Marathon des Sables 2014
Wednesday, 9 April
After a really restless night we all wake up slightly subdued.
I work hard at stuffing down breakfast without getting up. I’ve kept a bit of water back overnight and drink that down. I decide to sacrifice one of my four sheets of toilet paper for a big nose blow. I can only describe the result to my tent mates as a babies head. The really abrasive dust in the desert has irritated my nose and is causing enormous build ups of mucous at the back of my soft palate. I feel a lot better after clearing everything out, and using my other 3 sheets of paper. Personal admin is all the same, a bit of savlon on my thigh, lots of sun cream on, hat on, I give my sunglasses a clean and realise I’d been missing a lot of the view. My luxury today is a fresh pair of socks. I put the crusty old ones away and really enjoy pulling on the fresh ones. It’s definitely warmer overnight, and there is some very wispy cloud about.
Today, the top 100 runners start 3 hours after us. I’m looking forward to seeing these athletes come springing by in the desert. The rest of us have the tent taken down around us as we normal. I’ve arranged my food for running easily available. I’ve got a 3 TORQ energy powders for todays stage. I decide on one at the start, and hold the other two back for later in the stage. I’m banking on the day taking 20 hours, so I pack a dehydrated Sweet and Sour Chicken, the stove, fuel, lighter and mug so its easy to get to. I also decide to bring my recovery powder for the stage close to the top.
The whole bivouac is quiet and thoughtful. I think we’re all aware of the 80km being the crux of the race. The last three days have been tough and we’re aware we’ve got a couple of tough bits to tackle as well as the distance and heat.
There is still a lot of kit being ditched. Dave finally gives up on a novel he has been lugging around. He decides he is either running, eating or sleeping. There will be a Berber out there reading about John Hunts assault on Everest.
Andrew shows us his Hoka shoes. The midsole that is very thick on these shoes has collapsed spectacularly; this means that the inside back quarter is about 1/5th the thickness that it would normally be. The effect for Andrew is that every foot placement forces his knee in. There is nothing that he can do, the organisers deem taking a pair of trainers from someone that has retired as “outside assistance” and this could mean a large time penalty, or worse still, disqualification. Andrew just has to soldier through.
More of us from the tent wander over together, we’re all telling each other that we’ll see each other in the tent later. We’ll get this done.
We hear that we’re down to 941 starters for the stage, and temperatures in previous days had topped 55 C. “Happy” is playing again and there are definitely some restless feet. I’m struggling to remember the distances that the CP’s fall at, I wish I had a marker pen that I could write the distances onto my bottle, or on some tape stuck somewhere. CP1 is after 10km, CP2 11.5km further on, CP3 10.5km, CP4 13km, CP5 13km, CP6 11km and the finish coming in 12km after that. The total distance for the day is 81.5km, but I have to “chunk it” down to the various legs. I know if I can average 5km/hr I’ll smash my 20hr expectation, but instead I’m trying to focus on keeping each leg to as short as I can. I know I can do the same distance in around 8hrs in the UK, but I seem to be at least doubling times out here. 20hrs seems sensible.
I had felt that I was going to walk the first legs, but the temperature is more manageable. I don’t know whether I’m acclimatising, or whether it is a little cooler. Either way I decide to go as fast as I can for as long as I can.
I check my kit, zips, pockets, I’m only vaguely aware of all the chatter going on around me. I shake Phil’s hand, it seems more poignant today. We all feel that if we get this done the next stage is only a marathon so we can definitely finish.
The countdown is done, the music changing to “Highway to Hell” and the choppers start their runs up and down the file of runners.
I head left, this first 10km should be a really runnable leg. I settle into what is about a 7.5 min/km pace and enjoy the flat stony jog. It’s broken up with a few bits of sand crossing the track, but also a quite deep Oued. The soil in here is loose and there are a good number of bushes. I manage to keep a good pace going. I pass Neal and his buddy Pete. Things are feeling good. I arrive at CP1 in an hour and ten minutes. I’m pleased with this and go very quickly through the CP water collection.
