Boarding the plane from Gatwick to Ouarzazate I was surrounded by people who were going to be my neighbours for the week, little did I know that some of them would end up being friends for life, neither did I know that some of these people would witness me having an emotional break down and who had kept me sane when times got tough. I sat with 2 people who were running Marathon Des Sables for Walking for the wounded, they certainly made the 3.5 hour plane journey enjoyable. I remember looking around at other competitors, everyone looking super fit and organised. My training had a slight set back during the vital months of training, throughout 2014 I was doing a marathon a month for charity and working 12 hour shifts the following day so I was fairly confident about distance on foot, from November – February family life became a whirl wind, studying full time and working 46 hrs per week I found it difficult to get in the same training as most people around me. I was offered to go to Morrocco for sand dune and heat training with Mohamad Ahansal who became my saviour and continued to give me guidance and support before, during and after the race.
Arriving at the airport and going through passport control I was whisked away onto a coach for the 6 hour journey to the bivouac, it went fairly fast as we were all handed a “road book” which became my bible during the course of the week. We were also handed a brown plastic bag, at first I thought it was a sick bag but later from reading my road book it was in fact a poo bag to do our business - take note, add a stone inside before using it as it gets windy at night. I arrived at camp late at night and walked around a dark field with 100's of others to find a tent, I was founded with tent 131.
After all 8 of us introduced ourselves, we went to have dinner, sat on the floor around a small table and chatted away getting to know each other, I was still looking around and a rush of insecurity passed in me and the thought of "I can never do this" was repeating in my head. I know from previous races, I need to push aside these negative feelings, I have never not finished a race before and MDS will not be my first.
With head torches on, we found tent 131 which the whole site was in a horse shoe shape, so cleverly done. I laid out my sleeping bag and went to sleep – or shall I say, tried to!
Saturday 4th April – Day 2
Waking up at 07:00, went to use the toilets for the first time, taking my little brown bag to a canvas shelter which contained a toilet frame, attaching the bag to the edge and trying not to sit fully on the frame in fright it would collapse, doing my business, tying the bag up and putting it in the bin outside – thankfully I took plenty of hand gel with me. Tent 131 all went for breakfast and headed back to the tent for further instructions. Today was all about getting out kit checked, weighed, collecting race numbers and salt tablets, these tablets are needed as during the day you can lose up to 15g of salt. We were also handed an SOS messenger so we can be tracked by friend, family and of course the race officials in emergencies, as soon as we had this done we handed in our suite case and relied on what we had in our bag for the week ahead. As soon as we handed over our suitcases, we knew the MDS had actually begun, we were now starting the toughest week of our lives, I could see the excitement in peoples faces but also showing a sign of unknown and fear.
Having talked to a few people on a social media site before coming out had been comforting because throughout the day I would hear "Hey mandy, how's it going" Having someone near by who you "know" had but my nerves at ease.
Race organiser Patrick Bauer presented us with a party and a speech before heading off to dinner for the last time that week which was not self sufficient, headed off to sleep for an early morning ahead.
Sunday 5th April – Stage 1
Sleeping on a stony ground was quite difficult, I wanted to travel light so I took a cheap foam mattress from sports direct so if I wanted to ditch it later I would not mind wasting £5. sleeping with 5 men and 2 other women inches away, who I did not know was quite daunting. I tossed and turned throughout the night so stage 1 I was feeling quite tired. Today was the first day of being self sufficient, I lit my tiny cooker, heated up water to make my porridge and coffee, being a coffee addict I must have caffeine in the morning. We then made our way to the water collection van to get our water for the day, got the card stamped, set up our kit and made way to the start line. Patrick Bauer stood on top of the van, did a speech, wished us luck, played Highway to Hell by ACDC and off we went, 1300 excited, nervous people ran across the start line to have one thing in mind, get back safely from the 36.2km ahead.
Running across rocky roads, small dried sand dunes and climbing through rocky jebels sounds pretty straight forward and easy but with temperatures rising up to 44c and carrying 8kg on your back is a lot difficult than it seems. Following markings on route to avoid deep cracks and the many of other runners ahead it was easy to not get lost or injured, well, until we reached the rolling hills, which literally was loose rocks, watching my step slowly I managed to get down safely. Before reaching the finish line, I was walking at this point across the small sand dunes I realised I was walking next to Sir Ranulph Finnes. It was a pleasure to be running the same race with the legend himself.
