Adventure, Change and a new Challenge – The Marathon Des Sables (30th Edition)

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Adventure.

Change.

Possibilities.

Experiencing.

Adventure can be so addictive. Once we learn to open our minds, our eyes, our thoughts and our self to new beliefs, cultures, experiences… we will never be the same again. Should we be? After all, aren’t we, as humans meant to change? If we weren’t, we would never develop beyond the mindset of a baby and our species would not have survived as it has. We are surely not meant to stay stuck at the ages of (for example) 1, 7, 15, 21, 30, 42, 55, 60 and beyond: either physically, mentally or emotionally… and what about the the human motivation to achieve self-actualisation, as described by Abraham Maslow… he who has been quoted as saying: “One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.” where to grow means to experience…

Everything we experience has the capacity to change us. IF we let it. There can be so many reasons why people don’t change, and I encounter a lot of these within my counselling practice, but if we allow it, if we embrace it, if we look to use what we find as a tool for opening our self, our minds, bodies and hearts, then how can that not be an overall positive way to look at, and live, LIFE?

“It” being CHANGE.

Change can be scary, it can be exciting, exhilarating even… especially for the adrenaline junkies out there who do crazy things like jump out of aeroplanes… ultrarunners at least have their feet on the floor 😉 … and change can come in many forms, not just travel (although isn’t that a great way to find new things!).  It can be from confronting fears, from changing how you dress, trying new things… from the repercussions of others’ behaviours… by choosing to do things differently, we lift ourselves out of our comfort zone… we “challenge” ourselves. Our reactions and responses to such challenges can teach us so much… not just about others although you can tell a lot about someone by how they treat you… but about who we are, who we want to be and what we want our lives to be like!

Last year I finished my back-to-back stage runs and completed the challenge I had set out to achieve, but all the while I was training for that challenge, the words muttered at the beginning of my journey in Sierra Leone, kept repeating. The suggestion of the Marathon des Sables.

I’d gone to the website, looked it up and felt fear. It’s an iconic race. It has a fierce reputation. It has its’ detractors too… those who call it a “fun run in the sun” as has apparently been said to people I’ve met… and for some I’m sure it is. For those with years of experience and adventure and endurance. But 155 miles across the Western Sahara of Morocco, self supported and in temperatures of up to 50 degrees celsius or more… the race that inspired all of the others you now see across the world… “how hard can it be” echoed once more. As I’ve already blogged, entries for 2015 were not open and I had to wait. I figured, get the others done, see what you’re dealing with and whether you even like it.

Only… entries became available before that happened. What to do?

With the advance notification process engaged, the day of applying dawned… time for a decision and no more sitting on the fence talking about “what if’s”… I had to make a choice.

If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way.
If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.
~~ Jim Rohn ~~

So 4 tabs open on the computer 10 minutes before entry… refreshing, constantly. The form came up. It got completed… 2 minutes later email confirmation came through. I had my spot. All UK entries were gone within 12 minutes. I prayed I’d enjoy the other stage runs, otherwise this could be a very expensive lesson I’d have to learn from. I then concentrated on the challenge at hand, which I’ve already blogged about.

For anyone interested in reading about that, posts can be found here.

Coming home from America, with the amount of mileage and training I’d put in over that 18 month period to date meant there was a price to pay. Achilles tendinopathy and in my case, lovely thickening… probably permanent. Weeks and probably months of rest was what I needed to fully heal but with an Ultra already booked in some weeks ahead, I took 2 weeks then returned to the gym. Cue excruciating pain and 4 weeks of no running… cross training became the way to go so as not to lose all fitness, followed by two weeks of easy running before hitting the planned Ultra (you really do have to feel sorry for my coach – this was against his advice, as well as my sports therapist). A 50K I vastly underestimated even though it’s billed as a double your marathon time and add a bit more on… I’d also encouraged a friend to do this even though their longest race was 15 miles to that point. We “got it done”, and within the cut off… but this was not a wise move and indeed a very valuable lesson learned – listen to the Coach and Sports Therapist in future – they’re there to help you!

