Aarn Marathon Magic and Marathon des Sables race number

I was contacted by Ong Yu-Phing about the Aarn Marathon Magic 33 and how to fit the race number for Marathon des Sables 2015 in the right place. The numbers are about 180mm x 160mm so I would cut one out of a piece of cardboard and play around getting the right way of getting it attached.

I’m really envious of Yu-Phing heading out next year – pulling my pack back on just made me want to go run in the desert again!!

Yu-Phing also asked whether I would go for the smaller size, the 22. I probably could if I was happy strapping things on the outside to begin with. And whilst the 33 is about 350g heavier and so harder to head towards the magic 6.5kg (before adding water and flare) I think I could justify the extra stability of having everything inside the pack on the start line of stage 1.

Very best of luck for 2015 Yu-Phing – its an amazing experience!

Any way, here is the video explaining what I did and what I’d do differently…

Aarn Mountain Magic 33 and Marathon des Sables race number from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

Rawhide

The horizon line that inspires me
The horizon line that inspires me

I remember very clearly when I was 24, my friend saying “you’re going to have to grow up”. This was when I’d just bought my new mountain bike. In his eyes, in the south of England, in the mid nineties adults didn’t mountain bike.

Of course, being stubborn, I carried on with mountain biking. And, as I’ve explained before it was the bike that brought me to live in North Wales and ultimately run the Marathon des Sables. Two wheels have always been fun, and the more I’ve reflected on MdS, the more I’ve realised that its even simpler.

I like moving.

BMX bikes rocked
BMX bikes rocked

As children we’d ride bikes round and round the same route. We’d learn and know little tracks, jumps, kerb edges, alley ways and back lanes really well. I lived on my BMX for at least 6 weeks each summer holiday for at least 5 years. From early in the morning til it got dark, and sometimes beyond we’d be repetitively skidding in the same place, wheelieing between shadows, lampposts, encouraging each other up and down steeper hills, bigger jumps, higher bunny hops, riding by a stream eyes shut, or disastrously, the night before a maths exam riding down the biggest hill cross handed. Looking back there was no reason. It was fun, no winners, no losers in a competitive sense, just the joy of living in the moment.

My very first road bike in around 1990
My very first road bike in around 1990

BMX bikes gave way to road bikes, I found my love of surfing along the edge of the lactate threshold, the moment where the noisiest thing is your breathing, your heart or the wind.

All that repetitive stuff creates something that is now known as physical literacy, and a healthy heart. I know I played ball sports and racquet sports (I’ll miss out accurate stone throwing) and that does develop a different kind of physical literacy.

Bikes, pedal or engine powered are lovely, I like the feeling that moving on one creates. That sensation in your inner ear, leaning in, trimming the bike, lifting the front wheel, whipping the back wheel or free-wheeling with the wind blowing is something I can always fall back on. It is moving quickly so close to nature, so part of nature that is enjoyable. But, as a mode of transport you’re not in a steel box, people talk to you empathise with you. Also, if you drift from the now, there are consequences that tend to keep you in the now.

I got into simple multi-day mountain walking, not instead of bikes, as well as bikes. The camp craft, the endurance, the touching nature really hit home with me in my mid teens. An escape from daily life and the extra responsibilities I had due to terminally ill parents. On reflection this taught me self reliance as well as new skills. Scrambling up Cneifion Arete with a big pack, having crossed the Carneddau was a big moment in my teens. I suddenly felt capable of surviving in a very primitive way. Add a few ropes and some more skills and new dimensions are available, bigger mountains. Never a rock climber, more a mountaineer, but that sounds too grand. Just journeying through mountains, immersed in some remote spots.

Then boats came in to play, sailing, paddling, navigating. This was a new challenge, moving on a dynamic environment. I was fascinated by being able to predict the water height on the sea at any given point, the variance the weather made. And on water, to move effectively there needs to be a different reaction. A sailing boat on a different point of sail, with a different sea way needs to be helmed differently. Kayaking, journeying on white water initially seems even more chaotic, but the more you learn, the more you become experienced, again through repetition, the more reaction can be instinctive. The now becomes more fluid [sic] but still a journey, a movement.

“Big black” in Morocco

And then trail or mountain running, far more basic, far more heart, lungs and legs and far simpler. But, all the skills come together in a different way. The exposure felt is more immediate. I can  compare travelling in the sub-Sahara on a motorbike to my recent experience running. A lot is the same, managing hydration, fuel (for you or the bike) and keeping moving, and I enjoy the journey in very different ways. Probably, even though much harder, on foot is more enjoyable.

I still ride bikes, I still visit the mountains, I still love boats. I like doing these things solo, I love the feeling of self dependence. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a complete misanthrope and I do love sharing the experiences too, but to get the most I like, if not need to be exposed, on my own. That original enjoyment of lungs, heart and wind being the only noise, the movement being beautiful things.

Many see my pursuits as dangerous, but that’s different to the view I hold. Managing danger and fear is about experience and judgement. And when you’re in that moment there is an element of purity that is really grabbing. I have and do walk away, the hills, rivers, forests and oceans will be there another day. So far I’ve never regretted keeping going. I’ve regretted stopping, but that is a momentary regret compared to the alternative. Yes, having children has taken the extremes out. Those moments where a wrong decision means instant injury. Big jumps and steep gradients are mighty thrilling, but the adrenaline can come in different, more controllable ways.

Chris Baynham-Hughes is a very experienced mountain ultra runner. In his blog here he goes through the iterative process of defining risk. In many cases we experience risk when it is managed by someone else, at an event where the judgement of Event Directors either cossets or denies you your own responsibility in decision making. I agree with Chris the more experienced you get, the more intuitive risk judgement becomes and therefore in many ways the better mentally we’re prepared to handle experiences.

The video here is from Daz who has kayaked solo down Everest and in the last minute sums up, for me, the feeling that pushing yourself in whatever format “is”. Surfer, climber, cyclist, runner or even businessman the question Daz asks is one we should ask ourselves, regularly.

“When was the last time you put yourself in  place to open yourself up to the passion and the grace and the silence and the noise of the now” 

I’m fortunate to have met some very inspirational people, especially in the years I have lived in North Wales. And now I recognise that not “growing up” is something that is challenging to those in the mainstream.

Being responsible doesn’t mean not having fun; it can do if that is your choice. But to live a satisfied life, to live in the now is so important. None of know when the now won’t exist for each of us. Experiences are so subjective, it’s not possible to judge whether one experience is more satisfying for one person, than it is for another. 

How we express ourselves is limitless, music, art, sport, gardening, religion, what ever.

For me feeling the “passion of the now” needs me to move, to take responsibility for my own movement, use my own judgement. The mechanism doesn’t matter. The journey and the experiences on the way are far more exciting to me than the destination.

When my parents died I had a choice-join the gravy train and conspicuous consumption. Or move and consume life. It went a bit blurry in there for a while, but the Marathon des Sables has really reminded me… 

“Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’, Keep movin’, movin’, movin’, Though they’re disapprovin’, Keep them doggies movin’ Rawhide!”

Marathon des Sables – a race review

I’ve sat looking at this blank page for ages, nearly two weeks now.

Normally I can sit and the words fall out of me; I know the shape of what I want to say and how I want to say it.

Perhaps this should be the review of the 29th Edition of Marathon des Sables. “Speechless”.

I was motivated to do the event because Cancer reared its head in my life, again. 2014 was a good year for lots of reasons that I’ve blogged about before. But the event has done more, been more, than I could ever have imagined.

If you’re sat contemplating a multi-day ultra event, and like I did, have doubts about whether you could physically complete the course you’ll gloss over what lots of people write in their blogs. I did that too. 

Yes, Marathon des Sables is physically hard, but not impossible. Yes, Marathon des Sables takes commitment and sacrifice. I can say with confidence though, you will learn more, feel more and be affected more by this event than you could ever anticipate.

Honestly, there is no point since the start day where I’ve thought “I’d never do this again”. Lot’s of MdSers have said “done”, “ticked off” and “no way”. I asked myself as I crossed the line would I do it again, no doubt at all, if the opportunity arose I’d say emphatically “yes” in a heart beat.

I’d anticipated that crossing the line, those final ten steps I had focussed on for two years would be emotional. It wasn’t. That’s not to say in the preceding 40 hours of running I hadn’t been happy, sad, angry, stubborn and every other emotion. Just what I had expected at the finish line was different to reality.

There are no words, pictures, videos or talks that I can use to explain fully what happened. I’ve written the day by day accounts, but the bit inside me, the emotional bit is still, a month on, just out of reach to me. It’ll have to wait for another day!

The race itself is so amazingly well organised. Yes, there is a bit of queuing, but lets put that in perspective. There are 1000 people in the Sahara, running. The visual impact on this environment after the bivouac has gone is really minimal. A few tyre tracks and a dark 10 foot diameter circle. Pretty impressive. Everything is packed in, set up, handed out, taken down and taken away. There is solid medical cover that wants you to finish. The stories of what Doc Trotters did to keep people running are amazing, and totally contrary to what you’d expect. Even what we’d consider worthy of a few days off work don’t raise an eyebrow. Patch you up, encourage you and get on with the event. Mind blowing, inspiring stuff. 

Marathon des Sables 2014 track log
Marathon des Sables 2014 track log

The route, changes, new formats are tested. Veterans of the race express their feelings about the good and the bad, the ease or difficulty of the various stages. But that’s irrelevant to me. My MdS, my race looks like a wiggly line near the border with Algeria. It’s not even half as long as one tank of fuel in my car and yet it represents more to me than any car journey.

And my daughter summed it up nicely, as only a nine year old can. I now know that I can run from home, in Dolgellau to Oxford. Why I would do that, or want to do that I don’t know. Why I would do that in the heat carrying my own stuff, I don’t know. It’s barking mad when written like that.

But I could. And that is my lesson!

Marathon des Sables Kit Review

Marathon des Sables 2014 

Kit that I used, a review

I wanted to put some thoughts down on everything I used for Marathon des Sables 2014. It’s an independent, subjective view I chose all my own kit, and paid for it all myself. Where I can, I’ve put the manufacturers link. If there are broken link please let me know.

