Well, it’s been a long time, but this is obviously too important not to write about. Truth be told I’ve enjoyed getting back on the blogging horse again, so I’ll try and visit you in prose soon. I’ll certainly do a blog on my kit and food and what did and didn’t work for me in the desert - I hope you will find it useful. Here were are then - the story of the 2019 Marathon des Sables, as told through the eyes of Forrest Gump ;-)
After arriving in a disconcertingly rainy Marrakech and a six-hour journey across the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, I headed out for a brief five-mile run in the old town of Ouarzazate. A decent nights sleep, punctuated with a good five or six packings and re-packings of my race bag and the eating of two pizzas – carb-loading, of course, set me up for the grand depart. Hearing some dulcet Northern Irish tones as I waited alone outside the Hotel Cos in Ouarzazate, I introduced myself to a chap named Tyrone and soon encountered six other fellas on the second mammoth bus journey to Merzouga province. We decided to form our own group of eight for our tent, which is a loosely applied term to the black Hessian material held up with a few sticks and pegs, having no floor or sides and set up and taken down each day expertly by a team of Berbers. This was to be our home for the next nine days. Team Oreo, as we were now called (long story) were a very multinational bunch, hailing from India, Dubai, Northern Ireland, Pakistan and England, with loose claims of Saudi, Canadian and Australian roots too. We were staying only three tents down from the elite Moroccan athletes, including Abdelkader El Mouaziz, a 2:10 marathon runner with a New York Marathon win to his name, who while known to many of us, were politely amused when Simon, one of our group, asked seven-time winner - Rachid el Morabity if he'd ever run it before. Bless.
After a six-hour coach journey, there was a day of technical checks designed to ensure you had at least 2,000 calories a day (you'll likely burn closer to 5,000) and all the necessary kit that you need to survive for a week in the desert including sleeping mat and bag, a knife, emergency signalling kit, a compass, a snake venom extraction kit (!) and a headtorch. Your bag has to weigh at least 6.5kg to make it a little bit harder than other 150-mile races across the desert and it was with some amazement that you'd look at some people's kit and wonder how they got everything in such a small bag. Mine was 8kg before water and looked like I had a sofa in it. It was time to settle in for my first meal of MEGAMIX, a self-concocted mix of instant mash, pork scratchings and chilli oil, designed to give 1200 calories in 200g and if truth be told, it tasted great. The first time, that is.
Day 1: So it begins. 20 miles.
After having a challenge laid down to me by the team at Bad Boy Running Podcast and the fact that I thought Forrest Gump would look pretty damn good in the desert, I put on my kit of long white socks with red and blue stripes, red shorts with white trim and a specially designed top from Scimitar Sports that mimicked exactly the kit Forrest wore as he crossed the Mississippi for the fourth time. Topped off with the obligatory red cap, my kit was this time augmented with some desert gaiters, designed to keep out the sand from my Nikes and some fetching red sunglasses. The huge field assembled at the start, which saw over 800 runners hailing from 52 nations underway, soundtracked by ACDC's "Highway to Hell" (right up my alley, as some of you may know), after a few happy birthdays in French and English. I led for the first few km (which was nice) and tapped Rachid, the legendary Moroccan multiple MdS champion on the shoulder as I overtook him and thanked him for letting me lead for a while. With Rachid, however, it wouldn't be long-lived. Running on a mix of soft sand, gravel and river beds, I spent most of the day soaking it all in after I'd settled a touch, wondering where I fitted in, in all of this. A dune field sucked the energy from me as I lost a final position to Antonio Alongi, the eventual 5th place finisher, but I was in decent enough shape as I crossed the line. Day 1 done and a surprising 9th place finish. How's about that? The day was only soured by the loss of one of my water bottles which I hated for the littering aspect as much as anything. It was a genuine issue that needed sorting if I wasn’t to shrivel and fade, and initial jubilation at finding “it” in lost property faded when I realised, on closer inspection that it wasn’t mine. The devil on my shoulder telling me to keep it was squished by the desire not to anger Karma in such a harsh environment and I comforted myself with the thought of someone else’s smiling face when they were reunited with theirs. The nod of approval from above came swiftly, with two members of the British contingent, Gus and Damien sorting me out with arguably better kit than that I’d lost. Merci, mes amis.
Day 2: Dune Day. 20 miles.
People had been talking anxiously about this since we'd seen the course map, or road book.
Almost 10 miles of solid dunes lay in wait after the first checkpoint and I was left alone as two leading groups went in different directions. Scared of getting lost, I stuck to my compass bearing of 156 degrees and two miles later, the Moroccan and Spanish athletes who'd headed off into the distance appeared behind me as they'd gone the wrong way.
