Stage 6 Marathon des Sables 2014 and getting home

Marathon des Sables 2014 

Stage 6 and the journey home

Saturday, 12 April

Even though we have our medals, Stage 6 is still mandatory. The stage doesn’t count towards our time or classification, but we still have to cover the 7.5km of the charity stage.

Dawn Stage 6 MdS 2014 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

With bodies and minds exhausted the day is really slow to start.

The incentive to get to the finish is the offer of a packed lunch. Nothing exciting, but for us there are lots of incentives. For Phil, he’s managed 11 of 14 raspberry and granola dehydrated meals. No more. We’re all looking forward to variety. There will be a small carton of fruit jiuce, that’s my main focus, anything but tepid water.

With a 0930 start we all start slowly. The cumulative effect of 240+km in 5 stages ramming home. As a tent we’d agreed earlier in the week that we’d do this stage, as a tent, at the pace of the slowest. I’d offered to carry rucsack’s if needed, and now I’m wondering whether I’ll need to ask someone else. My ankle and feet are sore, but I’m moving faster than others.

Today we all wear a t-shirt handed out by Unicef, the whole field will be blue. If it was hard to spot anyone before, today is going to be a real challenge. Rachel heads over and collects our t-shirts and water. For the last time we pack our sleeping stuff away. 

Over an hour or so, though I’m tired, everything frees up a little and I become increasingly confident that I can walk the (nearly) 5 miles to the finish. As I surface I’m more aware of those in the tent. Phil looks empty, the Marathon day for him was epic and he has given everything. He looks ok though. Rachel and Linda are just being their normal machine like selves, they’ll be fine. Artur is keeping himself to himself, I’m sure he’ll be ok. Dave is getting his stuff together and I know he’ll be ok. Andrew though is quieter than normal. Since his shoe collapsed he has had a real battle, I know he’ll do it, he is really invested in finishing, but also I think I spot doubts for the first time.

Stage 6, in blue Unicef T-shirts
Stage 6, in blue Unicef T-shirts

Artur disappears as we head over to the start line. As a tent we’re more united than ever before, this is the one stage where we can actually help each other.

The “normal” start gets under way, “happy” is played, people are more light hearted, there is a good deal of dancing. We hear more about yesterdays stage, there is a huge round of clapping to recognise those not taking the startline today. 917 people start today, that is 106 people less than started stage 1. We think we’ll be on the stage for about 2 hours…I hope that all 917 make the finish line.

Tent 96 at the start of Stage 6 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

The countdown, the start is predictably much slower than normal. There are sponsors and families walking with us, and whilst a few runners shoot off, most of us are walking as tents. It’s a curved route. A few sandy bits, a canal to cross (!) and then into Ait Ichchou. 

Tent 96 walks and talks. Even after this intense time we’re still able to chat easily. I ask Andrew how he’s doing and he utters that he’s not sure whether he can do today. There is no way as a tent that we’ll let him not. I’m hoping this is just a dark moment for him.

Phil is going to collect some golden sand, and that  turns out harder than he thought-every time he collects some, its darker than he wanted.

We walk on, no CP’s today, just a start and a finish. The cotton Unicef shirt is soaking up the sweat and I realise how good my technical t-shirt has been. I remember to keep drinking though.

We’re all walking a bit more freely, I grab another couple of minutes with Andrew. I offer that offloading his bag is a possibility if he needs it. He’s brighter, and adamant he is ok. I know he’ll be ok now. 

We climb a small dune and start walking into a cultivated area, there is greenery, and small buildings. There is a line of green trees crossing the horizon to our left that I’m convinced must be a canal. We turn a hard left, there is a vehicle track and a small bridge visible. The “canal” is in reality a small concrete ditch, about 6 foot across and totally dry. As we cross the bridge, there are way more people, a school bus and I can now hear the finish line.

We all join arms and cross the finish line. Job done.

A queue, hand in the transponder, hand in the flare…and then there is some flatbread, a packed lunch.  Another queue for Sultan Tea. We all walk through to find the buses.

We find a bus, there is a moment of faff, then our bags are underneath, we’re clutching our food and we climb aboard into an air condition bus. The serious eating begins. Taboulé, fruit juice, bread, mini babybel, fruit puree, salami and crackers all wolfed down, as we’re doing that the coach has filled up and the bags closed into the bottom of the bus.

Phil has a moment, in his tiredness he’s convinced he has put his camera down, he doesn’t have it with him, and he’s certain he had it out of his bag. I’m gutted for him. The memories and videos he has taken would be a massive loss. I hope he has been in auto pilot and he has stowed the camera in his rucsac without thinking. We’ll find out in 4hrs when we get to Ouarzazate.

It doesn’t take too long and most of us are napping. After a couple of hours the convoy of buses stops on a long straight bit of road. Comfort break Morocco style. Gents on the right, Ladies on the left. Sides of the road that is. When all are back on board We get underway again. I chat with Rob Masson in front. He feels the MdS is ticked off, and now he can focus on IronMan Zurich. I admire that he can be so  focussed so soon. I haven’t processed that far ahead yet. This wasn’t about a bucket list for me.

We get to Ouarzazate and do a tour of the hotels. Dropping different nations off in different places. The Berbere Palace is where the Brits are staying. We offload and Phil finds his camera, in his rucsac. Autopilot has won out. Ours is a smart hotel with a history of hosting film productions when there is something being filmed in the desert. As a result the walls are covered in pictures, and various props from films are around the lobby. It’s a stark contrast to where we’ve been and how we all look packed in our 7 day old running gears, covered in sand, sweat and salt. We collect our big bags.

Phil and I are sharing and after doing a couple of loops of the hotel we find our very comfortable room.

