The Highway to Hell by AC/DC blasted out of the speakers, the temperature was rising and my heart pounded.
More than a thousand other competitors cheered and many would not see the end of the day let alone the finish line. How did I get here?
How did I come to be standing on the start line of the 31st Marathon des Sables?
Nothing I will ever to or attempt will ever come close to this event.
The discovery channel calls the MDS the toughest footrace on Earth. So it was with some trepidation that I signed up for the 31st MDS last year.
Having been persuaded by a friend it became apparent that I needed to get sahara ready. I trained and trained and trained and lost two stone of muscle, quit playing rugby and ran hundreds of miles in training including two marathons and many half marathons.
I needed to be in tip top shape for a 257 kilometer slog through the sahara desert in scorching heat, sand storms and tackling terrain from massive dunes to mountain ranges and boulder fields.
So it began.
The time flew past and soon I found myself with all the gear and a massive fear in my heart. I bought the backpack, the specialist freeze dried food and all the gear. I even went through two pairs of trainers in training, literally wearing one pair out.
The reason I was doing this race was simple. It had been one of my bucket list things. It would be tough, beyond tough and I cannot explain to anyone who has not done this how tough it was. Physically, mentally and emotionally. Not only do you have to be on the start line in 100% peak condition but you have to be mentally tough and prepared for this. Otherwise like so many other competitors you simply wont make it.
The other reason I found myself in the Sahara heat at the start line was because of a childhood friend. Jon-Paul Brett (JP) had played myself off against another childhood friend Alistair Kerr. He told Alistair that I had signed up and told me that Alistair had signed up.
Both of us hadn't yet signed up and we duly did thinking the other one had. He also persuaded two university friends to sign up. Cordi Van Niekirk from South Africa and Shaymuss McTeague from the States who has the best piratical name ever. We would also be joined by Adam U'Glow Jones who had completed last years marathon des Sables with his younger brother and was returning for a second time. Richard Riddell would also be joining us but his Chelsea tinder and wine lifestyle got in the way and he pulled out two months before departure.
Finally I was on the plane.
Never so much had calories and weight meant so much. Everyone you talked to regarding the weight of your backpack had the questions of 'how much does your bag weight' and 'what food are you taking and how many calories a day'.
The rules and stipulations say the bag must be a minimum of 6.5kg when you report for registration in the desert and you must have a bare minimum of 2000 calories for each day in food rations. I was packing over the bare minimum of calories because I know just how much I eat and had taken the bare essentials in the bag. The one luxury item would be an Olympus tough camera and spare batteries to record our adventures.
|Aall the runners pose in a big 31 for the 31st MDS start|
The flight was a charter from Gatwick and was solely full of MDS runners. As soon as we lifted off someone broke out into a tenor Operatic song and the pane was full of people in shirts and ties with camels on them. The camel club were a great bunch and I feel honoured to have been made a member at the end of the race.
We boarded the bus aftetr collecting our bags and headed off to the bivouac in the desert. 7 hours later we arrived.
After several piss stops where people swarmed out of the buses and urinated everywhere it was nice to stretch our legs and see what would be home for the next two days.
The bivouac is a large circle of black side less Bedouin tents where we would stay. Each stage of the race these tents would be taken down and reassembled at the next end point of the day as you pass trough the desert and the checkpoints. Accompanying this was a huge array of vehicles and a massive staff tent with medical facilities, media suites and the works. The shear logistics of this event justifies the almost four thousand pounds entry fee! The staff even had a bloody bar, while you were exhausted with blistered feet and hungry lying on a sandy mat under a tent that let half the Sahara in; you could hear the staff partying away!
I was quite amazed when we explored before the race started. There was hundreds of Land Rover defenders and a good smattering of Toyota land cruisers too. Three helicopters were also present. Two for filming and rescues and one military one as the Moroccan army were camped near by for safety issues as the race was under the patronage of the King.
The rest of the day was spent buggering about and chatting to other competitors. The Brits were really social, we all chatted and got on but the French that make up about 30% of the race hardly spoke a word to us. Our neightbours in others tents would become friends by the end of the week but the French tents in another inner circle of tents would not even say good morning. They were literally 5 yards away but in a different world.
Any random nationality from Peruvian to Zimbabwean was chucked in with the British for good measure. Therefore we had a good international vibe and everyone got on.
