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Thursday
Jul092009

Marathon Des Sables - Moan moan moan cough moan moan cough camel moan water cough moan cough cough splutter cough moan

I'll start from the beginning of the running bit, which represents a small proportion of the whole MDS experience. I'll return to the other bits during the course of the report. 

Day 1 - Dunes Day 34k

We arrived at the start by coach, which is unusual as normally we would have camped the night before at the start. This was not going to be a normal MDS year. The flooding had cancelled the first day and was hanging over the rest of the race. We were all just relieved to get to the stage where we could actually start running.

Some way into the sand dunes, everyones enthusiasm for running had diminished

Day 1 was meant to be day 2, the dunes day. This involves at least 17k of running/hiking through sand dunes and about the same distance over tracks. The dunes day is probably the second most feared of the MDS stages (after the long day) at it is over the hardest terrain and tests ones ability to keep sand out of their shoes. The fact that we were starting with this without the 20 mile “warm-up” the day before didn’t really faze anyone, we were just so relieved to be able to start running.

The coach did not take long to arrive at the start point. We were all pushing our heads against the windows of the coach to try and see the dunes that we will be crawling over in a few hours. Finally they came, from a distance they looked quite intimidating. They were bigger than any I had seen before (in Wales) and were much more golden than I imagined.

The start line was farcical. Patrick Bauer and a bad translator bumbled through the course changes which involved very precise bearing measurments (most runners did not have a pen) and the helicopter roared above us and drowned out the sound. I thought this helicopter was here for saftey reasons, it's presence was actually stopping us being able to hear whatever the race director was saying. I wasn’t planning on winning, so I’d have to rely on following everyone else.

After too much pomp and ceremony the race finally started, 2 years and 3 weeks since I signed up for it. A horn went and we all staggered forward over a rocky path towards the big dunes that we’d been looking at for hours.

Waiting for the French to show up

I find the starts of multi-day races very amusing. We are all running with backpacks, frontpacks, things strapped to our arms, legs, shoulders and waists. Everyone is wearing varying levels of clothing and tubing that could mistake the scene for a school play about robots were the kids have made the costume. One of the most important “rules” for multi-day racing is to test all of your kit lots and lots before you actually use it in the race. No one ever does.

The first few miles are a melee of people dropping bottles, adjusting straps and rearranging stuff in their bags. I quickly discarded my front pack as it bounced around and had to carry my water bottles in my hands as they kept hitting me in the face. I didn’t really have a sense of the direction I was running as there were too many people around.

The first 3k was along a rocky track. Much of the terrain is the same, flat dirt tracks with little rocks strewn all over the place. It’s a bit like running through Shepherds Bush only instead of rocks it’s broken bottles and litter. It was fairly easy to run on now but once it becomes harder to lift your legs these rocks become really painful.

We then hit the sand dunes, everyone was really enthusiastic and still running up and down quite difficult inclines. I think the rain over the previous days had made it a bit easier, steps would form in them where others had placed their feet and it was like running up stairs. There were cameramen everywhere and often you’d almost run into them, they didn’t make any effort to get out of the way.

I worried before this race that the dunes would be impenetrable. I had a vision that I’d try to get up them and just sink, however they were much easier than I imagined. They were still tough and some of the downs were very steep. This is where everyone’s gaiters get tested.

The gaiters are probably the most thought about piece of kit for any MDS runner. The measures taken to avoid getting sand in your shoes is the most thought about thing in the whole race. I’d super-glued silk ones on and added a huge amount of gaffer tape. I’m not sure how well they were working, it is something you never know until the end of the day. Every time I ran down a sand dune I’d feel sand hit the backs of my legs and slide down, I had no idea whether it was getting in. I’ll just have to wait.

The sand dunes came to an end and we hit the first checkpoint. At each checkpoint you are required to run through the timing sensor and have your card stamped for bottles of water. Normally 2 were on offer but most were just taking one, it wasn’t too hot at that stage. The route then took us onto a fairly uninspiring long straight track. Time to pick up the pace, or so I thought.

The temperature picked up a bit and I’d describe it as an uncomfortably warm British summers day. I was told that bone dry heat is not too hard to run it and that humidity would not be a problem. The first rain in the MDS for 15 years however made humidity a problem and I suffered.

The track was flat and not too rocky, there was no reason why I shouldn’t run the lot of it and run it well. As soon as I started running at any kind of pace I was stopped by coughing. I had hoped that some dry air would clear my cough (there was no medical basis of this hope). The moisture and the sand just made everything worse.

I’d run-walk-run-walk for about a minute at a time but the length of time I could run got smaller and smaller. I eventually gave up and started to walk the whole time. This was incredibly frustrating, not just for the day in question but for the rest of the week. I was still kidding myself into thinking the cough would go away, if only it got hotter. I had written off today and was ready to go for it the next day.

Having no expectation of finishing well I thought it would be a good opportunity to take pictures and admire the scenery. I don’t normally get the chance to do this as I’m looking at the floor trying not to trip over. I had spent the last few months mocking the majority of people who do this for approaching it as a trekking holiday. This was now the only way I could do this race. At least there was something to look at on this day.

