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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Pioneering the Wilderness of Outer Mongolia

Mongolia is a rugged, land locked country nestled between China and Russia made up of vast eco regions and deserts and is truly one of the world’s last undiscovered travel destinations. When the opportunity presented itself to join in on an expedition to Outer Mongolia to experience not only the culture of a vastly different country but to also run the inaugural Genghis Khan Ice Marathon in temperatures reaching -40 degrees celsius along the frozen Tuul river, I couldn’t resist.

Mongolian Horseman

Mongolian Horseman

Stepping off the plane and driving into Ulaanbaatar, the coldest capital city in the world, is like going back to the 1920’s of the soviet regime.  The cars and the buildings combined with the stark white snowy landscape and heavy clouds of frozen pollution feels like entering a bygone era.  As I leave the taxi my skin immediately pulls away at the bone chilling cold that -40 degrees feels like and my nostril hairs freeze solid instantly which feels like someone is waxing the inside of your nostrils.  It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could survive in these conditions, let alone live a lifestyle.  Dark figures walk the streets with their faces unrecognisable under all the layers of hats, scarves and face coverings adorned with various types of real fur creating an eerie atmosphere.

Ulaanbaatar Architechture

Ulaanbaatar Architechture

Mongolia has surprisingly managed to this day to remain relatively unscathed from the usual mass tourism influx and general westernisation even whilst offering an unparalleled opportunity to experience it’s harsh and brutal environment that is pristine and evocative at the same time. Mongolian people are renowned for having a tough exterior to match the weather but spend a little longer getting to know them and you find people with the warmest of hearts that love nothing better than sharing their food, ger (traditional round shaped dwelling used as a shelter by the Mongolian nomads) and local vodka with you.

Traditional Ger

Traditional Ger

Leaving the capital city and saying goodbye to all the mod cons life was however about to become even more extreme as we headed into The Gorkhi-Terelj National Park in Northern Mongolia. Such extreme cold brings with it a range of dangers, at 40 degrees below you feel the cold in your lungs, you feel it touching your blood, it’s hard to take deep breaths of air this cold without reflexively coughing and it doesn’t take long for any exposed tissue including ears and eyeballs to freeze, dangerously freeze!

Stunning landscapes

Stunning landscapes

Relief from the cold is found inside the gers, heated internally by wood stove fires that burn 24/7 to create an environment that is delightfully warm and cosy.  In fact all aspects of life are carried out in the gers where we slept up to 10 people at a time; dressed, ate, drunk, sang and danced.  Life is basic with no electricity, running water, bathroom facilities or wifi which resulted in conversations fuelled by the purest of vodka long into the nights as the Mongolians won’t take no for an answer and consider it an insult if you turn down their non-stop offerings of it.

David & Tumerol cracking open our first of many bottles of vodka

David & Tumerol cracking open our first of many bottles of vodka

With nightfall came the magic of star gazing, being so uninhabited and with no light distortion the stars shine proudly in the sky with the Milky Way providing a light show you can never tire of.

Mongolian night sky

Mongolian night sky (Photo-Johnny Graham – Digitalpict Photography)

A simple diet of bread, cheese, meat and root vegetables is the staple usually served in the form of either soup or casserole type dishes with local goat featuring heavily. In tough conditions there was understandably a noticeable lack of fresh fruit and leafy greens compared to what we would normally eat but cold weather calls for stodgy warming food.  Traditional dumplings quickly became my firm favourite along with the warm milky tea to warm you up when you came in from the cold.

Milk anyone?

Milk anyone?

The stillness of the isolation is broken regularly by the barking and howling of husky dogs that are eager to get to work pulling a sled along transporting people and goods over the frozen river ways and trails. The ger camps are protected by another breed of dog known as “Bankhar” dogs which thankfully keep the wild wolves at bay by their scent which apparently is enough to keep them away, hard to imagine when these dogs are some of the sweetest, friendliest dogs I’ve come across.  Whilst we didn’t encounter any wolves face to face we heard them in the distance and noted the tracks near our camps daily.

