlepic id=615 w=320 h=240 float=left]We all chatted and started to get to know our partners in our forthcoming adventure and over the next couple of days quickly gelled.

An early start the next morning on the coach was preceded by a breakfast in a similar vein to the previous night’s dinner – there was a theme emerging here – but a fleet of coaches arrived outside quite quickly, and all the eager competitors had their bags in the hold and were seated in a relatively short space of time, so we could get on our way.

The convoy of coaches snaked its way, first through the town and then south up through the mountains before turning east for the long journey to our destination. The conurbations became progressively less developed and ‘polished’ as we headed on our journey, and although this would have been the same as leaving the centre of any western metropolis with a rural destination planned, here the difference was almost immediate and far more stark.

We stopped a few times, initially for comfort, but then for lunch, and the temperature was still considerably cooler than anyone had been expecting, perhaps even hoping for – most were still wearing a couple of upper layers and although the sun was hot, the air was cool and a northerly wind was still keeping the temperature down. The forecast was for warmer air from the south bringing increasing temperature over the next couple of days, and as I also remembered the difference between Ouarzazate and the desert from my previous trip, I reassured everyone it would be getting warmer before too long. Much warmer.

Travelling Day – Convoy

After the 5-6 hours promised, we eventually stopped by the side of the road, and each coach in turn went ahead to a junction, apparently in the middle of nowhere, where army trucks then pulled up and we scrambled up into the backs with our bags for the short journey across the rough terrain which the coaches would not have managed, to the first Bivouac, much to everyone’s excitement. By the end of the short trip from the road to the bivouac, certainly no more than 1000m, there were complaints about all the sand and dust being kicked up and deposited upon the occupants and although light-hearted in nature, in retrospect, that was a bit ridiculous 😆

[singlepic id=641 w=320 h=240 float=right]Some of the guys had already commandeered a tent, 138, so we all installed ourselves and almost immediately the wind came up. The Berbers who had put the tents up in the first place were wondering round in small groups, carrying out remedial repairs on the occupied tents which consisted mainly of the British who were around the outside layer of the triple thickness horseshoe shaped pitches of black canvas. In a process we repeated often over the coming days, we got them to secure one side of the tent so the wind was not blowing through quite so vigorously, nevertheless, with the wind and the cooler temperatures, we were in for an uncomfortable first night in the desert.

The French contingent started to arrive after their delayed journey and someone remarked on the fact that arriving late, with only a few brief moments before the night took hold, to the current cold and windy environment, must have been a traumatic start for the first-timers.

[singlepic id=646 w=320 h=240 float=left]It was about this point that James earned his well-deserved reputation as the tent gastronomic delight provider, as he shared crudités and salami with us all; not the only fresh treat from him that we all relished over the coming days.

Our first dinner in the desert was a welcome affair and the warm soup as we all queued was just the best. We shivered our way to the front of the efficient queue, many of us wearing multiple layers, certainly more than we had anticipated needing, and although the wind had subsided a little, the air was still cold and so in the main people were clamouring to get inside the protection of the white tents around the periphery of the eating area to keep warm and most were also considering revising their night-time clothing provisions for the race from this point.

Technical Checks – 6 April 2013

[singlepic id=643 w=320 h=240 float=right]After a fitful night where most of us kept waking from wind, sand being kicked up, and unfamiliar noises and smells (and that was just from inside the tent!) we awoke with the Sun to what would become a routine over the next few days, including packing sleeping bags and mattresses away, identifying who had been snoring most during the night, conversing with the girl in the next door tent (Alastair), general ablutions in the rudimentary facilities which involved searching for the brown plastic bag to stretch over the ‘seat’ of the toilet, and of course breakfast – although not necessarily in that order.

Our self-sufficiency was not due to start until tomorrow morning’s breakfast, so we had another three meals throughout the day provided by the organisation. As a result petit dejeuner this morning was another case of strolling to the inflatable marquee and queuing again, this time with coffee, rather than soup, in the line. I have to say the food distribution was more efficient than I remember from the previous time, so AOI have obviously made improvements there, and the ham, cheese, yoghurt and eggs were most welcome, even after the previous night’s meal.

[singlepic id=656 w=320 h=240 float=left]Technical checks involves all competitors doing a final pack on their rucksack with all the items they want to carry with them and then handing everything else in to the organisation to transport back to the hotel for the finish. We also had to provide a signed medical check form, ECG trace and have evidence of the calories packed, with a bare minimum of 2000kcal being required for each day of the event, so 12,000kcal in total. In return, we were given our dossard numbers, salt tablets and an emergency flare.

The checks were split into several half-hour slots throughout the day, and mine and some of the other guys were at 1:00-1:30, the only dilemma with this being that lunch was served from 12:30-1:30.

We had all spent the morning going through food needs and discussing how much weight we could relinquish given the conditions, which were thankfully starting to warm up a bit. Both myself and Alastair had done the event before, Alastair in 2003, when things were far more rudimentary than they have subsequently become, with all the specific and specialised equipment now available. Even in the last 5 years since I completed the event the choice for competitors has improved no end. We compared notes on our previous events and the others listened intently and started to consider their weight reduction options. David had brought scales with him, so we all took the opportunity after a final, final pack to weigh in. My pack was about 7.8kg, excluding flare and water, but mine was the lightest of our group, with Alastair and David’s both pushing 12-13kg – they were on a walking strategy from the start though, so were less concerned about weight.

[singlepic id=661 w=320 h=240 float=right]We went and queued for lunch, hoping to get things finished early to then get back to drop our cases off in the actual technical check tent. No such luck. We waited for what seemed ages, and although eventually we started moving and the predictable cheese and ham lunch was palatable, those of us in the earlier slot to meet our destiny still had to hurry to make it back to our tent, grab our bags and shuffle over to the main marquee where the organisers, medical staff and reps were doing there inspections.

Mercifully, we has to stand out in the midday sun for very little time at the start of the checking process, and what was now our superfluous luggage was whisked off with remarkable ease; worryingly so! Inside the darkened tent, our eyes adjusted slowly, but only to see more queues first for transponders, then flares and finally the medical ‘checks’ where the doctors gave what appeared to be a cursory glance over my signed ECG and medical declaration; they raised an eyebrow over the state of my broken leg, but were happy when I told them it was all fixed 🙂 After that it was just our numbers to collect, and then we were back out in the sun and on our own.

[singlepic id=669 w=320 h=240 float=left]It is amazing the difference that such a little time can make. Having spent months if not years preparing for the race, this was now starting to get very real; with only one more evening meal to go, we would be on self-sufficiency for 6 days and although we were now but a stone’s throw away from the start line, everyone I spoke to really just wanted to get going. So near, and yet no cigar – yet!

We were now playing the waiting game, although I think this was naturally worse for the other guys than for Alastair and myself, since we had some idea of what to expect, it is difficult to describe to the uninitiated in detail. With a few hours to kill, and to stop our minds wondering too far off course, Charlie, Mark (?) and myself decided to take a ‘stroll’ to the top of the jebel which had been on our doorstep for the last 24 hours overlooking us like a sentinel to warn of impending doom! We had demons to banish.

[singlepic id=673 w=320 h=240 float=right]The stroll at first took us to the base and then up the side where we joined many other competitors who had had similar thoughts. The bedrocks were thick with fossils up to a certain level and the terrain was relatively easy, at least at the relaxing pace we were taking, with nobody timing us. At the top of the ridge, the view over the first bivouac was stunning and well worth the climb, and we took a few pictures to aid the memories, but then made our way down the fast way. The soft sand up the face of the jebel was substantial and was accessible by clambering only a few short metres down below the summit of the ridge at a strategic point. Going down is a lot easier, and a lot more fun, than going up!

We were soon back in the shelter of the tent though and James cemented his reputation as the bivouac gourmet when he brought out some cheese and biscuits for us to enjoy as an entrée to supper which followed shortly after.

[singlepic id=697 w=320 h=240 float=left]There were some quips about the last supper, but in general things were fairly subdued and since the sun had gone down, it was an early night for all to wrestle with our thoughts and try to get some rest on the stony ground.

It was about this point that I realised two things; bad things, now were were adrift in an ocean of desert on board the HMS Self Sufficiency. Firstly, a waist torch is great for racing, but not so cool for trying to find things in a backpack after sundown and my secondary wind-up torch was struggling with all I was asking of it, and secondly, my Thermarest mattress had a puncture; my 200-300g of comfort was almost useless, but better than nothing for insulating from the cool ground, so I anticipated a rocky night. On the positive side, my earplugs worked and blocked out the majority of the noise from the French tents, of which there seemed to be a particularly rowdy instance opposite.

MdS Stage 1 – 7 April 2013

37.2km – Jebel Irhs / Oued Tijekht

[singlepic id=705 w=320 h=240 float=right]I woke with the Sun as expected and got straight up to enjoy the sunrise. We had, over the last couple of days, gathered some firewood to make a fire for this morning and so I set about this straight away. The other guys were a bit sluggish, and indeed a bit sceptical of this approach to breakfast rather than using the stoves and esbit fuel tablets we had all bought, but I got things going for them, which I think they appreciated.

The Berbers were kind to us on this, the first morning, allowing us until almost 6:20am before removing the tent from over our heads. With porridge and strawberries out the way (the only one of that variety I had brought, after memories of having to force it down last time had come flooding back during the ordering process), it was time for the final, but what always seems to be the first ‘real’ pack of the rucksack. I stuffed as much as I could into my pack and then with the sleeping bag and mattress on the outside, deliberated over where to put my camp flip-flops and the flare, eventually deciding upon wedging them with the mattress. It all seemed secure, but this was to come back to haunt me throughout the day.

We all walked over sombrely to the start and Patrick Bauer was already talking on top of his Land Rover, so we all took some photos and said goodbye to each other and wished each other luck. I then tried to make my way forward to get closer to the start line to avoid having to pass a lot of people or get held up by the people who had underestimated the terrain. I didn’t get too far though as the crowd was thick with anticipation of the impending start that they and I had been training towards for so long.

[singlepic id=715 w=320 h=240 float=left]We had the traditional happy birthday to a few competitors who were ‘lucky’ enough to have been born on this day in history, and then after AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, which has become a traditional send off, there was a countdown from 20, to 10 and then we were off.

In a scene reminiscent of a Bond movie, where the villain thinks up more and more fiendish ways of dispatching the hero, a helicopter tracked forwards and backward over us a few times, at no more than 40-50ft, flying sideways above us, to give the cameraman hanging out the door the best possible shots of over 1000 runners quickly spreading out through the Moroccan Sahara.

[singlepic id=720 w=320 h=240 float=right]The first section of 13 km was fairly flat, presumably to break people in gently, with only the odd rise through a few hundred feet jebel and then some small dunes (dunettes?) just before CP1, but I managed to run most of this stage. The only time I had to stop was when my sleeping bag, camp shoes and flare all decided to make a break for freedom. I was in such a good rhythm at this point, that this was frustrating, especially to then see all the people I had passed, running on ahead of me again. I tried tying it on in a different way and hoped it was secure, and was off on my way in a couple of minutes, desperately hoping I could get back into a good stride again.

At the base of the next jebel, there was a bridge crossing over a river, and for a few hundred metres we followed the riverbank, marvelling at the beautiful contrast between the lush green reeds and vegetation along to bank, compared to the dusty, orange brush only a few metres either side. The first checkpoint, at 13.4km followed soon afterwards, where I stopped just to change water and add a Nuun tablet, a process with which I was to become very adept over the course of the next 18 checkpoints, and I was off without sitting down, resting or even taking my backpack off – minimise stopping time was my race strategy.

