Half Marathon des Sables Fuerteventura – Take 2!

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.

Sun rising over 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.

Ready to start with Michaela

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.

Enjoy a cuppa and breakfast.

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.

Gorgeous blue water such a contrast against the terrain.

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.

Ready to rumble.

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.

Feeling the heat.

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 😉.

Running along the beach.

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!

Excited to be finished the long day!

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.

Chilling on a ‘Fatboy’.

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!

Finished!

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.

Massage time!

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!

Relax time at Playitas Resort.

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Half MdS Fuerteventura, but not half as hard!

After a so-so Scottish summer the invitation to attend the blue water of the Canary Islands, sparkling in the hot sun alongside the white stony seaside cliffs for the inaugural Half Marathon Des Sables in Fuerteventura sounded like too good an opportunity to pass up. 4 days later, 270 runners that took part could all vouch it was as far from a half race and holiday as you can get.

MdS Fuerteventura is a four day, 3 stage, 125km self sufficiency footrace through the rugged and arid terrain put on by the mastermind behind the ‘Toughest Footrace on Earth’ the Marathon Des Sables in Morocco, Patrick Bauer.  Patrick’s reputation for putting on a tough race did not go untarnished with runners battling against the extreme heat which reached an el-scorchio temperature of 42 degrees Celsius alongside climbing peaks with a dizzying total ascent of 2,000m. A key difference from the MdS Morocco was at the completion of each stage you would also have your own individual tents that remained at the bivouac as we were transported to the different race starts by coach each day.  As per MdS Morocco you must carry all of your kit and food with a minimum of 2,000 calories required per day. Of course there are no showers during the race, all the while the ocean teased us constantly with the promise of cool, refreshing relief, but it was off limits to competitors. As one of the volunteers said ‘The pool is closed!’.  The promise of a dip in the water would continue to lure me to the finish.

Bivouac – home for the week

As part of the WAA Team, I’d been invited to take part with Anna-Marie Watson, coming along after her recent 7th placing at UTMB only 3 weeks prior and fellow international WAA team members JiongHow, Megan and Loic. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of the first event and history in the making.

#waateam #ladywaa at the start line of Day 1

Arriving a couple of days before race day and enjoying the amazing sporting and relaxing facilities of Playitas Resort, one of the sponsors of the race, it was easy to get lulled into a false sense of holiday relaxation mode. Anna-Marie & I enjoyed lounging by the infinity pool in between yoga classes, massage and laps in the 50m pool & indulged in the freshest grilled fish & local Canarian potatoes and salads, tempting each other with stories of races we’d done with both our bucket lists becoming increasingly longer.

Poolside relaxation pre-race with Anna-Marie

Reality soon hit after the mandatory kit & medical checks took place and we were sent on our way with a 7km ‘acclimatisation’ walk to the first bivouac where we would also receive our ‘one man’ tents which would be our shelter for the next 4 nights. In true MdS fashion the first night involved the official race briefing following by a delicious buffet, our last fresh meal as self sufficiency starts from breakfast of day 1.  The tents were in circles of 6 and my camp consisted of Anna-Marie, Hamish, Tarn & Nats from the UK and Jordi from Spain.  Although the camp wasn’t split into nationalities as it is at MdS Morocco, everyone still automatically seemed to separate into nationalities unintentionally.  It was a good mix with 3 of us MdS Morocco veterans, a nurse & a podiatrist (never a bad inclusion on a multi day event).

Camp buddies – Tarn, Anna-Marie, Nats, Lucja & Hamish before the last stage

The route for each day was revealed after a 2.5km walk to the road where buses would then take us to our start location for the day, with day 1 & 2 finishing back at the bivouac.  Our initial thoughts of a relatively easy 25km to kick start the week were quickly shattered when seeing the route elevation for the day involved a 500m ascent at the start, there was 800m for the day.  It was a spectacular start line set under the cliffs along the beach with the waves lapping at our feet, to the beats of ‘Right Here, Right Now-Fatboy Slim’ the 10am start was quick as we scooted along the beachfront before beginning the climb.  It was already heating up and the lack of wind up the climb was energy sapping, the views from the top were energising as was the fun descent down to Check Point (CP) 1. A long endless stretch of beach followed where we ran alongside bathers and sun worshippers, some of them nude much to my amusement, before we climbed up again, this time being greeted by a 100m near vertical sand dune which had people on the hands and knees to get to the top!  After a gruelling stretch of sandy climbing I reach the finish, shattered, in 3.5hrs.

Stunning coastal beach views on Day 1

After a restless night in my small tent the long day was upon us, 65km with 2,154m ascent and a cut off of 25hrs to complete the stage, starting at midday we would be going straight into the heat of the day which really floored me after a Scottish summer of temperatures struggling to reach 20 degrees. As we started on the beach clambering over stony paths and an ascent that would take us over some fabulous peaks with magnificent views I knew quickly that I would need dig deeper than I’d thought I’d need to during this race.

All smiles before CP2 on the long stage

I was happy to have gotten over the highest peaks and through to CP 4 before it was dark, as the sun set the air gratefully became cooler & I could finally take on more food and found a sudden burst of energy & joining forces with French runner, Christophe, we charged through to the final CP managing to overtake quite a few runners on this stretch.  Although the sun was down my body was sweating profusely and I was saturated in sweat.  As is Patrick’s specialty the long stage final stretch seems to be never ending with relentless sand and diversions down to the beach before having to climb back up and while seeing the finish line complete a massive loop around before finally reaching it to test your mental strength.  I got in just under 11hrs for the day which was exactly as I’d predicted based on day 1 time, spot on!

Finish of the long stage at 11pm with French runner, Christophe

We were all grateful for the rest day that preceded the long day and this was spent mostly horizontal, chatting to fellow competitors in between naps and snacking.  Although the tents were individual and far too hot to sit in during the day, we were all able to congregate under a large gazebo which offered the only shade as far as the eye could see.  The organisation didn’t let us down with the traditional ‘surprise’ bottle of ice cold Coca Cola later in the day which was a welcome distraction.

Tent life – relaxing on the rest day

The wind picked up in the bivouac and after a night of flapping, flailing and collapsing tents the worlds grumpiest runners awoke to take in the last stage.  The promise of a cool swim, shower, cold beer and a fresh bed drove all of us to a fast paced last day of 21km.  We powered through lava fields with sharp jagged rocks and a long stretch through a sandy river bed before a final climb up to a peak above the oasis of Playitas Resort and the end was in touching distance.  It was done!  I’d promised myself all week that I was going straight into the ocean at the finish in full kit, so I did just that and it felt amazing!

Finish line with Patrick & Anna-Marie

Competitors were invited to camp out for the final night, but Anna-Marie & I were smug that we’d arranged to book an apartment, no more sandy, windy tents for us.  Suitably showered and extremely hungry we again indulged in the amazing food on offer along with some chilled Cava to celebrate our joint accomplishments and her sensational win before attending the awards ceremony and gala dinner with everyone.  During the final moments of the evening we watched a 5 minute film of the race which captures all the  magic of the week, so much so we found ourselves saying ‘Wow that looks amazing, shall we do it again?’  Watch it yourself below and let me know your thoughts, 2018 anyone?