This is a brief overview by Marc Thatcher of the 27th Marathon des Sables - c.150 miles over 7 days through the Moroccan Sahara which I took part in this April. It has to be brief as there is so much to say about an event like this which takes up a week of one's life that this report could go on and on and on - much like I do when someone asks me about the race…
I saw a TV programme about this event in 2008. I had given up on my short-lived running career of one marathon & two halves a few months earlier. The programme blew me away. I thought “this is crazy” and decided if I entered it I would be forced to train else I would die for sure out there at the 50 mile stage, if not before. So in early 2009 I signed up ; yes there is a three year waiting list for this. Three years of training and obsessing began.
154 miles over six stages over seven days, this year split roughly 21 miles ; 24 ; 22 ; 51, with a 36 hour time limit so spanned days 4 & 5 ; 26.2 ; 10. Self sufficient meaning only water and a basic tent sleeping eight provided by organisers - all food, other drinks, sleeping bags, clothes etc have to be carried by the runners. Small plastic bags provided for one's "natural waste", not unlike you have for a dog. My backpack started out at about 10kg before water which was pretty light compared to some. Breakfast each day was two Cliff Bars ; then gels for "lunch" whilst running ; a recovery shake once done with some honey roasted nuts (lots of calories!) with a boil-in-the-bag dehydrated meal for supper. Yum.
How it went:
Day 1 – start line we get played “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC. Thoughts of the day: How am I supposed to run on this? The flats are covered with rocks - looks like a picture from Mars. How long does this hill go up for? Agh - that's not the top, it goes round this bend (again). Damn, I'm hot (turned out to be over 50C this day). Damn, I'm exhausted. This rucksack is tearing into my shoulder blades. Took just under 5 hours, putting me in 235th place out of 853. One tiny blister. Couple of people dropped out already.
Day 2 - felt much better as initial shock over with and realised running wasn't getting any easier. Hard to pace, so I went for run as hard as possible for as long as possible dependent on what I was running over. Bad news was introduction to sand dunes. Really bad shoulder blades from rucksack. Got some padding from the on-site doctor. Just over five hours so better pace overall, finished in 135th today.
Day 3 - Hands swelling up during race ; maybe it's the salt tablets we were given. First 10km straight across salt flat - easiest but most boring running so far. Then climbing up rocks; other side like a massive dune - was great fun leaping all the way down. Shoulder blades better but still rubbing. 4 hours 18 for 109th place – take that Leonid Shvetsov!
Day 4- the biggy: 51 miles. Everyone a bit quieter round camp last night and this morning. If you get through today odds on you get the whole thing. Down to around 815 competitors now. A really hard day ; ran through some great scenery but two hours of running through sand dunes was a bit much. How I hated those dunes ; couldn't see the end of them. Was down to a stagger over last 10km in the dark but then saw two guys in front of me did not have their glow sticks attached to their bags so was harder for me to find my way. I got really angry about this - I mean really really angry. After all I had stopped to get some help to get mine properly attached and these two couldn't be bothered! So I chased them down and ended up with a sprint finish. Really annoyed those guys. Bang on 13 hours in 130th place.
Day 5 - day off. Fantastic; can just laze and recovery. Except of course I couldn't get to sleep after I finished yesterday and when I did other tent mates returned each a couple of hours apart, waking me up each time. Then in the morning a sandstorm whipped up and we all had to hang on to the tent and our kit for dear life - one guy's sleeping mat was blown away and lost ; another's sleeping bag was - but thank goodness was caught in the camp and returned. Then it poured with rain for five minutes (??!!). French orchestra with opera singer in the evening was a bit odd.
Day 6 - marathon day! Enjoyed racing a couple of the leading ladies today. (They beat me - just). Tripped after leaving a water station running down hill and went head over heels, landing on my back. Luckily only scratches. Finished in 4 hours 25 - better than my first ever marathon! 53rd on the day - nice.
Day 7 - the "fun run"! Except for after first four miles on the flat we had six miles of non-stop dunes. I hate dunes. I kept thinking they would stop a mile or so before the end so we could do a nice finish but no. They finished maybe 200 metres before the end. I pushed with everything I had, tongue lolling out like a dog towards the end where I saw my wonderful wife and son cheering me in. 1 hour 47 - 99th place. Line up and get medal from race director. Happy days.
Overall - 33 hours 34 minutes of running. 115th out of 853 starters / 19th out of 255 British competitors. I didn't have a particular finishing place in mind but I was happy with this - I felt I gave my all to the event and that was what I had always wanted to do.
In summary - a fantastic race. More of a life event than just a race. Everyone should do it!