Written by Peter Wilkins
Peter’s Marathon des Sables 2008
The Marathon des Sables is an annual race which takes place in Morocco around Easter time. It is reputably the ‘World’s toughest foot race’, and involves racing 150+ miles over 7 days through the Sahara. Everything, (food, cooking equipment, sleeping bag, medical equipment and so on) has to be carried. The only exception are tents which are provided. Water is rationed; it must be carried between checkpoints and used for drinking, cooking and washing.
250 people from the UK met at Gatwick, all recognisable by the similar bags we were carrying, and flew to Ouzarzate, Morocco. We arrived at the Berbere Palace Hotel. I shared a room with Paul, (whom I ended up sharing a tent with, along with 6 others I met at dinner).
We drove out into the desert. Along the way we were given our Roadbooks – maps of where we would be running each day. After a 6 hour journey we arrived at the first camp (bivouac) site. There were around 100 tents for the competitors – ours was tent 86 which we were in for the week. The tents were Berber ones – open both ends which allowed wind, sand and everything else to blow through. They were held up by two long wooden sticks and a couple of shorter ones. Gradually people arrived throughout the day. There were 802 people, from 32 nationalities and all walks of life, including Luis Enrique Martinez Garcia, (ex Real Madrid and Barcelona captain) and a Japanese singer (Shigemi Hazama), who was followed around by TV cameras the entire time. The organisers provided meals for Friday and Saturday.
We spent the day getting our kit finalised for the week. Throughout the day, we handed in everything we didn’t need for the week, which was bussed back to the hotel. Our kit was checked; we needed some compulsory items including a sleeping bag, safety pins, mirror, venom pump, lighter and a min of 2000 calories per day. We were given our race numbers, a timing chip, a flare, salt tablets and a water card. This water card was punched each time we received water, which was rationed. We got 1.5l each morning, 1.5 or 3l at each check point and 4.5l each evening. This had to be used for drinking, cooking, washing etc.
The doctors (called Doc Trotters) checked our ECG certificates, (which we had to have had done before coming) and then we were ready. In the evening was a talk from Patrick Bauer – the organiser and founder of the MDS.
Each day started at around 6.00 when we would all take everything out of our tents and start cooking breakfast. Water was heated over hexi-tablets and pieces of wood if we could find them. There was a sandstorm the first morning, making it difficult to cook anything. Breakfast for me was always porridge, dried fruit and a cereal bar. At 6.30 the Berbers came along and took our tents down, regardless of whether anyone was still in them or not. (The whole campsite was transported to the next place and put up early in the day). We then had a couple of hours sitting around, collecting water for the day and repacking our backpacks for the day before heading to the start line at 8.30.
The race normally started late, and we always had quick talk about the day’s course, a few happy birthdays and a mention of how many people had dropped out and how many were starting that day. At the start, music played out from a couple of speakers, a TV helicopter flew a few feet above us, there was a countdown and we were off.
The route was marked every 500m so it was fairly easy to find one’s way. Every 8 miles or so there was a checkpoint. We collected water and could rest under some shade. Often, this was the only bit of shade there was. The Doc Trotters were on hand to deal with any other medical problems which were mainly blisters. They treated these by cutting the whole blister off and covering it in iodine. (Fortunately I pretty much avoided getting any blisters all week).
I decided to walk the first day to get acclimatised and also because I was taking lots of photos. I walked with Dermod (Catherine Reed’s father) for some of this. We had two sections of ergs, (large ‘seas’ of sand dunes), – the first about 8 miles long which was at the start, and another mile of ergs at the end. They were difficult to walk, let alone run on, and didn’t seem to ever end. The first day was only about 37°C, which wasn’t too bad.
Two camels walked the course each day, bringing up the rear. The general rule was that if anyone fell behind the camels they were out.
In the evening we’d cook a (dehydrated) meal, possibly send an email or visit the Doc Trotters if needed. The days’ results were posted up on a notice board.
Generally we went to sleep as soon as we’d eaten – about 9.00. The nights were very cold, especially if one was next to the edge of the tent.
794 started. There were some occasional dunes to start with, then wadis, stony ground and eventually salt flats which went on for miles with no shade. The temperature got up to around 52 degrees in the open, and I felt ill. After stopping for 1 ½ hrs I felt better, but had moved down the field again. I met up with Dermod again for a bit but unfortunately, he dropped out at the next checkpoint. We went through a small village called Jdaid, which had a new childrens’ day centre and health centre built by funds from the MDS. The course ended with more dunes and a large climb up a jebel.
