Marathon des Sables 2009
For those of you who haven't heard about it, the Marathon des Sables (MdS) is a stage race in the Sahara Desert in Morocco. It is typically about 150 miles spread over 6 days, with competitors carrying all their food, clothing, sleeping and safety kit for the whole event. It is organised by Patrick Bauer, who was a French foreign legionnaire, and his race has the reputation of being the toughest foot race in the world. This was its 24th running. Although it sounds like an event to avoid for anyone with any sense, a growing number of people seem to be crazy enough to want to do it. Nearly 900 competitors were registered this year and there is a 3 year waiting list for entries from the U.K. I'm not sure what that says about us!
I've been running for a long time and as I've gotten older (and slower) I've been looking for new running challenges, including some ultra running. The MdS is one of the classic ultras and I've wanted to take part in it for a number of years, but the long waiting list (and the cost) have put me off. I was "lucky" enough to be offered a place for this year's event by New Balance, one of the race sponsors, so despite only having a relatively short period of time to prepare and not being as fit as I'd have liked, I decided to go for it. I discovered that one of the advantages of the long waiting list is having plenty of time to prepare, not just in running terms (like getting used to running with a 10kg backpack) but also in sorting out food, kit and all the other details which make all the difference in getting round. I had less than 4 months to sort myself out and that was from a low base of running after a knee injury last summer (the last of my excuses, I promise). I discovered that some of the competitors went to great lengths to minimise the weight of their kit and had lengthy discussions about exactly what food to take and what type of backpack/ sleeping bag/ shoes/ socks/ etc. to use. I won't bore you with any more detail, but if any of you ever decide to take this event on, you'll be surprised at how dull you can become in your pursuit of getting the smallest detail of your kit right!
Having gotten myself sorted out as best I could, I was on a plane to Ouarzazate in Morocco at the end of March for a "little adventure in the desert". We were to drive straight down to our first bivouac before a "technical day" of checking mandatory kit requirements, acclimatisation, etc., before the start of the event proper the next day. Unbelievably, there had been flash floods in the area! Our coach was held up at river crossings and it took us 10 hours to get to the camp area before being told it was under water and we would have to stay in a hotel that night. The next morning it was confirmed that Day 1 of the event was cancelled and there was a real possibility of the whole event not going ahead. Some of the competitors were very unhappy about being "short-changed" and were talking about running extra miles to make up for what they were going to lose. I considered their viewpoint over a cold Moroccan beer followed by a sleep in a comfortable bed!
The weather began improving and the organisers did a fabulous job in completely changing the course to avoid the worst-hit areas, so it was announced that the event would begin with Day 2, the "dunes day", 33km of rolling sand dunes, without a bucket and spade in sight. I very quickly discovered that the time taken to complete this event was going to have very little comparison with normal road-running because of the temperature, terrain, carrying a 10+kg rucksack and the cumulative effect of our days in the desert. Apart from the guys near the front, most of us were there to get round in one piece and to enjoy as much of the event as possible. After a day playing in the sand we returned to our camp. Open-sided tents were provided, but there are no toilet facilities apart from a hole in the ground, so we all started to get quite "grubby" pretty quickly. I was happy to complete the day relatively unscathed and was almost looking forward to the next day (clearly an early sign of heat exhaustion!). After a day in the heat of the desert it was surprising how cold it got at night and most of us wore every item of clothing we had inside our sleeping bags and still felt cold.
Day 3 consisted of 39km of mostly rocky terrain. This managed to make a mess of a lot of people's feet, including mine. By the end of the day there were a lot of tired runners (I say runners, but for most of us it was a mixture of run/walk/jog/survive, depending on the terrain). I was certainly reminded that I didn't have anything like enough training miles in my legs and realised that the next day/night, the "long day" was going to be tough. This was made worse by an announcement at the end of the day that the organisers realised that we wouldn't want to have taken part in the easy year of the MdS, so planned the longest and toughest day in MdS history (thank you very much, I thought!). Instead of the usual 80km, we were to do 91km across sand dunes, mountains and whatever else they could throw at us so we could say we did the "special" year.
After another "wonderful" night sleeping on the desert floor, the big day, the real challenge of Day 4/5 began. My right foot felt like it had a 6 inch nail poking through the large blister under it, which isn't exactly the best way of starting an ultra-marathon. The cut-off times are quite generous, so it's really a case of keeping going and putting one foot in front of the other. I'd decided to walk a good deal of the route, which gave me a chance to enjoy the spectacular scenery and enjoy the company of my fellow competitors. After a break for a proper meal and a nap, the night section felt like a completely different experience, climbing enormous sand dunes and on all fours on some steep mountain passes (they'd never get a risk assessment passed in this country!). With my vertigo, it was probably better that I couldn't see to the bottom. By dawn we were nearly home and the sunrise brought a new optimism. I got back into camp and felt surprisingly good, but ready for a good rest. To add to the surreal experience of the event, the organisers shipped out a full symphony orchestra from Paris to play us classical music for the evening! Having broken the back of the event, we were almost looking forward to "only" running a full marathon the next day. I pitied some of the guys at the back of the field who were still coming in during the evening and had to get back out the next day. At least I'd had most of the day to recover.
And so to marathon day - Day 6. You wouldn't normally prepare for a marathon by doing over 100 miles in the days leading up to it and with painful legs and feet but hey ho! Having taken the long day easily, once I got myself warmed up, I actually ran most of the course. They still threw in the odd cliff and other bits of "interest" to keep our day "honest" and to ensure I ran a personal worst for the distance, but I finished relatively strongly both physically and mentally. Our reward for completing the event was to be a good old-fashioned hug from Patrick, a medal and tee-shirt, and a proper meal with a beer for our last night in the desert. The conversation focussed mainly on our war-wounds and the satisfaction of finishing. Although we "only" did 130 miles, I didn't hear any further talk of it being a soft year! The Marathon des Sables had lived up to its reputation. There was a great feeling of comradeship, which I think is one of the reasons I like these challenges. One of the great things about running is that everyone from the winner to the last finisher is doing the same course and has largely the same experience, which you don't get in many sports.
The following day we returned to Ouarzazate for a final night in a hotel to clean up and sort ourselves out before the return trip home. It wasn't until we got cleaned up that we realised how bad the smell of our kit, and presumably us, had been! As you'd expect, the French managed to introduce some bureaucracy and plenty of queuing to bring us back to the real world, but that's all forgotten now. In the days after my return, if you'd asked me whether I'd do it again I'd have said that I'd enjoyed most of the experience but that once was enough. Now that my feet are starting to look relatively normal again and I've gotten back into my running, I'd say that I would definitely go back (but get myself fitter next time!). Does that mean I've finally lost my sanity, doctor?!Mike
Thinking about running the MdS or a similar ultra race? We can help you get the right kit.. Apex stocks the MdS shoe from New Balance and a huge range of tough, endurance equipment from RaidLight. See our Kit for Desert Races article