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Day ‘whatever’ on the Marathon des Sables

I finally woke up having had a good and solid two to three hours of sleep, what must have been the longest uninterrupted period for several nights. I also awoke not feeling at all committed to the idea of quitting: that wasn’t in my nature. It didn’t take long to mentally prepare myself for this: quit? Don’t be ridiculous… But I knew I would have to treat my body with greater care, if I were to complete the Marathon des Sables, and simply hope that mental stamina and bloody mindedness would continue to triumph to direct my body to do what I wanted it to do.

My tent mates asked how I felt and I said I was fine but had thought about quitting. Even thinking, let alone uttering the word “quitting” felt alien and very wrong.

There was a chorus from my tent mates: you can’t give up! Don’t do that: you’ll regret it!

Mark was particularly adamant, pointing out all the effort, sacrifice, training and money spent to get this far. Tony was very wise in his views: just get some breakfast eaten, get going, get to the start line, take it easy and see how you feel by Checkpoint 1.

This was excellent advice.

RoeCoverrunning from the shadowsThis also sounded just what I wanted to hear: I simply wanted others to assist in enforcing my mental resolve. If they’d agreed it might be wise to quit, my contrarian nature would inevitably have reacted: I would have started the day’s stage anyway simply to prove a point. I was, after all, still alive. I hadn’t died and I wasn’t now in a life-threatening situation: the possibility I might have been at some point in the previous 12 hours didn’t cross my mind. I’d simply been unwell for a period. The thought of quitting became unthinkable. The organisers would have to drag me off the course.

Once awake I at first still felt incredibly weary and dehydrated but, after a good drink of warm water and some cold breakfast, and considering what I’d been through the previous day, I felt surprisingly good overall. Relatively speaking. I rested as long as I could before I really had to get up and made a conscious effort to sip every drop of water I had left from my previous day’s ration.

I wandered over to the centre of the bivouac just before 7.30 am to collect the day’s first water ration of 1.5 litres, just in time to avoid a lateness penalty. I still had, from the previous evening, a salty bottle of water: you’ll recall that when I got to the medical tent one of my three bottles of end-of-stage water ration had had salts added to it, a few sips of which made me vomit.

I had since drunk just a little of this solution and managed to keep the concoction inside me. I’d also used a little for cooking but it was tough trying to drink any more of what was left: it tasted disgusting. With half a bottle of this remaining I asked the medic at the water checkpoint (not the kindly Lisbeth but the more no-nonsense of the two who’d helped me the previous day) if I could have it replaced: I hadn’t, after all, actually asked for one of my three bottles of precious water ration to have salts added. It was just done without any consideration of what I thought or wanted.

She agreed that, yes, it could be replaced if I brought it over to her. Jubilant in thinking I’d get another 1.5 litres to finish off before today’s start I quickly returned to my tent and came back with my half empty 1.5 litre contaminated water bottle.

The medic took my bottle and held it up to the sunlight before allowing the water to level. With a pen she then marked a horizontal line where the water now sat. It began to dawn on me that my grand plan wasn’t going to work.

She got hold of another unopened bottle of water and, slowly, began to wet the sand as she poured out water from this new bottle.

Precious, clean water wasting into the sand… Periodically she would stand the two bottles on the flat surface of the Land Rover’s bonnet. Cruelly, the process seemed to take an age. Eventually, the level of the water in my contaminated bottle matched the level in the clean, new bottle. With a smile she handed me the clean, new bottle with exactly the same amount of water that was in the contaminated water I had brought over. She then poured out the remains of the contaminated water into the sand.

Crestfallen, I simply said “Thank you!” and returned to my tent. It was logical, of course: I don’t think in the circumstances I should have had any more water than any of my competitors but, all the same, it was hard to watch.

Before long we were shuffling over to the start line. The previous two day’s of striding purposefully to the start line had by now become a procession of weary, shuffling legs with 45 miles in them. The pain in my right heel subsided as exercise and adrenaline combined to gradually dull the sensation of stabbing needles in my raw bloody blister.

