Nicola Boyd 2012

‘A Little Run in the Sahara’

By Nicola Boyd, 27th Marathon Des Sables 2012

I finished my last big training session – the Votwo Jurassic Coast Challenge, (3 marathons in 3 days on the Dorset coastal path) exactly 2 weeks before the start of the event and spent the next 10 days enjoying some cross training (biking, swimming, bikram yoga) and completing my final meticulous kit preparation. It was both a physical and mental relief for my key focus in life – as it had been for at least the prior 4 months – not to be constantly calculating how I could possibly fit in the miles I had penned in my training schedule and slowly ticking them off.  I didn’t really have time to think about getting nervous, with the final preparation and all the work I had to get done before I left.

I spent the Sunday before leaving packing and re-packing – it is amazing how micro minimal packing can take so long! Emotions and stress levels were running high – I found myself getting upset because I couldn’t find a mini roll of travel toilet tissue in any of the shops on Kensington High Street! After some more trimming of the pack, the final weight (pre water and the compulsory flare we were to be given in the desert) was a pleasing 6.7kg. There is a minimum weight of 6.5kg, As the weight suggests, I had gone for a no-luxury, minimum calorie strategy! This required meticulous (some would say obsessive) planning. (There is more detail on my backpack contents at the end of this document).  It was packed ready to run and put in a suitcase along with some clothes for after the event.

I woke early on Thursday 5th so went for a quick refreshing trot around Hyde Park prior to heading off to the airport. I was greeted at Gatwick by c.250 other Brits wearing trainers and carrying Raidlight/ OMM backpacks – guess where they were off to? Contrary to the advice (in case your bag goes astray) I was wearing normal clothes and shoes, accessorised with a pink handbag. I had packed my bag ‘ready to run’ and this was not the type of event you could just ‘cobble something together’ for in the doomsday scenario. Plus, there were 3 days before the start so a bag could always catch up. What could possibly go wrong?

The other advantage of being in normal clothes was I could blend in with the ‘normal’ crowds. I was feeling very intimidated at this stage.

‘Everyone looks fitter than me/ better prepared than me / with lighter kit than me / less worried than me etc etc.’

I had arranged to meet up with one of my ‘to be’ tent buddies, Colin, and he soon calmed me down over a latte. Colin, like me had been prevented from doing the 2011 event as a result of injury, and was introduced by my mad friend Penni who had competed that year. An ex-marine and father of 2 he was to be a great support to me during the week, giving me a pep talk most mornings as nerves and emotions started to get the better of me. This was despite having some severe challenges of his own to deal with – he sprained his ankle on day 2, which combined with hideous blisters made for a painful, painkiller-fuelled week. This was a classic example of the camaraderie that quickly develops between a bunch of hitherto strangers thrown together to live in the basic conditions of a tent and run 150 miles across the desert.

As for the rest of my tent mates, we were an eclectic bunch… There was the dynamic duo of Duncan and Martyn who I had met on a Marathon des Sables (MdS) training weekend. Martyn, at 66, was the oldest British competitor, a real gentleman with an intelligent anecdote for every occasion and the spirit of a 20 year old.

Sidekick Duncan (28) was the son of a friend of Martyn’s and they had completed many events together over the years including the Comrades marathon (56 miles) in 2010. Duncan never stopped talking but you couldn’t complain given his ever optimistic attitude – even after the long stage he was upbeat and thank goodness as he looked after Danny and I who were rather worse for wear!

Danny (34) was Colin’s room-mate on the first night and we quickly bagged him for our tent as we realised we had a lot to learn! He was back for his 4th MdS, determined to better his 55th place last time and was even going without a stove to save weight. (Cold freeze dried food would be his diet for the week). He is a 2hr 40 marathon runner and ended up as top Brit in 23rd place overall.

Jim, whom Martyn and Duncan had ‘picked up’ on the flight over was a 56 year old restaurant owner from Dover. Quiet, but with a dry humor and steely determination, he was also an MdS veteran back for the 3rd time. Completing the tent was Ben, a friend of Colin’s, who it turned out (small world) I had met before through both sailing and triathlon. An ex-para, and now fireman, Ben (30) is a great athlete who himself had a challenging week (suffering a cold and vomiting) but was also to be a great support to me. I will never forget hearing his voice behind me, on the final few kms through the sand-dunes on the final day:

‘Princess, get your f**king ass in gear, don’t let me catch you!’

My nickname for the week was Princess – I never fully established why!

