Marathon des Sables: Part Four

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DAY TWO: 32KM

That night I dreamt about riding the London Underground and as I wearily stir, I half expect to be sat in the cramped heat of a Northern Line train rather than the cramped heat of my sleeping bag. Rolling over and staring out at the sand and endless horizon I can’t help but smile at the ridiculous juxtaposition and the ridiculous place I’ve volunteered to sleep in.

In the mornings we all move around like slugs inside our sleeping bags, not ready yet to feel the cold morning air against our sand battered skin. Cooking my morning breakfast of porridge and a coffee I begin to contemplate the day ahead. Day Two was billed by the organisers as one of the hardest days in MdS history with the longest continuous stretch of dunes; a mind boggling 13km. Absurdly this filled me with pure excitement, I love to hear that something is the hardest, longest or most challenging when it comes to running because completing something like that is epic. I billed Day Two as a race in itself, something that needed to be solely focussed on without looking ahead to the next stages.

Prior to running my legs were used to carrying around 20 stone (130kg) of weight around. One of the rare gifts of having been over weight is that my legs are strong and resilient. The idea of battling dunes, which I knew would be energy sapping on the old pins, didn’t fill me with fear but rather excitement. There was still trepidation as with all days in my running life but in a sadomasochist way I was relishing the battle with the sand ahead.

We start the second day exactly the same way as the first, being one of the last tents to the start line and then endlessly waiting for the speeches and happy birthdays to be done before we are finally off and heading towards to the dunes.

Mark and I decided to do the opening stretch together. It was the first time Mark and I would be together during a stage of the race and it was joyfully comforting to be sharing this remarkable landscape with a friend. Our friendship is a true mark of why I love running and the fact that running is a community built upon supporting of one another. I wouldn’t have had someone I could truly reply upon by myside for this race if it wasn’t for the support in this sport (you can read about how Mark and I met in this blog). The only other time Mark and I would run together for the rest of the race would be when we were leading it, but that’s a story for a future post…

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The first few miles were on a relatively flat plateau interspersed with the occasional small dunes and a smattering of hotels erected for their proximity to the dunes. We kept together for the first 5-8km but when I had to stop for one of the countless wee stops during this race, Mark pressed on and I was alone during MdS for the first time. When I say alone, I use that in a very loose way as there is a constant, seemingly unending stream of runners around you from all over the world. But as I re-joined the race I realised that for the first time I had no one but my thoughts for company.

You could see the large, looming dunes many miles out, the unearthly landscape of sand unfurled like silk in the wind. The trepidation for what we were about to go through was palpable as those around me grew silent. The first checkpoint lay at the mouth of the dunes, standing small beneath the mountains of sands, after I’d filled my bottles I had no choice but to enter the dunes, hoping I would eventually find my way out of them.

I have dreamed of sand dunes ever since I was a child. There is just something so mystical, so unearthly about them. A landscape so ethereal that it has to be experienced simply to prove that it exists and isn’t just some film set erected by the Moroccan tourism board. It was the main reason I had signed up for Marathon des Sables in the first place. Being in them did not disappoint the inner child. The endless eternity of sand will be a sight that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

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The dunes seemed to bend and stretch time as I thought I had been in them for an hour only to check my watch and see that twenty minutes had past. It is going to be a long, long day I thought to myself as I took stock of the warping landscape. You would get the occasional rest bite in a dried-out river bed but for the most part those 13km were a relentless rise and fall of sandy waves. Never-ending, epic and torturous.

A lot of people have said that since I was running on sand it must have been easier to run on but quite the opposite. The sand of the Sahara is brutally soft and unpredictable. You can step upon sand and find it joyfully stable and hard but the next step you sink deep sapping energy. It does not allow your body to brace for it unlike if you were about to step in mud or hard rock. All of this gives your muscles and morale a pounding.

Running through the sand dunes involved a lot of thinking which I loved, each dune became a tactical choice. Choosing not to follow the path well-trod would gift you with harder sand under foot as it hadn’t been churned up by the hundreds ahead. But by doing so you risked going off course slightly which could increase the mileage as you’d get to the top of your virgin dune only to find the course goes the opposite way entirely. In a previous year it was said that people had gone completely off course and got timed out, finishing their race prematurely. This played on my mind so I would often choose the safe option and just to follow the footprints left by others. I would pick the steps you could still see the tred of the shoe in as it meant the sand was still compressed. Descending the dunes however needed no thinking and has to be one of the greatest things about Mds. You may have to poo in a bag and sleep next to eight smelly strangers but at least you can feel like a kid again tumbling effortlessly down a sand dune like someone walking on the moon. Long big steps sinking low into the cascading sand.

There were moments at the base of a dune where you’d be completely alone in the deafening silence. The towering dunes around you dampening any sound. It had a hauntingly beautiful feel about it, as if you were the only person in the world. Pure solitude in the sand.

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About a two thirds into the stage, I attacked one of the much larger dunes too fast so at the top I took my time to catch my breath and to simple marvel at the view unfurled. I paused to take a photo or twelve and descend slowly while I put my phone away but suddenly, I was on my back staring at the sun. Had I fainted? Was I succumbing to the heat of the desert? Had I been stung by a scorpion?

I stared up at the sun silently mocking me while I gathered myself together and tried to comprehend what had just happened. As I got to my feet I saw what had occurred; a short Korean man was recording his time in the dunes and having got to the top of the dune I descending and had stumbled causing him to barrel roll down the dune taking my legs from under me. He picked up his Go-Pro gave me a withering glare and scuttled off over the next dune with not a single word spoken. I stood there shaking the sand out of my lycra underpants and every other crevasse, laughing my head off at just how brilliantly ridiculous that was. The poor Norwegian guy who was next over the dune thought I had gone mad in the heat.

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You could see the end of the dunes long before you actually exited them, false summit after false summit eventually leading to the checkpoint that marked the end of the dunes and the start of the long flat terrain to the finish line. I crossed the line feeling absolutely ecstatic, I had fought the sand and won but most of all I had enjoyed every minute. I have never experienced something so epic in my entire life and the memories of that day will forever be engrained in my mind and in my identity.

Stage two was my favourite day of the entire event, the following stage would be my worst for a lot of painful reasons…

Calories Burned: 5,600

Calories Consumed: 2,470

Food Consumed:

  • Great British Porridge (400cals)
  • Clif Bar – Alpine Museli Mix (270cals)
  • 2 Torq Gels (230cals)
  • Peanuts (180cals)
  • Small Salami (120cals)
  • For Goodness Shake – Chocolate Recovery Shake (270cals)
  • Expedition Food – Beef Stroganoff (1,000cals)

 

 

8 thoughts on “Marathon des Sables: Part Four

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