790 started. Another very hot day going into the high 40s. I had hoped to run some of the day but the majority of the terrain were sand dunes which were impossible to run on. I got a bad nosebleed in the afternoon, and the Doc Trotters stopped me for 30 mins. Again, this put me down the field and I finished the course in the dark. In the evening we were shown a video of the MDS so far.
A sandstorm had blown through the campsite during the night, blowing at least one tent down.
760 started. This was the long day, which most people (except for the elite) would finish during the night, or even the next day. The elite athletes (those in the top 50 so far) started 3 hours after everyone else.
Today was slightly cooler – 47°C but with a slight breeze which made it relatively comfortable. I ran the first part which was flat and then there was a steep climb/ scramble up a jebel which caused a traffic jam of people. There was then a climb up a sand dune using a rope, before descending steeply down. I ran and walked to CP4 over stony ground and more dunes. At CP4 I stopped to cook some noodles. Then I found my head torch and put on some warmer clothes. We all had glow sticks to hang on our bags so people could follow each other in the dark. The night stage was particularly amazing – the only light was from our torches and millions of stars in a very clear night. Frequently we would see shooting stars. The next CP 8 miles away was marked by a green laser which could be seen in the distance.
I walked with some people to the next CP and arrived very tired and aching. We were filmed by TV crew as we arrived who interviewed a few people. Some people decided to sleep at the CP for the night before continuing in the morning. I decided to press on to the end, and managed to run most of the way back to the bivouac. I arrived at our tent at 3 am.
This was a rest day for people who’d finished the long stage during the night. People came in during the day; the last person to arrive came in at around 2 pm – 29 hours after starting! The whole camp went to welcome him back. It was only 42°C but there was no breeze and it felt far hotter. Having not stopped during the night, my position moved considerably up the table, by 110 places to an overall position of 613th. We were also given new race numbers, and a can of coke, which by some miracle was actually cold.
751 started. This was the marathon stage, which everybody, myself included, started rather enthusiastically. It got up to 47°C and with no breeze was very hot. There was a steep climb and descent, we went past ruins and over sandy ground and reached an oasis of palm trees. I’d completely run out of energy by this stage and rested for a few minutes before walking on for another 30 mins. to the next CP, which never seemed to come. I rested in a tent for bit, looked on by a few local children who were all asking for chocolate! Some competitor’s families had come out to meet them here, (they spent the night at the campsite and then met them at the finish line the next day).
The rest of the course that day was more sand, before ending with a few Kms of fairly hard ground. I managed to run this and passed quite a few people on the way. As it was the first marathon I’d ever done, I got a personal best time for a marathon – 8 hrs 13mins! (Subsequently improved to 4 hrs 1 min in the London marathon a week later. A 4 hr improvement on a PB – not bad!).
In the evening we were treated to a concert by the Paris National Opera who had flown out to the desert especially.
The final day and the shortest day. 747 started. Everyone started by getting rid of any kit they didn’t need- cookers, food, sleeping mats etc. which made good gifts for the Berbers. I, and most people managed to run a lot of this. The temperature wasn’t a problem as most people finished before it got really hot. We started by running back through our camp for the last time, while the officials and Berbers lined up and waved us goodbye. Local children were out to watch us, again asking for sweets. The ground was sandy to start with. The final km was tarmacked road, through a village called Tazzarine. Everyone there came out to watch us.
We were all greeted by Patrick Bauer with a hug and a medal. Then we were given lunch and returned to our hotel in Ouarzazate.
We handed our flares in and got a T-Shirt with ‘finisher’ on in exchange. In the afternoon was a presentation and award ceremony.
Altogether 53 people dropped out, mostly from blisters or other medical reasons, including one person who needed 5 IV drips and was rescued by helicopter. I took 55 hrs 59 mins to complete the MDS – a total distance of 245Km and came 591st overall. The winner – Mohammed Ahnsal took only 19 hrs 27mins, going at an average speed of 12.6kms/ hr (7.8mph), which over that terrain, in that heat and carrying a rucksack is incredible.
I had an amazing time, certainly unforgettable and on the whole I really enjoyed it. It was at times (very) difficult, exhausting, uncomfortable and I don’t want to see another sand dune for a very long time (!), but overall very rewarding. I made some good friends – especially the people I shared a tent with, and there was really good camaraderie between everyone.
A documentary was being filmed while we were there. Not too sure of the content, though they were following 2 or 3 (British) people around. It will be on (I think), ITV4, 13 May at 9pm; there will also be a Eurosport programme – 21 May at 10.45 pm and 23 May at 7.30 a.m. Check the darbaroud (www.darbaroud.com) site to confirm the details.
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