[singlepic id=721 w=320 h=240 float=left]After leaving, I thought that I should probably have checked the security of my sleeping bag and its other attendant items, and sure enough within a few kilometres, it had made another break for it, with the Frenchman behind kindly shouting about my ‘sac’ just in case I had failed to notice the massive and sudden change in weight behind me! After frustratingly wasting more time and revising the security of my packing once again, I carried on as we were subjected to a few more dunes and flat oued (dry river) bed and although it was generally very undulating it was also beautiful and I tried to look around and enjoy the whole experience, while also keeping an eye on the rocky terrain and watching my footing. I found that the second stage was not as comfortable as the initial stage and I wondered if I had started out too fast for the hot conditions and as a result I was glad to get to the next checkpoint, CP2 at 24.8km.

I maintained my strategy and stopped only briefly again to fix water and nuun and subsequently set off quite well and ran for the next few kilometres through a mixture of hilly passage, sandy oued and stony valley floor on the way to what the road book described as the summit of a ‘small sandy pass’ but which in reality was a 300ft climb to the top of a jebel, Amessoui Jebel; I learned quickly that the naming of jebels in the road-book was significant and was to be trusted far more than any attempts to interpret their scale as shown in their innocuous representation on the drawings on the maps in the road book. 😉

[singlepic id=726 w=320 h=240 float=right]After this tough uphill section, which had consisted of a gradual climb and then hard scramble up soft sand and boulders to its summit I was rewarded with a view of the finish and the salvation of the bivouac in distance and we were told it was only 3k.

This was 3km that seemed to go on forever though, and despite being largely descending, it was into the wind and through some stony terrain towards the end. I managed to run the majority to the finish, but it had been deceptive to see the bivouac from such a distance and it took over 20 minutes to get there.

I had finished though in 4:59:02, in 234th position.

I was largely pleased with my time and position, but felt I needed to improve on this over the next few stages. The last time I had been in the desert I had got blisters from the outset, and there was always that underlying fear that the same would happen again due to the harsh terrain and heat, but I was over the moon that I had very little to worry about in the way of blisters at this stage.

When I got back to the tent, the first thing I did was to make up my Goodness shakes – I had made a last minute decision to add one of their powdered shakes to my pack for recovery after each stage and these ended up being like absolute nectar! One of my better decisions for the sake of a few extra grams.

It was not all rosy in the #801 garden though as I was concerned about the fact my sleeping bag had fallen off twice, along with my flare and camp shoes (which sound like something Kenneth Williams or Graham Norton might wear around town). I resolved to sort out the pack strapping, which I had luckily decided not to ‘trim’ prior to the event, tomorrow morning, since everything was already spilling out of my pack now I was settled in the tent.

[singlepic id=727 w=320 h=240 float=left]For supper, I had an 800kcal sweet and sour chicken, which actually tasted quite palatable and afterwards as the sun was setting on our first day, I finished off my trail mix. During the race itself, I had only had my Torq bar and a couple of handfuls of mix, and already I was starting to loose my appetite for my carefully planned and measured trail mix. Since it was a significant part of my daily calorie allowance I was having to force it down though.

The other guys in the tent did really well and were pleased as punch to have finished their first stage and have 23 miles under their belts. David was the first to pay a visit to doc trotter though and was told his blisters were the worst for the day. James yet again delighted us with a pack of salami from his restaurant as well as a final pack of vacuum packed carrots! The high-life indeed.

We had all now become fairly adept at lighting the fire with gathered firewood and were slowly throwing away the esbit fuel and stoves which everyone had carried along for the first stage. The whole primeval fire ritual in the desert thing had gone down very well.

MdS Stage 2 – 8 April 2013

30.2km – Oued Tijekht / Jebel El Otfal

[singlepic id=728 w=320 h=240 float=right]We were up early again today, about 5:30 with the Berbers turning up a bit earlier than yesterday. The sunrise was not the same as the previous day either as it was unusually cloudy, at least on the horizon. There was talk in the tent of the temperatures being cooler as a result of the cloud cover and everyone was considering a fast start to get as much possible done before the heat of the day really took hold. We were being rather optimistic though and by the time we had been through the fire building and finished breakfast, the Sun was already peeking through some of the lower layers of cloud.

I had the first of my freeze-dried scrambled egg for breakfast which, I’m sad to report  was a double disappointment because I was anticipating it to be just what I wanted and in fact it wasn’t as nice as I was hoping, but also because I had another two morning’s meal of the same type to use. I had anticipated the scrambled egg with potato and peppers would be quite salty and just what my body would need, and under any other circumstances that may have been the case, but in the extremes of the desert, it clearly didn’t work for me. Getting the water to a temperature where the potato chunks rehydrated was also a problem and they were disturbingly crunchy 🙁 It hardly seems worth mentioning that the egg was also a very strange consistency and all in all the scrambled egg breakfasts were not the secret weapon for which I had been hoping.

[singlepic id=731 w=320 h=240 float=left]The other guys in the tent were still chucking stuff out to lighten their packs which the Berbers were very pleased about – one local came along clutching a bin bag full of cast offs! All our packs were getting lighter though through the use of the freeze dried food we all have – two meals a day plus sundries (gels, energy bars, trail mix, etc.) amounts to a minimum of 500-600g – I’m losing about 600g a day, but the other guys are losing more at the moment – Alastair is walking most of the race and probably started out with the heaviest pack, but is probably reducing his pack weight by 700-800g per day as he has puddings as well!

The race was on, so I wished the guys good luck and walked over to the familiar start, which this time I managed to join about halfway along the inflatable ‘funnel’, where I listened to Patrick again, but suddenly remembered I needed to put sun cream on my face. I had no time with less than 2 minutes to take my kit off, scrabble around for cream then pack it all away, so I was about to rely on my hat for the day – with such a high sun i didn’t think it would be a major problem.

Then suddenly they were playing the usual AC/DC, Highway to Hell, and the countdown began and we were off for the start of stage 2.

My legs were sluggish to begin with, but I reminded myself that it always takes me 5k to warm up and get into a rhythm. The ground was flat and it seemed that there were an inordinately large number of runners stretching ahead of me already so I tried to push on although in doing so I had to move away from the relatively clear track into the rock strewn area and I tripped several times, getting progressively more frustrated with my incompetence. This finally came to a head when I did a face plant, as I was forced into the rocky ground by momentum of the 7kg on my back succumbing to the force of gravity.

[singlepic id=732 w=320 h=240 float=right]Bloodied, and with memories of Leadville, I took it easy up the first jebel we had reached momentarily after, although with the snaking single file of runners taking the only viable path up the rise ahead of me, there was little choice but to take it ‘easy’, and I was thankful at least there was no sand and a ‘path’ to use.

As I had anticipated, the hard climb up was rewarded with fantastic views of the runners both ahead starting to traverse the sheer edge of the cliff face, and also looking back behind me, some miles of runners back towards the Bivouac barely visible in the distance, where we had all started from some time ago.

It was about 4km from the base of Hered Asfer Jebel to the summit and we went up and down a few times through a variety of ravines, summits, valleys and plateaus before finally descending again into another valley the other side of which was just before the first checkpoint at 12km.

[singlepic id=737 w=320 h=240 float=left]I still maintained my minimalist approach to the checkpoint stops and splashed some water on my knees and hands to wash off the blood and dust from my earlier stumbling.

There was now about 3km of slight downhill which was more of the same type of terrain, sandy, some brush, some rocks strewn around, but it was at least possible to run some of this up to the base of Joua Baba Ali Jebel. We had been warned there were three significant climbs today and the start of the second was initially sandy which was very slow and tough; trying to climb a 15% gradient in soft sand with each footstep sinking as far as the last, I was surprised to make it to the rocky outcrop before negotiating the final tens of metres towards the top, as quickly as I did.

I had memories of a wet, foggy, damp and lonely visit to Crib Goch, a rocky outcrop close to Snowdon in Wales which I had visited once in training for the UTMB in 2009. Although the visibility was significantly better here, for which I was thankful, the similarity of the steep descents on either side was not lost on me. Although it did not bother me, I mentioned to another runner as we were progressing that it would not do to be afraid of heights and I later heard that several people had been ‘concerned’ with the heights and some had needed step by step assistance to make it to the end of that section.

[singlepic id=742 w=320 h=240 float=right]The undulating and gradually ascending traverse along the edge of the cliff edge seemed to go on forever, although it was actually only 3km or so; the terrain was sufficiently punishing as to slow down most people, including myself – the knife edge strata laid down during a long gone age, thrust up into the sky by some tumultuous event over inconceivable eons, was now the surface we were trying to negotiate – having already stumbled several times on significantly easier footings, I was taking no chances here as one false step or failure of my footing here would rip me to shreds, or worse.

After what seemed like an age, the ‘way down’ from the ridge was visible, and an all too brief descent down a relatively sandy face.

I had a bad mental section after this and although it was a relatively flat 5k to CP2, I was questioning why I was doing this, why I was here, why I was putting myself through this, again! I was passed by Steve Vinall from our tent, who I think was more surprised to see me, than I was to se him. I eventually made it to Checkpoint 2 at 24km but had walked more than I wanted to which just made me more grumpy with the whole situation. I filled my bottles as previously and washed my graised knees again and then set off for final jebel, El Otfal Jebel, which had been looming on the horizon for the last few hours, but which looked suspiciously like the one we had had to go up at the start of our long day, 5 years ago. I smiled at the fact I was familiar with the course, but not about the course with which I was being presented. Still, reuse is good!

[singlepic id=744 w=320 h=240 float=left]Yet again this jebel subjected us to rocky foothills, followed by what was described as an ‘average’ 25% climb requiring caution and technical skills (no kidding!) consisting of a mount of soft sand that would’ve had Lawrence of Arabia quaking in his boots, followed by a sheer climb up another boulder ridden pass which each ‘runner’ had to negotiate individually. The final stretch, which confirmed my suspicions on the familiarity of this particular barrier, was a slight upward traverse along a cliff face of sand at the top of the 300m jebel along which there was a rope secured, mainly to stop weary competitors toppling to their doom, like the ambulance in ‘Ice Cold In Alex’. Although I faced this at the other end of the day to when I had encountered it 5 years ago, this was definitely the same climb and I knew we were now nearly at the top and a few hundred yards later I saw the UK photographer, Mark Gillett, snapping away at the tired competitors from the summit – he said Liz would like the pictures, even if I didn’t!

I stood for a moment to enjoy the view, and could barely make out the final bivouac nearly 5km through the heat haze and dust in the distance.

[singlepic id=747 w=320 h=240 float=right]The descent was also as I remember; best for mountain goats, with 1200m of flat slabbed descent down smooth rock, before turning into 1km of stony, sand patches before a small section (a mere 2km) of dunes before the final section of firm ground on which the bivouac was founded. Stage 2 complete.

I was soon on my way back to tent 138, with my evening’s 4.5l of water cradled in my arms and my one complementary cup of sweet mint Sultan tea (and no more than one, as we had been reminded in the morning, since presumably many competitors had been going back for multiple cups on the first day and the organisers felt that may have given them, an unfair advantage! Carbo-loading on miniature cups of mint tea? Whatever next!)

Steve Vinall, who had passed me earlier, was back already and had started the firewood collection, and Charlie Wakefield arrived shortly afterwards.

The glorious taste I was coming to expect from my Goodness Shakes was in no way diminishing and after collecting some firewood and emailing home (a process which normally took at least and hour in a queue) I joined the others in preparing supper – tonight’s delight was my first chicken tikka, which I am happy to report was significantly better than the scrambled egg breakfast I had had to force down this morning.

