My Marathon Des Sables – 2022

It has been quite a while since I finished the MdS, actually 12 weeks to be precise, and I am beginning to feel ready to write a little bit more about it. I have never felt so drained emotionally or physically after a race, which I suppose is to be expected seeing how extreme it was, but as a 20 plus year veteran of training for and participating in ultra-endurance events, I hadn’t expected to be quite so affected.

The race itself was exactly as it said on the tin. Extreme! It’s too long ago to recall every event that happened, and I don’t have the desire to give a play-by-play report, but I thought maybe a few pics and comments would at least help lay the demon to rest a little.

Marathon des Sables. Dropping off the bags before the start of the race, not to be seen again for 7 days
Dropping off the bags before the start of the race, not to be seen again for 7 days

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any negative feelings about the race, I loved it, even more so with the benefit of rose-tinted hindsight, but the sudden emptiness and need to be away from all things sport since then has been overpowering. I apologise to all my training partners and support crew for being so distant, as well as to fellow blog writers for not really being appreciative of their posts these past few months. I had a bunch of races lined up from May of this year (mostly legacy races from Covid postponements) but haven’t been able to rouse myself to train for them and have let them fade into the distance. Interestingly enough, without the normal angst or guilt I feel when not completing my plans.

As you can probably imagine, the sudden downturn in anything related to sport also brought with it some negative side effects – namely the twin evils of drinking and smoking (although I glad to say nothing extreme or stupid), some very rapid weight gain caused by eating anything I could lay my hands on for a few weeks and the cessation of any real training, plus a general lack of desire to do anything. I am pleased to say though that over the last month, I’ve managed to get myself back onto an even keel, both in terms of enthusiasm for day-to-day life and a slowly return to proper training and healthy living.

Ok, so why did I hit such a low ebb? I think that in the end, the race is so big, so all-encompassing that the post-race emptiness is debilitating. There are a multitude of books and websites dedicated to every aspect of training , nutrition and equipment issues so I won’t go into it here, but believe me, it takes over your world. The nature of the race means that training itself is huge, even more so with two dates cancelled to Covid, meaning this has been looming on my horizon for over two years. It also is so very different from any training I had done before I had to throw out many of my preconceived and reliable methods and start all over again. The research required to decide on kit and nutrition is a nerd’s dream, with all the possible items of equipment and food written down on spread sheets listing various combinations of weight and calories, being constantly updated and adjusted. And then of course, is the experience of the race itself…

What can I say but wow. WOW! Not sure if it really is the “toughest foot race on earth” but it certainly must rate up there amongst them. Funny thing is, during the race, during those 7 days in the desert, it didn’t ever feel that bad. The nerves for the first couple of “prep” days were intense, living in our tents, trying to stay calm while in a constant state of panic, having to make final calls on equipment before our travel bags were taken away, going through health checks, getting used to sleeping with tent mates, getting used to the weather, mastering how to use the poo bags while keeping the toilet door from flapping open … and the unbelievable sadness for our fellow competitors when we heard a couple had been sent home before the race began due to health issues. We all silently questioned whether we could finish, but at the same time, couldn’t wait to get started

As I said, I won’t go into great details of each day, but thought I would mention a few things that stuck out when I look back

Stage One – 30.3km

Time 06hr 05 mins. Pace 12:30 Rank 740

I do clearly remember the fear and excitement of the first race morning. We all woke pretty early, getting dressed, eating , multiple trips to the toilet tents. This was it, nothing more to be done, the thing that had pre-occupied my thoughts and life for the past two years was about to start. All those months and months of training, all those hours and hours of research and testing of food and equipment, all came down to this. Now it got real. Our tent went as a group to the starting area, joining the throng of excited and nervous athletes. I am not a religious person so I didn’t do any praying, but I silently spoke to my family, first asking those who had passed to stay with me and watch over me, then going through a mental list of those who were very much alive, imagining all their faces and how they would encourage me if they were there. (This became a habit and was something I did every single day that allowed me to find a sort of inner calm and focus while in the bearpit of the starting pen).