 

The Build Up

Finally on our way, I sat next to two Irish guys on the flight. Having introduced ourselves, they asked with a snigger whether I am on the right flight, pointing out that this one wasn’t going to Cannes (the lack of running kit and pink handbag!)  They later admitted, once I had proved I could actually run, that they thought I was a joker who had underestimated the challenge upon which we were to embark! Appearances can be deceiving.

A few hours later we touched down in Ouarzazate and after a long wait in the immigration queue, we finally arrived at the hotel for a pasta buffet and an early night. We had an early departure the next morning for a 6hr coach journey followed by a final hop in army trucks deep into the desert where the race was to start on Sunday. It was starting to become very real.

Friday night in the desert was very cold and I was worried that the kit I was racing with wouldn’t be up to the job. I am not sure what the temperature actually was but after long hot days even 5 degrees at night feels extremely cold. I was glad I had decided to add a silk liner to my kit, even at 150g! As it turned out, Friday night was to be the coldest of the week and I dumped the liner a few days later to save weight with little detriment to my comfort.

The camp (or Bivouac) was set up as a horseshoe of competitor tents on a flat rocky plain. This inevitably means very little privacy and although in the early days, the females would make long treks to find small bushes to maintain some sense of privacy when going to the toilet, this decreased materially as the week progressed, feet became sorer and pride was less important.

Saturday was kit check day. I had wondered what we were going to do for a day and a half in the desert but with over 850 people to check I now understood! And it was actually quite helpful to ease into life in the Bivouac. I was scheduled for a morning check so changed into my race kit, packed my bag and joined the queue. I had had a panic earlier that day as I was told that powders don’t count as calories – with my For Goodness Shakes and Complan making up c.1250 calories that would put me below the minimum threshold. I ‘borrowed’ two 800 calorie meals to go through the checks and took a risk that I wouldn’t be checked later in the week (they do some random checks) or that if I was I would argue the powders should be included. I understand why electrolyte powder calories are discounted but Complan is a full meal replacement – it didn’t make sense. As it turned out the checks were quite cursory, we were given a flare, our water ration card and salt tablets. My ‘other’ bag was put in the pile to go back to the hotel in Ouarzazate and I was ready to race…

 

Day 1 – 33km

As expected, we were woken at 6am by the Berbers taking down our tent while we were still huddled in our sleeping bags. (I say tent, they were more like open sided loose canvas shelters, which as we would discover in the hail storm later in the week, are not waterproof!) Stoves on for porridge, water rations collected, bags packed and repacked, we were ready to go.

We were instructed to be at the start line at 7.45am for the traditional aerial photograph of all the competitors arranged as the number of the event (ours being the 27th MdS we formed a 27). Then there was what became a frustrating feature of the weak, the long daily briefing including an overview of the day, a reminder of positions, happy birthdays etc. And of course they were in French so then had to be translated into English. Standing around with your pack on as the temperature is increasing listening to this is far from ideal, even for those more patient than me!

Finally, a countdown and we were off. I had been warned that everyone sprints off as if it’s a 5km race so I consciously started at a steady pace and tried to find a rhythm. Of course finding a rhythm over sand is harder than it sounds. With all the buzz and excitement, the noise of cheering and helicopters doing low passes to film, when I looked at my watch I had been running 30 minutes.

‘Great!’ I thought. ‘If it all passes like this it will be over in no time…!’

I reached the first checkpoint in c.80 minutes and was feeling comfortable. I went to replace my 1.5L water bottle with my new ration only to discover I had only consumed a few hundred mil. I had been trying to sip regularly but clearly not enough. I popped a couple of salt tablets, poured the rest of the water away and quickly got going again. The terrain was mixed – sand, rock, stony, undulating – and shortly after checkpoint 1 there was a very steep Jebel to climb. As I passed the crest I came across a guy struggling to breathe – I tried to help but he couldn’t speak English. Luckily some French guys behind joined me and I pushed on to find a vehicle to send back and help. I did so a km or so later but that evening found out the guy sadly had to pull out the race. A harsh reminder not to overdo it, especially in the early stages of the race.

At checkpoint 2, a film crew approached and shoved a camera in my face, promptly informing me I was not far behind the lead women. I responded to their questions, sorted my water (with the same issue as checkpoint 1 I hadn’t consumed as much as I thought and poured over 1L away) and pushed on, slightly bemused by their comments. There was another Jebel to climb at 29 km and I overtook a girl on the way up. Hitting the top with 3 km to go, I pushed on for the end and could soon see camp. Again, a frustrating repeating feature of the week was the joy of seeing camp a few km out, shortly followed by the deflated feeling that it wasn’t getting any closer!

