The Marathon des Sables has been ranked by the Discovery Channel as the toughest footrace on earth.
Imagine yourself in the Sahara, 9-10kg of food and supplies on your back and 156 miles between you and your goal, the next few nights you’ll sleep in an open-sided tent made up of a blanket on the ground and one overhead propped up with sticks, your feet will blister your body with ache, tire and be deprived of the food and energy it craves. This is what we signed up for!
I’m chuffed to say I returned from the Sahara’s Marathon des Sables relatively uninjured, in good health albeit substantially leaner and drier than before but most importantly with a nice big shiny new medal and an overwhelming sense of achievement. Not only that but I also had incredible support and raised more than £18,000 for a local charity Anna’s Hope which gave me so much extra drive to push on through training and the race itself.
The event as a whole really made the 10 months of training a very worthwhile journey. Around this time last year I was busting a gut to complete my furthest race to date a 20 mile obstacle race. Since then I honed my training to become an ultra-runner able to take on back-to-back marathons injury free with enough left in the tank to get up and do it all again.
I joined an excitable and slightly anxious bunch of Brits gathered at Gatwick ready for the first leg of our adventure, in our home towns we’d all been ‘that nutter’ planning to run across the Sahara and received constant questions of disbelief and awe, yet now we were herded together amongst our own kind, nobody was asking each other why we were doing it. We all had out own personal reasons but a mutually respectful nod was enough to confirm why we were here. I was one eighth of an eclectic mix of gents hand-picked by our mutual acquaintance and coach Rory Coleman to share a tent. I was the youngest in our gang, they were all fantastic guys, Angus, Simon, Per, Craig, Jonathan, Rory and the inspirational and legendary Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a lovely humble man on his own mission just like the rest of us, but yep, what a guy!
After 12 hours by plane and coach upon finally arriving at camp the reality of our living conditions were laid out before us. A rug over the rocky thistly floor with a thick black canopy overhead propped up with sticks and corners nailed down but not enough to stop the wind and sand blowing through. This was to be home for the next 10 days albeit in changing locations. After a day settling into camp, packing, tinkering and repacking our backpacks, our cases and luxuries were sent away until the job was done. My first mistake was soon apparent having braved the idea of not carrying the extra weight of a sleeping mat of any kind. I snuggled into my sleeping bag trying to find a comfortable spot between the jagged rocks under the blanket on the ground (there were no such spots).
Having been awake most of the night failing to nod off to the soothing sounds of snoring from other tent-mates and the comforts of the rocks below I sat up around 5.30 as the rest of camp stirred. I dug out one of my bags of granola cleverly processed in a blender to take up less space in my bag added some cold water to the bag and tucked in. A handy skill I learned later was to cut the bottom of my water bottle off to make a neat little bowl. This bowl of cereal and nuts was worth 800 calories and was most of the fuel to get me through the run ahead, the rest would be my stored resources. Before I was done eating, the camp’s workforce started taking our tent down from over our heads, it was still only 6am but they to dismantle the whole camp and rebuild it 20-odd miles away before the fastest of us later arrived on foot.
This first day was the most daunting, we eventually lined up at the start, heavy packs neatly packed, mine was a fairly light 7.5kg plus 1.5 litres of water rounding it up to 9kg of luggage for my trip.
The organisers and founder Patrick Bauer gave a lengthy pep talk about sun cream, water, sun hats and being careful out there, we sang happy birthday to a few people in the crowd and then to the anthem of Highway to Hell the countdown started and we were off! 1331 people made the start line this year, ahead was a distant horizon over sand, rocks and some hefty climbs. There was a rush to start with and within the first mile I was already panting and needing a swig of my water. A few miles in the pace eased up a bit and the crowd had spread out, I counted down the miles until the first checkpoint. Passing through at around 7-8 miles I had my water card clipped, they gave me my 1.5L allowance which I topped up my bottles with before heading out for the next chunk of fast heating terrain. This first day gave me lots to learn, the terrain was rocky and dry much of the time but when the sands and hills got you they would suck away the energy in no time.
Much to my relief I made the finish line, I’d place 179th on my first day, a little over 22 miles in just 4 hours 51 minutes which I was pretty pleased with considering the conditions and extra weight.
After crossing the finish line we were treated to a very small but sweet honey tea of sorts, then we picked up 4.5 litres to last until morning. Those that needed to queued for the doctors to mend their feet or deal with any other problems. We then had dinner to look forward to which in my case was a small bag of freeze dried beef curry. I added my water to the bag and sat it in the sun for half an hour until it was warm enough to class as a nice meal. This followed by a chocolate recovery shake later was my reward and vital energy to get me as nourished as could be ready for day two.
Despite another night with I think around two hours sleep, day one’s lessons had boosted my confidence and I felt ready to do it all again. Breakfast, tape up my toes, pep-talk, birthday songs, and we’re off! This was a treat only being around 18 miles, there were however some pretty big climbs this day one reaching well over 900m which took almost an hour to climb and we later learned temperatures topped 50 degrees this day and back at camp it reached a cosy 38 in the shade. That as well as plenty of sand made for a tough challenge but I pushed on finishing stronger in a very pleasing 136th in 4hrs 18m and looking forward to my freeze-dried spaghetti Bolognese, mmm!
