It's taken a while to figure out what I actually want to write about the Marathon Des Sables. It's been such a huge all-consuming part of my life for the last 18 months that it seems impossible to do it justice with words. Should I talk about my personal journey for the benefit of those that know me? Or should I write something that's more practical for those looking to do it in the future, maybe along the lines of "dos and don'ts" or "how to come top 100 at MDS". Or maybe talk about the aftermath of the experience and its mental and physical impact. I've decide that I should probably attempt to do it all, as no doubt different people might find each aspect useful or interesting, when relating to their own challenges.
Let's start off with me and my experience, as suggested by the very person who kicked off this ridiculous journey - Mr Paul Hayward (see epilogue below).
I've already blogged and vlogged a lot about my preparation (If you're interested in any of that, check out the Pete's road to MDS category here) so I should probably skip straight to the action. However, the action takes a while to come, when taking part in the well-scripted MDS experience. You leave the country for 10 days but you don't actually start running until day three. Before that there’s a day of traveling, including a 3.5 hour flight to Ouarzazate, Morocco, and a 6 hour coach trip into the Sahara and the first Bivouac (camp site). Once there you scramble together a group of 6-8 buddies and make your way to your home for the week. I shared tent 120 with obstacle racers Andrew Appleton and Kev George, Triathlete G-Law, hardcore runner Andrew Fargus and new friend and complete legend Nick Semmens. It honestly couldn't have been a better crew... unless we could have persuaded people who were prone to stomach bugs on board. Apparently they're not very good at eating solid food and tend to give lots of hand-outs to tent mates over the course of the week. With that in mind, I was tempted to bribe a Berber to finger G-Law's first couple of meals but my conscience got the better of me.
Although the desert was clearly a hot place to hang out, the first night in camp turned freezing. Our tent basically consisted of a sheet held up by a couple of sticks. On day one, we really thought it was as simple as that, which meant we were subjected to a cold wind howling straight through the middle of the tent's open sides. Incidentally - the layout of the Bivouac (camp site) is such that the Brits' form a ring (or wind break) around each of the other nationalities. Yup, the French totally love us, it's clear from the start. As the week progressed, we figured out ways of collapsing the tent to reduce wind. Not that it mattered, things were about to get a hell of a lot hotter!
The Japanese - one of the many nationalities sheltered from the wind by the Brits. (Photo: Cimbaly/Akenamatata@MDS2017)
The day before race day consisted mostly of admin. We handed in our main travel bags (which we wouldn't see again until after the event) and thus were left only with our rucksacks containing our week's food, bedding and mandatory safety equipment - which had to be checked over by the officials and involved standing around queuing in the midday sun for several hours. Nothing like a bit of last minute warm weather acclimatisation!
At the final weigh-in my rucksack was 7.3kg, so very much at the lower end of the 6.5kg-15kg allowable limits. I had zero comforts. I had focused heavily on food (packing around 3,000 calories for each day) but, apart from mandatory equipment and a pair of poles, I had nothing. I had come to the desert to do a job; I hadn’t come to have a nice time. I was playing a tactical game and I aimed to get the maximum amount out of my body. I saw every non-edible gram as a hindrance.
Disaster struck for the first time on my way back from check-in. I noticed that one of the chest straps on my bag had snapped off and vanished. Without that my bag would be uncomfortably bouncy and would seriously affect me. Panic set in and I spent a couple of hours searching and attempting to figure out a solution. Eventually I was saved (not for the last time) by fellow Brit, Alex Reily, who offered to cut a male and female clip from his WAA bag (which have MANY in surplus) and he also had a needle (thankfully he was packing 10kg+ in his bag, and was better prepared for the things that might go wrong). I then spent most of the evening sewing on straps with dental floss and I’m very pleased to report that it lasted the week. Crisis number one averted!
OH BOY! The morning of the first race. It’s safe to say I hadn’t slept much. I checked through my list of pre-race admin, as Berbers unapologetically ripped our tent down around us.