Mark and James were already back after I had finished my email and Alastair and David also arrived back during the daylight, although David unfortunately had to go back to Doc Trotters for more treatment to his feet and so disappeared again until after dark.

MdS Stage 3 – 9 April 2013

38.2km – Jebel El Otfal / Jebel Mouchanne

[singlepic id=753 w=320 h=240 float=left]The next morning I tried the scrambled egg again, this time putting a bit more water with it and ensuring that it was a hot as possible. The potatoes were still crispy and the rest was still not nice. I was resigned to the fact now that this had been a bad choice, but at least I only had one more of these meals left after today.

The 3rd day (from my extensive, only-completed-the-MdS-once-before experience) is always the worst. The competitors are at the stage when they’ve completed 2 days, but the 3rd day is still there between you and the halfway point, and even that marks the start of the 4th and long day, which is, rightly, feared by many as the day of reckoning and the focus of the effort. After the long day, of course, there is only a marathon and a bit to complete, but with nearly five behind you, no amount of blisters would separate most from their medal.

The start was similar to the previous days but I felt more apprehensive than previously after letting my time slip towards the end of yesterday. In the tent we had all discussed our strategies, and most felt that today was quite a flat day and consequently fast from the off, and I was determined to run as much as I could before the heat of midday, but had to remember today was only a couple of miles short of a full marathon.

[singlepic id=764 w=320 h=240 float=right]As we started out I realised we we running towards a village and this continued to take the same route Tim, John and myself had run on the Long day of the race in 2008. As a result I was almost buoyed on with thoughts of how well I was doing in comparison to that first race and ran almost continuously, along the dusty roads, and endless plains due south to about 10k, then a mountain pass with the village of El Maharch to the left  and on to the first checkpoint at 13km, after passing local trucks on the road with somewhat bemused drivers and passengers slowly inching past the hundreds of runners on the sandy trails which doubled as their roads.

The first checkpoint was a formality as I was feeling good, but we then had a series of three relatively small, but strength sapping sand and rock jebels, Ras Khemmouna, to clamber over. It felt surreal being at top of the 2nd of these as I had previously taken a series of pictures at this point last time to create a panorama, and subsequently taken time to ‘stitch’ these together and study it in some detail, so I knew the area and the view really well. The descending slopes were sandy, fast and fun though!

CP2 was a long way round the base of a hill and since it was on uneven type terrain, similar to which I had fallen the previous day, I took it a little gingerly during this point.

[singlepic id=766 w=320 h=240 float=left]Immediately after CP2 we ascended the sandy Mhadid Al Elahau Jebel and then traversed ridge for a couple of kilometres with glorious sights along the valley floor to either side, then there was a fantastic sandy descent to enjoy.

The next part of the route had a slight (described as ‘deceptive’) rise to it and as it was getting hot, I started to loose my sense of humour earlier than previous day on the unending kilometres that now stretched before me. The prevailing wind for the whole race up to this point had been warm and dry winds from the south; today was no different, and while it was an extra force to try to overcome, which I could have done without, I consoled myself with the fact that at least it wasn’t a full blown sandstorm we were heading into and tomorrow the route took a turn to the north east, so the wind would hopefully be behind us.

The next checkpoint at 32.4km could not come soon enough, and yet there was still another 5-6km to go to the finish. I tried to run as much as possible, but my legs were not playing ball by this stage and it was as much as I could do to manage a slow shuffle.

[singlepic id=768 w=320 h=240 float=right]The bivouac eventually came into view and I was glad to have completed half of the MdS 2013.

The sweet sultan tea tasted so good after a day out in the heat constrained to water, or water and Nuun electrolyte tablets, but they still refused me a second cup, even though I begged really politely – they’d been given their orders!

I strolled slowly back to the tent and wasn’t surprised when I saw Charlie had made it back to the tent just before Steve today, and I was in third; from a tent point of view we were sharing the honours nicely and we all joked later it was Mark’s turn next!

The Goodness Shakes worked as well with my recovery as it had previously and tasted perfect in some of the relatively cool water I had collected upon my arrival.

Mark joined us shortly afterwards followed by James, who considering he had an ankle injury which he had picked up recently and had been nursing since the start, was managing really well.

Since we were at day 3 of our racing we were all getting into a routine which consisted of putting various solar chargers out in strategic positions in the Sun ready to charge phones and watches, stretching and massaging various aching body parts (Steve’s Back, James’ ankle, my calves and stomach were continually cramping), then emailing, which involved queuing in the sun for the dozen or so laptops for our 1000 letter missives to home, checking our positions as they were posted up on the boards outside the admin tents and for some there were regular visits to the medical tents and Doc Trotter ‘Clinique’. Tonight was my first visit to sort out a couple of small blisters which I thought it worth seeing to before the long day.

Sultan Tea
Sultan Tea

The queue at the Clinique was understandably long by this stage as people sat and laid on carpets after disinfecting their feet and waited for their allotted slot prior to treatment. Since my feet were not bad at all, I wondered if I should just have got some iodine and gauze to ‘self-administer’, especially since the sun was going down and I hadn’t eaten yet. Still, after about an hour I got in and the nurse very quickly sorted out the blisters I had on each feet, three of which were behind nails (one requiring a drill through the nail to release the fluid build-up), one on each little toe and one on the side of my right big toe. Luckily I did not have anything under the balls of my feet, or on my heels which had caused such a problem last time. The general approach was to drain, flush with sterile water, then iodine (ooh, that smarts!) and then tape as small a piece of gauze as possible over the incision with thin strips of zinc oxide tape around the toe to secure.

It must’ve taken about 1½ hours in total and my feet felt worse afterwards, but I was confident they would feel better in the morning, and the process would get me further through the impending long day than I might otherwise have managed.

When I got back to the tent, Alastair and David had arrived back, both of whom were happy and smiling; in fact, given the state of his feet, we were all super-impressed with David’s super-positive attitude. He left to get his feet seen to by the Doc Trotters again, but sensibly took his food with him to eat in the queue. I prepared my food very quickly and to say I enjoyed the Chicken Korma supper immensely would be the understatement of the year!

MdS Stage 4 – 10 April 2013

75.7km – Taourirt Mouchanne / Jebel El Mraïer

[singlepic id=758 w=320 h=240 float=right]The anticipation of the long day had given me a fitful night. I was not alone. Most of the other guys in the tent were complaining of restless sleep and broken slumber. Breakfast was the first order of the day and I had already made the decision that I would force down my remaining porridge with mango; on reflection, it was probably not as bad as I had expected, and certainly more palatable than the scrambled egg, potato and peppers I had had to endure over the last couple of days. Most of the others were also fighting their own battles with food, but although I had not tried it, the kedgeree seemed to be winning the populous vote at the other end of the tent!

Everyone was apprehensive at the start though, including me, and everyone took a lot longer to prepare than the last few days and to get to the start line and we all slowly said our usual good luck and goodbyes and dispersed into the crowd.

The day seemed to be a lot hotter to begin with, but I decided to try to run as much as possible before the heat of the day really took hold. Everything started out okay with some fairly innocuous terrain, running back in an easterly direction for the first time in the race. The initial route was fairly ordinary and what I had come to expect by now albeit slightly ascending for last 4km to CP1 at 11.5km. I concentrated on moving forwards for the first few km and hence did not take any pictures during this part the stage – something I always regret afterwards.

[singlepic id=769 w=320 h=240 float=left]After CP1, the next section had a big initial climb and then about a 3km succession of up and down dunes to contend with – the first of the day and I ran with Mark for a bit for this stage, essentially walking up the soft sloping sides and then running quickly down the other side before hitting variable soft, rocky flat terrain and then repeating again. It was impossible to get any kind of rhythm going as I was stronger on the up-hills and down-hills, but Mark was faster on the flats, so eventually he shot off, as his game-plan was to stop for food at one of the later checkpoints.

From CP2 to the rest of the day I was therefore on my own; over 50 long km.

[singlepic id=773 w=320 h=240 float=right]The terrain between the next couple of checkpoints was (predictably) stony or sandy, but at one point, about 5km before the 3rd checkpoint, there was a substantial section of bushes to get through with a path, the organisers had done their best to hide, either side of a dried and dusty river bed, Rheris Oued, which we had to cross before CP3. It was at this point someone measured the temp as 54°C and even after exiting this there was another dusty 2km to the checkpoint. It was probably early afternoon about this time, and 6 hours into the run, I was starting to be caught by the elite 50 runners, who had commenced their campaigns for the day some 3 hours after mine.

Yet more dunes followed after CP3, but this was the psychological halfway point I had been working towards for some time, especially after the previous section which had been quite mundane. The heat of the day was still debilitating though as we skirted around the base of another jebel and along the side of a dried out lake. I laughed at the romantic images that these descriptions conjured up, but also imagined the beauty that the life-giving water must give to this area on the rare occasions that it does rain. On the narrow path descending from the jebel I was passed by Tobias Mews, one of the top Brit men, who was going well and who was talking and encouraging to all those he came across; impressive for someone running almost twice as fast as me. I arrived at CP4 shortly afterwards at the base of some more dunes, only these looked quite a bit more substantial than anything we had seen during the race so far.

[singlepic id=775 w=320 h=240 float=left]Having done over 45km at this point, I had already decided I would be best to try to have something to eat, but since I didn’t want to stop and cook up a freeze dried meal, nor did I really know how I would cope with a big meal in the heat, I decided to settle for one of my goodness shakes. On the face of it this was a good decision, and for just another 10 minutes stopping, I savoured the relatively cool liquid as much as I could, although inevitably I reached that depressing ‘staring-at-the-bottom-of-an-empty-bottle’ stage far too quickly, and it was time to push on.

The largish dunes I had to negotiate now were about 7.5km in length, so I took them steadily and actually enjoyed picking my route through and took some nice pictures as the sun was setting directly behind me suddenly feeling renewed energy and revelling in the beauty of the environment and my splendid isolation, so although they took an hour or so, the time passed quite quickly.

[singlepic id=780 w=320 h=240 float=right]Just after the dunes I was passed by Marco Olmo, a veteran Italian of the MdS and UTMB races, and at over 65, an amazing sportsman. My backpack, the Olmo 20, was designed by him for the Raidlight company, but I was slightly disturbed to see that he was not using either this or any of the later incarnations of the eponymous pack himself, but an MdS specific ‘WAA’ bag.
I tried fruitlessly to run after him to discuss his mistake, but to no avail and he disappeared into the distance across the next oudi.

By the end of the dunes it was starting to get dark and by the time I reached the top of the next visible rise I had to put on my waist light, at the same time snapping the glow stick I had attached to the back of my pack at the previous checkpoint. The bobbing luminous sticks of the other competitors disappearing into the distance were soon complemented by the bright green laser coming from shortly before CP5, which I reached soon afterwards, although not before helping one of the Jordanian competitors out with a drink of water – having started 3 hours later in the midday heat had obviously taken its toll on him.

[singlepic id=784 w=320 h=240 float=left]With 21km still to go I felt the end was in sight, but it was now dark and although I was hoping it was going to be getting cooler, there was no sign as yet of the heat relenting.

The staff manning the checkpoint 5 were obviously in for a long night and I left them building bonfires to warm competitors who might be feeling the chill of the air when they stopped. As I left the ‘light’ of the impromptu camp, I noticed the stars had started to emerge from the darkness, and although I glanced up a few times, there was little chance to look around at them on the stony ground, and my stumbling and faltering quickly reminded me why I was here and that I would have little opportunity to enjoy myself over the next few hours!