Immediately the track turns up hill towards Jebel El Otfal. I can see a column of runners snaking first right and then disappearing behind a large sand dune. I find my rhythm and then just get on with grinding up this slope. The stone gives way to a hard crusty sand. Runners splitting left and right round a large dune. Go left and the slope is easier to begin with. I go right. My thinking is that the gradient easing off before it goes really steep is probably a good thing, at least give my legs a short respite. It works, round the back of the dune there is a relatively flat piece of hard sand. I can jog into the bottom of a ravine that is about 30% slope. The soft sand to the left, and rock that can be scrambled onto the right. I pick the rocks along with a tall Frenchman who is wielding walking poles. I quickly learn that these things windmill around and so hold back a bit to give some space. We move quickly as a pair. Some people are taking short breathers on the rock, but we move fast and easily. The sand on the left is steep enough now that it would be a skiing trip if stood upon. Small rocks falling from above cause little slides in the sand. As the rock steepens, and there is no choice in the path we hit a bit of a bottleneck. Everyone slows down to the speed of the slowest. I’m gutted, this is like the top section of the Cyfrwy Arete that I look over from home. I’d love to be moving faster with no pack and no windmilling walking poles in front. But I’m not. After one really steep piece of rock there is a 20m traverse across the top of a very steep face of sand. There is a fixed rope (with some dubious looking fixings), it’s a quick hop over the rope from above and then motor along the top of the sand. The rope turns uphill, and whilst not steeper than anything before I pull myself up on my right arm and drive from my feet. Pretty quickly I get fed up of the queuing and just grind it out up the outside of the runners on the rope. From the top the scale of the climb is lost, but the view of the other side of the Jebel is great.
I couldn’t call it “plunging” off the other side, my right big toe is a little sore and I can’t really steam down the descent. It’s sort of a rock highway with a few broken pieces, I take it steady and come out the bottom in good shape and immediately join a line crossing from hard sand to soft, and then into the dunes. The temperature is rising but not unbearably so. The dunes end and we hit a really flat wide open plain. I know this is about 6km across and start run/walking. Some people are flying across here, but I know I can’t maintain it for the whole day so just go for steady steady.
At the end of the plain there is a very small little stony rise and we’re at CP2. I grab my water, and don’t faff at all. Ditching rubbish and refilling as quickly as I can, this CP takes about 90 seconds and I’m off. The last 11.5km has taken just a bit over 2hrs. With the climb and the sand that is ok.
The view to the left is great, a large rocky peak. My attention is distracted (school boy error) and I roll my left ankle underneath. It’s immediately painful, but I keep moving and swear at myself for being so stupid. Of all the places to do this, this is not ideal. The area is largely flat though and I keep pushing on towards a building and an entrance to a small pass. We wind through this and pass a little Auberge. I take a photo for a Portuguese guy at the sign. I think what a nice place this would be to arrive at after a long day on a bike. As I pass the lush green garden, a camera man wanders out, he has lost his vehicle and so is taking short pieces of footage. The piste is pretty sandy here, and the camera vehicles have no option but to toot us out of the way. Then 6 bikes pass us. The big bikes really struggling in the sand, whilst the smaller bikes are actually having fun. The sand gives way to a harder piste that rises up a little and dumps us onto a large salty dry lake bed.
I’m back to a run/walk. Runners are starting to focus in on CP3 and a couple of support trucks are crossing the lake bed. I’m really short on water, but still think I’ll be ok to get to CP3 with a little to spare.
I cross the line at CP3 in just under 2hrs from the last CP. It’s getting really hot now. I’m handed my cyalume light stick for later, and I pop this in my pocket with my head torch. As I sort my bottles out the fastest runner arrives at the CP. Rachid makes super fast work of the CP, hardly stopping at all, my guess is about 30 seconds and he is gone again. A really easy, fast gait. Grr.
I check my ankle, it’s swollen but the pain is nowhere near needing a pain killer so I turn into a short gorge and start climbing on sand. Danny Kendall comes quickly by. I give him a good shout of “Go on Danny”, and get a little thumbs up. As he runs down the line of the slower runners I can hear lots of Brits cheering him on.
