I was back for my third Marathon des Sables this year. I had mixed feelings about this year’s race. Having won it last year the pressure was huge.
Since the victory last year I had done more racing but also become increasingly busy with coaching and myRaceKit alongside a job as a business consultant. I signed a sponsorship deal with Raidlight in January which enabled me to pursue my passion of running and all related things full time. However, a transition period was inevitable. Life was too busy for a good few months and as such the period leading up to the MDS took its toll on training and recovery.
The easy route would have been to pull out of MDS this year. Some people said to me: “Why are you going back? You have won it”. However, that’s not really me. I wanted to return and do my best under the circumstances.
Nevertheless the pressure to win did bother me, especially as my own (and more realistic) goal was a top 5 placing. Although I had raced well in Costa Rica in February my head was not in a good place. A month before the race I fell and injured my rib cage so I couldn’t run with a backpack due to the pain. My planned speed sessions had to be drastically reduced and not even a jog was pain free. (Luckily my speed coach Dean Ovel is very creative). In addition (like very many others at this time) I got a cold followed by a stomach bug and had to cut down on heat training. I felt like everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. With the help of friends I managed to get my head in gear again, just in time. I had never really had that much need for mental training before but I needed it now!
Once in Morocco I felt right at home and ready to live the adventure. I was looking forward to the week in the desert and I reminded myself why I keep coming back here. I race MDS for the adventure, the experience and the incredible people you meet. For knowing that life is short and that you have to seize the day. No different from many other people wanting to experience the magic of the Sahara and this epic and mythical event. Living a minimalistic life with just bare necessities for a week offers a sense of freedom, an opportunity for self-discovery and a feeling of accomplishment once it’s all over. Sharing highs and lows with new and familiar faces and making friends for life is all part of the journey. For many it’s the culmination of a process that has been life-changing and they go home a different person.
Arriving in camp
Last year, maybe because it was the 30th anniversary, the organisation of the race had a few hiccups. This year however, everything seemed to be running very smoothly from the start. Checking in at the airport was a doddle without any queues, arriving in Ouarzazate and getting allocated to a bus was equally pain free. My tent buddies were all on a different convoy but we managed to regroup once in bivouac and as I had arrived first I grabbed a tent for us which turned out to be 153.
It had been cold i Ouarzazate before our arrival and the weather looked set to continue for a few days. I was glad I had not only one but two down tops with me and I used both of them in the evening, at night and in the morning. I always take a few options with me for spare clothing and I also take a sleeping bag liner. Then I decide in camp before kit check and luggage drop what exactly to take for the race. This year I also took a spare foam sleeping mat and a cheap travel pillow that I could bin before the race. There is no point to not sleep as well as possible before the race, especially as the last couple of days before had been manic and I hadn’t slept much at all.
Kit check was a relaxed affair and ran very smoothly with very little queuing. The formalities were quickly ticked: Declaration of honour regarding compulsory equipment and food, Check of ECG and medical certificate, and the distribution of race bibs, salt tablets, water- and medical card and spot tracker.
Due to my rib injury I hadn’t actually ran with my pack yet, a brand new Raidlight pack that I had helped to design, not yet available on the market. Concerned that I didn’t want to discover any potential issues on the start line I packed it with all my gear on Saturday afternoon before the race start on Sunday morning and went for a brief run with a couple of guys from the tent next door. We headed out on the dirt road towards the tall Merzouga dunes which we would enter after the first 3km on the Sunday. We would have 12km of them and they rose majestically in the distance. Running with full packs we decided that about 25 minutes would be quite enough. It was plenty for me to feel very comfortable with the pack. Although a squeeze to fit everything in with all days’ worth of food it worked well and the fit was excellent. No bounce, no rubbing. Good news! A few stretches and everything was sorted for the race. We attended the race briefing and being last year’s winner I was asked to demonstrate how the race number should be fitted on the front and back together with Rachid Elmorabity. We both climbed Patrick’s 4×4 in front of the 1200+ crowd in full kit and spun around a couple of times trying to not fall off the roof of the rather bouncy vehicle.
The evening quickly approached and the queues for dinner were suddenly very long. Marc Jerrard and I decided to avoid the extra time on feet and we stayed in the tent munching away on our own dinner supplies. It was nice to actually have some peace and quiet after a busy day (it is surprising how time consuming and mentally tiring it can be to just pack and unpack kit from a bag!).