By now, lining up at the start of Stage 3, we recognised that no day was going to start on time so it was a case of relaxing and going with the flow. Impatience at the lack of a prompt start was a futile waste of energy. However, not passing the odd moan about Gallic approaches to time-keeping was impossible: we all knew that a 20 minute or half an hour delay in starting from the advertised start time meant we would be out in the fiercest heat of the day for longer than should have been necessary.

Standing in the escalating heat there were the usual announcements, including birthday celebrations. On a more serious note we were told that 15 competitors had to abandon yesterday, forced by the organisers or otherwise, and so there were 833 starters this morning. We were implored to keep sipping regularly as today was expected to have conditions very similar to those of yesterday.

As the countdown began I reconstructed my race plan, slightly. Today I would take it easy: in the last 12 hours I had vomited a lot, had bouts of diarrhoea, probably been unconscious (albeit briefly) and on an IV drip for several hours. As Mark, Paul and Wayne agreed, it was amazing I was even standing there.

So I promised myself to take it easy: march fast, yes, but no running until at least having got past Checkpoint 1… or maybe in sight of Checkpoint 1… or perhaps when the roadbook map told me Checkpoint 1 was just around the corner…

By now I felt immeasurably better: the difference between how I felt when I finally nodded off in the early hours of this morning and seconds before the starting gun was immense.

This didn’t mean though I could start off nudging my limits: I fully intended to take it easier today and, assuming all went well, I thought of gradually increasing my speed as the rest of the week progressed. I wanted to regain those 200 places or so that I’d lost yesterday following the two hour time penalty for having had an IV drip. I should have stuck to the original plan from the beginning of Stage 1 and built gradually into the event. But Stage 1 had felt deceptively straightforward until the last couple of miles and that may have been my undoing on Stage 2… coupled with the temperatures hitting the mid-50Cs across that damn dried lake bed.

RoeCoverrunning from the shadowsA long straight route took us across energy-sapping sandy terrain and vegetation from the off until Checkpoint 1 appeared at 12 km, where I met Mark and Wayne. The couple of medics and volunteers who’d greeted me through the finish line yesterday cheered me through, asked how I was and remarked how much better I looked compared to yesterday.

I looked over at Wayne and it seemed accumulated fatigue was starting to take a toll: he didn’t look his usual chipper self. I asked if he was okay and simply got a few nods; Mark said he was going to keep him company for a while.

This relatively straightforward terrain should have felt easy but we were all now suffering from the compounded trials of the previous few days: the inescapable heat that was constantly with us, poor sleep and of pushing ourselves daily over distances most people wouldn’t cover once in their lifetimes.

All this was now taking its toll: there wasn’t the brash rush from the start as there had been on Stages 1 and 2. Everyone seemed to be taking it a bit easier, perhaps bearing in mind that plenty would need to remain in the tank for tomorrow’s dreaded 51 mile Stage 4.

We were given two bottles of 1.5 litres of water at Checkpoint 1: a sign of difficulties ahead as Checkpoint 2 was 8.5 miles away. The line of competitors veered left from Checkpoint 1 in a north/north-easterly direction, ascending up a deceptively steep sandy then stony then rocky route to the panoramic summit view of Jebel Zireg. I was feeling quietly confident and, odd as it felt, I was beginning to feel markedly stronger by each step. I was diligently sipping away at my water, eating regularly and continuing to take the salt tablets and my electrolytes. I with a few others took a slightly deviating but more direct but boulder-strewn route to the bottleneck of a rocky path on the summit edge where all competitors met up again.

The roadbook said simply “Summit. BEWARE!” At the summit it felt quite exposed in a strong but deliciously cool wind, not just a breeze. It was great to see each competitor reach this summit and then break into a broad smile as the cool wind buffeted around the rocks before us. It was an amazing feeling and served as a reminder that the heat we’d just experienced coming up the ascent had been increasing rapidly: it was getting to that time of day again.

As I stood taking in the feeling of coolness we all cheered the approaching Pompiers de Vannes Aventure (the Firemen from Vannes Adventure). These amazing men had become a popular feature of this year’s Marathon des Sables and were met with applause everywhere they went.