I passed the time counting down the kilometres and trying to pass as many people as I could on what seemed like a never ending succession of small dunes, stony tracks and sandy river beds and eventually, of course, the final checkpoint, CP6, arrived at 65.5km – mercifully, before I was expecting it from my Garmin.

[singlepic id=785 w=320 h=240 float=right]After leaving CP6, I hit a few kilometres of soft dirt, like trying to negotiate a recently ploughed field; having almost got into a rhythm prior to this point, it was frustrating to be taking slow and inefficient steps once again and I started to question the parentage of the course designers for more than the first time during this race. The distance was ramping down slowly though and after another bought of small dunes, this time with the added entertainment of camel grass and no visible pathway through, I and the others I was chasing, eventually turned the final ‘corner’ of luminous sticks and the lights of the bivouac, and the salvation of the finish line, came into view.

My trusty Garmin had kept me company all through that long day, and by my estimation I was literally within the final kilometre when it breathed its last, and the lack of charging from previous days finally took its toll. Much like me – it had had enough.

The finish line shone like a beacon as I approached and although today there was no medal, the welcome ‘beep’ of the timing equipment indicated my transponder was attached and working properly and my final journey for the evening was to try to find Tent 138 in the darkness, but not before that welcome cup of sweet Sultan mint tea and a hug from Tom, the ‘Running the Sahara’ rep, who was doing a sterling job welcoming people in from the dark, but to his credit also seemed genuinely happy to be welcoming ‘his’ British team back to the bivouac.

Having picked up my water and staggered blindly in the dark with the 4.5L of water for the remaining 30 minutes of the evening 😉 I eventually met up with Mark, Charlie and Steve who had already made it back to the tent – we had joked earlier that it was Mark’s turn to get back first and take the tent honours, since we seemed to be taking it in turns. Ironically, he had passed Steve and Charlie at one of the earlier checkpoints as they were eating and he had appropriately obliged.

I did not intend to cook up a meal before sleep, but my Goodness Shakes again tasted like nectar of the Gods and was all the recovery food I needed at that point before I commenced with the repair and rejuvenation of slumber.

Rest Day

By the morning of the next day everyone except David had arrived back; James had arrived a fraction after me and Alastair had arrived early morning, around 4am. Everyone had their own plans to maximise the rest day and prepare for the final stage tomorrow. Charlie was planning to visit the ‘self-administration’ queue for supplies, and James and Steve were working on ankles and lower back respectively to ensure that they stayed the course. Mark spent a long time resting after his monumental effort to come in first in the tent on the previous stage.

[singlepic id=788 w=320 h=240 float=left]The first order of the day as far as I was concerned was firewood, with 2 days supply to extract from the local environment, there was no time to waste. The nearby dunes hid a whole swathe of bushes I suspected might hold some suitable material, but getting up and down the soft sand, albeit no more than 5m high, in just my socks (my flip-flops had long since lost their grip on my feet in that environment) proved even more tricky than some of the previous day’s effort as I slid and slipped down to knee height, while trying to balance the spoils of my foraging on my forearms. I smiled, as the comedy moment was not lost on me, but my dignity was largely saved by being behind the dunes.

David arrived back at about 9am, having walked all the way and made it through the 75km in a shade over 24hours. Given that, he was in a remarkably cheery frame of mind, having only snatched a few brief moments of rest at the bonfires of some of the earlier checkpoints. It was now impossible for him to sleep, since the tent and the camp in general, were waking and becoming a marketplace of cacophony as people had their breakfast and tended their aching muscles. David planned to attend Doc Trotters to have his feet sorted out as usual, but Alastair was still undecided.

I was planning to have breakfast, with chicken tikka on the menu, deferred from supper last night 🙂 and then email home to report on the the previous days efforts. I had little else I needed to do to occupy me, except for trying to sort out some charge for my watch and iPhone, but there was lunch, rest and then probably supper to also look forward to.

The background noise of the camp was interrupted every so often with cheers and clapping as runners arrived throughout the day; the temperature rose sharply in the morning so any runners still out on the course after 10am would have been subjected to a full day of heat, some of whom would only have snatched a few brief hours of fitful rest at a checkpoint, before rising and finishing the challenge of the long day.

Bivouac from Email Queue

Back in tent 138, there was a lot of food swapping going on. I had several bags of ‘luxury’ trail mix with which to negotiate, as I had gone completely off the taste, and David was happy to swap an expedition foods chicken tikka for trail mix. James was hungry enough to sample the remaining scrambled egg and potato I had left and he was also happy to mix some of my trail mix in with what he had left as well. Everyone was happy, and I had another gold standard chicken tikka which I decided to save for breakfast tomorrow morning. I also had a Spaghetti Bolognese which I was planning to eat for lunch and my final Chicken Korma for this evening. That concluded my meal planning for the whole race, because at the start line tomorrow I had no more need of meals, just race snacks, which I was restricting to a Torq bar and my final Goodness Shakes (for emergency)

I meandered over to the email tent and contacted home, for what I assumed would be the last time, not knowing whether the facility would be available tomorrow, and then really just rested. Alastair decided to make his way to Doc Trotters to sort his feet out and he was gone for some time. When he arrived back he was clearly in extraordinary pain, after he had passed out during the minor surgical operation the medical staff had carried out on his feet – unfortunately, his blisters had been deep under the thick skin of his heels and they had decided they needed to remove this skin to relieve the pressure.

We all slept well that night.

MdS Stage 5 – 12 April 2013

42.2km – Jebel El Mraïer / Merdani

[singlepic id=790 w=320 h=240 float=right]After the previous day’s rest and all the food I had managed to take on board, I was expecting things to go well today, but I was still very apprehensive of the final stage given my previous fatigue, especially on the long day.

The top notch chicken tikka, went down a treat for breakfast, and with all the ‘space’ now left in my pack I also managed to get my sleeping bag as a soft spine stuffed into the middle, with other remaining bits and pieces of creams, anti-venom pumps, flares, charging kit, etc, down the side. The food was now history, except for an energy bar and one final sachet of Goodness Shakes berry flavour milkshake powder, which I was saving for during the race if I needed it, but preferably for afterwards as a celebration; this was, after all, effectively the end of the race.

Everyone in the tent which, thanks to our friendly Berbers, had disappeared at the usual inordinate hour, were pretty much wrapped up in their own thoughts and preparation, even after 5 days and everything becoming ‘second nature’, I suspect race nerves and apprehension was still kicking in for everyone. As a result we all drifted over to the start line individually for the beginning of the final stage.

[singlepic id=791 w=320 h=240 float=left]I stood close to the front again and soaked up the atmosphere with the birthdays being announced and calls of support from Patrick Bauer for those who had had to drop out on the previous stage. Then the familiar AC/DC anthem sounded to out to cheers from the crowd and the countdown got us under way.

The first couple of kilometres were predictably sandy, continuing our recent heading off to the east, but this soon turned into a rocky plateau on which most people, including myself, managed to get into a rhythmic shuffle, somewhere between a slow run and a walk. The heat was already starting to build though, with the early promise of cloud having long disappeared into a distant memory.

At about 5km we hit a ‘crevasse’ in the dusty, dry river bed, which had been described as requiring ‘technical crossing’ skills; in the past this had meant a rope, or crampons might be required but on this occasion merely slowed everyone to a snaking single file while following the only navigable path through the dried up vegetation, down the sheer bank of the dusty river bed, before crossing and repeating the few meters of clambering ascent out on the eastern side. I managed to pass a few people on my way to complete the distance through to the first checkpoint at just over 10km.

[singlepic id=792 w=320 h=240 float=right]I quickly filled my bottles with water at CP1 and was on my way. Overall, I was happy with my speed through the checkpoints, and I don’t believe I could have saved much more time – indeed, out of the 19 checkpoints throughout the 5 stages, I probably only took my backpack off 3 or 4 times, having quickly become quite adept at filling my front mounted water bottles without even taking them out of their holders, although it was always quite a juggling act with Nuun and salt tablets, and of course one has to remember not to bend over while the lids are off 🙂

The next section was significant as there were suddenly signs of habitation, including small groups of children, some supporting the exhausted competitors as they shuffled along, some begging, all cheery, and all apparently having appeared from nowhere. In the distance I eventually spotted what I assumed must have been their ‘village’; a veritable conurbation for the area, and the largest I had seen for a week. Still, I was surprised at the calmness with which they stood around in the midday sun, without water in the middle of the desert and wondered, not for the first time, what they thought of all these mad westerners with all their kit, running through their land?

[singlepic id=793 w=320 h=240 float=left]The next checkpoint, CP2 marked over halfway in the final leg of this year’s race, and it was psychologically welcome, the sight that met my eyes afterwards, less so.

The final stretch of small dunes was a precursor to the promised larger ‘building’ sized dunes, Erg Znaigui, so for the next 10km it was the now familiar slog, constantly up and down predominantly soft sand, negotiating a passage but eagerly searching out the harder ‘virgin’ sand to make footsteps more efficient and reduce the energy sapping impact as much as possible. Under the circumstances, this was a relatively vain effort though, so I took the opportunity to again enjoy the beauty of the ergs and the privilege of the situation that I had been afforded.

As I entered the large dune field, a few people were taking a route to the left of a massive mountain of a mound, but I was already committed to a right hand path, which the majority seemed to be following. I continued, but was glad when I reached the other side, to see the paths eventually joined. It seemed the left hand path was slightly shorter as well, since the competitors who took that route seemed to be a consistent distance ahead and I was not going that slowly!

[singlepic id=794 w=320 h=240 float=right]The beauty of the dunes were soon behind me though, and there was then a relatively flat section which I ran along on the final 2km to CP3 at the top of a rise at 33.7km. The heat in the exposed valleys was extreme and having run out of water in the dunes, I was glad to reach this checkpoint. I was refreshed (relatively speaking) quite quickly and on my way, with the knowledge there was now a mere 8km to go to the finish. A mere 5 miles, which under normal circumstances on the UK trails, without a backpack, I could easily complete in 35-40 minutes. The difference here is stark though. The heat is oppressive. The terrain is unforgiving. The weight of a rucksack, even after days of shedding mass, had got the better of me several times over the last couple of stages. Now though, I was like a horse on the home straight. A knackered horse, I’ll grant you, fit for not much more else than a glue factory, but I definitely had the bit between my teeth and I was slowly reeling in my fellow competitors and passing them.

[singlepic id=795 w=320 h=240 float=left]We followed a series 2 or 3 rises, Jebel Debouaâ, between sharp rocky plains just after leaving the third checkpoint, until finally there were further signs of habitation. The strange, purple coloured sand in the deeply rutted road, evidence of heavy trucks, led the way up ‘the’ final rise to a mine works and then, just after the summit, the old village of M’Fis. To my western eyes it looked deserted, with crumbling mud walls evident on both sides of the path marked out by the race organisers luminous red dawbs of paint. Then I noticed definite signs of habitation; electricity lines to ‘street lamps’, a worker coming out of his house acknowledged me, a football pitch crudely marked out and a couple of local boys leaning up against a corner. It could’ve been in any village, anywhere in the world, and I had to keep reminding myself this was the edge of the Sahara desert one of the most inhospitable places on the Earth. Life, it seems, is prolific – human life, even more so.

The village marked the final turn on this year’s race and the final 5km to Merdani, bivouac 6 and the medals.