That nigth we had a long speech by the events director and founder Patrick Bauer. My god can he go on. He waffles and waffles and then the translator says about five words in English over the megaphone to his 300 in French. This happened every morning as he stood on top of a land rover like a rock star.
He founded the race 31 years ago after he went on some photographic jolly in the desert himself, but has never done the MDS. He seemed to appear at checkpoints high fiving and fist bumping or making massive speeches in French an dancing about.
Two days were spent in the bivouac, by this time we had got our bags ready for the long trip and handed in our other bags. We would next see them at the end in the hotel. We queued up to collect our race numbers, spor tracker with SOS button and race paraphernalia. They also weighed our bags to see how much we had; issued us with our race route books and checked to see we had the essentials from the list. Items such as : venom pump in case of a snake bite, salt tablets, emergency whistle and survival blanket.
The road book was studied cover to cover and would have the routes each day in them. the routes each day where this long:
Stage 1. 34 kms (10.5 hour time limit)
Stage 2. 41.3 kms (11 hour time cap)
Stage 3. 37.5 kms (10.5 hour time cap)
Stage 4. 84.3 kms (35 hour time cap)
Stage 5. 42.2 kms (12 hour time cap)
Stage 6. 17.7 kms (Charity stage, not sure if there was a time cap)
Each stage would have varying terrains and time limits to do them in. There would also be checkpoints where you would be issued with water. The checkpoints were basically four land rovers with numbers on them. You went to the one that corresponded with your race number. For example as runner number 1203 I would always go to the end land rover to have my water card stamped and received either one or two bottles. If you were given two bottles it was normally a long or hard stage up ahead. But sometimes you were given just the one and the stage ahead towards the next checkpoint was massive and you ended up with barely any moisture left in your bottle by the time you arrived. This caught many people out.
Also at the checkpoints were a couple of Bedouin style tents like we had at the campsite for a bit of shade and one that was used by Doc Trotters the incredible team of French medics and foot specialists. They would slice open your blisters and shove what they said was iodine into the wounds as you gritted your teeth in pain.
Many times I got to a checkpoint to see blooded feet or people convulsing and attached to drips, sadly there races were over.
The checkpoints also had closing times, so if you didn't get to one in time you were out. They were quite harsh in reality. If you didn't make it you were a goner and sent back to the nearest town the next day.
Bags handed in we were all on our own. Completely self sufficient apart from water provided at checkpoints and at the end of the day. All our food and world good that we may need from sleeping bag to sun cream were in our bags. The shit was getting real.
The anticipation for the start was heavy in the air, you could feel the tension but there was also an air of fun. We as a group explored the campsite and talked to everyone. We met a vast array of people and characters. Each with a story of how they came to be here.
We had already had our charity gear photos. Cordi does a lot of work for a charity called the Cows. Real name Childhood Cancer foundation South Africa. We all decided to fund raise for them and thus had photos before we handed in our bags in cow print gear.
|Tent 154 posing in our charity gear with the one and only Ted Jackson|
We were joined by a guy called Ted Jackson for one photo and not only was he the purveyor of a fine beard but he was an incredible challenge undertaker and fundraiser. Ted was doing his second MDS. The first he had the running umber 666 so dressed as the devil and completed it and this time he had with him a massive bloody great camel costume. Yes you have guessed it he was a leading member in the camel club and was also the culprit of the opera singing on the plane.
That night it was hard to sleep. I lay awake in my special desert jacket/sleeping bag combo thinking about the 257 kms that lay ahead. I didn't want to fail. I had worked too hard for this. I didn't care if I came last, I just didn't want to fail. I drifted into an uneasy sleep listening to Cordi snore like a bulldozer.
There was a ten and a half hour time cap.
I was woken by shouting. Opening my eyes I saw Arabic men scrambling about taking the tents down. Soon all the tents were down and all the runners were standing about in their running gear. We queued for water like we would do every morning and applied sun cream. At this point we were all relatively clean and still getting used to defacating into a plastic bag.
Above is a photo of us all ready for the off. All of tent 154 posing behind our bags, looking clean and raring to go.