During the course each day there are check points with photographers, water being distributed and a chance to rest or seek medical help if needed. I decided to continue and eat as I went but it was refreshing to know we could stop and rest here.
Reaching the finish line I was presented Moroccan green tea a 10 second shower by a man with a hose, made my way to tent 131, collected water, checked my feet examining for blisters, prepared dinner and went to sleep.
Monday 6th April – Stage 2
We all made our way to the start line to listen to ACDC again, I lathered myself in suncream, knocked back as much water as I could and sucked on salt tablets, during the 31.1km route I was drinking sips of water, as it was limited I did not want to run out, I then realised I was not going to the toilet, I didn't feel dehydrated but I understood not having a wee is a vital sign that I may be getting that way, I was sucking more salt tablets and started drinking regularly. Most parts for me was impossible to run, I had not trained for rocky hill running so I was extra cautious of my stepping, today was less distance, same time but a very tough route. On the 8th Km I walked up a “deceptive rising slope” which was the Hered Asfer Jebel followed by a larger hill on the 17th Km, my legs were strong, my mind was strong but now the heat was getting to me, I was starting to get moments of doubts and knowing there was a line behind me trying to climb up the hill I felt I could not stop and needed to move to quick. Today it took me well over 7 hours to run / walk 31Km. Arriving back to the bivouac all emotions came flooded out of me and I cried, I really felt I could not do it. My tent mates talked some sense into me, another said she felt the same and also cried then we vowed that time was not important, just make sure we are back at the tent each night within cut off time that is all that matters, I felt better, I read messages from friends and family who have been tracking me, I inspected for blisters on my feet and relief I still not had any, and went to sleep after tent 131 cracked jokes and chatted until it got dark. I felt blessed I had ended up with the perfect tent mates.
Tuesday 7th April – Stage 3
It was Philippe's birthday today, I presented him with a Happy Birthday badge and a rich fruit birthday cake that I had been carrying around, he ate his cake and broke his badge, this made me laugh that squashed in a bag it was safe, a minute in his hands it broke, it made my morning, he was happy. During the night my foam mattress took off in the wind when the tent was vacant, I found it this morning a few tents down. I decided to cut it into 3 sections, gave 2 parts out and used my part for knees whilst kneeling down in the tent and for my backside at night, I made up a pillow by using my trainers upside down covered in a waterproof bag and used my day clothes to cushion it, my bag was used to elevate my feet. Tent 131 got into a routine, we had someone to controlled blisters and dressed them, another who was the fire starter, a lady who was the bubbly one and often got us all laughing, 2 were nicknamed Gandalf and Yoda who stuck by each other with their wooden sticks, calming but humours, the youngest just reminded me of my little brother with his jeans halfway down his backside and as for me, another lady who was my confider, I have no idea what my role was... I must ask!
Being in a small space with 7 other people you'd of thought there would be some sort of conflict or often disagreements, but during Marathon Des Sables tent 131 became strong, we were there for each other and we would see the last runners come to the finish line in hope they would arrive back safe.
After walking most of today's 36.7Km I felt exhausted, my left shoulder was now hurting from the bag my arm was sunburnt after forgetting to apply in one section and under my arm was sore from chaffing against my water bottle, for the first and only time I decided to take paracetamol and seek medical help for a piece of tape to apply to my arm to stop the rubbing, the heat and sweat in my trainers and the pounding from today’s stony terrain, when I got back to the tent I found my first little blister in between my little and 4th toe. I looked around me people were hobbling, not walking properly, taped up on their shoulders and back from severe chaffing, I felt lucky and confused why someone who is unfit like me can get away with one small blister. I am classed as over weight, over weight people fail and get blisters easy so it was drummed into me months before MDS.