I plodded over the line in about 5 hours, I didn’t really enjoy it because I don’t like walking. I later joined another queue for the doctors and told them about my cough and asked for some codeine. They informed me that by taking it I’d then fail any dope tests and would be eliminated from the race. Looks like I was in for another few days coughing to get the medal for this.

The coughing seemed to get worse once I stopped. There were so many frustrating things about this event, my own condition being only one of them. Because the route had completely changed we had no idea what was coming up tomorrow, if anything. Whereas normally everything is decided long in advanced and we know what is coming up, this time we had no idea. Rumours would be rife, my favourite was that they were going to make each day longer to make up for the lost miles on the first day. Another was that the race was going to keep the same distance each day, another was that the race had just ended. I started to think about the last one and wish that was true.

a rare shot of me running

Message after day 1

"Marathon Des Aster - bet simon already had that pun. I'm feeling pretty low now. just walked 33k in 5 hours and feel like ive been hit by a train. my throat infection got worse and the humid sand dunes nearly finished me. The doc said te only thing he can give me would break the doping rules.
I cn't run without coughing and wheezing, i had 2 coughing fits in the run and get them every nighr. i hope it gets better but probbaly wont. the long day could be very long. On the positive side i get to take lots of pretty pictures and wathc the wildlife, bugs and ants mainly.
I had high hopes for this race but now i just need to finish. its going to be a long week. Badger seems to be enjoying it though.
you may have heard the 1st day was canned cos of floods. this was the dunes day and wasn't too hard terrain wise. Id have liked to have run a bit of it.
Anyhoo, ill stop moaning now and try to barter for some codene, which is illegal but im not that bothered.
hope you have a better week than im going to have".

The Flood

The heat hit me as soon as I got off the plane. We spent a while in a queue to passport control and I could feel the sun slowly cooking me. I wasn't suprised by this, someone did mention that the desert can be quite hot. It was around mid day and I was looking forward to running in this heat. We stayed in a 5 star hotel for about half a day and then set out in the morning for a 5 hour transfer to the point in the desert where we were to start the race. On the way there it started to rain very heavily. I thought 2 things, one was that this obviously happens all the time in the desert and the sunshine will get rid of the water and secondly that this is a very local and short lived rain storm and once we got into the desert proper we would be in the baking bone dry sunshine. I was wrong on all counts.

The rain continued for hours and hours, the coach journey took 8 hours and none of us could believe what we were seeing. The coach would stop for the occasional toilet break and the wind and rain would make this very hard. Finally as night was falling we arrived at the point in the road where we were transfered to army trucks and sent bouncing over the rocks of the desert, still pouring it down. After about 20 minutes of spine shattering driving we arrived at the first camp and did not quite know what to think of it.

There were 100 soggy tents in various states of collapse. We were told just to find anywhere that was dry and sleep there rather than being assigned a tent. The floor of the desert is not good for drainage and all of the water that had fallen was still sat on top of the surface. Each bivouac only had dry space for 1 person and even that was shrinking. We all scrambled to find somewhere where we could put our stuff and for it not to get wet. This was difficult because the water was still moving in. Some started to dig moats around their sleeping areas. Only half of the Brits made it to the camp that night, half were stopped by flooded roads and the other nationalities didn't even set out.

I was bracing myself for a night where I'd probably wake up soaking and have my kit ruined before I'd even start. We all went to the food tent to have our pre-race rations of bread and pickled cabbage and then stood around in the soaked sand and laughed at the whole predicament. Then a word got around that we were being taken out of there to a hotel not too far away. This was a relief to some but a disappointment to others. I wouldn't have minded staying, it would have added to the "challenge" of this race.

The flooded Bivouacs. We struggled to find a spot that wasn't wet

The next few days in the hotel were really frustrating. We'd wake up each day and not know whether there was a race to run. We were told that the organisers were plotting another course but could not guarantee that there will be one. The most frustrating bit was not knowing. There was the realistic expectation that there would be no race.

Day 2 – 36k

We were told in the morning that we were going to run a 36k loop along trails. Though I wasn’t feeling any better I still hoped for a good day. Alas it was not to be. Day 2 went exactly the same as day 1 minus the sand dunes. Read that again if you want.

Message after day 2

"This is no fun. today went pretty much like yesterday, i ran for a bit, coughed then walked for hours. Its really frustrating. stage 3 was a loop of about 36k back to where we started. they are having to put the course together day by day. tomorrow is the long stage which should be 80k but i can't see that happening.
If it did happen I'm going to take a long time. Legs are a bit sore now from all the walking though the terrain is not that bad. 60% is trails like you get in lanza/watford. there are quite a few dunes. The desert all looks the same after a whil, maybe cos we are staying in the same place. maybe we'll go to a running track in marakesh and do 200 laps tomorrow?
Anyhoo, still hoping i can run tomorrow for a bit at least. might trade some antibiotics for a spag bol later. Its quite warm but no where near as hot as it should be.
Have a pint for me in the wargrave tomorrow for me serpies, I'll probably still be walking in the dark.
Not dead yet."

STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE MDS PART 1 - TRAINING

I constantly got asked (and still do now) "How do you train for something like that?" My response was that I run marathons and ultras most weekend and had already done something similar but harder than this. I also would get asked about the heat and I said I was planning on running for a week in Lanzarote with jumpers on and all the kit to try and simulate the heat. It pissed it down all week in Lanza, I can't decide whether that was a week well spent or not.