So how do you train for an event that’s on another continent, that’s going to be so much hotter than the ones you’ve already done, and over long distances again… all while you’re in the UK in the midst of winter and have a job (or two) to fit in?

You get a schedule, you stick to it as best as possible. You get a coach if possible, and have regular sports / leg massages. You run… a lot. You run long easy runs on both days of the weekends, and for this event, I also walked. Given the terrain of sand, sand and more sand… with my lack of experience, and the blistering from Madagascar that was still healing, expecting to walk parts was vital. Expecting for and training with that in mind would help the mental strength too. You also run with a weighted pack… starting small and building the weight. Given my pack had been 10.9kg without water in America, I went up to 11.2kg in training this time using a tip from a Hong Kong runner… packs of rice! I tried firewood to start with but that added to the chafing… you might want to avoid that one!

You comb the kit list and try and test everything. Luckily I had already gone through this with the other events so had a very good idea of what worked for me. Anything I wasn’t sure about, I rang my tentmate. Call it luck if you will, but another member of my running club was also doing this event and not only that, she was an experienced ultra runner, had completed MdS three years previously with her husband and is a very kind person who always stops to help others if she can. It just happens that they also own the shop I had gotten my previous stage racing kit from, and they are only round the corner (check out their shop here)!

One thing I hadn’t thought about until it was too late was heat training. Kingston University was not only fully booked up but the cost of full sessions would be another added expense. They don’t charge huge amounts but costs do start to stack up with training, coaching, massage, kit and then this! Once again my soon-to-be tentmate stepped into the breach.  As it had a treadmill and bike, she offered to share sessions with me.  Due to time constraints I couldn’t accept all, but managed to fit in 2 x 2 hour sessions: very helpful and informative and I really recommend these for anyone who is planning on desert races.

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Another thing that can bring reassurance pre-event is sorting out tentmates.  Tents are grabbed on a first come, first served basis.  If you organise through friends of friends, then you can meet up beforehand and/or connect through social media. As my tentmate already knew me, she invited me to share with a group that was forming, and I’m so very glad I said Yes! I had the opportuity to meet one person at the shop, and then two others at a race in January – for those in the UK, the Country to Capital 45 is a great race that a lot of people use as a training run for MdS.

You will then go through the nightmare that is known as Hell aka getting your medical certificate signed and an ECG print out!  Unfortunately GPs are not often well versed in sports medicine. An ECG can show little anomalies which will mean your GP refusing to sign your medical certificate and you having to rush off for an urgent appointment to get a heart ultrasound. Naturally I was one such lucky person :/ You can only get your medical certificate signed after a set date. This will allow around 3 weeks of torture. It states in the UK rules that you need both ECG and medical certificate signed, dated and stamped. I was very lucky that the cardiologist I saw didn’t mind my frantic phone calls, leaving signed documents to be stamped at the last minute and didn’t charge extra. There is obviously the need for safety – no GP will want to send you off to the middle of the desert if you have a potential problem but when you run ultramarathons and have a very low pulse rate which can show as incomplete ECGs, not all GPs will understand this. So for those runners that read this with a future event in mind, if you can get a free ECG done well in advance to set your mind at ease that you are ok at present (it obviously doesn’t eliminate future problems), I would advise doing it if possible. I would also advise checking GP prices. Some lucky people (aka not me) get theirs free.  Some not so lucky people (again, not me) get charged a fee… some very lucky people (yes, this would be me) get charged a high fee! For every single certificate! I could have had a basic holiday for the price of 3 certificates, I jest not.

You will then come to the final few weeks and hopefully tapering on your running… this should be an enjoyable phase, after all what could go wrong? Unfortunately due to all the aforementioned plus the unknown, or even known for returnees… you will start to wonder if you need to adjust your nutrition, try something new (don’t do it!!)… change pack, change trainers… hopefully you will already have had the velcro stitched for your gaiters… you will re-weigh… everything! Especially food. You may need to go buy more if you snack on any treats you pack (this was me, several times)…

But this is part of the path… part of the journey that is known as the Marathon des Sables… surely the race would be the reward… after all, how hard could it be?

© April 2015 Michelle Payne

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