For the first timer getting kit sorted can be overwhelming, even veterans still refine their equipment, so if you’ve time on your hands, get opinions and where possible try and test the kit.

Just because something worked/didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it will/won’t work for you. Try and make up your own mind. At the end of the day you have to believe that the kit you are wearing is up for the job for you!

I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules, remember in 2009  a tweed jacket, a jumper, a plastic carrier bag and a shoulder bag got a finish for an elderly Indian chap. I’d say time on your feet is a better use of time than shopping!

 

From the bottom up I wore

Inov8 Roclite 315 with gaiter velcro attached
Inov8 Roclite 315 with gaiter velcro attached

Inov8 Roclite 315 trainers – I went with these because I use them a lot for running around Wales. I like the fit and the sole unit. They did very well in the desert, though the grippy soles weren’t needed and the final wear for the race is about equivalent to two to three times what I would expect in the UK for the same distance. I went up a half size, but after the swelling that I experienced in the long day, I’d have no hesitation in going up a full size, especially with a two sock approach.

RaceKit gaiters – The back story to getting the velcro on my shoes is this – use a professional service like the ShoeHealer. I used a local cobbler who destroyed a pair of shoes, I tried to glue my own. ShoeHealer did mine in 48hrs, no buckles or rucks, the velcro stayed on and I had every confidence. Don’t muck around! The gaiters did well, stayed firmly attached. I had a slight issue on Stage 1 with the bottom seam filling with sand. I small incision prevented this happening again. The toe took a hammering on the rocky stages of Stage 4 and I gaffer taped these. Solid ankle seal, and very unaware of wearing them.

X Sock Marathon Short – A very comfortable sock, well fitting. Need to spend some time to check that there are no rucks or twists, but that is no different to any other sock. I took two pairs so that I could start the long day with a fresh pair. I was pleased I did this.

Injinji sock liner – As liner socks go these have a cult following for a good reason. When they’re on they do a really good job of preventing blisters between the toe. My problems started with a good hard kick of a rock on stage 1, and the blood blister and then rolling my ankle on Stage 4 changing my gait for 120+ km. I ditched these for the Marathon stage due to the swelling of my feet. There was a noticeable difference in the tenderness after this stage. Again two pairs.

Compressport R2 Calf Guards – I was introduced to calf guards by Matt Williams, a Physio who suggested that I might benefit from them after a calf strain. I really like the compressport guards, they are hard wearing, supportive and comfortable to wear. I notice the difference running without them now, in that the vibrations caused by running are non existent. I can’t comment on whether they help recovery or not, as I haven’t really tested this aspect. It was useful having lower leg cover from the sun.

Salomon Exo Short – I chose these mainly because they have a liner brief inside the short. My mistake was to not check the position of the slightly rubberised seam on Stage 2. This caused a small chafe. This is not the shorts fault at all, just an oversight from me. I find the compression on my thighs nice, and the waist is good and high. Nothing interfered with the rucksack. Wore very well, lots of life left in them.

Salomon S-Lab Exo Zip Tee – I don’t normally use a compression top, but decided for MdS that I would use this. Being a biggish guy the top isn’t flattering. I can’t fault the top at all. Kept me cool and dry – the zip was a nice to have. Good sun protection and the compression seemed to do well. The only visible wear afterwards was an area where a piece of velcro on my rucsac has obviously pulled repeatedly in the same spot. I was amazed at how clean it came out of the wash when I got home. No staining at all despite being very stiff with salt and desert grime.

Montane Featherlite Ultra Gilet – I used this on two morning only. A very lightweight bit of kit, really effective in getting rid of the chill associated with wind. With the long sleeve merino shirt it was all the temperature control that I needed.

Embers Merino LS base layer – An ancient bit of kit. I like merino, and on the coldest morning, this over my race shirt and covered with the Montane Gilet was super warm. On other evenings and mornings I wore this alone and was a nice temperature. It was a nice change to the race shirt and I would definitely take again.

Racelight Shara Cap and oakleys
Racelight Shara Cap and oakleys

RaidLight Sahara Cap– Initially I was slightly dubious about this. I have a 59cm head and this cap felt pretty tight. However, it never fell off, nor was it ever too uncomfortable to wear. I found by pulling the flap over my ears and then putting my sunglasses over the top my ears stayed well protected. A top thing to note, for baldies like me, the flap will cover the small hole in the back of the cap where the adjustment velcro is-its worth checking if you don’t suncream your head (I did). It was pointed out to me by someone at the start of Stage 2. Be aware this is THE hat of MdS – I would consider personalising my hat in the future.

Oakley Radar Path sunglasses – I had these for cycling from before the event. Very light, fit me well and eal very weel with themy face shape and blocking out the light. They sit securely on my nose, and on the top of my head.

Aarn Mountain Magic 33 Rucksack – I only have really, really good things to say about the performance of this pack. It really does do everything it says on the tin. It was a good size for all the kit, and compresses nicely as the volume decreased during the week. I was slightly dubious about how the chest strap was going to work out with the requirements for displaying the number- see my solution here. I ended up being able to hook the chest strap behind the number no bother at all. The chest pockets were great for organising the stuff I needed during the day. Regularly leaving CP’s with 3 litres in them plus all the other bits and bobs I needed. I didn’t cut anything down, just fitted as per the instructions and ran with it. No sign of any failings at all. Briliiant! If pushed as to a bad point – in photography the crossover chest strap accentuates man boobs.

Equipment Carried

Raidlight Press to Drink bottle x 2 I wanted to be taking my bottle out to drink so I could keep tabs on how much I was drinking. There is nothing wrong with these, but if I were selecting again I would lose the 90 degree bend bits in favour of a standard drinks bottle. The clag around the bite valve was horrid on all the bottles like this in the tent, and were tricky to clean with what we had available. Also of note, when dissolving Nuun tablets in the bottle, do it when the bottle is empty with just a little water left in it. Because there is a straw that reaches to the bottom, when this is immersed in water, Nuun tablets cause the bite valve to spray.

Thermarest 3/4 light matress – probably 15 years old, if not more. Comfortable and trusted, not the lightest by modern standards but worked very well. Doubled over for feet up comfort at the end of the day, and full three-quarter length for a good nights sleep.

Kimmlite PA1 sleeping bag – also old, don’t think they’re made any more. Plenty warm enough, a bit narrow for being able to relax in, but it’s a race sleeping bag, I wasn’t expecting glamping!

Silk sleeping bag liner – another old bit of kit. I like these for looking after my sleeping bag, the hygiene side of things. I also found that it was amazingly useful for maintaining an element of dignity whilst having a bed bath in the tent. Mine is square cut, so it was also a handy wrap around sarong for evening pee expeditions.

Exped Air Pillow UL Medium – after the first night I covered this in a buff. Very comfortable and made for no stiff neck. Would definitely take again. Only downside perhaps is its light weight, doesn’t take a big breeze to turn it into a game of cross the desert chase the pillow!

Buff Orignal x2 A pretty versatile bit of kit – warm head, cool neck, back up sand protection in a sand storm, camera bag, pillow case, one corner was used to deal with a nosebleed, sunglasses cleaner and carrier of Welsh Dragon. Brilliant.

Esbit Titanium Stove – so lightweight it’s crazy. I found that two hex tablets heated all the water I needed for a main meal and a cup of tea. I took a piece of tin foil and this made the stove really efficient. Very stable with the MyTi mug too.

Alpkit MyTi Mug – another bit of pre owned kit. Light, robust and just the right size for heating enough water for a meal, and for making a cup of tea. During the day it carried the stove, fuel, tea bags, lighter and toilet roll.

MSR Titan tool spoon – another 15 year old bit of kit, still going strong. Didn’t need the tool as that fits a multifuel stove, but its a good shape for food, lightweight and doesn’t break.

Turboflame Military lighter – has the guts to light a hex tablet very quickly, doesn’t get affected by the wind and is useful for sealing rope ends or sterilising a needle for blister duty. Needed to be turned down in power because the increase in temperature was making the gas flame out.

Gerber Knife
Gerber Knife

Gerber Ultralight LST knife – didn’t need anything more than this, main use was for opening vacuum packed food, though it did get a light bit of “first aid” use. Sharp, holds its edge and very light weight. The locking mechanism feels strong and the blade seems rust resistant.

Petzl Tikka XP head torch – used for training all through the Welsh winter, very confident in this torch. I use it with rechargeable batteries and for the complete time at MdS never needed to use the spares. Also has a whistle on it, which was another bit of mandatory kit. The red light was useful for not really annoying other tent mates around the bivouac. On the night stage there were a couple of times when I would have ideally liked a bit more light, but by flicking the diffuser up I always got to see what I needed to see.

VeniStop Venom Pump – mandatory kit, unused.

Plastic signalling mirror – mandatory kit, not used for signalling. Useful for checking out how badly split your lip is, or how much blood is left on your nose.

Silva Field compass – not used in anger, see Vector watch beneath. Mandatory kit, and this was the lightest option that met the criteria.

Suunto GPS track pod I wrote an initial review of this here. Battery life lasted really well, as expected. Even after leaving it on for an extra 5 hours at the end, this still had 33% charge when I got home and hooked it up. Definitely not necessary, but I’m pleased I took it to record the route and critically didn’t need any charging. It was just dropped into the chest pocket of my Aarn sack and it had no issues at all. Acquisition time was fast (less than 2 minutes) after turning on in Morocco the first time, and far less on all the other stages. I had it set to be manually started, and probably should have set auto off for 1 hour of non movement.

Suunto Vector
Suunto Vector

Suunto Vector Watch – another old bit of kit. I love this for navigating generally only using the altimeter. The time display is super clear and was useful all the time I was remembering to put in salt tablets, guestimate time to run to the next CP. I used the compass on every dune leg just to check the given bearing in the roadbook translated to somewhere to end up on the horizon. It was this that put me back on track on the way to CP2 on Stage 4. Not essential by any means, but I like it.

