From Underdog to Ultra Marathon Runner – my Marathon des Sables Adventure!!
One of our Extreme Energy envoys and a guest speaker at the Druid challenge 2013 shares her journey from running novice to Marathon Des Sables finisher.
On 12th April 2013, I successfully completed the 28th Marathon des Sables (MdS) – 223km in 5 days across the Moroccan Sahara. However, unlike a majority of participants taking part in the race I only started running on 1st January 2011. I had read about the MdS in the Metro newspaper in October 2010, ‘Ten things to do before you die….if they don’t kill you!!’. Me being me, I was automatically drawn to the MdS. I got home did some research and contacted the organisers, entries for 2013 opened on 25th May 2011 for the 2013. Marvellous – well I had better start training! My husband, Daz, wasn’t impressed with my new ‘little’ project, not just because of the cost (that nearly made him pass out) but due to my total lack of physical fitness. He knew people in the army that had completed the MdS – in his eyes I didn’t stand a chance but he bought me my first book on running ‘Survival of the Fittest’ by Mike Stroud – who I was fortunate to meet with Sir Ranulph Fiennes at the MdS Expo last year.
By the time my entry was accepted I was almost comfortably running half marathons distance but I had a long way to go. I completed The Royal Parks Half Marathon in October 2011, the following week I ran my first marathon in Amsterdam completing in it sub 5 hours, (husband was slowly developing faith). In February 2012 I entered my first Ultra Marathon (100k over 2 days) – ‘The Pilgrims’ that’s how I met the amazing XNRG team. Well that was an eye opener, I decided to run (walk) the event carrying a 5kg pack in preparation for the MdS – it was tough, I was last but I wasn’t broken. Luckily I enjoy running, especially Ultras and off road races. If I didn’t it would have been really tough to train for the MdS.
By the time I flew out to Ouarzazate, excluding regular training I had completed the following:
- 4 Half Marathons
- 7 Marathons (8 including the London Marathon the same week I got back)
- 6 Ultra Marathons (7 including the MdS)
- Climbed the 3 peaks of Scotland, England & Wales
- Walked 100km from London to Brighton in under 24 hours.
Nonetheless, marathons alone were not going to get me through the MdS. I’d read books, seen films and met competitors; the temperature, terrain and physical weight of my pack would be incredibly challenging. As well as running, I was coached by Rory Coleman and Jen Salter, I regularly trained in the gym, had a personal trainer twice a week and went to Bikram Hot Yoga classes at least 3 times a week. My yoga teachers husband was doing his second MdS in 2013!!
Roll forward to 4th April 2013….
D day had arrived I was off to Morocco with 400 athletes – I had trained as hard as I could. Lost 12kg in weight but I was ever so slightly scared. Some people were travelling with their entire kit – I made the decision to hand carry trainers, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and running clothes. Everything else was checked in and fingers were crossed that they arrived the other side. Once I met up with friends I was fine but I felt for those people that were still trying to find tent and room buddies.
Tip: Find a hotel room buddy and tent buddies in advance of getting to the desert. You will make friends at events and on the Mds Forum – these buddies will be part of your MdS experience. My tent buddies were incredible and we became a little family. I met people that didn’t have great tent experiences – the desert is a hard place. The last thing you want is to return to an unfriendly tent.
Tip: Make sure you carry a pen or you could be in customs for ages waiting to borrow one!
Once clearing customs I was happy to be reunited with my bag and we were coached off to the Berber Palace Hotel, considering the number of people checking in the process was quite efficient, but you have to be patient . We had a lovely dinner in the evening and went to bed early as we have to be out of the hotel by 5am for the 6 hour drive to Jebel Irns. We were dropped off at the side of the road, collected our bags and were loaded onto huge army trucks and driven to camp. First sight of camp awesome!! Pete met Tom and I at our truck to help us to ‘Tent 110’ our home for the week, later draped with a Nottingham flag making it was easy to spot as I came in each day!
We had the rest of Friday to sort ourselves out. I had already prepared my kit from home and everything was packed and ready to load into my OMM Classic 25l. Initially my bag weighed less than 7kg, but I decided to take my Power Monkey, camera and after the first night a light weight jacket the desert was cold the first two nights. My theory was that as long as I ate well, slept comfortably and looked after my feet I stood a fighting chance of finishing this event.
Tip: Take an inflatable airbed for the first two nights; you don’t need anything expensive just something comfy as there are no guarantees how you will sleep during the race.
Verification 5th April….
This was the day we submitted our paper work, had our kit checked, collected the flare, water/medical cards, number 2 bags and surrendered our luggage. This went smoothly and the organising team were really helpful and friendly. Unfortunately, my bag weight had now increased to just over 8kg and I still had to add 1.5kg of water to my bottles…grrrrr!