The bathroom gets a hammering, showers, and shaves are order of the day. I’ve a few bits stinging, and my feet are definitely needing some attention. The shower has a real tide of muck in the bottom of it, but this soon clears up. A shower gel bottle has exploded in my bag, so I’m limited to jeans. I’m ok with that!

We’re back into the bar for a celebratory beer and the evening buffet, It seems strange being down to Andrew, Dave, Phil and I – Rachel and Linda are in a different hotel being from Ireland. The evening is pretty focussed on getting into bed. The food is great, fresh and tasty, but sleep is calling us all. Artur arrives as we are finishing up with two enormous plates of food. He announces he has lost 13kg in the 6 days; he’s not wasting any time putting that right!

The Brits who had not made it to the finish were also in the hotel. It was nice to see their faces and hear their stories. There was a lot of positivity, I’m not sure I could have been so up beat given the sacrifice and training that were put in. I have total admiration for anyone who takes the start line, the story there after can be hard to hear.

Into bed and I get my feet up on the bolster, I’ve got a good bit of throbbing going on and this raising definitely helps.

Sunday, 13 April

We’d agreed to meet for breakfast after a good nights sleep. No sign of Andrew and Dave so we tuck in.

As I’m heading back to the room, I meet Dave. He and Andrew have been early to Doc Trotters. Andrew had got up to go to the toilet in the night, when the sun had come up there was a trail of bloody footprints where he’d been. Whilst sore, I’m grateful not to be so bad!

We hobble down to Hotel Kos and meet up with Rachel and Linda. We were there to collect our finishers t-shirts and see the “boutique” items. It’s another long queue.

Tent 96 in civvies after getting our finishers t-shirts
Tent 96 in civvies after getting our finishers t-shirts

Whilst Linda went to see Doc Trotter, downstairs, I get my ice cold Fanta-bliss. Phil gets a photo with Patrick Bauer. My feet are throbbing, so whilst Phil, Dave, Rachel and Linda head into town, Andrew and I stroll back to the hotel.

Andrew and I settle for a Pizza, and Artur strolls over; he’s holding a big plate of food again. He is heading off to meet his wife tomorrow in Marrakesh and is sorting out travel. It sounds like it’ll be an adventure in its own right. Things accelerate and he’s away.

Everyone joins us later; they’ve had a good time in Ouarzazate. There is talk of parties, but I’m still keen to sleep. The afternoon is spent chatting and quickly the evening buffet arrives. We plate up on food. There is a presentation for the fastest, heaviest, best dressed runners. Danny Kendall getting a massive shout as well as a slightly reserved Julia Donovan. The heaviest pack is announced at 25kgs…nuts. We’re all quite early to bed again. I have my feet up again, though my feet feel better.

Monday, 14 April.

Flight out today, breakfast happens quickly. We have a short debate with reception about the fact that we couldn’t have a bar bill in room 530-we’d paid cash the whole time. Turns out “530 bis”-which is upstairs, has the same tab as us. They clear their bill.

Onto the coach for a (nearly) 10 minute transfer. All 6 check in desk are open, but it still takes an hour to go through. Andrews name isn’t on the flight, Sarah from Running Sahara soon sorts this out. The ground agents haven’t had a couple of the pages of manifest.

Then everyone goes through one security gate. I get to the passport check only to be met with an official that looks very pleased with himself. “You arrived on a motorbike!”. I know where this is going. “No” I say. “You need to talk to Dwayne” and points me at the policeman. Who takes me to ‘Dwayne’ who is actually the Douanne or customs. We have a pleasant chat about a trip in 2010 where the exit customs in Ceuta had misfiled a document for the motorbike I’m on. I found out that I left this bike in Morocco as I rode it back in, in 2011. We talk about the MdS and he asks where the bike is now. I tell him in Wales, and he wants me to sign a letter to that effect. No problem, and he walks me back through to the same smiling official who look slightly put out. I get stamped through and into the departure area.

We’re running a little late and the second flight, an hour after ours is ready to go to. We get called and head onto the plane. Everyone settles in and its obvious we’re loaded when the captain informs us that the ground agents have divided us up incorrectly and he asks our patience. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing that is sorted. The doors are shut and we’r good to go. Except, the captain tells us, that the police have a problem with the baggage on the other plane and the other captain has requested we stay for a while. I can see them offloading a few passengers and pushing baggage trolleys around. But, soon enough we’re away.

The flight goes well and we turn over the English Coast at West Wittering. Out my window I look down on East Head as the plane banks gently right. Both my Mum and Dad’s ashes are spread here-it feels a serendipitous re-entry to the UK.

We track along the coast, I watch Brighton marina get bigger as we start a left turn to join the approach route to Gatwick. The undercarriage comes down, and I’m surprised the plane is taking a funny turn onto final approach. Having lived under this flight path for a good few years I wonder whether things have changed. Any way we zip into LGW, brake and turn off the runway quickly, and rather than head onto the terminal we peel into the stands. I spend a pretty disgusting summer cleaning planes here as a 16 year old, and no its a bit unusual for an arrival to go straight here. As are the fire trucks and 4×4’s with blue flashing lights. The captain explains that the nose wheel got a little hot on the way in, and LGW don’t like to take any chances. We offload onto a coach and now everything should go smoothly.

It does, e-passport is nice and quick, and though the second flights bags arrive before ours, baggage claim is painless.

As we go out of arrivals there are a lot of people welcoming runners back, and Team Hope are getting a particularly rowdy welcome. Andrew, Phil, Dave and I shake hands and scatter on our separate journeys to get home.

It’s a sudden ending to an amazing experience.

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