The path was as straight as a die though, and tortuous beyond belief. Not because of the terrain; that was uncomfortable, but nothing compared to what had been thrown at the competitors over the past few days. It was because we were simply moving towards a visible destination without ever seeming to get any closer. The bivouac was just visible on the horizon from the village, and despite the mildly undulating route, remained so most of the time. I ran as much as I could but at this stage my running pace was little faster than my walking pace, nevertheless, I was catching a couple of other runners and this remained my focus for the next couple of kilometres.

It was only when I got close to one of them with about 3km to go that I realised it was James. I quickly caught up with him and we chatted about the usual desert and race trivia; heat, dunes, water, sand, etc., and then, in much the same way as a kettle doesn’t boil when you watch it, we found ourselves on the final 500m flat to the finish. James had been suffering a little because of his ankle, but had agreed to run the last stretch into the finish – at one stage he insisted that I go on ahead, but I explained that was no longer important and in my view that making new friends and finishing together was far more valuable than a few extra seconds off my time.

MdS 2013 Finish
MdS 2013 Finish

To this point we had not been passed by anyone, but there was a loud group coming up behind us and so we ran from here as we had agreed.

Patrick Bauer was waiting, smiling, as he had presumably been for the last few hours. His energy for this event is astounding, and although he makes it look effortless, I am certain the week is a marathon in its own right for him.

James and I crossed the line together and congratulated each other before receiving our new, shiny, hard-won medals from Patrick, with a very French hug at the same time! To stand out and hand each competitor their medal is impressive enough, but to hug every competitor, unwashed after 6 days in the desert, is certainly above and beyond the call of duty, but an act of recognition which is not lost on any of the competitors.

We stood briefly for our photos to be taken, and after mouthing hello’s to the web-cam, we left the finishing enclosure for the final time. The 28th Marathon des Sables 2013 was over.

We were still out in the desert though!

With our sweet Sultan tea and water in hand, we both made our way back happily to the tent. Charlie and Mark were already back and relaxing, having arrived some time before, and Steve was also back, but receiving an IV drip in the medical tent having nearly passed out after crossing the finishing line due to dehydration – he only accepted the assistance after confirming he would not be penalised! Perfect timing from a true competitor.

Otherwise, there was a strange quiet around the tent, a collective sigh of relief perhaps, or maybe an unwillingness to accept that the event was over, or merely an uncertainty of how now to occupy our time now that we were all finished but still out in the desert for another day. There was a lot of polishing and wearing of medals but with backpacks now devoid of food, the wait to supper at 7:00pm was likely to be a long one. I finished my final Goodness Shakes Superberry milkshake and then went to send a final, final email before strolling over to the finish and helping to welcome in the still arriving competitors, while allowing myself the luxury of a few extra cups of mint tea, which the sultan crew were now allowing!

The Band - Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield
The Band – Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield

When I arrived back, Alastair and David were also back and while we had no doubt that they would finish the stage, it was nonetheless a relief to have the whole tent having successfully completed the challenge; we had heard tales of several tents where more than one competitor had dropped.

There was a ‘stage’ that had been set up, a hundred metres or so to the north of the camp and, for the desert environment there were rather surreal noises coming from the crew warming up and doing sound checks on the equipment, covers from Adele, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Coldplay, Gloria Gaynor and ABBA were all emanating from the distant stage, and luckily, tent 138 had front seat passes and we all planned to enjoy it from the comfort of our own sleeping bags after supper.

The allotted time for the feast, our first of non-freeze dried food for 6 days, arrived and everyone was ‘eager’ to put it mildly to get to some real food. Unfortunately, the other 1000 or so competitors were understandably having similar thoughts and had also decided to try to circumvent the ‘queuing’ stage by arriving early. As it turned out, the wait was not too bad after all and the chicken soup in the vats outside was a delicious precursor to the main event at which we had a choice of wine, beer or coke.

I don’t normally eat fresh tomatoes, but clearly they were what my body was craving, along with the feta cheese and some sort of lamb stew along with all the usual trimmings of a few vegetables and cous-cous. The Sun had pretty much set by the time we had our trays of food so a corum of tent 138 made our way once again to one of the peripheral tents around the queuing area, with lighting inside. We sat down and toasted each other with our cokes and wines and then tucked in to our hard won meals, none of which lasted long!

Steve joined us from the medical tent some way through, with his tray as well, explaining that he had been given a couple of bags of IV drip and was feeling a bit better, but after settling down and trying to eat he came over decidedly pale, so Alastair and Charlie escorted him back to the medical tent where he unfortunately had to stay for another few hours – he was getting his money’s worth now 🙂

The rest of us chatted about our experiences but were ready for kip before too long, even though it was only about 8pm, we were obviously still in the early night routine. A few of us made our way over to watch the unedited highlights of the footage which had been taken throughout the week by the official MdS ‘Cimbaly’ film crew. The raw footage was split into days, terrain, genders and other classifications, and although it understandably concentrated on the elite front-runners, it still provided a wonderful view and memory of the race, which although only a matter of hours in the past was already becoming like some surreal event in which other people had competed; the film of the first and second days already seemed like a past age. There were regular eruptions of shouting and applause from the assembled crowd as a dossard number here or a face there was recognised in the images projected onto the side of a van in front of the stage that had been erected for the entertainment to come later.

In the dark, we made our way the short distance across the soft sand to our tent to settle down; most of the rest of the audience were doing similarly, but before too long the band were limbering up and after they started playing their songs, it was impossible to get to sleep! They were very good, having been flown in predominantly from Canada for the occasion, and their set must have been a couple of hours long, with a gap in the middle where there was a rather bizarre ‘Priscilla, Queen of the desert’ thing going on. I’m not sure if the band were dressed in drag to do the ‘Dancing Queen’ and other familiar numbers, but the audience were certainly entertained and surprisingly jumping up and down on their feet, although I suspect the audience by this stage consisted more of officials than competitors.

Eventually they said their good nights and the microphones clicked off for the last time.

Then the banging started, as the local roadies worked through the night to take down the scaffolding which had been used to support the lighting rig and create the stage. Luckily, my earplugs worked relatively well still, as they did not finish dismantling the last of the metalwork until just before the dawn. Nobody was too concerned though, as we no longer had an early start to worry about, and even breakfast would be relatively fresh in comparison to the freeze dried scrambled eggs, or porridge, we had been subjecting ourselves to over the last few days.

MdS Charity Stage – 13 April 2013

7.6km – Merdani / Merzouga

Things were a lot more relaxed on the final day in the desert. No worrying about tents being pulled down around your ears, whether there was enough firewood to heat the water for an extra cup of tea to go with your reconstituted freeze-dried gloop, and whether you should really have shaken out the sand which had blow into your sleeping bag overnight as those few extra grammes of dead-weight would undoubtedly not help your time. In fact, no tents to take down either, and we were woken at a very respectable hour by the staff in their land cruisers doing a circuit of the camp with horns blaring and shouts and claps in congratulations to all the competitors, and no doubt to a certain extent themselves, for the adventure we had all just completed.

Staff Drive by - Image Courtesy Charlie Wakefield
Staff Drive by – Image Courtesy Charlie Wakefield

No, the race was over, but the organisers had given us the ‘opportunity’ to carry out a final 7km, charity stage. This was the first time they had tried this format and everyone was a little unsure about it. We had decided as a tent that we would all stick together, which effectively meant walking it, which we reckoned would only take a couple of hours, but then we had a 6 hour coach journey to contend with. 5 hours running through the desert was nothing compared to the anticipation of that little nugget of joy.

There was also water to get though, and the allocation of a light blue UNICEF t-shirt to don during the coming journey; the organisers wanted a sea of blue traced across the desert to mark the occasion, and I imagine it would have been quite impressive. For now though, the biggest concern was the size of the garments as for some reason there was a steady stream of people wishing to downsize after trying on their normal fitting. Perhaps if the organisers had handed them out at the beginning of the week, it might have been a different matter 🙂

Tent 138 - Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield
Tent 138 – Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield

Still, breakfast was first and despite a hearty supper the previous evening, I was strangely hungry; I can’t quite imagine why. The bowl of strong, sweet coffee went down a treat before the main helping of bread, ham, cheese and a freshly cooked egg; I use the term cooked in a fairly lose sense since there was a fair amount of impatience for the final item on the menu, and the chef was doing his utmost to keep things moving. Either way, it was not to be sniffed at, and I eventually went back for seconds.

The packing of things into our packs, although now largely empty, became a little more frenetic when we realised our relaxed morning was coming to an end, all the other competitors were already making their way over to the start and the voice of Patrick Bauer could be heard calling people over the distant tannoy.

We made our way over to the start after one last glance back at the tent that had been our home for a week; she had served us well and never again were we likely to be together as a group in a similar situation. All these little things started to remind me of the magnitude of what we had done, and the friends I had made during this week. It is true that you really get to know people well in times of stress and the guys in my tent were a good bunch – I could not have hoped for any better.

Charity Stage - Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield
Charity Stage – Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield

The start was similar to the previous days, except that there was no AC/DC and after the countdown there was no rush across the line, merely a sedate stroll as most people took on the spirit of the event and walked in groups.

David and Alastair were struggling with the state of their feet and after a couple of km in the dunes of the mighty Erg Chebbi, the pace we had to follow for David turned out to be too slow for Alastair, so he took off at his own pace. The rest of us stuck with David, chatting about our intentions for the future, and other such things as we went along, passing the helicopter, which had landed in the dunes for no apparent reason other than for people to have their picture taken with it, as well as one of the organiser’s Land Cruisers, which was at a rather precarious angle on the side of a dune, being dug out by competitors and organisers. We gathered the driver’s final day exuberance was to blame, as we saw him 15 minutes later, passing and nearly over-cooking it again as he came blindly over the top of another mound.

The time passed quickly, and although it was after midday by the time we got to Merzouga, on the other side of the dune field, we did not notice the heat as much as the previous days.

[singlepic id=809 w=320 h=240 float=left]The finish was lined with children of all ages asking competitors coming in for their water bottles, seemingly a prize we were now expected to give away and which many of the runner were doing so. Otherwise the finish was unsurprisingly anticlimactic, with our flares and timing tags being collected before we were given water, offered more sultan sweet mint tea, and given an allocation on one of the groups of coaches, shortly to be bound for Ouarzazate. We all quickly found a seat on the 1pm coach and then waited. And waited. And waited.

The organisers seemed to be failing at the last hurdle with the transport back to the hotel. We sat for nearly an hour with no real visible signs of any progress, except the distribution of a lunch pack which everyone was very pleased about, although this only happened a few moments before we left.

After eventually making a move, my frustration at having to wait at the start of our journey was compounded by a stop by the roadside after only 30 minutes of travelling, for lunch, which our coach had already finished on the move. As we were travelling in convoy though, we were not permitted to carry on alone.

[singlepic id=816 w=320 h=240 float=right]Soon though, the convoy of a half dozen or so coaches started to make their way back along the dusty roads, through an area of Morocco which has clearly had less investment than some of the more northern parts. This was evident all the way back on the journey, as the buildings and villages slowly became more structured, developed and generally more recognisable as belonging to a more affluent and organised society.

The hours ticked by slowly on digits of the red LED clock which seemed to reset itself to zero each time the driver switched off the engine to stop, which happened several times. I tried in vain to charge my phone using my solar charger, but it too eventually gave up the ghost as the sun was setting ahead of us. We travelled through some gorgeous countryside and although I though I recognised it from the outbound journey, I soon realised we were taking a different route and would thankfully be missing out the nerve-wracking route through the Atlas Mountains. Indeed, as a result we found ourselves heading into Ouarzazate in the dark from the east of the city, as opposed to the south from which we had departed over a week ago.