There wasn’t really much to do in camp so Pete and I went exploring in the desert and had a little run – although my bag was heavier than expected it felt fine and the desert was incredible.
In the evening we had our final home cooked meal – however if your vegetarian the self sufficiency probably starts the day you reach the desert as poor Sally found out.
Day 1: Sunday 7th April 2013
Distance to be covered 37.2km – CP 1 13.4km & CP 2 24.8km
We woke up at 5.30am as we had been told the Berbers start to dismantle bivouacs at 6am.
Whilst brushing teeth water was boiled for breakfast and coffee. The bivouac dismantling wasn’t graceful and they didn’t mind dragging it over our fire. So we were left with a rug on which to prepare ourselves for the day and had to collect our first allocation of water for the day.
The race briefing commenced 7:30am, and we would be getting started at 8:30am. After a comprehensive and passionate speech from Patrick Bauer, the race Director and singing happy birthday to competitors we finally started to AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’!!
I used a combination of running and walking to check point 1 – running for 25minutes and walking for 5 minutes, I still couldn’t believe I was here I took it easy as it was day one and I just wanted to focus on finishing. By the time I got to checkpoint 1 both my water bottles were half full, I had been drinking little and often (too little) and now I had another 1.5l to drink before the next checkpoint.
After leaving the checkpoint the running had become walking the sand dunes were energy sapping but I was happy to get to checkpoint 2 – no idea what to do with 3 litres of water, tried to drink more – failed the salt tablets weren’t too bad. 3km from the end I was met by Steve on top of a stony valley and I could see camp I was overjoyed.
I crossed the finish line in 8:09:48 day 1 in the bag and I felt great and was given a delicious cup of Sultan tea.
I collected my 4.5l of water and hunted down my tent. All members of tent 110 completed day one. After hydrating, washing, eating my evening meal and massaging myself with natural hero ginger rub it was time for bed.
Blister count: 1 on arch of right foot cause – rubbing on orthotic
Day 2: Monday 8th April 2013
Distance to be covered 30km – CP 1 12km & CP 2 24km
I was pleasantly surprised at what a good sleep I had and felt fresh in the morning – bit sandy but not bad under the circumstances. Having studied the road book whilst having my evening meal the previous night, I wasn’t looking forward to ‘Mountain Day’. Apparently it was the hardest second day for several years.
We started at 8.30am and if felt hotter than yesterday already. Our task was to climb three jebels, the first was a baby. The second following checkpoint 1 was a 15% incline. It was a slow climb in single file as the path was so narrow. The terrain was a mixture of rock, stone and sand, at the top the views where fantastic and I got snap happy. The final jebel following checkpoint 2 was a 25% incline and required a rope to ascend. At one stage I was scrambling, being short I just couldn’t reach all the rocks to climb them and this was frustrating I was pretty scared and conscious of the people behind me. I couldn’t stop or that would have created problems for everyone behind me. With determination I got to the top with my pal Laura and we gave each other a huge hug. I got my breath back – got my act together and started the descent to camp – par for course that sand dunes were thrown in for good measure but I was ecstatic when I crossed the finish line.
I crossed the finish line in 8:51:21 day 2 in the bag and I felt great and was given a delicious cup of tea. After I repeated the routine for the night before I visited Doc Trotters as the blister I had christened, ‘Cedric’ got bigger today and needed lancing and taping up.
Blister Count: 2 Cedric, plus half a blister forming on middle toe of left foot.
Day 3: Tuesday 9th April 2013
Distance to be covered 38km – CP 1 13km, CP 2 22.5km & CP 3 32.4km
I think my half of the tent slept reasonably when but I think the tent may have collapsed on Tom during the night. After breakfast I went to wish my pal Rob Goodhew happy birthday to find that he didn’t complete day 2 – absolutely gutted for him. When I got back to the tent I had emails waiting for me which was lovely and improved my mood but I was gutted for Rob.
Compared to the previous days this stage relatively flat so I was hoping to make up time, but there was also lots of soft sand underfoot which didn’t help on the speed front. Wsa really looking forward to the small cup of tea and craving oranges!!
I crossed the finish line in 8:30:01 day 3 in the bag and I felt tried. Bit concerned about the long day tomorrow – we all were.
Day 4 & 5: Wednesday 10th – Thursday 11th April 2013
Distance to be covered 75km – CP 1 11.5km, CP 2 24km, CP 3 36.7km, CP 4 45.2km, CP 5 54.2km , CP6 65km
We had 35 hours to complete this distance and my aim was to finish in 17 – 20 hours, going straight through the next day without having to sleep at any of the checkpoints. How wrong I was….
