Derby Triathlon Club

Marathon des Sables by Mark Gardner

Marathon des Sables

Moroccan Sahara, April 2011

Mark Gardner

With a 3.5 year build up time there should have been no excuses for failing to be prepared.  That said, with temperatures reaching 55 degrees Celsius in the Sahara Desert there are some elements that even OCD-driven ultra runners cannot train for.  This is, after all, is the Marathon des Sables (MDS), affectionately known ‘in the industry’ as the ‘toughest footrace on earth’.

Not until we crossed the finish line did we ascertain that this was not only the longest MDS (157 miles), but the hottest, steepest and most unforgiving.  The sheer fact that the organisers broke tradition by switching the expected opening 20km first stage with a 33km affair (encompassing 13km of unimaginably high dunes) set the tone for the week’s endeavours.  20 people had fallen by the wayside after what I can only describe as a chilling reminder of how nasty the desert can be.

James Cracknell’s Discovery Channel feature on his MDS experience (aired a week before the event) gave us a refined indication of what to expect up close and personal.  Tips were gained and a quota of the best laid plans abandoned.  Yet, every snippet of advice from past runners, websites, forums and whispers offered a slightly different perspective on what you should pack.  It was time to thin-slice the chat and make the big calls on what to sling in the pack for the week. 

As a reminder for those who aren’t familiar with this Moroccan event, the MDS requires runners to be self-sufficient for all 7 days (plus two days’ build up in the desert) aside from water rations every 10km and at finish points.  With a minimum 6.5kg weight limit on day one, the challenge for each entrant is to pack lightly which is easier said than done when you have to squeeze in a week’s worth of food, cooking equipment, sleeping bag, mat and all things necessary to function to carry on your back over every grain of sand.  Oh, and as a gesture of goodwill we were given a 300g emergency flare and required to carry anti venom and survival kits ‘just in case’.  (All questions on necessity were dislodged upon discovery of a scorpion on day two that had made its bed in a fellow runner’s hat.  The phrase sleeping with one eye open was prevalent until fatigue overtook any worries of things that go nip in the night).

Packing became a mentally time-consuming science.  Usual marathon preparations include a warm bed, milk for porridge, personal space and time to chop and change your clothing, kit and all other essentials pre, during and post race.  Not here.  If it didn’t go in on day one, then you made do without.  Little did we know at the time the amount of horse trading that would take place inter-tent and inter-MDS community.  Never in a million years did I expect to see the whites of three grown men’s eyes as I uncovered a chorizo sausage for swaps on day 4!

So what’s the race all about?

 The race was split as follows:

 Day 1:  33km

Day 2:  38km

Day 3:  38km

Day 4:  82km

Day 5:  REST

Day 6:  42.25km

Day 7:  17.5km

Many people ask what we survived on during the week and whether the organisers fed us.  In short, no.  Self-sufficiency is self-sufficiency and it went on your back.  Thus, freeze-dried foods became de rigeur as we attempted to charm the pallet with a fusion of exotic blends such as veggie cottage pie, spag bol, pasta bakes as well as the crowd favourites such as porridge and dried fruit.  Thrice daily we’d brew up some H2O (daily allocation of around 8 litres to be used) and wolf down our scran, staring emptily at the packaging in disbelief as we weighed up our accumulating calorific deficit.  Burning over 6000 kcal per day with only 2000 kcal food allowance meant that everyone would return home a few bags of sugar lighter.

Training:
The training for this race was like nothing I'd attempted before; the idea being to get my body used to 'slow' steady, consistent effort, over a long period of time, without the fast aggressive sub-3 marathon interval-style triathlon training that I've been used to for the last five years.  In short, it was tough.  Mentally, that is.  For the opening few months I battled daily with the fast-twitch fibres’ picket-fence style striking as I shunned them completely for their lazier cousins.  Slow and steady with progressive weight and distance addition was the order of the day.  Balancing the fitness requirement with a young family and business to run was hard enough, but I was going through a complex house move (new build) that added unforeseen pressures to daily life, making training session exits out of the front door as popular as a fart in a space suit, to coin Billy Connolly’s famous gag.

