I’m jolted awake, screaming. Was I screaming out loud or was that in my nightmare? Where am I? There’s a tent flapping around me, the wind is howling, I’m sticky with sweat and sand and haven’t showered for 2 days and I feel totally disorientated in the darkness. And then I remember, I’ve just completed the 2nd stage of the Half Marathon Des Sables. The half MdS is set on the island of Fuerteventura, the second largest of the Canary Islands which is more commonly known as a holiday destination due to its white sandy beaches and year round sunshine and warm temperatures. 288 runners are here however to run 120km over 4 days/3 stages in a fully self sufficient foot race across the rugged, sandy and arid terrain of the island which could be likened to running on the moon or Mars. The race isn’t in my nightmare and I drift back to sleep until the sun rises over our camp.
I completed this race last year which was as gruelling and tough as the full MdS, but hardships are quickly forgotten and I was quick to say yes to the opportunity to go again as part of the WAA Team. I’d barely recovered from Leadville 100 5 weeks ago, but was keen to improve on last years time and 7th place. I also had 2 coaching clients, Michaela and Babar, going along who I’d been helping for the last few months prepare not only physically and mentally but also kit preparation as well which for a race like this is key. The impact of the weight of your bag and the food and kit you bring can make or break your race.
With this being my 6th fully self sufficient race and 10th multi day event, my preparation is pretty polished. I have a great spreadsheet that I’ve been tweaking for years now which lists everything I will take from kit and equipment to a daily tally of food including calories, protein, fat and carbohydrates along with their weight of course. So as I’m planning my ‘menu’ I can quickly see how this stacks up. Variety is key at these events as the weather and exhaustion can impact how your body reacts to the taste and nutrition.
Playitas Resort is the grand accommodation before and after the race. Day 1 start line is a 45 minute bus ride away and consists of 13.2 miles with 1900ft ascent, running through sandy terrain and the outskirts of a few small towns before the final stretch along the coastline which is absolutely stunning, with some sheer drops to the beautiful blue water below, which is off limits to the competitors but so tempting. The finish line is in the usual style of feeling just that bit further away than you think, I’m pushing hard on day 1 and I can see 4th place lady just ahead of me with only a kilometre to go to the finish but I just can’t catch her and finish up in 5th place for the day with a big, sweaty smile plastered over my face.
Arriving at camp runners are allocated individual tents based on nationality and with my home address listed in France as I’m living in Chamonix, providing Sports Massage through my business Pure Alps Massage, I end up in the French camp. Lovely as they are and they try to speak English to me, but I miss the banter of being with my British counterparts. The wind is strong making lighting the stove an epic achievement to boil water for my dinner. The camp is a bustle of activity with camp fires going and lots of chatter about the day. It’s an early night all round and soon the camp descends into darkness and quiet ready for a good nights sleep, which I thankfully get thanks in part to remembering ear plugs this year.
Day 2 is the long day of 37.6 miles with 5,200 feet of ascent and there’s nervous trepidation around the camp with many runners who will be running this distance for the first time and others that are concerned about how the heat will effect them. I quite enjoy the longer day generally but always set out at my own pace and try to ignore what everyone else is doing. Making the most of the slightly cooler temperatures I start off at a strong pace and look to secure my position in the field with the aim to hold it for the rest of the day. The temperatures quickly rise and I’m consciously reminding myself to eat, drink and consume salt tablets regularly to stay on top of the conditions. The first big climb of the day takes us up through a ravine with a sharp hand over foot climb near the top with the temperature starting to peak it drains me and I’m grateful for the volunteer at the top who grabs my hand to pull me up onto the road. I’m nearly out of water but it’s still about 5km to the next checkpoint so I start having to ration my sips and the heat starts to take its toll.
I slow down to a walk during the hottest part of the day but I find not many people pass me and if they do they then slow to a walk as well. As I reach the halfway point there’s one of the top runners being bundled off in a stretcher and more stories of casualties from the day. The biggest climb of the day follows on from here and I pull out my emergency rations of Haribo bananas as my superfood to charge to the top 😉.
It’s a gorgeous run along the beach in the last few hours of daylight. After stopping for 20 mins to help the female Peruvian runner who had been just ahead of me on Day 1 and was now in trouble with heatstroke, I realise that 6th Place female has caught up to me. A battle commences with her up the last big climb of the day where I ended up ahead of her enough to make me push the last 15km home as I was now fully racing again! At the last CP the fight was on to the finish and I managed to pull ahead of another female competitor to finish in 4th place for the day and now overall. This also meant I had the full bag and kit check done by the race officials which was very thorough, right down to the last safety pin!
I joined the British contingent that evening as they’d had a few drop outs so a tent was free and as the following morning began, weary competitors found their way out of their tents and we all swapped stories of the day that was. Today was a rest day and this involved a lot of laying around, resting, eating and chatting. Made a bit more fun with the surprise treats of ‘Fatboys’ to lay on and a delicious icy cold bottle of Coca Cola later in the day. It’s a great day to get to know more about your fellow competitors and where they all come from and why they are here, making new friends for life.
The 3rd and final day was 13.5 miles with 1,500 feet ascent, knowing I was in 4th place with an hour to 3rd meant I couldn’t make that but there was only a 5 minute gap to 5th so I needed to make sure I kept her in my sights. The legs were certainly feeling it but I had to push from the off and todays section included about 4km of my least favourite terrain, super sharp volcanic rock which to me at least made running extremely difficult and slow going, but not for others who just seemed to fly through this terrain, including 5th lady! I had to work my socks off to catch back up to her again once we were through the difficult section and I could tell she was struggling too so through broken Spanglish we agreed we’d just take it easy for the last few km’s. We stuck together and it wasn’t until we saw the finish line and had the final descent that she took off, leaving me for dust and got to the finish line a few minutes ahead of me. I was pretty annoyed particularly as she didn’t even wait at the finish for me, and I could have put time on her earlier when she was struggling. Perhaps a lesson to be learnt for next time for me, I still managed to keep 4th overall and I was super pleased with my time overall, which was a good 5+ hours faster than last year!
I hung around the finish to watch Michaela finish and we headed off to make good use of the ice bath and complimentary massages, along with a delicious cold coke filled with ice which tasted like heaven. Babar made it to the finish as well, so I was a very proud coach. It’s always rewarding to be able to help others achieve their goals.
Our gala dinner that evening was a feast of amazing food and wine before finally enjoying the comforts of a real bed again. A full day of relaxation by the plethora of pools the following day erased the struggles of the race and I’d already starting thinking about coming back for the 3rd edition in 2019, because it’s just that epic!