After the stopping schedule for the various hotels became clear, Charlie and I decided to beat the queues so jumped ship with our bags and started up the hill where we happened upon one of the organisers Land Cruisers and stopped to confirm we were heading in the right direction, but were pleased to accept the a lift to the Berbere Palace when offered!

We quickly signed in and put bags into our rooms and I went back to pick up David and his bag. The rest of the coach had just arrived, so perfect timing, nevertheless, it was about 7:30pm by this stage and dinner was about to start, the smells from the massive buffet wafting throughout the reception rooms of the hotel, driving everyone insane with desire.

[singlepic id=817 w=320 h=240 float=left]First things first though. Smell is a powerful thing, whether good or bad, and a shower was called for to clean up before supper. It is interesting to consider the ‘sweet odour’ of the travel reps, photographers, medical and other organisation staff when they pay you a visit during the race when out in the desert, as it is, I have no doubt, inversely proportional to the stench of the competitors, and while all of the ‘non-competitors’ smell sweetly, with the implication of the state of OUR odour being just too horrific to imagine, to their credit they never once complain or pass judgement on us, even when hugging us crossing the finish lines; they seem genuinely impressed and in awe of every single one of ‘their’ own group, which in Patrick Bauer’s case includes ALL the finishers.

There is nothing quite like the first shower after a week in the desert. The dirt builds up so slowly over the days while you are out there it is difficult to tell when you reach the point of maximum filth. I would estimate 2-3 days at the most, before your hair, legs, arms, face and skin in general, is absolutely caked in its own mini-Sahara. When you step into the shower it just drops away. 8 days of ex-foliation has its effect, and your skin feels suddenly incredibly smooth. The same happens with your hair which, after a similar period without significant tending, is greasy, matted and full of sand. The sand drops out easily with soap and it is as if a miniature sleeve around each individual strand has been slid off as your hair once again returns to its normal thickness and weight.

I felt human again and supper was as nice as we had all been anticipating, especially with a bottle of chilled Casablanca beer.

Free Day – 14th April 2013

There was little that I wanted to do on our free day in Ouarzazate but continue to sleep in a soft, comfortable bed. Unfortunately, after a week of waking with the sun, the shouts of the Berbers and the rude removal of canvas from around me, my body clock was somewhat set to wake early in the morning. On the positive side, breakfast was being served from quite early too, so I quietly stole out of the room and made my way to a nearly empty dining hall, grabbed a coffee and some of the mini pastries and settled down to catch up on some of the news I had been missing for a week.

[singlepic id=826 w=320 h=240 float=right]I spoke briefly to Rory Coleman and asked how he had found his 10th MdS. He replied that he felt it had been a tough one. This was confirmed a short while later when I met and discussed the event with Steve, the Sahara Marathon manager, effectively the director of the UK contingent. He explained that the organisers had never made the first day so tough, and never put three massive jebels on one day, as they did this year on day 2. He confirmed my suspicions that they had been trying to make it tougher because of the change of format with the addition of the final ‘charity’ stage which did not count towards the timing, but also because the general standard of competitors entering had been going up over the last few years. So presumably they felt they could raised the bar, without disillusioning people too much, while still attempting to retain the title of toughest foot race in the world; a difficult line to tread, and one which the organisers have been criticised for in recent years, with the plethora of similar format races now available globally. Interestingly, Steve also talked about other races, perhaps with a view to becoming UK representatives for other events, but said he had not yet found any others that met the exacting safety standards and organisation of the MdS.

[singlepic id=833 w=320 h=240 float=left]The others slowly drifted down for breakfast, by which time, of course I had had about 8 courses, and was thinking about brunch and we conveyed to outside next to the hotel pool, as it was shaping up into a lovely day.

After a few more coffees, none of which appeared to be decaf….8-) we decided to drift down to the hotel where we had to collect our prized ‘finisher’ tee-shirts and the MdS boutique where no doubt we would all purchase lots of overpriced and expensive branded kit which would sit in our closets for an age until eventually the colours came into fashion.

It was warm outside, but a pleasant walk through the sunny streets was not a problem. David and Alastair both stopped off for some more supplies from Doc Trotter at a hotel on the way, and then met us at the Kas Hotel, presumably named as such as it was opposite the city’s Kasbar. The queues were long, but mobile, and we all made it through in 30-40 minutes. The only thing I bought was an updated solar charger, which would be lighter and more efficient for any future return to this type of multi-day self-sufficiency race; Planning for 2015? Maybe! 🙂

[singlepic id=846 w=320 h=240 float=right]It wasn’t quite time for lunch yet, but rather than sit in the hotel for a beer, we found a little terrace next to the Kasbar where we could soak in some sun; ironically having been plastered in factor 30-50 over the last few days, we all still looked like lily white westerners. We had forgotten that alcohol would not be on offer, but happily settled for soft drinks although the amount of tartrazine in my orange juice was questionable – it probably could have doubled quite nicely as one of the luminous post markers on our recent long day exploits 🙂 Nobody was complaining though, the sun was out, everything was relaxed and the majestic Atlas Mountains on the horizon provided a magnificent backdrop to our final day in Morocco.

About half of our group wanted to search out the old town, buy gifts and, as James and myself described it, find somewhere ‘authentic’ for lunch, so we split at this point and walked over to the old marketplace in the south of the city. We had a couple of excursions into shops to barter but this was largely fruitless, although we had a couple of vendors on the hook for later on or, despite Charlie’s bartering skills, more likely the other way round. In the meantime, James had found somewhere really authentic for lunch!

[singlepic id=849 w=320 h=240 float=left]With stories of food poisoning and soft western stomachs abounding, we placed ourselves in the hands of culinary fate. As it happens the food was simple, but as authentic as we had hoped, as could be judged by the number of locals eating there, in a fantastic local environment looking out onto the marketplace – who could ask for more! The different varieties of skewered meat were highly spiced but a delicious treat. As is often the case the price was also unbelievable and with the confusion of a Moroccan Dirham to Euro rate also adding to the complexity, we had to confirm several times before we finally believed 5 of us had eaten a gorgeous meal for around £20.

With gifts still to buy, but time becoming limited, Charlie and I made our way back to the shops we had bartered in earlier, to a smiling owner, and accepted their ‘final, best offer’ for some brightly coloured and embroidered tops, mine destined for Savannah.

[singlepic id=853 w=320 h=240 float=right]Steve, Charlie and myself made our way back to the Kasbar to have a look round the old fort which was a maze of passages, stairs, rooms and windows, but each area was unique in its own way with tiles, paintings and pictures decorating the whitewashed walls. Interestingly there was little furniture around the place and since we were in a hurry and had opted not to take a guided tour it was impossible to really understand the use of the individual rooms, let alone the whole building from the past.

After a whistle-stop tour with a few photos, we made our way back to the hotel, stopping off at the tourist trap to barter, badly, for some more trinkets. For Liz and the children, I bought a Moroccan bracelet and a southern cross necklace each; having bought Liz a similar necklace last time I was out here, my family now all have one, which I thought appropriate.

Celebration Supper - Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield
Celebration Supper – Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield

We managed to get a lift back in one of the organisers land cruisers, yet again, as it seemed now the race was over, they were scratching around for ways to help the competitors but taxiing them around the city was a most welcome assistance as far as we were concerned!

The evening started with a few beers, the now familiar endless buffet after which there was a prize giving and auction for the local charity by Patrick Bauer and Sahara Marathon’s Steve, of various artefacts of clothing, such as a race director’s vest, and signed copies of the remaining few road books for this year’s event – James managed to get one of the road books for his restaurant in Mayfair. After all this entertainment, not to mention a few beers, we all retired as it was an early start to checkout, breakfast and then the short trip on the coaches.

Return Journey – April 15 2013

It definitely was an early start in the morning. Stupid o’clock. Despite setting my alarm for whatever time I thought was appropriate the night before, it still went off an hour later than I was expecting the morning after but, having largely packed the night before I was ready in a flash and went to check out while David finished his last bits and pieces. I needn’t have worried as although busier than the previous day, at about 5:45, breakfast was still fairly relaxed.

People were drifting in and out and I eventually saw some of the others, as I went for a second helping of pastries and coffee – so much for the return to a no carb diet 🙂 Nevertheless, we were all ready to go and through the maze of luggage within the next 30 minutes.

Quarzazate Kasbar - Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield
Ouarzazate Kasbar – Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield

I always thought it was somewhat ridiculous to have so many coaches available for a 1 mile trip from the Berbere Palace to Ouarzazate airport, and it seemed the organisers had seen sense, having only a couple of coaches providing a shuttle service back and forth.

Travelling always seems to be a series of queues, and it today was to be no different. So from the queue for the coaches, it was check-in, then security, then as this had taken so long, only a short delay before boarding. James, Mark and David broke up the boredom by doing a bit of last minute shopping in the Airport shops before coming through security, obtaining a few fossils and other memorabilia before leaving Morocco behind

The flight was uneventful and I tried desperately to make detailed notes of the last few days, optimistically thinking I could write up my adventures during the 3 hour flight; as of this sentence it has taken over 6 weeks of commuting and a few snatched hours at weekends to get to this point.

As we came in to land, descending slowly through the thickening grey cloud, the desert already seemed like a different life, certainly not mine.

The plane doors opened and the assembled masses alighted into the anticipated, but still surprising intensity of the cold air on the pier, before we got to the heating of the terminal building, and made our way to the final couple of queues. Passport control was long, but efficient and we were through in a few moments. The baggage carousel was less so and the multitude of frustrated ex-competitors and myself were left stranded for what seemed like an age, although in reality was probably only about 10 minutes. Airports seem to have a way of playing with your perception of time.

Gatwick Welcome - Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield
Gatwick Welcome – Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield

The members of tent 138 of the MdS 2013 all realised their loved ones would be on the other side of customs, so we said our final goodbyes and wished each other well now that we were disbanding for the last time. After having been through so much, in such a short space of time, it was strange to even think of ‘getting back to normality’. James was talking of going straight into work in the afternoon, David had a longer journey than most back to Leamington Spa, Charlie, Steve and Mark were planning to work the next day and Alastair had done a disappearing act again.

Our final short walk through the customs hall was crowded with passengers arriving from other parts of the globe, but they looked on quizzically as each of the MdS 2013 competitors emerged from the doors to applause from their families who had missed them over the last 10 days of the event, the balloons, banners and cheers evidence of the successful completion of something special, but still they would have had no idea what we had been through. Even the family members who would have followed their progress in the intimate detail of daily updates and emails from their loved ones, would have little concept of the reality of the event. It is so unique to each individual and the experience, although shared to a certain extent, is a very personal one. The only person on the outside of the exit who I knew understood this was standing quietly to the side.

As we embraced tightly, I took another step back to the reality of life, but also came closer to realising that life’s great adventure is what you make of it, and so is never really over.

Desert ‘Heat’ Training – UK Style

Tapering is going quite well. My desire to reduce my weekly mileage has, through necessity though, been easier to manage than I had anticipated.

Bloemfontein – Nice and warm!

Liz is away at the moment in South Africa ‘fetching’ her mother, as she is moving back to the UK after well over 50 years. She has lived in the same flat in Bloemfontein for 30 years now, so as you can imagine there is substantial amount of accumulated ‘memorabilia’ to sort through and at 85 this is a significant move. It will be for the best though, as she will be a lot closer for her immediate family to look after her and provide the care she needs.