When we left camp it felt hotter than any day to day – turned out the temperature was 54 degrees centigrade and 48 in the shade. Each checkpoint I got too had pretty packed tents. At checkpoint 2 I decided to hide in the shade for 45 minutes rehydrate, take salt tablets and eat. My drinking was getting better by the time I was getting to each checkpoint I had drunk all my fluid but today was a challenge. As the sun went down I was able to make up for lost time and my water got cooler. By the time I got to checkpoint 3 people were already bedding down for the night. I was tired but I didn’t want to stop here. I had no idea how long it was going to take me wade through the vast mega sand dunes between checkpoints 3 and 4, at least if I got to checkpoint 4 it would mean I only had 25km to complete after a night’s sleep if that was what I decided to do.
I stuck with Chris, who I knew via Rory Coleman and we took on the sand dunes. It took 3 hours to travel 9km, flies were dive bombing out torches and I was in so much pain. The sand dunes were incredible they were so high I wish I could have seen them during the day. However, the soft sand was causing my foot to move all over the place and aggravating my blister. I had to stop at checkpoint 4 – Chris was brilliant and didn’t want to leave me but I didn’t want to scupper things for him, I was in tremendous pain and exhausted. Doc trotters refused to open up my bandaging as they didn’t want the blister to become infected. One of the fantastic volunteers found me a place to sleep and I rolled out my sleeping bag and went to sleep with a rock under my head. My alarm call was placed for 5.30am. As I packed my sleeping bag away a camera man came to interview me. Then the funniest thing happened tent mate Tom of Sherwood Forest had heard my voice came out of the tent next to me. Turns out he and Sally had got to checkpoint 4 an hour before me the night before and decided to stop too. I was so happy to see both of them. Sally’s feet were in a bad way but we made the decision to plod on to checkpoint 5 for breakfast and then we continued on through to checkpoint 6 getting very odd looks from goats and goat herders alike.
Tom ran across the finish line with our Nottingham flag and I walked across with Sally – we did it! Following a well deserved tea we still had plenty of time to rest for our marathon tomorrow.
I rehydrated, took a shower with 500ml of water, after some food, Guy (tent vet) lanced my blister and I visited Doc Trotters to get it bandaged up. I missed the email tent as it closed at 17:00 – I was gutted as I wanted to let Daz know I was ok as were other competitors.
We crossed the finish line in 27:10:01 the adventure has nearly come to an end. Today was Guys birthday and Pete was superstar he gave Guy a packet of fruit pastilles and a sweat birthday card!
Day 5: Friday 12th April 2013
Distance to be covered 10.5km – CP 1 22.5km, CP 2 22.5km & CP 3 33.7km
I woke up with bags of energy – it was the final day. I managed to swop my porridge for oriental chicken and rice and I was raring to go. I knew I was now poles away from my original 50 hour finish but a finish is a finish.
During the 6km I really struggled with my foot, to the extent that Steve pulled over explained the to medic what the problem was and they stated padding out my orthotic. Then I heard ‘medical emergency’ over the road. Next thing I know I am sit in the desert with a bare foot and Didier the blind man passes me, followed by Mohammed with one leg – any minute now I am expecting the camels to check me out!! I did what the medics told me not to do. I removed the orthotic, put my socks back on and them pretty much locked on to each person that was in front of me and over took them. I was walking at a pace of just over 6.5km and hour now and I felt awesome. After leaving checkpoint three i could see something that looked like an old Palace in the distance. It was quite pretty but odd at the same time as people obviously lived in this run down ruin. Once I reached the Palace I could see base camp the finish line and I was well within the cut off time. The ipod was on and I was singing very very load and dancing (badly).
I crossed the finish line in just under 10 hours and was in floods of happy tears. Poor Patrick didn’t know what had hit him. I jumped for joy in front of the webcam with Lia – drank tea and headed straight for the email tent. My overall ranking was 920.
That night the occupant’s of tent 110 had a marvellous night as we reminisced on this amazing adventure. Patrick had laid a party on for us and we listened to the party in our tent and feel a sleep under the stars for the last night on the desert.
The Marathon des Sables was incredible and I now understand why people do it again. The event should not be under estimated it is brutal in places but with disciplined training, an understanding husband, spirit, determination and a couple of nueromol an underdog completed the 28th Marathon des Sables. There is very little I would change with respect to my kit. Turned out the coat wasn’t needed as it got warmer each night.
On the food front I wish I had taken a couple of pepperami. In future I would also alternate a porridge and a savoury breakfast. Many people I spoke to ditched their medical kits as Doc Trotters were perfect in that department but it doesn’t hurt to keep a few things in case you need them on the road and you aren’t near a checkpoint.
I would do it again but not for a couple of years and I would hope to run more of the event next time. So what’s next? Well it’s got to be the Kalahari Augrabies…..
To read more about my adventures please feel free to visit www.joeythelittletrooper.com
Joey will be our guest speaker at the Druid Challenge in November.
A massive congratulations from the whole Extreme Energy team.