Prosport SPF 44 Sun cream – Piz Buin seemed to be the sun protection of choice on MdS. This though I had used before for sailing. It dries quickly and doesn’t leave a residue that sand sticks to. It gives a solid 8 hours protection and seems not to be at all affected by sweat. Even applied to my head with water running off I had no stinging eyes. Given I was out raising money for Melanoma, this was really important to me, and the SPF44 was as strong as I could find in an apply once, waterproof, stick free sun cream.

Brave Soldier Friction Zone – Very good at what it does, should have applied it early to my thighs. Once I had an infection I swapped to Friars Balsam and then this round the edge. Good stuff!

Wemmi Wipes – Another bit of hygiene kit with lots of uses. I found that filling a bottle top with water and then dropping one of these in worked really well. Rachel, in our tent rehydrated one in her mouth to cope with a nose bleed – not recommended. I will use these again as I only discovered them for MdS.

Friars Balsam – my topical antiseptic. Benzoin is the active ingredient. It’s quite harsh, and any grazes feel like they are being well cleaned. Useful for making skin sticky for applying sticky tape dressings!

Adventure medical kit Ultralight and Watertight .3 – didn’t need the contents of this, Doc Trotters at all CP’s and in the bivouac have all that you might need. Reassuring to have with you for anything that might have happened and not at all heavy.

Imodium – why wouldn’t you? I used one, just in case.

Cuticura Antibactieral hand gel – given most people are bringing food that has been pre packaged and the water is bottled, the only way you’ll get a tummy bug is by you putting germs into your own mouth. A small 100ml bottle got me through with plenty to spare, after toilet and before you put anything in your mouth, clean your hands. Germs from locals handling anything that might go in your mouth is a chance to have things other than your feet running!

Sea to Summit Ultra Sil Nano bag – fantastic stuff sacs, 4l ones were my preferred choice. Pretty resilient for their weight, slightly transparent which is useful for getting to the right bit of kit when needed. I like having my stuff organised into different bags Sleeping, clothing, food, personal admin, cooking this was another layer of protection from the sand…and when you pour water over your head…your kit gets wet. My knackered roadbook is testament to that!

Ortileb A5 document bag – another bit of pre-owned kit. Perfect for carrying passports, paperwork, money etc. Totally waterproof and something I don’t travel without. Might be a bit heavy for the gram counter, but really reliable.

10 safety pins – mandatory, I used 4 front and 4 rear for my race number.

Fix kit, needle, gaffer tape, thread in a Sugru tube
Fix kit, needle, gaffer tape, thread in a Sugru tube

Gaffer Tape – great for repairs, only used on the toe of my gaiter. Carried this wound round a small Sugru needle holder I made – write up on the Sugru website here

Needle – taken mainly to sew with, but ended up being sterilised with the turboflame for a bit of blister management. Stored in the above carrier.

Thread- not used, but taken in case anything needed stitching, I took about 3 metres of strong thread and wrapped around the outside of the Gaffer tape.

Sugru – goes by the strapline “The future needs fixing” and it’s brilliant stuff. If my gaiters had broken earlier I would have used it to make a toe cap for them, but with ‘only’ a dusty marathon left I made do with a gaffer tape repair.

Toothbrush – I had a break in half and fit inside itself style travel toothbrush. Lovely for de clagging your mouth morning and evening. Should be mandatory!

Half a tube of toothpaste – goes with the above, the mintier the better!

28 sheets of toilet paper – I banked on 4 sheets per day, probably could have done with 6, to get rid of the nasal grot that the desert brings on. Only felt short once, when things were a little looser than I would have liked…Tent mates helped out with a whip round. I took dinner serviettes before the race. In hindsight I would have taken more in my luggage and binned what I didn’t need at the start of day 1. ALWAYS, ALWAYS put your toilet roll in a ziploc bag!

GoPro Hero 3 and 3 batteries – no case, just the camera, wrapped in a buff. Could have got away with 2 batteries, but 3 gave me a bit more confidence. The quality of the stills camera is good enough to get some nice pictures, and grabbing a few bits of video here and there seemed to make sense for an event. of this scale.

Supplied by MdS

Flare – weighs about 900g, though some people got a small emergency beacon (epirb). It’s a parachute style flare and are very pretty. We heard of a few being used, so pay attention in the briefing in case you have to let one off.

Timing transponder- neoprene cuff with a velcro strap. An extra safety pin is supplied to make sure this is fully secure. I wore mine under my gaiter and didn’t notice it was there at all.

Salt tablets- start with 120. 2 an hour for the first three hour and then 4 an hour thereafter. Definitely noticeable if you don’t use them. Use them!

Food

When you’re not running, or sleeping you’ll be eating…

Expedition Foods High Energy Serving – I took a range of flavours, none of which I minded in the heat. I had a slight preference for the Sweet and Sour Chicken and Rice as it was less liquid and made for easier to eat. I heated water for mine, but a fair few people just cold rehydrated them. I looked forward to these everyday, and the one I had at CP5 on the long day definitely put the energy back in when needed.

TORQ Recovery – I’m a late convert to recovery powder. I used the Cookies and Cream powder and because of my body weight went for 6 scoops (150g) in 750 ml. I found it dissolved really well in cold water in a normal drinking bottle. I used one serving in the middle of the long day and was grateful for the calories. I vacuum packed my own servings, which I wouldn’t do in future, double freezer bag makes for easier storage rather than a flat brick.

TORQ Energy, Recovery and Gel
TORQ Energy, Recovery and Gel

TORQ Energy – I only had one serving (90g) of these as a day, in the neutral flavour. The flavour is really neutral and I could always tell I’d had some. I would take more of this in the future instead of shot bloks or jelly beans. I also vacuum packed this, but would also double freezer bag for convenience.

TORQ Gel – Orange and Banana, I had one a day, again I would take more in favour of other energy foods. I find them really palatable and would much prefer to have one of these than either of the other option. I don’t find them a problem in the heat, but some do.

Peperami Wideboy – 1 a day, at the end of the day. A luxury that I looked forward to. Good balance of nutrition and nice to eat whilst the water was boiling. It also did my mental state good on the long day.

Kellogs Nutri Grain Oat bake – a last minute substitution after my Ma Baker bars didn’t arrive. This was to be my breakfast everyday and it got increasingly hard to swallow. I would replace these with home made paleo balls for breakfast in the future.

Clif Shot bloks – worked well for me and I always ate them. Didn’t feel that they gave me the same lift as the TORQ products, and so would swap these out.

Extreme Sports Jelly Beans – this was my surprise. I usually love these, and feel a lift from them. Not at all in the desert though. Ate them everyday, but would swap them out.

Nuun Electrolyte tablets – one tube, I didn’t use them for the first three days, but started using them on the long day, mainly to change the flavour of the water. There was a good deal of flavour trading going on in the tent, but the citrus one worked for me. I like the way it leaves the mouth feeling a little fresher.

Conclusion

I’m not at all upset with my kit choice at all. When I was stomping along, I did occasionally wish I’d had some walking poles, but on the legs that I ran, these would have been a real pain in the butt.

The only major change I would make would be to my daytime nutrition and to the amount of toilet roll I took. I’d swap more TORQ supplements in and probably take a small nut and dried fruit mix to fill the stomach with savoury.

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.

Stage 5 Marathon des Sables 2014

Marathon des Sables 2014 

Stage 5

Friday, 11 April

Link to stage 5 roadbook

The tent comes round sharply, the main pack are away at 0700 on the 42km of Stage 5.

My body feels fairly battered. My head had been in the “get the long day done and the Marathon day would be a walk in the park”. Everything is taking ages this morning. Eating breakfast is a real trial. It just doesn’t want to go down.

A quick look at the road book… CP1 12km, CP2 11km, CP3 9km, 10km to the finish. They’re ok chunks.

For the first time in the week the sky is overcast. Perhaps its not going to be too hot. A lot of chatter about how today was a fast and flat day. I was going to need it to be. Phil is fired up, if he can pull of a good stage then he’ll lock his top 200 finish into the top 150 pretty comfortably.

We’re told we need to collect a new, clean race number. We all do it, but a bit confused why. Apparently its for the photographs today. It’s done grudgingly. Another queue!

Pre start stage 5 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

My ankle is really, really sore. I pop a tramadol hoping it’ll deal with the mush that my feet have become. Pulling compression socks and socks on, followed by gaiters I decide my feet are so swollen that I can’t wear my normal two pairs of socks. It can’t make things too much worse. Andrew’s collapsed Hoka is looking worse, Artur’s feet are looking worse, Linda has strapping on her knee and a couple of blisters, but she’ll be quick again. Dave is holding it together much better than the rest of us, but we’re all realising that today is going to be hard.

Rachel has made it into 199th overall, so along with Phil their start is at 0930. We all drop into our own worlds this morning, and saunter over to the start. Today it has a little taped box around it, this should cram us in a bit tighter. I meet up with Sarah (Swampy Tigs) and she is in good spirits having finished her long day. Worried about the cut off time for CP3, but we’ve all come so far I hope everyone makes it round. Linda, Dave and Andrew are around too. We all know today is going to be a battle.

The helicopters are noticeably absent this morning. We hear that we’re down to 926 starters today. That’s well over 10% of the field gone from Day 1. Normally the whole race only loses about 4%. This edition has been tough.

“Happy” plays again, but I tune it out. I know I can cover the distance today, but its going to be mentally much tougher for me than the long day. Because I hadn’t expected it to be, I was really in the right zone. I’d checked out the results, and I really wanted to beat Rory Coleman home. For no other reasons than I needed a motivation, this was it.

“Happy” gives way to “Highway to Hell” and we’re off.

I can’t call it a run, I’m hobbling on my left ankle, each heel strike is sore and I’m dreading any downhill on my right foot blisters. But I’m moving faster than 5km/h and that’ll do.

It is flat, and it is quite cool by contrast to the last few days. The running is easier, this would definitely be fun running on a fresh legged day. After 12km and an hour and a half I hit CP1. I think of Phil and Rachel lining up on the start along with Danny, Steve and the Morrocan runners in the top 200. Mentally I try and work out where on the course they’ll pass me.