Breakfast – check
Take a pee – check
Water collection – check
Take a pee – check
Poo in a bag – check
Try not to pee in the bag (those that know, know) – check
Put on footwear in specific order: calf compression, socks, gaiters, shoes – check
Take a pee – check
Factor 50 sun lotion – check
Take a pee – check
Fill front-loaded water bottles – check
Take a pee – check
Position midrace food, caffeine, Imodium and salt tablets for easy access – check
Take a pee – check
Sit down and worry about dehydration, because in the last 24 hours I had seemingly peed out five times more liquid than I had actually drunk – check
We were then ushered over (way too early) for start line pictures and the first of many long drawn-out speeches from Event Director Patrick Bauer and his English speaking interpreter. I had little interest to be honest, my mind was racing. I had done everything possible to prepare for this moment. I had trained hard; I had meticulously planned my equipment and had thought through strategies for managing my race at every level; I had read about other people’s experiences; I’d talked to experts; I’d studied the route map and course description. However, I still didn’t know how the heat, the sand and the daily exertion would really affect me.
Finally ACDC’s Highway To Hell kicked in, and Patrick started his very distinctive jig on stage while the crowd of impatient runners livened up again. The countdown hit “… UN… ALLEZ!” and we blasted off the line through clouds of sand that were dramatically stirred up by passing helicopters.
I had prepared to go at a fairly swift pace off the line based on what I knew:
- It was 8:30 in the morning; it wasn’t going to get any cooler
- This year’s Day 1 was apparently a gentle introduction (with the sting coming on day 2)
- Today was only 30km long
- According to the road book, I wouldn’t be facing dunes until kilometre eight.
The start of Stage One, including the off-shoots of runners peeing at the side. (Photo above and cover: Cimbaly / @Alexis Berg / MDS 2017)
I took an outside line, made my way past large chunks of the pack and found myself a comfortable pace. I let my body dictate what felt right but, after half an hour, I was alarmed to see that I was running 5 minute kilometres. Although it felt right, I went through checklists of my body and mind. Was I going too hard? Had adrenaline got the better of my senses? I couldn’t afford to crumble. Pacing was going to be key at this event – not just for today but for the whole week. I felt good though and I decided to continue with caution.
The first checkpoint approached and it was time for me to test my well-planned strategy:
- I finished the remnants of water in my bottles and started chewing half a Clif Bar before I arrived.
- I smiled and greeted the ever-friendly marshals.
- I grabbed two 1.5 litre water bottles.
- I crunched on salt tablets (reducing surface area for faster absorption).
- I started downing one bottle of water, while chewing more Clif Bar.
- All the while filling my own water bottles with the other 1.5 litre bottle.
- Struggled to finish downing the 1.5 litres.
- Crush bottles, dump rubbish and got straight back on the road.
For a first attempt, it didn’t go badly. It was as close to military precision as I could hope for. However, one element proved to be an error that I would most definitely learn from. My watch malfunctioned at the beginning of the day, so I had no way of tracking distance. That meant that the checkpoint came sooner than I had expected and I still had nearly 500ml of water to drink in that final stretch. So, in the space of two minutes I had drunk two whole litres of water. The ten minutes that followed that checkpoint were horribly unpleasant and I very nearly brought it all back up again.
For an “easy” first day, the going was anything but “easy”! We experienced elements of each type of terrain that we would face over the course of the week:
Oueds (Dried out river beds) – These were often the nicest kind of terrain. They tended to have a flat spongy feel that allowed you to run comfortably at pace.
Rocky assents and descents – The desert is far hillier than you might expect and it’s not all sand. Large portions of the terrain are made up of jagged small rocks that are awkward to negotiate and, no matter how hard you try, will batter your feet and have you fighting for stability with every footstep. I would say that the majority of MDS feet horror-stories are more as a result of rocks than they are of sand.