Day 3 started well as I’d acquired some sleeping tablets from a tent-mate Barney (Craig) and also the ground beneath the rug was much softer this time. So with a very welcome five hours or so under my belt I set off feeling confident. This was the first day I’d not stopped to get my camera out and capture the stunning surroundings. I just wanted to get done and back for a decent rest so I could hold onto what was a pretty satisfying position before taking on the big day four!
This was it, the big one 57 miles of desert lay ahead of us, many would break it in two and camp at one of the checkpoints for a few hours before finishing on day 5. I planned to go right through to get done in one hit. I set off holding back for a slow but steady pace, it was going to be a very long day. Before this day the furthest I’d ever run was 30 miles and that was on tarmac with just a couple of kilos on my back, no sand and no giant hills to climb. Now I had this goliath task, underfed, lacking sleep, dehydrated with blistered and busted up toes.
It was certainly not easy, the terrain varied from rocks, to salt plains, sand dunes and giant 900m summits. At stages the sand dunes seemed to go on forever and the enormity of them was awe inspiring, they could swallow up a whole city hiding the tops of every building, it was truly amazing. Around 20 miles in I pulled out a tiny glass jar my daughter Oonagh-Mae had given me, I filled it as labelled with ‘Sahara Sand’ to take back for her as requested, I also collected a few fossils for my boy Ethan, as much as it was adding weight to my pack, it was still lighter than the first few days so was feasible.
After 10-11 hours of running, walking and crawling the sun went down and I flicked on my head torch. I saw nothing but my circle of light on the ground and the glow sticks each runner had on their backs plus a glow stick around every 500m showing the way and I had 4 more hours ahead of me yet. I’d paced my gels, sweets, water and salts well all day long but just after the very last checkpoint with only 6km to go I hit a wall, I had nothing. I was suddenly like a staggering drunk in the blackness with strong winds kicking up a lot of sand which I watched though my goggles. A couple of times I had to drop to my knees to take a breather as I was getting light headed. I dug into my bag and stole a gel and some beef jerky from the next day’s rations. I got up and took baby steps for a while until I started to feel the sugars kick in. I picked up to a jog and trotted in the last couple of miles to finally finish in just under 15 hours. With the elation and adrenalin I waved at the live webcam knowing people were watching from home. Just as my son Ethan had asked I managed to perform a half-decent cartwheel for the camera before staggering back to what should have been a tent but in the winds had become a pile of blankets and sticks. I curled into a ball and waited with Angus for the staff to rebuild it around us.
The 5th day was for many a case of still finishing the long stage but as we’d got done in the same day we got to rest and eat more of our stash and when the time came we’d go and cheer in our remaining tent mates. There had been a film crew out with us all week updating the media back in the UK on how Ranulph was doing, we all mucked in helping Ran and the team. Sharing in a tent you become close as mates and needless to say it was a big bonus to share with this amazing man. At 71 he was completing the course, albeit at a much slower pace than us young nippers but he’s out there cooking twice as long yet still with the same rations, so we were at times genuinely concerned for the old boy and it was a huge relief to see him along with our Rory making it to the finish line each day.
The final day was the marathon stage; a full 26.2 miles and to make it a little more tense I was among the top 200 who were to start 90 minutes after everyone else. Suddenly it felt like a real race! We watched everyone take off and then prepared to set off. I was placed around 150th in this line-up so was one of the slower ones. The leaders tore away, these guys are amazing, one of them has won the London Marathon twice which gives a good idea of how fast they can be and it’s so humbling to watch them effortlessly float over the sand.
Within an hour I’d caught up with the back of the field, a couple of whom were our boys Ran and Rory. Ran said he was really pleased to see me and they wished me well as I carried on ahead. From that point I was overtaking people constantly, giving them words of support and encouragement and receiving the same in return. There was a lot of adrenalin and excitement fuelling everyone along knowing that this was it, just a few more hours and we’d have our medals.
I raced on steadily passing one person after then next but also hoping to make headway amongst the 200 I’d started with in order to hopefully hold a good position in the field since having worked so hard for it all week. The terrain was pretty good this day allowing me to finally cross that line in just over 5 hours with a total time of 34h 9m 16s and securing myself and overall place of 152nd. This in a field of more than 1300 people from 50 different countries, all of whom like me had trained so hard for so long and committed so much felt amazing.
I smiled and waved for the webcam fans back home, got my tasty tea, a sprayed mist of cold water and a well-earned sit down with some more freeze-dried treats to see me through the night.
I can whole-heartedly say the MdS was an incredible life experience, the journey as a whole to the level I’m now at has been very testing mentally and physically but was truly fantastic. I admire every person out there from all walks of life, all shapes and sizes taking on this behemoth challenge for their own reasons. 92 people DNF’d (did not finish) for reasons varying from dehydration, heatstroke and blooded blistered feet to broken legs, noses and cracked heads from falling and even a burst intestine for one poor person.
I was pleased to finish unscathed and triumphant much to the overwhelming relief of family and friends back home and my medal and memories will have a special place for a long time. ‘How do you top that?’ is a common question I’m being asked now. Well with the mental strength I’ve gained from this I can’t think of much I wouldn’t be willing to tackle next.