When you sign up to the MDS your name and email address will be sold to a multitude of unscrupulous companies who try to extort money from you by playing on your fear of the heat. I got dozens of emails about running in oxygen deprived chambers, saunas and all sorts of aclimatisation things. These are very expensive and unessessary. Though I didn't experience the heat in all it's glory I never met anyone, vet or otherwise who said these things were worthwhile (unless of course they had a vested interest).

This race is not nearly as hard as is made ou by the organisers or the press generally. Most people finish. Though I can't comment on how to run a great race I did feel that I was more prepared that most for this. Many of the other competitors had barely runa marathon before. For me this this sums up up this whole event. The majority of the people here are not those who love running and want to take that to another level by takling something really tough like a 150 mile run through the desert. Instead most of the people are here to get a medal and then go back home to say "Look what I did" and probably never run again. It's a shame.

Despite feeling better prepared than most (though much more poorly) I would in retrospect have gone about the training in a different way. Something like this;

18-12 months to go - Start practicing your queueing techniques. In total I spent 24 hours in a queue in the 9 days of this event. 1 hour at Gatwick,2 hours at quazzazatte while the officers got confused by passports, 1 hour for hotel check in 1 hour waiting for idiots who were late for the coach, 1 hour again queuing for second hotel, 2 hours queuing for kit checks, 6 hours locked in a courtyard in a hotel while everyone else registers (all nationalities) because New Balance insisted everyone was there to hear Patrick Bauer announce the race was on (something we already knew) just so the DVD can show us all cheering, 1 hour waiting for the coach to get out of there, 30 mins each day queueing for water at the start of the day, 30 mins each day delayed start while the french turned up later and Patrick and his bad translator spoke for ages telling us nothing, 3 hours on the last day waiting for the coach to take us out (The brits are first in, last out), 2 hours at airport. I make that 24.

I would suggest buying lots of things from the Post Office, on Thursday morning in a run down area so that you are in amongst all the Giro crowd. This is all about time on your feet and the mental preparation of standing around.

Scary Rain Clouds

12-6 months to go - Develop Queue manovering skills and introduce static standing. In the race to minimise time on your feet you will need to develop some queue pushing in skills that the French competitors seem to have a natural born talent for. It does not help to be British when you are in a queue in the desert. Go to crowded bars with obnoxious arseholes (Anywhere in the City, Camden, Soho or Shorditch should suffice) and try and get served. Try and distance yourself from any thoughts of empathy for the others around you, they'll do the same to you. If you manage to get drunk you are doing fine.

The standing is key here. Each day you are tormented by a comedy double act of Patrick Bauer (race organiser) and a really bad translater as they read out the list of those who have dropped out, tell you (incorrectly) how much water is at each stop, point out (vaguely) if there are any deviations from the road book and remind you to keep your running number in full view. It is quite difficult to keep the number in full view on the raidlight packs. It is quite easy to keep it in full view on the New Balance packs. Hmmmmm.

I would suggest attending any local Punch and Judy events or other childrens shows which involve standing up, craning your neck and trying to comprehend mindless drivel. I hear the Chuckle Brothers are doing a world tour next year.

6-3 months to go - Doing it in the heat, with back pack and introduce form filling. By now you should be able to queue for 2 hours comfortably and your head should have similar rotational abilities to an owl. Now is the time to step it up and do the same things in heat and with the kit on. Perhaps take a rucksack onto a tube train in rush hour and crane your neck a lot. You may get hauled up by the British Transport Police for this and may have difficulty explaining all the vasaline and freeze dried food in your bag.

To do this race you will be required to fill in a lot of forms. Mediacal, Admin, Security, Media, Insurance, Passport Control etc etc. If it's been a long time since you were in school then this wrist breaking activity may seem a bit daunting. Don't panic though, there are plenty of ways of exercising your wrist. Try signing up to market research panels where they send you stuff to fill in each month about your attitudes to baked beans or your preferences for types of tree in some park you never go to. Alternatively do what I did and sit some marketing exams. Not only do you get some intensive 3 hour sessions of hand writing but you also get valuable practice in reading and writing absolute drivel. Plus you get some funky letters to add to your name. I'm now James Adams B(Econ)Sc, MSc, CIM, Dip Digm, MRS Cert. My business cards are on sheets of A3.

Now is also the time to cut down on your alcohol intake and general frivolous spending, not because it will help you in the race but because you will soon be billed for £1500 to pay for half of the race.

3 Months to go - Do some running (optional). Most people don't bother with this bit but are still fine.

Stuff you should know about the MDS part 2 - Equipment and food.

I discovered 2 universal truths about this when I got out there in the desert, both were given to me before I went out there but I disregarded them anyway and went ahead. The first one is that everyone takes too much food. The second is that no one has ever figured out how to drink through those bottles with the straws sticking out of the top.

My pack weighed about 9kg, this was on the light side especially for a Brit. The lower limit is 6.5 kg and some of the elites were bang on that. Mohammed Ansul had a pack that was even less and had to add a couple of cans of red bull to get the weight up. All of his compusary equipment fit into a tiny pot and his food was all crushed up nuts.