While Liz is away it has not been as easy to get out and run because of other family duties, even though I’ve had the assistance of a friend of ours, Colleen, for a few days and although she has been a star, I’ve still been working from home but for some reason have not had the ability to wake up and get out the door early in the mornings. Perhaps it’s just the weather or maybe last week took it out of me a bit more than I realised.

Interestingly, one thing I did notice was that after a slow, but ‘hard’ long run last week, which included many hills and a full backpack, I have had a few great pace runs during this week, i.e. runs where I’ve found it relatively ‘easy’ to maintain a faster pace than previously, including one around the City and two with hills around Guildford and I actually recorded my first sub-4:00 km for about 2½ years, so obviously I’m pleased about that.

Guildford - 2 hours into a long run
Guildford – 2 hours into a long run

Nevertheless, cause and effect aside, the tapering or at least the reduction in my weekly volume of running has decreased nicely to about 2/3 of my previous peak week.

On this basis I was planning on doing about 18 miles this morning on my weekly long run, having run every day during the week to keep my legs ticking over, and ensure my body is as familiar as possible with the onslaught it is about to get in a couple of weeks time in the desert. It was not the distance that concerned me this morning though, it was the forecast. Rain is one thing, but snow in March, nearly April at that, is another thing. The forecast was for rain pretty much continuously overnight, but at 7:00am this was purported to be turning to snow – about an hour into my planned run.

Weather forecasters have not been renowned for the accuracy of their predictions, especially in the UK where our climate can be dynamic, to say the least, but this morning they were spot on.

I had decided to keep to the roads because the trails had been getting progressively worse recently while I had been running and I didn’t fancy today’s long run turning into a mudfest with the associated puddle dodging and surface slipping with which I would otherwise have to contend. Although this was a good decision, even the flats were full of standing water and there were plenty of areas of flowing water on the slopes, from the ongoing deluge as well.

Undeterred, I ploughed on, accepting the dampness in my shoes and the cold in my feet, reminiscing it had been a lot worse at the Thames Trot a few weeks ago.

Guildford Snow - March!
Guildford Snow – March!

Surely enough though, about an hour into my journey around the outskirts of Guildford, the rain was beginning to lighten, not in intensity but literally in weight, becoming far more affected by the prevailing winds (which I always seemed to be running into!) and as incredulous as it seemed it was beginning to snow and the meteorologists predictions had been right.

By the end of the next hour, the crystalline precipitation had started to settle, and although damp the roads were becoming noticeably more slippery as I made my way from Clandon back towards Guildford town centre. In fact, the last 5km was downright dangerous to my ankles and I wondered if I might have made a bad decision to wear my Inov-8 255 Road shoes which have absolutely NO tread to them as I slid around on the fine layering of damp snow through which I was leaving my first contact footprints.

I made it home safely though and the children excitedly informed me it was snowing, as I walked through the door 🙂

So, with just 2 weeks to go until the first stage of the MdS, where the other 1000 competitors and myself are likely to experience 35-40°C midday temperatures, I am currently training in an effective -4°C temperature.

Not ideal for acclimatisation, but hey…. Mad dogs and Englishmen 😎

Shoes Sorted…. Nearly

When I get to the desert in about a month, someone mentioned there may be a touch of sand.

Not a problem as such, but sand in your shoes while you are running is a recipe for disaster, with the certainty of blisters ensuing, and with the soft sandy dunes I am likely to be having to run on, the feet easily sink down so that the sand comes up over the top of the feet and the ankles and it is mighty easy for the shoes to fill up very quickly.

Reinforced Raidlight Gaiters
Reinforced Raidlight Gaiters

Desert gaiters are therefore the order of the day.

Last time, I went I used parachute silk in the form of an elasticated ‘tube’ to come up to just below my knees, with the lower end permanently glued onto my shoes. Not exactly a stunning fashion statement, but it did the job well enough. A few repairs were required towards the end of the event to fix rips and holes to the material where the slipping through dry river beds of gravel, clambering up cliffs and sliding down the sheer faces of dunes, had finally taken their toll. Liz used similar accessories in 2011 when she had her own foray to the desert and they worked well for her too.

Things have moved on a bit in the intervening years though.

RaceKit Gaiters
RaceKit Gaiters

Velcro attached gaiters were relatively new in 2008, but 5 years later there are plenty from which to choose and I have a couple of pairs to take with me from Raidlight and RaceKit. Both are similar design, but different material, the RaceKit items being made from ripstop and the Raidlight variety from a lightweight Lycra but with a reinforced panel at the front. The idea is that the gaiters are slipped over the feet in much the same manner as socks (with no soles!) would be, then the shoes can be put on and laced normally, which is not an advantage you get with those that are permanently stuck in position and finally, the outside gaiter material can be pulled down and the mating parts of the Velcro joined to provide a sand-proof seal. That’s the theory.

Velcro attached
Velcro attached

I’ve had the Velcro glued and stitched onto my new trainers, which I wore for the first time (without the gaiters) on Sunday. No blisters from new shoes and with two pairs of socks there is a little room for expansion when my feet swell in the heat. The stitching seems strong enough and I’m going to be putting a lot of trust in the cobblers that did the work – Hoxton Shoe Repairs, since any failure could be catastrophic for not only my feet, but also my race and many years of planning and training. No wonder there are so many discussions on the forums surrounding this singular subject, since the ingress of sand to the shoes is the one thing to avoid at all costs.

I was planning to report that everything was happy in the marriage between shoes and gaiters, but unfortunately, having worn them a couple of times durning the week, they do not appear to have put nearly enough glue on them and although secure, the single line of stitching at the upper edge is not really sufficient to stop the Velcro flapping up.

I’m therefore going to be having to take them back for a second attempt at implementing the double line of stitching which they promised, but did not deliver on after the first visit. Watch this space for more details.

Post Update here

This Time Last Year

We are following the progress of the MdS 2012 at the moment, and as I write this the first competitors are starting to arrive at the end of the ‘long’ day – 82km across rocks, hills, dry lake beds, generally rough terrain and this year, a sadistically placed 20km of strength sapping sand dunes, after the first 40km, leaving a poultry 20km to the finish.

As with previous years the competitors ranked in the first 50 places after stages 1 to 3 were held back to start at 11:45am, whilst the other 800 or so of the remaining competitors will have been started at 8:45am.

[singlepic id=79 w=320 h=240 float=right]

Despite starting 3 hours later, many of the top guys passed all but 2 of the rest of the field. Now that’s impressive.

What is always more impressive though, is that some of the competitors will be out running, walking, jogging, stumbling or crawling across the remaining terrain between them and the bivouac, and will only reach that final rest stop sometime tomorrow morning, some after 30 hours. And then the next day, they’ll have to do it all again, with another marathon to run on stage 5 and by this point their feet are likely to be sore, if not completely shredded.

While watching the competitors drift in on the web-cam, both Liz and I are reminded of the desert and how much we would like to be back there again now, as this time last year, Liz was out in the 26th MdS, running her own race.

What is the attraction of such an event? When the negative side, the potential for failure, the expense and the pain are so great, why do we feel like we do about being there again?

The challenge, of course, is paramount in our minds and that is merely another way of expressing the potential for success – one doesn’t look at the negative aspects when one is considering these things, when one is thinking about such a relatively short period of time, of expenditure of effort to achieve. The expense? Well, it’s just like a holiday really, plenty of sand and sun, so not really a problem there either. But perhaps the biggest reason we want to be back there is to experience the environment, the beautiful majesty, solitude and extraordinary extremes of the desert. It is like no other place on earth, and to have the opportunity to do what we have done again is just is just incredible.

I am looking forward to next year, and Liz is hankering after running again as soon as she can 🙂

The lion sleeps tonight….

The holiday of a lifetime to Zambia planned down to the last detail – nothing had been left to chance at the three ‘camps’ we were visiting – Chiawa in the south Zambesi National park, the Safari house at the Nkwali camp on the Luangwa River, further up to the north east and finally, Kapamba camp on the Kapamba river.

Elephant crossing

We had even checked with the agent that running would be possible and he had confidently replied that it would not be a problem and that the guides did this all the time and all we needed to do was arrange this with the camps when we arrived.

The face of the manager when we somewhat niavely asked at the first camp about a running excursion was incredulous, to say the least!

Running in the national park is not allowed, he explained; indeed, getting out of a vehicle, without a guide is a no-no and even a walking tour requires engaging the services of a park ranger of the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) with a rifle for those unexpected round the corner eventualities.

So although we had a fantastic time at Chiawa, running was most definitely NOT on the agenda.

The second site was set up rather differently, being across the South Luangwa river and not in the national park itself, and Kiki, our guide, duly explained again that we would not be able to run in the park, but he was quite happy to take us from our camp where we could run out to the ‘main’ road, a distance of 6-7km, and from there we could run through the villages towards the airport at Mfuwe.

Rudimentary Habitation
Rudimentary Habitation

Feeling our feet twitching from low ceratonin levels, we jumped at the chance and made the arrangements for another running adventure ‘with a difference!’

At 5:45am the next morning, we were off, with instructions to keep looking out to the sides for anything untoward, especially elephants, lions or leopards!

Liz and I started running, with a certain amount of trepidation as this was the first time we had been ‘out of the vehicle’ on our own, but the first few moments were uneventful.  We saw a few baboons and impala, relatively common for the area, which we saw mostly disappearing off into the distance as they were far more concerned with the unfamiliarity of our heavy stomping gait than in allowing us the delight of running in their company.

Eventually though we turned a corner and were faced with a group of elephants browsing through the undergrowth and spilling over the road a few metres ahead of us.  Kiki in the landcruiser behind us, immediately closed on our position, and realising discretion was the better part of valour when it comes to dealing with the unpredictable nature of several tons of African elephant, we hopped back onto the vehicle and drove slowly past the retreating herd.

Actually, that was to be our one and only skirmish of significance with the african wildlife, but the cultural adventure was just beginning.

As we continued our way to the main road Liz confirmed neither of her ITBs were holding up well so she would be stopping soon. As it was, she managed another couple of kilometers before we reached the turning off to Mfuwe.

Churches and Bars
Churches and Bars

The turning was a few hundred metres before the start of a route which passed through a number of villages consisting of schools, shops, mechanic’s workshops for both cars and bicycles and of course a variety of churches and bars. The buildings in these settlements consisted of two main varieties: brick with shiny galvanised corrugated steel roofs or mud and straw combinations of the type you would have thought would struggle to stand up to the oncoming rainy season onslaught.

The buildings were not the first thing I noticed though.

Unsurprisingly, the local habitants were not really used to seeing ‘whities’ outside of a jeep on their way to a safari camp or even in their villages, but at the site of me running down the road at 6:30am I was greeted with a mixture of shouts of ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ which I subsequently found out in Zambian are exactly the same word, hence the translated interchangability.  On responding myself with salutations of ‘morning’ and ‘how are you?’, the beaming smiles and excitement were such that I felt I was running my own special race.  I love running!

Road running
Road running

At one point I caught up with a couple of boys riding a bicycle slowly along the rough and uneven gravel sides of the road along which I was running.  I presumed they were doubly surprised by the fact not only that I was running, but also that I was passing them.  I asked them how they were and they responded they were fine and retorted in kind. The conversation continued with the one lad asking me ‘Why was I running?’  I explained it was merely for fun and fitness and he echoed my comments by recognising it was to keep myself in shape physically, to which I laughed and responded that I ate too much – although I immediately felt guilty about the imposition of situational comedy on these two individuals whom it is quite possible could never even contemplate the concept of eating ‘too much!’  I moved on steadily considering again how strange my actions might appear, on so many levels, to these locals.