Day 1 we had the same course as in 2014. In fact, Day 1 to Day 3 were all identical to the 2014 course. Two years ago the drop-out rate was very high on the first day. Going light would be more important than ever for most people. Sadly, 18 didn’t make it through to continue the race. The conditions were challenging with the wind picking up gradually, eliminating any foot prints from the sand and making visibility poor. Personally I loved this first day as the dunes were stunning. I started very conservatively and gradually passed people in the dunes to finish 3rd woman. I was kit checked by Thierry and had a chat to Natalie Mauclair in 2nd place who was just finishing her kit check when I arrived.
In the afternoon I was picked up by Helene Tzara from the media team to do a live TV interview with Al Jazeera. A few minutes in an air conditioned car was bliss. The wind was pretty strong at this point and my skirt kept blowing up but the cameraman reassured me the shot was portrait only. I haven’t seen the interview but I hope he was right! 🙂
I was glad that everyone in the tent made it through Day 1 although gutted to find out that some friends in other tents hadn’t made it. Will had suffered a lot as he had started with issues in his feet and he was unsure if he could carry on. He decided to sleep on the matter.
In the morning we lost Will from our tent. His heart wasn’t in it and having done the MDS before he knew what to expect and he knew his body wasn’t up for it. It was sad as we had all very much enjoyed Will’s company and his great sense of humour but there was no point trying to persuade him to stay. He had made the right decision.
Day 2 was fairly flat. I seemed to remember the first section from the Marathon stage in 2012. It was difficult to find a rhythm at first with flat, stony sections interspersed with small sandy hills.
The headwind was impressive and some people quickly formed small groups. However there didn’t seem to be a group that suited my pace at all and I found myself working quite hard on my own against the wind. In addition to the wind, the humidity was exceptionally low at about 7% which brought additional challenges. My mouth was incredibly dry and drinking didn’t help. I got very tired and the stage was a struggle. I perked up a bit at the last CP when I passed Liza Howard who had been ahead the whole stage. About 4km from the finish I was in a sandy riverbed and I caught up with one of the Moroccans, Abderrahmane Moatacim, who was walking. Finishing in 11th place on Day 1, clearly this stage had taken its toll on a very good runner. As I caught up with him he seemed to lighten up and decided to make it his mission to escort me to the finish. I was grateful for the company as I could have never kept up the pace we set without his help. He had probably decided to pull out already as he didn’t start Day 3, but at least he could find a purpose for his last few kilometres of the second stage. He guided me through the rocky terrain, and although both the wind and my poor French made conversation difficult we didn’t need to say much. It was like a silent agreement had been made. I finished 4th woman as Fernanda seemed to have quickly learnt a few things from Day 1 and upped her game. If it wasn’t for Abderrahmane, Liza Howard in 5th would have been a few minutes closer than she was.
It appeared that the challenges of Day 2 were too big for many. Possibly the difficulty of Day 1 had taken its toll as no less than 56 people dropped out. Personally I think that the terrain on Day 2 (lots of sharp stones and rocks) and the headwind forced a lot of people to walk who hadn’t planned to walk. When a runner that is not used to walking has to walk, they use muscles in a way they are not used to and they get blisters because they haven’t practised walking in their running shoes. The wind was also deceptive and possibly led to people drinking less, not really feeling the heat.
I bumped into Laurence Klein as she finished. She had suffered an injury on Day 1 but she is a tough lady and had still started Day 2. We chatted for a while and she said this was the end for her this year. I was sad to see her leave the race but she knew what the right decision for her was.
I must have dehydrated on Day 2 because in the morning of Day 3 I felt ill. I wasn’t able to finish my breakfast and this was of course a worry. The day became more about getting through it than trying to achieve very much and I felt quite weak. I made sure to eat little and often during the stage. Once again we had big dunes and they were spectacular as always and I enjoyed the scenery. I passed an Irish runner, Paul, in the dunes. He had a terrible nose bleed. The tissue he had used was soaked with blood and blood was smeared all over his face. I was surprised how many people passed him without seeming to care about it. He asked how long it was to the next CP and when I said 3km the look on his face said it all. Luckily we spotted a couple of course volunteers on the next dune so I knew he could get help. I dug out some tissue and a hand sanitising wipe for him and made sure the support knew to help him before I continued. I was pleased to later learn that he finished the stage and he came around to my tent with a couple of Wemmi wipes to return the favour which was very nice of him.
