Written by Ayo Williams
The training for this race was like nothing I'd attempted before; the idea being to get my body used to 'slow' steady, consistent effort, over a long period of time, without the fast aggressive interval-style training that I've been used to for the last few years. I found the twice-weekly pre-breakfast runs very difficult; in terms of effort they were comfortable but actually getting out of bed at 4.30-5am for a run before starting work at 6.30am was, at times, near-spirit-crushing.
The 90 minute, twice weekly mid-zone-two treadmill intervals, which involved alternating 10 minutes of power-walking at the maximum incline of the treadmill (18%), and 10 minutes of running at 1%, were frustrating for the first 4 weeks of the programme, as the pace of the walk/jog was ridiculously slow in order to maintain the heart rate in the correct zone. The adaptation was rapid and rewarding here though, as soon I got up to decent speeds with the same effort; even when I started increasing the weight of the backpack in November.
By far however, the toughest part of the training was the back-to-back long runs over a Saturday and Sunday. January saw 3 hours and 3 hours building up to 7 and 6 in early March. For me, this is where the small sacrifices were made, as it became impossible to drink alcohol and train (attempted it once - agony) and of course, it took a big chunk out of the downtime/chill time/social time of the weekend.
All in all, training went very well indeed; in total I missed only 6 runs due to injury, illness, laziness or Christmas pudding.
I am lucky in that I don't blister very easily; in fact I got my very first blister on the penultimate weekend of this programme, which involved 13 hours of running. The major niggle I had was some troublesome suspected bursitis in my right knee, probably brought on by the sheer length of time on my feet with the extra 10kg load. The knee swelled up to about twice its normal size at its worst, with a loss of about 45 degrees movement. Rest and ice for about a week was enough to get over this minor blip.
We left Gatwick on a chartered flight on Thursday the 31st, I recognised a few faces from an Ultra race that I'd done a few weeks earlier. Very easy, comfortable flight. On arrival in Ouarzazate, there was (as was to become customary) a long wait for the Moroccan administration to process us; time to forget about the hustle, bustle and immediacy of London living! It was pleasantly warm as we stepped off the plane, about 30 degrees C with a cooling breeze. Easy transfer to the 5-Star Berbere Palace hotel; the base for the competitors from the UK. A lovely, green, oasis of a venue, with a well-stocked bar and lovely pool. We stayed one night here before the Transfer to the desert.
A 5-hour coach/army Jeep trip to the desert camp, where we were to spend two nights in sleeping 'under canvass' in the desert, before Race day one. I shared Tent number 90 with 4 brilliant guys, Jarlath, Mark, Simon and Steve who were to become 'family' for the next week. 5 of us in an 8-person tent meant a little extra space for each of us. Lots of admin and hanging about for the first couple of days, medical form check, distribution of salt tablets, emergency flare, water ration card etc. Also, on Saturday, a welcome speech by Race Director (and creator) Patrick Bauer. There'll be 849 of us on the start line and 130 of those are women. 43 nations are represented, the biggest contingent from the UK. Great banter from the start, lots of predictions, fears, kit discussions, and also really top-notch food laid on for the first couple of days before we went 'self-sufficient'....
Self-sufficiency (that is, eating only what's in your bag for the next 7 days) started on Sunday morning, which was race day one. The sun rose at about 6am, and the Berbers arrived 15minutes later to remove the tent canvas from over our heads, and the sandy rug which we were sleeping on... A harsh, rude awakening! With the race due to start at 9am, this left plenty of time to prepare and eat brekkie, have a brew, sort out final kit checks and collect your water ration of 1.5 litres, to last you until checkpoint one. The atmosphere at the start line was electric, the helicopter circling above, the final announcements from the organisers, the speakers blasting out "...we're on a Highway to Hell..." the nervous energy was tangible! Everyone was expecting a nice, 'easy' 20km opening day like last year, but Monsieur Bauer decided to jazz things up a bit for 2011, and so it was 33km of horror! 13k flattish, stony ground, followed by an absolutely gorgeous but soul-destroyingly tough 13k in the sand dunes, followed by 7 k of flat, barren wasteland... everyone suffered a little bit; the temperature reached 42 degrees C at about 1.30pm. The first finish line camp saw people shedding kit, food and all-sorts, desperately trying to get their pack-weight down. The camp at the finish line is ready and waiting for you upon arrival, looking exactly like the one you left at 9am. Already, the queue for the medical tent was out of the entrance, and a good half-an-hour apparently.
Day two, and it was significantly cooler, however the wind picked up and stinging sand whipped around the tents and start line. Sandstorm goggles and face masks were the order of the day. A longer stage on Day 2, at 38km, but it felt a lot easier due to the sand dune section being only 5 to 6km long, and the cooler temperature. Keeping sand out of your shoes is one of the big concerns and it's basically a straight choice between two types of sand gaiter - I was extremely pleased with my choice of the parachute silk style gaiter, which you glue to your footwear. They look silly and are the very opposite of breathable, but were 100% effective at keeping the sand out. I finished Stage two feeling comfortable, and within 90 minutes of finishing the wind really picked up, creating a sandstorm which flattened our tent with 2 of us inside! Truly dramatic; once the storm died down and we emerged, 1 in 4 of the tents were down or damaged, none in the French part of the camp, interestingly.
