The Worlds Toughest Footrace
And then on Wednesday April 1st 2015, every list was ticked off and I was relaxed in that I had done everything I could do to prepare for the adventure ahead……and essentially you have nothing to do but think. It’s a weird time as it’s also the time that the final messages of encouragement and good luck pour in. These just literally blew me away. As Tom highlighted in disbelief as we boarded our first flight to London, he was getting messages from people he hadn’t heard from in years or barely even knew to wish him all the best. I was experiencing the same.
I guess at this time of having nothing to do but watch the clock tick, many people visit their reason for embarking on the challenge. I did not, because I knew it so well, I knew it when I had pre-registered almost two years ago and nothing had changed.
I was going to run 250km across the Sahara in Marathon Des Sables widely known as the Toughest Footrace on Earth, but why?
For me my reasons were simple: to push my limit, to see what my limit was, to make use of the body I was given. In the process it was my objective to inspire others and have fun along the way. It was crystal clear.
The clock ticked down on that Wednesday afternoon and I used some of the time to re read messages I had received. Some of them really resonated with me and I am happy to share them here in the hope that they can help others.
“Good luck. When or if it gets shitty just remember it’s as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. Then think about sex. For 250km. Et Voila.”
“Just like you always tell me, one foot in front of the other.”
“Best of luck my main in the desert, keep moving and keep the head strong, the body will take care of itself”
A lot of people ask me about Holly (my wife) and how she “deals with my habits”. Well that’s a huge question but I will try to answer it related to this particular challenge. I simply have “no idea”. She is literally superhuman. I cannot imagine living with me and having to listen to me come home and say, “I’m going to do this challenge or that challenge”. This is where she is without doubt the most amazing person I have ever met. I tell her about the challenge, she asks a few questions around it, looks me in the eyes and says “that sounds cool.” Once I have had the look it’s almost like a nod of approval and her support. We talk very little about it after that. She is an incredible person.
It was no surprise that as we sat having dinner on that Wednesday night the conversation was just normal, just like any other day. There is no emotional chat about me being away or in danger, it’s just normal. Strange to some but that’s how we deal with it. And then at 6am on Thursday morning I kissed her as she lay sleeping in bed and told her I will miss her. As she does every-time I go on a trip like this she asks me to have fun but come back safely. How fitting as that’s really my main objective. This connection is possibly why we are the best of friends.
Emirates to Gatwick, the night in Gatwick and then I woke up at 3am on Friday 3rd April, the day I had been waiting for for 2 years was finally here. It was 4 hours until our specially chartered plane was due to leave for Ouarzazate. We got into a lift at Gatwick and met Andy. Of course we were all in the same boat, running ruck sack on our backs with the water bottles on the front and a kit bag in our hand, looking a bit nervous maybe or was that just excitement, you didn’t need to ask people if they were doing MDS, you could just tell. From the outset Andy seemed like a good guy, smiled a lot and was chatty, that’s just what we were going to need in the days ahead. He turned out to be a total legend and along with the other guys in the tent really made the trip memorable. The look on his face when James (another tent mate I will introduce later) declared he did not have the insoles for his shoes as the maid had washed them was priceless. Andy was a fireman from Oldham and did not mix his words. I got a sense at the outset he was made from tough stuff and he proved this during the trip multiple times. I never heard him once complain, total legend. As we headed to check in we quickly found out that Andy was mates with another friend of ours, Lee, who used to live in Dubai and was coming on the trip too, very small world. It was obvious we were going to get on.
It’s funny when you turn up to events like these as its loaded with the “die hards” people that just love this stuff, have a plethora of event finishes to their name, normally look about 15 years older than they really are and all they talk about (in this case) is running and ultra running. When I started out on my ultra journey I simply and somewhat harshly blanketed this community as “running geeks.” A massive generalization but one that worked for me, and that Tom connected with real quick.
A little bit about Tom. We played rugby together about 8 years ago but when I stopped playing we never kept in touch until 2012 when a mutual friend reconnected us. To cut a long story short I was sat in Starbucks (whose coffee I hate) chatting about challenges with Tom when he told me he had never run more than10km. It was 4 weeks out from the 2014 Dubai Marathon so I challenged him to do it. I was met with the normal bunch of excuses as to why it was not possible to which I had all the answers. 5 minutes later, Tom accepted the challenge. I liked that about him.
