Marathon des Sables
2 weeks on, and now we’re both back in the ‘real world’ and day jobs, wondering if the surreal race through the Sahara desert was all just a dream.
If I had to sum up the experience up in just one word, it would be exhilarating. There’s nowhere else where you can traverse one of the most stunning landscapes on earth, with some of the most inspirational people you will ever meet. This is something anyone can do, you just need to believe you are capable of more than you ever dreamt possible, and then take the leap.
While we were in the Sahara it was difficult to get the time to write about all our experiences, so, without further ado, here is a recap of our amazing adventure written from Tanya’s perspective.
DAY 1: ARRIVAL AT BIVOUAC 1 (CAMPSITE WHERE THE RACE BEGINS).
As we pile out of the coaches that transported us all from the desert town of Ouarzazate, we can see the bivouac in the far distance, row upon row of black tents, arranged in a giant circle.
Amazingly, it is raining lightly, but within minutes a dusty sand storm (mild variety) envelopes us all and everyone scrambles to put on sunglasses to protect eyes from the grit flying around. Everyone grabs their bags and clambers onto the luxurious transport to the bivouac, a line of army unimogs (trucks). If there was any doubt that we had left the luxuries of the western world far behind, they were certainly gone now!
The bivouac itself is a riot of colour and sound. There are over 1000 competitors here from all over the world, who are supported by over 400 staff, 270 berbers (locals), 100 all-terrain vehicles, two helicopters and one plane, plus 6.5km of Elastoplast and over 120,000 litres of water!
Our new home for the next week or so are traditional berber tents, made from heavy black cloth. They’re surprisingly more comfortable than they look…either that or we were so knackered at the end of each day, we slept soundly regardless of the conditions. I’m part of tent #69, and the only girl! Apart from my husband Yaroslav, we have Drew and James, friends racing together who have raised over $40,000 for their charity (supporting disadvantaged kids in sport) to be here. There is also Andy, a former bomb and IED disposal expert who is doing this race in honour of his friends and workmates, some of whom died or lost limbs in the service of their dangerous profession. In their memory, he will be doing the entire race in his bomb-disposal gear to raise awareness. Absolutely mad and admirable. I am in impressive company!
DAY 2: RACE BRIEFING AND REGISTRATION.
Everyone is hyped. The atmosphere here is electric as people register and do their last minute kit checks before race day. At the center of our tent ‘village’, Patrick Bauer (who founded the race in the mid-1980s) gives us a long speech on rules, regulations, safety and tips for the days ahead. We meet last year’s winners and get pumped as the media helicopter does low fly-bys overhead.
Television crews are everywhere, and there are at least two documentary crews following the German and Japanese teams this year, as well as the usual French media hoopla. This year we have some inspirational competitors. A group of French firemen are taking three disabled children through the event, carrying one of them each day on a custom-designed wheel/sedan style chair. Two blind people are competing with their guides, and a one-legged Israeli man will be competing as well, using his custom carbon-fibre blade and crutches to carry him along. Humbling.
DAY 3: RACE DAY, 37.2KM
If yesterday was exciting, today is manic. The berbers start taking down the tents at 6am each morning, and if you’re still in it, it gets taken down around you regardless! Today we are one of the first tents to get packed up, so breakfast is out in the open air with the buzz of the campsite surrounding us.
By 7am our bags are packed and ready to go with supplies to sustain us for the next 7 days. There is nothing to do but wait for the start and hope we survive!
Everyone is smiling and cheering, bands are playing, planes and helicopters do low fly-bys constantly. Cameras are everywhere and flashes pop constantly. TV crews roam the starting line, and people are being interviewed left right and centre. We are in the middle of the desert with nothing around for miles, and there is more adrenalin, high spirits and dancing/jumping about than a giant rave party on new year’s eve. Highway to Hell blasts through the speakers, a tradition that is played at every single start for every one of these races. It’s simply amazing.
After what seems like an age, Patrick Bauer finishes his speech (in French of course), and suddenly we are off, careening through the desert like a herd of startled colourful gazelles. The helicopter pilot is a magician. He sweeps along the long train of people stretching out into the desert so closely, that you could almost reach up and touch the feet of the chopper as it passes over our heads. And so we begin one of the toughest weeks of our lives.
Today is 37.2km, an unusually long leg for the first day of the event. We pass through magical scenery, travelling across small dune systems, along broad flat rocky plains and up hills that offer sweeping views of the desert.
DAY 4: ARE YOU TOUGH ENOUGH? 30.7KM
After our long walk yesterday we have a shorter distance to complete, but today will be anything but easy. Later described by race veterans and leaders as the toughest leg they had experienced so far, today was a true test of spirit, with 3 jebels (mountains) to climb and sand dunes to navigate before reaching the finish line. Temperatures reached over 40 degrees today, some say over 50.