Onto the next CP, we’re crossing more fertile ground. It looks like crops though the ground is too dusty to be obvious to me as what they might be growing. I’m still managing a fast hobble. Some of the discomfort in my heels have gone, but my ankle is not getting any easier to run with.

I finish my TORQ fuel and eat half a pepperami, this goes down really well. After 1hr35 I see the next CP and look forward to collecting some fresh water. I’ve a Nuun tablet in already, I just want a different flavour to my water.

The fast runners are going to pass me in this next leg. I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping to see Phil early on.

This section winds over slightly more undulating terrain, small sandy Oueds. Rachid and then Mohamed coming running through. It all looks so easy, I’m envious and full of admiration. I lock onto the back of number 27, Christian. He’s a 26 times veteran and I reckon I can stick with him. Danny Kendall comes by, and I give him a big shout. He says thanks, gives a wave and keeps going.

As we start a short ascent. Rory passes me. I can’t find anything to stay with him, so I just hunker down behind Christian. Next Steve Hodges comes passed and I give him a shout too. he gives a brief wave. He’s obviously working really hard.

There is a short descent into a gorge and we’re all shuffling along.  The first lady comes by, and it’s Irish lady, Claire Morrisey. Claire had been in our tent a few days before and she is absolutley flying along. “Go-on Claire” I shout and she’s away. Then “There’s my man” comes from behind me in a South Walian accent. It’s Phil and he is gunning it. Not quite on Claire’s shoulder but not far off. He’s having an awesome run and I tell him.

We all enter a little area of crops, round a small wall and then there are a whole bunch of people. It’s CP3 and there are some spectators here as well as the water stop. I’ve taken 1hr30 to cover the 9km, elegant running this is not.

I try and be quick through the CP, I have a TORQ gel to try and put some energy in my legs. It only vaguely works. Immediately after CP3 we’re into a soft Oued. I pull alongside a welshman now living in the Netherlands, Hywel. I can do nothing but walk with a bit of a limp on this soft surface. As we move to the right side, the ground firms up and Hywel makes a break for it, getting back into a run. I have to wait until we’re out of the Oued and I start shuffling on a bit faster. 

This is a large stony plain, there is a support truck on the horizon, I decide I’m running at least to the truck. As I get closer I can see it is Steve from Running Sahara. “Looking Good Ash” he says. I grunt a “hmmm” back at him. “You’re probably not feeling good though” comes the response. I keep it going.

Next rise and I can see the finish. There are some soft dunes between me and the finish. I slurp down a load of water. I run downhill, then walk fast uphill. I’ve my head down.

At the top of the next hill, I look up it’s downhill to the finish. I’m shuffling a little faster, I pull out my Welsh flag. I spot Phil with his flag just in front of the finish. I lift the flag over my head and Phil replies with the same. 

Stage 5 end MdS2014 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

I run over the line and it’s done. I’m knackered, I bend over taking the weight on my arms through my knees. There is a great big S-shaped queue winding back and forward to Patrick Bauer and getting our medals. Everyone is sharing around the last bits of water we have. 

Rachel comes in and Andrew is just ahead of ,e. He has beaten Rory home, and I reckon I can’t have been too far behind him either.

Phil finished the day in 4hrs 39, Rachel in 5hrs 23, Linda in 6hrs 04, Andrew in 6hrs 26, Artur in 6hrs 30, me in 6hrs 6hrs 38 and Dave in 8hrs 28. We all made it through the racing stages.

Finish line bliss (in pain)
Finish line bliss (in pain)

A special mention for Claire Morrisey who is the first female home. I’m sure racing in Ireland is going to get a massive boost when she moves home later in the year.

After getting my medal I head over to the medical tent and get some supplies to sort my feet out. Then back to the tent and take my socks off. It’s pretty obvious that I should go and see Doc Trotters. The middle toe nail on my right foot is floating on a big blister. I give them a quick wash off and then shuffle over to the tent.

I wash them off with iodine solution, put on the blue socks and wait to go in. The Doc gets to work on my feet. Draining the blisters first and working some iodine in. This I can cope with. She then says that she’d like to puncture a nail or two to try and save some nails. The big toe on my left foot is first. I can feel she is putting some pressure on, and then the needle goes through. because she has some weight behind it the needle goes well into my toe. A searing pain, and bang of my hands on the floor and a “nnngh” is how far I go. Then the iodine. This makes a throb. But it’s ok, I can cope with this. She dresses my feet and I shuffle back to the tent via an email.

I’ve beaten Rory, but will wait for the end of the charity section to get my classification.

Toes and medal
Toes and medal

We’re all chuffed with our medals and the evening ahead is going to be relaxing.

There is a presentation of the top runners, medals and trophies. Some great video footage.

Danny Kendal gets an amazing cheer as he collects his trophy.

I’m really impressed with Marco Olmo, he wins the Vet 4 Category (70-79yrs). If that isn’t impressive enough he finishes 23rd overall. He also controls the microphone really well, paying tribute to all the other runners. A really inspiring guy and story. Here’s a short intro to who and what he is.

As the French Opera fires up, there is a fairly mass exodus. As amazing as it is, we’re all tired and not really in the mood to party.

Back in the tent, it feels like we’re all pretty content. Aches and pains, are with us all. Phil has given the race everything. Mentally and physically we’re all broken. We agree we’ll walk as a tent tomorrow on the charity/solidarity stage for Unicef. Quickly we’re all asleep, medals not too far away.

Stage 4 Marathon des Sables 2014

Marathon des Sables 2014 

Stage 4

Wednesday, 9 April

Link to Stage 4 roadbook

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.

Morning of stage 4 MDS 2014 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

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.

Stage 4 CP1 CP2 MDS2014 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

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.

A lush looking Auberge
A lush looking Auberge

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.

Stage 4 CP2 CP3 MDS2014 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

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.

Stage 4 CP3 CP4 MdS 2014 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

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.

Morning after the long day from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

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.

Coca Cola from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

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.

Stage 3 Marathon des Sables 2014

Marathon des Sables 2014 

Stage 3

Tuesday, 8 April

Link to Stage 3 roadbook

After a much better nights sleep I wake up and it’s a warmer morning. I only need my buff on and can leave the gilet in its stuffsack.

There are a few people moving about quite gingerly, their feet having taken a pounding. I’m feeling pretty lucky at this stage. Artur is already trying to get on top of his feet, second skin going on and then a dressing over the top. The guy is really pushing hard.

My concern is that I’ve woken really hungry, but when I try and eat my brekkie, I really struggle. It takes nearly 10 minutes to eat one cereal bar. Everything feels like it is moving much more easily, my calf feels good, my blisters aren’t painful and I don’t feel too sore. I know though that I’m a bit light on calories and that means I have to get the nutrition right today. We’re supposed to be 3 km less than yesterday, but looking at the roadbook we know that with some climbs and 14 km of dunettes on this stage that its going to be a hard fought day.

Playing in the back of my head the whole time is the long day tomorrow, 80km. I need to get a tactic sorted, and I’m going to spend some time on that on course today.

Dave has woken up and his shoulders are much better, but he is still finding his bag heavy, a few things get discarded but the needs of the long day are still out there and nobody wants to lose the ‘just in case’ items before they’re needed. All our kit is now salt crusted, so much so that once soft shorts are stiff as a board. Nothing we can do about it, unless we’re prepared to give up drinking water. We’re not!

Phil is still smashing down the Raspberry and Granola for brekkie and evening meal. He’s doing really well on it, fair play to him staying on top of it all.

This morning is even more laid back than other mornings. The start line is on the other side of the camp to before, and that’s obvious when collecting the morning water. Today we’re only going about 10km west from our current bivouac, but we are doing a deep u-shape course that stretches out the distance.

We hear now that the first two days have eliminated more people, chatter is going around about flares being set off, people being airlifted. Rebecca who we had met in Gatwick had succumbed to her 15kg pack, and had had a nightmare route finding and was out. As were a couple who had had an epic on the first day, there was an airlift involved and together they had left the race. More people had been eliminated in the first two days than are normally retired in a whole edition. This year was tough and we hadn’t even gone half distance yet.

Phil and I again make it to the start line together, another handshake, another shuffle forwards and away we go.

To begin with the going is pretty easy, I hold off my TORQ fuel for the first three quarters of an hour just drinking plain water. That takes me through the first bit of the stony terrain, and through a good bit of the sand. There are 3km of dunes to cross before the first CP at 10km and I hit into the TORQ here. I made it into CP1 in an hour and a half. That’s slow for 10km, but with the sand this was okay going I figured. Into the next leg of the stage there was still more sand. This 14km leg was sand, hill, sand. I was really looking forward to the climb, just to do something different than plough through soft sand.

I started on my shot bloks during the third hour, this time just trying to eat one every ten minutes, see if I could stop my legs tiring. Still taking the salt tablets as prescribed had become second nature and with the watch on made for a useful reference point in the day.

The rocky climb started out slowly, crossed a vehicle piste that was well made before dropping into a little rocky gorge that wound its way up to the summit. The rocky gorge gave way to very soft sand at the base,  my two favourite things heat and sand were here now. I stay to the edge trying to find good rock to walk on. I’ve fallen in behind a very tiny French lady who I can only describe as a mountain goat. She bounces from rock to rock up to the top. I just stay with her when she gets caught in traffic. At the top there is a soft sand and rock descent, and I manage to overtake a few people here. At the base of the steep bit there is a hard crust of sand at a nice angle. Lots of people are staying to my right in the soft sand but I head a little left and manage a very cooling downhill trot. On the horizon to the left, and a long way off the bearing we should be on are a number of berber tents, and a couple of white markers that make it look like it could be a water stop. A group of four French runners cross behind me heading straight for the tents. I can see a marker off to my right, but I’m making places coming down the hard sand so stick with it.