I crossed the line in 4 hrs 5 mins (winner 2 hrs 27, female winner 3 hr 19), collected my 4.5L ration of water and headed back to our tent. Danny was already in and the others would come in over the next few hours. The daily routine was to wash and air my feet – only 1 small blister on day 1 – to get a recovery shake and a bar in and stretch off. I had planned to eat the bar during the run but for some reason, despite training with food, I struggled to do this the whole week. Over the next few hours I developed a severe headache – I had completely mucked up my hydration and was paying the price. The 4.5L was to see us through to the next morning and wasn’t going to be enough to re-hydrate let alone cook. I took a big risk – some guys had discovered a well close to camp so I collected some well water and after some fierce boiling used that for my evening meal. I was lucky, it didn’t cause me any problems. I still had a raging headache throughout the night but luckily by morning it was easing and with some kind donations of water from my tentmates I was feeling okay by the time I stood on the startline on day 2.

We had a print out of our emails delivered to our tents every evening – it was such a mental boost to receive contact from back home, almost irrespective of the content. I would savor reading them in the evening and then re-read them over breakfast in the morning. Thanks to everyone who sent them.

A results board was put up each evening and much time was spent studying it. When Danny came back to the tent and informed me of my day 1 result that evening – 6th female and 88th overall – I nearly fell over. I was shocked. I had run within myself and (apart from the hydration issue) felt fine. I tried to stop myself from panicking and concluding that I had clearly overcooked it on day 1. I promptly headed over to the email tent (you are allowed to send one email a day of 1000 words) to send a message home – I wanted to re-set expectations about my performance. There was no way I could place that highly all week…

Email home on Sunday 8th April:

Great to finally start today. I planned to go steady the first 2 days but results suggest otherwise (6th girl, 88 overall) so fear I may have gone too hard :( I feel good though, inevitable niggles but feet generally in good shape so fingers crossed. Quads sore from all the climbing today! Want to get to double marathon day feeling ok. Very glad I went minimal – weight still one of biggest issues but will go down by the day helpfully! Got hydration badly wrong today and got a throbbing headache so that to fix tomorrow. Heat feels fine even over 40. Tent mates good – Danny came in 44th today so had company when I got back to the tent. Others suffering more than me but spirits good still.

 

Day 2 – 38km

Day 2’s course was 38.5 km and mostly flat. First it was rocky. Then a series of small sand dunes. Then a long, white salt flat. Then another sandy area containing residual water and mud from last week’s weather, and, finally, another 5 km or so of dunes to the finish! Though the course was ‘flat’, plentiful sand and the long salt flat, combined with the soaring temperature, made for a challenging day. Race officials reported the day’s high as ‘just under’ 50 degrees C! On account of this, we were to be given an additional 1.5L of water at the final checkpoint. I would later find out that there were 20 drop outs from this stage, which is a very high number and related to the intense temperatures. Sometimes only 20 people drop from the entire MdS.

I started running pretty comfortably and felt okay. The temperature didn’t bother me too much – must have been all that bikram yoga I had been doing! – and actually I may have benefitted relative to others from the temperatures remaining high for the rest of the week. Reassuringly I started to recognise people I had been running with the previous day – I couldn’t be doing too badly! I had resigned myself to the fact that I would have to take on the additional 1.5L of water at the final checkpoint. I didn’t need it at the time and I would have to carry it in my hand for the final 10 km, but given my dehydration from the previous day I couldn’t risk not taking it. Adding an extra 1.5 kg doesn’t sound like much but it certainly felt it! That last 10 km was a battle and I was overtaken by a number of people including a Portuguese girl (who would end the week one place ahead of me).

I crossed the line in 4 hrs 43mins (winner 2 hrs 50, female winner 3 hr 51), 7thwoman and in 92nd overall. I was again surprised as I thought I had faded quite badly at the end. Interestingly, my overall placing improved to 85th – consistency really pays, which was to be a continuing theme of the week.

The afternoon/ evening proceeded with the same routine of a recovery shake, treating my feet and then recovering / stretching in the tent. The wind picked up in the afternoon as it would most days. Whether you’re an athlete in camp or out on the course, the wind and the waves of sand it pelts you became a constant challenge. It was impossible to keep sand out of anything!

I would cook and eat my evening meal (powdered vegetable cottage pie, yum yum!) prior to dark descending around 7pm, after which we would generally crawl into our sleeping bags and try and get some sleep. Sleep was generally interrupted and I would wake multiple times during the night, either to go to the toilet, to untangle myself from my sleeping bag, to move a rock from beneath me or just to avoid bruising or cramp. That said, I did wake up most mornings feeling refreshed.