"Hello again guys!"
I held back, as I'm not good on sand, having only done one training run on Formby dunes, but caught three runners on the flat to finish in 6th, and up to 8th overall. Even though the dunes were brutal, you can't explain the feeling you experience when you're alone in the midst of the sandy giants and it was hard to keep concentration, especially when you factor in the heat. Concentration was vital though, as there is a technique to running on sand and the dunes in particular, with the key being to try and stay at an average height, rather than plough up and down, even if you needed to meander a touch, and to try and read which bits of sand look firmer underfoot, to minimise the sinking and effort needed to push on. I need more lessons. It was great fun taking huge jumping strides on the way down the big ones though...
Email messages arrived from home and all over the world, delivered on an A4 piece (or pieces, if you were lucky) of paper in a modern twist of letter writing to soldiers far from their loved ones and were a great source of comfort, read over and over again. One message for me, however, brought some very sad news and I had to be persuaded not to leave the race then and there. My head would no longer be “in the game” and my desire to compete for the fun of it would be replaced with a steely desire to get the job done, whatever way I could and make those who needed me to be there proud. Again, the love of the runners and staff were immeasurable in enabling me to carry on. This race didn’t do anything by halves.
Day 3: 23 miles.
Things were getting a little tough irrespective of last night’s news and I was certainly not questioning the MdS' reputation as one of the hardest races on the planet. Lack of training (I only started at end of February due to a serious pelvic issue, eventually fixed with the help of Dr Jon Power and Spire Hospital Leeds, and Enda King and his team at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry, Dublin – thank you from the bottom of my apparently enlarged heart) was starting to bite hard and every mile after the halfway point was a real concentration job. Surprisingly I held onto 9th position, despite having Abdelhadi Elmoustahli, or Abdi, to his friends, (which numbered pretty much everyone) on my tail for the last few km of dunes, as I tried to hunt down Alejandro Fragela, the rangy Spaniard, who seemed to take one stride for every two of mine. Surely being so tall is cheating? Lack of sleep would also be an issue, as my sleeping mat developed a slow puncture and I had to sleep on a thin carpet over stony ground. I'd noticed a dull pain in my upper abdomen too, hardly a vote of confidence in MEGAMIX and a way for my own confidence to also spring a leak. The atmosphere around camp was noticeably tense, with the long day lay looming the next day, but still there was a real bond between the tents in our area, with me making too many new pals to mention individually, when the sensible approach would have been to stay still, drink my water and eat properly. If you know me though, you'd know that's not my style. It wasn't the style of one of the Moroccan speed machines either, with Abdi seemingly spending most of his time checking that everyone else was ok and smiling without fail. With all of those who shared a kind word on the course today, I made sure I’d do my best to encourage every runner I passed tomorrow, in the knowledge that I would pass the majority of runners after I started three hours after the main field, with the top runners commencing their big one three hours after the cannon.
Day 4: The Long Stage. 48 miles
This stage can take some runners 31 hours to complete with the heat and terrain. I was in the now "elite" start where the fastest fifty runners line up not by the now disassembled elaborate start banners and rock music, but behind a line in the sand and a simple "3-2-1-allez allez allez!". Merile Robert, last year's cowboy hat wearing French third place overall gave me the advice to "Stay cool man. Stay cool, then go." Sounded easy. We discussed just how easy, or more accurately, how difficult this one would be, alongside whether it was an advantage or disadvantage to start later. I felt it was the former as though it would be hotter to start, we would be out in the day for less time before the temperature fell. As it happened, some welcome cloud meant that the early guys got some decent weather to make headway and even we could start in relative comfort.
Fuel and food are a huge issue on this stage. I had lots of Science in Sport energy powders but the pros were so much better and prepared at checkpoints and I'd lose a ton of time at each one. I was flying early on and was fourth beyond the first checkpoint, until more sand put the brakes on me and the Moroccans sailed effortlessly past, being used to the terrain. I asked Rachid after if he found it easy. Though this doesn't sound overly humble, I can assure you he was.
"Yeah, pretty easy. I train on it all the time. Merzouga and the desert is my home"
I made sure I followed through with wishing strength to every runner I passed, if I had breath to do so, gave thumbs up to those I couldn't speak to and fed off the encouragement I got as everyone was hugely supportive. This didn’t stop me slowly sinking into a deep hole after a marathon or so, baking in the 38-degree heat and walked for a while. A lovely (and quick) Italian runner, named Thomas Capponi ran past me.
"Heya Rob, run with me."