4 weeks later on his marathon debut he ran sub 4 just like I told him he would that day in Starbucks. At the end of the race when I congratulated him, I told him it was now time to run a bit longer, perhaps an easy thing to say, as I was a week out from my first ultra marathon.
6 months later he entered us in a 90km race through the Brecon Beacons. This was my chance to get a wingman for MDS. He agreed and at 7am on Friday 3rd April 2015 he was stood next to me trying his best to blend in with the running geeks wearing his desert running shoes and a pair of jeans (well hello there Jerry Seinfeld) with his Go Pro hanging off his backpack. I could not have asked for a better guy to take on this adventure with, through his great personality or idiotic stunts like running 45km through the desert in 35degree heat just 10 days before we were set to leave for the Sahara. Tom always made me laugh and that’s what you need on a trip like this.
And just like that all the geeks and us were checked in and on a plane. A few of the geeks really stood out. One in particular who I have to mention was a tall guy who already had his sand gaiters on which for those of you that know what they are you will already be wondering why. For those of you that don’t, just picture a guy walking through an international airport with a set of Wellington boots on in the era before some overrated superstar actually did that and society thought it was cool. Yeah he looked ridiculous but did not care a bit. A strong character trait of this community for sure.
I was excited about chatting to and learning from the geeks, so the thought of a 3 hour flight and 6 hour bus ride prior to 7 days of running and then the same bus and plane in reverse excited me massively. Like most things in my life. I had a simple game plane. If I didn’t like the person who I was talking to within the first 60 seconds then I would stop the conversation and either read my kindle or just walk away. Luckily I got sat next to Nathan, who had some decent chat so I refrained from throwing him out of the emergency exit.
Excitement and nerves oozed out of everyone on the plane. So much geeky chat about what training you had done, what shoes you were using and all that emerged all around us. I was listening to a few different conversations at once whilst sussing out Nathan. Everyone had a similar objective on the flight, which was to secure 7 other people to share a tent with for the week. Some people were taking this very seriously and I had heard it is important as your tent mates can really help morale during the race. So far we had ear marked Andy and Nathan as they were both on their own, so now only needed 4 more randoms to make up our tent. My policy on tent mates was similar to my general policy mentioned above. If they annoyed me I would just not talk to them. At the same time deep down I was keen for a good crew in our tent so it was my objective to control that as much as possible but not get too hung up on it if I can’t. Again similarly to my approach on life.
What I do like to hear from new people that I meet at events like this is why they are doing it. A lot of people on face value have very similar reasons but when you dig a little bit deeper everyone has their own story and that stuff interests me. Motivation is a huge part of what I do in life for other people, be it by training them or standing up and doing a talk and I believe that first hand experience from people themselves is worth a million textbooks. As I always say my motivational talks are based on life experiences that I am lucky to have had or to heave heard from others and not from books. That’s what I was looking forward to this week, learning more about people and how different humans work, how they think and why they do what they do. Did they really know why they were there or who they really were? That stuff excites me massively.
On touch down in Ouarzazate we had nailed 6 for our tent. Tom, Nathan, Andy, Brendan (soon to be nicknamed Irish, he was from…….Ireland obviously) and James. Talking of meeting new people, well Irish and James were actually from Dubai too but I had never met them before.
I had found out a bit about Nathan on the plane and immediately respected where he stood on things. He was a no nonsense kind of guy and literally laughed after everything he said, not in an annoying way but in a fun and positive way. He lived up in the Lake District and I could tell from a few things he casually said that he would be a total warrior on this trip. Brendan made us all laugh from the outset, he had clearly trained hard and put most of his life on hold in order to ensure he completed MDS this year, he had left no stone unturned on equipment knowledge and selection and for that attribute I immediately respected him, I was somewhat disappointed when on the first night I asked him if he had any jokes to which he replied he was the worlds worst joke teller, however most of what Irish said during the week was amusing and he often lifted our spirits. James was from England and like Tom and I had his own business in Dubai, his wife had recently (2 weeks prior) delivered their second child which he explained to me on the first day was hard to leave, but him and his wife had discussed that MDS was a goal of his and it had to be done. I felt from that, that he would turn out to be quite a character and he certainly was.
Ouarzazate airport on first impression was a place that did not get much traffic so the 3 inbound MDS chartered flights that landed within 30 minutes of each other sent the whole place into chaos. The queue from the plane into immigration made me smile, I felt this was the real start of the adventure, this was all part of the test. I very quickly saw this trip as two tests, one obviously of my running ability but the other of my patience for sitting, standing, queuing, waiting and greenly dealing with mental challenges. Once out of the airport we sat on a stationary bus for 2 hours which we were told was not part of the 5-6 hour transfer time to the first bivouac (camp). I remember distinctly looking at my watch when we got on the bus and it was 12:27. We got off the bus at the bivouac at 8:17pm, that may well be the longest bus trip of my life. But we were here, we were at the start of the race, we were to spend our first night under the stars.
I say under the stars, in fact we had a very basic (and I mean basic in the most basic sense of the word) tent, which every time the wind blew not only collapsed at one corner but also provided zero shelter from the elements nor went any way to block any sand. This bothered me for about 1 minute until I reminded myself that we were in the middle of the Sahara and were going to be here for the next week, therefore this was my new normal.
I have many thoughts on normal these days and how people define or should I say miss define it. To me normal is a bit like average, I have little desire to do it, be it or think about it. Having said that sand everywhere was what we were in for and once you have the first layer on it is actually ok.
With the 6 of us comfortably in our new home which was supposed to have 8 we were high fiving each other that we had managed to get away with 2 less in the tent which made it all the more spacious and luxurious, more space for sand and wind maybe!
Saturday was a day of queuing or checks should I say. I sympathize with the organizers at events like this as people complain a lot about things that are really not that bad or process that just have to be done. Now just imagine having to administer 1,300 people from about 25 different countries, many of who do not speak English or French, which were the two common languages. Each competitor had a mandatory kit list, minimum number of calories and a whole backpack to be checked. We then needed to be medically cleared, issued our race number, GPS locator and race chip. Not a simple process by any means. So yes it took all day. Luckily today was not the worst of the sand storms, which would have made things even more interesting.
Something I found particularly comical on that Saturday was when one of the organizing team came to bid us good morning, they informed us we were now on “Bauer Time”. The actual time in the location we were at according to the international time line was 8am but Patrick Bauer the organizer of the race had decided that we would now go off GMT for the rest of the week so it would be 7am, always nice to be able to control even the time in the middle of the desert.
Once all our checks were done there was actually nothing left to do. As we were left with nothing, most people decided to create something, which for many was unpacking and repacking their backpack possibly up to ten times to ensure they A. Had everything and B. Could maybe drop some weight. I think I redid mine twice but still landed up with around 14kg in the bag which was very heavy. I had an objective not to be hungry and hence most of my weight was food. My theory was that many things out of my control could go wrong, but if I ran into difficulties just by having a light back pack at the expense of food, which is essentially fuel, then that would be a massive error. So the plan for the first day was to have more rather than less, although I did not plan on it being that heavy, a nice test to start I guess.
Naturally everyone was up just before sunrise on Sunday morning as it was the first day of the race. In times like these you really see as humans, how close we are to our animal friends. Sleeping in the open we naturally wake up when day is breaking, we then run for the bathroom. It is this part of the logistics of MDS that surprised me the most. Females dropping the pants literally 10 meters from our tent for a dump, this freaked me out; a short walk to a bush would have been far better. I had been warned by a previous MDS finisher who suffered dysentery due to other competitors excrement being too close to him, something I was keen to avoid. With that in mind I headed around 200m out of camp but struggled to find a bush, which had not already been utilized.
As the workers ripped through the camp taking about 60 seconds per tent to dismantle each it was not long before the near on 200 tents were horizontal and packed ready for pick up and transport to the next bivouac. At 8am we were summoned for what I could only presume was another hour of standing around based on the fact that the race was supposed to start at 9.
And then the infamous address of the race director Patrick began. It’s his bit, it’s his tradition, it’s his right, and it’s clearly obvious no one listens. He waffled on for 20 minutes whilst the sun was heating up and all the 1,300 people want to do is get this race started.
As he finally wrapped things up he declared 5 minutes so they could arrange the helicopter. The crowds booed but were brought to life an instant later as ACDC “Highway to hell” started blaring out and the mood was unreal. This was real; we were minutes from starting the toughest foot race on earth! With a ten second countdown we were off. The 2015, 30th edition of Marathon Des Sables was underway and I was wearing bib number 493. This was it!