 

Day 3 – 35km

I felt good this morning – probably partly mental as I knew I was well hydrated unlike the morning before. An overcast sky had also kept the sleeping temperature warm which may have helped – I actually slept on top of my sleeping bag for half the night. I stretched well as I had been suffering from tight quads, I think a result of the terrain being more undulating than I had done much of my training on. I felt glad that I had done the Jurassic Coast run. Nothing could be as undulating as that!

The first 12 km to checkpoint 1 was on relatively good ground, hard packed sand with a stony covering, which I took advantage of to get into a comfortable rhythm and maintain a good pace. I reached the checkpoint in just over an hour. I had been told before going to the desert that you generally run in km/hr what you run in miles/hr here. I’d be pretty happy if I can now run that fast in the UK – that would be a sub 35 min per 10km!

From the first checkpoint, the course turned towards a high jebel. I would always walk up these – the people ‘running’ never made more than a few meters ground on me and I’m sure expended far more energy. Cresting the jebel, you felt the wind hit and it was in to a section of dunes and rocky jebels. I still felt strong and took advantage of having the wind behind me (on the flat / downhill sections at least) to maintain a good pace. I saw one of the British photographers who told me I was 4th girl which was encouraging.

We experienced strong winds – luckily either a tailwind or a sidewind – for the rest of the day and I felt pretty sandblasted by the end of it. Intermittent sandstorms caused small portions of the course to disappear. For about one mile after the second checkpoint, visibility dropped temporarily to c.20 feet and I found myself drifting off course – even 500m when you are running this far is very annoying! The weather system did however keep the temperatures mild and below 35C.

Checkpoint 2 to the finish was a slightly flatter 11 km and I could feel myself fading a little but nothing I couldn’t fight, especially if it meant holding 4th female position!

I have to confess – and I tried to avoid this during the week to just stick to my own race, a few glances behind to check for approaching women spurred me on for the last few km.

I crossed the line in 3 hrs 55mins (winner 2 hrs 35, female winner 3 hr 19) maintaining 4th place female, 58th overall. This was to be my best result all week and a great confidence boost. It is hard to remember when exactly the dynamics of the race changed for me but I suspect it was here – I went from being there to complete and ‘do my best’ to properly competing. I really wanted that top 100 place.

In pursuit of that, I decided to copy Danny and cull some more items from my pack. I chopped 2 more sections off my backpack, binned my camp slippers and cut down my medical kit. It may not sound like a lot but with 80 km to run, every gram was going to count and it was a psychological boost too.

There was a sandstorm that night which meant it was hard to get proper rest. It also sadly meant our emails weren’t delivered as the organizers were too busy trying to stop camp blowing away! I went to sleep with a buff over my eyes and ears, another one over my mouth and my sleeping bag drawn tightly around my head. In the morning we awoke under a 1 cm blanket of sand – the phrase sand getting everywhere took on a whole new meaning!

 

Day 4 – 80km

Having made the mental shift from completing to competing, it certainly ratcheted up the pressure on me. Self imposed I accept. A lot can change on the long day and I felt nervous that morning. I had never run 50 miles before. My longest previous run had been 45 miles and of course that wasn’t day 4 of a race in the desert with some pesky sand dunes in the way! I also knew from competitors who had run the MdS before, that we had been unlucky with the terrain. The route was all about sand: sand dunes, sandy riverbeds, dunettes and other sand terrain. With hindsight I estimate we ran on sand for 75% of the time.

The top 50 runners plus the top 5 girls start 3 hrs later than the main start. I thanked my lucky stars I was lying 6th place girl. A late start would mean more running in the dark at the end of the day and I would have been at the very back of the pack. Colin gave me my daily calming pep talk and off we went. My nerves would always dissipate once we started running thank goodness. It was always the 30 minutes or so before the start that were the worst, as my head ran away with me.

The first few kilometers were relatively flat but we shortly came upon a steep Jebel that reduced everyone to a walk. Cresting the top, I pitied those who had vertigo – an 800-ish foot glissading descent down steep sand, which at least prompted one of the few smiles I managed that day! I felt okay and I could see a couple of other girls around me, which wasn’t too much of a surprise as I’d deliberately gone off slowly.