I had no idea what place I was running in but figured i must be sixth or seventh as some women who had been well behind me the days were now close. I just had nothing to give and I was annoyed. I kept going and towards the end, as the ground got a bit firmer and flatter, I started to feel better. With 11km to go the dunes ended (I was glad to leave them behind now!) and a long flat section awaited. I stretched out the legs and enjoyed it and I passed a few people. Eventually I caught up with Costa Rican Marcelo who I got to know in The Coastal Challenge in February. We seemed to be running at similar pace at this stage and we fell into a conversation. We kept company for the final 8km of the stage, in parts accompanied by some other runners and just enjoying some chatting and sharing inspirational stories with people.
When I crossed the finish line it didn’t take long before I was being sick and I had to lie down. I stayed in the water collection area for quite a while, laying on the rug and trying to feel better. After about 40 minutes, much to my surprise, Liza Howard stumbled across the finish line. I thought she had finished way ahead of me but turned out she had had an equally crap day as me. I was 5th with Moroccan Aziza having a good day, nestling her way into the top 4.
I knew that with the long day tomorrow I had to recover quickly and eat, otherwise I would suffer a lot. Luckily I started to feel hungry again and I spent most of the evening eating whatever I could get hold of.
Spirits were good in the tent and we still had everybody except Will. Marc surprised me with his extraordinary mental strength. He always came in late but never complained and always had time to make everybody tea. His witty jokes kept us all entertained. Prashan’s kids had written surprise notes for him to read every day and they were hilarious. Mostly they went something like “Hi Daddy, I hope you don’t have any blisters yet and that you won’t die”. Of course the daily e-mails from friends, family and fans meant a lot. Due to the weight of the paper (yes I did receive quite a few e-mails) I couldn’t keep them so I am unable to thank everybody in person. However, rest assured that if you did write to me you helped me through the race. Thank you!
On the morning of Day 4 I felt better. On this day the top 50 men and top 5 women start 3 hours after the rest of the field. Not everybody likes this late start but I do although this year I think the first half was very tough and it would have been nice to cover some of it before the hottest part of the day. It was my birthday and the day before one of the UK competitors, Alan, had given me a birthday banner and a little present, which he had carried until this day. This was very thoughtful. When I chatted to him the day before I saw that he was carrying a small, bright yellow umbrella with him. He explained it was so that his daughter could spot him on the webcam!
I decided to put the banner on the back of my backpack. My logic was that as I eventually would pass people, unless they were to tired to notice, they give me a little cheer to help me keep going.
The main start were off and all the tents except a few had been taken down. joined the moroccans i theirs. Samir was doing an interview, Aziza was resting and Rachid was cooking up a giant portion of couscous. I slept for a bit and then made my final preparations. Sondre popped around for a bit and we had a chat. A couple of days earlier he had inspired to create flip flops from my spare insoles that I had kept with me and they worked a treat in camp.
The elite start is very unglamorous. We just line up in a straight line in the desert, do a count down and off we go.
It was flat to CP 1 but in now way easy. It was hot and a bit stony on the ground. For a while I ran with Polish Michal who would eventually finish 18th overall. He complained the pace too fast and I agreed. We had a long day ahead! I slowed a bit and fell into a comfortable pace before we entered a riverbed with soft dirt ground, some vegetation and small dunes. Here the group split into two. It was hard going as with every step you sank a bit into the dirt and I was glad to see CP 1.
I was 3rd woman into the CP although I knew this would likely not last. I wasted no time, filled my bottles, and set off up jebel Oftal that followed. This jebel has featured every year I have done the MDS but to have it so early in the long stage and in the baking midday heat was hard. I was wondering how my water going to last. On the long, rocky descent that followed Fernanda and Aziza passed me as they are both more technically skilled but this didn’t bother me. I knew that Fernanda would pass me and I had confidence that I would catch Azia later on. I had to run my own race.
What followed was a few tough hours. We entered some dunes after the jebel descent, followed by a flat section. Here we started to pass people who had started three hours earlier. I could run pretty well here but it was very hot. I had to ration my water. I always try to say a word of encouragement to everyone I pass and I got a lot of support in return which made it all a bit easier. More dunes and ascents followed and it was hard going. I had to make longer stops at CP2 and CP3 to cool down. Bumping in to my dutch friends that I ran with in Oman was a welcome surprise and these positive cheerful guys lifted my spirits.
In order to avoid dehydration I was taking on more salt tablets today but I think it was a mistake. After a few hours I became so thirsty that gulping any water didn’t help and my hands started to swell. I was annoyed by this, I should have known better. When this happened I reduced my salt intake and I eventually got better.