We contour awkwardly round a hill, I’ve slowed up in the heat now, but am determined to keep a pace going, so stomp on. As the trail flattens onto a plain between the Jebels my nose explodes with blood. I guess the dust has finally done its worst. I give up a corner of a buff to blood mopping duty and then breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth for 20 minutes until I have a good clot formed. At this point I’m at the base of another climb. I smash in an energy gel, perhaps a bit late. This climb goes up on sand and then gets more stony. I inhale a fly, that gets stuck at the back of my throat. I dry heave uncontrollably whilst I get a bit of water in and try and clear the little insect out. Because of my nose bleed I don’t want to try and sniff it out, so when I get it comfortable I leave it there. I haven’t stopped the whole time, and am now able to make some places as the TORQ gel does its job. I catch up with two ladies, French and Kiwi chatting away, just at the top of the climb. The route breaks hard left on a steep sand dune. The French lady gallops away, I pass the Kiwi and try and half run the descent…its reasonably fun! I’m trying to estimate the time left to CP4. It must be about 30 minutes away, so I get on with stomping my way across some soft sand. Steve Hodges, another GBR runner and just outside the top ten passes me. I encourage him and get a thank you from him. These elite runners are a really friendly bunch, and my admiration for them soars. There is a generator nestled into a rocky outcrop and I can hear it throbbing away, but I couldn’t see what it was powering. As the soft sand starts to firm up the CP appears, and I gulp down the last bit of water.
I hit CP4 about 8hrs after the start. I grab my water and head to one of the tents. I find Artur sitting in one of the tents and things aren’t looking great for him. His feet are in a real state. He has his shoes off and he’s not very chatty. I get on with unloading my recovery powder into one of my bottles. I mix it and slug it down. I’ve been sat for 4 minutes when I’m all done and back on my feet. I wander over to Doc Trotters and ask for some salt tablets. I get 40 or so more, this will definitely last me out the night. As I’m exiting the CP, Nikki Kimball comes through. This ultra racing legend is on her first MdS and seems to be stretching out a lead over the other ladies.
The course now heads onto another stony plain. The sun dipping down just to my right, and it eventually disappears behind a big rocky Jebel. In the twilight I think again about Pete for a while. I figure he would love being here, but probably on a mountain bike. As 1900 comes I pull out my cyalume, bend it, give it a shake and attach it to the back of my rucsac. I get my head torch on but leave it switched off. I’m enjoying the sunset too much. I’ve got pretty sore feet now and my ankle is throbbing but I keep myself going with the thought of some hot food at CP5. As the light disappears the green laser pointing into the sky becomes more obvious. This marks the CP, but it is difficult to gauge how far away it is. I keep on stomping on. I’m now really aware as to why my nose is struggling. Under the light of a head torch the dust is all around, and when close to another runner it’s like running through fog.
2hrs30 after leaving CP4 I get to CP5 and it is properly dark. I grab my water head to a tent and get some water on the boil. Once the water is hot I let my food rehydrate whilst I go for a pee. I sit down for food and am joined in the tent by a group of guys. Their treat is M&M’s and jelly babies. I’m spooning sweet and sour chicken down with rice and am hoping the slightly more complex carbohydrates will help me with the next two legs. I empty one TORQ fuel into my right water bottle, this and 6 shot bloks are the food for this next leg. After 18 minutes I start packing up my stuff. Everything is going to be done by head torch now. I check the roadbook for general descriptions, I don’t know how easy it’s going to be to find the route, and want to familiarise myself with the bearings and rough descriptions. Looks like 3 km of good track and then into a big Oued most of the way to the finish.
I’m looking for a house and a fallen tree. I think it should be visible in about 35 minutes. I’m pretty much alone, just some head torches a way up ahead, so I want to stay on course. After 45 minutes I still haven’t seen the house, I have however found some marker boards that are lit with a cyalume and am happy that I’m on the right course. My feet are getting really sore, but I want to keep stomping along at 5km/hr if I can.
I briefly wonder whether I could finish before midnight. It is possible, but I think unlikely and get back on with crossing hard sand and soft sand, small dunes and rock. I’m drinking and eating well, and I’m remembering my salt tablets. Apart from my ankle and feet I physically feel good, and mentally I’m feeling stubborn as an ox.
After winding back and forwards I come on a Danish guy with a really strong head torch. His beam is really disconcerting so I push on a bit faster and spot the glow of CP6.
Including my stop, this leg has taken me 2hrs40. I don’t muck about at the CP. Water, TORQ fuel mixed and get my last energy gel ready. I think I’ve got no more than 2hrs30 left on the stage. I’m going to be in bed before 0100!