I hadn’t eaten while running on any of the previous days as I hadn’t felt like it. They were short enough distances so it wasn’t a huge problem, but there was no way I could go 80 km without eating. I had trained with eating so there was no reason why it should be an issue. I planned to start eating at checkpoint 2, with a strategy of half a bar at each checkpoint and a Complan (powdered meal) at checkpoint 4 or 5 depending on how I felt. By the time I got to checkpoint 2 I was feeling nauseous and couldn’t face a bar. No drama, I pushed on. However, by the time I got to checkpoint 3, I was feeling no better and so made a quick decision to have half the Complan. I needed to get some calories in and that would have the benefit of getting some fluid down me as well. The nausea meant I didn’t feel like drinking either. Luckily, I had brought some anti-sickness tablets with me (as a result of suffering nausea on one of my multi day marathon events previously). Spurred on (slightly) by passing the halfway mark, I pushed on through some sand dunes to checkpoint 4 where I managed to get the other half of the Complan down together with another anti-sickness tablet.

I ploughed on into the 10km of sand dunes to the next checkpoint still feeling nauseous and starting to feel a bit weak. The previous day, Ben had given me a few Percy Pigs (some of my favorite M&S sweets) to celebrate my performance and I managed to force 2 of them down for a quick sugar burst. I also got out my treat – my iPOD shuffle! However, even that didn’t do much to life my spirits and with 2 km to go to checkpoint 5, where it would only be a half marathon to the finish, I found myself in a pretty dark place. A few people had overtaken me including a girl and the finish still seemed a long way off. Fortunately I then came across a British guy called Roger. There was a moment of bonding over our mutual suffering and a silent agreement to push onto the finish together. A problem shared is a problem solved and all that!

Immediately afterwards, we were passed by the lead runner and subsequentially by the rest of the top 10 runners. They were amazing to watch as they seemed to glide up the sand dunes without breaking sweat. Sigh.

As we left checkpoint 5, darkness was descending so we clipped our head torches on and cracked the glow sticks we had been given to make us visible to other runners from behind. The ground was good so we pushed on, alternating between fast walking and running, while distracting ourselves with conversation. Roger is an Investec commodities analyst who lives in Clapham, has just got engaged, his fiancée is training for a triathlon etc… amazing how quickly you can get to know someone!

During this time another girl had gone past us, but there was little I could make my body do to respond. The competitive spirit would have to be crushed for now and I started to resign myself to a disastrous finish and a massive drop down the rankings.

Checkpoint 6 and only 10 km to the finish. I assumed the course would be easy given we were now in total darkness, but as Roger nearly nose-dived into the ground, we quickly discovered that it was a mixed surface of soft sand and rocks with some small bushes thrown in for fun! It was not just us – we would later discover that the lead runner had fallen in this last section and had to be airlifted out and his leg operated on. Smelling the finish, I was starting to feel more positive, however Roger was stumbling about a little and I was worried he was starting to ‘lose it’. I got out a chocolate covered protein bar and made us both have a bite. Psychologically at least, we would have the energy to get us to the finish. I suggested to Roger that we pick up the pace with a proper run. There was another girl just behind us and she wasn’t going to get me – and he obliged. The lights of the finish slowly got closer and we eventually fell over the line just after 9.30 pm – 12 hrs 49 minutes (winner 7 hrs 23, female winner 9 hr 32). Considering I thought I’d had a disastrous time, I was relieved when I found out I’d come in 122 place. Other people had suffered just as I had.

I was the first back to my tent and although I knew I should eat something, having only consumed maybe 300 calories over 12 hrs of running, I was still feeling nauseous. After a cursory wipe / wash I crawled into my sleeping bag. An hour or so later I was joined by Duncan, who looked surprisingly energized! It was at moments like these I was grateful of his never ending optimism. He insisted that I eat something, so boiled up some water and I slowly forced down a vegetable cottage pie. I’m sure I would have felt much worse the next day if I hadn’t eaten, so with hindsight I am sincerely grateful – thanks Duncan!

 

Day 5 – rest day (for some)

Despite no Berbers taking our tents down, I woke early to a sandstorm. My tent mates sung happy birthday and a number of the tents around joined in! This would be one to remember. The sandstorm went on for a few hours and then we were treated to a hailstorm! Within seconds everything was soaked and I was starting to get cold – luckily it blew over as fast as it came and the sun came out. We moved our rug outside our tent to dry out and I took to sunbathing – this was more like it.

My nausea had completely gone by this point thankfully. However my body was not quite right – my stool was black. The conclusion from the amateur doctors in my tent (we had dealt with blood in urine earlier in the week) was that my slightly starved body had to reabsorb absolutely everything out of my gut. Right or wrong, things quickly got back to normal much to my relief.