We cross a sandy Oued and then climb onto dunettes. This are beautiful. We’re walking along the top of a knife edge dune, then plunging down soft sand before crossing up to another. My legs are tiring pretty fast and with the time towards noon the heat is really coming on. Even though I’m feeding better today, I’m low on energy and would love an extra TORQ fuel right now.

I get to out of the dunettes and into CP2, the last 13km have taken me 2hrs20. My mind is going away from the positive and the big day is playing on my mind. We’re back into the dunettes and my left foot is starting to suffer with a painful blister. I choose to “MTFU” and get the day done.

Wayne and I at the CP, photo credit Wayne Drinkwaters camera-random photographer!
Wayne and I at the CP, photo credit Wayne Drinkwaters camera-random photographer!

As I’m filling my bottles under the awning of a Land Rover I spot Wayne Drinkwater. Wayne is fundraising for Charlies Voice and with autism being close to my heart we’ve been bouncing Facebook messages back and forward in the lead up to the event. It’s nice to meet face to face, randomly in the desert. After a quick photo, I’m off again.

Big hot dried lake bed
Big hot dried lake bed

Pretty soon we’re out of the dunettes and heading across what feels like a big dry lake bed, with a large Oued out to the left. It’s really hot, and I can’t quite find a rhythm. I’m feeling negative and this is really a dark couple of hours. I know I’ve got to turn it around, but I feel a little overwhelmed, not that I can’t finish but that the enormity of what is to come along with how tough things are is really eating into me. The 6km I’m on now are taken up with thoughts of Pete and my Mum and Dad. What the hell am I doing here. I decide I have to kick myself out of this. I’m ok, I have a few aches and pains, but nothing that will stop me. I decide to eat a double meal tonight. I gobble down a TORQ gel. Slurp down more water than I should and double my salt dose.

MDS2014 Day 3 CP Finish from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

I get to CP3 an 1hr40 after CP2, it’s been 9km, and I only have 5km left to go. Whilst everyone else is faffing about, I just stick to my routine, water, rubbish emptied, walk out. It’s really hot now but 15 minutes later, I’m shuffling a bit faster, I’ve set my jaw and I decide I’m going to get this f$%@er done. Belligerence has set in! It still feels like a big dried lake, but it’s not too far to the finish now. I talk myself through what I’m doing tomorrow and just concentrate on what should be no more than an hour to get into the finish.

We pass some small ruins, I’m thinking about the Jungle Book because I think the name Ba Hallou sounds a bit like the bear. I play “Bare Necessities” over and over in my head, but get to the dunes that lead to the finish. I’m angry at the sand now and stomp my way through it. Sure enough in just under the hour I’m across the finish line. The tea tastes better still, the water claim is quick. I meet Rachel as she is looking to find the video blog area, her and Linda have had a good day.

I get to the tent for the Golden Hour. I strip my socks and am relieved to see the painful blister isn’t too bad. I give it a quick clean and leave it dry out, my dressed toes are ok and my chafe stings. I give it a good Wemmi wipe, and decide to put antiseptic on instead of more lube.

After the hour, and the recovery powder I’m feeling far better. I have an evening meal, and then wander over to the email tent. With the long day ahead this will be my last email out for nearly 48hrs and I know people at home want to know how everything is going. I check the results for Phil and he has stayed comfortably inside the top 200. I’m really pleased for him. I head back to the tent after emails, to find a pile of emails on my kip mat. I put some water onto boil for my second supper and lie back and read the messages. The support and thoughts have a really uplifting effect. I feel more positive as I tuck into my meal. Maybe it had something to do with eating about 2000kcal in a couple of hours. I break out the Nuun tablets, get some electrolytes back into me for an evening meal.

Everyone makes it in before the cut off time.

Phil 5hrs08, Artur 5hrs37, Rachel 5hrs40, Linda 5hrs48, Me 6hrs25, Andrew 6hrs32 and Dave 8hrs19.

The mood was pretty sombre, the next day was on everyones mind. Dave starts binning stuff out of his rucsac, books and various things that aren’t going to be need. Andrew gives away food that he doesn’t need which Artur, who is really hungry happily takes. We all bed down early, but I have my worst night sleep yet, tossing and turning until the early hours.

Stage 2 of Marathon des Sables 2014

Marathon des Sables 2014 

Stage 2

Monday, 7th April

Link to Stage 2 roadbook

Just as the sun comes up we’re all stirring in tent 96. It’s cool enough the morning to wear my pertex gilet and keep a buff on my head. After getting up for a first pee of the day I slip back into my sleeping bag and eat a couple of cereal bars. They’re still going down pretty well, and I still have some water left over from the night before. At 0630 the water truck opens, and this time we all hand our punch cards to one person and they head over to the truck to collect the 7 bottles of water for the tent.

We’d watched quite a few people coming in later than the cut off the night before, and because the day had been so tough the race organisers had allowed an extra hour. There were still a good few people who weren’t going to make the start line today.

The water gets split between the bottles and a TORQ fuel added to the one on the right hand side of my chest pockets. I’ve decided that I will empty out my left chest pocket so I can fit a 1.5l bottle in there at the checkpoints. I can’t do the same as CP1-2 on stage 1.

Todays stage is 41km, and whilst its longer than yesterday the chatter in the tent is about more of the day being runnable. Certainly the roadbook looks like it should be. We’ve got 11.5km to the first checkpoint, then 15 km to CP2, 8km to CP3 and then 7km into the finish. Today will be about managing the water over the first 2 CP.

The start of Day 2 was a lot more relaxed from the competitors
The start of Day 2 was a lot more relaxed from the competitors

Artur has been up for a lot of the night sewing his gaiters onto his trainers, and Andrew has been trying to get comfortable in bed, struggling to keep his feet elevated. We’re all feeling reasonably recovered though my right calf is still feeling quite tight. Everything is taking a little bit longer than it would normally now. We’re all working through the tasks methodically, and making small changes after everything that we had learnt from day 1. The tent gets removed again and we’re still applying sun cream on the rug. There is a good deal less urgency today to get to the start line, none of us want to stand around with our packs on our shoulders for longer than we need to. A few bits of food are redistributed around the tent as people realise that they have more than they need.

We all get ready together, but again get split up during the walk over to the start line. Phil and I hang together, and line up about two thirds of the way down the start line. “Happy” is playing again, and Patrick takes a while to get to the start line for his normal chat. The run through of the stage, the birthdays and the countdown. We’re told of a number of retirements, including the 16 year old, we all clap our recognition of the effort and sacrifice they have made and the disappointment not be taking the start. There are 1009 starters today, yesterday has had the effect the organisers wanted. Highway to Hell starts playing, the helicopter overhead starts runs down the startline and we’re shuffling forwards again.

The first leg is pretty straight, and between bits of soft sand everything is pretty runnable. It does get closer to being dunes as the leg goes on, but not anything as big as the day before. The going is a bit more stoney, but is very flat and makes for some good progress. The large antenna at Taouz comes into view after crossing an oued. I take my first salt tablets of the day and drink a lot of water. The aerial is a warning that CP1 is not too far away so I drink more to empty my bottles.

CP1 comes into view, and I beep my way across the mat after 1hr24…this is much faster than the day before. I empty one bottle of water into both of my drinking bottles, slug a bit back, pour a bit over my head and shove the full bottle into my left pouch. It fits well and I immediately feel better about running with 3kg of water on board. We leave Taouz to our left and make a general right turn, not quite a 90 degree right, but not far from it. There are a few people watching from the local village, I do wonder what they think of all us while they’re clapping and shouting “Bonne Journee”.

The ground underfoot here is tough going, but it’s not as difficult as the previous day, so progress is good. This 15km leg I think will take me about 2 hours so I roughly calculate that I need to drink 750ml an hour, I glance at my watch and decide that I’ll drink about 150ml every quarter of an hour. I’m trying to eat something of around 100kcal every hour or so, and wish I’d just gone TORQ for my daytime nutrition, the fuel powder and Orange and Strawberry Gels are much easier to eat than the other things I’m carrying and they have an instant effect on my body. We run alongside a large rocky outcrop and then start winding our way across little sandy channels in a bigger oued.

We start to swing back to the west and the sun falls warmly on the left hand side of my head, the water and salt tablets have been going in well, and although I’m just over 2 hrs from the last CP, I still have 200ml of water left.

After a short bit of sand we spot CP2 and it’s starting to get hotter now. With the temperature rising  my energy is waning. I decide to eat some food and wash it down with the last bit of water. The controlleurs at the CP are very happy, and punch us through and hand out the water really efficiently. Same again for me, split one bottle between my drinking bottles, a bit of water over my head and the big bottle in my pouch. I’ve done the last leg in just over 2hrs15, making good time, but the heat is really on now and I’m definitely slowing down.

This leg being 8km should be just over an hour if I can keep the pace up. I try and keep that in mind as the course swings south and we start crossing the Oued with large lumps of soft sand and camel grass. I’m stuck on the idea of drinking every 15 minutes and keeping the salt tablets coming.

MDS 2014 CP2 – CP3 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

We’re onto a wide open plain and I’m starting to slow down a little. Neal Edmondson overtakes me here, saying he’d been stuck in a lull and had now got it together. He’s not stretching out the distance fast, but he’s definitely moving a little faster than me. My tired legs are craving food and I try and choke down a bounce ball. After chewing the same mouthful for a while, I spit it out and put the rest back in my chest pouch. Just totally the wrong thing for where my mouth is at. Instead I break out the jelly beans, munch through them fast and then swallow a few big mouthfuls of water. A little bit of water over my head here to cool me down. The whole process has taken me 20 minutes or so. The ground changes from dusty track to stony surfaces, with the rocks being about the same size as baked bean tins. I can feel the energy coming back to my legs and I pick up to a very steady slow run. The rocks are good, and I enjoy picking my way through them. The monotony of one foot in front of another broken. Neal comes back into view just as the ground starts to head uphill. I decide I’ll run to him and then walk with him for a bit. Neal’s lull has returned and we chat through whether this is a running race or a walking race. We think 50:50 and as we do, we turn a corner and see CP3. Neal is stopping here for some food, but I go through my CP routine as before. I have a quick chat with a medic, he tells me that I’ll love the view in a while. It’s been 1hr20 since the last CP, but I’m happy with that in the heat of the sun.

