Friday, 29 May 2009

Comrades marathon, May 2009

Why no race compares to the Comrades Marathon

Now I admit that I have a bit of a ‘thing’ for one particular race, the Comrades marathon in South Africa. But I’m not the only one given that the average number of finishes is six, for men, and four, for women. So people clearly can’t stay away from it.

I only heard of the race back in 2006 when running an ultra marathon in the UK and chatting to a South African mid-race. When combining those two factors, his nationality and ultra running, one topic of conversation was always bound to pop up – Comrades. Despite its friendly-sounding (or communist-sounding, depending on your inclination) name, this ‘marathon’ is really an ultra marathon on roads, at distances varying around 89km (55 miles) each year.

That distance alone would normally be enough to put most sensible runners off and you might expect about 100 runners to attempt it if in any country other than South Africa. But the draw of the race is so strong that it attracts over 10,000 runners. That makes it one of the big international races and not many have more runners. So why does such a huge field get involved in such an extreme event?

Well, there are many reasons, but the simplest one is that it is the best race in the world, bar none. I’ll back this up with a(n admittedly small) sample of people I spoke to and know who ran it for the first time in May, 2009. They were all massively impressed by the quality of the organisation, the crowd support and the unmatched buzz surrounding the race. There is only one word which truly captures the scale and emotion of the race and I don’t use this word lightly. That word is epic.

What makes a race epic? It’s more than just scale due to the number of runners and the distance – plenty of races have that. It’s the excited conversation in the street with a stranger when they see you carrying the bag from the expo. It’s the chunky hills along the route which make most undulating road races look flat as a supermodel’s chest. But most of all it’s the camaraderie and support from fellow runners, the crowd and (it seems) everyone else in South Africa.

This solidarity really comes into its own as soon as you land in Durban, the home of the race. The city clearly looks forward to the race with eager anticipation and there’s sure to be plenty of runners on the internal flight into Durban. Then the expo has a sense of excitement mixed with trepidation and is so enjoyable that I went back to it three days in a row.

With a build-up over many months due to the training required, there’s almost a sense of relief when the race is just days away. No more hard hill sessions, no injuries and so much to look forward to on race day. So when I woke up on the morning of the race, was I bursting with adrenaline? Well, no, or at least not immediately. But that was only because it was 3am, the start of the race was an hour’s drive away and I’d just reached the point of full realisation that I had to stop talking about running 55 miles of hills and actually do it.

Although I’ve run many ultras and marathons, it still takes a lot of effort to not roll over and go back to sleep. Forcing myself out of bed at unusually early times of day with the prospect of a hard day’s work ahead is tough. But once up it is difficult to not get swept away in a sea of adrenaline. However, I usually try to save a little adrenaline for the race.

The 2009 race

2009 was my third year in a row at Comrades. It has become my most essential race of the year and a good run makes for a good year. PBs at other distances and other races are a bonus, but the whole point is to get better at Comrades. I’d felt this way since my first finish and even more so after meeting some of the elite runners after the race in 2008. In fact, I’d made a big promise to myself – to one day get a gold medal for finishing in the top ten.

Top ten finishes in ultras are generally not that prestigious. Some long races have barely more competitors than that number and rarely are there elite-standard athletes. In contrast, Comrades boasts the best line up of ultra runners of any race in the world. It includes Olympic marathon runners and many others who can break 2h20m and have the talent to translate this into fast ultras, which many can’t. So it means that finishing amongst those top athletes is extremely hard and requires under 2h45m marathon pace for over double the standard marathon distance and with some major hills.

Luckily I didn’t have to reach those levels this year to be happy with my race. Instead I’d set the ambitious target of breaking 6h20m since that was the equivalent of keeping up 3h marathon pace the whole way, which is a nice, round figure. I’d raced a bit too much in the build up to the event but was in decent shape and determined to run myself into the ground if necessary.

So as I lined up in my seeding pen at the start, I was focused and knew I’d prepared well enough to enjoy it fully. The guys around me were restless and dancing to the music booming out over the PA system through huge speakers just metres away. There were a lot of smiles and all runners had their race numbers on both back and front, as required. The numbers include details of their previous finishes and their seeding pen. There were many colours of race numbers, each meaning something different, such as for the number of times they had finished or to show they were an international runner. This is always a conversation starter during the race.

As we hit 5:15am the pen entrances were closed and anyone not there 15 minutes before the start had to go to the very back. That’s more of an issue than usual given that only gun times count and all the strict cut-offs during the race are based off the gun time. That includes the cut-offs for each medal category at the finish, of which there are five based on finishing times plus the hallowed gold which I coveted, but not that day.

The music switched to the traditional starting tunes. Firstly a heart-wrenching rendition of a local mining song called ‘Shoshalosa’ which many locals joined in with the singing. Then the classic ‘Chariots of Fire.’ Never do the classic piano and synth chords of Vangelis sound better than when crowded into the start of Comrades in the dark. Because of the Comrades memories this stirs, the song stops me dead in my tracks whenever I hear it.

And every Comrades runner knows that as soon as the song is over, the agonising months of waiting for the start are over. The next sounds heard are the traditional cock crow of a past runner who started the race for many years until his death. Then silence and the gun lead to the shuffle over the line for over 11,000 people who are willing to try their luck at a distance most would never attempt by foot. Fools! But what glorious fools.

It takes almost an hour to get light and the field is well spread out by that point. I’d reached the first steep downhill, called Polly Shortts at 8km, except the marker said ‘81km to go’, as it counts down rather than up. It’s very pleasant to run down that early in the race but when the course is run in the opposite direction, as it is every other year, this is the hill that finishes most people off near the end. I’d just managed to climb it the previous year using a walk/run strategy but 2009 was a down run and that meant that the hills included nasty chunks of downhill running. This becomes particularly thigh-destroying later in the race and the constant pummelling leaves most people crippled for several days.

It was at this point that I was starting to get into the race and enjoy the company of other runners which defines the race experience. I chatted to a local guy on his umpteenth race. And we caught up with a bus, as a group of runners sticking together is called, for two elite women. Although I was tempted to stay with them and benefit from their pacing and experience, I decided to push on since I was already going a little slowly for the time I was aiming for. I’d stuck to my plan of going at a pace which felt very comfortable and allowed me to talk freely but had been forced to reassess my target time downwards.

As the sun rose there were plenty of small buses I joined, but I spent the most time with two runners in particular – an American, John, and a Swiss guy, Roman. Roman was getting even more support from the large early morning crowds due to his leopard spot hairstyle and the Swiss flag on his chest. He told me at the end of the race that his friends who saw him along the course with Swiss flags had been hassled by a lot of runners. They’d confused the white cross on a red background for the Red Cross flag and had assumed there was medical aid being given out. Many had then stormed off in a bad mood when the unreasonable Swiss fans had had to refuse them first aid.

But he wasn’t the only one getting great support since I’d entered for a local club who had plenty of supporters by the side lines. Kearsney Striders had 61 other runners in the race, including several of my friends, but the male running kit for the club (which is compulsory to wear in the race) looks dated to an embarrassing degree. As my British friends later described it, it looks like a negligee instead of a running top. At least it didn’t look out of place since many other clubs had similar fashion issues, but I did have fun with it posing for some catalogue-style photos before the race.

Anyway, I was very happy to wear it during the race since I got non-stop shouts of support. Many also read my name off my race number to support me that way too. One of the magical parts of the race for me was when I reached Kearsney College at 38km to go. That point is 51km into the race and I’d had a relatively easy time up until then. I’d chatted with many runners and overtaken a lot of the ones who’d zoomed through the first sections of the course. Most of the uphills were over but I knew that there was a long downhill section to come on Fields Hill – the biggest of the main five hills.

So I knew I had a lot left to do and my legs were feeling tired and sore. The camber on many of the sections of road had damaged my left Achilles tendon slightly and that had led to pain in the bottom of my left thigh. Much as I usually love downhill and know I’m much stronger at it than uphills, I wasn’t looking forward to the remaining long run down to the coast. In fact, I started to prefer the climbs since they hurt less.

Then I had a moment in the race which will stay with me as a real highlight of 2009. I was given a balloon half a km away from Kearsney College so they would see me coming and cheer earlier. I approached them certain that I’d have to slow down later and wasn’t certain whether my left leg would hold out for running almost another marathon. But then something clicked in me and I embraced the support to get a massive adrenaline boost. As I danced through the tunnel of Kearsney students, encouraging them to make as much noise as they could, I started to believe that the race wouldn’t just go well but that I could speed up too. After the whacking high fives I was a new runner with fresh legs and I sprinted off down the course, flying past runners.

I hadn’t expected such a big pick-me-up and was thoroughly glad to have worn the retro Kearsney kit. And somehow that boost lasted me through for almost three hours until the finish. It helped that there were even more Kearsney supporters from that point in the course, but I suddenly felt capable of maintaining a faster pace. I didn’t even get on another running bus for the rest of the race, but focused on pushing through for the best I could eke out of my resurgent legs.

The last 38km didn’t go quickly but the huge crowd support and the feeling of moving through the field at pace kept me motivated. I’m used to running the last quarter of an ultra on my own due to small field sizes but Comrades always has plenty of people within sight. I received and gave out supporting gestures and calls to those I ran by. It took all my concentration to keep the rhythm going but the almost clichéd quote from Lance Armstrong went through my head that ‘pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever.’ I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who used that thought to push on to the end. Besides, the faster you go, the sooner the pain ends. I also thought often about my fiancée and was finding the race very emotional in my jaded state.

Entering Durban was as memorable as the last down run I’d completed, back in 2007. However, this time I wasn’t cruising and had to fight for every step. I hungrily searched for each km marker, willing them closer. With just 1km left I knew I’d make it ok and pushed on to save every last second. The crowds were a hazy background to my delirious world but a welcome one.

When I finally entered the Kingsmead Cricket Stadium for the final victory lap it was a very satisfying finish. My legs were so wobbly that I’m not sure I could have gone much further and it seemed that every last drop of energy had been squeezed out during the previous six hours and 29 minutes. I tried to sprint finish but couldn’t increase my pace much. Then I crossed the line of the ‘Ultimate Human Race,’ as Comrades rightfully describes itself.

At the end I was too exhausted to take in the whole experience but I knew that the coming hours and days would be filled with real satisfaction. My legs were shot, but they’d held out. The crowd had spurred me on to push my body harder than ever before. Plus I’d met inspiring people before, along the way and also in the finishing area.

That evening, I was even lucky enough to have dinner with friends and two of the race’s greatest performers – three-time winner, Helen Lucre, and nine-time winner, Bruce Fordyce. Bruce is a living legend in South Africa and it’s impressive for a slight man to gain such prominence in a rugby-obsessed country. I’d read his book and have the utmost respect for his commitment and achievements. However, since he stills runs Comrades and had finished the day with a bronze medal, just under ten hours, there was plenty of banter about my shiny silver medal. His great quip was that silver does tend to tarnish, leaving unsaid that his 11 gold medals obviously do not.

There’s a unique feeling to Comrades which causes people to come back year after year and still be as excited as a five year old on Christmas Eve. It’s not just one thing, but the combination of everything to do with the race. And when a city truly embraces an event it creates an electrifying buzz. It also helps that Durban is a great city on the sea and that I have good friends living there.

Running the race makes you feel invincible and capable of anything. It inspires people to push themselves to new heights. Although there will be many credible athletes going for those top ten spots in races to come, I’m determined to give myself the best shot possible of joining them. I’ll be returning to the beautiful rolling hills near Durban every year possible because there is no alternative. This race is in my blood.

Land of the Yeti Duathlon, Nepalese Himalayas, October 2008

Land of the Yeti Duathlon, Nepalese Himalayas

50km running (2 stages), 100km mountain biking (3 stages) – 20/10/08-3/11/08

To anyone who knows me, I’m very firmly in the runner category and I’ve never really used a bike for anything other than transport. Basically I’m not a bike racer of any sort. Yet when I was looking for an excuse (read ‘race’) to go to the Himalayas, I picked a duathlon – the Land of the Yeti Duathlon in its first year. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

In preparation I bought myself a mountain bike and had excellent intentions to train with it and learn the art of mountain biking on some of the world’s harshest terrain. Unfortunately all I managed to do was the Edinburgh Rat Race with a day of basic and mainly flat mountain biking.

So when I flew out to Kathmandu I knew I was in store for a tough race. It started relatively easily with a flight out to Lukla at 2,850m and nine days of acclimatising by gradually trekking the well-worn route to Gorak Shep and Everest base camp and staying at guest houses along the way. The full list of competitors totalled seven with three locals and four westerners, one of whom was the race director. The locals couldn’t afford to spend money and time taking so long to get to the race start, so our party consisted of just the westerners and three guides, including the illustrious Snow Monkey (mentioned in Lonely Planet, no less) to sort out accommodation and generally take care of things.

Each day we trekked for a few hours and it became noticeably harder to ascend as the air got thinner, just as the mountains gave increasingly stunning views. Never has the word ‘majestic’ been more appropriate than when describing the snowy peaks of the Himalayas against a clear blue sky. I’ve raced in the Swiss Alps at up to 2,600m and found that there was no effect on my breathing, but once we started trekking above 3,000m the thin air came into play. We were covering the course for the running stages of the duathlon so were keen to not see too many downhills, which would be uphills in reverse. As we climbed higher the scenery became ever more breathtaking so it was lucky that we could take our photos at leisure and not worry that we would miss anything when running back that way.

