I’m starting to think about MdS as a restful vacation with a bit running thrown in. I’m not underestimating the desert...
Marathon des Sables 2015 Report!Liza
Apparently Sir Ranulph Feinnes told the Express News that this year’s Marathon des Sables was “more hellish than hell.” This from the man who once dragged a 400+ pound sledge across Antarctica and circumnavigated the globe on its polar axis. Granted, Sir Ranulph’s 71-years old now, almost 30 years my senior, but the sentiment rings true. MdS challenges everyone. It was my first stage race and it was both my best and worst performance in an ultra.
MdS is a difficult beast to describe. You’re in the Sahara Desert in Morocco for six days running 20 to 26 miles a day– except on Day 4 when you run longer, and Day 5 when you rest (/lay in your tent like a car-struck possum). This year we ran 56 miles on the Long Day. They also throw in a mandatory charity stage after the racing days are done, but it doesn’t count towards your overall time, which is cumulative for the first 6 days.
The stages looked like this this year:
Day 1: 36.2 km (22.5 miles)
Day 2: 31.1 km (19.3 miles)
Day 3: 36.7 km (22.8 miles)
Day 4: 91.7 km (57 miles)
Day 5: Rest Day
Day 6: 42 km (26.2 miles)
Day 7 11.4 km (7 miles)
Total: 249.1 km (154.8 miles)
But wait, there’s more. You also carry all your gear for the entire trip on your back while you race. Food, water, sleeping bag, toiletries, and mandatory emergency gear.
A sleeping bag
7 days of food (You’re required to carry at least 2000 calories per day.)
A plastic spoon
An extra pair of Drymax socks
A pretty wind breaker
Trail Toes tape
Trail Toes gel
Two water bottles
10 baby wipes (Beauty and hygiene.)
6 tiny disposable toothbrushes with toothpaste
2 iPods and headphones (I actually only charged one of these before the race. I have only just recovered from that mental anguish.)
An emergency blanket — mandatory
An antivenin device — mandatory (and utterly useless)
10 safety pins – mandatory
A compass — mandatory
Sunscreen — mandatory
A signal mirror — mandatory
A whistle — mandatory
200 Euros — mandatory
My passport — mandatory
A small pink Swiss Army knife — mandatory (just the knife,
not the pink Swiss part)
A Spot tracker — mandatory
A course road book — mandatory
A very fine pack by UltrASpire
A sun hat
A Buff around my neck
A white long-sleeved shirt
Black spandex shorts
New Balance shoes with built in gaiters (Many runners coveted these shoes.)
The pack can’t weigh less than 6.5 kg without water on the first day. Mine weighed 6.8 kg. So you’re self-sufficient for the week except for water and shelter. Berbers set up 8-person tents to sleep under at night, and water is doled out in 1.5 L bottles at the checkpoints along the course. Water is also resupplied in set amounts in camp.
But wait, there’s still more.
It’s April so the desert temperatures range from the 50s to up into the 100s. They may have spiked up to 115-120 degrees a few times. And the area got a lot of rain in March, so it wasn’t an entirely pleasant dry heat kind of 115-120 degrees.
And one more thing:
There are sand dunes to run through, mountains to go up and over, dry lake beds to run across, hills, rocks, churned-up sand, moonscapes, sandy headwinds…
Still, that’s just the black-and-white MdS. It’s the logistical juggernaut of the mobile camp scene (1200+ runners and hundreds of volunteers camp in a different location each night save one), the international make-up of the 1200+ runners, the unique social mores and loose camp dress code that arise, the water distribution system, the laundry list of penalties that you can accrue, the Berbers pulling the black burlap tents down around you in the morning, the khaki-vest clad volunteers, the lack of anywhere private to pee, the recorded Happy Birthday music before each start, the helicopter film crew, the hunger — all wrapped in a French administrative system — that push the beast into technicolor glory and heightens the challenge.
There was a pale flabby fellow who walked by my tent everyday wearing small maroon underwear, white slippers, and two square pieces of shiny tape over his nipples. That’s it. I came to look forward to seeing him go by. I can’t say why exactly. It was reassuring somehow. “See, everything’s fine. Maroon-underwear guy is still here worried about nipple rash. We’re all going to get through this.”
The tent city was set up in concentric horseshoes, and everyday people stood a little closer to the tents to pee. My crew’s tent (177!) was in the outermost ring, so we had front row seats to the encroaching urine line. Actually, the 200+ women continued to make futile efforts to find cover throughout the race. Most adopted a head down quickstep past the urinating men and their exposed parts until they’d gone exactly As-Far-As-Their-Mother-Would-Expect-Them-To-Walk-Divided-By-Overall-Kilometers-Run-&-Feminism. At that point, they resigned themselves to a few inadvertent sightings of their bottoms, squatted behind some scraggly 7-inch desert shrub, and tried not to pee on their shoes. Not urinating on your shoes is challenging on a good day. It can be particularly challenging on a windy day.
I wanted to email Eliot about the hundreds of peeing men, but I was limited to a few hundred words per email, and I could never come up with any way summarize the bathroom experience that didn’t include the phrase “running a gauntlet of penises” – which I knew wouldn’t sound reassuring. I also left out naked-maroon-underwear guy.