Dunes and sandy hills – Oh the dunes. These are undoubtedly the most challenging element of MDS. Tackling them often feels like you’re taking one step forward and two steps back, as the ground constantly crumbles beneath your feet. I’ve spent a lot of time hiking through snow and this had a similar feel, except it was much worse. Snow compacts and eventually offers resistance – especially when you’re following footprints. Dry sand doesn’t compact at all and, in fact, it becomes even looser with every footstep that treads on it. On the plus side running down sandy slopes is a massive amount of fun, as you take huge leaps, whilst riding the landslide.
Flat sand – Reading the road book, you’d be forgiven for assuming there is only sand when “dunes” are mentioned. Oh no, it’s springing up on you all of the time. Sometimes those Oueds you’ve been looking forward to will end up being filled with sand, in which case you’re in for a horrific slog.
That’s exactly what happened at the end of Day 1. It had a sting in the tail, with miles of unexpected sand. I tried not to let it slow me down too much though; at the rate I was going, I’d be back in my tent before the main heat of the day struck.
The joys of downhill sand. (Photo: Cimbaly / @Alexis Berg / MDS 2017)
Sure enough, I crossed the line in 3 hours 10 minutes in a ridiculously high 72nd position. That was not the plan. My absolute dream best-case scenario for the week was top 200, so I was a little taken aback by what had just happened. As I walked back through an empty campsite, I decided I felt quite good for it. It didn’t feel like I had overdone it. That was until the cramp… it hit me from the moment I collapsed on the floor of the tent. I couldn’t move a millimetre without another part of my body imploding into excruciating tightness. Not just my legs; my shoulders and arms were just as bad.
As the evening wore on, I slowly hydrated myself on tightly rationed water and decided to increase my salt intake (I soon discovered that I needed to take more than average). I contemplated the apparent horrors of Day 2 and spent some time caring for my feet. I had pretaped my toes, but I had a few minor blisters that I decided to untape, lance, disinfect and tape up, ready for the following day. To save weight, I decided to rely on the tape that Doc Trotters (the onsite medics) provided, which unbeknown to me, would lead to crisis number two.
My butt hurt! By day two, after another uncomfortable sleepless night, it was clear that a sleeping mat would have been an incredible luxury (I was the only one in our tent not to have one). I convinced myself that it still wasn’t worth the extra 170 grams and still, to this day, I don’t think I’d take one. I was focused on travelling at speed, which relied on minimal weight. HOWEVER there’s a downside to that: the faster you go, the more time you spend lying down in your tent, avoiding the sunshine and conserving energy. Having spent 3 hours racing the previous day, that left around 20 hours lying on a rock-solid uneven floor.
Today’s road book was intimidating and we were all fully aware of how tough this 40km would be. Every single line of the instructions for the first 30km included either sand, sandy climb, sandy hill or dunes. Then the remaining 10km kicked off with the almighty El Otfal Jebel summit (ie big FO mountain).
The Stage Two Road Book.
I was completely honest with myself. I knew I was out of my league on Day 1. It was time for me to find a rhythm that I could sustain, and I would do that right after the initial two kilometres. With the race starting with a sandy hill climb, followed by what looked like a single-track, I decided that I would go off the line hard to avoid any congestion. In hindsight I don’t think that was necessary and I found myself playing with the same “big boys” as I approached the first check point.
I rattled through my checkpoint checklist and, on this occasion, I had one more element to add: Check hot-spot. Something didn’t feel quite right on my right big toe, so I sat down and quickly started removing my gaiter and shoe. As I did that, I was pounced upon by a helpful gent from Doc Trotters:
“Are you okay Peter?”
“Ermmm…” I said, as I removed my sock and took in the horror of what lay beneath.
“Come with me!” He practically dragged me to the nearest tent. Being near the front of the field, he could tell that I had no time for faffing.
The new tape on my big toe, which covered a virtually insignificant blister had come unstuck and had ripped a hole in the inside of my toe. This wasn’t just a blister, this was a raw wound that measured a couple of centimetres from top to bottom. Crisis two was upon me.