We made our way over to the start line, all 1200 plus of us (I never did learn the actual number of runners). There was an array of colours and noise. Brightly coloured running kits and flags fluttered in the desert breeze and then they along with our backpacks they made us all pose for a huge 31 as the helicopter took aerial photos from above.
Suddenly AC/DC started to play. Patrick Bauer stood on top of the defender and shouted in French.
We were off. It happened just like that. A little waiting around and suddenly I along with my tent mates and over a thousand other people were hurtling the first 3km towards the dunes that had been staring us in the face for the past 2 days.
|Day 1 ready to go|
I passed under the giant inflatable start line arch and didn't stop. My legs moved quickly over the hard desert floor as we approached the dunes. My backpack was at its heaviest at this point and I could feel all of its 9 kilos pounding on my shoulders with every step.
|Ready, steady, go! Day 1|
The dunes grew bigger and bigger until they were on top of us. Each step was like walking the wrong way up an escalator. You seemed to be moving backwards as well as forwards as the helicopter flew low over you filming with the cameraman hanging out of the opened door, people cheered and waved every time. Soon the novelty of the helicopter disappeared and it became annoying.
It was especially annoying when you were having a little squat toilet in the dunes and it suddenly appeared and buzzed you, sending sand into your arse crack!
I started well but soon the heat hit me. All that training I had done seemed to go out of the window and I felt ridiculously unfit. Thankfully that didn't last long and my body adjusted to the heat and I slogged through the sand.
As I looked on I saw people darting up dunes and hardly leaving a footprint, while I seemed to plow into it and use twice as much energy.
These dunes would go on for 12 kms and take a fair few runners out of the race.
After what seemed like hours where at some points you had to shuffle in single file we came out of the dunes. That is where I saw my first guy hooked up to a drip.
Check point one came and it was quite a joyous affair. I saw people I knew there and we all chatted and got on and then set off again.
More dunes and in total we did 15 kms of continuous dunes that day awaited us. But the Sahara had a nasty surprise in store.
The blistering heat and scorching sun was suddenly lost as the winds picked up and sand blasted you. Luckily I was out of the dunes at this point and those still in them were in for a torrid time.
The winds blasted my face and I pulled my buff up over my eyes. Walking along you had to lean into the wind.
|The bivouac from above|
I finished day one running across the finish line with Shaymuss and Adam who had somehow hurt his hip and was struggling. We waved at the web camera and smiled to everyone already in the campsite.
Day one was over. I had done it in 8 hours 9 minutes and 12 seconds.
That evening we all sat in the tent chatting and cheering people as they came back into camp. But as it fell dark it became apparent that many people were not back. Where was Ted in his camel suit or Will from tent 155?
You could see the dunes from the campsite and the race staff had driven a dune buggy up to the top shining a spot light to guide people back to camp who were lost in the dunes. Finally out of the dark came Ted in his camel costume. What a legend, the only man in fancy dress.
It has since been said that day 1 was utterly brutal, one of the toughest opening days ever for terrain and especially the weather. The organisers actually upped the time limit because of the number of people lost in the dunes. Even so 18 or so people pulled our or were medically withdrawn.
That night I slept well.
|Dunes as far as the eye can see|
Monday 11th April
11 hour time cap
Water Check points: 3
My time: 9 hours 13 minutes 41 seconds
Total drop outs/medical withdrawals: 57
It was now the norm to be woken by shouty men and it soon became the norm to put stinking clothes back on and apply more sun cream to filthy skin.
The second stage of the marathon des sables would be longer than the first. This was the first time I started to actively scan the horizon looking for the checkpoints. This day it seemed that they were so far apart between water stops. You really had to save water. Taking a little sip, holding it in your mouth and savouring the refreshing taste. Gulping didn't help as soon you would be without and high and dry.
|Cordi, me, JP, Alistair and Shaymus at the start line day 2|
This stage was the first day where we crossed gigantic open plains. Probably former lake beds where the clay cracked under foot from the scorching suns heat and reflected back up at you.
Most of my body was covered. Only my hands pat of my face and knees were getting a nice tan.
At checkpoints today people were literally pole axed on the floor. I saw for the first time people convulsing and on drips and people zigzagging because of the heat.
Ii ended up spending a long time with Will and Tom who I met on the bus on the first day. We had the same pace and stayed together for a fair few hours.