And no wonder. The firemen were a team of nine here to complete the Marathon des Sables… carrying a 28 kg, when empty, type of sedan chair with a fixed wheel on the front and handles on the sides, occupied by one of four disabled teenagers (twins Guillaume and Thibault, Mathieu and Victor) with whom the firemen wanted to share this adventure and whom otherwise couldn’t. That’s a lot of weight to carry, in addition to each fireman’s own rucksack weight. The firemen would take turns to carry this heavy chair in six minute stints for the entire 153 miles of the event, with each teenager enduring at least a stage in the desert. It was awe-inspiring to see this. It was just as tough for the four teenagers as the nine firemen, baking as they were in the unforgiving sun and ambient heat.

The firemen and the lucky teenager reached the summit and were met by cheers and tears from pretty much all of us standing there. A couple of the firemen took a rest to cry. I think I shed a tear too at this pure example of selflessness.

I took a last look at the awesome uninterrupted panoramic view before me and descended the narrow path for 200 metres (according to the roadbook) into the furnace. The temperature leaped up almost as soon as I came out of the wind.

A series of “sandy rises” amongst the odd tree and prickly scrub gave way to “a rocky passage by trees” and was increasingly hard work as the hottest time of day approached. I began to worry: this was too hot again. I concentrated on ensuring I was taking enough regular sips rather than gulps of water, ever mindful that Checkpoint 2 was still quite a distance away.

Running from the shadowsAt the top of one of these last “sandy rises” I spotted ahead of me that competitors were hereafter hanging right against the base of some dunes and a jebel, before veering left again to meet up directly ahead of me about 1.5 miles away. I figured that following them in a dog-leg fashion was simply adding unnecessary distance and the route straight ahead, while taking in some rolling small sand dunes along the way, had the advantage of a few scrubby bushes and a couple of barren trees with a little shade. It was getting unbearably hot and I was tiring, the thumping headache was coming back along with the feeling of utter weariness, so I took this alternative and apparently shorter route and marched on. As it turned out I was actually taking the correct route, signified by a couple of route marker stakes driven into the sand along the way. A couple of others behind me also saw what I had and chose to do the same. In this way we each were able to pass a dozen or so competitors.

I wondered how and why this long line to my right had decided to follow what looked an odd diversion, but I figured that as soon as one person had decided to do this earlier in the day then many others would simply follow. This wasn’t a wise course of action, I thought, in the middle of a desert. True, this small diversion wouldn’t really have added much distance but it wouldn’t take much in the cauldron of desert heat or a quickly descending sandstorm for problems to arise: I figured that five or 10 minutes longer in the desert before a checkpoint can mean the difference between having had no water for all that time or still sipping on one’s last 100 millilitres. Out here, that was a big difference. Blindly following the person in front without checking the roadbook would later catch some out on the Stage 4 long stage.

A couple of times I stopped to crouch in the little shade of a scrubby bush to force on board more water and food before continuing on my way in the burning temperatures. Eventually I began to feel the promise of a building of restrained energy as the heat began to ease and Checkpoint 2 finally came into view. It seemed that as each minute had passed since the start line I was feeling ever stronger.

Checkpoint 2 dispensed just one 1.5 litre bottle of water, yet from here to the finish bivouac was six miles. I found this encouraging. Ahead of me was a flat dry lake. At the end of this, about two miles away, I could see the route disappear between two huge walls of rock, separated by the sandy Maharch Pass which continued between these two walls for about 1.5 miles. The roadbook seemed to then suggest a relatively straightforward run across sand and pebbles for about 2.5 miles to the finish line.

I was starting to feel strong, perhaps better than I had since the start of Stage 1. The previous night’s IV drip combined with proper attention to my water intake today and regular intake of food was gradually helping me feel rejuvenated.

Could I run across this completely flat dried lake bed? I felt as though I could, but I also didn’t want to ruin the rest of my race and blow up again. I cautioned myself to take it easy, but perhaps start nudging the upper limits of a faster marching pace with a few runs thrown in. Psychologically I was rebuilding myself for a greater effort from here, fairly confident that my body could now take it.

