After I said my goodbyes to Charly I made my way nervously to my tent. I knew, having checked up at each checkpoint during the stage, that Mark has finished and done so in an amazing time but it was still such a comfort to see Mark’s familiar smiling face as I came to our sandy homestead. But his was the only face in the tent.
With Grace out of the race and the three boys still out on the course or also out of the race there was little else we could talk about. Having finished the long day at 5am with no sleep, I expected to fall straight to sleep but the empty tent haunted my tired eyes. I feared that the long day had got another casualty or worse; all three. That emotional and physical exhaustion had got the better of them and they had quit or the camels had caught up to them and they had been timed out. A few other runners from nearby tents would walk past commenting on our tent being so empty, worsening my mood further. I no longer felt joy at finishing as a pang of guilt began to burn deep in my chest. Guilt for not staying behind and helping as I still felt strong at that point in the race and could have been the difference. Guilt that my selfishness had possibly cost them the race.
My ankle was incredibly sore so I laid out my roll mat and put my feet up on my bag, trying to alleviate some of the pain which I hoped might help me sleep. The next few hours passed by in sleepless dosing until finally Joe’s offensively bright orange shorts came into view. Then Lirim crawled into the tent but no one else followed him. James was not with them, I feared the worse. Despite the perilous location this race takes place in very few people have died during Marathon des Sables. This is down the the incredible support team on the ground and in the air; with two helicopters constantly flying about, pin point accurate GPS trackers, countless support vehicle and a 500 strong crew. Yet in the instant before they shared their story, I imagined the unspeakable horror.
They had incredibly staggered their way to the finish line in over 26 hours, a whole seven hours behind us. James would spend the rest of the day in the medical tent, being treated for sereve dehydration and a blister on his ankle so massive it dislocated his ankle. But he would finish the race, almost in last place but his demonstration of unbridled mental strength conquering physical weakness is still absolutely staggering to me.
Our tent was more or less whole again and with Gemma and Jodie joining us, laughter returned. Gemma, who had come third in last year’s MdS was in a strong position to repeat that incredible feat. Despite that her unending support for us Marathon des Sables newbies was mind boggling; no question (of which there were hundreds) went unanswered, no shard of advice not shared. She always had time for us all and I loved hearing her recount her experience of each stage as she ran primarily for the simple love of running. From my point of view it was amazing to follow her race and an honour to be a minute part in her story. Jodie, who had not done a multistage ultra before, had surprised everyone out there and having pinned her hopes at a top 20 finish was currently looking destined for a strong top 10 finish if the marathon stage went well. The two of us wandered far from the tents and chatted through her strategy for tomorrow’s final competitive stage. Her body was battered, her pack had badly chaffed her back, but her determination stood resolute. I didn’t need to give her much advice or words tied together in motivation, she had all she needed within herself. I knew wholeheartedly that come sunrise tomorrow, she would surprise herself.
We spent the rest of the day exchanging stories of the long stage and our lives before this race had changed them. The instant and powerful bond shared between our tent and our extended tent family had us pass the hours effortlessly; laughing like toddlers and napping like newborns. As night drew in we ate our food in wearied excitement of tomorrow; the final stage of the Marathon des Sables.