Husky sledding

Husky sledding

It’s phenomenal to watch the huskies being prepared for a journey and then taking control of your own team of 6-8 dogs pulling you along in a sled in a frenzy of energy and excitement.  The dogs are super competitive with each team constantly trying to overtake the next, taking shortcuts and cutting each other off whilst hurtling you along at speeds of up to 15km/hr.  The experience of husky sledding was the experience of a lifetime with a tick firmly placed against the bucket list after a magical ride gliding along the ice and watching the landscape whizz by.  A whole new meaning to the word picnic was created as we were treated to a delicious hot lunch of traditional dumplings, vegetables and hot tea, keeping ourselves warm with a fire directly on the frozen river whilst the dogs enjoyed a rest rolling around on the ice to cool down.

Picnic on the ice river

Picnic on the ice river

Myself and 9 other runners make up part of the 20 strong team that travelled to Mongolia to run the inaugural Genghis Khan Ice Marathon along the frozen Tuul River, for many of us our first ever experience of such arctic conditions. Acclimatisation prior to the race came in the form of wild golf where each contestant is given two shots to get their ball closest to the hole.  Beginners luck meant that I won this competition much to the dismay of the avid golfers in the group.

Snow Ninja's, who is who (Marina, Lucja and Lenka)

Snow Ninja’s, who is who? (Marina, Lucja and Lenka)

An initial little 3 mile run to test our running kit near the camp was interesting to try with most runners commenting that the breathing element was quite difficult and we wondered how we would fare over the full 26.2 miles in a couple of days.  We were now keen and ready for the challenge we had all travelled so far to do, the ice marathon.

Mongolia Ice Marathon Starting Group (Photo - Johnny Graham - Digitalpict Photography)

Mongolia Ice Marathon Starting Group (Photo – Johnny Graham – Digitalpict Photography)

The weather conditions were near perfect for race day with clear skies and only a touch of wind with the temperature at the start recorded at -34 degrees.  To keep the competitors as safe as possible the route started and finished at our nomadic camp following trails before turning onto the ice river surrounded by mountains on either side.

Mid run photo!

Mid run photo!

The surroundings were pristine and I felt like an explorer off into the unknown with the ice singing under my feet and echoing musically in the trees.  The initial sounds were unsettling hearing the ice shifting and moving underneath you with the occasional crack of ice where my foot would drop down an inch, just enough to bring my attention back to full focus, with my Due North ice grips over my Brooks Pure Grit shoes working their magic to keep me gripped firmly to the slippery surface of the frozen river. It was magical to weave along the path of the frozen river passing the occasional local on horseback or small herds of cattle that were somehow grazing on goodness knows what in all that ice.  I don’t know who stared more at each other whether me at the locals in their interesting fur costumes or them at me in my X-Bionic snow outfit.  I was always conscious of the threat of wolves in the area but the comforting sounds of husky teams barking and howling in the area alleviated that.

Action shot (Photo by Johnny Graham - Digitalpict Photography)

Action shot (Photo by Johnny Graham – Digitalpict Photography)

It was a great satisfaction and relief to finish the race with no issues from the cold but even better to cross the line as 1st female in 4h19, 4th overall behind Doc Andrew Murray 1st in 3h07, Doug Wilson 2nd in 3h42 and Paul Dunstan in 4h12.  More great results followed with all except one completing the event safely with all fingers and toes still intact with only a minor case of frostbite affecting 2 of the runners.  There were a few hours of concern when one of the competitors was unaccounted for but was thankfully found safe and sound shortly after nightfall.  That situation resonated within me and no doubt all the runners as we contemplated how challenging these events are and the threat is ever present of things going wrong, making you think of loved ones at home that your heart ached for.

Frozen face post marathon

Frozen face post marathon

Surprisingly the temperatures were not the hindrance I initially thought they would be, especially in relation to my fingers which stayed toasty the entire race but it was the 1500m of altitude we were running at mixed with the frozen vapour and nose secretions that made breathing very difficult.  The biggest surprise came the following days where all the runners felt none of the usual aches pains commonly known as DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), particularly after running on a hard impact surface such as ice, which I put down to the cold temperatures preventing the muscles from inflaming.

Coming across a local enroute

Coming across a local enroute

The race is more than an event it’s an entire adventure, put on by seasoned expedition leader Dave Scott of Sandbaggers (who is also the Honorary Scottish Consul for Mongolia) and his local support crew, in a vast and rugged landscape which brings a special and unique feeling of solidarity and camaraderie with the entire team of runners and supporters alike that have developed into strong bonds. It’s an experience to challenge your mind and body and be rewarded with everlasting memories of a beautiful country.

Friendships to last a lifetime

Friendships to last a lifetime

Just hanging about in the snow

Just hanging about in the snow with new and old friends