Wednesday 8th April – Stage 4
Wow the nerves from me this morning were incredible, I was about to take on 91.7Km, I had only ever done 50K once! Tent 131 hugged each other at the start line, wished each other lots of luck and reminded each other to take it slow, and we will see everyone at the finish line. I started the course with a “Sahara shuffle” it was not a run, jog, or walk it was just a slight shuffle through the mixed sandy stone terrain, this shuffle was all that can be achieved within the desert. I was advised many of times by Mohamad “do not stop, just go and go, do not sleep at check points” So I decided to move slow, steady, eat whilst walking, rest and sit if needed, check my feet if they were feeling pain but do not stop no longer than 15 minutes.
My front bag contained nuts, dried dates, dried mangos, skittles and sour haribo cherry sweets, it also contained my salt tablets. Every litre of water I would have 2 tablets, suck on them for a while until I could not tolerate the taste any more, going through check 1 and 2 went quick, check point 3 I felt pain in my feet so I decided to sit and take my shoes off to inspect, no blisters but I massaged my sandy smelly feet to relieve the ache, they were just tired – I kept telling myself the tiredness wont last forever, the ache feeling is only temporary, be strong, stop whining and get on with it, I knew it was not going to be a relaxing walk on a sand beach so deal with it. After check point 3 my slow Sahara shuffle turned into a walk, I was looking around me, feeling so lucky! Lucky I have this opportunity to run the worlds toughest foot race, I was on the long day on Marathon Des Sables, I have already run / shuffled / walked 134 Km and I am going to continue, I am going to do this safely, and I am going to get to the finish and receive my medal, I was going to do it and no matter how tired I felt, no matter how hungry I was I am going to deal with it and keep on moving. Running Marathon Des Sables is a matter of mental focus, if you do not have a tough mind then you are going to fail, if you are a quitter when times get tough then you wont receive your medal, this was a game of not just physical abilities at all. During the course runners from all around the world greeted me as I would them, we would chat for 5 minutes until we went on our separate ways, these small talks kept me going and I felt honoured to meet so many inspirational people. Time was going fast, I was going slow the sun was going down and it started to get dark, head torch out and glow sticks on I was prepared for the night walk, I really wanted to run a little my mind was saying “run run” my legs were saying no, stop! They were feeling heavy, like a weight was pulling them down, I kept moving, ate my dates, took my salts and put on warm clothing. I arrived at a check point, I needed to sit, I found a tent to rest in, this is where I came across 2 men, they were setting up ready to go – by this time it was pitch black I asked the 2 men if they are leaving and if I could join them, I did not care I only had rested 2 minutes but I did not want to be alone in the night, after pleasant introductions the 3 of us made our way across sand dunes in the dark. 2 hours passed it was coming up to 1am, the three of us we tired so we decided to rest on the sand dunes for 15 minutes, I lay in a position were I did not need to take my bag off but the sand dune was supporting me and took off all pressure from my shoulder. I looked up into the clear sky and searched for shooting stars, I did not want to move, I could of easily stayed there all night. We continued to walk bringing up the pace, I was lagging behind but told the 2 men I am ok, they decided on the next check point they will sleep for 5 hours. This I did not want so I told them to go ahead and I will meet them at the check point as it was only a few Km away.
I was walking alone, my eyes closing, I twisted my ankle on rocks under me, my torch was running out of batteries, I was in pain mentally and physically. The light on my head torch was getting dimmer and dimmer, no one was infront of me, nor behind me, I was scared, felt lost and I was so angry at myself. “why did I not train better for this” “I am stupid to think I could actually complete MDS” I was thinking all sorts, I was swearing out loud, talking to myself, singing, then along came a man called Dean. “Are you ok” he asked, instantly I said yes, thankyou. Then realised that I am not ok, he knew I was suffering with fatigue, we walked together until the check point and rested in the tent for one hour, How we got up from the tent after the hour took a lot of will power, it was cold, windy, we were both exhausted but we had each other now.