At the top of each punishing jebel we are rewarded with amazing 360 degree views. It’s a prefect chance to take a breath or three and prepare yourself for the next onslaught.
The final jebel is the real killer. With over a 25% incline, the rock face, which stretches some 250 metres upwards, has accumulated sand over previous seasons, pushed along by the desert winds. The sand makes every step more difficult, with the sensation that you’re going backwards at times. Already weary from the last two mammoth climbs and long treks over barren plains in the heat, the effort is brutal and intense.
Finally, at the top of this last tortuous mountain, we are rewarded with the sight of the finish line in the distance. Of course, because this is the marathon des sables, it is still some kilometres away, and we have to cross a small dune field to get there. Still, the sight lifts my spirits and I practically sprint (ok, hobble) to the finish line. Exhausted I cook my dinner together with my teammates in our tent, and doctor my punished feet so I’m ready to go again tomorrow. I am fast become a expert blister-repair doctor, and my elastoplast skills are second to none! That night we all slept so soundly, I don’t think anyone moved until dawn the next morning.
DAY 5: KEEP ON TRUCKIN’ 38KM
Today brings us another 38km closer to the finish. After yesterday’s gargantuan effort, people are now starting to feel the pain and the average pace has visibly slowed. Yaroslav and I are both nursing blisters, and it’s become a matter of managing your feet and your body to last the distance relatively intact…after all, tomorrow will be the extra-long stage overnight! Today I simply aim to enjoying the scenery and keep a steady, ground eating pace as best as I can.
Early on in this stage we pass through the little town of El March, with its oasis of palm trees and curious locals. The heat has really started to set in, with temperatures climbing past the 40 degrees and starting to edge into the 50’s.
Yesterday I had put in a fairly solid effort, so I find the going more difficult than usual, and my feet are giving me significant grief today. I take a lengthy rest stop at the third checkpoint and shanghai one of the poor nurses on duty there to help me out, who does his best to drain the blisters and bandage my feet so I can finish this stage. We’re laughing and joking whilst he works, but I can see in his eyes that he thinks I’m barking mad for being here. “Respect” he says to me as I leave, and then some more words in French. I work out he was trying to tell me that he had a lot of respect for the fact that I (a) managed walk here on my feet in the condition they were in, and (b) will be continuing on to the finish line (about another 15km away) to complete the stage regardless. It took two hours for him to do his work, but whatever he did (I stopped watching!) worked and I found myself motoring along at a decent clip to finish just before sundown. I even manage to enjoy some of the spectacular scenery along the way.
DAY 6-7: HANGING IN THERE! 75.7KM
Today is the stage everyone has been dreading, a long trek of just over 75km, which (for just about all competitors) will include continuing through the night to complete the next morning. Surprisingly, this leg proved to be one of the most enjoyable in the race. Everyone is quite sociable, and once you accept the fact that your feet are going to hurt no matter what, it’s relatively straightforward to find your pace and just simply keep going.
Not long after I pass through the first checkpoint, I catch up with tent-mate Andy, still wearing his bomb suit. We’re both making our way along at the same pace and have a similar plan for this stage (don’t stop until you get to the end!), so we decide to complete this leg together. It’s good to have someone watch your back, as today the heat officially reaches 54 degrees. People are visibly suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion, particularly as we traverse the long open baking plains in the midday sun. Andy reminds me to take my salt pills at one hour intervals (avoiding hypotranemia, an electrolyte imbalance from drinking too much water), and we both find the hours literally rush by as we joke and talk rubbish for the next 6-8 hours or so till sundown.
We make checkpoint 4 (45.2km) just after sunset, and we stop and take a decent break to have a hot meal and elevate our feet for a while. At this rest stop many people choose to sleep for a few hours before continuing on in the morning, but we’re both of the opinion that this will hurt either way, and it’s best get it over and done with in one go, rather than trying to go again once muscles have had a chance to seize up!
Checkpoint 4 to checkpoint 5 (54.2km) has to be the most fun. We’re walking in the dark, but the race organisers have set up a giant green laser beam that lances out into the night to guide you in. At this point we are crossing a beautiful large sand dune field, and buoyed up by an intoxicating cocktail of a hot meal, some serious codeine painkillers and a no-doze nizagara pill, we hammer through these at a terrific clip passing at least 20-30 people on the way. I think it helps that the whole leg was in soft sand, which is gentle on tender feet!
The dunes are eerily beautiful at night, the punishing heat from the day has gone and millions of stars have come out. With no big city lights to distract the eye the stars shine undiminished, and the crests of the dunes stretching before us are lit gently by the moon. My super-powerful ‘Ayup’ head torch beams out like my own personal lighthouse, which makes navigating through them a breeze!