After what seemed like much more than nine days we were ready to go from Gorak Shep at 5,140m. We’d been to Everest base camp, seen many mountains of over 8,000m (including Everest) and climbed Kala Patthar at 5,565m. I’ve never had such an interesting build up to a race, but we all wanted to get going, if only so we could sleep properly again and be able to walk without wheezing. This wouldn’t be the fastest race I’d ever been in, for certain. We had certain compulsory items in our backpacks for safety and additional warm clothing which we had to carry ourselves, but the Nepali racers had ignored most of this compulsory aspect to the race and had much lighter backpacks. This was an omen of the race organisation and attitude to follow.

The first stage was 30km long from Gorak Shep to Namche Bazar which has a net 1,700m drop in altitude, but still with around 700m of climbs. Only those genetically disposed to altitude, like the locals, or who have had months or years in the mountains can move quickly at these heights. This made the three Nepalis firm favourites to beat the westerners and we weren’t disappointed. One of them, Dipak Raj Rai, won the previous three Everest marathons and holds the course record.

Unfortunately one competitor succumbed to acute mountain sickness just before the start and had to go down lower to the mountain rescue doctors. He was fine to join us from stage two. But the rest of us were up and ready to get going with a great 50m climb to start us off. The race director started us at 9am and took video of us jogging uphill and past him. I made a point to look good for the camera and went past in first place, but a mere 20m into the race (and past the camera) I had to start walking uphill due to the sudden heart attack which was almost brought on by my jog. This definitely would be a tough one…

The Nepalis had shot off into the distance and I’ve never seen such a marked contrast as between the locals and the westerners since they were covering the initial ground around three times faster. It was the hardest fell race I’ve ever been in, with uneven rocky steps or tough, dirt paths the whole way. The hardest factor was the extreme altitude for the entire stage which made my heart pound non-stop. Until I dropped 1,000m my maximum speed was around 5mph, but my heart and lungs were working at an unsustainable rate and it felt more like 5k pace.

The familiar villages of Lobuche then Pheriche went by gradually and I managed to overtake one of the Nepalis after 30 minutes. The other two had such a big lead I had no chance of getting near them, but it was enough effort to concentrate on not tripping over the rough ground. It was impossible to even jog on any uphills but I kept up as much pace as possible on the flat or downhill sections.

I passed through Teng Boche with its Buddhist monastery and the 200m climb before then 400m climb afterwards strained my heart. It was good to be only a few km from the end and with not much more than an undulating and easier trail to Namche. I managed 3rd but was over an hour behind the winner, Dipak, with my time of 4h14m. The others came in over the following few hours and we spent the rest of the day getting our breath back, literally.

Day two looked like the easiest of the five with only 20km to cover and relatively little undulation – 600m of uphills and a net fall of 600m to Lukla where we’d flown into. I fancied this as my best stage since the air was thicker, but it was still thin enough to be felt. The stage started with a sharp drop of 600m out of Namche, which I remembered as a tough climb from the other direction. The fastest two Nepalis shot off at unbelievable speed down the large rock steps but must have got lost somewhere since I found myself in the lead until almost the bottom. I heard the patter of footsteps behind me and it was lightning Dipak chasing me down the zigzagging path. He caught me just before the rope bridge and looked a lot fresher than me since I was huffing and puffing like a fat man sprinting.

On the other side of the bridge I had to revert to my previous tactic of walking every uphill because they were just so steep. The top two Nepalis disappeared into the distance again, but I kept up as good a pace as possible. There were more trekkers along this lower part of the Everest trail and they usually clapped or cheered in their native tongue. But some seemed quite put out and even refused to make any room to get past.

I managed to get back into second before the end of the stage and ended it 20 minutes behind with a time of 2h11m. The last man in took over five hours, but he had several excuses – a one-hour nap en route, a dodgy knee, a general insanity and a hangover which led to the nap (cunning tactics from his Nepali compatriots the evening before, perhaps?).

After such a short stage we had some time to play around with the bikes which we had left in Lukla in preparation. I generally copied the seasoned bikers, checking the brakes, suspension etc, but I was getting quite worried that my inadequate training could lead to problems. Even though I’ve not really mountain biked before, I planned to use the same kind of intuition as required for fell running to pick the best route and I’m generally competent mucking around on a bike. However, you won’t really find a harder training ground than high altitude trekking paths for a baptism of fire into the art of mountain biking.

So after a decent night’s rest, we were up and ready for the three biking stages. The other westerners were hoping this would be their chance to shine after finishing way back in the running stages. The three stages were from Lukla to Nunthala (described as 30km, 40% ridable and 7-10 hours expected time), Nunthala to Kinja (described as 26km, 50% ridable and 9-12 hours expected time) then Kinja to Jiri Bazar (described as 47km, 80% ridable and 6-9 hours expected time). These each included significant amounts of ascent, with Nunthala to Kinja being so difficult due to over 2,000m of climbs and even more of downhills. Yet things were not as we expected…

We started off on the first downhill out of Lukla as a group and managed to ride for a couple of minutes before the boulders and other obstacles made it impossible to ride. We had to push or carry the bikes over the obstacles and were well spread out after the 600m descent and up the similar ascent on the other side. It was completely impossible to ride and it dawned on me that since we were on the trekking route, which is rarely a good track and not sloping, there may be a very small amount of biking. At this point I still trusted the course description so wasn’t too fazed, but after carrying or dragging the 10kg bike over 700m vertically of terrain on which it couldn’t even be pushed, I wasn’t having fun. The Nepalis had overtaken me on with their bikes resting naturally on their heads or shoulders as they trekked upwards quickly. But then the race director overtook as I had no will to try to race a stage of carrying a bike. I commented that I thought a duathlon was meant to involve riding a bike and he said this should be the case.

Sadly we found out at the end of that stage, after 1,300m of vertical ascent and under 1km of actual riding, that the race director hadn’t checked out the course personally. Although the scenery over the three biking days was undoubtedly great, it was difficult to appreciate when having to carry the bike the whole way. Rather than the sparser terrain at higher levels, we went through areas which were more jungle-like and equally beautiful. I finished day three in 8h43m and in 4th, behind all of the locals, but hadn’t wanted to push it too much since it no longer felt like a race. The two other westerners who’d paid for their entry were similarly disappointed with the lack of a course and actually arrived in the dark. We decided that since the forth day was meant to be the hardest and it looked very likely that it would be similar terrain to day three, we’d give up on the idea of the event being a race. Instead we allowed the three guides to carry our bikes then started with everyone else at 5:30am to get the maximum hours of light. We toyed with the idea of making it a three-way running race but there was no appetite from any of us – day three had been physically and also mentally tiring due to the disappointment.

It was lucky we left the bikes to be carried for us since the 26km turned out to be a massive underestimate. The GPS device with the race director showed 55km, but it seemed to skip about 15km at one point so we don’t quite believe it was this far, but certainly a lot more than expected. I had a gentle stroll and still took over nine hours, but the other two without bikes came in last, well after dark had fallen. The two high passes were particularly tough but we only missed out on a couple of km of ridable sections. This added justification to not continuing in the official race, as did the fact that the legendary Dipak won it again but had a puncture and had carried the bike every step of the way.

The last day supposedly was an easier one with the majority being ridable. However, after the surprises of the previous two days I stayed with the other paying westerners so we could finish together. The initial, ‘easy’, climb turned out to be around 1,000 vertical metres of steps, so we took much longer than anticipated. We also found that there were multiple routes and we had no map, just the name of the finishing town, Jiri. So after five hot hours at lower altitudes we got a chance to do some mountain biking. This was spoiled by the fact we had little idea which way we were meant to go and we were exhausted from our efforts. Yet we did over two hours of tough downhill riding where I was very happy to manage not to fall off at all.

As darkness approached we found ourselves asking every local which way to Jiri and getting answers in Nepali which even we could tell meant that it was a long way away. Helpfully, different people pointed different directions and the same old man even pointed both directions down a road depending on which one of us asked him. We were demoralised, knackered and all a bit ill from the cold temperatures at altitude and the strains on the body. So we decided to stay in the next village overnight and try to contact the race director.

Luckily two of the guides popped up just as we stopped at a shop (they have a habit of appearing and disappearing very suddenly). We were very glad to see them but less glad to learn that it was over a two-hour cycle to Jiri and there was only an hour of light left. Given that all timings we’d been given for distances were more appropriate for the leaders than the scope of the entire field, we also took the timing with a pinch of salt and decided that leaving early the next morning would be the best option. 7am seemed reasonable, but at 5:45am we had a knock on the door from the guides to say it was time to go. We were not amused, especially after sleeping on the hardest beds of the entire trip with no mattresses.

Day six of the five-day race was also a chore. I opted to go on the walking route over the mountains with one guide while the other guide could bike with the other two. My legs were fine since it had mainly been my lungs and heart which had been tested by the stages. So I knew that the claimed two-hour trek would actually take that long – I’d be fine keeping up with the Nepali march of a Sherpa for such a short time. I had my doubts about how long the bikers would take, but by having guides with everyone, we’d guarantee that nobody could get lost.

I arrived into Jiri after exactly two hours and ate a big breakfast while waiting on the others. Again, the distance to Jiri had been underestimated by the race director, but everyone seemed to have taken a different route so who knows which was shortest? Even when the bikers arrived there was a wait for a ceremony, which seemed slightly farcical given the fact that the race had been very different to how it had been sold to us. We were all in one piece and the first aid kit had remained almost unused, which was lucky since nobody was medically trained (the official thinking seemed to be that you either deal with it yourself or use your insurance to get air-lifted out!). So by 11am we were ready to go along the first mountain road we’d seen for the entire trip. The bikes were loaded and the westerners too, then we had a mere eight-hour drive to Kathmandu to cover the scenic 195kms.

We’d all had an amazing time and seen some spectacular sights. The Himalayas are certainly an incredible venue for a race and I don’t regret doing the event. Yet it was so badly organised that it was downright dangerous. Some of the hardest fell running in the world but no medical support. Small amounts of very tough mountain biking along cliff edges but mainly exhausting bike carrying and with no contingency plans – once the first bike stage was started, there was no way back except a helicopter and we had no option but to continue no matter how ill, tired or injured we were. We were lucky there were no medical emergencies but the toughness of the competitor’s fitness and will-power was a larger factor in getting us back to Kathmandu.

The Land of the Yeti Duathlon is dead. The race director admitted that it had been executed very badly and that there wasn’t really a mountain biking circuit there. The approximate 150km course would make for a very hardcore running stage race, and that was effectively what we did (less the competitive element for most days). But if anyone reading this likes the idea of running near Everest, there are already several excellent one-day and multi-stage events to choose from, such as the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in India at slightly lower altitudes or the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon from base camp to Namche Bazar (very similar to day one of LotY and this is what Dipak has won the last three years). There are also multiple biking races and tours, but I’d recommend picking one which has been held previously to ensure they know what they’re doing and that there is an actual course.

One word of warning about this sort of race. I found that even two weeks after my return my legs were more damaged than I’d expected, when I’m usually fine within a couple of days of an ultra. I tried an 100km race and had to drop out purely because my thighs were knackered. The massive, high altitude descents from the Himalayas had left me more crippled than any other race. I hadn’t expected this, especially since I had two weeks off running and the 100k was completely flat. Yet there seems to be something about the altitude that hinders muscle recovery.

So will the tiny bit of mountain biking I saw tear me away from my running? No chance. I can see the appeal of it but would rather stick to what I know and love. Besides, the mountain running I did was an eye opener and I’d consider different types of running races as virtually different sports – high altitude/sea-level, multi-day/single day, off-road/road, mountains/deserts/ice etc all require different muscles and mentalities. My appetite for mountains has only been whetted and I’ll be back for much more. See you in Davos next year (again) for the 2009 Swiss Alpine Marathon.

Comrades marathon, June 2008

Comrades Marathon – 15th June, 2008
54.0 miles (86.9km) - Up run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg

Comrades has such a distinguished history that even seasoned marathon runners find it reignites their passion for the sport. The first Comrades Marathon took place on 24th May 1921, Empire Day, starting outside the City Hall in Pietermaritzburg with 34 runners. It has continued since then every year with the exception of the war years 1941-1945. Therefore the 2008 race is the 83rd.

After WWI, a man called Vic Clapham wanted to remember those who had fallen and the camaraderie shown between men to overcome the atrocities and hardships of war. Remembering the searing heat and thirst of the parched veld through which he had campaigned, he settled on the idea of a marathon and he approached the athletic authorities of the day to see what they thought. Clapham asked for permission to stage a 56 mile race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban to be called the Comrades Marathon and wanted it to become a living memorial to the spirit of the soldiers of the Great War. Unfortunately, this was strenuously resisted by the authorities. His requests in 1919 and 1920 were refused but in 1921 he was finally given permission and the race was born.

If this moving story was not enough, the enthusiasm with which I’d heard the race described was enough to ensure it was a must-run race for me. And I certainly get caught up in the atmosphere of the race since everything about it makes it special. It alternates direction each year with even years being an up run from the harbour city of Durban to Pietermaritzburg at an altitude of 650m. On the way runners encounter 5 major hills, popularly known as the “Big Five,” interspersed with other landmarks and points of interest. The up run varies slightly each year in distance but is now around 87km (54 miles), while the down run is about 2km (just over a mile) longer. The difference is due to the races needing to start along wide roads and finish in a stadium, so the start/finish areas are different for each race and not just reversed.