The first 13km into check point 1 was just as I expected, faster than it should have been, heart rate exploding, packed with adrenalin and everyone going way faster than they should. At checkpoint 1 Tom and I managed to find the rest of the guys from our tent and minutes after setting off from the checkpoint we made a team decision based on the terrain that the game plan was a march. I ripped out my walking poles and charged on at 9-10 mins per KM into checkpoint 2, from there we were 11km out from the end of the day’s stage. Head down and march was the continued plan until we got to 2km out where as we came over a small ascent we saw the second bivouac and of course started running for the finish. Day 1 done in 6 hours, 36km and no complaints at all. Everyone had told me to take it easy on day one, I have no clue where we were on the leader-board and to be honest nor did I care. I was happy with the way it went.
As we headed back to the tent the banter started flowing as we had all got to know each other a bit more and were pumped to be through day one. My priority was to cut weight out of my bag. I think I got rid of 2kg. Day 1 was hard on my shoulders. I re looked at what food I really needed, re calculated my calories and just started throwing stuff out.
As I lay there with the sun going down at the end of the first day I was happy with life, stage one done, full of food, no issues with my feet and some good lads throwing good banter around the tent. The highlight of the evening was the delivery of emails. Some of them were deep and emotional, others humorous but all of them well received. The highlight of which was “Holly did a strict muscle up yesterday.” That made me happy and smile. I decided that I was not going to queue for an hour to mail Holly but hoped my phone got signal. It did not, so I resorted to the “no news is good news” approach and hoped Holly was on the same page. I thought of her a lot after reading her mail and smiled a lot.
I guess the first 5km of today was the most interesting for me. I thought about 2 things. Firstly, that there was a hell of a lot of KMs ahead of me. Secondly, my desire for my finishers medal. I don’t know why I thought about the medal so much but I did; and the more I thought about it the more I wandered what it would symbolize. And then I had it. “I would dedicated my finishers medal to my wife, my family and all those that believe in me.” I was 5km into a 250km race and had already dedicated my medal! Was I insane? I’m not sure. Maybe that was a commitment, they were the people that mattered most to me in life. Holly was my best friend and biggest fan. My parents were incredible people. When I look back on my life the amount of support they have given me and sacrifices they have made to allow me to be who I am blows my mind day after day, couple this with the sport and challenges I used to see my Dad do as I grew up, and you have a ton of motivation to make them proud. Then of course to those who believe in me, support me, actually take the time to send me a message even if it only takes them 3-5 seconds, you have no idea how much I appreciate that. I also appreciate those that support me and keep me real, my mentors, people that have achieved far more than me but still have the time and compassion to encourage me, all of these people in my life are total hero’s and through this race I somehow wanted to thank them.
Day 1 was a great day.
Late again was the start of the second stage. You can tell the French and not the Swiss run this race. We were told clearly at the start of today’s stage that it was a “hard” 31km. Unsure of what Patrick’s concept of “hard” really was, I was excited.
3 brutal climbs today ranging from 15%-25% and 800m to 2km in length. We agreed a game plan with the guys in our tent and smashed straight into it once the count down to today’s stage was over. The start can best be described as a controlled stamped, 1,300 people in a race I guess you would expect that. We smashed out 8km at a decent pace before we hit the first climb, which slowed things right down. There is always a benefit to this though because as you climb the view becomes simply epic. The next 4km of climbing into check point 1 was incredible on the eyes, legs… I am not sure.
As we kicked on from check point 1 we had all our tent less Irish (who we lost in the early part of the stage) in single file singing songs (terribly) and pushing out 6 minute KMs which may not sound much but was a huge lift to morale and of course gets you to the end a touch faster. Luckily 4km later the road got steep again, as at that pace and with the Mercury rising we would have hit more than the proverbial wall sooner or later. Up along and over and it was check point 2 which signaled 7km to go. 2km up a 25% incline mountain then 5km down the other side with some token dunes and we were done for the day. 5 hours 40 minutes and everyone in good spirits both mentally and physically.
I have to say I really enjoyed today. Totally amazing views, challenging single track and we were back in camp nice and early. I felt our game plan worked, my food and hydration are going well and during one part of the days stage I managed to put together the closing of a talk I am scheduled to do in Manila in a few weeks time, all I need to do now is figure out the opening and the middle and we will have a nice seminar. That’s the beautiful thing about this running and marching game, in the quiet times you can let your mind run wild, or you can do your head in, another one of life’s awesome choices but one that I feel people make the wrong decision on, but hey everyone has a choice.