I varied my weekly distance based on the preparatory build up races, which took in Ultra marathons as follows:

·         55 mile canal race from Northampton to Tring (scenery was sensational)

·         50k London Ultra

·         58 mile weekend Ultra (Cotgrave to Grantham and back)

·         2 x Yorkshire Moors sessions with heavy pack in the snow (30 miles each)

A bad week took in 30 miles, a good week 103, which should have been 100 exactly had I not sacrificed a 4th placed finish on the latter race by getting lost on a canal path (I know what you’re thinking).  Great to have Thomas Peoples join us that day for his first Ultra, taking a podium finish on his maiden outing.  Would have been nice to see him go with 8kg on his back, though J

Acclimatising in the Sahara before the event quickly impressed how unforgiving this place was going to be.  The heat wasn’t just oppressive, it was bordering on the ridiculous.  Any exposed skin would receive lashings of P20 and full head dresses would be donned to beat off the ball of fire above.  With temps averaging above 50 degrees Celsius we had to quickly find the routine that would provide a safe passage to the finish.

Hydration strategy became a fast track topic.  With no opportunity to practice in the British winter, the balance between Camelbak, holster bottle and two breast bottles (attached to pack) needed to happen swiftly in the opening leg.  I found that – through trial and error – I performed better with my High-5 (thanks Inna!) caffeinated tablets dissolved in 1 x litre of water coming through the Camelbak with hip bottle refreshing me with H20 intermittently.  Subject to the relevant stage we were given either 1.5 or 3 litres of water per checkpoint (usually the former).  Tactically, that meant finishing your bottles upon arrival, topping up, adding energy to bottles and using the precious last drops to cool off the sunhats.  Leaving water behind played on your mind but carrying the weight of water if unused would be counter-productive.  Plus, discarding your number-stamped allocated bottle in the Sahara would land you with an hour penalty; something none of us were prepared to concede on.

I opted to leave my heart rate monitor behind as I deemed it too fiddly and probably unnecessary.  I received a new Garmin 405 for my birthday, which proved a godsend in the opening few days as the performance data coming off the satellites accentuated the coaching facility that the brand offers.  However, with a battery life of only 8 hours when using GPS, charging up became a chore as solar amongst our tent didn’t cover our needs.

We’d start each day together at the same time, all 850 of us, to ACDC’s Highway to Hell!  The chopper would be racing overhead, capturing the action as part of a monstrous production campaign sponsored by French TV.  I need to pay tribute to the organisers at this stage in order to paint the right picture.  Whilst we were out to fend for ourselves, no stone was left unturned in providing a safe and secure event with all of the touches you’d expect from a race of such magnitude.  850 runners were supported by 400 staff, including some of France’s finest medics that queue patiently for years to take this opportunity of giving up personal time to practice at the event.  And they were certainly used.  During the 2010 edition an Irish guy in a neighbouring tent awoke in a Bordeaux hospital 7 days after the event having been found in hyponatraemic coma on a sand dune.  Doctors had treated him and subsequently medivac’d him out, believing he wouldn’t survive (death certificate drawn up but not signed) but he returned to tidy up some unfinished business.  Then there’s the lady in the tent behind that was, unbeknownst to her, bitten by a spider during a quick respite.  Game over for that year, but she came back to get her medal in 2011.  Again, doctors took care of her on the spot and got her back on track.

Day One

The hot pre-race topic centred round race ambitions.  Coy responses were echoing politician-style around camp with the number one cliché being “I just want to finish”.  Call me a cynic, but aside from the obvious candidates for this claim, people’s eyes told a different story, myself included.  I travelled with two close friends, Jarlath and Simon, whom I’d wanted to gun down purely on banter grounds.  In regular racing I aim to go top 5 or 10%, subject to the size of the field.  I made this my goal after day one’s session, which sat me 116th overall.  Additionally, I wanted to be in the top 10 Brits, which was a naive ambition on the basis that I knew nothing of the talent of my fellow islanders. 