Stage 2 would stick in my mind for just being so bloody long. It wasn't the longest distance we would cover; but you could see miles into the distance. You would see a mountain range and when you got to it and climbed it there was still not a single sign of the checkpoint. It became almost a mind game to keep your composure as you could easily get to the top of a cliff thinking it would be on the other side and then have a swearing fit and waste energy when it want.
It would also be my first desert nose bleed. Every day after day 2 I would have to deal with a nose that would suddenly explode! I wasn't alone and many other runners had the same problem. It however was annoying as I had to use valuable toilet paper to bung up my bleeding hooter! All become of the desert dust!
|Nosebleeds became a regular occurrence|
Finally I ran into camp and the mood of the previous night where it was quite joyful was very different.
That evening as all my tent mates told stories of the long stretches and seeing people in trouble. Many people didn't return to camp. Francois the French Canadian in our tent had to press someone's SOS button when he found him delirious in the desert. He said he waited with him for ten minutes before a land cruiser turned up with a doctor and took him away, his race over.
As the sun set the race officials were harsher this time round. The cut off time stayed and many were taken out of the race. Sadly Ted who had dumped his camel suit was one of them. He left other members of the camel club and his 23 year old son Oscar who I would later spend a lot of time with in the desert behind.
It hit you hard when someone would go. Sometimes you may never see them again. We were all becoming a big band of brothers and sisters.
|The helicopter buzzes people after the start line.|
Tuesday 12th April
37.5 kms (26kms of continuous sand dunes)
10 hours 30 minutes time cap
8.30 am start
Water Check points: 3
My time: 9 hours 13 minutes 23 seconds
Total drop outs/medical withdrawals: 27
|Start line day 3|
The sun rose and the heat grew. Filthy clothing back on and we were ready for yet another day in the oven that was the Sahara.
This stage was not one of the longest but it would have more dunes than you could ever imagine. A dune section that would stretch for 26 continuous kilometers that would be zapping. Huge dune to traverse and run down and even bigger ones where you had to really pump your legs to get to the top.
|Photo taken from the helicopter of the ant like runners slowly making their way across the dunes|
Sadly today I had my first feet injuries. Until now I have been relatively OK and my feet had stood up to whatever the desert had thrown at them. Today however they gave in, they went down on one knee like a punch drunk boxer.
I came over this giant dune and as I ran down both heels popped and instantly blistered.
By the time we finished crossing the line after traversing an incredibly impressive abandoned and crumbling fort my feet were massively blistered. The right little toe was like a golf ball and I had to have my first visit to Doc Trotters as they drained it and shoved what they aid was iodine but felt like acid into it.
The trotter doc told me my feet were far too calloused and that I should have shaved off all the hard skin before.
Back at the tent JP said he didn't even notice the abandoned fort as he was too busy looking down to avoid rocks.
|26 km of continuous dunes|
It is amazing how little things can boost your spirits. Emails that were sent to you and your running number were printed off and handed out. Each one from comical to quotations made me smile and one even made me cry. That could have also been because of the pain in my feet.
I had so many fantastic emails and loved everyone of them and thank you to all who sent them, you really are wonderful human beings.
Small things would make you smile also. The French man chasing his poo bag across the floor in the wind to cheers from the Brits. Reading out each others comical emails and of course waiting til everyone was in their sleeping bags before letting off a giant fart.
That evening after waiting around for hours at the foot doctors to be sliced up I finally got back to the tent where everyone was asleep. I quickly ate some food and got into my sleeping bag. It wasn't the greatest preparation for tomorrows long stage. 35 hours time cap and a long long way to go.
|The abandoned fort. The finish line was hidden about a mile behind it|
|With Ben Colabella on top of a mountain, someone I walked with for ages and did not see again until the hotel at the end|
Day 4/5 -The Long One
The Long Day - over night stage
Wednesday 13th/Thursday 14th April
35 hour time cap
Start time 8.15am
Water Checkpoints: 7
My time: 28 hours 10 minutes 31 seconds
Total drop outs/medical withdrawals: 29
I woke feeling un-rested and am air of trepidation in my heart. Deep inside I knew this was the make or break day. My feet were literally in pieces, blisters on top of blisters and toenails starting to come off.