My food consisted mainly of nuts, bombay mix, some sweets and expedition meals. The expedition meals are suprisingly calorific, each with 800 cals and weighing only 130g. I also took Beef Jerky, energy drink sachets(which don't count as calories in the registration process) and some Kendal Mint cake but the latter was dumped on the second day as it was too heavy. During the course of the week people will be ditching food. Burning 5000 calories a day you are only required to take 2000 per day. This is enough, you may as well accept that you'll be burning off fat.

My Kit

I used a raidlight 30L rucksac with a frontpack. This is what 90% of Brits use and it does the job ok. The front pack takes practice, especially when it's full. I got rid of mine near the start of the race because it kept bouncing up and down. I also used the bottle holsters and those bottles with the straws sticking out of them. I didn't even take them out of their packaging till I got out there. I asked others who I was sharing a room with how exactly you are supposed to drink out of them but no one could. In the end I just cut off most of the straw and used them as normal bottles, having to take the lids off whenever I'd drink. I was tempted to take a bladder with me but worries about what I'd to in the case that it broke.

I decided not to take a sleeping mat with me and only took a very light sleeping bag. I'm still not sure as to whether this was a good idea. The bivouacs are laid on the desert floor with no clearing for rocks and stuff. You will bascially sleep on a blanket laid over loose rocks. With only 1cm of soft material seperating you from rocks it can be very uncomfortable. I struggled to sleep anyway because of the cough, I imagined that I'd be able to sleep on anything after the days exertions.

One piece of equipment I would recommend would be the all in one tyvek suit. You look like an idiot when wearing it at home but lots of people out there wear it. I found it was really good at keeping the sun off me in the day and was a useful extra layer in the night. It gets quite cold in the desert at night. I took a 7 degree sleeping bag which was fine with the suit.

Day 3 – The “Long” Day – April fools day.

There were rumours going around the British camp that the French organisers like to play tricks on us on April Fools Day. Practical jokes such as pissing in the water or moving direction signs were the most common rumours. I was already convinced that this whole week was a joke and wasn’t really worried.

This is the day (or 2 days) that most of the entrants fear. Few people run this far at all let alone in the middle of a week of hard running. There is a 36 hour cut off for covering about 50 miles. It seems like crawling but so many fear it.

The night before we were told by our concierge to expect a run of “between 70 and 80k”. I had doubts they could do a long day as the weather was still unpredictable. Later on at night we were told that the actual distance was going to be 91k. This was the longest the MDS have ever done.Despite still being ill I was looking forward to this. This was going to be the bit I enjoyed more than the other stages.

It started really well. I had started near the back this time but was making good progress at getting though the field. For the first time since I’d been here I felt like I was running through a desert. There was still some residue from the rain but the whole run was punctuated with things to see rather than a track against what could have been a TV studio backdrop.

Start of a sand storm

I was determined to keep running for longer today as I wanted to take advantage of the “rest” day tomorrow. All those who can finish this in one day get to spend a day at leisure. All those who cannot have to suffer all week.

The first 40k was really nice. The weather was picking up and the course consisted of windy paths through trees (yes there were many more than I expected) and large salt plains against a glorious rocky backdrop. This is what I paid my money to do. The feeling of actually running is a desert probably kept me going for longer than I could do on previous days.

We hit a minor sand storm going through one of the passes. There was a huge salt flat in between two gebels. The sand hit me but it was fine, I started to feel good about the day and ran on. There was a checkpoint after about 40k which was partly hidden. I did the usual stamping thing and carried on.

I prematurely got excited about how far I had run and that I was not coughing yet. I was at the checkpoint for 40k in about 5 hours and thought I could get this whole thing done in about 12 which would be a vast improvement on the previous days. I wasn't too bothered about my times or positions anymore, I had come expecting to finish in the top 100 just by running most of it. But, like most of the field I was reduced to walking large sections of it. For the first time the sun started to make it hard work and we headed out of the checkpoint into a long straight stretch.

My previous excitement turned to frustration as soon as I jogged out inot the open terrain. I inhaled my first lungfull of sand and had to stop to cough it out again. I spluttered on like a car on it's last legs but to no avail. It was like having shards of glass in my lungs and making my lungs do more work than was essential was very painful. I tried putting my buff over my mouth but that just restricted my breathing which had the same effect and the sand was already in.

I had kidded myself on both days previously that this would not last for the rest of the leg and each time I was wrong. I was the same here, as soon as I get this flat windy bit out of the way I'd be fine. Obviously this did not happen.

I walked along as many people walked past me. I had not done any walking training as I had not planned on walking any of this and was abysmal at it. There is a technique to walking which I did not have and the dozens of people walking past did, kicking up more sand as they went by. I had several coughing fits where I'd have to stop and hold onto something and cough, one time I coughed so hard my nose started to bleed.

I sat down on a ledge facing the runners coming past and tried to stop the bleeding. I watched a small pool of blood and snot form right underneath me and then insects gather round to feast. Didn't look very appetising to me but I guess there is not a huge amount of food in the desert. By chance I looked up to see the Ansul Brothers running straigh at me and then passing either side. They looked very comfortable running and I could not get a "well done" out in time. They started 3 hours after me and this was the first of a succession of runners who cruised past me. I had hopes of being in this 50 at the start of the race but now I was looking at last 50.

