Marathon des Sables – race report
After the race was over – several people came and told me that I was known on this adventure because I wore all black – I wore running tights (like pants) black – to keep cool and protect my legs from the sun – also they were tight so they helped my muscles — I also wore a long sleeve black naseba t-shirt — every day.
I don’t remember the heat as much as I remember the pain on my feet. It was around 49 degrees Celsius every mid day, but at night it was very very cold, so every morning when we woke up, it was cold. I lived in my clothes and never took them off, mainly because my feet were swollen and blistered and I could not get my tight pants around my ankles. There were 767 participants in the beginning and nearly, if not all, were in great shape and very focused.
I was not in good shape — but I was very focused. Nearly everyone I met had done the ironman
— and the day before the race I stood in line waiting for my water listening to 10 or so people talk about how they trained together carrying a 20 Kilo bag with them and comparing training regiments. I was very nervous about my back not holding up – as well as my lack of a comparison training regiment.
The first day was a major wake up call — I expected it to be difficult, but the race was much harder and challenging then anything I imagined. The first day was just less than a normal marathon, but in dunes and climbing mountains etc. — absolute hell.
What I remember the most was the shocked feeling of wondering “how am I going to explain to my office if I cant finish… because I can not imagine how I can finish this – it’s so hard.”
When I got back to my tent, I got rid of 1/3rd of my food and supplies to make my bag lighter. The guys I stayed with said that I would not have food left the last days … and I explained that if I did not lessen my bag … I would not be there the last days …. so I threw away the food and supplies. And from then onwards, my bag was not a problem at all.
I ate once a day and my food lasted to the very end. I slept great that first night and in the morning took 2 Advil before I started — and before we started we were warned that the 2nd day was probably that hardest. I ran the first hour or so and felt good. The 2nd day was definitely the hardest thing I ever did in my life. We ran over mountains, across valleys, through dunes….then finally we had a 5 miles or so run across a valley — gorgeous – but we were running straight towards a massive mountain — and as we are running towards the mountain, I am thinking — “how are we going to run around that?” — surprise surprise — we had to climb over it.
The climb itself was a 37 degree climb in sand … very very difficult. But the best memory is finally getting to the top and thinking “ok – we are done, now I can go to camp and sleep…” but when we got to the top and looked down ….the camp looked 50 miles away…of course it was not that far, but easily 8-10 miles across dunes … and running/hiking in dunes is absolute hell.
The black ring in the distance at the photo above is the camp.
I arrived into camp around 7pm and went to sleep instantly without eating.
Throughout the race they had water check points each 10 kilometers so I was well hydrated – and you had to take salt tablets so I never had a problem with hydration. The third day was funny … I was sore, but a bit excited because they announced that the third day was the easiest of the week … and an easy 35 kilometers (around 18 – 20 miles) … but nothing was ever easy — and I don’t understand what the race director was referring to — I think the 3rd day 15 or more people quit.
The third day ended and I was a bit excited now because my body had held up for 3 days … so no matter what, at least I had made it through 3 days of marathons. The 4th day is the most famous part of the race — 72 kilometers (around 45 miles) non stop that goes through the night … this is the part where most people that quit the race – quit.
The 4th day started great – I ran for a good 45 minutes (my feet are completely trashed by now – but I was taking 4 Advil in the morning and then 4 more Advil mid day to survive the pain… I should state that although I ran at the beginning of each stage – after a period, I powered hiked … with ski poles. Most people powered hiked — a very very fast paced walk, but not walking… I was excited because my back and body was holding up — and I knew that if I could make it through this day, that I would make the race … which was my only goal — to finish.
The 4th day was broken up into basically 2 marathons — with a small tent city at the end of the first marathon where people could stop and rest and make dinner. Early into the day I decided that I would not stop – I wanted to finish straight and figured if I did not stop – I would end up at camp around 2am .. the next day was a rest day … so It would give me a real day off.
The first 25 miles or so was great – but lots of dunes … really high dunes. I remember thinking, “ok, once we get to the top of this dune, we will see camp and we will be finished”… but I would get to the top of the dune, and it would look like miles and miles and miles of dunes to go … an endless sea of dunes.
Of course it was super hot – but the heat never bothered me and I was drinking all the time — carrying 2 liters of water on me so was good. Before the race – I bought 2 extra iPods — so I took 3 iPods with me, all with the same “make it happen” music mix on them … I took 3 iPods so the battery would last enough during the hardest stages … this day was one of them.
I got to the mid way point at sunset … stopped and made dinner, and bumped into a German woman that I met earlier at one of the doctor tents in the camp – she had done the race before and we talked about her experience …the guy I was racing with wanted to take a nap at the mid way camp – but I didn’t so I was going on alone — into the complete darkness in the middle of the desert — unbelievable experience. However, the German woman — who I personally found very negative and complaining, wanted to come with me – and I agreed because I would have a partner.
It was very very dark – the stars and moon light the way – we wore head lights and there were small glow sticks each kilometer — we had to follow a compos setting as not to get lost.The German woman led the way — and we basically hiked quickly … I listened to my iPod and dreamed of when I would be in my sleeping bag.4th stage …the night was very very cold and we were racing in the desert — normally throughout the day you saw people… either they were passing me or I was passing them … but this night we saw no one.The night was all dunes … and dried river bed … mostly, all sand.
Running/hiking in sand had become common place … and I was used to it by now. We got to the last check point at 3am … well beyond my schedule. Reflecting back … I think we went a long way out of our way because it took us so long to reach this last camp. The woman was dead tired – and wanted to stop – but I didn’t want to stop … so we pushed onwards.