We’re still ascending on stony ground, but as the route turn vaguely North a large sandy climb up Jebel El Abeth comes into view. I chat with a big guy as we plod on the way to the top of this, he’s pretty broken, but tells me that the finish all downhill from the top here. It’s hot and whilst I don’t like it I’m eating the last of my Shot Bloks. On the top, a soft sandy descent stretches out in front of us. The big guy wishes me luck as he hooks up with one of his tent mates and I half ski, half run down to a rocky track beneath. It is gently downhill, I’m liking running along the good surface. However, the downhill doesn’t last, and it starts gently rising and falling and I have no power left. I walk as quickly as I can passed one of the little buggies parked in the shade of a tree. Over a small rise and the finish comes into view. I run walk for a bit, but a few people pass me, I just don’t have anything left, my nutrition hasn’t been right today and that’s getting inside my head.

The finish seems to take an age getting closer, I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and slowly, I make it to the finish.

Today the sweet tea tastes even better than it had yesterday. With my legs in the state they are I creep over to the water tent grab my 4.5l and start the slog to the tent. Today for some reason the finish line is further away from the tent than yesterday and a bit like getting to the finish, getting to the tent takes longer than I expect.

The golden hour hits in, feet up, recovery powder, the rest of that bounce ball and a pepperami. Where I kicked the rock yesterday I have a blister forming, and my big toe isn’t in great nick. After the hour of feet up I head over to Doc Trotters. What a great service, Laurent works quickly on my right foot. Draining the blister, dosing it with iodine, it burns a bit, but drying it out is a good thing. He makes a hole in my big toe nail in an effort so release the pressure and save the nail. Iodine hitting the nail bed makes a goodly burn, but by the time he has put a dry dressing on it and we’ve chatted that I should keep the dressing on to the end of the race the throbbing has subsided.

My chafing is still stinging a bit, but I just add a bit more lubricant and hope it’ll settle down.

I head straight from here to the email tent, and meet Phil waiting in the queue. He’s had another good day. I get the email done and then head back to the tent and get some hot food on the go. We’re all back, Linda and Rachel have had a good day, Artur has placed well but has some pretty impressive blisters forming. Andrew has had a good day, beating Rory Coleman – a veteran of lots of MdS editions and also some treadmill records. Being based in Cardiff, we’re all quite keen to measure ourselves against Rory and all have a small glow of success.

Finishing times for day 2: Phil 5hrs25, Artur 5hrs38, Rachel 5hrs50, Linda 6hrs03, Me 6hrs27, Andrew 6hrs42 and Dave 9hr02.

MDS 2014 Day 2 evening in camp from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

The emails to us are again delivered just as the sun is setting. We all get one this evening and again we all go quiet. I struggle to hold back the tears on a few of them. It’s amazing how close to the surface the emotions are whilst we’re plodding away in the sand.

We’re expecting tomorrow to be a tough day too. There is a good size climb and 14km of dunettes, the effort from the last 3km of day 1 not yet forgotten we’re all slightly aware of needing to go fast, but not burn out for the day after. At 38km it should be quicker than today, but we all know that the terrain can make a massive distance.

Chatter soon quietens down and all the sounds around the bivouac change to deep breathing with the occasional crunch of stone underfoot as someone heads out for a wee.

From the UK to the end of Day 1

Marathon des Sables 2014

UK to the end of Stage 1

Thursday, 3rd April

Leaving home in Wales at 0830, its a very smooth drive down to Sussex. A quick errand to run before getting to Gatwick. I head to Tillington to drop off a chop saw bought on eBay by a friend in N Wales. Also a good chance to look at his trials bike.

I’d arranged via the MdS community on Facebook to share a room with a chap from South Wales. I drop my kit off with Andrew Geeson. Then I meet up with Phillip Waters who had shared a lift from Crickhowell with Andrew. We have a cuppa together and talk about all things MdS. It was time then to drop the car nearby with a friend and then get back to the North Terminal.

A Premier Inn dinner with Phil and Andrew – talking of expectations for the event, Having a good chuckle comparing notes on what we were doing for food during the event – Phil’s Raspberry and Granola 14 times sounded very ambitious, but he was sure of his approach, in contrast Andrews wife had organised his food and he had a lot of variety.

After food the evening was spent by Velcro spotting on trainers. This was a fairly good sign people would be running across the Sahara. We quickly had a group of 14 ish runners all talking about various things, people, and stories to while away the time.

Not a super early night, but it was back to the room to organise the essential kit into things that could be lost on the flight without mucking up the race. Getting the mandatory items, and specific personal items into hand luggage was seen as important. Things that might be able to scrounge could go in the hold luggage.

Friday, 4th April

All you can eat breakfast was taken full advantage of, I felt sorry for Phil, there was Granola available, and some Raspberry jam. It was nearly too good an opportunity to miss. We all settled for a big brekkie though. It was going to be a long journey to the first bivouac.

Onto the monorail to the South Terminal. Straight away in the check in area there were obviously a lot of MdSers around. Having water bottles on your hand luggage is a good sign, and it helped Sarah from Running Sahara identify us and send us to the right area. At the right desk, Steve also from Running Sahara met us. Handing out silicon bracelets and luggage tags all custom made from MdS. Hold luggage was easily within the 20kg limit and whilst hand luggage was un-weighed I’m pretty sure there were a few of us that stretched the 5 kg limit.

I stop off to pick up the 200 euro mandatory cash that we have to carry on the race, and Phil picked up some Immodium, just in case. The three of us decided to head through passport control; Phil and I fly through, and immediately spot Rebecca a runner who we knew from Facebook is also a photographer. She had a heavy race bag at 15kgs and we chatted about the task she was to be taking on. Andrew was taking a while and it was soon obvious that he was having his hand luggage taken to pieces. Whether it was the powders, tablets, lighter or all the other bits and bobs wasn’t clear, it was something that wasn’t needed though.

We all ended sitting up in roughly the same area, some from the Premier Inn the night before, but also being a really friendly bunch we soon ended up with a load of people sat around. Some on the first charter flight, but more seemingly on the second flight an hour later. As you’d expect everyone was in a really good mood.

Whilst picking up some water I bumped into Neal Edmonson who I had first met on the Brecon Beacons Ultra. Nice to see him again, and was sure that we’d see each other again over the coming week or so.

Everything boarded on time and I was sat next to John Colquhuon. A sharp humoured Glaswegian forensic scientist. This guy was going to be fuelled by some very good looking home made Paleo balls, I’m going to have a go at these some time as the recipe is easy to find. I spot another familiar face from the Brecon Ultra, Andy and he’s running as part of Team Hope with a couple of MdS veterans on their team.

The hostesses on board were keen to talk about the run, being a charter flight everyone on board was on the event. We ate our food, and overall it was a very smooth flight. The captain informed us that air traffic control had given a shorter route into the airport so we crossed the Atlas mountains and were given a great view of snow on the higher ground. Landing at Errachidia is like any small airport in the world. Its, fairly basic, with only a few small buildings and no perimeter fence. We pulled up close to the earlier flight that was sat on the tarmac.

Baggage claim was really easy, the trolleys were rolled by hand from the aircraft about 50m onto the apron where we just picked ours up and wandered over to immigration. I’m always dubious about handing over my passport, but all 200 odd of us did this and were through immigration in under 5 minutes. Amazing. During this 5 minutes, the Race Director, Patrick Bauer met and shook hands with us all, a great welcome to MdS. The only down side of a small airport was that there were only 2 toilets, they seemed to take a bit of a hammering- a theme that seemed to stick through the whole event.

As we filed on to the waiting coaches, we hoped we’d soon be on the road and into the bivouac during daylight. I sat next to a Kiwi, Nick Ashill who lectures in Dubai. It was becoming obvious that meeting new people and sharing this experience was going to be a major part of the event. We then had a packed lunch handed out. All pre-packaged food so this was good for avoiding the fairly likely tummy upsets. We received a tent form, and our mandatory kit check form. Then, the piece of information I’d been keen to see, the roadbook. This is the first sight of what is to come, and as every edition of the race changes, we’d be able to see the distances and checkpoint placements from here. We dipped in and out, and I was slightly amazed to see the first three days being a little longer than I had planned for. Nothing I can do about it now though.

As we sat on the coach for a three hours, other nations came in and eventually all the coaches were full and we were finally under way, out through Erfoud heading south as the sun was setting. After about 1hr45 transfer the bivouac comes into view, lights shining in an otherwise dark piece of desert. The coach pulls off the highway and heads down a heavily corrugated dirt track. We all disembark and start the process of trying to find a tent. There were a few of us that had planned to tent together, but during the first wander round, the 6 of us get split up. Phil and I walk round the circle of tents without much joy in finding anything empty-most tents are already full. We bump into Andrew who has buddied up with David Baxter. All quite tired. We ask in a few tents, only to find that places are being held for tent mates already formed in the UK.

Finally the four of us spotted tent 96, two sleeping bags unmoving, but not snoring just yet, and out of one sleeping bag in the darkness a voice tells us that there are 5 spaces. Gratefully we dump our kit, sort out our sleeping gear, and then head over to the catering tent by headtorch for some food. Low Berber tables laid out and some nice Chicken cous cous and a nice flat bread. Beer, wine and Coke available – this is slumming it in the desert French style! I made the mistake of eating a seriously rich chocolate mousse and coca cola. I remember to grab a bottle of water and We all crawl into our sleeping bag and try and get our head down for the evening. I spent the first part of the night with a banging heart due to the caffeine. Sleep finally grabbed me and the night passes quickly. The temperature definitely dropping during the night, but not unbearably so. That night I learnt that whichever the wind is going, its much better to have your feet into the wind. The wind finds its way into any gap and that definitely drops the temperature beneath comfort in the lightweight kit that we’re using.