I’d been stood at Checkpoint 2 eating and drinking and chatting with fellow British competitor, Carole, studying the route ahead. We agreed that the worst of the day seemed to be over and the remaining six miles seemed straightforward. She left Checkpoint 2, seemingly fresh as a daisy, a few minutes before I did.

And then I went for it. A fast march with a couple of runs took me to the other side of the dried lake bed in next to no time at all, passing Carole and a trio of competitors who had left Checkpoint 2 a while earlier.

I looked around in awe at my natural surroundings: huge walls of rock rose ahead of me, stretching endlessly to my left (the imposing Jebel El Mziouda) and right, looming ever closer as I approached the narrow entrance to the Maharch Pass; the wind was whipping up quite viciously in the distance to my right. What had very shortly before been an uninterrupted view of flat dried lake bed for miles to my right was instead, now about a mile away, blocked by a thick giant wall of airborne sand in a matter of seconds. I quickened my pace by running for a few minutes, interspersed with fast marching to ensure I got off the dried lake bed and into the Maharch Pass before the coming sandstorm hid its entrance.

RoeCoverrunning from the shadowsThe sandy Maharch Pass slowed me down. I went with the slower flow rather than try to fight it and took the pace a little easier.

Just ahead I caught sight of Mark’s unmistakeable gait and caught up, delighted to see his beaming friendly face. Mark was plugging away, looking strong as ever. We were going at about the same pace and it was great to spend some time to chat.

Mark had left Wayne earlier to crack on as Wayne was having a tough time. Mark asked if I’d been running with or spoken to anyone, surprised that I was able to cover these daily distances with little contact with anyone else. I explained that I’d always liked to run my own pace, that it was easy for me as long solitary Zen-like outings had been my experience throughout the bulk of my training anyway. That’s always been the case for me, finding myself either constantly checking my pace, my gait, my foot strike or watching what my heart rate is doing on shorter, faster runs, or on longer journeys revelling in my surroundings and the present rather than dwelling in the past or on the what-ifs, “zoning out”, sometimes with music, with half an eye on all my mechanics and statistics.

It was great to talk about our experiences in the event so far, both of us finding the scenery quite amazing, and we reflected on what the race meant for each of us. Having busy lives it felt very unusual to now have so much time to think about the fundamentals of life. When else do those opportunities present themselves? With nothing else to worry about during the week other than sleep, drink, eat and put one foot in front of the other from a start line to a finish line over several hours it is not surprising that so many Marathon des Sables veterans return home with a different approach to life: many blogs and articles testify to this.

While putting the world to rights and enjoying our chat the sandy route became more stony as we approached the Maharch Oasis. I spotted a building over to our right, a riad, which appeared to offer the allure of cold drinks. A couple of event vehicles were parked outside. I had my compulsory 200 euros and some Moroccan dirhams and gave some serious thought to taking this opportunity to have something other than water, preferably ice cold. But as Mark pointed out this could attract a hefty time penalty, counting as “outside assistance”. I passed on the idea.

With just over three miles to go it felt as if a switch had been flicked on. I suddenly felt fantastic, amazingly energised: I wanted to push some limits and see what it felt like for the remainder of Stage 3. I sped up my fast march and said I’d meet Mark later. I introduced a couple of longer runs mixed in with my fast march. The stony track became one of compacted mud and stone as it passed the riad and wound in a squiggly line for a few hundred metres, passing a village solar pump that had been installed on the 21st Marathon des Sables in 2006.

“I’m struggling to keep up with your walking speed mate and I’m running!” It was Mark catching up with me, still beaming. I laughed and began a trot to the finish.

I felt my patience during today’s effort was paying off; slowly but diligently I took back 25 places over this last three miles and felt positively buzzing as I was doing so. I crossed the finish line with a huge smile in strong sandy winds, feeling just a little nauseous but absolutely delighted that I was back from yesterday’s brink with Stage 3 having been completed safely. I hadn’t gone full throttle and still felt well within my limits. My legs felt tired but still very strong.

Mark followed over the line immediately behind me just 15 seconds back. We’d enjoyed our little competitive race, collected our water ration and made our way to the relaxation of our tent.

Extract from Mark Roe’s new book, Running From the Shadows. Buy it here or here.

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