MARATHON DES SABLES: PART THREE

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DAY ONE: 32.2KM

I wake up instantly, through fear or excitement I’m not sure. The camp is still relatively quiet with only a few people stirring from their sleeping bag cocoons. I stare out at the endless desert beyond the camp still unable to imagine myself in it.

As the rest of the tent begins to wake up our tent is suddenly taken away from above us. The Berbers, Moroccan locals, take the tent down with perfect precision leaving only the rug below us. The camp moves each day so the berbers must collapse the entire camp that houses well over 1,500 people and transport it to an entirely different middle of nowhere.

I start to make my breakfast; spaghetti bolognese and a cup of coffee. I know that sounds like a bizarre, student like thing to eat for breakfast but with 800 calories and a handy helping of carbs the dehydrated meal filled me with confidence and fuel. To save weight I chose not to bring any ‘tableware’ for my food and drink for the race, besides a foldable spoon, instead opting to cut a water bottle in half, using the top half as a cup and the other as a bowl.

Even though the simple act of cooking and eating breakfast didn’t take long everything else seemed to take longer than usual as I would constantly stop to check and double check I had packed everything in it’s correct place. This meant that we were one of the last tents to move towards the start line. It wouldn’t matter however as we would go through the daily talk from the race’s founder Patrick. As he doesn’t speak English the whole of his lengthy speeches would be regurgitated again by his translator. Then once that is finally done and you’ve sung happy birthday to whoever is celebrating it Highway to Hell rings out across the loudspeaker. For anyone who has watched any documentary or video on the MdS will know that this song is intrinsic in the DNA of the race. It plays at the start of every stage and I can’t hear it now without getting sweaty palms.

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As the song blared out we counted down and suddenly the race began. Everything had led to this moment; every training run and late night planning session, every gym workout and sleepless night.

Before we started most of our tent agreed to do the first stage together, safety in numbers, so we stuck together in the scrum of the start as people jostled to get into their pace and to get that post start selfie.

I remember looking out at the crowds of people drifting off over the horizon into the nothingness of the desert and finally feeling that buzz of excitement. In the build up, despite being in the Sahara, I felt little but worry and apprehension so caught up in the moment but now the race had started and there was nothing left to do but run I felt those feelings wash away. In their place left indescribable awe at the landscape we were now in. This is why I had signed up I thought, as a ridiculous wide smile spread across my face.

The first section of the 32.2km stage was completely flat with changeable terrain from rocks with sand to sand with rocks. The landscape was dotted with camel grass, that we were prewarned was very sharp but in the first few kilometres I had already managed to brush against a bush which left a nasty cut below my knee that bled for an uncomfortable amount of time. Only a few minutes in and I had already injured myself, you muppet James.

Day One gave us the first real experiences of our kit in its true surroundings it had been brought for. The hills of the Cotswolds or even the heat chamber did not prepare me for some of the issues my kit would throw up. The water bottles I had trained with still annoyed me as they dug into my cheek constantly a painful reminder to keep drinking. It is an annoyance that honestly helped me finish the race. But the main problem my kit created was dull but painful back pain. Because I had trained with the bag weighing around 8kg but it had surprisingly ended up topping over 10kg my back wasn’t strong enough to deal with the additional weight as exhaustion crept in. The pain truly began around the 10km mark when we ascended the first, and only, climb of the day. For the remainder of the day I would regularly have to put my hands behind my back and hold the bag up to give my back muscles some rest-bite. While I knew the food for day one weighed a little over a kilogram so I would be carrying a lot less tomorrow the worry swirled through my head for the kilometres to come.

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As we crested the ascent we saw our first checkpoint of the Marathon des Sables. They are simple but amazingly well organised, considering they are literally in the middle of nowhere. Firstly you are funnelled into a queue depending on your number where they mark off your water card for the checkpoint you are in a give you the amount of water it stated on the card, usually one or two bottles. For the first checkpoint it was one bottle containing 1.5 litres of water, which I drained into my two bottles and added an electrolyte tablet into one. Many argued that these tablets were useless but the fizzy, slightly flavoured water, gave a welcome change from the 8 litres of lukewarm water I would be consuming a day.