They were stained pink from blood and the French iodine. I cannot begin to tell and describe the pain. Every step was like hot knives slicing through my skin. Occasionally you would feel moistness in your socks and know that another blister had emerged and popped! It became a mental battle to block out the pain, as you trudged you would go off into a world of your own and day dream the miles away. Well I tried to do that.
Instead I probably said 'fuck' with every painful step or screamed even worse profanities when my foot struck a rock!
This stage would be one of the hardest things I would ever do. This stage would either make or break me.
I was so resolute and stubborn that I knew I would finish this. But I also knew it would ruin me. Physically I felt fine. The groin chaffing was quite unpleasant and I was going through a lot of gurney goo and talcum powder around my bits that were taped up on the thighs.
Apart from that my shoulders were fine, by back didn't ache and my legs felt fresh.
|Feeling tired and with sore feet but over 84.3kms to go!|
We gathered at the start line as the music blasted and today you could visibly see that there were less people here. Many had quit or fallen by the wayside and been taken out of the race. There was the usual French waffle from Patrick Bauer and the Highway to Hell blasted out as we shuffled through the start line many of us looking like the walking dead.
The first checkpoint was over this giant mountain with sand all blown up one side. You could either queue and go up in single file up the mountain edge where a rope had been attached or man it up and plow up the sand dune. This of course is what I did ad I managed to get ahead of many people by doing so but also expended a lot of energy doing so.
Once at the top the view was spectacular and you could still see people filing into the checkpoint below.
|The dune after checkpoint 1|
As I made my way down the other side of the mountain through a dried up water channel that was a heat trap I was over taken by Gemma Green who I had met last year at a crossfit competition. She came flying down and told me she had been caught up in the snail trail of people using the rope and saw me climbing the dune.
I also lost Adam in that dune as we had done the first ten kilometers together.
|Gemma Green hurtling past be en route to a nasty spider bite|
Later Gemma would be bitten by a spider and when she was near collapse with blistered legs from the wound she was given an anti venom by the doctors that gave her a severe allergic reaction. Her air way closed and they were close to pulling her out of the race. But in true heroic fashion she pulled through and finished the long day like the legend and super human athlete that she is. I salute you Gemma.
On the long day the elite runners all top 50 or so would start 3 hours after you.
I was not even past the 20 kilometer point and I heard clapping and cheering. I looked behind me to see the Moroccan leaders racing along in orange. They flew past hardly making an impact on the dusty floor while my feet plodded and hit heavily. They were at least half my body weight and literally had nothing of them as they flew along being filmed from a dune buggy.
|The dune buggy cameraman captures images of teh race leader and eventual winner Rachid El Morabity (in orange)|
More and more ran past at pace. Some shouted encouragement to you which was brilliant while others were in the zone.
The Spanish woman who came 3rd overall came past me in pink and then suddenly dropped her pants squatted, left a deposit and buggered off again!
I wish I could run like that effortlessly, but alas I am not built like them. Although I had defecated like them in the desert.
Finally all of the elite had come past and I got to checkpoint 2. There it was a re-group and take off your backpack to have a protein shake and for me a little coffee.
I met a few people I knew there. Freya and Vicky who I kept bumping into and also a few others. It became more social that way and I set off with them to the next checkpoint. I would until 55 kms keep bumping into them and Ash and Isla whose shorts were slowly falling apart.
At checkpoint 4 I bumped into Oscar Jackson and Paul Harris from tent 156. Oscar was camel man Ted's son and Paul was, well he was just Welsh.He was also wearing his camel club tie proudly.
We hatched a plan and we stuck together throughout the night.
Walking in the desert can be lonely. Before I had got to checkpoint 4 I spent a long, long time on my own and was even trying to talk to the Japanese who were having none of it. I got to a large mountain that you had to traverse and there was a slice of shade. Bodies were literally all over the place in this shade. Shade, soothing and something we had not seen a lot of.
|Paul Harris, Oscar Jackson and myself at checkpoint 4|
That's where I saw Peta from the tent next door sadly on a drip shaking violently. She was doing so well and going so strong but her body core temperature rocketed and she became the first person to be evacuated by helicopter. I saw her in the hotel at the end and she said she will be back and I have every faith that she will smash it.
Finally at checkpoint 4 we became a little team of three and walked through the night. The temperatures dropped and it became pleasant but also treacherous under foot. I could roll down my UV arm sleeves and take off my sun hat.
