First Thoughts on Marathon des Sables 2014

Marathon des Sables 2014

I’ll be tapping away at the keyboard over the next little while – roadbook in one hand re-living and journalling what has been a sensational, personal and stunning trip. To get the small stories, the feelings and the successes written down might take some time. I need to reflect and understand all the smaller bits, but I wanted to get down something more immediate.

Marathon des Sables 2014 took two years coming, and blew my socks off.

And though it was the death of a friend that put me on the start line, I have taken so much more from the race than I could ever have anticipated.

MdS 2014 stage 1
MdS 2014 stage 1

The Sahara is simply stunning, it wasn’t my first time, but to travel on foot through this environment was new to me. As a journey, it is so pure I find it hard to never think of doing it again even whilst skin is raw and the body recovering.

Whilst there are minor parts of the experience that are quickly forgotten – queues, THAT music and the various aches, the memories are already transcending those small irritations. What I am left feeling at the moment is a sense of awe. Not in the every day awesome sense, but in the old fashioned way.

The logistics of running this event are impressive, the location and environment even more so. But, the people, all the people, with their own reasons and their own driven ambition make the event something else entirely. From the event team, bright and cheerful Commissaires, checkpoint Controlleurs, tireless Doc Trotters, the morning Berbers, photographers, pilots, film crews and of course the inimitable Patrick Bauer, there is nothing but enthusiasm.

The approachable nature of some of the best Athletes in the world mixed in with ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing is a heady cocktail.

The emotions were stretched, magnified and refined. Then thrown or blasted back at us all. A genuine unity between all those who toed the line on Day 1. A shared sense of gratitude as each runner made it into bivouac each night, and finally across the line. For those that trained and sacrificed but didn’t make it there is a collective, genuine regret. Some suffered more than others, and experiences will be remembered forever. The lessons handed out in five stages or less can be brutal and defeating, but there are positive things for us all to learn.

The simplicity, human body against a harsh desert, the gratitude for a simple can of Coke, the night sky, the open places and the people have left me humbled. An immediate legacy is gratitude for things that I had perhaps grown complacent of, and a greater value put on smaller things.

And finally, whilst all the above are beyond normal, I can’t ignore tent 96. We laughed, hurt and lived together through an amazing event. We all made it in our different ways. You’re all a very special part of the journey – Thank You.

Tent number 96 toeing the line before the first day.
Tent number 96 toeing the line before the first day.

Success :-)

Hello hello! DONE IT. Got the medal after another really tough day. Turns out a full marathon after 200km in 5 days before is really hard on your body…Got it done though, no special time, don’t know my classification yet. But whilst I want to know, it doesn’t matter as much as getting it done. There should be webcam of me crossing the line with the Ddraig Goch. I’ve just had an hour and a quarter with Doc Trotters sorting my feet out (ish) for tomorrows 7.7km amble. We’re taking it real slow. Then a 4 hour bus journey… to a shower, and shave, and something to drink that isn’t tepid water… I want Fanta, cold Fanta. Thank you to everyone who has supported me along the way and sent messages. We’re all really amazed and emotional about how many people this race touches. I’ll write more about it all next week – need food!

Love Ash xx

Long day done! Ash’s fourth day report…

Hi, hope all is good with you. Long day done. It was epic. I rolled my ankle at CP2, so have a very sore walk this morning after 60km on it. It also means I have a lot of blisters. I didn’t manage to finish the same day, but it was close!  Amazing seeing top UK runner, Danny Kendal, fly by between CP3&4. Bivouac today is full of walking wounded, people still coming in until 7pm tonight. More people retired on the first two days than in most years. We’re all hoping everyone comes in. All my tent mates made it in. Just one more racing day – the marathon stage, then the charity day. I think its going to be tough with my aches and pains. I’m off to Doc Trotters tonight to have an abscess in my thigh drained and packed and my ankle strapped. Amazing service. Today is all about recovery, tomorrow is about finishing and getting our medals. The final stage isn’t timed so we’ll walk it as a tent, Ddraig Goch will be flying both tomorrow and Saturday. Looking forward to some cold welsh water! Love, Ash.