In truth, I could scribe chapter and verse on each element of this fabulous event but I’ll attempt to thin the tale out on the basis that I can bore at least two or three of you in due course over a cold beer with finer detail.

The nights were cold and I quickly rued my poor choice of sleeping bag.  I went for weight over reputation and paid the price, bailed out only by my Rab fleece that I sensibly stuffed into my pack in presumption of pillow suitability.  In fact, I’m embarrassed to write that after spending the best part of £5,000 on the whole thing, I left my sleeping bag as the last item and shelled out a measly £15!  We slept on the desert floor each night with a raggedy ol’ rug underneath us and a berber ‘tent’ overhead supported only by wooden stakes.  Twas an interesting occasion when the first sand storm brewed up.... 

Day Two
Results were posted daily, gathering large audiences as folk jostled to gain analysis of their statistics.  To jump into the Top 10 I needed a strong result out of today’s session.  The course appeared to play to my strengths, with one stretch in particular looking reasonably flat for around 10km with little dunes in the opening section.  Bo*locks.  Dunes went on for 3km and an additional 2km of undulating sand mounds completed the 38km stage.  It was, however, reasonably decent running terrain in between and I found myself in the shadows of the women’s favourite and jostled along with her for most of the afternoon.  It was a good day, despite the sandstorm that engulfed us for a good two hours, and I crossed the line in 4h.35 to jump into 85th position overall and right on the money for the top 10%.  Stood as 11th highest Brit I knew there was a little more work needed here.

With zero comms in the Sahara we were lucky enough to have ‘mail’ delivered each evening.  Friends and family could email messages of support that were printed off and hand delivered.  This nightly ritual left us anxious to hear the news from back home, although there were a few holes in the fluidity of this operation.  I cannot describe the feeling of everyone else in the tent getting reams of paper when there’s nothing there with your name on it.  It turned out that a lot of people didn’t get all of their messages, which is a huge shame as they did wonders for the spirit.  Luckily, messages did come through intermittently for me over the next week, many commenting on the live pictures through the finish line’s webcam.

Day 3

Nasty, nasty, nasty.  Having pushed hard the prior day I started to feel the effects during the middle of today’s session.  I had started positively on rockier terrain and made my way to the quicker ‘pack’ before the dunes loomed ahead.  Compared to previous days, these weren’t high rolling, but smaller and undulating with alarming consistency.  They tempted you to bound across them, sapping thighs, calf muscles and exhausting you all round.  They stretched for as far as the eye could see...and beyond.  I ground it out, stopping at a checkpoint to wait for a friend who I knew was only 10 minutes behind.  I needed his motivation and banter as I became increasingly bored of Mr Negative that had jumped on my shoulder.  There was a lot of climbing involved in this event.  Mountains in the Atlas range that you had to stoop down and slog your way up.  Interjecting the final checkpoint and finish stage was a 200m ascent of a broken rocky range that involved boulder jumping and scrambling for 20 minutes.  Upon reaching the top we had a magnificent view...of more dunes.  A huge nosebleed followed, which worsened my mood considerably, and it seemed to be getting hotter by the minute.  I don’t remember much of the next hour but needless to say I crossed the line and had a few moments to myself.  People had good and bad days.  Those in my tent that struggled yesterday performed well today and were jubilant in comparison to my mood.  Little did I realise that I’d only dropped a single place and that overall finishing positions would seldom change from this point in.

Time to get back in the routine; recovery tights on, hand wash, protein shake, food, water, stretching, banter and hotfooting down to either the medi tent to sort feet or queuing at the tent to send our daily 1 x email allowance.  Such luxury.