In the road book it said that checkpoint 5 was after a 'Deceptive sandy rise'. This sand rise went on forever.
It was bloody huge but when we arrived at checkpoint 5 there low and behold we were greeted by deckchairs and bodies sleeping every where. To top that off there was even a glorious sight. A tea shack giving you one small cup of sweet Moroccan tea each.
We decided to try and get 3 hours sleep there. Oscar collapsed into a heap, Paul got into his sleeping bag and I tried to sort my feet out before urinating into a bottle and spilling it everywhere.
|Checkpoint 5. 55 kms and one small cup of tea as a reward|
The time flew and it was time to go.
The sun started to come up at about 4 am as we were making our way to the 65 km checkpoint 6. We arrived and people were in the tents fast asleep. Both Paul and my feet were in bits. I saw that the Doc Trotters tent was empty so went in and had an hour of foot surgery from two foot doctors. One drilled into my big toenail to release the pressure and the blood spat our and almost hit her in the face. The other sliced the blisters on my feels and insteps and bandaged them. They were literally in bits with toenails hanging off and huge puffy bits on them. My ankles were swollen and looked like fat old lady feet. Usually my feet are rather vascular but you couldn't not see a vein for the puffiness.
Paul could not stop walking because when he did his feet hurt badly. So he plowed on and Oscar and I eventually followed and made our way to checkpoint 7.
All the checkpoints were normally hidden, they played on your mind and you went from a massive high when finding one to a incredible sickening and angry low looking for one. Not however with checkpoint seven.
It emerged from round a cliff race and as you approached your heart sank. You could for the first time see the finish line. You could see the tent city in the distance shimmering in the heat haze but never getting closer.
It was like an ethereal illusion.
I was at this point bleeding from my nose profusely, the desert dust had ruined my nostrils. At this point I met Claire from Durham and we chatted as we plodded along together. She had a nose bleed too and we shared some hairbo to cheer ourselves up as we spoke of ruined feet.
I must have spent at least 2 hours with her and later on while at home I discovered that she was in fact the mother of one of my friends friends, small world!
At checkpoint seven I sat on the ground and took my shoes off. I had toe socks and had to cut the toes off to get my bandaged feet into them. The doc trotters gave me a saline solution bullet and showed me how to clear the blood in my nose my shooting it up my nostril.
Then Francois from my tent came roaring into the checkpoint, he grabbed his water and said 'can't stop'!
He had quit near checkpoint 5, sat down and said no more. His body refusing to go further but someone had encouraged him to keep going.
The last 9.2 kilometers to the finish line was terrible. It lasted forever and tested you, my feet hurt and it was so hot. At least at checkpoint seven I had a bin shower using someones left over water. Pouring it all over yourself was a delight and within a minute or so you were dry again.
As the finish line finally came into view I was joined my Oscar and Shaymuss. We trundled over the line with mixed emotions. Pain and euphoria because we had completed the long stage.
We had done it!
|Shaymuss and myself after the long finish from checkpoint seven which was by the hillside in the background|
That evening it was a strange feeling in the campsite. We knew we were almost there.
The last person came into view and was announced by a French lady with a megaphone. People clapped him like we had clapped everyone else who came in.
Back in the tent I showed my feet off to my tent mates and inspected the damage.
We were treated to a cold can of coke. It was incredible, the first cold thing I had held or tasted in a while. Many of us kept the can lingering on our foreheads for ages before the first refreshing sip.
Tomorrow would be a hard day for these swollen blistered mess of toes and skin!
|At checkpoint six having foot 'surgery'.|
|My feet after the long day|
Friday 15th April
12 hour time cap
3 water check points
My time: 10 hours 33 minutes 7 seconds
Total drop outs: 4
|Tent 154 in the morning|
This morning it felt different. We all knew we had it in us to complete this race. It was almost over. One marathon (and a silly charity stage) and it would all be over.
The usual music blared and we were off.
My feet seemed OK at first and I managed to keep a good pace until checkpoint 2. Then they started to fall apart again and I winced with every step or growled in pain with every stub of the toe. I was longing for dunes this time, the energy sapping sliding of the ground would also be a welcome relief on the feet as it cushioned each step.
