The Marathon des Sables, 30th Edition – How hard can it be? – Part 1

29/04/2015

Perception

Interpretation

Understanding

We all see, hear and experience things differently, so naturally we all interpret things differently… surely then, it’s logical to realise that we all understand things differently. Yet often people are surprised by what they encounter because they base their expectations on others’ experiences and beliefs.

It is with this as a guideline that I often end up saying “How hard can it be?” because what I may find hard, someone else may breeze through, or what I find easy, someone else may never even contemplate trying.

If you don’t try, you won’t ever know.

At the end of the Long Stage at the Grand to Grand, after over 27 hours on course with no sleep, as I reached the finish line and Tess (co-owner & director) hugged me, I told her how much I hated dunes and sand and that I never ever wanted to experience anything like it again. I was done and cancelling my entry into the Marathon des Sables. She, with years of stage racing experience, told me I would feel differently once I’d had some sleep and that if I wanted to continue with stage racing, I’d have to get used to dunes because a lot of races have them! She was right, although thankfully they don’t all have the amount of sand and dunes that Marathon des Sables has!

dory1

I obviously didn’t cancel my entry and did make my way to Morocco because as a lot of runners will know, once home and post-event, your brain forgets the hard bits, you become like Dory from Finding Nemo and eagerly sign up for something new!

So… here’s what happened for me…

THE JOURNEY THERE

For the UK, entry is via a company called Run Ultra and I have to say what a smooth process they make it. They had 3 flights departing on the same day, someone to meet you at the London airport, dedicated check in desks for departure and then, on arrival in Morocco, Steve was waiting alongside other representatives to guide you to the correct coaches for the journey out to bivouac. Do make sure you have your data roaming switched off (especially if you are Vodafone customers) because uploading just 6 photos to Facebook will incur 3 text messages telling you that in the space of 10 minutes you have used enough data to have already incurred a fee of GBP 45.00. If you are a very lucky Vodafone customer, expect these messages to come in late, in reverse order so you won’t actually know about this, or be able to do anything about it, until it’s too late!

What a view coming in to Ouarzazate…

mds1Photo copyright: Michelle Payne

There was a lot of waiting around for all planes to arrive and buses to load up, and the coach journey is long… up to 6 hours… so be prepared and do take the water offered en route. Then you will encounter lesson number 1… the toilet pit stop! Here’s how it goes…

Men out to one side…

Women to the other…

Women find something to hide/squat down behind… and pray no-one is taking your photograph… yes, I saw several people with cameras out… but be reassured, eventually during the week, some of you (make that most of you)… will stop caring about being seen…

You will also stop for a packed lunch. If you find you need a toilet break here, get your packed lunch first in case they run out. If you avoided the toilet pit stop before, this is the time to take full advantage over any worry about being seen, because nearly everyone else is fully engaged with their food on the other side of the coach, sitting outside on rocks or on the ground eating. Do however be aware that although you may think you aren’t able to be seen… as you stroll back to the bus feeling much more comfortable, especially if you didn’t take advantage of pit stop 1, you will most likely sight locals in the distance… who will be watching your direction! If so, squash those thoughts down and concentrate on your food… you really won’t care on the return journey home!

A helpful tip: ensure you have antibacterial hand gel in your hand luggage and make sure you carry it on the bus (backpacks which you will use as hand luggage and have squished as much of your kit into as you are able within the 7kg allowance, will be put into the storage compartment under the bus)…

Watch out for camels… we were lucky enough to see some and the coach stopped so we could get some photos…

mds2Photo copyright: Michelle Payne

We arrived in darkness. Given that tents are allocated on arrival, our tent (organised beforehand) had a plan… one of us… aka who we thought was the fastest runner…  would grab the nearest tent and text the others… this worked well and we ended up with a tent nearer to one end than in the middle… I obviously didn’t work this out until I’d trudged round the whole arc of tents… Tent #117 was going to be home for the week 🙂 … it was a little roomier than I expected (thankfully) but way more open with virtually no privacy at all… if you feel you need some, get one of the ends… it’s not much but psychologically it can help! And yes, they are held up by sticks… which can collapse in sandstorms…

mds3Photo copyright: Matthew Cranham

Ground cover is provided by a rug, but the rocks will not have been swept out before the rug is laid.  If you have an inflatable mattress, you might just want to try and get rid of as many sharp rocks and pebbles as possible… if you want a good nights’ sleep… ok virtually no-one gets that, but if you want a reasonable amount of sleep, you should also try and make the ground as smooth as possible. Note, this does not apply to any sleep for the night/day after you finish the Long Stage…

Dinner, which is catered, was still available when we arrived and tasted great, much better than I had expected… and it’s a great opportunity to chat to your tentmates and get to know each other a bit better, and you will also get a glimpse of how your personalities will mesh together over the coming week.

mds5Photo copyright: Michelle Payne
with Matt Cranham and Gwynn Stokes 🙂

Then it’s back to the tent, sort out who is sleeping where… work out how to use the toilet system (more on that in the next section), brush your teeth and wipe your face over before snuggling into your sleeping bag and going to sleep looking out at the stars as a gentle breeze flows through the tent… it was a rather lovely start to the Adventure!