"Sorry Thomas, I'm cooked."
"Just two kilometers. Come on."
I ran with him for four before I walked again after getting caught in a huge whiteout dust storm in a dry riverbed, filling my lungs with choking dust as I'd misplaced my Buff face-scarf, before staggering to a checkpoint where I ate properly. I got a bit of a second desert wind, strangely, whilst climbing up a huge mountain pass, around sunset to reach a plateau that looked like the surface of Mars, all red dirt and as breathtaking as you’d imagine. The problem with this was the brick sized stones that kept attracting the attention of my toes and while I was thankful for the reinforced toebox of my Nike Wildhorse shoes, there's only so much toenails can take... As night fell, we had to engage our glow sticks and head torches, to avoid penalty as well as injury, as I crossed a small river and headed up a kilometre long 25km climb in the dark, with the scattered headtorches in the distance giving an eerie appearance reminiscent of a scene in Mordor, rather than Morocco. Something was seriously wrong in my belly and my breathing felt tight, but I finished the last few miles steadily, reminding myself it was only the distance of a parkrun. Some parkrun!
I was in awful shape when I got back to my tent, despite a cup of sweet Moroccan tea, with my tent-mate helping me get my gear off before I limped to the equally revered and feared Doc Trotters, the medical volunteer staff who tend to thousands of blisters with blades and stinging disinfectant with great success. I'd been proud of the fact I had no blisters all week and maintained that to the end, which was a surprise to the docs.
"Robert, your feet! They are so beautiful and clear, so why do you have to kick so many stones?"
Blood was drained though drill holes in the nail, stab incisions in the flesh and the last rites were administered to four toenails, including both big ones and three on my right foot which had done most of the kicking. The ironic thing is that I'm left footed. I slowly wandered off to my bed of stones and repeated attempts to re-inflate my mattress in vain during the night.
Day 5: A rest day for those lucky enough to finish quickly. The camaraderie means that many competitors visit the finish to clap in the last runners. I can only imagine the level of their mental strength to keep going that long. I enjoyed the rest, though spent a lot of the day feeling a bit ill and struggling a bit with my breathing. I took the time to try and clean myself up a bit. My energy drink caked beard was like a stick of rock and should have been condemned, but soaking it in a cut off water bottle did the trick, to the amusement of onlookers. I'd long given up on my hair, which my 70-gram comb was powerless to tame, so tied it back, resisting the calls to braid it to the upset of all.
Day 6: The Marathon Stage. 26.2 miles.
Surprisingly, I felt pretty good at the start and having 25 minutes either side of my position of 12th, I decided to settle just behind Ragna Debats, the world trail and skyrunning champion, no less, in 13th and take it steady. However, after less than a mile, things started to go seriously wrong. I was coughing and my chest tightened. My heart rate shot up as I fought to get air into my lungs. I dropped rapidly down the field, like a stricken race car, with concerned camp neighbours flying past. One chap, Des, recognised the signs of an asthma-like attack (I'm not asthmatic) and gave me two puffs on his inhaler. My chest loosened a bit, but the coughing got worse and a blood clot jumped into my mouth. Soon after, a chunk of dry mucus and sand followed it. I genuinely begun not to fear just for the race, but also for my life as I know how suddenly things can go wrong here, having seen people airlifted to hospital from the course. We were also arriving at the foot of Jebel al Oftal, a near-vertical kilometre wall of rock and sand that we had to climb, so steep that you needed a rope at the upper reaches. I was resigned to calling it a day at the first checkpoint, especially after nearly blacking out and starting to fall back from the rock face, before a hand pushed me back vertical. I later found out that the hand belonged to Jay, a fellow Scouser (or Liverpudlian to those who don’t know what a Scouser is!), brought up no more than three miles from my house. At the zenith, two journalists, Susie Chan and Ian Corless, who are very well known in the running world were willing me on, before they realised my plight and they encouraged me to take it slow, after they had a doctor check me out; to continue to whatever finish I could muster. I also had huge reasons to continue, with my charity goals; my previous entry in 2001, (which my mum was very excited about before she died the following year) which was cancelled with a torn muscle nine weeks before the race and also a promise to my new family that I would run the race for them and do them proud. I knew they wouldn't care where I finished, as long as I did and that was good enough for me. I'd also seen many of my tent and camp mates suffer with terrible foot issues, twisted joints and other ills. We were all in it together. I was going to have to be pulled off the course if I was going to quit. The treacherous technical descent down the other side helped a bit as French and Spanish mountain goats/runners flew past down precarious routes as I picked my way to the first checkpoint with years of footballing ankle injuries ensuring caution was the best approach, given my newly affirmed resolve. Fortunately, after this point, we were headed for a dry lake bed that offered great conditions underfoot and I eventually found a pace I could breathe at, in Jay's slipstream. We were joined at one point by Nathan, a Kiwi whom I'd queued with for the kit check and had been in the early start, but fancied a quick mile or two, boosting our pace by almost a minute a mile, before he said goodbye as we pushed on, up a few more smaller Jebels, with me stuffing chocolate stroopwaffles, or a gel in mouth when I'd walk up a dune too big to run up, to try and avoid a catastrophic crash in my energy levels. Seeing my tent mates on the course was a joy and I was joined by Steven, another Brit towards the end, who swore that this must be the final hill as he helped me get my now ACDC playing phone into an awkward rear pocket without us breaking stride and a few false peaks later, we saw the bivouac in the distance. The final moon jumps down 200m of dune led to a flat sandy plain to the finish, visible for three miles and culminated with a sweaty hug and a medal from Patrick Bauer, the ebullient Frenchman who organised this race after completing a solo trek almost 40 years ago. A final companion Jason came up on my shoulder at a furious pace and ordered us both to go for it as "Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be" segued into "Have a Drink on Me" as we mopped up a third Brit, Andrew to let us cross the line as team. Ahead, there lay medals.