Day three was another 38km, with wildly differing terrain, clearly chosen to scupper any efforts of getting into a nice steady rhythm or pace. Stony plains, followed by dry river beds followed by palm groves, the odd village, flat sandy sections, a hellish rocky hill to climb over, and finishing with 5km of steep, soft sand dunes. My legs were feeling trashed by the end of this one, and I was glad to get to the tent, have a lie down, recovery shake and brew.
Everybody in the camp knew that the Day four was the key to getting through this event; it's a mammoth 82km of every type of terrain the desert can throw at you. As with the other stages there's a checkpoint roughly every 12km, where they give you either one or two 1.5 litre bottles of water, depending on the terrain you're about to face. So, 6 checkpoints, with the plan being to get through all six without giving in to the temptation of having a cheeky kip at one of them. Getting through in one go meant a day off on Day five; taking a nap probably meant missing out on that much needed full day's recovery by having to run on Day 5.
Three days of eating dehydrated food caught up with me by the start of this stage, and I was forced to jog along at a very conservative pace until my stomach settled. It did eventually and I was able to crack on as normal. Absolutely stunning scenery on this stage; and genuine camaraderie out on the course due to the sheer madness of the stage and what it took out mentally as well as physically. Jogging along after dark, once the stars had come out is one of the most amazing feelings I've had. With zero light pollution in the middle of the desert, the beauty of the stars is simply stunning. The harsh combination of navigating soft sand dunes followed by rock avoidance by headtorch in the last 20km soon brings you out of dreamland and back to reality. I managed the distance in one go and gratefully crawled into my sleeping bag in the early hours, having nightmares about green lasers. (they shine a green laser into the night sky from the finish line on this stage to guide you in, presumably to help you. The effect is maddening however; you plod along with this optical illusion telling you that you're nearly there... you're not... 10km feels exactly like 2km and it doesn't seem to get any closer...
Day 5 - rest day for most, except if you work in the medical tent. Scenes of carnage everywhere, blisters in blisters, infected toes, lost toenails, screaming cramp in the middle of the night... the list goes on... Despite this the feeling in the camp is upbeat, that we've 'broken the back of the race' and that we're nearly there!
Day six; stage five - Marathon day; so called because it's exactly 42.2km. Stomach recovered, I felt fantastic, and put in my best day's running so far. The temperature reached an outrageous 51.4 degrees C at 2pm, and the terrain was mainly sandy underfoot apart from the last 4km of lovely rock plain. A great day, an elated feeling in the camp topped off by a performance after dark from the Paris National Opera! Surreal, unique and strangely appropriate.
Day seven; stage six, final stage - a mere 17km! The tents were not removed at 6am today, and it made for a much more relaxed morning. The last 50 competitors set off early, to a standing ovation/guard of honour as they went through the camp, and the voluntary staff of bivouac guides, checkpoint staff, internet tent staff and medics did a lap of honour, to tremendous applause from the runners.
The race was a two hour blast, over rocky sandy terrain, but mercifully, no sand dunes. I roared like a madman as I crossed the final line, and then calmed down again waiting for a few minutes as a queue forms to receive your medal. Monsieur Bauer insists on greeting and presenting each individual finisher with their medal and a big bear hug. Fair play to him!
The Marathon des Sables is an amazing, unforgettable adventure. It is so very definitely worth the undoubted long hard training that it requires and I'd say to anyone considering it to go for it! It is also a fantastic opportunity to raise money for charity as people can be very generous indeed when they hear of a great cause like the 'Mines Advisory Group', and the effort involved in preparing for the race.
There are scores of tips for a successful race but my top five are:
1, Start your training very very early, increase intensity gently and be consistent - nine months minimum if you are currently at '2 hour half-marathon pace' as a rough guide. Finish your training with one or two UK based 'Ultra races', great confidence builders & you'll meet fellow runners before you get to the desert.
2, Get your systems and kit sorted early, choose your bag, water bottles, Imodium, painkillers, food, fuel and trainers, get used to them and don't change them!
3, Practice power-walking, as well as your steady-state economic running. Not many folks can run up and down sand dunes for very long, so you'll need to get used to walking, on a steep incline, fast, for hours.
4, Foot care! Choose effective sand gaiters, and save yourself a world of pain! Also, learn how to tape your own toes to try to prevent blistering, and how to deal with blisters when they almost inevitably occur.
5, Develop a positive mental attitude, if you don't already have one! This race is as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one so a positive outlook, a determination to drive on, succeed, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy it is absolutely crucial.
25 Oct 2011
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