 

Day 3 distance:                 38km

Time:                            5h 29m

Overall position:                 86th

Brit#:                            11th      

 

Day 4

AKA, the day everyone dreaded.  “Let’s just throw a double marathon in the mix”, said one crazy (drunken) Frenchman during the planning stages a few years back.  That’s probably not how the decision was taken but it might well have been.  82km in temps that peaked at either 55 or 57 degrees Celsius, subject to whom you spoke to.  In short, it was brutal, and I’m not going too far down memory lane as there were some very dark times, literally.  The course map highlighted dunes in abundance around 65% into the event.  A quick bit of math calculated that I needed to be surfacing from the sands before sunset as I didn’t want be amongst that lot with limited vision.  The top 50 runners faced a 3h delay to allow for a more exciting finish, the local Moroccan runners bounding past me with apparent ease as we tackled a tough uphill section before the dunes. 

That’s another thing.  Forget this vision of flat sand plains as all we seemed to bloody do was climb throughout the whole event!  We started a few thousand feet above sea level and goodness knows what we finished at but I don’t remember leaning back and flying down a slope during the entire event!

Thinking back as I write this, I can vividly remember stopping to walk for a few minutes and the heat being so intense that I had no choice but to run in order to generate the tiniest of breezes.  I craved shade (and pizza) but all I got was vitamin D hammering down at me.  High calorie nuts and High-5 were the plait d’jour, alongside a 450 calorie ‘Complan’ strawberry milkshake that I swear energised me in an instant.  I beat the sun out of the dunes, inserted glow stick in back pack (mandatory for the night stage) and relished the cool air as day turned to night.  5km of mud flats tempted you to kick on and within an hour I’d spotted the 10km laser that guided you home from the last checkpoint to Camp.  Vision was tricky with just a head torch.  Dunes reared their ugly heads, luckily camouflaged by night, with many a comedy tumble taking place. 

Then something strange happened.  Despite being exhausted, Mr Competitive came out as the Top 50 had caught up and were starting to pass.  I somehow concocted a goal to pass 20 people before the finish line, ambitious as I’d only seen 10 or so people in the last hour, but I set to it.  I decided to add a running commentary, mocking random foreigners as I left them in my wake.  10k pace turned to 5k pace as I hit the 18 and 19 mark and victim #20 lay ahead...and soon surpassed.  I hadn’t factored that someone would be on my tail for the last 3km, which turned out to be the leading female!  I was flying yet the finish line and laser did not seem to be getting closer.  My gap of 20 metres soon become 2-3 as I ran straight into what can only be described as a golf bunker, eating a mouthful of sand and caking myself in desert in the process. 

I crossed around 00:30h into a deserted campsite aside from those that had beat me back and since retired to their sleeping bags.  The routine was adapted although I couldn’t sleep through worry about my mates as Simon, a close friend of mine, had been particularly rough at an early stage and a rumour had reached me that he was in trouble.  Within two hours, however, most of the tent arrived home in various states of mortal combat.  We all helped each other out and eventually nodded off.

Day 4 distance:                 82km

Time:                            12h 22m

Overall position:                 84th

Brit#:                            8th        

 

Day 5

Rest day.  We woke, ate, slept some more, ate, repaired feet, slept, ate and nearly cried when the organisers delivered a can of Pepsi to every runner.  Words cannot describe the moment when one health conscious runner asked if they had a ‘Diet Coke’ instead. 

 

Day 6

Marathon day! 

By now the talking was done and people were focused on the finish.  The ‘biggie’ was out of the way and it was all downhill from here.  Today was uber hot and I ground out the 42km with stubbornness.  It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t pretty, but I got through it and held 8th placed Brit by just 2 seconds.  I made a monumental error when forgetting to add a caffeine tablet to my drink for the last 12km, kicking myself as I struggled to the finish line in the baking heat.  Still, on a brighter note I’d saved a veggie casserole as a bonus meal and kicked back with my broken spoon as the sun went down, chomping through my supper out of a sliced up water bottle.  Michelin dining at its best!