And we are off! The start of the Marathon des Sables 2022
And we are off! The start of the Marathon des Sables

Then the talking stopped, the iconic strains of Highway to Hell began, the countdown started and we were off! Once we had cleared the start area and the crowds thinned out, I think we all got into a rhythm, testing our pace while trying to avoid anything that could cause injury, using that first section to set ourselves up as we meant to go along. I certainly did, trying with and without poles, adjusting my backpack, rearranging clothing, seeing how the snacks and water holders worked etc. I didn’t try any running for the first half, but once we were in the second half of the stage, I started to throw a few jogs into the fast walking, and I was happy to pass a lot of people who had rushed out at the beginning.

Stage Two – 38.5km

Time 08hrs 44mins. Pace 13:46 Rank 637

Not much to say about day two, apart from at 8km in, just as we crested the top of hill (jebel) I managed to twist my ankle. Luckily, I was using my two poles, so I caught myself before I went all the way over, and initially it didn’t seem too bad. Actually, I started to run a bit once things flattened out, but before I reached the first check point at 12km, I was limping badly and in some pain. However, I had managed to secure some codeine tablets from the local chemist in UK (I wasn’t aware they could give them out without prescription, but I was so happy they did!). I popped one with some cold water as I rested and resolved to just keep moving forward.

Top of the jebel MdS 2022
We were always rewarded when reaching the top of the jebels, with the most amazing views

If I remember rightly that afternoon we were hit with some massive sandstorms, the type that get talked about for years after apparently. To be honest, I loved them, it was what people expect in the desert and made me feel hard-ass, with images of every desert movie I had ever watched running through my head. The twisted ankle was put on a backburner as I tried to keep every part of my body covered to protect it from the sand, which made me feel like I was being hit by 1000 needles, and just focused on keeping the person in front of me in view, so I didn’t get lost.

Stage Three – 32.1km

Time 08hrs 48mins. Pace 17:27 Rank 772

Was first day I wasn’t so confident. I never thought to drop out, bit I did worry if I would be able to finish with my ankle giving my grief. However, some of my tent mates were suffering much worse than me with blisters and sores, so I felt myself quite lucky. I actually don’t remember much about this day, other than I knew the long day was coming next, so I simply tried to get through things

MDS - taping in the tent
Taping my ankle in the tent and preparing for another day

Stage four – 85.8km

Time 23hrs 39mins. Pace 16:46 Rank 658

The famed and dreaded Long Day. For me this meant 85km of walking as there was no way I could run with my ankle still swollen. My pack was getting lighter as I ate my way through my food rations, and the weight was also reduced as I had dumped a whole load of things at the end of day two (including my stove, so I was eating all my dehydrated foods cold). My body was coping with the distances well, mostly as I wasn’t running so I had very little problems with blisters, chafing, or other aches and pains etc. I had got into routine so knew all I had to do was keep going, and at the end of the day if I got through this, I was almost guaranteed of finishing the rest of the race.

Runners snake across the desert - Marathon des Sables 2022
Runners snake across the desert – Marathon des Sables 2022

Things went exactly as you would imagine. Head down, keep moving forward, slowly ticking off the miles, trying to keep hydrated and fuelled. All went well until just as its started to get dark and it was time to bring out the head torches… and mine started blinking and eventually cut out entirely. I could hear another group in front of me, so I decided to catch up and ask if I could tag along with them until we reached the next check point where I could dig out my last set of batteries. It was nice to be with others as I had stuck to my own company while out on the course until then, and I quickly paired up with the person who I would spend the whole night with – my savour Vicky! Basically, we ended up walking through the night together, talking about everything under the sun, work, family, loves, ambition, fears and dreams, and probably most importantly…food! We had never met before but by the end of the night we both knew more about each other than just about anyone else on earth! There are many things I could mention about that night, but that would be a whole new chapter, so I will just say that thanks to Vicky, a pack of polo mints and some semi warm noodles, I got through and arrived at camp about 24hrs after I had left.