Day 3 – Report from Ash

Hi, today started well, a really nice run into some dunettes. First reasonable running so far. A fantastic 300m climb up rock was stunning. Felt pretty good until cp2 then my wheels came off big time. A big dried lake. Really really hot – 52c. I couldn’t find a rhythm even though everything should have been easy. I struggled to get food in for an hour and a half and really felt it. Walked to the finish and have planned to walk the big day tomorrow….80km is going to be about managing my body. I think 20hrs would be a real achievement, so finishing about 3am. No emails tomorrow. Had a toenail drilled this evening – iodine burns under the nail bed. Going to have double the calories tonight and try to enjoy tomorrow. The rest of the tent are doing well. Tent #96 is still all intact though Artur’s feet are mashed. Phil is about 120th, Dave is coming in strongly and Andrew is flying round. Linda and Rachel are doing really well, though Rachel suffered nosebleeds today. Hope all are well Love, Ash

Ash’s report – Day 2

Second message from Ash below – please do write to him at – his number is 542 and I know he’ll appreciate each and every email. Thanks, Michaela


Hiya, recovered well overnight – yummy sweet and sour chicken last night. After that I got my emails.. thank you Ciara, Nigel, Gaye and Debbie. A great pick me up. I didn’t sleep too well, one tent mate was up sewing until 2am and with yesterday being the hardest first day ever there was a lot of commotion in the bivouac. Today was hot again but a wind that helped cool water poured over my head. I found a better way to carry 3l of water so that worked better. I struggled with food today so was pretty beaten for the last couple of hours. Got in and ate recovery powder and legs up for golden hour. Feel better now. First trip to Doc Trotters today. I kicked a stone yesterday and had a blood blister right under a toenail. I’ll lose the nail, it’s been drained and the iodine is making it throb right now. Tomorrow is going to be hard with lots of soft sand. We’re all holding back for the “big one”. All in all feeling pretty good at the moment, just worried about nutrition for 80km. Love, A xx

Ash’s first day – progress report

Hi, Michaela here relaying Ash’s progress report from the first day of his Marathon des Sable. Be aware that he is only allowed to send one email a day, and that email has a 1000 character limit! He is however allowed to receive emails via the official MdS website, and I’m sure he’d appreciate your encouragement, so please feel free to write to him.


Yesterday technical checks all good. 6 tent mates so a bit of extra space. Today very hard 18km in Morocco biggest dunes and very hot. A few aches and pains, and the running was very tiring. Will see how I recover overnight. No serious blisters yet at all. Felt today that I should stop chasing a time/position. It really was a tough 33km took just under 6 hours and I was hoping for 4.5ish. But we’re all in the same conditions. Tomorrow is 1km short of a full marathon, but the road book shows less big dunes. One foot in front of the other! Amazing organisation – the logistics are immense. Just love being back in the Sahara, motorbikes and camels today, but lots of amazing views all round, even took pictures whilst shuffling along, nice way to get the heart rate down in the heat. Didn’t run out of water today, but tomorrow will be much tighter. It’s 1700 now and time to get some dehydrated food down me, some stretches and some sleep. Onward! Love Ash. xx

Write to me in the desert

When I’m out in Morocco, ironically people with access to the internet will know more about the race than I do. With the technology providing rankings and video footage very day, I’m looking forward to being in a bubble.

That said, it would be nice to get some uplifting emails. Every now and then, whilst we’re in bivouac we will get handed some emails. Previous competitors tell me that this quiet time can be quite uplifting.

So jokes gratefully received!

I’ll be able to send one email a day – if I can stand waiting to get to a computer. I’ll be sending this home and then hopefully it’ll get posted on here and then out to Facebook and Twitter.