With relatively few international runners and a lower international (but not domestic) profile than many races of a similar size, most of my friends in the UK haven't heard of the race, except through me. But from the first time someone mentioned it and told me that well over 10,000 people attempt the ultra marathon every year, I knew it had to be experienced. Back home we usually get 100-200 people for races of that length, so I wanted to know what the appeal could be to make this many people think that it’s a good idea to run over 2 conventional marathons. Having run the down run in 2007 I already had an idea of just how incredible a race it is, but 2008 proved to be even more memorable for me.

From speaking to locals in Durban, where this event is so popular it is equivalent to the FA Cup final in the UK, but with mass participation, I’ve gained some insights. Firstly, although the race has been going many years, it became much larger during the apartheid era of isolation. South Africa was unable to participate in international competitions in any sport so isolation created an inward focus which made national events much more prominent. In addition, the media-friendly multiple successes of domestic runners made the race even more prominent. This includes legends who every South African has heard of but who foreigners have not, such as Alan Robb who dominated the race in the 1970s and Bruce Fordyce who won 9 times in the 1980s. During Bruce’s domination, a lady called Helen Lucre also came to prominence, winning 3 years straight.

I mention Helen in particular since she is one of the best friends of Dave Pearse, who I was staying with during the race. I met Dave at the Thames Meander and the MdS earlier in the year and he’d insisted that I stay with him while in Durban. His hospitality was without limit and made the entire trip even more enjoyable. I also got to meet many of his friends (and Dave seems to know EVERYONE in Durban, a city of a mere 3.5 million people). So over the days before the race I spent a lot of time with Helen and another of Dave’s friends, Ruth Gray. As well as being some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, all 3 of them are Comrades vets. Oh, plus Dave’s brother, Mark, who has run several good times within his 10 Comrades finishes. But none of them were running it this year, so were effectively running the race via me.

This brings me to 3 of the key factors about Comrades which make it stand out. Firstly, almost every South African I’ve ever met has either run it, their parents ran it, or they want to run it. How many people do you know who’ve run the biggest national race for you? I know plenty of runners who’ve done the London marathon, but these are mainly people who run anyway and not many people I know have done it. In South Africa it’s almost a rite of passage to complete this race, usually more than once (well, the down and up runs are so different so that makes at least 2 attempts).

And this brings me to the second unique point about the race. Runners get different coloured bibs depending on how many times they’ve run. First timers, foreigners and locals have different coloured bibs to make them easily distinguishable to the massive crowds, then comes the concept of the green number club. Green numbers are for those who’ve completed 10 or more Comrades and being a member of the club is highly esteemed and means that that race number is forever yours and nobody else will run Comrades under that number. Runners on their 10th run wear a yellow bib to signify that they will earn their green number on the finish line so they get extra encouragement along the way. Both Dave and his brother, Mark, are green number holders.

It may sound like a simple distinction to make between runners, but these bibs are just one extra aspect of the race that makes it stand head and shoulders above anything else I’ve seen. The other factors should become apparent as I describe my 2008 experience below.

Then the third, and arguably most incentivising, point is that different finish times get different medals. There are 6 in total, varying from a gold medal for the top 10 to a Vic Clapham medal for finishing between 11 hours and the cut-off of 12 hours. No medals are given to those who are even a second after the finishing gun.

The medal I was aiming for was the same as I’d achieved in 2007 – a silver for going sub 7h30m. Getting these earns a fair amount of respect and only about 300 people would earn one this year. The next step up was unrealistically difficult being sub 6 hours for a Wally Hayward medal. Maybe one day…

Knowing only a little of all this, I entered the 2007 race, a down run, with the hope that it would be easier to run it if there's more downhill than uphill running. I enjoyed it so much and it instantly became my favourite race (out of around 100 which I've run, mainly marathons). I started planning for the 2008 race almost immediately afterwards and wasn't disappointed. The build-up, including press and TV coverage, gives a sense of anticipation greater than even the biggest city marathons like New York or London. It makes it very hard to sleep on the night before the race, especially when the 5:30am start means a very early alarm call.

In the days leading to the race I’d done a few last runs with Dave and others to acclimatise and get any jet-lag out my system. This included something I’d never do back home – a 5:30am easy jog on the day before the race with a group of South Africans including Helen ‘The Legend’ Lucre. The nickname is what her friends refer to her as when taking the piss, although there are certainly worse nicknames out there. I’d also been driven along the course by Dave and Ruth to show where they would stand to second me (support and provide food and drinks) along the way. It also gave me a good idea of just how much climbing I’d be doing and it was humbling to realise just how far 54 miles is.

On the Friday before the race I visited the expo to collect my number and have a look around. I had my proof of entry and passport, but had left my ChampionChip timing device. So I had to return later with Dave, but in the meantime I viewed the exhibition showing the history of the race. In particular I wanted to read about the 1980s when Bruce Fordyce had made the race his own. I also read news reports about Helen’s victories and was impressed and determined to make my own race as memorable as possible, if only for myself.

I’d normally run the day before a race, but 5:30am is obscenely early for me, yet it was worth it to be in the right time zone for the race the next day. Anyway, Helen had given me a few tips over the previous days and it’d been interesting to hear about experiences of the race from a winner’s viewpoint. I was also aware that her PB was in the 6h40ms so had a vague target in my head of trying to best it, but I mainly wanted to go sub 7 hours.

On race morning I was up at 4am and Dave and Ruth dropped me off at the start soon after then drove off to the first meeting point. I’d provided estimates of when I’d get to each of their viewing spots, assuming an even race and an optimistic target of 6h50m with an evenly paced race. I was showing them a best case scenario and personally thought that even 7 hours would be extremely tough given the course I’d seen the day before. It all seemed much flatter on the down run, but that was probably just tired legs not appreciating gentle downhill sections.

When I arrived at the start area it was still dark and was just before 5am. It was winter in South Africa so sunrise wouldn’t be until almost 7am and the sun would set soon after the finish time of the entire race, 12 hours later at 5:30pm. I found the start area packed with very excited people of all abilities. Most are aiming to just finish before the cut-off, but around the 'A' seeding pen (sub 3h marathon to qualify) are mainly highly trained athletes, all aiming for the revered silver medal. The announcer added to the atmosphere by playing the national anthems of the 10 countries with the most entrants, after South Africa. Since the UK had the most runners (140), my anthem was played last, just before the deadline for entering the seeding pens at 5:15am. So my adrenalin was already pumping when the local guys around me started singing a local song in chorus, only to be joined over the speakers by a local singer. I couldn't stop smiling and felt the raw emotion of the moment. After the singing died down the theme from 'Chariots of Fire' was played which almost brought a tear to my eye. It focused everyone's attention on the huge task ahead throughout the early morning and then throughout most of the day for many people.

I had a friend on the start with me (also a Dave – Dave Ross) and he had tried several times to get a silver but failed, so was hoping this would be his year. Since I'd got one last year (in 7h09m), my target was sub-7 hours. This thought went through my head constantly, but I also repeated to myself to not go off too fast. I'd seen it the previous year and knew that the race had a reputation for lots of runners going off much too quick because the necessary pace for an ultra is relatively slow and comfortable. So when the traditional cock crow started the race, I deliberately took it easy. The field charged off, many people zooming past me at completely unsustainable speeds. It felt like some kind of street riot with thousands of people sprinting down the dark streets. This sensation was increased by short stretches where the street lights were off. How could anyone not enjoy the thrill of being part of such an event?

For the first couple of hours I ran with 2 other Brits who I spotted because one had a Union Jack flag on his running vest. I’d met him before, at the Thames Path Ultra race in January and his name was Matt Ray. We talked and I consciously aimed to keep at a pace where I could comfortably chat, even on the hills. This was my method of making sure I didn't go out too fast. I also chatted to other runners around me who heard the English accent, including a Portuguese guy on his first run and a South African in a tartan hat. The spirit of everyone I spoke to was uplifting since we all felt like we were on a great adventure and had the challenge of a silver medal to motivate us. I was offered advice and words of encouragement and felt that I was truly part of the running community, much more so than at almost any other race I'd been to and certainly more than any other mass participation event.

For a long time we continued to talk and I found out that Matt had run well in this year’s London marathon, getting 2h37m, so I decided that since he was faster than me, he’d be a good person to stick with as long as it felt comfortable. Given that the race is a real step into the unknown due to the length and climbs, my only feasible tactic was to keep the pace as fast as was very comfortable. Even the down run from the year before felt completely different because the hard climbs had now become easy downhills and there’d be a lot more up. Plus the section which I’d found hardest was the end, which is now the beginning.

So as we ran along, the uphill seemed endless even though we hadn’t even reached a named hill yet and it was still dark. The “Big 5” hills are the only ones with names but much of the up run to Pietermaritzburg is a gradual upwards slope.

Dave and Ruth had agreed about 7 places along the course where they would drive to to support and offer drinks/gels etc and the first was about 7 miles (11km) into the race, before the first named hill, Cowies. Cowies is a moderately difficult climb rising about 137m in the space of 1.5km. Although this does not sound too difficult an obstacle so early in the race, the preceding 14km is a relentless ascent, to an altitude of nearly 300m at Westville.

Seeing my crew was a real help because the course is so tough and long that having friendly faces to look out for gives a big morale boost. In addition, the general support from the huge crowds along the way is equally inspiring and the atmosphere they create is unlike any other race I've seen. Every runner is made to feel like a genuine hero and the crowd back us all 100%. They somehow manage to read the names off the bibs, even though the writing is small, so I received plenty of support using my own name. That helps keep the runners going, as do the calls in support of whichever club you run for.

All locals have to be a member of a club and run in their club kit, both vest and shorts. International runners can wear what they like, but I’d opted for my club vest and so got many (often perplexed) shouts of ‘Go, Serpentine!’ Some even knew the club and one guy shouted out that he used to be a member.

After sunrise at about 6:50am the temperature stayed cool because I was several hundred metres higher than where I'd started. But the temperatures gradually rose throughout the day. Luckily the race is so well organised that there are tables with water, energy drinks and various food every 1-2km. I took on the sachets of water and Energade at every opportunity but knew I'd still end the race dehydrated.

The early morning went well and I felt very comfortable when I saw Dave and Ruth at 13 miles (20km) at the bottom of the biggest hill – Fields. After the descent from Cowies Hill and the easy flat section of Pinetown's Old Main Road, this hill (named after an early pioneer) rises some 213m over a distance of 3km. I remembered enjoying this long slope downwards in 2007, but at least it was early on so my legs were still fresh enough to take it in my stride. Matt and I were enjoying the experience and were both very comfortable while we climbed it at a slightly reduced pace. It’s a wide road, but we were jammed in by an elite woman runner and her ‘bus’ of men who were using her for pacing. We managed to find a way through with our own bus of runners who were joining in our chatting. And once Fields was out the way it was good to know that we’d risen to about 500m above sea level so that the undulation of the remainder of the race was roughly evened out.

The next few miles went by easily but with more gradual uphill running. Around 20 miles (32km) was Hillcrest where I saw my crew again. Just before I’d accidentally broken away from Matt and both of us were running at whatever felt comfortable. We’d also overtaken Maria Bak, a 3-times winner who’d last won in 2002. She looked strong but must have lost a little of her pace even though she was still in a gold medal position. She had a huge group of men latched on to her so it was difficult to pass through. I asked Ruth to take a photo of Matt behind me in his Union Jack vest, both for himself and to remind me of the 30km we did together.
Hill number 3 was Botha’s Hill, soon after Hillcrest। This took me to a point higher than the finish line, giving me the welcome thought that there was more down than up left to come. It involves a climb then descent of 150m, over 1.5 miles (2.4km) but is nevertheless tough. At the top of this hill lies a well-known landmark of Kearsney College (Dave’s old school) with the boys outside in school uniform who have traditionally gathered outside the gates since the first Comrades. They are particularly noisy supporters and, on spotting I was a Pom, a couple shouted out comments about the South African defeat of England at the previous year’s Rugby World Cup final. They weren’t the only ones that day to ‘apologise’ for beating us, but they were the youngest.

Incidentally, I may be running as a local next year as a Kearsney Running Club member in a very fetching brown kit. It saves on the International runner’s entry fee, which is about 7 times higher than the local entry fee. Dave can sort all things and this is just one of them. He’d also be running in his club colours if he decides to run 2009. I think his experience of seconding in 2008 has helped to make his mind up about doing so.

Another very well organised aspect of the race is the km markers. Instead of counting up, these count down to the finish line so the first one shows a daunting '86km to go'. And they are very accurately placed, unlike some large marathons I've raced in. I used these to measure my pace and was happy to go through half way at Drummond a few minutes under my target pace for 7 hours by going through a large Flora arch. Even though the half way mark is the same place for both directions of the run, it tends to be a few hundred metres short in both directions since it has to be on an accessible and flat section and is only really approximate, unlike the km markers.

I still felt comfortable at that point and was running next to another Brit, Mark Shepherd. He’d just missed out on a silver in 2007 but had clocked some fast marathon times and had gone through the actual half way with me at about 3h24m, comfortably within the required pace.

