iancorless_MDS2019-01762 2

The day before the start of the Marathon des Sables can be defined in one word: faff.

We spend the early morning unpacking and repacking our bags, attempting to shave a few last minute grams. Since we carry everything needed for the race (except for water and the bivouac tent) any weight that can be saved helps stave off the inevitable exhaustion to come. So all the food, sleeping bag, cooking equipment, extra kit, etc (I will do a full kit list and review in the next few days) is scrutinised by the tent and judged whether necessary or extra weight with surplus items given to the locals who take care of the camp.

After that most of the day is spent in a multitude of queues, something us Brits had be training our whole lives for. First we queue to drop off our luggage bag, this bag contains everything we won’t be using during the race and we won’t see again until we are at the hotel after the race. We are then ushered into the next queue which is where we get our bags weighed and our kit checked. The bags have to weigh more than 6.5kg and less than 15kg and contain a multitude of compulsory kit along; including a venom pump and a helicopter signalling mirror. Because it is a self sufficient race we have to have a minimum of 2,000 calories worth of food per day, which considering I burnt on average 6,000 calories a day isn’t a lot of food. I had opted for roughly 2,700 per day as I knew I would struggle with such a minimal calorie intake. This would mean more weight but having done extensive checks at home the bag came in at a respectable 8.4kg so I was feeling pretty smug as I waited in the baking heat of the day. That was until it was my turn for the weigh in; my carefully calculated bag clocked in at 10.1kg. An extra 1.7kg might not sound like a lot but it rattled my confidence as I had only trained with a pack that heavy twice during training.

We then had our ECG and medical certificates approved which regular readers will know was a real worry but after the ok we then had our safety beacon strapped to our bags and got our race numbers. These beacons gave a live location throughout the race so that the officials and folks at home could track us, it also had an emergency button that we could press to signal we were in distress and needed a helielvacuation.

iancorless_MDS2019-08640 3

Me double checking the forms needed for race check in (Credit: Ian Corless Photography)

After that queue you then got into the final queue to pick up fuel for the week to cook your food with. Some people opted not to heat their food but I wanted the comfort of warm food at night and of course a cup of coffee in the morning so added to the weight I would be carrying further with these small square fuel bricks.

It was during all this faff that I managed to lose my sunglasses for the race. The panic and anger at myself caused a bit of a downward spiral that I was doomed already as I couldn’t even look after my kit on day 0. The fact that these sunglasses weren’t even mine, but my brother’s, made the whole situation far worse. These sunglasses had survived time in an active war zone but couldn’t last one day with me. I didn’t want to let my brother down so walked around the camp swirling with self loathing, vainly trying to retrace my steps. Luckily they had been taken to lost and found and I was quickly reunited with them, much to my relief as I did not fancy running through the desert wearing the free sunglasses I’d picked up at a trade show.

2a2465a0-3b90-41af-9933-c9b7f532df40 3

Reunited with my sunglass and trying to relax in the tent with Mark, Jodie and James. Yes that is a blow up bed….

After that drama the rest of the day was spent packing and repacking, testing to get the perfect bag fit. This was only interspersed by a prerace talk from the race organiser and going to see the start-line for the very first time which was inflated for a few hours, one of the many mind games Marathon des Sables likes to play.

The day before the marathon also marked something monumental; the first time I went for a poo in the camp toilets. Actually, calling them toilets gives all other toilets a bad name. It is essentially a plastic stand with a loo seat on top of it inside a tiny plastic cubical. You are given human sized dog poo bags which you then wrap around the loo seat, not forgetting to plop a little stone in to weigh the bag down to avoid bum to poo contact. You then tie a knot in said abomination and place it in the worst bin in the world outside the cubicles. To add insult to injury the toilet walls are just plastic tarpaulin that only needs the slightest breeze to turn it into a sail and billow open revealing your poo-ing face to the unsuspecting people in the queue. Some opt to walk out further into the desert and take a wild poo away from accidental prying eyes but the fear of a scorpion sting leading to the most undignified death put a halt to that for me. Who ever said that ultrarunning wasn’t glamorous!

As night rolled in, sleep was once again hard to come by, the rest of the tent has fallen asleep but I couldn’t shift the buzzing anxiety sitting heavy on my chest. So to pass the time I watched as the tent opposite packed and repacked their bags long into the night, the blanket of stars bathing the night sky in a beautifully blue warmth. Eventually I drifted off, knowing that come morning the Marathon des Sables would begin and with it one of the most life changing weeks of my life.

IMG_2462 3

The tent opposite repacking and checking


  1. Denny K says:

    Oh, my. The port a loo is something I had not considered. I’ll not complain about the standard-issue fiberglass enclosures of most US races. I appreciate you sharing this story. Anxiously awaiting the next chapter.

Leave a Reply to ksbeth Cancel reply