Mission accomplished - April 24th 2014

24th April 2014

Mission accomplished - April 24th 2014

Mission successful! I completed the Marathon Des Sables after 6 days of running, walking and hobbling the 250km through the Sahara in temperatures that went up to 54c (130f). The race didn’t go quite to plan for me and it turned into more of an exercise of extreme pain tolerance rather than just one of physical endurance… but I made it and became the third person in history to complete the two ‘toughest races on earth’ (and with the added element of doing them both in the same year!).

Here’s my tale…. Full photo album at www.facebook.com/fireandicechallenge

Toughest first day ever… apparently.

In the depths of the Moroccan Sahara, 1,100 people were massed on the start line of the ‘Toughest Race on Earth’. Helicopters were buzzing overhead and press photographers were poised (very different from the more humble start of the North Pole race!). After a full day in the desert the day before sorting kit and admin, the participants were a little anxious after 2 years of preparation. It was already over 30c (86f) and only 8.30am. I had 9kgs of food and water on my back – the entirety of my kit and food for the next week - and I was ready to go.

This was it. Nothing but desert in front of us, most notably the highest sand dunes in Morocco. Go!

The decimation of the field… (Not by me)

The first day started as it meant to continue. It was indeed brutal – 38km, mainly across the highest sand dunes in Morocco. To kick off with, we had 15km of sand dunes – some over 200m high. For anyone who has ever tried to climb dunes, you will know it is a killer. What was worse was that our first checkpoint was 17km away from the start and we had just 1.5 litres of water. This distance typically takes most people about 3-4 hours. Severe dehydration ensued. Welcome to the MDS.

After just 3kms of the dunes, I could feel blisters forming on my arches as the constant side to side shearing of my foot rubbing in the shoe due to the sand – this was not good. I hadn’t had any blisters in 2 years and had trained on sand and in heat with no issues. Whilst I had my own problems, others were faring much worse… dehydration and fatigue were severely taking their toll on people. Coming out of the dunes into the checkpoint, I felt my ITB twinge hugely… agonising pain shooting up from my knee. This really wasn’t good at all. Best power walk for a bit…

I persevered and followed my mantra (which I stole from Dean Karnazes) ‘run when I can, walk if I have to, crawl if necessary… but never give up’. I deliberately took the first day very easily and cruised over the finish in about 250th place. Fine by me. But I was worried given the state of my already shredded feet and my ITB flaring up.

20 people were not able to complete the first day – no doubt devastating after 2 years of training and huge financial investment. Some terrible stories went around camp of people passed out in the desert with other runners having to fire their flares to get the helicopter or 4X4s to rescue them… others were seen vomiting and delirious in the dunes.

Running… for the last time

Next day, another 41km. This sounds a lot, but in the context of this race, it really isn’t that far. It’s really just a question of ensuring survival for the next day, and this was my plan for Day 2. However, less dunes, so I figured I would try a bit of a jog and see how the ITB fared. This was the last (and probably only!) time my plan came together. I deliberately didn’t push too hard, but gave it a consistent effort when I could. I was regularly munching my salt tablets over the day as I felt cramp kick in due to the ongoing dehydration, but I was moving along OK. Quite a spectacular experience, running through small villages, with the kids sticking their hands out to touch the hands of these crazy people running through the heat of the day. It did occur to me that I hadn’t been overtaken all day and that over the course of day, I had probably passed at least 500 people. I didn’t think much of it at the time as I figured I had started quite near the back.

For the last 10km, I decided I would just march it… soft sand and there was no point in wasting energy. The last few kilometers to the finish was over rock – I could jog that, so did. I couldn’t believe it when I came into an almost empty camp. I had finished in 81st place after 5 hours or so in the desert, not too far from the coveted ‘elite runners’ positions in the Top 50. I was in 140th place over all… top 15%. Great – I was happy with that.

Oh wait. My feet are pouring with blood. That’s not good.

Pain – my constant running buddy

The MDS team has 50 specialist doctors who support the runners. I decided to pay a visit. These guys have seen it all before… My feet were an absolute state though. The blisters were already essentially flesh wounds with no skin left and just bloody tissue remaining. The doctors would later (after day 3) declare my feet ‘the second worst they had seen’ that year (apparently they amputated the other guy’s feet, but that was just a rumour).

All jokes aside, I was in serious trouble for the rest of the MDS. By Day 3, another 35km across the dunes, I was forced to walk the entirety… each step was like walking on daggers. I tried running and it really didn’t work at all – the combination of blisters and ITB pain really was debilitating. I am normally pretty hardy and can handle painful feet, but this was different - I really had no option but to walk. I was now on antibiotics and having to spend far longer than planned on my feet and in the sun – consequently, more water and calories needed. Really not good. I power walked in agony and came home in about 280th place.

By now, almost 100 people had ended their dream of completing this race. One guy was in a coma and had been evacuated, many others put on drips or pulling out through exhaustion, blisters and injury. Others, simply not making the cut off time by the end of the day, resulting in disqualification.

Fighting hard…

The long day is what the MDS is really what it is all about. 82.2km of seemingly perpetual desert. This is the day that will largely make or break your race. Sadly, I was already broken and my feet were a disaster. My plan therefore was simple… walk as fast as I could and do not, under any circumstances, stop. This strategy had largely worked on Day 3, but my feet were even worse (if that was possible). The doctors had decided to cut most of the top of one of toes off by this stage and had been extracting all sorts of fluids from my feet, whilst injecting iodine into them. Pleasant. I was seriously hurting and only adrenaline and stupidity were keeping me on my feet.

I have run much further than this before, so I wasn’t too concerned about whether I could make it. That said, I was doing this in ridiculous heat, on limited water, with limited food, on sand and with my feet in a terrible state. No choice – time to go. I pushed off the start line to the now familiar tune of ‘highway to hell’ and right past a guy fully unconscious on the start line being seen to by the doctors. However bad I thought I had it, some people were doing much worse.

This day was truly epic. For 16 hours straight, my legs did not stop moving… my only strategy not to lose more places was to not stop at checkpoints. Just take my 1.5 or 3 litres of water and keep going. Often passing failing bodies who had past me earlier who were lying down resting or seeking medical attention… Some even slept on this long day, taking up to 34 hours to complete this stage.

Me, myself and the sand

At this point, I am going to describe what goes through your head on a day like this. I am not the most sociable when running and never have been. I will talk and offer help (and be helped) when I need to, but otherwise it is me and the task at hand. The MDS was no different. In the tent we were absolutely a team and we had some truly great bunch of people camping down in the most basic of ‘tents’ (think black heavy duty cloth, several big sticks and a basic rug). Once the gun went, though, it was me and my thoughts. The emotions run high in this event… 

This hurts. How far to the next checkpoint? How hot is it!? How many places am I losing here? These questions become prosaic, repetitive and rather dull after the first few hours. The few hours after this are far more memorable as your conscious and subconscious start bringing to the fore much more motivating (and occasionally debilitating) thoughts. ‘How strong am I?’, ‘what is my potential?’, ‘how long can I really go on?’, ‘what would it take me to ever stop?’ It was these questions I had running through my mind. It was the answers that kept me moving through dehydration, unbelievable pain and a seemingly never ending desert.

The never ending journey

As night fell, I had still had about 35km to go. Severely dehydrated at times and towards the end unbelievably hungry (I hadn’t planned to be on my feet for this long so hadn’t got enough food!) my feet were bleeding for the vast majority of the time and had swollen to the point that I could barely get my feet in my shoes for the following days (at the end of this stage, I had to cut my socks off). For the last 6 hours, I pushed on solo with my head torch through the night and my glow stick swinging from my bag. After non-stop grinding and running on fumes, I finally crossed the line at 1am after 16 hours - 18 hours ahead of the cut off time, but 5 hours slower than I had originally planned.

The final frontier… 42.2km

The last day is a marathon. Plain and simple. Normally, this would be taken care of on the road in about 3 hours 30. In this state, I would be happy with 8 hours. The cumulative impact of dehydration, lack of food and the truly horrific state of my feet was really taking its toll. I was desperately hungry on this day, at some points stumbling over rocks and through the soft sand, but I kept on moving. I was however moving painfully slowly and at times genuinely perplexed at why this stage was not ending. The last 5km or so was a dry river bed – soft sand and no matter how hard I looked – there was no firmer footing. The pain, the thirst, the hunger…

Finally there it was. The finish line. Not just the finish line for this race, but the end of 3 years of blood, sweat and tears. It hurt more than I describe, but I ran the last 500m – the only running I had done since day 2. It took me a rather ridiculous 9 hours to complete this final stage, resulting in an overall placing of 391 out of the 1,100 who set off. Not what I had hoped for, but under the circumstances, I was happy just to receive the medal.

By the end of this day 112 people had pulled out… apparently more than in any other race.

The camaraderie and mutual respect at the end of this race can only be experienced – never described. The achievement, hope and wonder of all who had completed this epic race was palpable – lives irrevocably changed. A feeling I had experienced before and one that has stayed with me ever since, only muffled and muted by the day to day mundaniety that happens at all other times. It is extraordinary experiences like this that truly shape who we are. Experiences that we should all seek out.

Updates

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VSO is the world’s leading independent international development organisation that works through volunteers to fight poverty in developing countries (www.vso.org.uk). The Fire and Ice Challenge is aiming to raise £50,000 for VSO’s secure livelihoods programme  more >