Otherwise, I’ll be in the desert bubble…and if anyone takes a mobile, I might accidentally step on it… joke.

The details I’ve been sent by the organisers for sending an email are beneath. The details needed are Charlwood, Ashley 542.


Go to the website and follow the instructions. 

section “write to competitors”

After 11 april, this email service will no longer be operational.

Only messages with surname, first name and race ID number will be transferred.

Do not send attachments (e.g. photos). This will cancel the message. Messages will be given to competitors on the bivouac every day. Note: AOI cannot transfer messages posted on Facebook, Twitter,… .

What does the race look like this year?

There is a great preview of the race on the website run by Ian Corless.

Whilst I’m interested to read about the other competitors the bit I need, for preparing mentally is the bit beneath. On Friday evening we will get our “roadbook” which has all the descriptions of the stages, navigation advice and general features to look for on the journey.

This is the first glimpse of how the stages will look.

Leg No.1 – Sunday 6 April

We get straight to the point and attack hard with a good fifteen kilometers or so of dunes in total on this first leg. Our imagination transports us into the shoes of British explorer, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, or to the very core of superb cinema, which were a wonder to us all!

Leg No.2 – Monday 7 April

This is coloured by fields of dunettes on the mountainside and a vast reg plateau, where the marathon runners will be able to really show what they’re made of at over 16km/hr. An abandoned adobe village, a dried-up lake crossing, a small erg with some beautiful dunes, an extensive plateau of black rock, the negotiation of a remote village and a djebel climb will make up the varied menu of this long second leg, where managing ones effort will take on its full meaning.

Leg No.3 – Tuesday 8 April

After 8km of running on fair terrain, the sand will put in an appearance again prior to a djebel ascent where a fabulous erg can be perceived at the bottom of the valley. There the runners will again negotiate some high dunes to make CP2, from where they will discover an ancient town, in ruins and perched on a hill, before making the night’s bivouac.

Leg No.4 (referred to as the long leg or the 80) – Wednesday 9 / Thursday 10 April

An ultra flat plateau running along a series of dunettes will form today’s backdrop before the runners traverse a wadi and hopefully get a bird’s eye view of the desert from up high after a tough little climb of around thirty-minutes. The landscape is truly breathtaking! Once you make it to the valley, you can make out a fabulous little erg followed by vast plateaus and a succession of djebels. The images here are strikingly beautiful and herald the discovery of an impressive sandy valley. Here, a laser beam will guide runners surprised by the cover of darkness. Participants will then link onto terrain dotted with crevasses before traversing a long, winding, sandy wadi and finally the bivouac. It will be important to follow the markers!

Leg No.5 (Marathon leg) – Friday 11 April

A long plateau of black reg will lead the runners into the ‘Out of Africa’ valley before they link onto a mountainous path, which will guide them to the bottom of a deep wadi. It’s a place where a number of villagers have taken up residence along this dried up river in which the palm trees are kings and agriculture is the only resource. A vast plateau peppered with dunes and dunettes will lead the competitor to the bivouac in this final timed leg.

Leg No.6 (the solidarity leg) – Saturday 12 April

As they make for the small village that will play host to the final finish destination, the competitors, sponsors and families that form the caravan will be able to appreciate the beauty and softness of the landscape in the ambience of closeness and sharing that is synonymous with this UNICEF leg (which supports projects benefiting disadvantaged children). For the majority of participants, this walk gives them time to reflect on this beautiful human adventure and collectively realize their accomplishments before getting back to civilization.

A week to go – a pain in the bum

Look, Sun!
Look, Sun!

7 days to go – right now I should be in peak physical condition. Instead I’ve got a streaming cold and a pain in my bum. 

The cold will take its course – I can believe that will go.

The pain in my bum, well it’s sciatic pain – wickedly good when I cough or sneeze. I’m sure it’s because I haven’t taken care of stretching my glutes, so some foam rollering and some glutes stretches are order of the day.