I was starting to think about how far I would realistically be able to do at this modest 5 min/km pace with the heat beginning to increase considerably in the exposed conditions, when another young lady passed me on her bicycle, but this time with a look of real concern, bordering on abject horror, on her face as she asked me a now familiar ‘How ARE YOU???’  This time though, I translated the greeting into something more akin to ‘Are you about to expire?’ or ‘Would you like me to call a medical service for you?’ such was her body language as she rode by.

Happy, smiley people
Happy, smiley people

Many times along the road and through the villages, I was spotted from a distance by young children playing in their ‘front yard’ and often their reaction was to shout excitedly for their friends and siblings and run and wave enthusiastically along side me for a few metres. When I waved back and shouted hello’s to them, the level of laughs and shouts characteristically went up a notch or two.

After about 17-18km I saw a group of three elderly women on their way somewhere ahead of me and as I passed them they all gave me the usual polite ‘Hello – How are you?’ greeting as I passed and acknowledged them, but one of the lady’s also smiled and clapped briefly as I went past, saying something in her local dialect probably akin to ‘bravo’.

I ran on in the heat and considered how few cars there were out here, the primary mode of transportation seeming to be the bicycle, many of which were unfeasibly loaded with a vast array of goods being distributed to the myriad small huts along the sides of the road and elsewhere for sale.  Most had more than one occupant.

After looking at my watch for a couple of km and counting down, I decided it was time to stop; just under two hours running and all flat, but what a fantasic experience!

Disgruntled ladies
Disgruntled ladies!

As I turned round and jogged slowly back to the landcruiser I saw not only Liz and Kiki, our guide, but also three others.  As the ensemble approached me I suddenly smiled as I recognised the ladies that had greeted me a few km earlier.  They were more than happy to cadge a lift and ride in comfort at the 12km/h I was maintaining obliviously ahead.  Unfortunately, now I had decided to finish and their opportunistic ride was therefore about to disappear and at this the one lady that had clapped me was MOST upset!  “How?” she exclaimed to Liz in her pigeon English, effectively meaning ‘why is he stopping now? I’m quite happy to sit here and enjoy the ride and just because he wants to stopsurely it doesn’t really mean that I have to get out.’  Eventually, they all alighted from our temporary mobile training base, with some most disgruntled looks and carried on with their slow stroll towards their eventual destination at some point ahead.

Although I had only done 13 miles or so (the full route here), it was the first time I had run in several days and the feeling was therefore that of relief mixed with exuberance as the cerotonin levels increased and the malotonin levels were banished to acceptable levels.

The experience of the culture as I was running was just amazing, and yet again proves what a versatile activity running can be; from Mont Blanc to Zambia, Berlin to San Francisco, running is just a fantastic way to experience life in so many different ways.

Day 4 – Stage 1 (32km – Dunes)

The tent survived the night – just! A complete reversal of the wind direction stressed it in completely the opposite way at about 2am which woke all of us up, although we did not realise it at the time.

Breakfast and packing-up
Breakfast and packing-up

I started making my breakfast (hot cereal with mango) as soon as the sun came up which was unfortunately the exact time the berbers came to take the tents down – very unceremoniously.  The central poles and guy ropes were literally released allowing the cover to fall to the floor – on top of anything (or anyone) inside.  All this happened with a background of high winds blowing sand from the NE.

After breakfast a final packing was carried out – again!  It seems there was always something else to find a place for, such as the flare (which subsequently nearly fell out) and the first load of water – 2 x 500ml in carried bottles with a 1.5L bottle across my front pouch.

So finally we were ready for the Photo call and 7 cameras later we were off.

The start was a little delayed as expected, but then suddenly we were running.  I waved my St. George’s flag proudly and emotionally as we ran along the first 1.5km to the dunes, the usual and expected array of helicopters followed us furiously with camels and ‘blue men’ accompanying us

Erg Chebbi

Dunes -14km

Suddenly this was real and noone except the front runners attempted to run in the dunes – apparently the second highest in Africa (the highest being in Namibia).  However, what soon became apparent was that it was significantly easier to run on virgin sand than it was to run on that which had been broken by the many feet of those ahead. This therefore became our strategy and I consequently gained a good amount of time as well as shielded myself where possible from the energy sapping effects of the dunes. They are amazing though and the amazing view on reaching the several summits was not wasted on any of us.

It was about this stage that I lost Tim and Tom as we took different routes through the dunes and despite waiting at the top of a large hill I did not see them again until the end.

The way ahead after CP1
The way ahead after CP1

The first CP was a welcome break after the dunes but it was short lived. I stopped only to take my pack off and fill my bottles, but later thought I should have taken my shoes off to rest my feet. With hindsight that may have delayed the onset of the blisters.

The next section was a relatively flat but 10km long and a totally exposed plateau which was our first introduction to the isolation of this run.  I got out my iPod for the first time and played the Rachmaninov Piano concertos – appropriate for such a dramatic landscape.  I also unbelievably had mobile network coverage at one point and was able to send a quick text to my family.

By CP 2 the blisters on the outside of my big toes on both feet were manageable on the flat, but there was precious little of that to come with the last stage consisting of 8km, of which the last 2.5km was a final set of ‘small’ dunes which retrospectively everyone agreed was extremely draining.

32km in just under 6:30

Nevertheless, the finish did materialise and the relief at crossing the line was tangible – although why the organisers insist on clumsily forcing 4.5l of water into your hands when all you want to do is lie down is a bit of an enigma, but then again maybe I’ve answered my own question.

The evening entailed a number of debates over the best way to treat blisters – I eventually had mine lanced, drained and treated with Eosine, apparently a combination of iodine and alcohol which stings like nothing on earth but dries the affected area nicely.  I was to dress them in the morning so we shall see how effectively it works out.

Food was freeze dried chilli con carne which turned out to be really hot!

Day 3 – Technical Checks

Waking up – not slept well due a combination of snoring, wind and no pillow! Big softy, eh?  Still, I’m sure a couple of days of running will sort that out to the extent I’ll be able to sleep on a knife edge.

7:00am queuing for water which took 20 mins but spirits are still high.

Breakfast (the first and last provided) involved a lot of queuing again, but ham, eggs and corn flakes and a selection of yoghurt seemed to hit the spot.

Now…. What happens when 7 guys have to decide between them the best hydration strategy, how much duct tape, isostar tablets, how many cereal bars, peperami and ‘noon’ electrolyte tablets to take and where to put walking poles?

Unbelievable, that after all this time, nearly 3 years of anticipation and planning, we still haven’t decided the best way to do things – or is it just nerves?

The technical checks ended up being a bit of a non event after all the preparation and after the hand-out of numbers, checkpoint chips and salt tablets, a cursory glance at the ECG was all that really occurred – not even a glance through the food which was annoying given the effort that had gone into picking and packing it.

After lunch, Will and I took a stroll up to the first set of dunes to test the gaiters. Although not up to our knees in sand, both his custom and my parachute silk gaiters seemed to perform well – good news for tomorrow.

Back at the tent we had numbers to attach and emergency flares to stow somewhere which took some more shifting around of kit.

The final event for the day was a welcome from the race director, Patrick Bauer. His address was due at 5:00pm and he was fashionably late – which is apparently his way!

After a welcome and series of medical and safety announcements (including setting off two flares in demonstration) only the birthday announcements remained – I’m not looking forward to Monday morning now!

Interestingly, some of the statistics quoted make GB the 2nd biggest contingent after the French, of the 802 starting the event. The UK is however by far the biggest charity runner contingent.

Dinner was spagetti bolognase with a (small) beer and then back to the tent.

Given the pounding it had the previous night and the rips it has already incurred, I only hope it survives the night.

Day 2 – Travelling day

Early start with breakfast at 7:00am – all imported from France apparently to stop the onset of local cuisine intolerance syndrome!

Last Shower for next few days was quick and a brief whiz round the room to pack final items of chargers, etc and a long trek back to reception to check out. All on the convoy of 6 buses by 9:00am and ready to go.

There are some nervous faces around and the anxiety with some people is palpable – we leave at 9:45am

Broken Bus
Broken Bus

The journey continues.

I see a hawk flying briefly alongside our bus and thinking it might be an omen, I pray that I might have some of the grace of movement and stamina of such an animal over the next few days.

We see a boy with his goats only a few miles outside of Ouarzazate and I am reminded how different our cultures really are.

Then the bus broke down, only 5 miles outside of town much to the frustration and embarrassment of the French officials. 45 mins later another coach turns up an we are duly on our way.

We’ve been given our road books as well. The official route for 2008.

Day 1 starts with 14km of dunes. Gulp! A lot more greenry than I expect. Road changes to single track Tarmac after about 1hr 30mins but still have mobile coverage.

Mountains on both sides like in Cape Town topography. It is surprising that anything can live out in this desolate environment but nevertheless life is tenacious and the people that inhabit this area seem doubly so.

Through the Atlas mountains
Through the Atlas mountains

Sporadically we come across a patch of green followed by a house or dwelling of some sort and surprisingly this invariably expands into a small settlement with very tidy and well kept restaurants, petrol stations and shops selling everything from mobile phones to goat food, iPods to the ubiquitous coca-cola. I am ashamed to say I know very little of these people and their culture.

2hrs 30min in and a 5min stop for over-hydrating passengers with lunch 20mins away.

Lunch stop arrived and packs were duly distributed – bread, orange and a nice selection of dried fruits, babybel, mini salamis, nut snacks, cereal bar and compote.

Back on road by 2:10pm and for the first hour after lunch the terrain becomes increasingly less diverse, the frequency of the small settlements finally starts to decline and the gaps between islands of mobile network coverage increases significantly.

Finally arrived. Bivuoac 94 – close to the central hub, so should be easy to get to after 40km and…. There is mobile service – unbelieveably.

Evening Meal
Evening Meal

The bivuoacs are very rudimentary consisting of two simple sheets of canvas tacked loosely together and propped up with sticks and two carpets for flooring. The team did a first (re)pack of the backpacks and the light then failed us so we then waited for dinner.

Queuing for dinner was rather longer than absolutely necessary as we wanted to get to the front of the queue and food! (after a long hard day sitting on a bus). The food when we get there was again very good – soup, beef, tagliatelli, bread, cheese, apple tart – all went down a treat.

And so to bed – just after 9:00pm – unheard of.

I go to sleep looking out of the bivuoac, with the cloud dispersing, looking up at the skies and the constellation Orion with Orion’s belt and the nebula clearly visible.

The evenings at least are going to be good.

Desert Companions

If you are of a nervous disposition DO NOT READ THIS

It would appear that we are not going to be alone in the desert running all this distance.

We will have a number of small friends to keep us company which my young son, Joshua, who loves animals, is very excited about. I do not entirely share his enthusiasm. Let me explain.

There is a species of ‘spider’ known by many names, Camel Spider, Wind Spider, Sun Spider which although arachnids are not actually spiders and are found particularly in hot, arid regions of Africa (i.e. where we are going!).

Egyptian Giant Solpugid

There are a number of myths surrounding these solifugids as they are classified, which originates from latin meaning “fleeing from the sun” as they dash between shadows, sometimes giving the impression they are ‘chasing’ humans. They have no venom glands but they do have a powerful jaws which can inflict a painful bite should they have cause to.

So, while they can move quite fast, they are unlikely to attack people although I personally would not want to give them the chance.
Dave Beare mentioned sleeping OUTSIDE of the Bivouac one night when he was on his run in 2006 as there was a Camel Spider on the INSIDE!

Well at least that will make you run faster!