Three people got to work on strapping me back up, whilst I drunk water, ate salt, chewed on Clif Bars and prepared myself for a swift exit. All the while I was sat there though, I could see dozens of people passing through the check point. I was losing a lot of time.
In the scheme of things, the ten minutes I lost there was the least of my worries. The incident had hit me badly mentally. If there was one thing I learned over the course of the week – mental state is everything in an event of this kind. It was the beginning of the second day and I knew that I would have to deal with a raw wound for the rest of the week. There is no possible way that it would get better, it could only get worse. There was no skin to cover it, every day I would be sticking tape directly to an open wound. Physically it was already stinging but at that moment the mental pain was insurmountable.
I pushed on but my footsteps felt more laboured. I was more conscious that the heat of the day was approaching and the sand was endless. I gradually made places back but I no longer felt in control and sustaining a reasonable pace didn’t feel like the right thing to do any more.
For the first time my mind flew out of my body. It became a very common experience over the days that followed. I pictured people at home watching me from above, like the Greek Gods in Clash of the Titans (the 1981 version, of course). The landscape around me was moulded from clay, with my figure being a pawn. I imagined them wondering why I had lost so many places at the checkpoint, yet were encouraged by me gaining ground in the dunes that followed. They willed me on with concern as the Jebel approached. They saw me pause at the base of the mountain, as an Italian warrior collapsed by the side of the track begged passers-by for water. Looking up the rocky crag towards the summit above, figures lay motionless in small patches of shade, unable to face the crippling ascent with the sun at its highest.
Back on ground level, I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Resting was futile, it would just extend the pain. The only rest I was interested in was back in the camp on my rock-hard tent floor.
The ascent continued for ever. There were more fake summits than I’d ever coped with before and it was almost impossible to believe when the end finally came.
The final sandy summit and descent. (Photo: Cimbaly / Akunamatata / @MDS2017)
What lay ahead was almost worth all the pain…
[Correction. That’s a lie, nothing could have been worth that pain.]
What lay ahead was a minute silver lining to the world of shit that preceded it. I thundered down a huge sandy descent and, before I knew it, I was right back down on the valley floor with only an excruciatingly drawn out 4km of oued to the finish line.
The walk back to the tent was a slightly more sombre affair. I hurt and I was tired. When I revealed my feet, the inside of my big toe was a mess and both little toes had significant blisters. It was day two and I had taken a battering both physically and mentally. Not only that, but crisis three was also upon me. I can’t bring myself to put my stupidity into writing… so here’s a video I shot at the time:
My mood massively improved towards the end of the day though, when I was delivered my first batch of emails from the outside world! All of the emails that people at home had sent me were printed out and handed to us at our tents. The level of support was amazing – I had a huge selection of motivational, abusive, amusing, deliberately boring, irritating and caring messages. What more could I hope for?
I was feeling all-together more positive and ready to face the day. For some reason, I had initially thought that today would be the official “dunes day” but, on closer inspection, it looked to be more of a “mountains day”, with four significant jebel assents over 32km.
The previous day had a massive impact on me, so I decided that I was going to focus more on taking my time and enjoying the experience. That frame of mind was a blessing, on this of all days. Between 7kms and 14kms we were treated to two batches of amazing jebel assents, technical rocky ridge lines and a mix of sandy and rocky descents. It was hard work but the views were stunning and there was always something else to focus on, other than pain. That being said, it was the rockier terrain that continued to do more damage to my feet.
The rest of the course was predominately taken up by huge expanses of flat and featureless plains, with zero wind and baking sunshine. To be honest I’d have preferred they were punctuated by dunes; their monotony was difficult to cope with. However at the 20km mark there was the small matter of another assent up Jebel El Otfal. This time our assent was even steeper and even more exposed. A large chunk of it was up a huge sandy bank, sections of which would have been completely impossible to climb without the safety ropes provided.
Joyous Jebel climbs. (Photo: Cimbaly / @Alexis Berg / MDS 2017)
Thankfully my spirit wasn’t crushed by the dunes and plains that brought us into the finish line and, in contrast to the previous day, I entered camp happier than most, even though it was my lowest finish position yet (around 130th I think).