I decided I would attempt to have some sort of wash as a birthday treat! Apart from a clean pair of socks the previous day, I had been wearing the same dirty clothes all week and my ration of 1 wemmi wipe (a compressed dry tissue that expands into a wet wipe with addition of water) each day enabled only a cursory clean. I (very naughtily) took one of the large water bottles with disinfectant in it, from the medical tent (intended for washing feet prior to treatment) and wandered about 500 m away from camp to find a secluded spot. I stripped off and gave myself a ‘shower’ which felt fantastic – I’m sure I took on a pleasant Dettol odor too although my tent mates didn’t mention it! Another treat for the day was a can of coke that we were given that afternoon. Wow, coke has never tasted that good.

All the while, runners were still coming over the finish line. These would be people who had stopped and received medical assistance or simply needed to rest for a few hours before carrying on. You really felt for them – not only had they been out far longer, they would have far less rest before the marathon the following day.

Email home on Thursday 12th April:

All I can say is OMG… I knew 50 miles post 3 hard days running in the desert would be tough but I don’t think you can prepare for that – it included 15 miles of sand dunes and a huge jebel too! Add in that I was sick (avoided vomit but nauseous, and struggling to take on food and water from the start) and in my head I concluded I had a shocker (the results show not as bad as I thought actually – have only lost a few places). By the end I was fading badly and very weak, in a dark place with c.12 miles to go. Luckily joined forces with a Scottish guy to grind it out. People still coming in now (the next morning, 12hrs after I had got in). Got some food down me but still nauseous, hope will clear and will be fine for tomorrow. Need to put in good marathon and then got the big dunes on the final day – fingers crossed I stay top 100, I’d be ecstatic. Feet ok-ish although just lost a gaiter to wind (sandstorm here)! Should be able to borrow a spare.

 

Day 6 – 42km

It’s amazing how horizons change – it was only a marathon today. The stage featured lots of flat running with a couple of spurts of dunes, including one long stretch with dunes a few hundred feet high. The far off scenery was fantastic, especially the approach to the finish with the Erg Chebbi, (some of Morocco’s biggest dunes) and those which we would run 9 km through the following day to the finish.

I felt pretty good after a day of rest with the nausea gone and I knew I could afford to push hard. I still had 35 minutes on the 8th place female (with the 9th very close behind) but that could certainly be eroded over 40km. I started well and came into the first checkpoint in sight of the lead woman which was a little surprising (it later turned out she had gone easy that day as a result of such a clear lead). As I was leaving checkpoint 2, I saw another girl come into the checkpoint which did the trick in spurring me on! By checkpoint 3, I could feel energy seeping out of me – I think the enormous calorie deficit I was forcing my body to operate under was finally catching up with me. I saw a British guy I recognized and asked him if he had any sugar – he shoved a gel in my hand and told me to run.

That was a typical example of the type of camaraderie I experienced all week. I think I benefited more than most, as one of the fewer females at the front of the field I got lots of encouragement from the guys running around me. One British guy even offered to carry extra water for me one day! Everyone is in pain and suffering at one point or another and you help each other out, with verbal encouragement or as I had experienced on the long day – through companionship in running. From a slightly more competitive perspective, an amazing athlete friend of mine said to me:

‘Everyone is in as much pain as you. Assume the person running in front of you is in more pain!’

I crossed the line in 4 hrs 41minutes (winner 3 hrs 08, female winner 4 hr 05), 7thfemale and in 99th place, which took me to 84th overall and 7th female.

In the Bivouac, the mood was joyful. Bodies are sore, feet blistered, everything filthy, but we all knew that just 16 kms separated us from the finish line. A beautiful, dune-filled stage at that. That evening we had a treat in store – an MdS tradition on the penultimate night is for members of the Paris Opera to come and perform to help us celebrate our near ending. It was pretty incredible, if slightly surreal.

I was happy but emotional – my emails triggered tears and once again my wonderful tent mates picked up the pieces. A good hug works wonders!

 

Day 7 – 16km

There was a real buzz around camp as the tents were taken down and we packed our bags for the final time. Even those with severe blisters and various other injuries were in good spirits knowing we only had a short 10 mile trot to the finish. The fact that the final 9 km would be over the largest sand dunes in Morocco was largely ignored!

I had been ruthless with my kit over the final few days and my pack was now blissfully light as all I had left was the compulsory items, a sleeping bag and a cooking pot. Others were doing the same so I imagine the Berbers would have done extremely well on that last morning!

I had been warned that everyone went out like ‘wacky racers’ on the final day. My strategy was to push hard to take advantage of the first 7 km of relatively flat ground and then fight my way through the dunes. My theory was that even if others were going faster than me, you can only go so fast through dunes! I had 40 minutes clearance over the woman behind me and was lying 84th overall with hopefully enough clearance to stay top 100 which had become my aim.