KIT CHECK DAY

We’re British, shouldn’t we be used to queuing?

Helpful tip… take a full 1.5 litre bottle of water with you when queuing.  It’s hot, it’s going to take more than a little while.

You will be given a time slot to go through kit check corresponding to runner number. You will hand over your big bag before going through kit check so make sure you use the first night to finalise anything you want to carry during the course of the week, rather than waiting to see how much your pack weighs (such as sleeping bag liners). So queue number 1… hand over bag, watch it thrown onto a lorry which seems to be stacked impossibly high… do not contemplate whether there will be anything going over the top of those bags to hold them in… walk away and don’t look back. Trust me on this…

Queue number 2… you will queue until you reach the desk, you will then queue behind the desk to the next point and so on… this is where they will check against the questionnaire you have completed (given on the coach along with the roadbook etc.) as to what kit you will be carrying… you will get your water card, your SOS attachment and the “bracelet” that allows you to be tracked on course… and yes, it looks like you’ve got an ASBO ankle tag on…

Helpful tip… do secure this with a safety pin! A bit tiresome but mine came off without it…

Your pack will be weighed… this weight may be wrong… don’t stress about it if so! Mine weighed 9.3kg in the tent (amazing considering how much previous packs have weighed) yet 8.7kg officially with nothing removed. If at this point your water tag and tracker are missing, try not to stress too much… you will eventually be given one. Inside the tent(s), the temperature will be hot, there will be no air… and you will be itching to get out… but still you queue…

You get to the medical bit… if you are really really really super unlucky (thankfully this was not me…) somehow, somewhere from the start of the queue to this point, you will have lost your ECG and your medical certificate. I kid you not. This will result in being told you have a time penalty of an hour (or was it two)… plus a fine of a lot of money! If you’re even more unlucky, you may have misplaced your euros too… pray your tentmates have extra on them to cover your ass! My tentmate was lucky… others in the tent had brought extra… and so was coined a phrase for Tent #117… “What will go right for Mike?”… this still makes me smile 🙂 …seriously though, he is an absolute superstar and fab tentmate!

You will then queue a bit more… before eventually the end is in sight, you drop your kit to one side and pose with your runner number against a cardboard MdS background… before being blinded by the daylight as you are released to freedom.

The rest of the day and evening is your own with all meals catered… enjoy these moments, where nothing aches, where there are no blisters… where you don’t have to struggle against the “breeze” to light a piece of fuel that burns your fingers and then goes out… each and every time!

Now, as previously mentioned… the toilet situation… there will be three “compartments/doors” with open flaps to the front (you can hold this closed with one hand)… there will be a stool shape inside. You take your biodegradable plastic bag and secure over the stool and once used, tie it up and place it in the bin just outside. These bins are emptied pretty regularly and much more hygienic than events of old.

A helpful tip… find a small pebble or rock and put it in said bag… it will stop the wind blowing it back upwards… you really really really don’t want that to happen.. thankfully I knew of this tip beforehand…

There is also a “changing room” provided for women. This is NOT A TOILET. Can I just repeat that? THIS IS NOT A TOILET!!! You will be informed about this on the coach journey to bivouac. It is noted in the roadbook. It has a sign on it… a circle with a toilet inside it and a cross going through it. It has written on it that it is NOT a toilet.

I understand that, just before it’s about to be removed, on the morning of a race/stage, when we are leaving that bivouac never to return, that it is not going to be used again and if there is a queue for the actual “toilet facilities” then it’s easier to use this, but not after the race, not during the night… not when other people are going to use it! It is the same as the toilets in that it has an open flap at the front but it has a crate inside only… this is for standing on so you can get changed without getting sand on everything! Not for pissing on!!!

By the fifth day, ours had been removed, probably because it was being used as a toilet. For those who said I had carried too many inessentials… you would have begged to borrow some of my sterilising tablets!

But to leave that day on a positive… everywhere I go, I seem to find natural hearts… this right outside our tent and in front of where my sleeping bag was… I was where I was meant to be…

MDS4Photo copyright: Michelle Payne 

STAGE 1 – THE RACE BEGINS

And so it starts… waking up, no more lazing around, no more time… it was here, it was real.