Saturday, 5th April

Tent 96 after the kit drop
Tent 96 after the kit drop

We wake up with the sun in the morning. An Irish flag obvious pinned to the tent, Phil and I quickly add our Welsh flags. The sleeping bags come to life. The two at one end are Irish ladies Rachel Nolan and Linda O’Connor and at the other end, the one that had spoken to us was Artur Jozefowski a Pole from London.

Breakfast passed in a blur, an egg, some flat bread more water and some tea. Chatting to more people at the low tables and relaxing into desert life as far as we could with a big run coming the next day.

In blocks of 200 race numbers we start going through the technical checks at prescribed times.

We have to get rid of the kit that we won’t see until we finish, so this is the first go through the race kit and define what weight that we will be running with. The tent becomes a mess of kit. A few things don’t make the cut for me –a multitool, spare tights and flip flops. I choose to lose my warmest layer, I think I can get away with a long sleeve merino base layer and a lightweight pertex gilet over my race shirt. Pack up our sleeping kit. Get into our racing kit…gaiters and race shoes on. This is how we’ll be for the next week.

The admin tent on the right and food on the left, just on the edge of the black bivouac tents
The admin tent on the right and food on the left, just on the edge of the black bivouac tents

We experience the first of a few queues in the sun, shuffling forwards as the commissaires and Doc Trotters so they can process us.

Hand in the big bag, it’s tagged and put in a big pile for transfer.

Into the tent. It’s long, perhaps 75m made of lots of smaller units. It’s definitely a production line, but pretty efficient.

We’re handed a medical envelope, our water punch card on a retracting cord and our Doc Trotters card.

A discussion takes place with an official about total kit weight, weight of the food. We’ve all done this between ourselves, and I was expecting a bit more of a thorough check through. The elites have all the bags out, minimum calories checked, total bag weight checked to be between the 6.5kg and 15kg limit. For the non elite runners there seem to be random spot checks on the list of mandatory kit. I get no checks.

Next to be dished out is our race transponder, a neoprene cuff with a blue chip that looks quite military. A quick check on the mat to see the right race number come up.

Then the parachute flare, or for some people an emergency, is handed out. This immediately adds a good few hundred grams to the pack weight. The last gift is a pack of 120 salt tablets.

On through the tent, heading over to the right side to hand in the ECG and Medical Certificate. The ECG and any notes are placed into the envelope, we’re tested to see whether we know how to take the salt tablets. 2 an hour for the first 3 hours, then 4 an hour thereafter. When the doc is happy, he signs my form and finally I line up to receive two race numbers. One for our rucsac and one that has to be placed on the upper chest. Something I’d been thinking about a lot due to the way that my chest strap works, but I think pinning it to my straps would be best.

The last thing in the tent is a quick photo with our new race numbers and then back out in to the daylight. This is the first time I realise the scale of the logistics. Supporting 1000 runners and 500 staff in the Sahara is an epic feat. There are plenty of military trucks, 4×4’s little buggies, two helicopters a small Cessna plane. It is quite simply awesome to see, and be a part of.

I drop my stuff back to the tent. Wander over to the food area again. This time sitting inside the tent to stay out of the sun. Again the food is good, but I’m definitely thinking that the number of cooked meals is becoming pretty limited.

Lazing in the tent after kit checks
Lazing in the tent after kit checks

Back to lazing in the tent; chatting, finding out about one another, seeing where the sense of humour limits are.

Then we have a “welcome” talk from Patrick and his team. A welcome from some Berbers, banging drums, dancing in long coats. Then, the coats get stripped off and there is the Sand Rugby team, a modified Haka, constantly being overflown by a small quadcopter. We then have a demonstration of how to use a parachute flare and perhaps slightly more importantly how to use the ‘bag caca’. It’s a brown bag that stretches over a small stool that is within a small open topped canvas enclosure. The top tip is to place a small stone in the bag to stop the wind blowing the bag up against a bare bottom. Once the business is done in the bag, a quick twist and tie up the bag is placed in a larger bin that is collected regularly.

We hear about some of the paritcipants, a 16 year old running with her family, some high profile marathon runners like  Abdelkader El Mouaziz (winner of New York and London Marathon), previous MdS winner five times Mohamad Ahansal and three times ladies winner Laurence Klein. Then there are the true veterans Christian Ginter (number 27) running in his 27th edition. I’m keen to hear more about Danny Kendal(GBR) and Nikki Kimble(US), but the race is a long time and all this will come.

A lot of information coming fast in French, with some slightly edited English translation. We hear that this year the bivouac and its infrastructure is 50% powered by solar, but this will extend to 100% in the next 2 years. The group breaks up and we head back to the tent.

The dynamics are definitely forming within the tent. Humour is a big part of how we’re all happy to operate. Gentle teasing, and some fairly robust observations about our bodily functions…we agree to stop apologising for them. We’re putting our body through a tough time, and we’re living in a small space. Dignity is something that just isn’t going to be maintained.

A bit of taping goes on in the tent, shoulders and backs. I’ve not trained with this and I’m confident that I don’t need anything on my back, and my feet normally hold out pretty well.

Tent #96 on the start line
Tent #96 on the start line

We wander over to the start line, grab a photo as a tent. Off between the inflatable arches the dunes rise up and really grab the eye. A fair few people are running back from the dunes, fully kitted up. I can’t really get excited about this. I’m starting to feel like that I need to hold onto any energy that I have.

I pick up my hexamine fuel tablets from the ’boutique’ (a table) in the middle of the bivouac. A lot of people seem to have ordered way more hexamine than me, but I’m still confident that I’ll need no more than 3 tablets for my cooking, so a packet of 24, though tight should be perfect.

Juliette, our French Commissaire comes round. She is our information point for the week. Checking we know where we need to be and when it needs to happen. We soon learn that Bivouac time is not the same as time in the outside world.

We head over for more food, our last dinner before we go self sufficient in the morning. Water is the name of the game for us, but there is still coke, beer and wine on offer. I’m trying to stay as hydrated as possible, and alcohol has had no part in my preparation in the last 3 months. We all head to bed, knowing that at 0830 we’re going to get our first taste of the desert.

A slightly better nights sleep, not a great sleep. We’re all up and down for a wee during the night. There is plenty of light for wandering around without a head torch. And the wee stop is only 20m outside the bivouac into the desert. The stars are so beautiful. I spend a lot of time star gazing whilst having a wee.

People wandering around with headtorches and very bright moon wake me occasionally. There’s definitely an increase in excitement and anticipation. I wear a buff on my head and put my feet into the breeze. I’m definitely warmer!

Sunday, 6th April

Link to Stage 1 Roadbook

We all wake with the sun, the chatter around the bivouac is excited, I eat my two cereal bars and a bounce ball and finish 750 ml of water left over from the night before. At 0630 the water station opens, I grab my punch card and head over to the truck. We get our bottles, the main bottle and its top marked with our race number. If this isn’t disposed of properly then there are time penalties. The queue disappears quickly and the water is in my hands.

The tent is taken away whilst we get ready
The tent is taken away whilst we get ready

Back to the tent and immediately decant one bottle into my running bottles. 700ml in each, a little left over. Into the bottle on  my right side I add my TORQ energy. The neutral flavour really doesn’t alter the flavour at all. The other bottle is staying plain. As I continue organising my stuff the Berbers come through the bivouac removing the tent over our heads. Lifting one of the a poles and walking it over the top so that the tent ends lying in the gap between the tents. We’re left sat on the rug on the desert floor. Whilst we’re packing bits away the chat is buoyant, a lot of talk about pack weight and various bits of organisation. I take the opportunity of a small queue at the toilets. I break out one of my seven four sheets a day toilet roll and feel much better for it.

I organise my running food into one of my chest pouches. One gel, one packet of shot bloks and one packet of jelly beans. Should be good for 4-5 hours of running. This is how long I’m expecting to be out on the course for all the days that are less than marathon distance.

Juliette calls in at the rug and says it is a 0745 briefing/photo before an 0830 start. We’re all chatting away, but slowly people drop in to their own thoughts, anticipation and excitement and a sensible bit of nerves. We try and co-ordinate a tent photo, all with our equipment and race numbers on. It doesn’t quite work, we all have slightly different priorities at this stage. The “zone” is descending on all of us in slightly different ways. I get all my kit on, get the transponder on underneath my gaiters, spend a bit of time making sure the Velcro all lines up. Get a bit of Brave Soldier lubricant onto my thighs where I think they may rub. Smother every bit of bare skin in sun tan lotion and generally try and focus on the game plan. Steady.

There is a steady migration from the bivouac to the start line about 200m away. We’re all stewarded into the now iconic “edition” number. This being the 29th Edition Phil and I sneak into the tail of the 9. The helicopter is up and flying over and around the number. To being with everyone is waving, but quickly we’re all ignoring the bright red chopper. And then we’re finished, the tape is broken between the stakes and a line of boys and girls having a final wee appears.

We assemble by the start gantry, Pharell Williams “Happy” is playing. I’m not feeling the normal start line anxiety I get. I’m feeling confident, despite a few aches and grumbles in the last 8 weeks I’m feeling pretty strong. I have a quick glance up to the sky, all blue, no clouds at all. I think about the heat that is coming later in the day. That I am worried about, I normally suffer in the heat. This, I think, is going to be my big challenge. I shake hands with Phil. Wish him a good race.

Day 1 start
Day 1 start

Patrick Bauer is then stood on a big iLand solar truck talking, telling us about the checkpoints, and how much water we can take at each stage and how far in they are. CP1 is at 15km, CP2 at 25.8km and then the finish at 34km. Today is 3 litres at CP1, I haven’t quite figured out how I’m going to manage the extra bottle of water. We have 10hrs to complete the course. We then hear about those with birthdays that day and we all sing Happy Birthday. There are 1029 people on the start line.