Everyone raced away from the line as expected and I tried not to get caught up in it. I settled into a fast pace and found myself behind Jen Salter, the top British woman. For 6 km the ground was firm and then we had 1 km of softer but flat sand to the checkpoint. I passed Jen and clocked in at the checkpoint in 30 minutes, not a bad pace! On into the dunes, it was now just about survival – I ran what I could and walked up the steepest dunes. I still hadn’t really worked out a good technique, although on the more hard packed ones I definitely benefited from being light as I could go flat footed and not break the surface. Breaking the surface meant sinking back down resulting effectively in 2 steps forward, 1 step back.

I could feel I was slowing and 2 girls had gone past me, when I heard a voice behind me:

‘Princess, get your f**king ass in gear…!’

Ben had caught me and I was to be the beneficiary of a PT session from an ex-para for the next 10 minutes! It worked! I spurred forward with less than 2 km to go. Finally, I could see more people and the infamous giant inflatable teapot that greeted us each day. I accelerated as much as I could, crossed the line, and promptly collapsed to the floor. My body had done what was asked of it and finally was allowed to say ‘no more’. Ben crossed the line just behind me and yanked me up from the ground. We were then greeted by Patrick Bauer, the founder and organizer of the race, who put our medals over our heads.

I had crossed the line in 1hrs 50 minuntes (winner 1hrs 13, female winner 1hr 31), 6thwoman and 113 overall. That left my final position unchanged at 84th and 7th woman.

Four years after entering the MdS and having gone through the punishing training twice (as a result of ripping my ACL 3 weeks before the 2011 event) with the final year of training incorporating 6 months of intensive rehab from knee surgery, I had finally done it! I was over the moon. I would have been satisfied with finishing, pleased to have made top 200. Making the top 100 had been as remote as a daydream.

 

Kit

I chose a Raidlight Evolution, a 20L backpack plus 4L front-pack, which to give you an idea is no bigger than a pack you would put your gym kit in.

I added a dual hydration system – a platypus in the back and a drinking valve to attach directly to the bottles we would be given that would slot into a pouch in my front-pack. I didn’t see anyone else with the same hydration set up but it worked extremely well for me, apart from a bit a faff attaching the number around it. There are time penalties for not having your numbers (front and back) displayed absolutely correctly so it was important faff!

I made a number of modifications to the pack, including adding a thick elastic belt (it originated as a fashion belt so added some fun black and white polka dots to my running outfit!) to stop the front-pack bouncing around.  The other weight saving idea I came up with, which worked very well, was to strip out the foam padding in the back area of the pack and replace it with my Patagonia Nano jacket (my warm layer) folded in a zip lock bag to protect it from sweat.

My kit consisted of a sleeping bag, a thermarest sleeping mat (cut down from 12 to 8 segments – I even reduced this further to 6 segments prior to double marathon day; every gram counts!), a cooking pot and fuel, additional clothes (shorts and the Patagonia Nano for warmth), compulsory items (anti venom pump, signaling mirror, topical antiseptic, foil blanket and the flare we were given), some essential toiletries (footcare, painkillers and not forgetting my toothbrush with the handle sawn off!) and of course food.

My bag weighed in at 6.7 kg prior to the flare and water, which was one of the lightest. Of my tent mates, Ben had the heaviest bag at nearly 10.5 kg and there were plenty of others around camp with more weight than that. The additional weight was principally food, with many people opting for closer to 3000 calories per day, and electronics (music systems, cameras, GPS watches and associated solar chargers). I had opted to go with no camera and pay a photographer to capture the race for me. I did have an iPOD shuffle (26g) as a treat for the double marathon day!

 

ITEM DETAIL

COMPULSORY

Flare

Compass

Head torch

Batteries

Knife

Venom Extractor

Emergency Blanket

Mirror

Lighter

Safety pins x 10

Recta (CLIPPER, Strap attachment 30 x 24)

Black Diamond (22m max, 15 hrs max)

(6v)

Victorinox (Classic SD, 58 mm)