The nose stopped bleeding and I continued, being overtaken by faster walkers and even faster runners. Hopes of getting this done before midnight had evaporated, unlike some of the moisture that was still in the air. I had some time again to admire the scenery and it really was spectacular, there was a huge ridge to my right which I would normally love to have a go at climbing. It looked like we were going to go round it but then as the sun was starting to disappear behind this magnificent piece of geology I saw the path and a line of walkers heading straight into it. Fuck.

It wasn't the biggest or the hardest climb I've had to do but the idea of getting myself up any vertical distance seemed a struggle. As I started to climb I saw the 2 Chris's, people I was sharing a bivouac with. They were both doing quite well in the race and I new at this point I was at least in the top 3rd still, despite the walking. As we climbed into the dark pass we switched on the glow sticks that we were provided with. The climb was horrific. There was no sand in this crevice but the effort of scrambling up was still so hard to take. I would climb on my hands and knees and then have to stop every few seconds to try and extract oxygen through some pretty violent coughing. My legs were trembling too. I had to stop and plan the next few steps of any climb, taking into account what would consume the least energy and oxygen so that I could at least get to a higher place and stop again. I would have to think about where to place my hands, what I could grab hold of and where to fall if I needed to. I fell several times. Fell runners do a similar thing when bounding down hills at lighting pace, they carefully (but very quickly) consider where exactly they are going to plant their foot each time. The costs of getting it wrong for them could be broken legs but they take that risk because those races are won on the down hills. I had less time pressure but the cost of getting this wrong for me was that I'd still be in this crevice come sunrise.

There was no one else around me while I was making this climb. It almost felt like people were standing back to watch. I could see glowing at the top of the pass but luckily there was no one immediately behind me for me to fall on. I can't remember how long it took or how many times I stopped or slid back down. I do remember getting to the top, falling down on my knees and thinking about whether I'll make it to the end.

I spent about 10 minutes sat at the top looking back down at what I'd just climbed up which is probably a silly thing to do. I looked back down on the short but significant climb that just nearly broke me, I should have turned the other way, like when someone gets pulled out of the water, the first thing you do is make sure they are facing away from the water while you do all the other stuff. Stops them panicking. I'm glad I was facing back down though as I saw a chap skipping up the rocks. I was not hallucinating at this point, it was in fact one of the elite runners. He got to the top in a fraction of the time I did, stopped to say hello, asked me to activate his glow stick and then skipped on. It was only at this point I looked the other way and saw what was coming up.

Absolutely Fucking Exhausted

I watched the glow stick bounce down a path similar to the one I had just climbed and then continue and join this amazing line of other glow sticks that spread as far as the eye could see. It was a spectacular sight that I tried to get a picture of but it wouldn't come out. A photo wouldn't have done it justice anyway, it was truly amazing.

I was drawn in like a moth to a flame, wanting to join this army of glowing walkers lifted me out of despair and got me climbing back down onto the sand. The next 10k or so were over sand dunes.

The next few hours were also incredibly tough but for a short while I managed to forget about the discomfort I was in and concentrate on moving forward. My head torch would show the grains of sand flying across my head, it would also reflect against the others ahead of me. If I turned my head to either side I could see nothing, there was no life here, nothing for the light to reflect off. The sand dunes varied in height and incline, some were much easier to get up than others. I think I was still coughing but by this stage I think it had become an inconscious action. I no longer had to think about coughing, I was just doing it.

The tops of the sand dunes are concave, like volcanoes, which means you can't see what is immediately beneath. I'd be looking ahead at the huge line of dim light ahead and when I'd start climbing a dune this line would disappear. I could still see the one behind me but then when I was on top of the dune the whole lot would disappear. One time I was on top of a sand dune I felt like I was the only person in the world, I could not see any humans or any sign of civilisation for 360 degrees. I've done plenty of races where I feel like the only one around even when there are people right next to me, it is a strange but liberating feeling. This time I felt alone because I was alone. It was an amazing 5 seconds or so before the isolation was broken by someone else clambering up the dune. From then on I tried to recreate that moment by adjusting my speed so that I was ascending them alone. It never happened again, it was always spoiled by the polluting light of others trying to make their way towards the next checkpoint. I wished they would all disappear.

First Sleep of the long day

I was quite calm during this section, between 60-70k. The feeling of isolation and the fantastic site of all these annonymous glowing backpacks crawling through the desert made this a new experience that I was enjoying enough to forget about the struggle. I would still find myself short of breath getting up the sand dunes but when that happened I'd just stop, sit down and look at the stars. It was a perfectly clear night and looking at the stars in the sky was a very relaxing and calming thing. I don't get to do this very often in the smoke back home. I thought about how people would have used these to plot their course instead of the glowing waymarkers that we were following. I counted myself lucky that I got to see such a thing and started to feel like the expense and the faffing around was worth it.