The music changes to Highway to Hell, Patrick tells us the race will start in 30 seconds, there is a countdown Dix, Neuf, Huit…. I turn my GPS pod on, Cinque, Quatre…I’m patting down the straps, zips and cords on my rucksack. Then we’re moving, shuffling to begin with. The chopper buzzing back and forward over the runners, cameraman hanging out the door. Sweeping up and down the line. The shuffle starts to turn into a jog and I move hard left so I’ve a bit of free space. Everything feels good. I know I’ve about 3km to run before the dunes start. This surface is great, just like a fire road in Coed y Brenin, smaller stones, more sand and a little drier, but easy running. There are few areas of soft sand but this is all ok. I move even further left and stop for a wee. There are a few of us doing this, but pretty soon everyone is moving at a speed that suits them.

The 3km passes quite quickly, I’m trying to find out when to drink, and decide that for this stage I’ll drink when my mouth dries, but be sure to take on about 500ml an hour.

Erg Chebbi dunes...soft, soft sand!
Erg Chebbi dunes…soft, soft sand!

Then we’re at the base of Erg Chebbi, a marker board shows the bearing 127 degrees we need to take. I look quickly at the compass on my watch and take a reference point on the horizon. As we hit the dunes there is a real scatter of people, all with their own strategies. I want to know I’m running down the right line and this seems to work for me. A journalists Land Cruiser is already on its belly pan with the wheels spinning, no more than 50m in to the soft sand. We climb, the sand just moves, no great foot placement. I tag onto the back of a smallish guy and try walking in his footsteps, this is no great improvement. I decide to just pump it out. I overtake and then find a big guy wearing Hoka’s. He is leaving quite firm footprints and though it doesn’t make it easy the going is far less energy consuming. In most places we’re down to single file, occasionally topping out on a dune there seems to be a firm crust and then walking on fresh, un marked sand definitely gives better, easier traction.

Crocodile file across the dunes
Crocodile file across the dunes

I glance at my watch, nearly an hour after the start and on the next slightly less steep descent of a dune and into a short valley I pop in 2 salt tablets. Because the heat is coming on and the low humidity I don’t feel wet from sweat, but I know that I have to keep my salt levels up to prevent cramps and dehydration. I’m about half way down my bottle with TORQ in it and feeling pretty good. On a big dune the view around is spectacular. Seeing Jebels in the distance and also the end of the dunes ahead lined by some greenery.

Some motorbikes and quads come through, roughly on our transit line. I geek out on Yamaha, KTM and Honda. Momentarily I’m jealous, really wanting to be riding, but then really aware of the noise that these 6 bikes are making, compared to 1000 odd runners. It’s hard to reconcile.

I come out of the dunes a little to the right of CP1, the sand ends abruptly and there is a hard crust. From what has been a walk/run through the dunes I turn towards the CP and jog it in. I finish the water left in my bottles, ready for taking on more.

First time across the timing mat, I’m alongside 2 other runners, there are three beeps, so we know we’re all crossed in. There are four Land Rovers with entrance barriers, with an overhead sign splitting the race numbers out. I file into the one for my number. The controlleurs are very friendly, using my name from my race number, punching my card and handing me my two bottles, again marked with my race number. Round the back of the Land Rover there is an awning, I duck under, out of the sun. Refill my bottles with water, and there is a bit left over. I split this, some for a quick drink and the rest over my head.

The plateau between CP1 and CP2
The plateau between CP1 and CP2

I head to the one tonne bag staked out after the bottle claim and dump my empty bottle. Then look over to the right, down an Oued and spot the first marker. I check my watch for time, this first CP has taken me a lot longer than I expected. But I mark the time, and try and work out what I should be drinking over the next 10km to the next CP. I’m carrying a bottle in one hand, and I quickly realise this is going to be a total pain. The going is suddenly harder, we’re back to soft sand, and my legs are struggling with energy. My right calf is feeling really tight, so I’m taking it easy, this is a long race! Right now I would like to be driving with both arms, but carrying the bottle means I spend a good few minutes running with only one are working, and then swapping the bottle over to the other hand. I gobble down an energy gel and some water and as it is three hours in snack on some salt tablets too. We pass a camel or two and a quad copter is flying around with a GoPro. Slowly the camel grass gives way to a stony plateau and on the horizon there is an old village M’Fiss, with some mines shortly after it. On the way through a rocky section I kick a large rock and connect quite solidly with the middle toe on my right foot. It’s a sharp pain, but it soon dies down. As we cross over the high point CP2 comes into view. I’ve been drinking well and taking my salt. I collect my water here. I pour the rest of the water I’ve carried from CP1 over my head. Annoyingly getting a lot of salty water on my sun glasses, this quickly dries with a big water mark.

I organise my stuff, 8.2km to go, but I’ve taken 4.5hrs to cover the 26km so far. In my head I had expected to have finished by now, but the conditions underfoot have definitely been much harder going than I expected too.

Even though its feeling hot now, without the humidity I’m able to jog a little more easily. The route takes us into the top of a stony Oued, and this slowly descends, winding back and forwards down the bed of an old river. Briefly I’m alongside Aled Davies. I’m immediately impressed at how fresh he smells. We chat briefly and then he runs on ahead. At the end of this Oued a new set of dunes appear Erg Znaïgui. There is a bearing on a marker board 134 degrees. Again I take a reference point on the horizon and start trying to pick a way through the really soft sand, but at least the dunes aren’t as high. It’s tough going though and I’m picking off people reasonably steadily. I know its only 3km to go, but I can’t even run down these dunes. I’m just bashing my way through them.

The final and hardest dunes with a view to the finish. I didn't much enjoy Erg Znaigui!
The final and hardest dunes with a view to the finish. I didn’t much enjoy Erg Znaigui!

Doc Trotters are on the top of one particularly soft climb, everyone is working hard here, and the Doc is encouraging everyone. I choose to contour left here, staying on the crest of a crescent shaped dune, I just can’t face descending and ascending again. With a slight rise at the end, I look at where my reference point should be, but my eye catches sight of the bivouac. This spurs me on and I start to run the descent back to the harder ground and a short run in. I “beep” over the line, just short of 6 hours.

Through the back of the finish line, there is a web cam, which I ignore, a small cup of sweet Morrocan  mint tea from Sultans and then through to the water tent to collect 4.5 litres of water. I remember to turn my GPS pod off on the way.

The bivouac is set up the same everyday so I wander over to the tent, with absolutely no idea as to who is in ahead of me. Seeing the Welsh Flag means that Phil is home, and as I turn under the material, Rachel, Linda and Artur are in too.

I don’t take too long in getting my sleep mat out, getting my gaiters, shoes and socks off and getting horizontal. Well, the main bit of my body horizontal but my legs elevated against one of the poles holding the tent up. Whilst in this position I get 750ml of water down and some TORQ recovery powder, cookies and cream is a nice flavour to end the day with. I have another 4 salt tablets just to be sure that my sodium levels stay where they need to be. Then I remember I have a Pepperami Wideboy to eat. The simplicity of this is lovely. The taste is just what I need. General chit chat goes on, lots of “much harder than I thought”, “weren’t those last dunettes tough” and a good bit of post stage analysis. My feet are in good shape. Only the old blister from my mountaineering boots suffered a couple of weeks before when marshalling for Ras yr Aran making anything like a blister look obvious. There seems to be some bruising where I kicked the rock but all in all, I’m pretty unscaithed, just a very light bit of chafing on my left thigh. My kit is in good shape, but I have an unusual shape on my gaiters. Where the Velcro is stitched into the base of the material there is a seam, stuffed full of sand, like a sausage round the whole bottom of the gaiter. While I’m lying down I check to see if there is an obvious way in for the sand. There’s not, I think the sand has been working its way in through the seam, and just being bashed up and down has stuffed a few grains in each time. A little bit of surgery with a knife around the back of the gaiter should work. I make a vertical slit, about a third of the width of the Velcro on either side of the vertical seam by the heel. Then holding the gaiter up drains the sand out.

As the afternoon wears on everyone makes it in, all in pretty good spirits. Dave has got pretty sore shoulders, and Artur has had a real problem with his gaiters.

Phil had finished in 5hrs14, Rachel in 5hrs35, Linda in 5hrs37, Artur in 5 hrs38, me in 5hrs57, Andrew in 6hrs30 and Dave in 8hrs02.

Marathon des Sables 2014 – End of Day 1 from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

I’m rapidly changing my expectations on an overall time. I know I can cover the same distance in the UK in around 3hrs30 without too much bother, I had thought I’d take around 4hrs30 in the conditions, but nothing could have prepared me for my first experience of ‘running’ this. Brutal is the only way to describe it. Though we all had our own three words to describe the first day.

I head over to the email tent and queue up. I’ve got 1000 characters in an email to get out. There are two keyboards, one English, one French. The rubber keyboards make it a slow process, but I want to get a message home to all those that have been supporting me.

Back to the tent and I get some water on to boil. I heat 600 ml of water, I need 450 ish for my meal, and then I’m going to top a bit of hot water off for a cup of lemon and ginger tea. The tin foil goes round the small stove, and with two fuel tabs the water is easily hot enough before the fuel tabs burn out. I pour enough hot water into my Sweet and Sour Chicken dehydrated Expedition Foods, seal the bag and wait the 5 minutes for dinner to “cook”. There is enough water left in my mug for a good size cup of tea, and I top this off with plenty of water.

The food goes down really well, I’ve eaten about 2600 kcals over the day from breakfast, and at a rough guess probably burnt around 5000 kcals.

Whilst we’re in the tent, Juliette comes round and hands out the first bunch of emails that have been sent. The tent falls quiet as we all take in the news from home. We all value this, and whilst some of it might not be important news, somehow being connected to home is really important. Smiles and tears are around and everyone has the space to feel what they need to before the chatter returns.

Linda stretching out Dave's poorly shoulders!
Linda stretching out Dave’s poorly shoulders!

Dave needs a bit of help with his shoulders and Linda puts her training into good effect, getting all sorts of ooh’s and arrrrrggghhh’s out of a couple of us.

Everything starts to quiet down around 8pm, though we’re all up and down going to water the desert.

Ignore the time on this recording of Day 1, Strava doesn’t seem to like GPS positions being logged every minute…the route is accurate though.