The final few days before I left for Marathon des Sables were a blur of hug filled goodbyes and concern laden good lucks. I packed and repacked my bags countless times and panicked more than I care to admit. But before long, as the songs goes, all my bags were packed and I was ready to go. No taxi for me though; my parents, partner and my friend Mark, who was also taking part, all barrelled into my Dad’s car and trundled our way to Heathrow.
Throughout the journey I would smile and counterfeit calm through mindless chat while my whole body quivered with fear, grasping my partner’s hand tightly. I didn’t want my loved ones to worry, even though worry is engrained within the job description of being a loved one. I endeavoured to show I was fine, whilst saying our last goodbyes, despite being the absolute opposite.
As I sit down to write this I try as hard as I can to think about the moments that led to our tight knit desert family being created, a group of relative strangers who, through the trials and tribulations of the Marathon des Sables, are now so much more than friends. These incredibly significant people came together in seemingly insignificant ways. I can only liken this to the tv series Lost, you see all the characters intrinsic to the plot just sat on a plane, looking utterly unimportant, yet they are crucial to the journey to come. For example, on the second flight, stood at the back of the plane is a stranger that in five days you’ll help as he recovers from a hypoglycaemic episode and run the rest of that day together. Sat three rows ahead of you is a woman whose unbridled strength will drive you on in the dark moments to come. You’ll share a pen with an unfamiliar face that you’ll laugh so hard with you’ll forget the pain radiating through your legs. I remember arriving at the airport and noticing ‘Siblings in the Sahara’, Joe and Grace. I had seen their articles in the news and had brief contact on Instagram and thought to myself, it would be nice to spend some time them, little did I know that our Marathon des Sables stories would become so entangled, sharing a tent and the hardest of times together. These minute moments seem monumental now looking back.
I spent much of the flight idly chatting to those around me about the race and attempting not to giveaway the fact I was absolutely and completely freaking out. The mental image of the swan looking elegant on the top whilst kicking like crazy below the water is apt, but I hardly looked elegant; with sweaty pits and fidgety legs. While everyone was extraordinarily friendly, I felt an overwhelming sensation of imposter syndrome; all these people surrounding me looked fitter, looked more adventurous and crucially looked like they would succeed where I was doomed to fail. It was in this self loathing spiral I began to feel the same shockwaves of emotions I felt during my first ultra only a year ago except this time I knew what it was, a panic attack. The sounds around me became louder and claustrophobic as the dull lights in the plane flared bright. I felt the same rush of heat pulsing through my body and my heart began to beat loudly in my hollow chest. I was worried others would see this panic and know that my resolve was already cracking so I stumbled up from my seat and locked myself in the bathroom. I closed my eyes, put my headphones in and made my world small. I played a song that has always been of great comfort to me; Surprise Yourself by Jack Garrett. It reminds me of 2016 and the rebuilding of my life in those months. As the song faded out so did my pangs of pain. I splashed water on my face, breathed deeply once more and went back to my seat. So exhausted from the panic attack I drifted off to seamless sleep. I didn’t wake until the plane had shuddered to a halt at our destination.
The first night was spent in a hotel near to the first camp and the following day was filled with the simple, painful, act of waiting. An act that I felt I had been doing for over a year, ever since I signed up for this race, but these last few hours before we’d arrive at Marathon des Sables properly were purgatory-esque. We were given the roadbooks for the race in the morning so much of the menacing wait was spent studying every page. The race route, as well as the miles each day and terrain challenges change every year and no details are released beforehand so these books are the race’s big reveal. The roadbooks detail every stage of the race; with distance, maps, emergency information, time cut offs and time penalty listings. The first thing I did when I was handed the roadbook was turn to the long stage, the stage I was most worried about. I have only done a few runs longer than a marathon and for all of them I had studied every inch of those races.
The inability to study the course, which changes every year, really rattled my self confidence. After flipping to the page I discovered that the long day was shorter than I had dreaded in sleepless nights; 76km compared to the 90-100km that previous years have sometimes had. But I also know that shorter in the Marathon des Sables does not mean easier, in fact the exact opposite. The shorter the mileage the harder the challenge you’ll have to endure.
After hours and hours of waiting the bus finally arrived and like kids heading to school we packed up our bags and silently made our way to the start. The journey was only a few minutes but as the bus arrived at camp the mood cracked and changed. Suddenly seeing those iconic black bivouac tents it all became real, we were here. All those videos I had watched of this race and suddenly I was in it. It was all real, so real. The jokes and jovial state of mind fell away. I was in the Marathon des Sables, after years of watching it on tv and reading stories I was no longer a spectator waiting in the wings.
Following a rather nerve-wrangling conversation the evening before which felt like asking someone out, Mark and I asked to join the tent of the Siblings in the Sahara, Joe and Grace, and two people Joe had taken part in a study with. The study was focussed on heat acclimatisation as part of Jodie Moss’ PhD. Jodie also took part in Marathon des Sables and I will tell her story along the way but it is safe to say the woman is the epitome of what running is in it’s rawest, most beautifully triumphant form. I consider myself very lucky to have shared MdS with her then and to call her a friend now.
They agreed to have us and with Jodie and Gemma (more about her in the next few parts!) in the next door tent we strolled to the check in desk and signed in. After filling in a little form so organisers could find us, we were told which tent would be ours for the week and made our way across the camp to tent 57. The word tent is used in the loosest, most archaic way, as they are just a thick unwashed rug on the floor and a thick black cotton sheet overhead made from goat hair and sheep wool held up by sticks and stakes.
What a lot of the Marathon des Sables, videos and blogs don’t tell you is how amazing the food is before you get started on the race and become self sufficient. Once again the school imagery rears it’s head as you queue for food and then find a table that you and your mates can sit at all together, except this time you don’t get judged for extra helpings or the mountain of food you’ve created, you get applauded. In those moments, laughing till our sides hurt and eating copious amounts of carbs, it was easy to forget that in a matter of hours we would soon be beginning the “toughest footrace on the planet”, as proclaimed by the Discovery Channel.
The first night was my worst night of sleep of the entire race. With adrenaline, nerves and the freezing temperatures coursing through me there was little I could do to encourage sleep. The bivouac is an open sided tent and in the first few nights we had little experience about what to do to make them more ‘homely’ and crucially warmer. You’d think the Sahara Desert would be a constant unending barrage of heat but the nights are bitterly cold, especially if you are completely open to the elements as we were. With the temperature dropping as low as 4 degrees, without the wind chill factor, the cold would cut through the sleeping bag and chill you to the bone. On the first night I would be constantly woken up not by any noise but because I was shivering so much.
Because we had arrived earlier at the camp then most there was also a constant stream of people arriving until late into the night. Including our last two tent mates, Lirim and James. Meeting a stranger in the middle of the night who you’d be sleeping next to sounds more like Plenty of Fish than Marathon des Sables. But these two lads would be an unending source of humour and strength over the next week. What we experienced together on the long stage and the fear I felt will stay with me for many, many years.
After they had long since settled and drifted off to sleep I was still awake. My mind running itself into anxious knots.
A few snatched hours of sleep later the tent stirred. With there being no alarm clock or curtains we wake with the sun. This made possible because the organisers create their own time zone during the race, slipping us back by an hour. It’s an uncomfortable wake up; desperate for more sleep but the panic of knowing that there are only 24 hours before the start of the race.