Out of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere appeared a man from Malta, he asked if he could walk with us for the remainder of the night, the three of us chatted away until the moon went and the sun came up stopping regular to lean over to get the pressure of the bags off our shoulders. In no time we were approaching the second to last check point, I have no idea how, or where it came from but my body was over taken by a surge of energy, my walking pace got quicker and I felt like I wanted to run, I asked the 2 guys if they were ok if I run a little ahead for a few minutes, I knew it would not last long, they said yes and off I went.. I ran like the wind, I did not stop, checkpoint 6 and 7 passed, got my water and I continued to run, not fast as my legs were still aching but I was running, up the hills, down the hills, across the stony dried up river, until I saw the finish line in sight, I ran to the finish line and cried it was just coming up to 11:00 a new day, I got to my tent and was greeted my a few tent mates and I cried and I laid there not wanting to move an inch.
Thursday 9th April – Day off
I rested for a few hours until I thought it would be a perfect chance to do some washing, it was 40c but had no choice to change into my night wear, long compression recovery skins and a long warm light weight jumper, I took my top, trousers and underwear and put them in my made up “washing machine” by cutting a water bottle in half, popping in one piece of clothing and adding water and a baby wipe for scent, I attached the bottle back together and laid it in the sun for 30 minutes. Shaking the bottle a little and drying out the sopping water I put my top on the tent to dry and repeated until I had a nice clean (ish) running outfit again.
I spent the remainder of the day chatting with tent mates who by this point I know they will be friends for life, going to other tents and wishing other runners who I met during the week well, reflecting back on the night from hell – the long stage and drinking coke! Yes a can of cola was provided to us this was the best thing ever! I got back to the tent to have a load of messages from friends and family, I felt overwhelmed that people were actually tracking me over night! I am part of a facebook running group, Bosh - where one lady had posted out to people to send me messages of support, the supportive messages I got I will never ever forget and I wish I could personally thank every one of them.
Friday 10th April - Marathon day.
I woke up this morning confident, less tired than usual, wearing clean (ish) clothes and my feet felt great – I wish I could say that about my shoulder but by this time many people had dropped out due to injuries and I felt blessed that I was still here, I looked at the road map and realised there were not many hills today, I was happy about this, I am happy that it was an actual marathon too, yes I suffered on the 36Km, but I believe psychologically in my mind, the year before I did 11 marathons in 8 months I can easily do this marathon, I remember telling Mohamed I am going to push myself today, it does not matter now if I get a blister because the long stage has been completed. As usual, start line tent 131 wished each other luck and promised to see each other at the end. The elites started 3 hours later so we can be finished roughly at the same time. I wanted to run as far as I could and to prove to Mohamed his training across the sand dunes did benefit me, 20Km in I was running / shuffling until I got to the check point and felt tiredness set in, only having dates and dried mango I became sick of them and realised I should of mixed my food a bit or at least took some energy gels or shot blocks. As much as the first half of the marathon went well, my legs decided the only option is to walk and shuffle every few minutes. Reaching the finish line there were many of people there to greet all the runners coming in, I got my medal, took my water and headed straight to my tent to be greeted by my new found friends.
Saturday 11th April – Charity stage
Today was an 11km run through the golden sand dunes of Merzouga, this is the exact place where I was training with Mohamad Ahansal so I was excited to be coming back to where I trained. Tent 131 decided we will all walk it through together and finish together, start as a team, finish as a team and that we did, walking up and down the dunes, chatting, laughing, and enjoying every moment, a river of blue – we were all wearing the uni chef t shirts, across the dunes all feeling the same, exhilarated that we have completed Marathon Des Sables – The toughest foot race on earth.
Back at home Inspecting my feet, all my toe nails survived my small blister has gone I can walk without looking like I have been tackling mountains and dunes, I was often asked out there if I would do MDS again, without any hesitation I said no, as much as I loved the whole experience I could not possibly face another sand dune again. Well, until the next day I found myself emailing the organiser and getting a place for MDS 2016.
From someone who has been running for just over a year, someone who could not run a mile without getting out of breath 2 years ago, from someone who was unfit and would never of thought in a million years I would participate in anything as brutal as this I have to say, I am very proud of myself and if I can do it, so can you. Put your mind to it, you get what you want. MDS 2016 I shall be more prepared, lighter, and going competitive with the correct training.
Within the next few days I shall be adding tips, things I would do different to help others who will be doing MDS for the first time next year.