That positivity was crucial for me at that stage, with the long day looming. That evening I was delivered a huge batch of emails. My lovely wife had clearly been rallying the troops and getting everyone to send in encouragement before I embarked on Day 4. I can’t even begin to explain the affect that those messages had on me. I was honoured by the level of support I was getting.
In the messages people told me about how they were watching me on the tracker (just like Greek Gods), they told me how proud and surprised they were by my position at that time, they told me I was crazy, they told me that they loved me and were proud of me, they told me that they were inspired by what I was doing and, of course, they completely took the piss and told me it was about time I started beating the triathlete (G-Law) which, incidentally, was never part of my plan. There were a couple of messages that stuck with me though. More than I ever imagined they would. Generally I’m not massively into motivational statements but I now realise that there is a time and place for them. One person reminded me that what I did there in the desert, I would live with for the rest of my life. It would be a story I would be proud of and always be able to cherish. All of the pain I felt would be temporary; it would fade in time, but the memories and accomplishments wouldn’t. Another person assured me that I would continue to face deeper and deeper demons on my path that day but underneath every single one of them would be a stronger version of myself – I just had to find it.
I’d like to say I slept soundly following such assurances but I didn’t. My bum hurt.
This was it. This was by far the biggest challenge of MDS and probably my life. I approached the start line, already feeling weary, but ready to face 86km of hell. The top 50 racers would be starting later that day, so I worked myself a little further forward in the pack than I normally would. It was time to conduct my business.
Having studied the road book, I knew that the course would be incredibly challenging, with the exception of the first 10km. So, with the usual fanfare off the start line, and my usual outside line, I worked my way towards the front of the pack. Eventually I settled into a pace next to G-Law, where both of us commented on how fast everyone had gone off. I regularly looked down at my watch to see that we were running at speeds between 5:00 and 5:30 minutes per kilometres, which isn’t the pace I’d expect to be running a 86km ultra at! I took it as a good thing though. I felt comfortable and it was better clocking off the miles while the terrain was good and the sun was low.
The going, of course, got tougher. Sand and hills hit us with increasing regularity. I focused heavily on ticking off the first marathon; surely beyond that point it would seem like we were going downhill. The terrain was just relentless though. It turns out that today was the REAL dunes day.
Dunes suck! (Photo: Cimbaly / @Alex Berg / MDS 2017)
The marathon I longed for so much went past in a painfully drawn-out blur, with every second seeming like hours. My next focus was check point four at 48km. I don’t know how often I glanced at my watch but the distance seemed to be frozen. I bumped back into G-Law and he wasn’t looking good. He was hating the sand and was burning up. It dawned on me that we were very much consumed by the heat of the day and it was sapping the very limited energy that we had. Unknown to us at the time, temperatures were approaching 52 degrees in the sun, the hottest it had been all week.
When checkpoint four finally arrived, I decided for the first time I should sit down and have a word with myself. I took shelter in a tent, whilst conducting the usual admin, downtrodden by the prospect of nearly 20km of constant dunes that lay ahead. I decided it was time to go one stage further by unlocking the “emergency motivation” power-up. I took some caffeine (for the first time that week) and then, crucially, I plugged in my headphones and pressed play on my emergency metal playlist.
That moment will stay with me forever.
In a random selection, the song that played first was Cemetery Gates by Pantera (the album version that starts off slow, not the video version – listen below).
Right there, huddled in a tent, covered in dust, savouring the last drip of a water bottle, with cracked lips and throbbing feet - I wept.
With dry tears, I literally sobbed my heart out.
I had never heard anything so beautiful, so welcoming and so empowering.
My whole world transformed around me. I don’t think it was that song in particular that did it, but the emotions and the memories that it brought flooding into my defeated body.
Anyone who knows the song will know that it kicks off at about 1 minute 30 seconds. I sat there during the intro, relishing in the emotion, feeling the power build up inside me. At bang-on 1 minute 30 seconds when that legendary riff kicked in, I burst out of that tent with poles in hand and stormed up the first of many dunes.