The next checkpoint came a bit quicker than I was expecting, probably because I no longer had any sense of time. The checkpoint looked like a refugee camp, there was a medical bivouac and a sleeping one. All of a sudden I became very aware that I was covered in blood and coughing like a dying man on an anti-smoking advert. I feared that I may get pulled from the race if anyone saw me like this so I held my breath and walked past the marshalls and headed for the sleeping tent. Just after getting there I saw Dan Ashfar, who was one of the leading Brtis but was not having the best of times also. He took a power nap of about 10 minutes before heading off. I stayed for about 45 minutes, hoping to catch my breath before heading out again.

The terrain from 70-80k was more of the annoying rocky path fo the previous days. By this stage I was walking pretty slow and had no walking skill. I think I tried running again but it just wouldn't work. I started to feel pain in my heels, something I'm not used to as I had never walked so much before. I knew I had some blisters on my heels and each step was pretty painful. My legs did not hurt at all. I wish my legs did hurt though, that would have involved some running.

I was falling back into the despair I was feeling a few hours ago. People were just walking past me like it was no effort at all. Most of them had walking sticks though (which are allowed but really is cheating).The sky had clouded over and I could no longer see the stars, I was on a flat piece of trail and could see people all around me. I was feeling a bit claustrophobic, I just wanted everyone to go away again. I was starting to get worked up again and had no outlet. I tried to listen to music but that too was ineffective. Some of the spacy prog/post rock music I came with would have been ideal for this kind of adventure. The likes of Sigur Ros, Mogwai, Death in Vegas, Tristeza, Theta Naught, Always the Runner (??), This Will Destroy You were the ideal sound track to marching along the sand and feeling like I was at the end of the world. This had to give way to more upbeat rock music to try and lift me. When that failed I hastily went for the last resort and played "Hella Good" by No Doubt. For some reason the thought of Gwen Stefani thrashing about in the water usually gets me going. Even that didn't work.

I was starting to get really frustrated and angry with myself and everything. The path is flat but has loose rocks the size of bricks strewn everywhere. When I was walking I felt like I was tripping over every one of them. Each time I did I would stop and curse. Sometimes I'd kick the rock out of the way, once I even picked it up and threw it. I was staggering from side to side, in pain from the blisters, still coughing and most of all frustrated that I was having such a bad time and could not see how it could get any better. I left the previous checkpoint about 9.30PM and thought I should not take more than 2 hours to walk this stretch. There was a huge green laser pointing out from what I thought was the end of the stage. I could not see the source but it's light seemed to curve right over where we were running.

Edging slowly forward felt like it was using an incredible amount of energy, each step was an ordeal and all I could focus on was the time passing and the checkpoint not coming. The 2 hours I'd given myself came and went. At 11.30 there was no sign of the checkpoint, at midnight there was still no sign. The green light now was directly above my head and it felt like I was walking through a tunnel, the sky only a few feet above me. The rage I felt from kicking bricks turned into an admission of defeat. By now I was no longer angry at these inanimate objects in my path, I just accepted them and tried to move on. My brain felt like it was frying. It gets quite cold in the desert at night but I didn't feel the need for long sleeves. I had put on my warm top but overheated after a few minutes and went back to the T-shirt.

12.30 came and went, still no checkpoint. I'd been on this stretch for 3 hours and in this stage for 15 and a half. I was thinking about everything and nothing, like some nights when you can't sleep. There was something nagging me inside my head that I couldn't get out. It wasn't important but it was consuming me, like a broken record playing the same 3 seconds of barely audible noise over and over. I was not physically tired nor did I feel sleepy but was really struggling being in the state of awakeness. I lost hope of finding this checkpoint, I thought all the others around were going the wrong way too. I'dnever felt this bad in a race before, I had long forgotten the moments I enjoyed just a few hours before. 1.00 came and finally I could see something up ahead. I could not believe that what I'd just traveled was just 10k, nor could I really believe that the checkpoint was finally here. I saw the source of the green light which I thought would be at the end. I collected some unneeded water and headed for the bivouacs.

11k/7 miles to go. This is quite a significant distance for anyone who belongs to the Serpentine running club. 7 miles is the length of the most popular club run "the 3 parks" which involves a lap around Hyde/Green and St James' Parks. It is also significant as many will use this to reference the last 7 miles of a race that they are in. I know for many a marathon I have reached the 19 mile point and said "only 3 parks to go". The same applies in longer races and the longer the race the more potent the effect. 43 miles into a 50 miler or at Perivale in the GUCR I can easily visualise the end of the race because all you have left is a distance that you have done 100 times before. I can take myself out of wherever I happen to be (A canal path, an Alpine trail, Canadian forest or Rotherham) and put myself at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park and think about jogging around familiar surroundings with people that I know and looking forward to the pub at the end. This always helps but in this instance it just didn't occur to me.

I could not think of anything apart from whatever was rattling through my brain, I could not get it out. I had not slept well all week and felt sleep deprived but not sleepy. I knew that one of the key functions of sleep is to clear your brain cells of all the crap they build up over the course of the day. The cells build connections which normally get reset when you sleep and those that don't become memories. Right now I was building up bad memories that were clogging up my head and stopping me from fuctioning properly. I knew vaguely what was tormenting me here but had no idea until I looked it up on my return that this branch of neurobiology had such a cool name. Synaptic Homeostasis is a theory that the brain only has a certain capacity to "learn" in a particular time period before it becomes full and needs refreshing. Sleep does this. It was hardly as if I was attending any lectures in this time but I felt like I'd reached the limit to what I could mentally deal with for that day. Any further progress I would have to do as a zombie, oblivious to any external influence, possibly not reacting to and external stimulus or even my own internal state. It still seems ludacrous to this day but with only "3 parks to go" to the end of the long day I got my sleeping bag out of my bag and crawled inside. I needed to sleep, just to forget.