We would wake around 05.30 every day as the French tents opposite us woke at this time… I figured getting up at 6 would be sufficient time but it’s amazing how quickly the time goes… getting your breakfast ready, getting dressed, packing… going to the toilet for what seems like a million times before making your way over to the start line.  Stage 1 however was different … the taped off area on the first day which marks out the number for the edition of the race was ready for us, this year the 30th… the sound of the helicopter above, drones flying high… everyone waving their hands in the air… I saw a couple of people I recognised and said hello… and quite unwittingly ended up in the fourth row from the front! I looked to the left and saw my tentmate Elisabet who smiled reassuringly at me as she knew how nervous I was… she wasn’t looking to place this year… it was a training race for her…

Patrick started speaking… there was dust and sand and the sun starting to climb higher… Patrick carried on speaking… I figured this was taking quite some time due to it being the first day… surely not every day would take so long… let’s start already! The nerves were kicking in and the longer it took, the more I’d need another toilet break… men definitely have this aspect much easier at races!

Are we starting yet?

Eventually… the infamous track “Highway to Hell” began…

the countdown in French…

until we were released… adrenaline coursing, hearts pounding, dust and sand flying up as the runners swarmed through… so many smiles, arms waving, eyes cast upwards… the helicopter flying sideways down the long line that stretched out… I ran… or rather shuffled, as many a stage racer will call it 😉 and was overtaken by so many…

Don’t push, don’t try to match, don’t try to keep up… run your own race… the thoughts echoed through my head. It’s a long race and it’s not about one day! My coach’s words also echoed… you may not be the fastest but you are one of the toughest! Don’t go out too fast… oops. I scaled back… the soft sand making the legs work hard… how do they run so fast on this surface? My legs felt like lumps of lead whilst the leaders just glided…

Can I walk yet? No…..

2 minutes later… Can I walk yet…. no…

1 minute later… Can I walk yet? It’s an incline so Thank God YES!

This was to become a recurring theme in my head throughout the day and week as the race progressed… and a tactic of walk the ups, run the downs… however I hadn’t expected so many rocks. Elisabet’s husband Colin had warned me it was rocky (he’s finished this race twice) but I figured those were on the hills and would be smallish on sand… not so, lots and lots and lots of rocks… big enough to bash your feet time and time again. I prayed I wouldn’t get blisters…

I also hadn’t realised what a jebel was. I thought it was a term for a sand dune and had never even googled it. Note that a jebel is not a sand dune, although there will be a lot of sand… it’s a hill, or rather mountain. Most likely with steep sides. That goes up very high. That you could fall down and hurt yourself badly on. With big rocks. Fear of heights folks, fear of heights… need I say more? And very quickly on Stage 1 it was up, up and up… thankfully there were downs too, and flat bits. Not necessarily flat bits you could run fast on, especially when it was soft sand that had been churned up by a few hundred competitors already ahead, but flat was preferable to a mountain you could fall down. What I would come to appreciate during the Long Stage was how much flat I had on this first stage.

mdsstage1Photo copyright: Michelle Payne

We also were lucky in crossing a bridge where there was water… now I don’t know how clear or clean that water was but my cap was dragged along in it and dumped very unceremoniously on my head… the relief from the heat instanteous. Only two checkpoints during the day… any spare water I couldn’t carry on my front pack was poured over my head, neck, down the back and over the arms. You dry out quickly…

The heat was pretty unrelenting but not too bad (thank God for those heat chamber sessions)… but we also had a breeze. I thought this was a good thing to start with and it wouldn’t be until much later that I realised the downside.

I shuffled on…

Until eventually I crossed the finish line. Knackered, dusty, dirty… sand embedded everywhere, but what a sense of satisfaction in getting the first day done… emotional… enjoying the cup of sweet tea that awaits every runner when they finish.

No time to loiter… get your next ration of water, get back to the tent, change out of your running gear and pin it up… blow up your mattress and then put the pack on it so it doesn’t fly away… check the feet for damage, realise you already have blister… go and queue up for your first visit to the infamous Doc Trotters… get said blister sliced, hobble back… realise the queue for sending emails is massive and decide to wait until tomorrow… you need food… you have your protein drink… you then do battle with your stove… you are rescued by your tent’s very own version of Bear Grylls who lets you use his (James, you total hero)!

Email time… a main highlight of the day…

Runners keep coming in and eventually it’s time to go check positioning…

Top half… only just, but still… top half…

And we had a full tent.

I go to sleep that night exhausted but very happy.

Little did I know how differently the next day was going to be…

© April 2015 Michelle Payne

 


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

22/04/2015

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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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