Back in our tent Nathan has taken the nick name of “Mountain Goat” (later modified to “The Horny Blue Goat” which we advised him to open a pub by that name, and eventually just “The Goat”) due to his incredible ability in the mountains. We are still all in great spirits and everything has a price tag of 10 euro which I just don’t believe will ever be paid but it makes us laugh and the value of a small laugh on morale is unreal.
Day 2 in the books, less than 200km left, close to 12 hours of running complete. Tomorrow is going to be all about energy conservation so that we can go into the long day in the best shape possible. It’s a 36km stage, which I am just about to study and finalize a strategy on which I will later pitch to the guys in the tent for some buy in.
Waking up in the wild for the 4th day and it was still an awesome way to start the day. This morning proved to me something I have opened a number of my talks with, that the way your day goes is based on a choice you make when you wake up. I saw so many people wandering around camp this morning feeling sorry for themselves. Chins down and moving at a snails pace. I felt like bellowing out. “Liven up people, you control the day, it does not control you. We all have niggles here and there, but today is in front of us and its 36km, day 3.” I refrained but because I had said that in my head I believed it and started to action it. Was I feeling 100%? Are you kidding, I had my own fair share of issues. But I made a choice.
Late again stage three rolled into action at 8:42. I was in hell, my quads were killing and as I looked down at my watch after what I thought was 10 minutes running only to see that 3 had passed, I felt I was deeper in hell. Luckily, I had read the road book the night before and knew that at 5.7km the track would become soft sand and there would be no option but to walk. I set my small goal right there, looked at our current speed and calculated how long it would take at that speed to reach 5.7km, got my head down and punched it out.
A bit of trawling through sand and then one of my favorite parts of the race happened again. The whole field are in single file and just running through single track, everyone in the same boat and you just get tucked in, head down and smash out the KMs. It was beautiful in so many ways and sooner than we knew we were at the 14km check point, 1. The pain of this morning and the first 5km was a distant memory. Lance was right, the pain was only temporary, it passes, so important to remember but we often forget.
The next stage was simply unreal. Possibly something my photos and videos can only describe. Just unreal.
The final stage of the day was 11km. The mountain goat gave the order for the “Pain Train” to get moving. I had a pivotal role in this, as I had done the previous two days. I headed to the front with the rest of the guys falling in behind again in single file and basically pushed as hard as I could, our 9 minute KMs march pace was my goal. After a solid 40 minutes off the front, the track simply turned epic. Rolling dunes finishing up with a savage mountain to climb. It was a special time; Tommy took charge of the pain train as the heat soared with not a breath of fresh air. It reminded me of Wahiba sands, purely brutal. Again the scenery numbed the pain and as I passed one guy close to the top of the summit who was in particular pain I offered the words “When you’re in hell, keep going” and motored on by. I’m not usually one for the more well-known or cheesy motivational quotes but right there at that time it just seemed to make sense. He thanked me for it after the summit, I was happy with my decision.
As we neared the top, Tom asked me if I was ok? Was anything sore? I tried to be as direct as possible as I said “everything hurts but that’s not going to get me to the top of this.”
From the moment we arrived at camp 3 the conversation from everyone was about tomorrow’s 92km stage. An email from Max (who had mailed me daily with invaluable advice each time) summed things up perfectly. “Marathon Des Sable starts on the long day.” I was excited but also wandered what we had been through so far! 18 hours of racing and 103km. Max had also said we were doing great!
Luckily on camp 3 I managed to get phone signal that meant an SMS to Holly and a phone call to my Dad who told me we were doing well! Holly was on a flight to Australia so I didn’t get to talk to her. I had had a mail from her daily and she was fine and so was I.
Another great day in the Sahara.
As day broke on the 8th of April, the camp was very quiet but there was a look on everyone’s face that clearly said what he or she were thinking. As Patrick reiterated to us in his normal boring morning rabble, today would be the longest stage in the history of MDS with 91.7km to cover. I was under no illusion of the job at hand. Having done a 90km race through the Brecon Beacons 9 months earlier I had an advantage and disadvantage for today’s stage. Advantage, as I knew I could handle such distance (all be it the previous race had not be preceded by 3 days and 103km of running) having done it before but as disadvantage as I remembered what it felt like, the highs and the lows, where the pain started and what mind games went on.