The major downside of the cold is that I’m missing out on sessions in the sauna – really important for getting my body ready for the higher temperatures in the desert. 

All in all not ideal, but I still know I can complete the distance, I might just have to take it a bit easier than I hoped.

Otherwise things are coming together.

Layout of most of the kit
Layout of most of the kit

I’m pretty organised with my kit, a few bits to finally sort out – needle and thread, some Pepperami wideboys that sort of thing. In general though I’m pretty happy. My total kit without water is going to come in around 7.5-8kg on the start line. Which is about where I wanted to be. Much closer on the weight limit of 6.5kg would mean I’d be calorie light – so this is a good compromise.

ECG heart trace
ECG heart trace

I got my medical certificate signed off. Due to the nature of the race an ECG is needed as well as a general check over from the GP. Despite it showing up some abnormalities my doctor was happy enough to sign me off as ok to go. The unusual trace shows Sinus brachycardia compatible with a bundle branch block, left ventricular hypertrophy with wide QRS and an insignificant Q wave in high lateral. Basically, compared to the normal person, I have a big, slow heart – quite common with people who exercise. Makes sense, running needs a big pump.

Dune training and kit testing
Dune training and kit testing

I also managed to get a short test in with my gaiters and shoes on some lovely, hard dunes. Really not looking forward to day 1 of the event…there seems to be a lot of dune work to come! 

What a week!!

Damaged beyond repair - my nicely bedded in shoes for MdS 2014
Damaged beyond repair – my nicely bedded in shoes for MdS 2014

Monday started with a “mayday” call to Martin Like of Likeys. Having decided that a local cobbler was the right way forward for attaching my sand gaiters to my trainers – the results were less effective than expected. There are a couple of slices right through my shoes now, big enough to get my finger through, so sand might be a little more successful getting in than I hoped .

Having bedded these shoes in, I was very confident that, as long as I could keep the sand out, these shoes would be my best bet for avoiding large blisters – which though pretty much inevitable I was hoping to minimise. Martin is a veteran of a huge number of Ultra, multi-day stage races, and his advice was well received. I’m going to do my own gaiters this time, and have managed to run my new shoes in this week too.

ECG done this week too; this means I have two bald patches on my hairy chest. My daughter thought I should shave the rest off – and a few other suggestions of waxing from various people. I had thought this would be another way to raise some money, but a few people have let me know that the ingrowing hairs I would suffer would be painful. On top of running in a hot desert, a pus filled chest is not another thing I need to add!

Crocus - looking lovely
Crocus – looking lovely

It comes from golf, but I like the quote, and so tried to put it into practise this week – “As you walk down the fairway of life you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round.”
– Ben Hogan. Every shot in golf is separate, and smelling the roses is about separating each shot you play, so that every one is as good as you can make it. I’ll be trying to do the same in the desert – one good minute doesn’t mean that the next one will be the same – but enjoy it while you can. Not quite roses, but the crocuses were looking brilliant this week.

Despite being successful in getting through the application process to the selection process for being an ashmei ambassador, I couldn’t make it to Hertfordshire this weekend for the workshops and final selection. I wasn’t alone in this, ashmei offered us the chance to make a 60 second video to capture our achievements and goals – there was a suggestion it could be fitted into a 15 second Instagram clip; I have no clue as to how I could have done that!

I received some absolutely amazing donations this week – from all round the world, the US doing particularly well in the donation league tables. But Wales also doing fantastically with some very special donations from Pete’s family and Meirionnydd Running Club . Just Giving is creeping the way it needs to – up!

And finally, with the weather picking up, it was an absolute pleasure to get some miles into my new trainers and to do my final, long run before heading out to the desert. A beautiful run on some new tracks to new places, joining the dots in different ways. Life is good when plodding away through the hills around home.

I’m hoping the coming week is a little less fraught, though with a four year old in the first day of chicken pox, I suspect I’ll need to smell some more flowers!