The last stage of this day was probably the hardest of the whole race … massive, never ending dunes…as the sun was rising. Beautiful … but disheartening … because I would see a mountain of a dune in front of me and think “ok, when I get to the top … I will see camp…” but it was always the same … a sea of dunes … and no camp. 2 hours into the stage … Brigit could not move anymore. It was horrible — I was feeling great and I knew I had probably 2 hours left before my pain medicine wore off so I had to push on … (I was always on 4 advil to ease my pain) but Brigit had to stop. It was terrible … in the middle of the desert with a German woman that you do not know … and I had to stop because she was about to pass out. We stopped for about 2 hours or so … now the sun was rising and the helicopter saw us sitting down so they sent someone on a 4 x 4 to check on us … still we saw no other runners. I seriously thought that most were behind us … and that we made great time. I discovered when we finished that most runners had finished around 2am …
The race official suggested that Brigit drop out — but she refused and asked to hold my arm as we walked. It was terrible … we walked super super slow… and all I could think about was my pain medicine was wearing off and my legs were dead tired — nearly 20 hours non stop and I was feeling the pain.Finally – I decided to give Brigit my ski poles, wished her luck and left her alone and ran onwards.Another hour and half later – and I finished. When I arrived to camp 21 hours after starting my day … constant 21 hours of work – I could barely move — my feet were very swollen and my legs were dead — I went straight to the medical tent to have my feet cleaned and looked at.After my feet were bandaged and cleaned – I went to sleep at around 9am and woke up at 1pm. When I woke up I was told that the man in the tent next to us (I don’t remember him) had died in his sleep and they had taken his body past our tent.Although I did not know the people I stayed with before the trip — the 6 guys work for Theolia – and I am friends with their CEO. Great guys – and we had an enjoyable experience together – they were always positive and never complained.
I made a point of always smiling – and always being positive – no matter how poorly I felt — I always told people when they asked me – “I feel great.” Nights were freezing – and we slept in Berber tents — simple black cloth tents that were open.The 5th day was a rest day and I basically did not move out of my sleeping bag all day.
The last two days of the race were considered “fun” because the hardest part was over … however, we still had a full marathon and the last day is considered to be the hardest by most people that do the race because it is 8 – 10 miles of 20 story dunes …I was confident that I would finish the race – but I was still scared my back would lock or I would get sick or something would happen to me … so I did not change my rituals … to ensure I did not eat anything new or take new medicine that could make me sick.
The marathon day for me was definitely the easiest — my feet were blistered and bloody – but 4 Advil made me at least not feel them … and I ran most of the way. I finished in just under 8 hours … which is considered a “respectable” time because of the sand and dunes.
The last few nights I did not sleep much at all. My feet were completely blistered and without pain medicine I could hardly walk – before the race – I stupidly bought new shoes that I thought would be perfect — but they were absolute shit — and they filled with sand very quickly.
I am sure my shoes cost me 10 hours over the week. If I had proper shoes — I am sure I would have finished easily 10 hours faster. Easily – 2 hours a day would be spent stopping, taking them off, dumping the sand … putting them back on … and then getting up and trying to get back into my rhythm. Not to mention the massive blisters all around my feet. Anyways … my last day hell for me … massive dunes and my feet were dead.
The only time on this day that I stopped to take my shoes off to dump the sand, my tape came off my feet so I had to put my shoes back on without anything on my feet — so the sand was rubbing completely against my cuts and blisters – painful.
Finally – I slowly ran through the finish — got my medal – met my friends and sat down to rest … dead tired, but proud to have finished.
The M.D.S is considered to be the hardest race in the world — and I am proud to say I finished it. Throughout the race – I would think to myself “there is no way I would ever do this again…” but reflecting back now, as I type …
I would love to experience it without blisters as well as in better shape and thinner. It is a crazy concept … of at least 8 hours a day of constant movement and exercise for 6 days straight. I bet my heart rate was at least 140 bpm all day long … I felt great. I got in bed last night at 8pm … and reflected on what I did during the day yesterday… and how long my day felt … but last week this would have been spent constantly moving/running or hiking … and the time went by very quickly I proved this week how mental everything is — there is no way I was in shape enough to run the MDS no way.
My feet were completely trashed when I got back to Monaco – I could hardly walk — as I type I can feel my heart beat in my left foot … boom booom booom booom, the worst of the two.
Yesterday I went to the doctor to have my feet looked at and cleaned – but all is ok – they are not infected.
As hard as I expected the MDS to be … it was much much harder. There was never a let up … it was constant hell … but awesome experience.
It was great reading about your experience of the ultra marathon.
I love adventure, and Im into rock climbing, trekking/hiking, cycling and mountaineering.
I got to know about you after I read an article published today in the Bangalore edition of Deccan herald ‘Metrolife’ – ‘I want to climb Mt.Everest’.
And I was keen to know more about you and the company you run. Its really very inspiring and as the tag line – ‘If you make it happen’ is really apt.
I work for HP Invent, Bangalore.
Thanks again for your inspiring blog.
Scott, I see you complained a lot about the shoes you wore during this event – we have the answer for you should you ever want to particate in any form of endurance racing. By looking at your photos, i would guess you were wearing New Balance shoes – let us rather kit you out in Salomon Gear from head to toes. We can even discuss how we can work with ambition on events here in the Mid East.