With Max’s advice ringing in my head I declared my personal strategy to the tent which although had a few points to it was very straightforward.
- When it’s flat run
- When it’s soft walk
- When it’s uphill walk
- In the hottest part of the day walk
- Maintain an average speed of over 5.5km per hour.
- Never stop or rest until the work is done.
- Finish strong
And a final thought I had but didn’t share with the guys was that no matter what state I got myself into, there was going to be someone hurting more!
Shortly after 8am we were off. 16-18 hours ahead of us. What do you think about in that first hour? Everything, absolutely everything! You calculate, re calculate, question your why and try and occupy your mind. For me it’s always the hardest hour. The first half of today’s race went perfectly to plan, we ran the flats at a good pace and marched at 9:30mins per KM when we had to. A couple of serious climbs slowed us down but we were in the game, on the plan.
After 35km I had figured out that KM 60-75 would be the hardest. And it was. The terrain was relentless sand dunes and all I could think about was Wahiba sands, I was in hell. Everything hurt, every step, every breath. My legs were talking to me and then I remembered the famous words of cyclist Jens Voigt. “Shut up legs.” And surprisingly it worked.
I had no choice but to take a voltaren at 65km and luckily it kicked in fast. We had two check points to go. 11km to the first one then another 11km to the final one and then just over 6km to the finish. As we left the check point we saw two competitors strung up on drips and wrapped in emergency blankets, things were getting a bit real and it was pitch black. I stopped being scared of the dark quite a few years ago, but the dark of the desert does something to you that is hard to explain. I do not know if it’s a fear or if it’s just your mind playing games with you especially after you have been moving for 12 hours, but something is different.
Anyone can move distances at varying speeds during the day, but when you turn off the lights the dynamics change. People stop talking and it’s incredibly hard to judge distances. On stage 4 we had the added benefit of high speed winds whipping sand and dust into our eyes.
The first hour of the first 11km leg I was in really bad shape. I just couldn’t move at the right speed. I was desperate for the toilet (number 2) almost to a point of explosion. I had to stop and let nature take its course. Ten minutes later and a cold brew coffee energy shot down and everything changed. I was back. Back to my maths, away from my demons that were flirting with me for that hour.
It felt like no time and we were at the penultimate checkpoint. Another 11km and luckily the terrain eased and we smashed it into oblivion, singing the whole way and just trying to pick people off.
2km out from the final check point we saw its lights, morale shot up to anther level, that also may have something to do with the shot of coffee we had had 30 minutes earlier. To call it a shot is perhaps inaccurate. I had a sachet of Nescafé that I emptied into my mouth followed by a slug on my water. It was possibly the worst taste I have ever had; I do not suggest you try it unless you are in the situation we were in! And then of course it’s fine.
We quickly revisited our game plan which was to finish strong and we actioned it. I said to Tom “let’s play a game on the last leg, let’s pick people off one by one and put as much time into them and anyone behind us as we can, our target should be 6, 1 per KM.” Not that we are competitive at all! We agreed but also agreed that we would be upbeat to anyone we passed and ask them to join us on our rush to the finish.
We flew through the final checkpoint barely stopping for water and the game begun. To help us on our way and just to let those we were catching know we were coming, we recited every song and scene from Top Gun that we could remember.
As we passed out competitors we invited them to join the pain train by saying “welcome aboard the pain train, this train will not stop until the end.” I marched in front with Tommy hot on my tail and we had a few takers who hopped on the train temporarily but could not take the pace and blew out. I remembered a trick I learnt from my running at school, when you are passing people, speed up so they no longer believe they can stay with you or catch you again. When you have done 85km already and are really hurting, it’s hardly what you want to have done to you and in reality we probably didn’t speed up at all, but it was just another mind game that helped us through.
And then we could see the finish line illuminated in the dark night sky. I checked the watch and knew there was still 2km left so quickly told Tom we need to up the anti. I could not tell you what the terrain was like for the last 2km or if my feet even touched it. Just over 17 hours after we had started we crossed the finish line! Our work was done; the elation far outweighed the suffering we had endured. We were 1 stage of 42.2km away from getting what we came for and it felt wild.
Total count of people passed in the last 6km…..16! Some spoke to us, others were so far gone I don’t think they knew where they were. Luckily we were not looking for Zombies to join the pain train.