All around me was carnage. Genuinely incredible athletes were in crisis. They stumbled wearily up and down the sandy banks. When the next song kicked in (Killswitch Engage) I started sobbing again and doubled my efforts. I smiled, I laughed, I cried, I sang, I punched the air and paused to headbang on the way up the next summit. I must have looked like a complete weirdo. But I was in Pete’s world, and in Pete’s world everything was frickin’ amazing!
The Greek Gods above hustled around the table, shrieking for joy. I could feel them – they powered me on. The worry they had for me at check point four had passed. I was flying past my opposition and I was surrounded by a glow of positivity. I had found the deeper Pete and he was going to earn me that story!
By that point I had fallen in love with my poles. They had become a part of me. Initially I planned only to use them for dunes and steep climbs but, as the days went on, they spent more time in my hands – I even started to use them when running across flats, especially when legs were tired towards the end of the day. It’s amazing how much an extra push from the arms can help to keep the legs moving. Surprisingly, I was one of only two people in the top 150 who used poles, which became more and more of a mystery to me. They don’t just “help” in the dunes, they completely transform the experience. I would recommend that anyone takes poles to MDS, with the only exception being the top 20, who are clearly next-level humans.
Three hours and twenty four minutes later my playlist ended. It had been a very good period! In hindsight, I should have been more prepared and made it longer, instead of leaving it until midnight the night before I left. Instead I just played it again. It continued to keep me going as the sun started to go down but it was losing its punch. I’d been on my feet for 10 hours and my mind was starting to drift into numbness. Not my legs nor my feet though, unfortunately; for them, the pain was very real.
As darkness fell over the desert I found myself alone. In the hours that followed I would barely see a soul. I was hurting and motivation was slipping. I didn’t recognise the feeling in my legs anymore. They were still running, I think. They weren’t injured. They were just ruined.
I thought a lot about my wife and my Mum. They were the main “Gods” looking over me at that time. I could feel the worry of my Mum and how she was probably experiencing every ounce of pain I was. I could feel Miller’s pride at my position in the field and her empathy for my pain. I know that she’s been there too! Her passion built inside me. That incredible ability that she has to defy the odds and to push beyond her own capability. She is super-human and I harnessed that in me.
There it was. Another level of Pete, ready to destroy deeper levels of demons.
I don’t know how long the lights of the event village were on the horizon. It might have been minutes, more likely it was hours, but it definitely felt like days. I spent a lot of time looking over my shoulder. By that point I was alternating between 50 pole-placements running and 50 paces walking and it felt like slow progress but I was damned if I was going to let anyone pass me. Looking back was pointless though, I couldn’t make out the difference between glowsticks, head torches and jeep headlights anyway. Occasionally a top-50 frontrunner passed, but I was confident that I had held my own.
After 13 hours, I remember crossing the line, signalling to the doctors that I was okay, then saying something to the camera but, beyond that it’s all a bit of a blur. My next memory was writhing in pain on the floor of the tent. A pain I’d never felt before and I didn’t ever want to feel again. I wasn’t injured but my body was angry. It was an ultimate level of “ache”. Moving hurt but staying still hurt more, so I just wriggled in pain and waited for the others to return. Eventually I got up and hobbled to reception to ask for something that I could use to soak my feet. I needed to take my toe tape off and see what lay beneath. It wasn’t pretty.
What lay beneath the toe tape.
Oh the joys of Day 5. Actually, it was more “relief” than “joy”. I was uncomfortable and aching and the sun was burning hot through the roof of the tent. I was thankful to not be on course, like many of the runners still were – some were out there for over 33 hours! When I was forced to get up, I hobbled, not only because of the pain in my muscles but the ever-deteriorating sores on my feet. My little toes were heavily bruised and had blisters under blisters all the way around, the wound on my big toe was still raw and the minor blisters on my knuckles had grown to a fair size. Putting shoes back on the next day didn’t bear thinking about.