And then there was the actual racing of the MdS:
Stage 1: 2nd female, 8 minutes behind the leader (all times are unofficial and just what I remember sitting here on the plane headed towards London)
Stage 2: 2nd female for the stage and 2nd female overall , 1 minute behind the leader for the stage, 9ish minutes back overall
Stage 3: 3rd female for the stage, 2nd female overall, 19ish minutes off the lead
And then came Stage 4.
The Long Day.
91.7km. (56 miles)
I wasn’t worried about this stage. In fact, I was a bit relieved all the short stuff was over. I figured this is where I’d actually do well. My pack was lighter, and I’d worked out my water system at the aid stations (Always replace the lids to the water bottles you’re carrying on your chest before bending over to do anything else.) I have a lot of experience running distances longer than 91 km. I’d run 91 km over all sorts of terrain and in all sorts of weather – as part of longer ultras. I didn’t expect any gut-wrenching adventures on Stage 4. I certainly didn’t expect to find myself curled up in a ball under the edge of a Berber tent nine hours after the start spooned by an unknown French couple. But that’s exactly what happened — right down to the French spooners. Waves of nausea laid me so low that by the time I hit Checkpoint 5, 63 km into the race, I hadn’t been able to eat or drink for hours. No gels, no drink mix, no diluted drink mix, no water. That’s right, I couldn’t keep lukewarm water down.
So it was either stop and wait until I felt better, or wobble out into the dark and possibly pass out alone in the desert. I like to do my suffering in a responsible manner, so I decided against the loneyly hypoglycemic desert wobbling. I gave myself 30 minutes to recover, laid down and pulled my buff over my eyes. Unsurprisingly, I was in the same state 30 minutes later — just across the line of acceptable risk. And the nausea wasn’t the familiar, vomit-a-bit-and-soldier-on kind of nausea I’ve come to expect in 100-milers. It was the kind of flu-like nausea that keeps you curled in a ball on the ground — like an ant sprayed by Raid. Another 30 minutes passed. I stood up at the edge of tent, desperate to try to get moving. Then I threw up my breakfast — my entire freeze dried apple cobbler breakfast. Apparently it had been sitting undigested in my stomach since that start. I stared grimly at the treacherous mess until my back muscles started to spasm. Excellent. I was still too queasy and lightheaded to leave, so I curled up on the ground again and pulled my sleeping bag over me. I lay there for about three hours before the nausea abated, and I felt certain I’d get to the next aid station without incident.
I gulped down one blessed sugary cup of tea from a surprise tea station, and walked as fast as I could into the darkness. I hit a pace approaching running after a while, and thought about looking for a tea sponsorship when the race was finally over. Sadly, my tea-fueled Performance of the Year ended abruptly, and I was reduced to a weak shuffle an hour from the next checkpoint. My stomach felt like it was in a vice grip, and I couldn’t swallow anything without gagging. I swished water around in my mouth and spit it out for the next hour – forgetting that I needed to mix the Tailwind into the water to get any swishing benefit. There was a moonlit sandstorm and lots of soft sand to hike through that helped muddle my thinking along with the 12-hour calorie deficit. By the time I hit the next checkpoint, only 17 km from the finish, I had to curl up under a Berber tent again. A French couple ducked under the tent shortly afterwards, and planted themselves on either side of me. I was sad and cold, and I was grateful for the lack of personal space. They whispered to each other in French for a long time across me. I don’t know whether they were talking about blisters and diarrhea, but it felt like a bedtime story and I closed my eyes. Four hours later, they were gone, and so was my nausea. I headed out – determined to overtake every 70 year-old cane-using runner in front of me. (I’m competitive like that.)
In any event, the 7 hours of napping took me out of podium contention.
Stage 5: First female in the 1000+ runners who leave before the Top 200 runners. I have no idea where that put me overall.
So there you go! MdS 2015. As Mr. Dickens says, “It was the best of times It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
I could not be more grateful to the Ultra Trail World Tour for giving me the opportunity to have this adventure. This race should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Thank you to Eliot and my parents for their constant love and for allowing me to have this grand adventure. My life is blessed.
Thank you to New Balance for their incredible support and for the most amazing shoes ever.
Thank you to Drymax for the socks. I had one blister during 156 miles of racing through the Sahara. It was a tiny blister that I below my toenail that I always get, and they almost threw me out of the blister care tent because it was so unimpressive.
Thank you to Tailwind. That is hands down the best drink mix I’ve used. It tasted great throughout the days of racing. And Bearded Brothers bars! Those are excellent!
Thank you to UltrAspire for the best pack ever!
Thank you to Trail Toes for the best blister kit.
Thank you to all the family and friends who wrote me in the desert. You can’t know how much it meant to hear from you.
Thank you to my British friends who took me under their wing as I was crumbling during Stage 4.
And thank you to my incredible tentmates. I went into this race feeling cynical about people and friendship. Thank you for walking me back over to the sunny side of the street and for all the lovely laughter. I cannot wait until our paths cross again.
And now my bloggy friends, I am ready to get back to it. Blog o’ Day for the rest of 2015. I’ll be sharing all the ugly details of my MdS to Comrades training progression because, unlike Sir Ranulph, I am unconcerned about the Norwegians.