A long section of very soft sand followed and at around 42km, before CP 4, I passed Aziza. She was struggling a bit at this point. I took a break at CP 4, made up an Ultra Fuel of which I drank half there and then. Armed with the rest and a Pepperami I moved on up the sandy ascent that followed. I was walking and eating and soon I felt a lot better. It was afternoon now and it was getting cooler.
At some point in a dune section Saul from my tent was suddenly next to me. He had spotted me in the distance and sprinted to catch up! It was good to see he was doing well. We had made jokes about Mexican feet as his were still like baby feet without a single blister.
It got flat for a bit and I could run before we had a long uphill slope and eventually reached CP 5. Here they served sweet mint tea. I took out my head torch and some more snacks. Savoury was all I craved now: crisps, Hula Hoops, nuts. Before I set off I spotted Liza Howard. This was a surprise. She hadn’t made the early start this year so this meant I was 3 hours ahead of her. She explained that just like last year she had suffered with stomach issues on the long stage and I felt sorry for her. She deserved better but this is a cruel race where anything can happen.
I climbed the steep hill to get out of the CP and it quickly started to get dark. I was pleased to discover that the 30km that followed to the finish were mostly flat and hard packed. Some bits were stony and I had to concentrate (I did trip over a couple of times!) but overall it was great. I felt better now too and I could run the whole way. I had Pretenders’ “Hymn to Her” in my iPod shuffle and Chrissie Hynde’s soothing voice helped me settle into a relaxed rhythm. Every time I heard the words “she will always carry on” I felt encouraged. In fact, I had this song on repeat for the majority of the stage. (If you think I am a weirdo now thats’ fine… you can’t always decide what’s going to make you move forward!). It almost brought me into a trance and with the moonlight and the rather dim light from my head torch (weight not light output had been my priority) it all felt a bit like a dream. From the last check point we could see camp for the full 9 km. The flat ground plays mind games with you and I was glad I had my GPS watch to judge the distance. Even two to three kilometres out the finish can appear as close as a few hundred metres and that would be a long sprint!
When I finished I learned that Peta in my tent had been pulled out during the day due to her core temperature reaching 39.5 degrees C. She was fine now but gutted. I felt so sorry for her. She had been constantly positive and demonstrated such grit and determination during the race. It was a one-off for her and not finishing had not been on the cards. We were all gutted for her. Megan was already in. A fast walker, she had been incredibly consistent and beaten many people that could run faster than her. Another great day for her.
We got some sleep and in the morning it would be time for Peta to say goodbye to us and get on the bus to Ouarzazate.
Rest Day & Day 6
The rest day is all a bit of a blur. I tried to get some rest, caught up with people I hadn’t had time to speak to before, did a photoshoot and tried to eat and drink to recover for the Marathon the following day.
The Marathon turned out to be an interesting race although I didn’t know it at the time we started. I was 2 hours behind Fernanda in 3rd and about 50 minutes ahead of Aziza in 5th. I thought that Aziza would blast today so I just had to make sure nothing happened that could let her gain all that time. At the same time I didn’t think there was anything I could do to catch Fernanda so I opted for a safe race. Little did I know that Fernanda would end up with a 2 hour penalty which meant I was 4 minutes off the podium. However, it was a rather stupid penalty for something that didn’t really matter that much and for that I was happy. I wouldn’t have wanted the podium in that way! I was also pleased for my lovely Raidlight team mate Nathalie Mauclair who had a strong race and finished 2nd.
Watching the last finishers is always emotional and I was so happy to see Marc cross the line. I had been worried he wouldn’t make it.
After the prize giving we were treated to a Coke and eventually, after some technical hiccups, we could watch the MDS 2016 film on a giant inflatable screen.
We still had to get up next day for the obligatory charity stage. No-one really understood why it was as long as 17km this year and it was a bit of an anti-climax and a real struggle for some. I power walked it with Gavin Sandford who had just become the first person to do a double MDS and couldn’t get out of the desert quickly enough! We picked up Elinor Evans on the way and we were all relieved to cross the finish line for a final time.
Post race thoughts
The race went pretty much as I expected. I ran it to a great extent on experience, grit and determination and it was a tough year. I had changed about 60-70% of my kit and it was all excellent. I learnt a few things about hydration, pushing the limits with less water than last year. This was interesting and I am yet to decide whether it was a good idea or not. For details on my clothing, equipment and food, see separate blog on this which will follow shortly.
Interview with Steve Diederich from RunUltra:
MDS Special TalkUltra Podcast Episode 110, Interview with Ian Corless:
Interview in Swedish with Jessica Fremnell – www.ultradistans.se: