The answer lies in the journey – Marathon Des Sables 2016

The mystical shifting sands of the Sahara beckoned and lured me back for a 2nd time to compete in ‘The Toughest Footrace on Earth’ Marathon Des Sables (MdS).  A 257km, the longest MdS distance in the 31 year history of the race, gruelling multi-stage, self sufficient race in one of the most inhospitable climates on earth – the Sahara desert.  Crossing salt flats, climbing jebels, and running through the never ending sand dunes of Erg Chebbi in baking temperatures of up to 50 degrees under the scorching Moroccan sun and contending with billowing sand storms as if it wasn’t hard enough.  But why come back for a 2nd time you ask?  I had some ghosts to put to bed as I explain in more detail in my previous post.

After a typical Scottish winter it felt good to be back in Morocco; under a canopy of startling blue skies and wispy clouds the stark surroundings have started to feel strangely like home after quite a number of visits to this beautiful country for various types of holidays and adventures.  I for one couldn’t wait to join the other 1,250 runners from all different walks of life for one single purpose, to finish this challenge.

Ouarzazate sunset

Ouarzazate sunset

Leaving civilisation behind in Ouarzazate, the 6 hour bus ride out to the first bivouac (camp) site feels long even though en route I met my running idol, Fernanda Maciel.

Selfie with Fernanda!

Selfie with Fernanda!

Once we get there and settle into our tent that will house 7 of us (3 previous finishers among us), tent number 156, we know we still have a full day of administrative checks the following day to endure before we get anywhere near racing.  The 2 nights spent in the camp before the actual race start is a gentle tease as you slowly get further away from creature comforts, for the first night you still have all your belongings including phones and toiletries (important in exactly that order) and delicious meals are provided by the race organisation.  But then it starts to strip away, the day before the race you hand your luggage in and the race registration takes place of checking your kit and ECG/medical before handing you your race numbers and bag of salt tablets before it all suddenly starts to feel very real.

Dinner MdS style

Dinner MdS style

Every day the bivouac comes alive well before the sunrises with competitors unable to sleep they start stirring and faffing about in their bags, with many wasting precious energy being up so early and being ready well before time.  I remained cocooned in my sleeping bag until at least 7am before peering out and starting the morning rituals of changing into my progressively filthy kit and preparing my body to face the day ahead.  Being the only girl in the tent I was nicknamed ‘Queen of the Desert’.

Queen of the Desert & tent 156

Queen of the Desert & tent 156

You can’t help but be swept up in the grand scale of this race, the ultimate show.  Patrick Bauer (race director) addresses the runners at the start before blasting out AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ and we are off with a helicopter swooping low over us all to film us all smiling and waving our way along our own personal highways to hell.  That song will always give me goose bumps whenever I hear it and with it comes memories flooding back of MdS.  It is without doubt the blue riband event of multi stages, nothing else compares.

MdS should not be under estimated, it is a humbling experience where the race kicks the stuffing out of you and redefines you whatever your experience and expectations.  I had previously placed 377th overall (27th female) in 2014 and initially had my goal set at a top 200 finish and aiming for a top 10 female finish; that was until I saw the strongest ever female field registered for 2016.  Never has there been so many females finishing in the top 200 of MdS, with 2 females in the top 20 alone, and a whopping 21 females in the top 200 (13 in top 200 in 2015 & 2014).  Wow!  Proud to be part of the ever strengthening women’s field, go girls!  I was delighted to finish in 147th overall as 13th female with the finishing times so close together it was a massive improvement on my first performance.

Stage 1 official video:

I loved the sand dunes this year!  They were as huge and as beautiful as I remember and there was still no end in sight but I ran them, in 2014 they near killed me and here in 2016 I ran them and came in 93rd place for day 1!  As my husband Dion (http://www.findinggobi.com) so eloquently put it in an email to me ‘Day 1 result, 93rd, Did I read that right…Holy Fuckballs!’  That result added pressure and I felt that the next few days where I slowly slipped back some positions but I will hold that result close to my heart forever, so proud!

13km of sand dunes on day 1 to start the day

13km of sand dunes on day 1 to start the day

MdS threw everything at us; dune after dune, endless salt flats and jebels (mountains) to climb that needed ropes to pull you up the last section mixed with heat that cooked you from the inside and sand storms that exfoliated your skin to inch of its life!  My body started to revolt from day 2 with nausea and legs like lead and I joined forces with gal pal Marina Ranger to find strength in companionship and we pushed each other through the good times and the dark times, finishing the rest of the race side by side.  I faced my own demons on the long stage with bouts of diarrhoea leading to heat exhaustion by the halfway point on this day but we soldiered on together with a lengthy conversation for the last 30km about why and what makes us do these things to our bodies.  We couldn’t answer that question at the time, maybe it was the fact that we were almost delirious from tiredness and the heat or that the answer lies in the journey.  We are all changed from the experience in some way or another and we dare dream even more to find that next escape and the freedom that comes from the adventure and challenge of pushing your body and mind to its limit.

X-Bionic twins soldiering through the desert

X-Bionic twins soldiering through the desert

Preparing for this race takes months of meticulous planning and training.  It is not enough to just be able to run this race takes more, much more!  You need strength, fitness, mental tenacity and the ability to deal with a week in the most primitive of conditions where cleanliness and hygiene are non-apparent and you become the filthiest you have ever been in your life.  It’s harder than you can imagine lying there in an open tent being blasted by sandstorms filling every orifice of your body trying to recover from being out in brutally tough conditions for anything from 5-15 hours, needing to eat and sleep to be ready for the next day.  This is what starts to break people down bit by bit and what makes this race so totally unique and iconic.

With 3 MdS finisher medals to our household that previous experience helped me build a plan specific for MdS.  I ensured that I trained the hardest and the smartest I ever had, incorporating hills, speed, long runs, strength & conditioning and flexibility combined with fuelling my body with the best food to build it even stronger and healthier than ever before finishing off with some heat chamber sessions of up to 44 degrees to prepare my body for the sizzling temperatures it would face.  I kept focussed and trained my mind to keep that competitive & stubborn mindset (my husband is legendary at this!) to be able to push through the guaranteed pain & discomfort that would be faced throughout the race and I spent hours poring over my kit & food spreadsheet ensuring I had the best kit available and the best fuel for my body, at the lightest weights possible but without scrimping.

As a proud X-Bionic athlete I wouldn’t dream of wearing anything else into the desert, it has seen me through every desert multi stage I have done with no issues of chafing, riding up and even in those extreme temperatures the kit doesn’t smell, it’s amazing stuff and I couldn’t recommend their kit highly enough for anyone coming to MdS or any other desert race, trust me it works!  I wore a Runderwear crop top which aside from being very comfortable meant that I didn’t have to tape up to avoid chafing as there was no chafe! At all!  Aside from your clothing shoes are imperative to this race with so many people suffering from horrible blister issues this is something you need to avoid, I came away with all 10 toenails intact, still perfectly pedicured, having experienced only one small blister on the side of my foot over the whole week.  How?  I wear New Balance Leadville shoes, initially they were half a size up to what I would normally wear but I now wear this as my normal size (don’t go too big a size up or your foot will slide around & cause friction), coupled with Injinji toe socks (I only had 1 pair for the whole week, who needs fresh socks?) and then a set of AR gaiters over the top.  You can’t do this race without gaiters and keeping the sand out is so important so I get my Velcro stitched on by a professional, Dave at Sandbaggers offer a gaiter fitting service, they are stitched onto your shoe in such a way that it doesn’t affect the shape of the shoe & they will not come loose, I saw a lot of people with issues caused by unprofessional gaiter fitting processes.

X-Bionic is the right kit in MdS

X-Bionic is the right kit in MdS

Sleep is such an important element of this race that this time around I sacrificed 200g to have both a pillow and a sleeping mat (trimmed down) to give myself the best chance of sleep.  I used the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 which felt very comfortable all week and managed to have my starting bag weight at 6.8kg (dry).

Food choices are individual but one thing that is the same for everyone is that whatever you take, you will get sick of eating it at some point so variety is the key.  I find that I prefer savoury items for both breakfast and for my snacks and dinner once I am in from the day, and grazing throughout the afternoon is better for me than a bigger meal, but I stick to gels and energy style drinks such as Torq energy and Hammer Perpetuem to supplement those when I can’t stomach the gels anymore.  I wouldn’t be without my For Goodness Shakes recovery powder either at the end of each day.  In the heat of the Sahara it is difficult to eat anything and I can’t get any sort of whole food such as bars down whilst I am out on the course.  My favourite tips from this year’s MdS would be to take some Oxo stock cubes to add to your water in the afternoon for a tasty salty treat (heats up nicely in the sun) and tea bags for ‘iced’ tea (not quite iced but tasted surprisingly good in tepid water) as you get so sick of drinking tepid water all day, so anything that will help you hydrate is good.

Marina & I on the finishing line webcam:

I promised myself out in the Sahara that this is the last time and have told both Dion and Marina that they must not allow me to sign up again, and I won’t……I don’t think.  It’s funny but you very quickly forget how much it hurts, how much it takes to do the MdS as soon as you step away and the afterglow of the event takes hold.

I love this quote from Jason Schlarb, it really sums up MdS!

 “This has been a miserable challenge, a misery train, but a life experience.” Jason Schlarb – 11th Man MdS 2016

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Never again….or maybe just once more

“Never again! Never EVER again!” Those were the words uttered by my husband Dion and I back in 2014 after our first Marathon Des Sables as we trundled back to the bus, mentally battered and physically exhausted after running 250km through the Sahara desert. (read my blog on the experience here)

Smiles hiding the pain!

Smiles hiding the pain!

Fast forward to 2015 and Dion was back at MdS for round 2 after needing to put some demons to bed and improve on his 2014 108th position result; and improve he did to a sensational 32nd overall!  I on the other hand was still content in the ‘never again’ camp when he left for MdS2015, but something stirred in me whilst I watched the excitement unfold in the desert  and I couldn’t resist, and hence I was registered for MdS2016 with my first installment for the race paid before he was even back in the UK.

Why?  What makes someone want to go back to this grueling race dubbed as ‘The toughest footrace in the world’?  For me there is unfinished business; I finished 377th overall but it was the toughest week of my life and from Day 1 the race humbled me and crushed my confidence time in and time out until I was left using every ounce of my willpower to not quit and to run, walk and trudge my way to the finish line.  I felt such a mixture of emotions at the finish line that year, elated that it was over and that I could call myself a finisher but somehow disappointed in myself.  No one else was disappointed in me, no one even asks you where you came they are just amazed you finished it, but I was disappointed.  And that’s what has driven me back again.  I took motivation from watching Dion in 2015 as he went from strength to strength and as he totally smashed the long day where he led for most of it and my mind was made up.

Dion having way too much fun at MdS2015

Dion having way too much fun at MdS2015

It’s not the type of race that you can get caught up in the momentum and just frivolously decide to enter, this race costs money.  Lots of it!  £3k for the entry fee alone, and then you need to take into account the cost of the kit, food and the cost of your time to train.  Hours and hours of sacrifice are needed over the months preceding the event for training and planning and the closer you get to the event your whole life gets swallowed up by the MdS, this includes all your friends and family as you can think, or speak of nothing else apart from MdS so they unfortunately are in that cycle too.  Our house has become slightly MdS obsessed now with Dion already registered to go back in 2017 to push for a top 20 placing and who knows after that?!

I’m focused, I’m ready, I know what I’m in for which is why I am fluctuating between excitement and full blown s**t scared emotions in the space of a minute.  I’ve prepared well, I structured my own training plan specifically for MdS which kicked off the beginning of January, whilst of course keeping myself ‘ultra’ fit for the back end of 2015 but I was conscious that Jan-Apr is a long time to be focused and I didn’t want to burn myself out too soon.  I included a few local races to keep myself on track and monitor progress and the biggest change this time around is the heat chamber training.  I kicked off with some DIY heat chamber (spare room at home kitted out with industrial heaters and a treadmill) and Bikram yoga over Easter weekend and am now halfway through a few blocks of training at the climate control chamber at Napier University.  I am confident this will be a big help for the week as I recall from 2014 the searing, unrelenting heat was a major factor in my struggle.

Check out my heat chamber training:

My kit hasn’t changed much from 2014, I will be wearing X-Bionic again as there is just no better choice for the desert; it’s comfortable, doesn’t chafe, doesn’t stink and the technology of the material turns your sweat into cooling – now don’t be fooled that you feel you are running in air-conditioning but the material works very well and it is not stifling or uncomfortable at all.  I still have my ankle gaiters from last time and will be sticking with my New Balance Leadville’s to keep my feet in good condition and get me through the multi terrain unscathed.  I’ve since discovered Runderwear so will be wearing the Runderwear crop but not the briefs as X-Bionic is designed for the commando!  I’ve opted for the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20L bag which I have stripped off any excess straps for weight and of course have calculated my daily food rations in meticulous detail in a very in depth spreadsheet.  You are required to take a minimum of 2,000 calories per day, but I need more so I have got a range from 2,700 for most days to 3,800 on the rest day!  I’m also taking a couple more luxuries this time in the form of an inflatable Exped pillow and a lightweight jacket as sleep and warmth are essential for recovery so anything that will help me achieve that is worth the extra weight.  My final bag weight is 6.9kg dry.

Tackling heat & hills in the heat chamber

Tackling heat & hills in the heat chamber

I’m heading out this time without Dion so that will be a different experience, I have never done a multi day race without him but I already know 2 of my Aussie tent mates, Pooley and Peter, from last time so there is comfort in familiarity even if you know that one of them snores!  I also have a great friend coming in the UK camp, Marina Ranger, who I have also been coaching leading up to the MdS so that will be great to have her out there to experience this amazing race with me, along with a load of other UK runners who I have gotten to know over the years at various races and through twitter connections leading up to MdS.  So I won’t be alone, but I will miss the security of having Dion beside me at the end of each day.

Coach Dion putting me through my paces

Coach Dion putting me through my paces

You can track me and any of the other runners from April 10th at http://live.marathondessables.com/ by signing up for live updates or watching the spot tracker and the finish line webcam each day.  I am #508 and would love to hear from you while I am out there to spur me on.  You will be able to email any of the runners during the race to give encouragement and I know from last time how important this is to my mental well being so email away!  I won’t be able to respond until I am back in civilisation but know now that I will be well and truly appreciating all the messages.

I’m looking forward to enjoying my time out in the Sahara desert, enjoying the breathtaking beauty of the surroundings and the camaraderie of the whole experience whilst pushing my body to the limit.  I have my own inner goals to drive me for this race and I am going to give it all I’ve got so I can walk away with my head held high and proud of whatever I achieve.  To coin the phrase from Dion ‘Don’t leave any change on the table’ will be my motto!

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