Finish line for the long day

It wasn't the first time I'd woken up still wearing my shoes. I didn't take them off for fear of not being able to put them back on again. I looked at my watch and it was around 4am. I'd been asleep for 3 hours, completely out of it. I could have stayed there longer but for the first time in ages remembered why it was that I was there. There was a stage to get to the end of and I had to get up and walk it again. It was still dark, I was still coughing and it was cold. I was pleased that it was cold, it meant I was no longer roasting myself from the inside. I left the checkpoint as annonymously as I arrived. Funny thing this race, there are hundreds of runners and organisers and no one really gets to know anyone. It felt like I was just leaving some service station in the middle of the night, no one cares where I've been or where I'm going, I just got up and walked.

The participants (none of them are runners at this stage) were spread out much more thinly now. I had to start looking out for the occasional markers to make sure I was headed in the right direction. I knew this was going to be a long and painful finish but I at least felt myself again. The track was the same as before and as the sun came up I could at least see in front of me and not trip up on all the rocks. I hadn't imagined that I'd be finishing the long day in daylight. I was looking forward to this day more than any other, my only previous multi-day race I nailed the long day, this time the long day nailed me. The sun was starting to heat the desert floor up again as I crossed the finish line. I felt nothing as I walked through the banner, collected my water and headed for my tent. Half of the people were already there, some sleeping and others just milling around. I wasn't sure what to think about what I had just done. That was undoubtedly the hardest day of effort I have ever had, 21 hours of running/walking/staggering and sleeping.

Message after Day 3

"That could have been the hardest day and night I've ever had. They extended the "long" day to 91k to try and make up for the earlier loss. I ran about 40k and was feeling quite good but then some sand in the breeze killed my lungs. I was reduced to my usual walking wheeze. with headaches, nosebleeds and bubblewrap feet.
Parts of the night were spectatular though. The point where i was completely alone in the desert in the dark was exhilirating, probably worth the entry for that. The miles of rocky track were less so. I was so hard stumbling in the dark for 12 hours not being able to breathe properly. 7 hours for half way then 14 hours for the rest, my heels have some corking blisters on, massive.
Feeling pretty shatterd now, only a marathon tomorrow. I think they are canning the last day too.
Thanks for all the messages, see you all soon.
I'll have to come back and nail this one year"


Stuff you should know about the MDS part 3 - Bivouac Life

"Bivouac" is a French word for "Some sticks with a blanket on top". Each day a crew of locals would erect a village of bivouacs in a circle that would sleep 8 competitors. We were assigned a number which would be ours all week and the bivouac would be in the same relative position.

They are not ideal for sleeping. There is only a rug seperating you from the rock and as I didn't have a sleeping mat I suffered in the night, constantly having to lie in different positions to stop rocks going into me. The windat night would ensure that there was a constant stream of sand flying over my head and making me cough. I didn't get any rest from the cough even at night. I felt sorry for the others I shared a tent with as I was making such a racket. I requested to sleep near the end so that I could get up if I needed to. Several times I did get up just to walk around a bit and get away from everyone else. Once I coughed myself sick. I don't think I got a proper nights sleep all week, this includes the times spent in a bed in the hotels.


The sunrise always looked spectacular, one of the benefits of sleeping almost outside is that you get to see the great panorama of the sun starting the day. I'd always feel quite sleepy at this point after an exhausting night of spluttering and tossing. As people got up and started their pre-race rituals and faffing I'd look around and see one by one the bivouacs collapse. They would not wait for you to wake up or get out, the blankets and sticks were just hoisted over you and the rug pulled from under you. You were then exposed to the sun and to the ground where you had to carefully tread so that you wouldn't get sand in your shoes.

Day 4 - The Marathon Day

This was to be the last day. Normally the last day is a 10 mile showboating exercise but instead it was going to be quite a long run. I was looking forward to getting it over with. There were a couple of marketing things we had to do for the DVD in the morning, one was to stand around for ages in a roped off area that spelt the number "24" to denote that this was the 24th MDS. Also we were given new running numbers to put on as it was considered important by the sponsors that their name looked nice and clean for the many photos that would be taken that day. I kept my blood splattered number I'd been wearing all week and threw the others away. I could not be arsed spending my time making sure that the DVD looks good and that the race organisers look like heroes.

start of the marathon day

After the usual start line nonsense and the French turning up late again we set off on the final stretch of the MDS. I started this day as I started each day, running and expecting the moment to arrive where I could no longer do this. The marathon day actually turned into the best of days. I could run for most of it. The terrain was quite challenging but all great to run on. There were plenty of smaller sand dunes, a few rocky passes, some track and roads and lots to look at. Finally we got some of the heat that we had been threatened with for 2 years. While running and enjoying the atmosphere of the last day I felt a strange sensation that I had not felt at any stage in the race until now, I was sweating. The combination of the heat and my running actually convinced my body that I was in need of cooling down and was making me sweat. It was lovely.