Today would be a fun day. A large group of us stuck together and chatted. I met new people and saw faces I had not seen for a few days.
It was called the Marathon day because it was the perfect 26.2 mile Marathon course which would include all the desert terrains we had encountered. Sand, dunes, rocks, includes and boulders etc. So it was a race within a race.
The elite runners set off an hour or so after us but this time they had included the top 200 rather then the top 50 so many faces you knew came by.
I met Tyrone from Bristol who told me he kept himself amused in the dunes by paying human Pac man with the Japanese.
|Almost at the finish line. A photo taken by run ultra's Steve who got his land cruiser stuck in a dune|
I chatted to Sally an officer and physio in the army who recently won a medal at the Invictus games and also another Physio and current trainee paramedic Rebecca. Rebecca had been told all in the run up to this race that she won't finish it. She was now showing those doubters wrong. Those doubters I am 100% sure would not have the guts that she has to do this race. I salute you.
Oscar and Paul were with me two and also Angel from Peru. The first and so far only Peruvian to ever complete the Marathon des Sables.
Over the last couple of days I had been using two sticks I stole from the Bedouin tents as walking poles. I called one Gandalf and one Ghandi. But at check point 3 I managed to pick up some for real left there by someone who had dropped out of the race.
I saw Gemma again whose leg looked worse for ear and many people who I had seen flying on day one now limping along like me.
At one point a land cruiser pulled up to see how we were doing and I asked him to play some music. Sadly he cruised along next to us playing French love ballads! Why did I ask?
Checkpoint 3 was greeted by whooping, the atmosphere was brilliant now. Our camaraderie and silliness and random conversations all getting us through and making us try and forget the pain in our feet.
At checkpoint 3 we saw Steve from run ultra the organisers of the UK contingent of the race. He then proceeded to get his land cruiser stuck in a dune and when he got it out he was greeted by riotous cheers.
|Angel's Peruvian flag flutters in the breeze as we approach the finish line|
The finish line came into view and we ran in. Paul took out his Welsh flag, we all put away poles and made ourselves look better for the finish photo and crossed the line waving and smiling to the webcam.
|At the Finish line|
The organisers and race officials and the bivouac staff were cheering and waving as we came in.
After the obligatory sweet cup of Moroccan tea which i threw up because of sugar overload it was a great atmosphere at the campsite.
I got back to the tent after a few photos at the finish line. We had done it. The feeling was of utter jubilation. Tomorrow was just a 17,7 km charity stage and then medals o'clock.
Land cruisers drove around the campsite bleeding their horns with people cheering on the roofs it was a great party atmosphere.
Soon an announcement as made that the last runners were coming in. Everyone got up onto sore feet and hobbled over to the finish line.
|Marathon day felt like a massive end to the race, the following day would be an anti climax|
|All of tent 154 after the Marathon stage|
Behind them was all the land rovers from the three checkpiints following slowly beeping their horns and flashing their lights, joining them was the land cruisers from the course and vehind them there they were. The camels.
Two camels would follow all the racers, these were the last runners and if they over took you you would be out.
These three and two camels were traeted like heros when they crossed the line.
That evenign the race was officially over. First, second and third had been decided and the awards of random glass plate things were given out. But no medals, that would be timorrow.
There was a can of coke given out to all runners even thougha beer was promised by Mr. Bauer in one of his long winded waffling speeches where he was slightly sexist. If everyone had had more energy I am sure there would have been a riot.
That evening they showed some footage of the race on a giant inflatable screen that took ages to set up and the Bedouins in the camps clapped their hands and sang songs in Arabic.
People chatted and hugged and when we finally went to bed no one cared about tomorrow or the silly charoty stage.
|The last three runners are congratulated by Patrick Bauer|
The UNICEF solidarity charity stage
Saturday 16th April
Start time 9am
No water checkpoints
Obligatory Unicef T shirts to be worn.
My time 4 hours 27 minutes 51 seconds
We were joined by randoms and local ‘celebrities’ for 9.2 km of this and then they were bussed off.
|The start of the charity stage. The only time the Bivouac was not dismantled. We are all in unicef t shirts|
Today was an odd day, the race had ended. Ii finished in 867th place over all and was just happy to finish it. Although even though our places were sorted we still had one last day.