One thing I have learnt from Ultra running is that it is a sport where you see people do stuff to their bodies and minds that is beyond belief in so many ways, I have learnt a great amount from it and the key learning I have to share is that when you are totally smashed and you think you can’t go any further (no matter what part of life)… Well you can and if you really want to, you will. The harsh part of ultra running is that just because you stop, it doesn’t mean the kilometers get any less. They lay there ahead of you and here comes the advice that so many people that I truly respect shared with me. “Just keep going.” Or as another put it. “never, never, never stop.” For me that attitude and those last 6km sums up a lot about life.
A rest day lay ahead of us, to gather ourselves, patch up our feet and get ready to finish off the job we came to do. The longest stage in MDS history taught me a lot and I had made it out the other side and for that I was grateful.
People rolled back into camp throughout the day in various states of consciousness. It seemed that no matter who you are, running 92km took its toll in some way.
I had a few admin issues myself with my feet so we headed to the medical tent to see about getting them cleaned. I was there a total of 15 seconds as the place looked like a complete war zone. I didn’t get it, everyone was literally crying in their hat. I just thought to myself “guys you have completed the longest stage of the race, we have a marathon left, fire up, or smile at least.” This probably reflects my close to hatred of medical establishments as a whole, they are full of messed up people finding it hard to smile and see something positive in life, not a cool environment to hang out in if you can avoid it. I got what I needed and headed back to my tent to perform my own surgery that was obviously done whilst my tent mates made fun of me and we all laughed, the way it should be. I had a few superficial blisters which needed to be kept clean and had lost 4 toe nails, 3 less than my last long ultra which I saw as a massive bonus.
At 5PM a large catering truck rolled into the middle of camp which people immediately flocked to. Intrigued, Irish went over only to come back with a can of coke for each of us that was actually cold. There are many things I could wish for right now but coke was not one of them. With no other options I indulged in my second can of coke in over 5 years. The last one was given to me in the middle of Wahiba sands. Is there a pattern? It also made me felt quite ill.
7am April 10th, and we were on the start line for the final official stage of the 2015 Marathon Des Sables. A small matter of a regular marathon (42.2km) ahead of us and the race was complete. I stopped and thought about that for a second. Thus far we had done 36km, 30km, 36km and 92km on consecutive days. Now we were going to run a marathon across this relentless Sahara desert. The more I thought about it the more I couldn’t quite figure out what I felt about it. What level of human endurance was being tested here? Is this the limit? I had no answers but as I stood there with ACDC Highway to hell blaring out for the final time I was excited about what was going to happen no matter what it was.
5 minutes after checkpoint 1 at 13km I was on that highway, it was hell. My body started to shut down, my legs stopped working, complete agony. We had been running around 6:30mins per KM and I was struggling to keep below 7mins. My heart was not overly high but my legs were just not working. This was not cool with 29km to go on a stage that we had targeted to make up places. It was again a matter of “shut up legs” over and over again for 12km into the next checkpoint. I knew at that checkpoint it would be all down hill with only 18km left in the race, in the entire race. Coming into that checkpoint I took a voltaren in attempt to make the pain go away. On the other side of the checkpoint something changed, something clicked. It was mental. I tried to rationalize what I had been through in the previous stages and why I was where I was. We started to power again and charged through some steep dunes to check point 3 which signified 8km to home. The game plan was simple from there; every last ounce of heart, mind, energy and passion was going into those KMs and of course pick people off one by one. We dropped the pace to 5:45mins per km which is not overly fast but given we had over 200kms already in the legs it was a big ask. My heart rate immediately shot through the roof but comfortingly to a level that I had been at before on the “Concept 2” rowing machine for 40 minutes. A quick calculation told me that I would need that and a little bit more and this job was done. Suddenly I felt no pain. Incredible once your mind is in the right place how your body reacts.
And then it started, we passed our first person, and then the second, and so it went on. I stopped counting at 20 with 1km to go. My lungs were exploding but it was an unreal feeling. I was enjoying it. Coming over the top of the last hill and seeing the finish line 800m ahead was a strange feeling. I was just about to complete “The toughest foot race on earth” It was almost over. I turned to Tom and said “thank you” as we clashed fists and then we got back to the job at hand and finishing the race, crossing the finish line with clasped hands.