Although I was running well, I knew the hardest part of the race was still to come. The traditional advice is that runners need to feel comfortable at the top of Inchanga for the race to go well, something echoed by my friend, ‘The Legend’. This is the hill straight after the half-way line and I was able to jog up it and wasn't struggling yet. Some bastard half way up was telling runners that they’d virtually reached the top. He lied – there was at least a mile to go from where he was, but I was doing ok so I just felt sorry for people he’d say that too who were already knackered. The route up winds for about 1.5 miles (2.5km) and rises by 150m. Then the other side is a more gradual descent. Mark went slightly ahead on the way up but I caught him on the way down then left him to keep my own pace downhill.

I’d gone through the ‘42km to go’ marker near the top of Inchanga so it felt comforting to have less than a marathon left. That distance seemed quite short and I had about 3h28m to complete the final marathon in order to break 7 hours. I knew I could do it, but it would take some will power when the going got tougher.

Soon afterwards, at Inchanga caravan park, I saw my crew for the 5th time. They ran by my side and both commented that I was looking strong and that I was ahead of time for the pacing I’d told them. I used a gel and Dave gave me another to use before I’d see them again in about 7 miles. They seemed more excited than I was (and I was in a good mood) since the experience of being so closely involved with the race is infectious and fun. And it helped that I’d been almost spot on with the times I’d told them for each view-point and looked on for a good race.

Over the latter stages of the race I continued taking my energy gels to replace all the fuel I'd burned. There was only one more named hill to go, the dreaded Polly Shortts, which has ruined many a runner’s race. But it was at 5 miles (8km) to go and I still had almost 24 miles (39km) left. Then at the ‘35km to go’ marker I started to feel very tired and every small incline became much more of an effort. I still hadn't reached the highest point on the course at Umlaas Road, which was around 12 miles (19km) to go but the undulating sections were still gradually heading upwards and leaving me fatigued. It meant that I had to walk a couple of times on the uphills, but only for around 100m each time. I also had needed the toilet for the entire race so used one of the hills as a rest break, in both senses. This is something I regretted later, as I will explain. I wasn’t aware at the time, but 2 runners had their shoes stolen when they got mugged on a toilet break. They must have chosen a secluded area around one of the dodgier areas, and there are a few such places on the route. But there are usually way too many people around for this to be a danger. I wonder if they finished…

I went through the next few areas feeling the strain of the race. It had also got hotter and the overhead sun was dehydrating me since it was 26 degrees Celsius. Whenever I was struggling I thought about my girlfriend, Amy, and wanted to have a good performance so that she’d know the time I’d spent away hadn’t been wasted. The thought of her encouraged me to dig into my mental reserves to push on. I’ve learnt many times that the body can almost always keep going but it’s usually the mind that makes us give up. So positive thoughts of Amy counteracted the nagging voice in my head telling me that I was tired, that it was too far to go or that I could slow down and still finish just under the 7h30m time for a silver, rather than under 7 hours.

These types of race require a person to run using the head and the heart. The head gives the suitable pacing and stops you going to fast early on. But it’s the heart which gives the drive to keep going through adversity. You need the passion to want to finish and want to make all that training pay off. I know many runners who’ve broken into tears during an ultra because of the mental and physical hardships, but when these are overcome, it makes the races immensely rewarding.

Dave and Ruth were around Cato Ridge, a flattish area, although my memories are slightly more blurred because I was feeling tired…as if I’d run a marathon or similar. I was given more encouragement, turned down all food except a gel, and then they sent me on my way to go up to the highest point of the race. I actually missed the sign which said I was at that point, but I kept checking off the km markers until I reached Lion Park, exhausted, but still 9.5 miles (15km) from the stadium.

This was second last time my team saw me before the end and Ruth told me there was a section ahead of downhill running lasting until Little Pollys followed by the intimidating Polly Shortts hill. Little Pollys is the local name for the minor, unnamed hill before the real Pollys, but I wasn’t worried and just focused on getting a good pace down the slope to Ashburton. A local runner had told me a few km earlier to push hard down to Ashburton then rest by walking part of Polly Shortts. Sounded like a good plan to me so I did some of my fastest running of the race. It really boosted me since I was flagging and needed a downhill section to rest and recover. It also helped my target time since I was able to raise my pace from around 4:50/km to around 4:15/km and get more time in the bag, which I could afford to lose on Pollys.

I had to push through for the last couple of hours and avoid the temptation to walk every time there was a slight incline. But the crowds were magnificent and the km markers kept ticking down gradually. Most people around me had slowed so I was gaining positions all the time, which was great for my morale and gave me target after target to focus on and keep my brain occupied so it wouldn't tell me negative thoughts about tiredness.

I saw my seconds for the last time on the route at about the ‘11km to go’ marker at the top of Little Pollys. I’d just walked a small section of that hill but was running again by the time they saw me. So they thought I was flying and in great shape and told me so. Dave advised me to take Polly Shortts easy since I had time to spare and I agreed, saying I’d use an alternating walk/run strategy.

Just before 9km to go I reached the foot of Polly Shortts after overtaking several people on the downhill approach to the climb. The field was strung out by now but the slowing on the hill had a concertina effect. I knew it'd be less than 2km from the foot to the peak so planned to run as much as I could, but with 200m walk breaks 2 or 3 times. Once I reached the top I knew the race would be relatively easy for the last 7.5km and with plenty of downhill running so this spurred me on to get to the top. The runners around me seemed to be using the same tactic as me and we leap-frogged each other in our walking/running sections. The couple of people who jogged the whole thing weren’t any faster.

Pollys is the ultimate in heartbreak hills due to everyone having tired legs. Bruce Fordyce said it was his ally since he could usually break ahead of the challengers for his crown up the hill. The climb is just over a mile (1.8km) with the summit at an altitude of 737m, a rise of nearly 100m but it seems much more.

Reaching the top almost felt like the end of the race and it signalled the last mental challenge on the course, but the photographers managed to catch me walking before I broke into a stride again. I kept going at a good pace downhill on the other side and tried to enjoy the excellent crowd support cheering me on. By about 5km to go I was able to start enjoying the prospect of finishing. The last few km went quicker, partly due to me speeding up and riding the wave of support. The cheering was so enthusiastic that none of the runners looked as tired as they had half an hour earlier.

Once down the other side of Pollys, I was close to Pietermaritzburg. When I saw the sign to show the edge of town I felt relieved, but also noticed that Maria Bak had caught me up from when I’d gone past her on Fields Hill. I stayed just ahead of her and used her to push me on and keep the pace going.

The roads had barriers to keep the crowds back as I ran through the streets, gradually accelerating. As I thought about the stadium at the end I forgot about any tiredness and knew I'd have my target time quite comfortably. As I went along Jesmond Road and saw the beautiful (to me) ‘3km to go’ sign, Dave’s brother, Mark shouted encouragement. He’d mentioned he’d be along that street to support everyone all day long and he gave me a final boost to take me home.

The last km was gently downhill and through a tighter barricaded funnel with Flora banners covering it. I accelerated into the stadium to the sound of the roaring crowd and felt the huge relief and satisfaction at completing such an unbelievably emotional race. The count down of 300m to go, then 200m and finally 100m made me smile a huge grin and I saw Ruth and Dave just before the finish, then crossed the line with my fists pumping in the air.

It had been hard, but I’d stuck to my plan and put in the effort when it got tough. That thought alone was enough to make me extremely satisfied with how it had gone. I felt tired and a little sore but it had been worth every second of effort. Before I could go through to the finish area an official came and asked if I was ok. I said I was fine, so he then told me I’d been randomly selected for a drugs’ test. I was surprised to say the least, but I couldn’t say no otherwise I’d get an automatic ban.

After some faffing around, the guy gave me my silver medal and I asked for the back-to-back medal for completing 2 consecutive years. He told me flatly that there was no such thing, so I got him to check it, then he came back and gave me the 2nd medal too. I was a bit worried that an official at the finish and only metres away from the medals wasn’t aware of this 2nd medal, but he was some kind of drug-related official. Small as these medals are, they represent countless hours of training over many months and are worth more to me than all my standard marathon medals put together. My final time was 6h52m11s, coming in at 116th overall.

So, with my cherished silver medal round my neck, plus the back-to-back medal I was led to the side of the stadium and taken into a room where all the elites were sat. I recognised the faces and names of the (mainly) Russian athletes. Leonid Shvetsov had won and added the up record to his record for the down run the previous year. He’d only beaten me by a mere 88 minutes (pah – nothing), so I was very happy with my time.

I was told that I had to give a urine sample and couldn’t eat anything until I did. I tried once, but was far too dehydrated. I wished that my earlier piss stop had not happened, although it had been very necessary at the time. So all I could do was drink and drink and drink. Water bottles, Energade and cans of fizzy drinks. But I still didn’t need to go.

The last women gold medallists came through while I waited and I talked to a couple of them. Maria Bak had finished about 90 seconds behind me, and 3 more women came in for golds after her. I didn’t speak to the Russians since they looked a bit more serious. The female winner, Elena Nurgalieva, didn’t return my smile so I didn’t try to congratulate her. Her twin sister, Olesya, had come second and was sat next to her – these 2 had dominated the last few years with 5 wins between them, 4 for Elena.

Eventually, after almost 2 hours and 4.5L of drinks, I was able to give the sample. It was an interesting experience and made me feel like one of the elites. I have a fair way to go to get there but the combination of the spirit of the race and seeing the elites at the end made me want to earn my place amongst them and get a gold one day. In 2008, I’d have needed to cut 59 minutes off my time and beat an ex-winner of the New York marathon. So, pretty easy then…

It was an incredible day, organised perfectly. The combination of the crowds, other runners and the physical limits I'd had to break made for a spectacular race. And my support crew were magnificent, before, during and after the race (sorry for the delay in getting out after finishing). It's firmly cemented its position as my favourite race and I'll be back again next year to improve my time. I can't recommend it highly enough because it feels like the entire country is behind you as you run. The medal cut-off times add to the incentives since every runner has one of these in his or her sights and achieving that goal is extremely rewarding. The day after the race you see plenty of people wearing their Comrades T-shirt and medal reflecting the pride we all feel to have completed, and even just competed in, the world's greatest ultra marathon.

The 2 other Brits I ran next to, Matt and Mark, both got their silver medals. But my friend Dave Ross had a bad last half marathon and ended up needing 3 IV drips after finishing in 8h49m, having been on track at half way. He txted me to say never again, but he changed his mind a day later so will be back to have another crack at this legendary race.

Marathon des Sables, April 2008

[Note: each day of this multiday ultra marathon has the press release in bold then my report]
29/03/2008 - Administrative and technical checks

Press release:

Conditions at 1.30pm: 36.7 °C; 17% humidity

The caravan of the 23rd Marathon des Sables set camp at the foot of the most impressive Merzouga dunes: a grand setting for a most challenging race. On the menu this week: 245.5 kilometres of sand, rocks, dreams, wind, sweat and…food self-sufficiency. But before the fun can start, some essential formalities must be complied with: safety material and medical checks, together with the handing out of distress flares and numbered breast plates. This year’s novelty: runners are equipped with an electronic device that will automatically register their going through check points and their timing. This edition promises to be a tough one: not only is it the longest ever but it also kicks off with Morocco’s highest dunes - a 31.6 kilometres long first stage that could do much damage. Not enough to demoralise our competitors, only too happy to be facing the enemy at last. Old hands mix with newcomers who get to discover the special atmosphere of the caravan, bringing together 32 nationalities and people coming from all walks of life, from policeman to bakers, and psychiatrists to a former football coach. Let the party begin!

Ian says:

The MdS is a legendary ultra race, covering different routes each year in the Sahara desert in south Morocco. It’s always around 150 miles long and in 6 stages of varying lengths, requiring self-sufficiency from competitors except the water rations and tent. All food and equipment must be carried in a backpack and several emergency items are compulsory, such as the anti-venom pump to draw out the poison from a bite from creepy crawlies. This is the race which first got me interested in any form of running, never mind the extremes of the sport. I saw a documentary by a guy called Ben Fogle and was looking for a challenge at the time, combined with a way to get into decent shape. The MdS ticked both boxes and so my obsession with distance racing began.

That was back in 2004 and I’d entered the 2006 MdS as a result. Unfortunately things didn’t go too well, so I had a score to settle in 2008. In the build up to the 2008 race, I’d tried to take on board as many tricks as possible which I’d learnt from other races. I’d also learnt a lot, mainly about what not to do, from the previous MdS I’d been to. One of the key lessons was that road running was of little use as training. It helps with stamina, but without hill training or practising with a backpack, road runners can’t cope well enough with the conditions. Sand training would also have helped, but there aren’t many massive dunes in central London, so I had to make do with muddy races.

Another way I’d adapted to the fact I was a city dweller was to walk to and from work with an oversized backpack. This allowed a moderate amount of exercise which fitted neatly into the day because it’s only a 2.25 mile walk each way. I built up over 3 months until I was walking with up to about 25kgs on me. Comparing that to an expected racing pack of 8kg meant it should feel comfortable for my little run in the sun. 25kgs was definitely not comfortable, even for walking.

When it came to the departure day for the race, I therefore felt like I’d prepared reasonably well. I didn’t have even a hint of an injury, which also bode well, plus my last race in the build-up had gone better than expected. I’d been in such a rush at work that I’d hardly had a chance to anticipate the event, so when I turned up at Gatwick airport I was finally able to get into the spirit of things thanks to seeing a throng of fit-looking people with Raidlight rucksacks and other obvious tell-tale MdS signs. Upon joining the check-in queue, I chatted to a friendly guy called Mike Hodgson, a 40-something father who works in TV. We were sat next to each other on the chartered plane so decided that since we didn’t really know anyone else well (pretty common amongst the racers) we’d buddy up for the twin rooms in the lovely Berbere Palace Hotel in Ouarzazate that night. The hotel was our last chance to revel in luxury and has movie memorabilia from films made in the region, usually Egyptian-themed, like temple statues or thrones.