Immediately after the CP the ground is really hard. Rocky and quick going. I shuffle into a run. The hard ground, whilst easier to run on is really attacking my now soft and tired skin on my feet. I feel the heel pad on my right foot separate. The blister it leaves behind is sore, but manageable. 5 minutes later my left heel goes too. I choose to change my food strategy, suck down the gel and some Ibruprofen.
The route breaks out of the Oued. We’re on a really stony hard surface, and each stride is painful now. I finally manage to suck the fly I had inhaled earlier into my mouth and I spit it out on the desert. Result. I’m starting to get visual disturbances now. Occasional flashing lights, and my eyes flicker now and then. I take some salt tablets and have a big drink. I check my watch its 1158, and on the horizon I can see the lights of the bivouac.
Thursday, 10 April
I’m reliving Physics A-level. Dr Keogh explaining about resolving lights. I’m trying to decide how far away I am from the finish. Some of the top 100 runners are jogging by. I’m keeping my head down and heading for the lights. I’m waiting until the single lights of the finish gantry separate and become 2 separate lights. I reckon this will be about 1500m out. I can’t understand why headtorches are off to my right, I’m heading straight for the bivouac.
Then its clear, the ground in front is dark, and wet. I turn right until I find a single plank crossing the wetness. When I look up again, I can see two lights. I start to jog, and very gratefully, 15hrs29 after the start I cross the line. I get my tea, grab my water and head to the tent.
We’d agree that we would line up in order as we fell into the tent. Phil was fast asleep, Rachel and Linda were getting there stuff sorted and I lay down to get on with some personal admin. My feet aren’t in too bad a state, I think, but are throbbing a bit. I have a very quick wipe down with a Wemmi wipe just as Artur collapses into the tent and literally falls asleep as his head touches the rug.
I fall into a fitful sleep, and wake briefly to see Andrew coming in. I fall back to sleep.
I wake with the sun, and a few minutes later Dave arrives into the tent. We’re all home in various stages of damage.
Phil made it home in 13hrs31, Rachel and Linda together in 14hrs18, me in 15hrs29, Artur in 15hrs47, Andrew in 16hrs41 and Dave in 22hrs25.
We’re tired, but pleased we’re all home and we have a good period of rest. I head over to the toilet, and realise I have a bit of a problem with my thigh. The surface of the chafe has turned green. So I head over to Doc Trotters. In the clinic end I get processed much faster than the foot end. Sofy is worried about an abscess, and gives the surface a good clean and asks me to come back later to have it packed and re-dressed for the next day. She gives me some tramadol for my ankle…my world is getting better!
Feeling a little bit better I go to the email tent, and then head back to the tent. Lots of people are walking very gingerly, and my tent mates are doing variously pretty well or pretty badly. Phil and Rachel are in pretty good condition. Linda has a sore knee and a couple of blisters. Artur is really struggling with his feet, Andrew has a few blisters and is managing them himself. Dave’s feet, like mine haven’t enjoyed the long day, but we’re ok. The dressings I had done by Doc Trotter earlier in the week were very swollen. I lance the swelling through the plaster and a big jet of fluid comes out. As my feet dry out, I’m pretty happy that they are doing ok.
At about 1600, a rumble of appreciation goes round the bivouac. We’re all given a can of Coca Cola. After days of tepid water, or Nuun flavoured drinks this simple can is heavenly. We all sit round and appreciate it together. It’s amazing how simple things become so much more valuable.
At 1700 I head back over to Doc Trotters. It’s really busy with feet. I estimate 30 doctors working away on feet. Jean Marie kindly makes me a make shift screen out of a cot bed and protects my dignity with a “babies cot” made of tissue. He cleans my thigh again and drains a lot of gunk out. He’s happy with it though, dresses is and sends me back to the tent.
I meet Phil and Rachel who are buzzing as they made it into the top 200, so they start 1hr30 after the rest of us on tomorrows marathon stage 5.
At around 1700 we all head over to the finish line. It’s customary on the long day for the whole bivouac to welcome the last runners on the course in. A single runner, then a pair and then one lone runner come in. The whole crowd clapping, high fiving and welcoming the runners in. Patrick Bauer meets them all over the line. Apart from being on the stage for loads of hours, these guys have only 13 hours to recover before starting tomorrows stage. The solidarity is touching.
Linda has had her knee strapped and her feet seen to. Dave has had his feet dressed and announces his shoulders are better than ever before.
We’re all really tired and I pretty much pass out after food, deeply asleep at 1900.