All that said, I was in very good spirits. I was so happy to have got the long day out of the way and I had finished faster and in a better position than I could ever have hoped for. I was sat in 96th position overall, with only one day of racing left. That was just ridiculous!
The highlight of the day was the famous Coke Drop! I had been living on bland, functional food and warm water for a week and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on an ice cold can of coke. I watched as the crowds grew in the middle of the bivouac and, after waiting long enough, I decided to go and join the bedlam. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite get what I bargained for:
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, I developed a cold. It was so strange. One minute I was fine (relatively speaking) and the next I had a sore throat and was filled with snot. As the evening wore on, I chuckled to myself and wondered about whether there were any other times in life where I’d have a cold but not be allowed to get access to tissues to blow my nose. Of course, due to my minimal packing, they were in very short supply and the few that I had were saved for a higher priority! Soon a pinch of my nose and the desert air became my handkerchief, followed by a courtesy wipe from the back of my hand. All pride and politeness had faded by that stage in the week.
Putting my shoes back on was agony. It was hard to imagine how I could break out of a hobble, let alone run. I had piled a lot of pressure on myself though, it was the first time that I had allowed myself to believe that I might finish in the top 100. In fact, I was ready to destroy myself before losing those four places. My new target was set!
Day 6 was the final timed stage of the event and was exactly a marathon distance (42km). It seemed like an insignificant challenge in comparison to the previous stage, yet still it was the second longest stage of the entire event.
The top 150 started an hour and a half later than the main bulk of runners, which gave us a little extra time to bask in the glorious sunshine (not as good as it sounds) before getting underway. It felt strange setting off in such a small pack and it was clear that all of the runners around me were on a mission – I’d assume that every single one of the top 150 runners were trying to break through to the top 100.
We hit dunes within 100 yards and nobody seemed to show signs of slowing down. It was crazy! Wasting vital energy so early on was a terrible strategy but I did my best to pace it, whilst attempting to ensure that no less than 50 people sprawled behind me. That was almost impossible to judge though, as my vision was blocked by the undulating landscape.
By the time we reached the end of the first section of dunes, we already started passing the back-markers of the main wave, which then made it impossible to track positions. So the only strategy I could adopt was GO HARD, GIVE THIS EVERYTHING and hope for the best.
I’m sure you’re wondering “But what about your feet, Pete?” Well, strangely, like the other days, the first few footsteps were agony but, beyond that, they just seemed to be numb… or maybe they had a constant pain that I refused to focus on. Either way, I had bigger fish to fry.
Undulating stony terrain. (Photo: Cimbaly / Akunamatata / @MDS 2017)
Passing the back-markers was amazing. Everyone had their name on their bibs, so I made the effort to congratulate as many people as my breath would allow. Nine times out of ten the response was well worth the effort. They would cheer my name, tell me that I was looking strong and encouraged me forward. That was a huge mental boost, which helped me to pick up my pace, and I found that I was passing runners inside my own wave as well.
Thankfully this stage suited the runner, particularly in the first half; there were a lot of flat rocky planes and gradual rolling hills. I felt strong at the half way point and decided to put my earphones back in to give me a final boost. I’m not 100% sure that was the right decision because I instantly became internalised and lost the boosts of encouragement from other runners, but I happily flew through the crowds, singing and bopping my head to the banging metal beats.
The final third of the stage became a slog. There was more sand, more hills and more challenging terrain. I lost the physical drive to run and so relied entirely on my mind. I thought about everyone at home (the Gods) crowding around and watching my progress. I thought about how they had contributed to my Concern Worldwide fund (I was over the moon to have reached my target). I thought about coming home with stories of a top 100 position and compared that to the prospect of narrowly missed out.
I thought about how the pain was just a state of mind and that it would be nothing but a faded memory in a week’s time. I tried to make it a faded memory right there and then. I tried to make it completely insignificant. I focused on cider and burgers and all of the rewards I would allow myself, only if I was basking in the glory of that top 100 place. I pushed myself harder than I ever have before – harder than I ever thought was possible.