We arrived mid-afternoon after a reasonable three-hour flight and whizzing through passport control in the tiny airport and since I was feeling guilty about tapering to zero miles in the final week, I went for a run. The aim was also to speed my acclimatisation and get rid of jet-leg, including from the overnight flight I’d been on a few days earlier from the US. Unsurprisingly I was the only one jogging around the dusty, run down streets as the sun got lower in the bright blue sky. Plus I got a lot of funny looks from other competitors, including the Brits who were still queuing through the lobby and out the front of our hotel to get their room keys. I managed four quick circuits of a two-mile loop I’d found two years previously on my failed desert attempt (more on this later) and felt pretty good as I settled down for the evening.

The next morning, I bumped into two people I’d met at a build-up race to the MdS, the Thames Meander. This had been six weeks earlier and was a 54-miler along the Thames from Reading to Hampton Court Palace. Their names were Dave and Diana, from South Africa and Ireland, respectively. That event is full of the British-based MdS entrants and is a good opportunity to try out kit and meet other desert runners. They were both in good shape and were like most people – nervous but excited. The sense of community that the race brings about is one of the highlights and it’s comforting to have people to check up on every day, and who check to see how things have gone for you.

Everyone bundled into the waiting coaches outside the hotel, and I sat with Mike on the 7-hour drive into the desert from Ouarzazate. Nobody was quite sure how long it was meant to take and the road book said 5 hours then a transfer to 4WD trucks. Yet the coaches managed to take us the whole way with only the last mile off road, arriving around 5pm and before most of the other nationalities. We’d had several rest stops along the way and the sight of several coaches unloading and everyone flying out to piss led to many photos (rear view, not front). I refrained.

We found a spare tent in the British section of the bivouac (camp) and Tent 109 became home for the week. They’re meant to have 8 people but we ended up with only six, all male, for some inexplicable reason – nobody had had a chance to show off any annoying habits or smells. And luckily none of the guys did. The other four in the tent were ‘Big’ Paul Loveridge, (tax accountant), ‘Little’ Paul Williams (some kind of IT job), Dave Cox (a different sort of IT job) and Sam Ashby (civil servant).

The camp looked very impressive, or perhaps intimidating, with around 120 black Berber tents. These are basically black, canvas sheets with some sticks used to hold them up and metal pegs to hold the corners down with a couple of rugs under them. Not ideal if the wind gets feisty since they flap about noisily, let the sand in and tend to rip relatively easily. But very appropriate for the surroundings and it’s better than staying in Western-style tents, even if they’re more comfortable. I folded over the end of the rug in the tent to give myself more cushioning but the others all had ground mats to keep them comfy. I slept ok, but I think they slept better. As long as I could sleep, it was ok to not have the mat and it was a safe gamble for me to take.

Then a major theme for the week really got going – queuing. We’d had plenty of queues with the airports, bus transfer and check-in, but the real queues start in the desert. Firstly there are the 1-hour queues for the catering which we ate at on the Friday evening and all three meals on Saturday as we acclimatised. And the food quality varies and is often laced with a delicious layer of sand by the time you sit down. But it’s a good way to chat to random people around the camp since this happens a bit less when cooking your own food at your own tent. I met an old American guy who’s done the Western States 100-miler seven times and was suitably impressed. His answer to my question of whether the MdS is easier or harder was – “It’s different – hard in its own way.” Being American, he probably also used the word ‘awesome’ a couple of times, but at least it was applicable in this case.

We also had the queues for the kit check in which we could get time penalties for missing the 10 essential items or not having enough calories in our food (2,000 x 7 days). The Brits were last since we had the highest race bib numbers so we got to keep our 2nd bag (destined for the hotel) for a little longer than most. It was slightly anti-climactic since they didn’t even weigh the bags or check what was inside. They just asked how much it weighed and whether we had all the kit. I don’t think there were any stupid people who begged for a penalty at this point by saying “no.” But everyone has the kit anyway, just maybe not enough food. My bag was below average at around 7.5kg (17lbs) before water. Most were closer to 10kg (22lbs).

Since we could see the huge orange dunes about a mile away we decided to take a wander over to kill some time and take some snaps while we weren’t a) racing and b) carrying a week’s worthy of subsistence. I even took my flip-flops off and enjoyed the fine sand between my toes. This wouldn’t have been advisable even 1 day later due to blisters so I wanted to savour the fact my feet were ok instead of looking like I’d walked over broken glass.

We gained confidence from this since the sand wasn’t too soft and temperatures were in the mid-30s, which was pleasant. We even had visions of this being an ‘easy’ MdS with comfortable temperatures and there was a slight worry that we might feel cheated by not having the desert throw all it could at us. Luckily these fears were completely unfounded…

I also had a visit from Sue Holliday, who had been in my tent in my previous trip to the Sahara. She’d entered again under the Spanish entry system, almost by accident. Although she’d not fitted in enough training she knew she could get through the event. Each day during the race I got a visit from her when she’d had a chance to eat and recover and the whole camaraderie of the event is fostered by these types of friendships. I’d even visited Sue in Valencia, where she lives, for the 2007 marathon in that city. Perhaps I’m a bit guilty for nudging her decision towards entering again, but I doubt she regrets it at all.

Then we had a slightly restless evening of anticipation, just wanting the race to start and trying not to get food poisoning, but some people still had issues with their stomachs. Bed time was around 9pm after three hours of darkness since there was no point wasting our torch batteries. Each day starts at around 6am, with racing starting at 9am...or later if the Race Director, Patrick Bauer, takes his time. I think we started at 9am once. Then we’d all get a chance to see whether our choice of kit and food was appropriate.

30/03/2008 - Stage 1: Erg Chebbi/Erg Znaigui: 31.5 km

Press release:

Weather conditions at 8.00am: 20.8 °C; 31% humidity
Weather conditions at 12.00am: 36.8 °C; 18% humidity

1st Stage Men Ranking and General Ranking
1. Mohamad Ahansal (1) 2h31m26s
2. Samir Akhdar (2) 2h47m17s
3. Salameh Al Aqra (71) 2h47m42s
4. Mustapha Ait Amar (4) 2h47m59s
5. Jorge Aubeso (622) 2h48m35s

23. Ian Sharman (821) 3h26m47s

1st Stage Women Ranking and General Ranking
1. Touda Didi (6) 3h36m16s

801 competitors, including 94 women, set off for an unusually long and difficult opening stage. With hardly more than a kilometre to warm up, our enthusiastic bunch of runners were confronted with the Merzouga dunes. Those 13 kilometres allowed a clear lead to emerge. Unsurprisingly, at CP1, the favourites Ahansal, Aqra and Ait Amar were on each other’s heels. Starting on the long rocky plateau that leads to the second set of dunes, Mohamad Ahansal moved to top speed and left everyone on the spot. In black and yellow settings (rocks and sand), the race got slightly crazy, exploding with young Ahansal’s incredible pace. He reached the finish line way ahead of anybody else, more than fifteen minutes before his direct competitors, slightly shock shelled from Ahansal’s performance: “I’ve been alone from kilometre 7; of course I miss my brother, we had the same pace, but I’m happy with my day”.
Jorge Aubeso (Spain) also did a fine race. He himself was pleasantly surprised: “I don’t think I’m 1st place material, but my knee’s getting better by the day and I can be a patient man…”

A less pleasant surprise for Jordan Salameh El Aqra’ who found the course harder than expected and also had to deal with tummy trouble.
Today the Marathon des Sables was particularly worthy of its name: sand was on the menu, starter, main and pudding. And it’s only the beginning…

Ian says:

At 6am the sun had just risen but it was still cold. Did I mention it’s cold at night, sometimes as low as freezing? Well, it’s certainly cold enough to need some extra clothing for the evenings. Although I did get away with the lightest sleeping bag I could find which was only suitable for 7 °C or above and was never cold.

We had the tent whipped off our heads within about 20 minutes and were left on the rug unpacking and repacking our bags as well as doing last minute foot/back/groin/armpit/nipple care. Many also cooked breakfast but I’d opted for cold cereals even though they were meant to have hot water. The orange Expedition Foods packets were visible all over the British camp but there’s a fair amount of variety in their range so people weren’t sick of the same food until later in the week.

We then had time to kill and collected our two 1.5L water bottles as our morning ration and had our ration cards stamped for the first time. These cards are used throughout the week at every checkpoint and at the bivouacs and it’s compulsory to take your ration although if two bottles are allowed you don’t have to take both. Only the faster runners tend to turn down water though since every drop is needed to get through long hours out in the midday sun.

In 2006 I’d dropped out due to hyponatraemia, which is a lack of essential salts in the blood and too much water. I’d drunk all my water rations but had only been out for 3 hours on day 1 so didn’t quite need that much. However, the main problem was that I’d heard some advice that the salt tablets we’re given are pointless so had not taken any. Stupid advice and it really cost me since I then fainted twice at the start line of day 2 and felt bad all the way through to the end. Then I had other complications as a result of being weakened at the start then pushing through 20 miles of desert, including chronic diarrhoea through the night. So by day 3 I had barely slept and had no energy due to no food being digested. I had to pull out at the start line and was bitterly disappointed, but by the end of the week I thought I’d come to terms with it. That was until I saw the medals on the bus back to Ouarzazate and I swore to myself I wouldn’t let the desert beat me and that I’d have to return.

Anyway, all this had gone through my head at the start of the 2008 race. I wanted to do myself justice and had put in hard training to make myself much fitter than before. I’d also learnt unique and individual lessons about what kit and tactics work best for me. For example, no Camelbak this time, but a plan to put the water bottles in the strap on top of my front pack to save time at checkpoints. But 2008 was the longest MdS ever, at 153 miles. And even the ‘warm-up’ first day was 19.7 miles long, excluding getting lost or meandering through the dunes.
The generally accepted tactics are to take it easy on day 1 to ease into the race and avoid injuries, so that’s what I planned unless my competitive nature took over completely. I was used to single day events where you try to beat the people directly around you instead of trying to get the best possible overall time from multiple stages. So when someone overtakes, I’d have to consider not just whether going with them is the best tactic for that day, but also whether it would leave me enough energy for the remaining days.

The start line had an energy and feeling of nervous excitement. We could see the massive dunes just under a mile away and knew that they’d go on forever once we got into them. Everyone wished everyone else good luck and Patrick Bauer did his morning speech in French with a translator into English. The man likes the sound of his own voice but he does know how to organise an incredible event.

He told us how many people had been registered and therefore how many had paid but not turned up in the desert (802 in camp). One person dropped out before the race and had clearly been hoping that an injury would clear up in time but didn’t. Must have been devastating to see everyone else going off after so much build up, training and preparation.

We also sang happy birthday to several people individually which caused plenty of eye rolls and was a daily ritual we were forced through. Some days there was even an announcement of a guy whose wife had given birth back home – she must have been over the moon that he had his priorities right! Then we were given a brief description of the route and checkpoints. The first checkpoint was about the longest checkpoint of the race because we had to traverse the dunes to get to it at approximately 8.8 miles from the start. Most checkpoints were 6-7.5 miles apart. Then one more checkpoint after another 6 miles on the flatter, harder ground and some more relatively flat ground to the last 1.5 miles of dunes before the finish.

So at 9am the race began and we all funnelled through the blow-up start line and ran off after the leaders. I was very near the front and stayed just behind the first runners until the dunes, then they went off into the distance. Within this first mile I realised the flaw with my hydration tactics – the heavy water bottle was bouncing too much and causing too much rubbing on my stomach. As well as making the stomach red and potentially breaking the skin, it was bloody annoying. So what can you do when you’re mid-race and have no back-up way of carrying water? You improvise. I tried carrying the bottle upside-down along my side and switched hands every few minutes when I had a drink. Luckily I’d done a little gym work in my training and this felt quite comfy as well as being very convenient for taking a sip regularly. I’d stumbled upon a really good system for myself, although it probably wouldn’t be as good for others since every aspect of the tactics is very individual. This became a trademark and the volunteers and other competitors at checkpoints or the finish often commented on it.

Luckily we were all fresh because the dunes were hard-going and the temperature was rising but still bearable. Dunes were the only unmarked sections of the whole course so we SHOULD have used our compasses to be as direct as possible but 99% of people just follow those in front or the tracks in the sand. This seemed to work on the massive Merzouga dunes but you can’t help taking a zigzagging route which makes a mockery of the advertised distance between checkpoints.

At one point I climbed over a particularly large dune by scrabbling on my hands and knees and this was the highest point reached. No matter which direction I looked, all I could see to the horizon was sand dunes. So I tried not to think about that and just chased after the guys in front of me.

Eventually I saw the flags and Landrovers of the first checkpoint and had about another mile to go to get there. I was doing pretty well, especially with my lack of sand training, and estimated I was in the top 30. I was extremely happy to be in one piece and to get more water but already I could feel the backpack rubbing my lower back just above the zinc oxide tape strapping. No pain, no gain, right?