I’ll never be able to describe fully what happened next. We were called to a bank behind the camp at 6pm for a ‘surprise’.  Organisers had flown in the Paris National Opera to perform for us.  A very emotional experience fused with the innovativeness and tranquillity of this excellent touch.  Nobody said much as we retired for the night knowing that only 17.5km lay between us and an ice cold beer.

 

Day 6 distance:                 42.2km

Time:                            5h 11m

Overall position:                 84th

Brit#:                            8th        

 

Day 7

It’s an amazing feeling waking up knowing you’re only 11 miles from civilisation.  The morning packing ritual was replaced with stuffing only the essentials in the pack as soft and sweet smelling sheets awaited us this evening.  I took a long, hard look at the sleeping bag, drop kicking it as far as possible.  Local kids near the camp gleefully accepted the gift.  If these young lads knew how to operate eBay I guarantee it would be online by sunset.

Only a few minutes separated the top Moroccans as nerves gathered on the start line.  Ahead of this, the bottom 100 runners were released 1 hour early to allow for a ‘community’ finish.  What the organisers, media and locals hadn’t factored in was the slightly rotund Brit who found a turn of pace at long last to actually out run the Moroccans and turn the corner into the home straight before the big boys.  By all accounts faces turned white as the gentleman in question sprang through the tape, followed a few minutes later by a slightly bemused local athlete who wasn’t getting the full attention of the gathered ensemble.

My tactics were simple.  I popped two High-5 caffeinated tablets into my water bottles, started slowly and moved through the field to track the Brit whom I led by 2 seconds.  As it transpired, he turned out to be rather sharp on the flat and finished 1st Brit that afternoon, leaving me in his wake!  Crossing the line was sensational, culminating in a sprint finish with another Brit along the sole stretch of asphalt we’d encountered all week. 

Day 7 distance:                 17.5km

Time:                            1h 41m

Overall position:                 83rd

Brit#:                            9th

Total time:                       34h 11m              

 

So what happened next?  Despite all claims to drink Morocco dry, it was a rather sober affair.  The 4 hour journey back to the hotel preceded a shower and shave before swapping war stories with our new found friends over a cold beer and sumptuous buffet.  Stomachs had shrunken during the week, hindering our booze Britain style plans.  I managed two cold ones and a couple of plates of food before Blanket Bay lured me in.  It just didn’t feel right without my sleeping bag, though.

So what do I want to achieve from writing this?  Firstly, this serves as the perfect excuse for my recent inability to a) swim without wheezing and b) ride a bike like Stevie Wonder.  Hopefully you’ll now understand why I haven’t been getting much out of my membership and supporting the Club on a more frequent basis.  Secondly, and lastly, I would be over the moon if this inspired anyone to sign up for the event.  It is, by far, the most sensational event in so many ways and the rollercoaster ride through the Moroccan Sahara is one that’s only understood by getting over there and taking on the scorpions.  And you may need to put that extension on hold as well for a few years.

Mark Gardner

m.gardner@teamlink.co.uk

 Click here to read pre-race feature in the Derby Evening Telegraph

Click here to read my daily race diary in the Derby Evening Telegraph

 

Official Results

 

Last name 

GARDNER

First name 

Mark

Number 

742

General position 

83

Old 

33

Nationality 

GBR

Country of residence

GBR- GRANDE BRETAGNE

Gender

H

General

34H11'45

13H15'25

7.34

Etape 6

01H46'04

00H26'02

10.18

Etape 5

05H11'31

02H00'45

8.09

Etape 4

12H22'23

05H12'39

6.63

Etape 3

05H29'10

02H14'20

6.93

Etape 2

04H35'49

01H34'15

8.27

Etape 1

04H46'45

02H05'42

6.9

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