The last mile of the Marathon des Sables was (aside from the never ending rolling hills obscuring the finish!) probably the best mile of my life. I took time to soak it all in: the midday heat, the dust from the dirt track, and the majestic Merzouga dunes in the backdrop behind the not yet visible camp.
The journey to get here actually started a few years back when I did my first MDS in 2012 with my husband Colin. We had a very enjoyable race. I finished 169th overall and 15th woman and we have since referred to it as “a great holiday” which it was. With Colin having gone back in 2014 for another top 200 finish it was my turn in 2015.
I took my training and preparations fairly seriously, having decided that I would compete as well as I could, learn from it, and go back in 2016 for a podium place… I knew that this was an exceptional year in the history of the race with the biggest ever field and also now included in the Ultra Trail World Tour. I had no expectations to beat some of the top names featuring but wanted to get into the top 100.
I was reasonably fit when I started my more structured training in early December, 17 weeks out from the MDS. I had ran regularly through the summer and finished 2nd in the Clif Bar 10 Peaks Brecon Beacons in September. A plan of about 18-20 weeks is what I believe is appropriate for this race. It is enough to bring the necessary adaptations whilst allowing for the taper you need, and also short enough that you don’t lose mental focus so that you can keep your enthusiasm for the race. I caught the flu i November and had to start a week later than I wanted but that was no big drama.
I was applying the same training principles as I would for a Marathon (if you think about it the MDS is a series of runs of which the majority are shorter than a Marathon) and I limited my longer runs (over 35km) to two ultra-marathons, both in January: the Go Beyond Country to Capital 45 miles and the XNRG Pilgrims Challenge. I set course records in both so I knew my training was working. March was incredibly stressful and forced a long taper on me but I spent eight sessions in the Kingston University Heat Chamber and had a good adaptation. All in all I felt I had done what I could given my circumstances. Maybe I could have had less red wine, but hey, I wanted to also have a life! I arrived in Morocco 4kgs heavier than I wanted to be but in hindsight I am not sure that was a bad thing. I was strong and the heat chamber metrics showed I was well hydrated.
It appeared that we were in for a warm year. Having taken a risk with opting for the 252 gram light Yeti Fever Zero sleeping bag I decided I wouldn’t need the liner after all and handed it in with the rest of my luggage on the Saturday. I also went minimal on any spare clothing and just kept a Scott wind jacket but treated myself to two spare pairs of socks (feet are important in this race after all!). A centre piece of my race strategy is recovery so I did have a sleeping mat, pillow and about 4.6 kgs of food excluding Day 1 breakfast. Turned out it wasn’t quite enough for my tent mates to feel completely safe but they were certainly relieved I didn’t take any less! I had a pack weight of approximately 7kgs plus water on the start line. Having trained with a bit more I was comfortable.
The race went as well as it possibly could have done. Every day I won the stage I felt like it was a bonus. Running from the perspective of being the unknown surprise lowered expectations and probably helped. Some running journalists must have scratched their heads on Day 1 and 2 wondering who this random Swede was and why she was going out so hard…:-) Whilst I do think it is wise in this race to pace yourself over the course of the week, I never thought that much about the next day. I ran day by day, check point by check point. My food worked well, I slept ok most days and generally I felt good. I focused on the task at hand every day and relied on my general strength and ability to recover fairly quickly. By the time of the marathon stage I must admit I was pretty spent. My body had determined that enough was enough and I had a sore throat and sensitive stomach when I set out. Still it probably helped me pace the Marathon sensibly. I increased my lead yet again and won by nearly 3 hours overall.
As I crossed the finish line on that last stage it all felt surreal. I felt proud of what I had achieved, and I was relieved that it was over and that nothing had gone wrong. There was also a sense of peace and calm. Finally, after so many stressful months it was done.
Patrick greeted me with my medaI. I hugged a crying Frenchman and got my photo taken with him and his friends. I was walking on clouds! Debbie St Amond Simpson, who had been one of the first to congratulate me every day, was there and I don’t know if she or I was happier. Over the course of the week I had been adopted as a Brit and I felt proud that somehow I could represent two countries.
Aside from winning I had the most incredible week in what is a magical race. I want to thank everyone who wrote to me, the support came from far away from people I don’t even know. I also want to thank my fantastic tent mates in #117 who were amazing company and always a good laugh: James Penson (aka Bear Grylls – there was nothing he couldn’t fix or do!), Matthew Cranham, Michael Fetherstone (how is it even possible to lose ECG, med cert & EUR 200 in the check-in queue??), Lee Bhagat, Ian Knight, Michelle Payne and Gwynn Stokes. Sorry I never got around to clearing the stones guys! Finally I want to thank all runners on the course who encouraged me when I passed on the long stage and the Marathon and particularly Ed Kerry who stuck with me for the whole of the long stage, making it a lot easier than it would have been otherwise.
I leave you with this quote from Julian Goater which I kept in my mind when I was training for this race (not that I expected quite such a miracle!). It is from a book called “The Art of Running Faster” and the section is titled “Expect Miracles”:
“Some athletes consider training a proving ground. They think you have to have done something in training first before you can expect to produce the same performance in a race. But others have the attitude that training is merely preparation, and that other factors beyond just fitness can be harnessed that enable people to produce performances far in excess of their normal ability or current fitness level. The difference between these two approaches has a lot to do with confidence and self-belief, and with one’s ability to let the power of the mind take over in certain situations. One approach restricts you; the other opens new horizons”