The temperature must have been rising since it was mid-morning but didn’t feel too hot yet. Then there was a flatter section full of small rocks over a hard soil and I was able to speed up and start overtaking. With my MP3 player blaring in my ears it surprised me how much I was enjoying running in the desert with a full backpack. But I got lost in a selection of rock and dance music until I could see checkpoint 2’s flags. After that the going got tougher, although it was more due to tiredness than a change in conditions.

I still had several kilometres left but knew that there was just one hard section left at the end. So I dragged myself through to the dunes at the end where I had to start walking. The only problem was that I was feeling pretty competitive so when a group of runners overtook me I decided to tag on to the back of them and get through the dunes quicker. This decision was partly due to seeing a French Rasta who looked very cool but not exactly speedy (don’t judge a book by its cover – he was good). Then I did a little sprint finish for the last 400m to finish in a respectable and encouraging 23rd.

Yet it was only midday so I had a full afternoon to chill out, eat and watch some of the racers finish. I was also first in the queue for the email tent where we could write one email of less than 1,000 characters and send it to one person. So I wrote to Amy, my girlfriend, mainly about my excitement from the race. I’d only just got into it so there was no home sickness or loneliness. And not too much pain either…except a couple of blisters and a sore back.

I had time to kill so decided on a trip to Doc Trotter, the medical team supporting the race. I’d heard about the foot butchers and how they always cut blisters off and clean the wound but guessed they knew what they were doing. Since I didn’t have to wait and there was only one other person being seen to in the medical tent they immediately chopped up my feet. Not too painful at all and the feet felt better afterwards. Then I showed them my back and heard the doc make an ‘ooh’ sound which didn’t sound positive. But it wasn’t too bad except for when he ripped off the tape. I was a little worried about what my back would be like a few days down the line but was still on a high from a successful first day.

My tent buddies gradually came in later in the afternoon, Mike and Big Paul were first, then Sam and Little Paul came in later on. All were in a good mood and we’d got through Day 1 fine. Little Paul gave us a scare since we didn’t see him until it got dark around 7pm, but he’d spent two hours in the medical tent, resting and having his salt-levels topped up with tablets. I also spent some time sitting on a dune at sunset, watching the remaining runners come in and then seeing the two camels pushing on the final competitor to make it. This is a tradition of the race – that two Berbers with camels come up the rear at about 2mph or slower and if you can’t stay ahead of them then you’re disqualified. Quirks like this make the race stand out and give it added character.

After dark we had emails delivered to the tent on print-outs. Hearing from people back home, especially Amy, meant a lot and reminded me of the real world, which seemed so distant. Then as I went to bed it felt great to have got the major dunes out the way, although I underestimated how much sand there still was to come.

31/03/2008 - Stage 2: Erg Znaigui/Oued El Jdaid: 38.0 km

Press release:

Weather at 8.00am: 19.8 °C; 40% humidity
Weather at 12.00pm: 40.0 °C; 16% humidity

Men ranking stage 2
1.Mohamad Ahansal (1) 2h49m24s
2.Salameh Al Aqra (71) 2h50m38s
3.Jorge Aubeso (622) 2h54m18s
4.Aziz El Akad (28) 2h55m13s
5.Samir Akhdar (2) 3h05m38s
6.Lhoucine Akhdar (3) 3h05m38s
7.Mustapha Ait Amar (4) 3h07m19s
8.Hamid Larhalmi (319) 3h07m19s
9.Mohammad Al Swaiti (70) 3h08m06s
10.Lorenzo Trincheri (458) 3h08m16s

14. Ian Sharman (821) 3h31m46s
(16th position overall)

Women ranking stage 2
1. Touda Didi (6) 3h54m26s

Runners awoke with a smile on their lips. The dunes belonged to the past, but they did some damage (6 competitors gave up), cooling down the least experienced competitors’ ardour. Today’s stage, with less sand and more rocky surfaces, was done with at infernal speed (13,5km per hour) by the lead runners, and most notably the two favourites Mohamad Ahansal (1) and Salameh Al Aqra’ (71) who never let go of their top positions. On the finish line, the Jordanian competitor, who seemed happy enough with his second rank, paid homage to his Moroccan rival: “yes, yes, he’s the champ”. Mohamad looked at him, thanked him, but didn’t seem to believe him: “the race is far from finished”. The Spanish runner Jorge Aubeso (622) gave renewed proof of his great shape, with a beautiful third ranking. He’s now fully reassured as to his knee trouble and can officially admit at last he would like to finish amongst the first three.

On the women’s side, Toda Didi keeps shining. Not only was she the first woman to reach the finish line, but she came 33rd in the general ranking.
Runners went through a village called Jdaid where a cooperative workshop, a day centre for children and a health centre were built in 2007 thanks to the work of the EAUSOLEIL charity, yet another sign that the Marathon des Sables is not just a sporting competition…

Ian says:

So, day 2 and I hadn’t suffered the problems from 2006, so was feeling confident. Although I’d limped around the evening before, once my feet were bandaged and back was taped up, I felt fine. Not ideal for a normal race, but definitely good for the desert. And the road book showed that the 23.8 miles for the day was on easier terrain than the dunes of the previous day. But it’s very difficult to know how hard the going will be from the descriptions since ‘wadi’, meaning soft soil in a dry river bed, can either mean a soft, difficult, sand-like soil or something a bit harder and easier to run on.

Now that I was happy with my general tactics of carrying the water bottle in my hand and pushing harder on the flatter, solid ground, I thought I’d push harder to start with until at least checkpoint 1 at 7.6 miles. So after Mr Bauer’s morning talk (6 people dropped out, 3 Brits had ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to them), we all set off and I went out with the leaders.

Now’s probably a good time to mention the Ahansal brothers who anyone who knows much about the MdS will have heard of. Lahcen and Mohamad have led the field for 10 years, with Lahcen winning 10 times and Mohamad managing 9 2nd places (and one 4th, I believe). Lahcen had decided not to run so at least that meant everybody else was 1 position higher and Mohamad must have been over the moon at the thought of being the favourite. Unsurprisingly, Mohamad had won the first day by a comfortable 16 minutes and I’m not giving much away to say that he dominated the race. But he didn’t win every stage, only doing enough to be within sight of the leaders so they couldn’t take more than a minute out of his lead each day. It was impressive to see how comfortable he was and amusing to see the top 10 usually go off faster than him but then he’d catch them within a couple of miles and lead from the front (usually).

However, my daily satisfaction at each start was from staying ahead of him for half a mile or so, not from sprinting but just because it was always easier to run at the start of the day and the ground was usually firmer since it was close to the bivouac.

The first few miles went quickly and the temperature was still relatively low. I went through checkpoint 1 in 11th but a few guys behind me were catching up and overtook while I stuffed 3 salt tablets into my mouth and downed some water. Even spending 30 seconds at the checkpoint was more than the top 20 usually did, but it was worth taking a brief few seconds to prepare for the next section.

The going continued to be firm for a couple more miles but the runners just behind me went past and I dropped a few positions as the heat and fatigue from day 1 started to take their toll. One of them, a Portuguese guy, had played leap-frog with me the day before so he gave me a pat on the shoulder and a thumbs-up. But most just ran past with almost no acknowledgement – these guys were serious so each position counted to them…and now to me. With some ‘undulating’ terrain (according to the helpful road book), including a wadi made of the largest speed bumps in the world, I surprised myself by finding a rhythm and gradually catching the guys in front.

This momentum kept up over the grey salt flats and I was feeling strong and enjoying my MP3 player. I later learned that this area got particularly hot later in the day, but it was only about 10:30am for me and a gentle breeze meant the 30-something degree heat was fine. Then after one more brief section of wadi was checkpoint 2, at 15.2 miles, where I again took a few seconds where the others zoomed through.

Although the desert scenery can vary significantly and much more than I’d expected, it’s still based around a similar theme and is repetitive. Not in a boring way, but just so that it can be difficult to discern memories of what bits of the course were where, even just after finishing that day’s stage. However, the section I do remember most for the day was the Jdaid cooperative, a collective farming village set up using funds raised through previous MdS races. As well as having the traditional square mud buildings, it also had people in the streets cheering and a kiosk selling drinks and snacks. Unfortunately the rules state self-sufficiency, but I’m sure someone but have been tempted by a cool drink.

I was running close to two other runners, both from France and had overtaken them on the approach to the cooperative, but couldn’t quite work out what position I was. The placing was becoming more important since it looked like I could have a good run rather than just aim to finish the event. It also gives something to focus on and motivate tired muscles. Apart from these two, I couldn’t see anyone else ahead or behind.

Once we’d wound through this area, I could see some black hills (a Jebel in the local lingo, meaning anything from a big hill to a mountain) ahead and the flags and vehicles of checkpoint 3, at 20.9 miles at the base. I walked the last couple of hundred metres over sand so I could take on some of the food of the Gods, Kendal mint cake, for the first time while running. This sickly sweet food is basically pure sugar and is great for replenishing carbs as well as giving a quick boost. Many can’t stand it, but I’m a big fan after the help it gave me, time and time again, when I was flagging and needed to be pepped up.

One of the Frenchmen behind almost caught me up then walked up to the checkpoint as well. But since I’d had my pit-stop just before the pit, I was able to go straight through without really stopping. I was then presented with a 300m climb on sand and had no intention of doing anything more than a walk up it. It takes a toll to go up the numerous climbs in the MdS, but I liked them even when on sand. They gave me a good excuse to walk and rest and know that nobody would overtake me.

At the top, I could see many miles ahead and everything was covered by black rocks, varying from fist-size to boulders. The important thing, psychologically, was that I could see bivouac 3, just 2.5 miles ahead. The combination of the sugar rush and elation at seeing the finish line made me start running again and go much quicker. Although the two Frenchmen had virtually caught me up, I ran as if it was the start of the race, not the end. I leapt over boulders, almost sprinted up and down steep little valleys and eventually got on to a rolling track which took me in for the final mile. I managed to put some distance between the Frenchman and myself and flew across the line feeling like I’d just won the stage.

On crossing the line I was directed to the reception tent and told I’d have to go through a kit check because I was within the top 20 for the day. I was under the impression that the leaders didn’t really have all the required kit and also got food off the Berbers, so was surprised by this check. Would I be randomly tested for drugs too? Well, no, but they did make sure I had all the (light) compulsory items, weighed my full bag (7.5kg or 17lb) and weighed my food to estimate whether I had enough calories. They weren’t very fussy so I’d guess that the leaders can get away with the bare minimum and have overly light food as well.

Later on I found out I was 14th and had moved up to 16th overall, so the extra effort had been worth it. I’d managed a whopping 6.7mph for the day, not exactly pushing the boundaries of the speed of light. But the speed doesn’t do justice to the conditions and requirement to run using a backpack. And who cares? – I’d actually had fun during the race rather than just in memories, later on, of having completed it successfully.

I spent the remainder of the day relaxing as the temperatures continued to rise. I’d finished just after midday and the peak temperature hadn’t been reached yet. The official camp temperature at 12pm was 40 °C, but it certainly got hotter later on and I was very glad not to be in the furnace for too long. I was also being extra careful with my salt tablets and took the recommended 3 tablets with each 1.5L bottle of water every time. I wasn’t going to allow the problems from 2006 to spoil my performance this time round.

My back had got worse and rubbed to the sides, above and below the bandages. Plus my feet had a couple more blisters, mainly from impacts with so many rocks along the route. Not one grain of sand had got through my gaiters, so thanks Mum for making such a good set.

I still required a trip to the Doc’s but I just got my own bandages and red cleaning fluid for the toes, which they ripped off the zinc oxide tape from my raw back. I’d expected a lot of pain from this, but it was bearable – the back still had a battering to take and would get worse. After that I got into the email queue and sent Amy an update.

Throughout the afternoon the rest of tent 109 came in, all looking fit and healthy and in differing states of tiredness. Sam and Little Paul were the last in, but everybody’s mood was still good and the injuries hadn’t taken too much of a toll. The evening email distribution perked us up further, although Big Paul still hadn’t received anything since he’d told people back home not to bother emailing him…he still looked a little disappointed.

All of us in the tent felt energetic enough to take on the next day and only had to get through one more stage before we’d be at the ‘long day’ on day 4. This was on our minds and we all talked through the days so far, agreeing that day 1 had been harder thanks to the large dunes. The long day still seemed far off, but we knew that we’d need to be as fresh as possible to get through the double-length stage of 47 miles. No point worrying, though, since all we could do is stick to our game plans and hope that no injuries appear.

The wind through the night was noisy and the tent flapped around to add to the disturbance. Most people in the camp slept worse than the previous nights, but in the absence of full-blown sand-storms we had to count ourselves as lucky.