There is a video of me at the finish line, which I don’t actually remember taking but it pretty much sums up how I was feeling. Everything hurt, absolutely everything, I had spent the best part of 5 hours in the pain cave to clock in a 5:17 marathon which on the back of what we had done in the previous day’s coupled with the terrain the marathon was across I was very happy with. Not to mention the state of my feet!
And then it hit me. The feeling I had once felt before at the end of my first marathon. Elation but emptiness, the job was done, it was all over, and the goal was completed. You cannot prepare for this moment in time no matter how much you try. I was physically exhausted living in a body that I had simply abused for the last week, but at the same time had just completed an incredible feat of human endurance. It’s a unique feeling and one you have to experience to understand.
The Marathon Des Sables tests you in so many ways; I have to be honest in that the running is not the hardest test although it was by no means easy. It’s the other stuff that if you let it can torture and ultimately crush you. The 8 nights sleeping under open sky’s. The constant wind of the Sahara forcing sand into every orifice. The rationing of water. Having to carry your food for the 8 days in your pack. The lack of showers. The lack of toilets. The same set of clothes you put on day after day that smell progressively worse as the week goes on. Add to this the physical pain that running such distances causes. Issues with your feet. Or any range of other medical glitches that may not go your way.
For me that is the real challenge of the MDS and to be honest of life. I saw so many people losing their mind because it was sandy or because it was hot or they were not happy eating expedition food. It’s the people that failed to administer everything outside of the running that were slowly ground down. Just like in life you have to manage and manage well all the things that you are able to control. If you do this, your chances of success go through the roof. One cannot control a trip or a fall along the way but one can control the reaction to it and so many other variables.
So what has the MDS taught me? I think I can sum it up in four points:
- Your mind is the key. For those that know me and know the InnerFight brand this will come as no surprise but get your mind in gear by focusing on what you can control and things tend to take care of themselves. I saw so many mentally weak people go through hell from day one as they wasted their energy on things out of their control by being…. mentally weak.
- Never stop. When you want something bad enough you have to be willing to go and go and go. The long stage taught me this where for 17 hours we were moving forward. In life there are so many distractions that take us off track and temporarily stop you from moving toward your goal, leave them alone. If you really want something then never stop until you get it. I wanted my MDS medal and I got it.
- Smile and have fun. Those two things I have carried with me for a long time and will continue to. The amount of times we saw people out on the course totally broken and just gave them a smile or tried to have some fun with them to lift their spirits was unreal. And of course in return seeing them getting a lift lifted us even more. It’s not always easy to smile and have fun in certain circumstances but I can tell you the effect is worth the effort.
- Humans are incredible. We know this already but 8 days in the Sahara only highlighted what an incredible race we really are. From the way we can adapt to different environments to the way we are able to move forward and black out pain. Use this to your advantage in all areas of your life. If you ever think that something is too hard, a little bit out of your comfort zone or beyond your ability, I can tell you right now that, that’s not the case and you can achieve great things or complete the simple things in life in amazing ways, as you really are an incredible human being.
I took 40 voltaren tablets to the Sahara as a precaution to numb my pain. Why? 7 weeks before MDS was scheduled to start I ran a 72km ultra and damaged my Achilles’ tendon. Since that day until the start of MDS I ran only 3 times covering less than 15km in total. I did no exercise at all on my legs and had medical treatment up to 4 times a week to try and get me in the best shape possible for the race. A week out walking was still painful but I was convincing myself I would be fine and it would be ok. In that final week I woke up often in the night after dreams of failure due to my injury. I was terrified on so many levels. The first 13km of the race was the hardest as I felt out my leg. My focus did not change and I was willing to crawl the entire way around the Sahara to the end, it’s a decision I had made.
Luckily I did not end up having to use all 40 tablets but got away with one in the morning and one after each days stage. This proves two things to me: Again that the human body is an unreal machine and secondly that the work, advice and therapy that Dr Tamara and Dr Paul and the team from Diversified Integrated Sports Clinic in Dubai gave me in the lead up to the race is world class and I will be forever grateful.
My MDS finishers medal is not mine, it’s not alone that I am able to do these things. It’s primarily through the ongoing support and love from my wife Holly, the way that my parents raised and still mentor me and all of the people that support and believe in me. They were all on my mind during the 250km and really without them all I have nothing. Thank you for who you are and for being in my life.
For the audio of this story click here.