The end was in sight for several kilometres but, like previous days, every second lasted an eternity. I refused to slow down though. I started encouraging the other runners from my wave around me – they were clearly suffering too. It may seem like the wrong thing to do when focused on position but I needed every bit of help I could get and driving forward as a team seemed better than not driving forward at all.
From the moment I crossed the line, everything changed. The relief hit me with a sledgehammer. Finally, my job was done. After 18 months of preparation and 6 days that pushed me further outside my comfort zone than I could ever have imagine, it was over. And I cried… I cried HARD! Not just a few tears; my face screwed up as I balled my eyes out. All of the pain and mental pressure was finding its outlet and I completely lost control. My lips quivered as Patrick put my medal over my head and I gave him a hug. It was an awkwardly extended hug; I just didn’t want to let go. When we finally separated, he looked at me with pure joy. It must be amazing for a man to be responsible for such significant moments in so many people’s lives.
I collected my water and walked back to tent 120 with a huge grin. I didn’t know where I had finished but inside I knew I had hit my target. The two hours that followed were agonising. That hideous body ache had returned and it was now combined with a cold, which was hitting me hard. Yet again, I wriggled on the tent floor in pain. This time I couldn’t even bring myself to sweep the rocks from underneath the carpet, so it was more uncomfortable than ever but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I was very, VERY happy though. Especially when the news came that I had finished in 89th place overall.
The end of Marathon Des Sables is about as drawn out as its beginnings. The evening of the marathon day involved a lot of faff and unnecessarily extended speeches before the prize giving. The next day’s “Solidarity Stage” involved a 7km run through dunes in a cotton t-shirt, which I lacked energy for but enjoyed sharing with my tent mates. We then endured an eight-hour long drive back to Ouarzazate and the paradise that is The Berber Palace Hotel.
Kev, G-Law and Nick on the "Solidarity Stage"
The delights of a shower, a fresh bed, a cold beer and a full plate of food are impossible to describe – they were everything I’d dreamed of over the previous week. Unfortunately, I wasn’t well enough to enjoy the experience to its max – physically I felt dreadful, my cold was brutal and my feet were raw – but mentally I was on top of the world. Most of all I looked forward to getting home, seeing my wife and sharing my experiences with friends.
As many of you are aware, David Hellard was the person who predominantly made my MDS experience happen, however I also need to give credit to Paul Hayward as the catalyst. He was the man who egged me on a dozen times and ignored me each time that I replied with:
"Nope, it's not for me, I DON'T WANT TO RUN MDS and I can't afford to run MDS".
He was also the man who drowned me in enough red wine to blurt out:
"Listen Paul, I can't afford it, and the only way I'd possibly ever even consider it was if somebody else paid".
BOOM! The rest is history, powered by the drive of David Hellard and sick/twisted generosity of the OCR community, who contributed towards an auction and surprised me at the Mudstacle Awards in 2015 (many thanks again to everyone involved in that).
Since that day I have promised to do this experience justice and, given that I spent most of the event batting out of my league, I’m fairly confident that I achieved that. Ironically though, I have spent multiple times the initial collection on the not-to-be-underestimated preparation, kit purchases and massively increased entry fees. So the first big recommendation I can pass on to anyone interested in taking part in MDS, is to be prepared for the deepest money-pit than you possibly imagined. I wouldn’t have had it any other way though, it’s been worth every penny!
So, should you run MDS? ABSOLUTELY! As long as you’re willing to dedicate the funds and 18 months of your life to it. You don’t have to treat it like I did – just aiming to complete it is a more popular option. It really is a sensational event and it is likely to be a stand-out experience of your lifetime.
Would I ever consider running it again? ABSOLUTELY NOT! No matter how drunk I get. My job there is done. I left everything in the desert and I know I could never go back and improve on what I did. The future is filled with a world of different challenges and I can’t wait for the next one.