There were quite a few spectators in this leg, at least 20, more than I am used to in other races I have done. I wonder where all these kids come from, there are no houses near by. I wonder what sort of curfew their parents impose of them? How far are they allowed to wander into the desert before they have gone too far?

Towards the end of the stage there is a significant climb up a rocky pass. At this stage kids are around telling you there is only 2k to go and asking if they can have your water bottles/hats/buffs etc. They are not aggressive or anything but at that stage I didn't belive that there was only 2k to go and kept hold of everything. Then at the top of the climb I saw the finish, it really was just 2k away. I scrambled down and started my final approach, still running. This was the only day where I ran most of it and was the day I enjoyed the most. As I got to the bottom of the slope I had to give some water to a Spanish guy in distress, he looked pretty dehydrated and I could only give him warm water.

As soon as I got near the end I gave the fastest sprint finish that I have ever done for a race though it was missed by all of the cameras. I got a lot of cheers and comments afterwards. It's a shame there is no photo evidence of my finish, just one of me looking exhausted. I reckon I'd have given Usain Bolt a good race in the last 100m of that one. As I steamed through the finish a loudspeaker was playing "Won't get fooled again" by The Who.

Stuff you should know about the MDS part 4 - Communications

At the end of each stage you can go to a computer tent and send an email to the outside world. I didn't think much of this before starting the race but as the week went on this became really important for me. I'd think about what I'd write as the story was unfolding in the sand. This is something I do anyway and gets me through a lot of tough times. It's like a projective technique where you imagine that you are not actually you but someone else looking at you and giving commentary. In doing so you can be as complimentary as you like, which is easy to do when you are thinking about yourself in the third person. Years of daily Facebook status updates have trained me well in this, I never thought I could say that hours on Facebook have made me a more resilient long distance runner, but they have.

The daily email was my outlet to the rest of the world. I wanted everyone to know that I was suffering just to see what they would say. I found the emails were a great way to let off steam at the end of each stage. There was a word limit but I never really pushed it, I managed to keep the words down, unlike in my race reports.

By far the most enjoyable part of each day though was getting a piece of paper with all of the emails which have been sent to me. I was quite suprised by the numbers of them. I felt a bit bad for the others in my tent that they would get a handful of messages and I would have pages and pages. Not my fault for being popular :)

I got messages from all sorts of people, some I didn't even know (but made sure I got to know afterwards). It was amazing. Most messages would either be words of support in response to my distress messages or general updates on what was going on back at home. Some of them made London life seem pretty mundane, which was nice. I thought about being out here doing a "crazy" race while everyone else was back at home going to work on the tube. It seemed like such a stark difference but I just couldn't wait to get back there and join them, this week did not pan out well.

Message after Day 4 - Box Ticked

I had a good day, at last. I ran the marathon in about 6 hours, not very fast but i ran most of it and felt good. That's it, it's all over now.
Have no idea where i ranked and have not looked all week though i hear my rankings are being glibly announced back home each day so you probably all know better than i do. Nikolai will be in the top100.
It certainly was an experience, the long day will haunt me for a long time, i've never felt anything like that before. I'm sure i'll bore yu all with the details over several kegs of guinness.
I'm off to treat myself to a clean pair of pants, I've been wating for this all week. still in camp tonight and being fed bread and pickled carrots.
sorry to dissappoint anyone who was hoping I was actually going to die, though ther is still time, i've not started drinking yet. it was great to finish on a bit of a high, am going over now to watch the last runners come in, it's amazing to see some of these guys.
Thanks everyone and see you all soon x.

Box Ticked

So there it was, all done. Well all that we were given to do anyway. It's hard to sum up this week (hence the 10000 words previous) but it was hard for so many reasons that have nothing to do with the challenge of running. I felt like I was taking part in a corporate challenge rather than a test of endurance, everything about this race reeked of marketing and PR. Fair enough there is little they could have done about the flood but the focus seemed to be on making a great DVD rather than putting on a great race. I didn't like all of the faffing and queueing involved.

This became more of a challenge for me because of the illness. It was one of the least enjoyable weeks of my life and even at the end I felt nothing. No cause to celebrate or sense of relief, just a feeling that I'd ticked a box and could get on with other runs that I really wanted to do. I've just read back a comment I made about having to come back one year and nail this, I won't be doing that. I'm not coming back. It's hard to see this as anything more than a large dent in my credit card. There is other stuff out there, harder, better organised, less needless ceremony and a lot less expensive. I still didn't feel like I had finished, I knew 2 more days of queues and hotels awaited. I wasn't going to consider this over until I was back in the UK. Plenty of stuff to look forward to, a running race along a canal then a running race around Greece.

Still, I doubt I'd get another chance to be the only person in the world like I was at the top of the sand dune. That was pretty special.









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Reader Comments (3)

Great article, reminds me of my tour.

August 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMike

James - this has been a brilliant read. Im doing the MdS next year and needed to read this sort of honest blog!! Any advice on kit/preparations from a seasoned ultrarunner? Well done on all of your other races - a great site to stumble across.....

August 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBails

Sorry you had to suffer, but it made for a hilarious read!

May 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterZandy Mangold

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