We queued up for our morning water allocation and were given a blue UNICEF t shirt to wear for the day. A thick cotton one that even though it didn't smell like our normal running gear it made you sweat an awful lot.
The night before we had been pummeled by sand storms through the night and they continued at the start line.
People in yellow UNICEF t-shirts would join us for 9.2 kms of the race today. Then they would all get on a bus leaving us at a checkpoint with no water stops to trudge over dunes and hills to the finish line.
It was a random day as we had had the euphoria from the previous night of actually finishing. But this extra stage added to the overall distance of 257 kms but not to the rankings unless you got a penalty for something.
It was as if someone had insulted the race last year saying that it cant be the toughest race on Earth so they decided to make it longer and make us endure more.
Many people moaned about it but we all got on with it and started listening to the Highway to hell for the last time.
This last section wasn't remarkable. It was more social and a lot of us chatted and also introduced other people we had all met on the route to others.
The only down side was that the actual finish line was a bit of an anti climax.
The winds battered us but we didn't care. Soon we would finish. My lot all started together and actually stayed together for a while. Of course until we lost JP, Adam and Cordi. Shaymuss, Alistair and myself all crossed the finish line together.
We trotted over the line and Patrick Bauer presented us with our medals and planted a French smacker on each cheek.
It was over, finally all that pain and sweat and blood was worth it. We had crossed the finish line and were presented with our medals.
What now? Unlike last night there was not a lot going on, no fanfare, a few people cheering and clapping and some awful French music being played.
We had our official photos taken and then made our way to the buses.
The air con hit me like an orgasm, cool air and a packed lunch and a comfy seat that reclined to sit on. The bus was utter heaven and many of us stuffed our faces and fell asleep.
At one point a French man stood up and started to violently slap his legs. The bastard, this guy in the darkness of the night each night near out tent would slap his legs and wake everyone up. He would continue to slap massage himself for ages and now we knew who the culprit was,. He was politely heckled and asked to sit down before someone hit him.
Hours later we arrived in Ouarzarate. A haven and the chance to stand on carpet, remove shoes and most importantly, wash.
It took ages to get yourself clean from the grime and dirt of the desert and also the chance to look at our unshaven and sun kissed faces for the first time.
After that it was a case of stuff ourselves with food and drink cool beers until bed time. That evening I couldn't sleep because of the comfort of the bed and also when I did drift off I kept dreaming that I needed to get to checkpoints!
The next day our mangled feet now in flipflops made our way down to the French hotel to collect our finishers official t shirts and then it was after a quick dive onto the souq beers by the pool time.
By this point everyone was laughing and joking and it took a while to recognise everyone because they were now all clean and not in their running kit. I spent ages downing beers (my first for months) and chatting to people I had met en route. The Brits had a awards ceremony where once again Patrick turned up and waffled in French and also a charity auction.
Bill Mitchell who was 71 won Brit of the race for breaking Sir Ranulph Fiennes age record and most importantly we all had a great laugh an drank and ate a lot. It was good to catch up with some people who were eliminated and people you had shared painful steps with.
It was almost all over. I had made some epic friends and met some spectacular people. Heroes every last one of them.
We called the MDS type two fun. You hated parts of it for the pain it caused but when you looked back on it you had rose tinted glasses on and loved it really.
The plane finally left Moroccan soil and Gatwick would be hugs galore from the competitors.
Reality would be hard because we had each shared so much, from shitting into bags to reassuring each other and reading out loud your emails to make people cry.
We had done it and all the time saying we hated JP for the pain it caused.
In truth I loved all of it. After all what is the MDS without a tail of feet falling apart.
Would I ever do it again. Well never say never.
For now I am one proud medal owner and still as I type this have a massive smile on my face.
All of you I met and forgot to mention you are brilliant, all of you who trudged thise dunes know just how it feels to finish.
If you have not done this event its hard to understand just how it means to me or what we went through.
I dare you to sign up, go on. Take on the toughest Race on Earth. After all; we did and we finished!
|Shaymuss, myself and Alistair show off our medals at the finish line|
|The architect of all our pain. Patrick Bauer, race director and French microphone waffler!|
|My final times and positions (excluding the charity stage)|
|Charity stage final ranking and time|
|GPS tracking of me while in the race|
|Finally it was beer o'clock|