Finally, as dawn breaks the finish line for this leg is in sight. We’re both weary and unbelievably sore in legs and feet, but (thank god) we now have a full day and night to rest and recover before tackling the final marathon stage.
DAY 8: THE END IS IN SIGHT! 42.2KM
This is it, the final official stage has arrived. For everyone who made it through yesterday, it’s now a case of seeing this through to the end to collect our medals at today’s finish line. Very few people bother running at the start, as we are all now veterens and know better than to start out hard, only to run out of energy later in the race. Plus, everyone is footsore, and I do mean everyone! Even the elite runners are nursing a blister or two by today. Yaroslav and I have both had to slice our shoes open to accomodate our ever-expanding feet, and to ease off the pressure on the blisters and sore spots we have accumulated.
So, to echo a famous poet, todays start begins not so much with a bang, but a whimper. But its a happy whimper at least! Everyone is all smiles and there’s something ridiculously funny about the way everyone limps to the start line like a bunch of geriatric 80-year olds.
Today turns out to be hottest yet, with temperatures again reaching 54 degrees, and long stretches of flat open terrain to navigate. Water is in tight supply today and we have to ration carefully between checkpoints. More than one person runs out before hitting resupply points along the route. Luckily I had over a litre left over from yesterday so I manage fine, but many competitors choose to take a 1/2 hour time penalty and grab and extra bottle at the checkpoints.
Our final 10km takes us through the ancient town of M’Fis, which used to be the home of people who worked the nearby lead mine. It’s in ruins now, but people still ghost about in doorways as we run through. It’s beyond strange, never have I felt more like I’m in a video game or a scene from Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones. The thought keeps me amused as I pass through, and only the guy snapping photos of all the girls passing by on his iphone spoils my role playing!
Finally I crest the last rise and the final finish line is in sight! Broken feet or not, I cannot help but break into a jog, which slowly accelerates as I run the last 3km home. Yaroslav is waiting for me just before the finish, and together we run the last 500m. Those of my Aussie teammates who finished before me are all lined up at the end, and I get a rousing cheer as I approach cross the finish line. Patrick Bauer is waiting with my medal, and in true French style I get a kiss on each cheek and a hug before he hangs it round my neck. It’s a hell of a rush, and one of the reasons this race is amazing, everyone is treated a winner regardless of where you are in the pack.
Together the Aussie team finishers wait until the rest of the group comes in, giving each victorious finisher a rousing cheer as they cross the line. We’re still anxiously awaiting for bomb-disposal expert Andy to come in though…his poor feet were in pretty rough condition yesterday and that, together with wearing the bomb suit today in 54 degree heat will make today very tough going for him. Finally, about 10 minutes before the final cut off time, we see him pelting (ok this is relative, kind of more a hobble-run) towards the finish line. Everyone goes nuts as he crosses and gets his medal from Patrick.
It’s a wonderful finale, everyone made it through and now is the time to celebrate. Tonight we are getting our first catered meal in a week, and wine too! The organisers have installed a stage and a band will be playing. Ironically most of the competitors are pretty shattered, and I admit, after my glass of red wine I’m back to our tent to pass out till the next morning.
DAY 9: HOMEWARD-BOUND! THE UNICEF CHARITY WALK 7KM
Today we Marathon Des Sables veterans will walk our final 7km through some spectacular sand dunes for the charity Unicef. It’s a untimed stage and family/friends are invited to join us so the whole day has a very relaxed, carnival atmosphere. It’s just as well as both Yaroslav and I have broken feet and we can only just manage a slow limping walk. Thank God the terrain is soft and sandy, it will be gentler on our tender feet!
All up it takes us about 3 hours to complete a mere 7km. On the way we go through some amazing sweeping dunes, complete with herds of camels and many curious locals!
Finally, though, we make it to the end where our coaches are waiting to ferry us back to Ouarzazate. All up the experience was outstanding and we have learnt a few lessons along the way to help for the next time we do something like this (2015 anyone?!).
My top 3 would have to be:
1. Take care of your feet from Day 1, they need to last you all the way!
2. Pack weight matters. We took more food than was necessary, and our packs wieghed up to 6kg more than some of our Aussie teammates!
3. Regiment your salt, water and calorie intake religously during the event. This will stop dehydration and keep you going when the conditions get tough.
The Marathon Des Sables is a superbly organised event and something I would recommend to anyone, the experience is well worth it!
SATURDAY, APRIL 13, 2013 – WE MADE IT!
Hurrah! We have both completed the MdS 2013. 230 km of blood, sweat and tears, that less than 800 Australians have managed to complete in the 28 years the race has been running.
Thanks to everyone for your support, see you back in OZ!