Raidlight

Raidlight

COOKING

Stove

Kettle

Fuel

Utensil

Highlander, lightweight titanium

Titanium

1 x 20 tabs

Lifeventure titanium spork

FIRST AID

Hand gel

Ear plugs

Elete electrolyte

Disinfectant

Lubricant

Needle & thread

Scalpel

Hypafix tape

Savlon

Diroalyte

Foot powder

Travel toilet tissue

Ibuprofen

Paracetamol

Prescription painkillers

Immodium

Lipsalve

Mini face cream

Hair band

Wemmi wipes

Deep freeze gel

Toothbrush & paste

Shower cap

Suncream

Tincture of Benzoin, 25 ml

400 mg x 12

Co-codamol

P20

OTHER ESSENTIALS

Trainers

Rucksack

Sleeping matt

Sleeping bag

Hydration system

Music

Gaffa tape

Brooks Adrenaline

Raidlight Evolution with front pack

Thermarest Z lite – cut down

Raidlight combo

Platypus 2L bladder

iPOD Shuffle

5m length wrapped

CLOTHING

Bin liner

Watch

Socks

Socks

Tights

Shorts – sleeping

Overtop

Night top

Running top

Bra

Hat

Buff

Goggles / sunglasses

Hotel slippers

Travel towel

Gaiters

Breo mini

2 x Injingi liner

1 x ‘X’ socks, 1 bigger

Raidlight 3/4 length womens (small)

Nike tech shorts

Raidlight desert top neutral (small)

Patagonia Nano

Patagonia sunshade (small)

American Apparel minimal

Raidlight Sahara Sunhat

2 x

Adidas Combo

Small

Parachute silk

Food

Food constituted c.3.5 kg of my 6.7 kg pack weight.

It was compulsory to carry a minimum of 2000 calories per day and I opted to go just over that with a total of 14,500 calories for the week. This would provide far less than the 6 – 8,000 calories I would be burning per day but I knew weight rather than hunger would be a bigger issue for me and had done enough research to conclude that the body can for a short term period operate in significant calorie deficit with limited detrimental impact on performance. That was the theory at least!

My daily rations essentially consisted of porridge (army ration type freeze-dried) for breakfast; a bar (alternating between 9-bars and Stinger protein bars), 30g of Bombay mix, a powder recovery shake (alternating between For Goodness Shakes and Complan) and an evening meal (again army ration type). At the last minute I threw in a couple of ‘treats’ – 30g of fruit and nuts (for my birthday!), 30g of midget gems and an emergency gel.

I actually wouldn’t have changed much about my food, except perhaps to add a little more variety – I ended up giving away / swapping 3 of the 9-bars for other bars / gels and exchanging a breakfast for a main meal.

 

DAY

DISTANCE

WEIGHT

CALORIES

SUN 8TH

33 KM

BREAKFAST

SNACKS

POST RUN

DINNER

Porridge with sultanas

9-Bars, original flavour

Haribo

For Goodness Shakes

Veg cottage pie

Coffee (with powdered milk)

125

50

25

80

180

10

470

560

361

87

289

740

30

2,067

MON 9TH

38 KM

BREAKFAST

SNACKS

POST RUN

DINNER

Museli with milk & sultanas

9-Bars, pumpkin flavour

Bombay mix

Stinger choc coconut protein bar

Complan

Thai veg with rice

Coffee (with powdered milk)

125

50

33

86

57

180

10

541

555

332

175

390

250

690

30

2,422

TUE 10th

35 KM

BREAKFAST

SNACKS

POST RUN

DINNER

Porridge with sultanas

9-Bars, original

Bombay mix

Stinger choc coconut protein bar

For Goodness Shakes

Fish & Potato with parsley sauce

Coffee (with powdered milk)

125

50

33

86

80

180

10

564

560

361

175

390

289

858

30

2,663

WED 11TH

80KM

BREAKFAST

SNACKS

POST RUN

DINNER

Porridge with sultanas

Stinger choc coconut protein bar

Haribo

Bombay mix

Complan

Veg cottage pie

Coffee (with powdered milk)

160

86

25

66

57

180

10

584

693

390

87

350

250

740

30

2,540

THURS 12TH

0KM

BREAKFAST

SNACKS

POST RUN

DINNER

Museli

Bombay mix

Eat Natural – peanuts, almonds & hazlenuts

Thai veg with rice

Coffee (with powdered milk)

100

33

50

180

10

373

530

175

365

690

30

1,790

FRI 13TH

42KM

BREAKFAST

SNACKS

POST RUN

DINNER

Porridge with sultanas

9-Bars, original

Bombay mix

For Goodness Shakes

Veg cottage pie

Coffee (with powdered milk)

125

50

33

80

180

10

478

560

361

175

289

740

30

2,155

SAT 14th

16KM

BREAKFAST

SNACKS

Museli with milk & sultanas

9-Bars, pumpkin

125

50

175

555

332

887

OVERALL TOTAL 3,185 14,522