Results went on the pin board at the admin tent. I wasn't interested in my stage time - just the overall standings, which would be final. I see mine. I'd come 14th. I see Thomas, the lovely chap who'd helped me out on the long stage looking too as I walk off. He catches my eye and walks over, puts his hand on my shoulder and smiles.
"19 seconds. 19 seconds..."
Thomas was 15th.
He laughed as I told him I was sorry and he should have left me in his wake to stew in the desert on stage 4. I was glad of the times I’d gone past him and cried “Forza Thomas!” I’d at least given something back and he was always running strongly.
"No problem, my friend!'
I'd also finished only 46 seconds ahead of the 16th place and 17th was another 45 back, despite them having taken huge chunks of time out of me on the last two days. All those times when I'd thought of walking, but hadn't and things like Nathan pushing the pace for that mile and Jay stopping me from falling off the Jebel had meant I'd incredibly held onto three places I could and should have lost. My initial goal was top 50, considering the lack of training and just how hard the race and field is, but had hoped to do top 20, if things went ok. As such, it felt like a huge gain and my mood, that had been rapidly improving ever since I'd been able to breathe a bit better and seemed to have been reaching a peak hit new heights. This was matched by the whole camp, who of course turned out in force for the final runners and all as their own wonderful and varied tales to tell. All involved a fair degree of suffering, as you'd expect. Plaudits went to Rachid and Ragna as the men's and women's champions, but beyond that it didn't really matter. There is no real hierarchy in the desert. The MdS is do, or do not. Finish, or at least bust a gut trying. I saw 800-plus people and many more dedicated and caring volunteers doing that in the Saharan sun for the last week and more. Chapeau.
This is known as the Solidarité stage and while it has to be completed, it isn't counted in the rankings and gives a great opportunity for tent-mates to complete a stage together at their own pace, sharing stories and memories of the week and, as it turned out, a lot of fantasies about the food we would get that evening. It’s also a showpiece for the great charitable work that the Marathon des Sables foundation dos each year, with 2019 beng the year a new sports centre for the children of Ouarzazate was opened.
Team Oreo made it to the finish, medals in hand and eventually returned to Ouarzazate and a real bed. The rest is calorific history, but if you were wondering, it took me 90 minutes and a lot of lost hair before that comb had a trouble-free path. Maybe it's time for a trip to the barbers? What do you think?
So, that was the MdS. The hardest race I've ever done, but it's a funny and unique one in that it's as hard as you make it and hard in different ways. The cut-offs are such that most abilities and body shapes are able to complete it, as long as you're prepared to dig deep and maybe skimp on personal hygiene a tad for a short while. If you're wondering whether you should do it, you're halfway to signing up and I'd recommend cracking on, but for me?
I'm pretty tired. I think I'll go home now.
Dedicated to Akbar, Carl, Greg, Rickson, Si, Tyrone and Vikram – Team Oreo; all who ran, volunteered and especially those who showed me such kindness; my family and above all, the Strawbridge ladies, Nadine, Bee and Sue.
P.S. If you’re wondering: Yes, I did meet Cactus – I gave him a check-up too. He was a very sweet and gentle dog, with great teeth, who loved tummy tickles. He’ll do just fine and is back home with his owner, with a story to tell, just like all of us.