01/04/2008 - Stage 3: Oued El Jdaid/Ba Hallou: 40.5 km

Press release:

Weather at 8.00am: 19.7 °C; 24% humidity
Weather at 12.30pm: 48.0 °C; 11% humidity

Men stage 3 ranking
1-Salameh Al Aqra (71) 3h13m02s
2-Mohamad Ahansal (1) 3h13m27s
3-Aziz El Akad (28) 3h16m05s
4-Mustapha Ait Amar (4) 3h18m05s
5-Jorge Aubeso (622) 3h24m01s
6-Hamid Larhalmi (319) 3h37m03s
7-Samir Akhdar (2) 3h37m09s
7-Lhoucine Akhdar (3) 3h37m09s
9-Gilles Diehl (141) 3h39m50s
9-Lorenzo Trincheri (458) 3h39m50s

18-Ian Sharman (821) 4h17m12s
(16th position overall)

Women stage 3 ranking
1-Touda Didi (6) 4h41m08s

Today’s heat was simply stunning, with incredibly beautiful and ever changing landscapes. The desert is most certainly not some boringly lengthy flat piece of land - far from it. Here one goes within minutes from golden sand dunes to black marbled mountains, from a white dried-out lake to reddish peaks that wouldn’t be out of place in classic Western movies. A feast for the eyes. Both for onlookers and for competitors, who were taken by today’s course through most of what the desert can offer in terms of relief. Only 787 of them were left on the starting line this morning, and those were rather anxious about the long and hot stage ahead. Salameh Al Aqra’ (71) didn’t mind, choosing today to challenge Mohamad Ahansal (1): he started off at full speed and kept the lead all through the heat, winning it with panache but not managing to shake off the Moroccan favourite. In Mohamad’s words: “we played cat and mouse”. Spanish competitor Jorge Aubeso (622) got a bit lost in the dunes of the Easter Erg, ending up in 5th position, and rather tired too.

The bivouac is set at the foot of the impressive bar of the Jhing El Jebel, which means runners will have a very precise view of the 1000 metres sandy climb awaiting them tomorrow, as opening for the long 75km stage. Looking up to the mountain, Mohamad Ahansal speaks of “bou’ou”, a monster scaring children off in the Moroccan oral tradition. Like everyone else, he can hardly think of anything else but tomorrow…

As a special treat to his runner, Patrick Bauer ran today’s heat. Tapping into his last reserves, he reached the finish line just one second behind Patrick “Paddy” Haddock, as he’s known to his friends, advised our very own Pat to drink lots of water.

Ian says:

The morning routine was becoming a normal way of life by day 3. Wake up to the sounds of camp taking a morning toilet stop and chatter starting up, usually about how well or badly people slept and whether they were kept awake by wind flapping the tent sides. Our tent had half collapsed during some wind with the main two poles falling down but we’d propped them back up. A couple of tents hadn’t bothered and luckily we didn’t have anything you could call a sandstorm, but we’d all managed to eat some grains as we slept (surely that’s a few extra calories for the day and a positive thing?).

As the sun started to rise above the horizon the Berbers had already begun dismantling the tents and leaving us to the elements. Usually it’s not too cold or windy that early in the morning, but if you’re unlucky then those who do the final pre-race bandaging of their feet, back or wherever may have to contend with some flying sand.

Eventually we got to the start line and Patrick did his thing while we eagerly anticipated the race. Another eight had become ‘abandons’ (the French name for those who had dropped out), taking the remaining total to 787, still a decent proportion for this point in the event. Then the top 20 names were called out and each country cheered for their own competitors. Unfortunately Monsieur Bauer couldn’t pronounce my first name and other Brits only really knew that name so most of them missed it. We were asked to come to the front and they checked our bibs to make sure the sponsors’ names were visible. We then got squeezed on to the start line at the front.

According to the road book there would be a few dunes again, but everyone in my tent believed that we’d conquered the main sand sections on the first day. We later found out that the traditional dune day, day 3, was just as traditional as ever. And with 25.3 miles for the stage, there was a lot of sand to run through.

Starting at the front, I made sure I kept with the leaders for as long as felt comfortable, especially on the harder ground. It wasn’t even a mile before the top guys started pulling away and I made sure I counted how many were ahead so I could know my position. I also spotted other guys who I’d been running close to on other days and aimed to stay with the same faces.

Even in the mid-morning, the temperature was noticeably hotter than on previous days. Checkpoint 1 was just after the first main section of dunes at 8.1 miles, but much of the course up to that point was soft. I decided to follow the competitors in front rather than use my compass through the dunes and we were fine climbing up and down these ones, coming out on target for the CP. It was much easier tackling the sand earlier due to feeling fresher and cooler temperatures, so I felt good going through that first CP. I’d not even walked at this point and was around 11th, but had assumed that the duns would ease up after the CP and they didn’t.

Instead I had more than three miles more of orange sand (it does vary, although it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate). My feet didn’t feel bad and the rubbing on my back was just a dull ache, so the only problem was the fatigue that sand running rapidly causes. I wanted to slow down but three people had already overtaken me including the top American, Ted Archer, who I’d managed to chat to at various points. When the Eurosport helicopter circled me I felt I had to put in some extra effort, so my walking was delayed for a few minutes.

Towards the end of the dunes I could see the next section, Foum Al Hopaht Jebel, and I had to walk and take on calories. When you’re feeling light-headed it’s time to rapidly take on some salt tablets and sugar, so I did both and stuffed as much Kendal mint cake into my mouth as I could. It didn’t matter that a few more people went by me since it was only 12 miles into the day and everyone has their low, lethargic points at different times.

The food helped and I got moving in a power-walk to the base of the climb. There were a lot of tricky rocks and sand to navigate through so walking was the only realistic option on the way up. It wasn’t too far and ten minutes later I had reached the top. Then I got jogging again in anticipation of easier conditions but in less than a mile we were back into dunes again after some soft ground in-between.

I found it very frustrating that I couldn’t move fast over the sand and resigned myself to thinking about the race as a full week which required rationing my energy and effort appropriately. So as the heat increased I found myself alternating between walking and running through the dunes, trying to follow the competitors around me.

It wasn’t a good sign that I saw the guys ahead stop on the ridge of a dune, look around, then look back. They were lost and knew it, but we all went on regardless since CP2 wasn’t far away. Unfortunately we then ended up half a mile to the left of the correct route and immediately had to turn right at the edge of the dunes. We found out because of an organiser’s vehicle which was driving around the edge of the dunes to redirect lost runners. Just before that point I saw some French runners nip ahead of me since they’d gone the direct route over the sand. Later on I found out from speaking to others that we weren’t the only ones to get lost on those dunes, but once CP2 arrived a couple of miles later, I felt a renewed resolve that there were less than 10 miles left and surely that must be the end of the dunes?

It was after midday and it felt much hotter than the previous days. According to the official bivouac readings, it was 48 °C at 12:30pm and that wasn’t even the peak for the day. More dunes and another opportunity to get slightly lost meant that I added further distance to the course unnecessarily. I couldn’t believe we had another section of dunes and also couldn’t believe that the locals who were spectating at this point had left footprints everywhere to give us no idea of which to follow. Again I walked more and took on salt and Kendal mint cake to pep myself up. I strode through the sand feeling increasingly annoyed with the energy-sapping surface but it ended after a couple of miles. Then the group I was running with found that we’d gone off course by half a mile and had to detour back on to the direct route.

I could see flatter ground ahead and therefore a string of competitors going on for a couple of miles into the distance. Given the terrain had eased up I focused on running solidly through the rest of the course and catching as many of them as possible. The mint cake had given me a turbo boost which I didn’t want to waste.

Gradually I got closer to one after another of the guys ahead but the varying routes over the earlier dunes meant I had no idea what position I was. CP3 was less than 4 miles from the end, which seemed like nothing. Even the increasing temperatures can’t faze you once you know you’re almost home and dry. So I ran and felt strong through the mixture of soft soil, sand and harder ground, just thinking about how close the finish was.

The last 700m was on gravel and I virtually sprinted when I reached this since the finish line was just ahead. Plus a Spaniard with tattoos all over his arms had drawn level and I was up for a race to the end. Ahead was the French Rasta and I locked on to him to see if I could catch him, but he had a big lead and I could only reduce it as the adrenaline rushed through me.

Crossing the line I was surprised to not be directed for the kit check, but when I asked I was told only the top 15 required a check from that point onwards. That told me I was outside those positions and I found out that I’d managed to crawl up to 18th through the last few miles. I assumed I’d drop overall, but stayed in 16th.

It was time to relax and get out the scorching heat, but the lack of wind meant that the tents were as hot as an oven to sit in. The camp was almost empty since so few had finished, but I made sure that as the first few Brits came to the tents around me I said hi. This meant it wasn’t lonely, although I felt so exhausted that lying down on my own also felt just perfect.

This time I didn’t bother with a visit to Doc Trotters since my feet weren’t really any worse and I didn’t want to take the back strapping off in advance of the 47-miler in the morning. It didn’t hurt much and I didn’t want to reopen any cuts unless absolutely essential.

Instead I headed to the email tent, which opened at 2pm each day. Not many people were in by this time so the big queues could be avoided by turning up 15 minutes before it opened and being in the first bunch of people in the queue. It wasn’t a place you wanted to wait around since there was only space in the tent for about 10-15 people to wait and standing around outside in the hottest part of the day wasn’t a smart plan. Mind you, we spent so long out in the sun during the stages that it shouldn’t have felt like an effort. But it was, and it certainly wouldn’t have helped with recovery and rehydration.

I sent off my email to Amy and gave her a short race report at the end. I hoped she’d get it since I hadn’t heard from her apart from on day 1 and a couple of the other emails I’d received were more than a day old. I assumed I’d get several all together and let her know about the delays since I knew she’d worry, especially if my emails weren’t getting through to her. At least I was able to receive some contact from the outside world, which is a big comfort when in the middle of nowhere. And some of the messages were even from friends of friends (runners) who had heard that my race was going really well and wanted to encourage me.

I’d also had emails from mates with the usual banter to tell me to put some effort in or that they were looking at the results while eating a huge steak and having a cold beer. Anything to put a smile on your face is good, although I was finding that the whole spirit of the event was keeping me going all on its own and I was already feeling great before the messages each day. Mind you, part of that was because I’d successfully got through another day of extreme effort without mishap, which is bound to lead to a high.

Afternoon turned to evening and the rest of tent 109 came in, with Mike leading the charge. We all boiled our water and ate from our dehydrated food packets. I love chilli con carne and so was looking forward to it, but this version wasn’t tasty and had a bit too much of a kick to it. That was a shame since it was the only meal which I’d brought two of.

Night time arrived and we had the long day to look forward to so we discussed it while eating and getting ready for bed. None of us was fazed by the idea of running so far in the heat and we felt that once it was over we’d have broken the back of the race and it’d be plain sailing from that point. In hindsight, that still seems reasonable because day 4 is the day when people find out whether they have a good or a bad MdS. Some have gone too fast on the first three days and slow drastically or get stomach problems. That had happened to the top Brit in 2007 so I wanted to make sure that my good race to that point could turn into a good MdS instead of being a lesson for future racers in what not to do. It was a chance for me to gain some time on the positions ahead or to lose a lot of positions and ruin the entire experience. No pressure then, right?

02/04/2008 - Stage 4: Ba Hallou/Oued Ahssia: 75.5 km

Press release:

Weather at 8:00 am: 17.5 °C; 23% humidity
Weather at 12:00 am: 34.1 °C; 16% humidity
Weather at 2:00 pm: 47.0 °C; 11% humidity

Men stage 4 ranking:
1. Salameh Al Aqra’ (71) 6h32m51s
2. Mohamad Ahansal (1) 6h33m07s
3. Aziz El Akad (28) 6h43m30s
4 Ait Amar Mustapha (4) 06h48m10s
5 Akhdar Samir (2) 06h57m06s
6 Aubeso Martinez Jorge (622) 07h05m05s
7 Larhalmi Hamid (319) 07h23m55s
8 Akhdar Lhoucine (3) 07h33m01s
9 Al Swaiti Mohammad (70) 07h33m40s
10 Trincheri Lorenzo (458) 07h34m00s
10 Olmo Marco (460) 07h34m00s

19. Ian Sharman (821) 8h42m40s
(14th position overall)

Stage 4 Women ranking
1 Didi Touda (6) 10h40m02s

It’s obviously the main course on the MDS menu, the mythical stage everyone is most longing for or dreading: 75.5 km to pit oneself against the desert and, even more so, against one’s own resources. Rather merciful weather conditions allowed both waves of runners to set off with a smile, at a three hours interval. An opportunity for the slowest runners to admire the leaders’ pace and, often, to stop and cheer them.
This stage is a “tour de force” not only for the runners but also for the organisation: everyone has to give its best, especially in the night time. A laser guided the competitors who also have luminous sticks and distress flares. Doctors and race officials were spread along the course in six check points. They did not get more sleep than the runners, staying up all night, under the supervision of two most useful helicopters. Today more than ever, managing the race is a real challenge. Some competitors plan to run straight to the next bivouac; others will be making good use of the last three check points to get some rest and have a bite to eat.

Regarding the course, this stage is in two phases: an extremely difficult first one, with a terribly steep climb (25% slope factor), and an easier 2nd one, with flat and straight grounds, an opportunity for the lead of the race to have a bit of a fight.

One thing’s for sure though: tomorrow night, all competitors will be champions.

Ian says:

The long day IS the MdS. If you make it through in one piece, you’re almost guaranteed to finish. So it’s the day that everyone tries to save something for in the hope that they don’t start it too tired or injured. Unfortunately, the wind had howled through most of the night so sleep was interrupted, which wasn’t ideal preparation for the toughest day of a hard-as-nails event.

This year was longer than usual at 47.2 miles, reflecting that the overall distance of the race was the longest ever. To add to this challenge, there’s a big disincentive to doing too well on the first three days since the top fifty men and top five women start three hours after the rest of the field. That means the faster runners miss out on the cooler morning and have several hours to kill with nothing much to do.