Rest Day. We rested, we cleaned, we bandaged, we had cold coke. Unfortunately, we had lost one member of our tent who had to drop out on the long day, but otherwise my tentmates had all made it, and were in pretty high spirits as knew we just had the marathon day and charity day to go, and we would be done.

Kicking back and relaxing on the rest day. Marathon des Sables
Kicking back and relaxing on the rest day

Stage 5 – 42.2km

Time 07hrs 40mins. Pace 10:58 Rank 658

Marathon day! Ok I loved this day. I was well rested, my pack was as light as it would get, and I was almost home. We set off in two groups, the fastest 200 runners setting off an hour later than us slower ones. It was nice as I got to see not only the top athletes whizz by, but also some of my tent mates too. AND… at half way I decided “fxxk it”, nothing left to lose, so I pulled out the iPod I had been saving for the long day (but didn’t need as I had Vicky keeping me company), popped some codeine, put on my music and started to run… oh and I started to sing too, screaming out to Status Quo and Queen at the top of my voice as I ran across the sand dunes, surprising the hell out of the occasional donkey, goat or fellow competitor I passed along the way, and probably annoying any locals or organizers who happened to hear me. But I didn’t care, and I basically ran in high spirits for the final 21km, eventually crossing the line on massive high as Patrick hung the medal around my neck. I saw Ian Corless at the finish line, went up to him and excitedly babbled about no one thought I would finish as I was so badly prepared but I had and yes, this was the best feeling ever….

finish line of the MdS 2022
Singing at the top of my voice as I approach the finish line of the MdS 2022

Stage 6 – 7km

Time 01hrs 45mins. Pace 15:42 Rank 467

Charity Day. Simple 7km walk across the sands, staying with your tent mates. Was fun, I enjoyed talking as we walked, just enjoying the fact we had just completed the MdS and now were in cool down mode. Four of us had decided we would get a taxi at the end, rather than wait around for the official bus transfers back to the hotel, and took the first offer we were given (many locals know about the finish of the race so turn up to whisk you the long journey back in their cars). We insisted he stop at the first restaurant at the first town, and we stuffed ourselves with hot fresh food, then piling back into the car with big bellies and big smiles. We had one more stop at a fruit store before arriving at the hotel way too many hours later. The first shower was amazing, a weeks’ worth of dirt and sweat being washed away, with a seemingly endless supply of orange dust secreted in every nook and cranny imaginable…. After that there was of course a big dinner, a cold beer and soft bed. Was good to be back in civilization

Finishers medal MdS 2022
And this was what it was all about – the finishers medal

Conclusion

Official Time (without charity stage) – 54:57:48.

Overall Rank 669 Age Group Rank 140

What can I say, I actually wrote way more than I thought I would, it just kinda flowed and has been somewhat cathartic (and also meant I could take a morning off from planned training, without too much guilt). Yes, I am back in full Ironman training mode, enough so that I am feeling the training tiredness again, a month or so behind schedule, and with a very creaky body. MdS seems a million years ago, more like a dream than something I actually did, but every now and them a memory will pop up in my head, and I will be whisked back to that amazing adventure. I haven’t mentioned my tent mates much here, but I can tell you, they were my rock, my support, my family and along with Vicky on long day, the daily messages sent from friends and family back home and my trusty pack of painkillers, probably had a much to do with me getting through the whole experience as my training (or lack thereof) did.

Richard - GBR: 751Marathon des Sables 2002
My trusty pack, ready for retirement, or maybe one more round

And finally.. would I do it again? Well, I was certainly felt that way straight after I finished, but as the time passed and with the realization of the toll it all took on my mind and body, I have started to question whether I will or not. Meh, I am pretty certain I will, especially as some tents mates are going back, but as of yet I haven’t put pen to paper to confirm. I will keep you posted

10 thoughts on “My Marathon Des Sables – 2022

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