Marathon Des Sables: Multi-Day Training Camp  – Part One

It’s now almost 2 months since Ironman Cozumel, and things have moved on swiftly. I probably over did the recovery period, and that combined with too much festive cheer meant my weight shot up and my mileage dropped dramatically. By the end of December I was aware that my focus had slipped and I was in danger of not even making the start line of my planned next race – the Marathon des Sables, commonly known as the MdS, a 7 day self supported stage race covering 250km across the Sahara desert!

Luckily, when I had originally signed up for MdS way back in 2020 before the multiple COVID Cancellations, I had also booked a week specialist training camp in Lanzarote. I must admit the lazy and unfit half of me was secretly hoping that travel restrictions would mean that it couldn’t take place as I really didn’t feel “up” for it, but at same time I knew that it was exactly what I needed to get back on track … and that’s exactly what it was.

I flew out to Lanzarote a couple days before the official start of the camp, to give myself the space I needed to clear my head of negativity and clear my body of alcohol and tobacco. I actually don’t find any problem to quit the two vices once I focused on training, but I need some form of circuit breaker to make the change.

Arriving into Club La Santa was amazing. It’s a huge “village” type complex offering every type of sport you can imagine, and is utilized by athletes ranging from the elite to the elderly who stay in the sprawling apartment building  and participate in their training of choice. Immediately you felt the vibe as all around were fit looking individuals, dressed up in bright coloured Lycra , carrying or pushing all manner of sporting equipment. I felt somewhat out of place but excited as I made my way to my one bedroom apartment that would be home for next 9 days.

Club La Santa
View across Club La Santa and out into the beautiful surrounding countryside

First couple of days was just settling in and finding my way around while waiting for other “camp” members to arrive. This training camp has been going for around 6 years and run by ultra-running luminary Ian Corless. On top of that we had one of the top athletes in the sport and double MdS winner, Elisabet Barnes, along with Sondre, Pierre and Inge who are all either pro or very accomplished multistage runners. A real dream team to be leading us on our weeks adventure

Tuesday

Today marked the official first day of camp, with everyone expected to meet at the track early evening for a quick introduction of the group leaders, and then a short run, before a group dinner.

I was so bloody nervous before going down to the meeting point. I had no idea what to expect and I was very sure I would stand out as the imposter I felt I was, so I sidled up to the group I saw assembled and tried to make small talk with my fellow athletes. It was explained that we would self-seed into 4 groups. Runners, run/walkers, walk/runners and walkers. We could move between groups freely, the idea being we felt comfortable with the pace and could focus on dealing with terrain and distance, while testing out our gear.

I stayed towards the back of the walk/run group, and we set off across the dunes for a 6km jog. I’ve only ever managed a few off road runs on the Wiltshire downs, and was shocked at how hard running in sandy and volcanic rock-strewn lava fields could be. Although was a simple warm up run. I found it was absolutely necessary for me to keep my eyes on where I placed my feet to stay upright and the slow running pace reflected how technical it was.

We returned to Club la Santa (referred to as CLS) and after a quick change and shower trooped into the conference hall for a briefing on the week. After that it was off to one of the on-site restaurants for dinner, where I joined a table with three camp mates. After a slightly stilted introduction we started to chat away, and these new pals would become my close buddies throughout the week. Dinner was much more fun than I imagined (I have real fear of social situations which involve meeting new people, and often avoid entirely), and I felt much more relaxed as I settled down to sleep that night

Wednesday

This was our first full day, and the morning consisted of a  24k trail run and then a lecture in the afternoon (the same format for most of the week).

Again I was super nervous before going down to meet up with the group. I had no idea if my gear was correct, whether I could keep up or even if I could actually cope with a proper trail run. Again I chose the walk/run group and felt quite comfortable for the first few flattish km, but immediately my inexperience showed once we hit the rocks and sharp climbs/descents and I started to drop off the back of the group. Ian came up to me and suggested maybe I’d be better waiting for the walk group as I would struggle to keep up, but I was determined to stick with the pace, and told Ian I was fine and doubled my effort.

MdS Training Camp Long run
Focusing on not falling over during my first long off road run

I did actually manage to catch up and stay with the group although I was very grateful for every walk break. I was learning quickly and apart from one minor slip I managed to stay upright and injury free, however was happyl when the looming white buildings of CDS came into view. This was far and away the hardest run I’d ever done, the off road dynamic hitting every bone and muscle in my body, and the hot sun meant I had drink every drop of water I had by the time I got back to my room.

I ate lunch quickly and took a nap before heading to the lecture. Was fascinating to listen to top athletes talk about off road and stage racing in general, and more specifically about the special challenges associated with running across the desert in the MdS. I was both inspired and terrified, the running earlier combined with the huge amount of knowledge I was learning made me realise how stupidly I had approached this race to date and how far away I was from being able to complete the challenge. I knew I had to make the most of every single minute of the camp and change my attitude and training regime once the camp finished.

Thursday

Today was looking to be an exciting, fun and hard day as we had some hill (volcano?) repeats in the morning, then we were setting off to our over night bivouac later in the afternoon. I was definitely feeling a little tried from the activities so far, but was looking forward to getting started.

Hill Repeats MdS Training in Lanzarote Marathon De Sables
Watching from the bottom while our coach shows us how its done

I took my place with the slower run group and we headed out to the mountain for our morning of hill repeats. I had heard how scary this was with a very steep walked ascent followed by a slippery sharp descent down the other side. We gathered at the bottom and were given tips on how best to accomplish both getting up and down, and then set off. Within a couple of minutes my calves started to scream and I was being passed by the faster fitter members (basically everyone). I tried not to look anywhere other than straight ahead as we reached the top, and then nervously negotiated my way down, even managing a few run steps as well. Once we reached flat land we circled around the bottom of the mountain and started again. It had been suggested we try to do 6x repeats, but knowing my level, I decided I would aim for 3x. Each ascent hurt more, but I began to feel more comfortable going down and picked up a few tips on faster descending from one of the coaches, and felt motivated enough to go for the fourth round. What was very obvious was that with some pretty tough climbs in the desert lined up for the race, I really needed to work on my climbing or my calves would just cramp up.

After another 7km run back to the hotel I tried to rest, knowing we had the overnight hike and bivouac planned, all of which I will cover along with the rest of the weeks training in my next posting

10 thoughts on “Marathon Des Sables: Multi-Day Training Camp  – Part One

  1. mrvanwouw

    Thanks for writing this up, Richard, it’s such an exciting challenge. I’m very much looking forward to the next part, so make sure you follow up soon while the camp is still fresh in your mind!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. GRubin

    Very nice write-up Richard. Sounds like you are learning a lot of new skills – this training camp experience is really what you need for the real thing.

    Like

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