I also took the checkpoint as an opportunity to take my first gel. While most had chosen to just take solid food I had trained with both gels and real food and was not about to change everything now. Luckily the Torq gels I took worked really well in the heat and the two flavours I used; rhubard and custard and apple crumble reminded me of home. The reminder of home and the surge of energy were a welcome comfort as we made our way back out onto the course for another 10km.

These next kilometres flew by as the six of us exchanged stories and idyl chatter. We had already become close despite knowing little about each other but the conversations over the miles merely cemented our friendships. In these moments I could feel myself “relaxing” and I began to not take this race seriously. I felt content in the bubble we had created. The desert had heard that and as we departed the next checkpoint the race began to show it’s true colours for the first time.

We started the race at 9am and it had gradually been getting warmer throughout the day. While Day One was the coolest of the days we raced in it was still dangerously hot, even-more so because our bodies still hadn’t truly acclimatised to the relentless heat of the Sahara twinned with excursion exhaustion.

The heat had clearly taken its toll on all of us as we began to drift from one another soon after the checkpoint. In the space of a kilometre or two our group of six was now spread out over half a kilometre, without any words spoken. I had got lost in my own world of thoughts and found myself walking alone. I could still see James and Lirim ahead of me but I could no longer see Jo, Grace and Charly behind.

With nothing to distract me from my internal monologue of moaning I could feel my body tiring. In the radiating heat I could feel myself deteriorating quickly and a headache had set in, a sign that I was dehydrated. All of this was far quicker, far sooner than I ever imagine. I felt scared for the first time in the race but definitely not the last. I was scared that I had taken on too big a task. This was the first day and the shortest day but I was struggling, what did this mean for the rest of the week? I was under no illusion going into this race that it isn’t called the toughest footrace on the planet for fun and that I was going to struggle and possibly fail but day one?! I broke out some cured meat in the vain hope that some solid food would lighten my mood but it failed.

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While this downward spiral continued our first finish line came lumbering into view. While it looked so close you could almost touch it, it was in actual fact still over a kilometre away. It was at the top of a river bank, so first you had to go into the dried river bed and then through an area of small sand dunes and dense camel grass that I now carefully weaved through before climbing up the steep river bank. I lumbered across the line, shaken from how much the first day had challenged me. 32 kilometres done 190 odd still to go and yet I was already feeling utterly exhausted.

I was really worried that I was the only one that had struggled so badly with the last third of the race but getting back into the tent and chatting to everyone else I realised that I was not alone. We were all feeling very shaken on how we faired.

As soon as I dropped my bag down I grabbed my recovery powder and mixed it in to just over a litre of water, surprisingly the chocolate powder still tasted like a chocolate milkshake despite being mixed with lukewarm water. After draining that I prepared my dinner of dehydrated chicken tikka. I walked away from the camp and sat on the still warm sand to eat my curry in a moment of calm, watching day slip to darkness over the camp. The endless horizon twinned with the sand creates sunsets of indescribable beauty; a palate of calming blues and warming reds stretched over an infinite canvas. ,

By the time I had got back to the tent we had received our first collection of messages from everyone at home. There is no real phone signal out in the Sahara and while you could queue and send one email out a day I chose not to so these messages were the only way I interacted with the outside world for the entire race. They were one way conversations with friends, family and readers such as yourselves. They were full of support, love and humour but I couldn’t help but think of my family back at home and hoped that they weren’t worrying about me too much.

It wasn’t long after we ate that we began getting ready to sleep, closing one side of the tent to try and limit the cold night wind cutting through our much needed sleep. Despite having been pre-warned that tomorrow was going to be one of the hardest days in Marathon des Sables history, the day had taken its toll on us and we all quickly fell asleep.

 

 

Calories Burned: 5,000

Calories Consumed: 2,870

Food Consumed:

  • Spaghetti Bolognese (800cals)
  • Clif Bar – Alpine Museli Mix (270cals)
  • 2 Torq Gels (230cals)
  • Peanuts (180cals)
  • Small Salami (120cals)
  • For Goodness Shake: Recovery Shake (270cals)
  • Chicken Tikka (1,000cals)

 

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