It was interesting to watch the field go off at 9:15 (just a few minutes late) and to be a spectator cheering them on. There was a serious, but excited level of tension as many people got ready for the longest run of their lives with a battered, bruised body, a backpack and as much bravery as they could muster. They trundled off at varying speeds and with many different limps, right through the middle of the camp. That left a few of the staff and the faster competitors. I felt a bit sorry for the ladies, except the top ranked woman, since they were much further down the rankings and were likely to be on their own almost from the start line.

I also felt a little sorry for myself to have to run right through the hottest part of the day and even into the night. To avoid night running, I’d need to finish at about 7pm. Given we were starting late thanks to the mass start being delayed, this meant I’d need to do finish within 6h45m. So only the first couple of runners would manage this and also a few of the early starters. I wanted to get in within nine hours, which felt like a very achievable target. In hindsight I should have aimed to put a little more pressure on myself because the long day is the one where it’s easiest to gain positions and eat into the lead of people ahead. When people fade over such a long distance, a lot of time can be added to their total, while the shorter stages don’t penalise blow-outs as badly. This was proved when a couple of the guys ahead of me had problems and ended up several hours behind me and completely out of the top rankings.

As we waited in the couple of tents they’d left up for us, it seemed lonelier than usual. There wasn’t much chat and everyone was focused on preparations for the day, both mental and physical. During the whole morning, a cold gale blew through the area and I wished I could be running in it, rather than shivering in a tent. But by the start time it was predictably hot. I’d tried sunbathing on a dune to relax and kill half an hour and I’d almost fallen asleep listening to my music.

So I was a little sleepy and not quite as motivated as usual when we gathered round a Landrover for the start. Patrick Bauer said the same he’d talked about with the mass start, so most of us had already heard his weather forecast (hot) and how many people had dropped out the previous day (just five). We wanted to go, mainly just to get it over with and to get some miles under our belts before it got really hot.

Then we were off and running towards a very large Jebel 4.7 miles ahead, the biggest climb yet. We had a couple of miles of decent, hard ground and the leaders only gradually pulled away and were still visible at the foot of Jebel El Oftal. The ground had started to slope upwards well in advance of the foot of the steep hill, but once we hit it, everyone was forced to walk. 25% slopes over rocks meant we were in single file, but certainly better off than the early starters who hit this trail in a large group and had to virtually climb over each other. I later found out that one competitor was given a five-hour fine for dangerous climbing, causing rocks to fall on the people below him. We didn’t have this problem and I was firmly set around 12th with enough gaps between everyone to be able to concentrate on our individual climbs.

One section of the slope had ropes to make it easier to get up, but these weren’t really necessary for the faster runners. I got to the top and had a great view of the plain ahead, but firstly had to fly down the rocky other side of the slope. Usually I love downhill, even over the rockiest and difficult terrain, but it hurt a fair bit to jump around on the rocks with blisters and sore feet. I didn’t have much choice and had to go with my usual running style, so felt a few blisters pop and a few more surface. At least I was overtaking people and feeling good, unlike the tail-enders of the early start that I’d caught up with at only six miles into the race. This meant they’d taken four hours and would really struggle to get through the stage, especially allowing for inevitable slow down later on. Yet they still had a cheery ‘Bravo’ for everyone who passed, assuming most spoke French. That was a fair assumption since the top fifty had just two Brits, a couple of Yanks and a couple of Aussies – English was not the dominant language in the race.

After running down the rocks like I was in a 10-mile fell race, I’d gained a couple of places and could see the flags of checkpoint one. The only downer was that there was half a mile of dunes first. By this point I’d just about reconciled myself to the fact that a desert race with the word ‘sand/sables’ in the title wouldn’t be the same without the annoying slog through dunes every day. Unsurprisingly a few people overtook on the sand then we were through the checkpoint with everyone barely taking a second to sort out their water or salt tablets. This definitely felt like a race and we weren’t tired enough yet to be slowing.

The next seven miles were over flatter, easier ground, described by the road book merely as ‘not very stony’. As long as the words ‘sand,’ ‘Jebel’ and ‘wadi’ aren’t mentioned, you know it’s relatively faster going. This was exactly the case so I powered on even though the heat was really starting to flare as the time moved through 1:30pm. We came up to the back of the main field, which meant the rest of the day would be less lonely than usual with a constant stream of people to follow. It was easy to spot the top fifty since they were running while the main field walked. Plus they tended to be skinnier with backpacks half the size, oh, and mainly French. There was a large team from northern France called Legendre Bretagne with runners all around the position I was in, wearing red T-shirts. This meant I was always leap-frogging bib numbers 140-146 and had a constant race with them for the positions. 141 was the fastest and was around the top ten, so I’d barely even seen him except in the daily rankings on paper.

This section of the race was typical since I spent the whole of the section to checkpoint 2 either just ahead or just behind the serious French guys. It helps to force more effort out of fatigued legs, but that can be dangerous so early in a race over this kind of distance. I’d not even reached the second checkpoint of seven, but I’ve learnt that while things feel good it’s worth pushing a little more.

I found myself running with the American, Ted, but at checkpoint 2, in a valley between two hills, I let him go ahead so I could walk and take on some of the magic Kendal mint cake. I heard a couple of shouts of ‘Go on Ian’ coming from the tents at the checkpoint, but couldn’t see exactly who had shouted. It felt good to have a larger pack of people to run with and virtually everyone I passed said some words of encouragement, or even told me my position. The latter seemed helpful at the time but was never very accurate.

As I walked for a few minutes, a couple of others overtook, but even at this stage the field was spread amongst the faster runners. Ahead was a few miles of salt flats with more ominous Jebels at the end and since I felt great after topping up on food and drink I got going at a decent pace. It was another of those moments in the race when I felt completely relaxed and, well, content. The running felt comfortable and I was able to take in the desolate scenery around me with the soundtrack from my MP3 player. Then a track came on from around the millennium – ‘Storm’ with ‘Time to Burn.’ The upbeat trance music was the perfect background music for how I felt and the limited lyrics made me smile. Over and over again as I raced through the desert in temperatures in the upper forties, the vocalist sang ‘It’s time to burn.’ Well, it made me smile anyway and I managed an extra spurt while it was on.

The salt flats didn’t last long and switched to sand at the foot of the day’s second Jebel, Ras Khemmouna. Like everyone else, I walked up it, trying to step on rocks as often as possible to climb more efficiently. I caught Big Paul at the bottom of the Jebel and he noticed me far enough away that he took a photo, which kind of took me by surprise. When I saw it back at camp I was surprised that it looked like I was walking, yet I’d still been jogging when he took it. The ascent was only a quarter of a mile so didn’t take too much energy. I actually enjoyed each climb since it was an excuse to power-walk and not lose positions.

Once I’d got to the top I could see a fair distance ahead but couldn’t spot CP3, which was a few miles ahead and round the corner behind another Jebel. I had a short, stony valley to cross before this second climb, but it was noticeably smaller. At this point I saw the top French runner, number 141, walking along in the valley and asked him, ‘ça va?’ as I went past. Usually people answer that they’re fine even if they’re really struggling, so when he shook his head I knew he was spent. I thought he’d drop out, but I saw him in the results later on with a time in the middle of the field – his race was effectively over and all that was left was to plod to the finish each day and collect his medal.

After summiting the smaller hill, the trusty road book described the route to CP3 as a ‘sandy passage’ which didn’t sound appealing for several reasons. The sand around this part of the desert was of a deep, orange-red hue. Only when looking back at pictures of the race can I appreciate the variety of the scenery and that much of it is stunning. But while I was doing a combination of jogging and walking through it, I just wanted the bloody ground to be more solid.

A couple more people overtook me during the walking sections up to CP3, but I was focusing on conserving energy for later. It was the hottest part of the day and I wanted to be able to keep up a decent pace the whole way rather than blowing up, especially after seeing the French guy going slowly. I went through my usual routine at the checkpoint of taking on salt tablets and a little food, but only spending seconds before moving on. I’d reached 22 miles and still wasn’t even at halfway after around 3.5 hours. There was still a long way to go but I was still feeling ok and the temperatures would start falling within an hour or two. I’d hit the middle of the pack and so there were a lot of competitors around, but I couldn’t spot any of the top 50 within view.

Just ahead was yet another Jebel, Mhadid Al Elahau. I took the opportunity to walk and take it a little easier, but had to weave in and out of the walkers all around me who were climbing more slowly and looked tired. Not surprising since they’d been out since 9:15am and were almost seven hours into their race. Seven hard, hot hours that sap what little energy that is left from previous days. Plus sand isn’t kind on blisters because feet move around more in the shoes as they sink with each step. Climbing through sand exacerbates the effect.

At the top was a ridge overlooking two valleys. I could see one of the Frenchmen ahead so concentrated on reeling number 143 in instead of gazing at the beautiful vista. Plenty of the competitors were taking photos along the route each day, but I was counting on being able to get copies so hadn’t even brought a camera. Every little bit of weight saved makes the race easier, so I’d opted to forego luxuries like that and only really had my tiny MP3 player as an extravagance. I caught Mr 143 then got to the end of the ridge and took bounding leaps down the sandy trail to get back to the lower level.

So far I’d not had too many problems with the race and had stayed mentally strong and positive. I’d been frustrated with the sand at several occasions but had not yet thought to myself that the course was really tough. That may sound odd, but what I mean is that I’d not had any moments where I questioned why I’d want to take part in something so hellish. This had almost disappointed me because I wanted it to be the challenge of a lifetime and I’d found it more manageable than expected.

However, from the sandy jog down to the next section of salt flats was over four miles of fine sand on a slight incline upwards. By no means was this the toughest section of a stage I’d met, but at around the marathon distance and after over four hours in the baking heat, it demoralised me. I tried to jog but it felt like I was running underwater and used too much energy. I thought of people back home and particularly Amy. She’d recorded a couple of messages for me which I’d put on to my MP3 player so I shuffled through to find one of them. That took me away from the current difficulties and put things in perspective. I power-walked much of this section and chatted to some of the Brits I passed, but still found it hard-going. Many Brits had Union Jack flags somewhere on their clothes or backpack, as other nationalities did with their own flags. It was a conversation starter at least, since I knew that by speaking in English I’d get a response.

At about 28 miles into the stage I started jogging again as the terrain got easier with salt flats. I’d managed to rest while walking so felt good again and kept a decent pace for the next mile to CP4. The sun was lower in the sky and the temperature was cooler, but still more than warm. I always find that a good way to get through distance races is to break it down into smaller parts; therefore I set myself the target of reaching CP5 before dark. This meant I had well over an hour to do almost eight miles.

The terrain was described as uneven but was much better than the previous sandy section. With my target in mind to motivate me I started off at a good pace, running due west into the setting sun. Even with the sand goggles on the sun was too bright so I kept my head bent down to use my cap to block the sun. Every few seconds I had to look up to make sure I wasn’t veering off in the wrong direction, especially due to the meandering route I had to take over the bumpy ground.

Now I was steaming along and overtaking the main pack quickly since they were, unsurprisingly, still all walking. I also caught a few more of the top 50, including number 143 who’d zoomed off into the distance during my long, sandy walking section. Chasing people down is always a boost in any race, so it felt great to be heading the right direction through the rankings. Several Brits recognised me as the lead Brit and shouted encouragement at me, which added to the sense of camaraderie and patriotism. I felt that I wasn’t just running it for myself or even for the charity I was raising money for, Facing Africa. I even felt some national pride and wanted to do well so that there’d be a Brit up near the top of the field.

I only had a brief walk during this section of the course so was soon at CP5, just as the sun was disappearing over the horizon. I’d managed to beat the sun so knew I just had one more checkpoint before the finish line, but still ten miles to go. Along the way I’d spotted my tent mates except Mike, who I assumed I’d missed at one of the checkpoints where a lot of people take a break out of the sun and/or see the docs. So I was surprised to see Mike so late on as I left CP5 and knew he was having a great race. He’d managed to get higher and higher placings each day and was strong through the long day too.

I kept running as long as I could, knowing that when the sunlight completely faded, it’d be tough to see anything using my head-torch. Mine was a relic from the 2006 MdS and wasn’t bright enough to allow me to run in the dark as I could only see a couple of feet ahead. Plus the cool dusk was much easier to run in.

Within a few minutes it was dark and the green glow-sticks which we were each given to put on our backpacks were visible. These were handed out at the checkpoints just before it got dark since they’d need to last through ‘til sunrise for many people. It was a surreal sight to be jogging through the Sahara desert at night, miles from civilisation and following a line of green glow-sticks ahead. At first I found it fun and enjoyed the novelty, but the remainder of the stage was wadi or sand. None of it was easy to run on and there was now the added difficulty of the Landrovers weaving in and out of the runners to search for anyone who has collapsed. They weren’t a danger but they did chop up the ground so that any harder crust was turned back into rough sand. The dust clouds they created also made it tougher to see the faint green glows ahead or the orange glow-sticks of the course markers. I admit that I shouted out at the cars a few times, just to be able to vent my fury.

I became irritated at the combination of sand, dust and the constant ploughing by the vehicles. The final straw was when I thought the checkpoint should be appearing and yet it still was nowhere to be seen. Every time I saw car lights in the distance I thought it was CP6 and each time it was wrong. I’d memorised how many miles each checkpoint was at but had got the wrong amount for CP6 so thought it was about a mile closer than it actually was. I’d also expected the checkpoints to have lasers pointing into the sky to direct people to them, but I didn’t see this at all as it only happened later in the night for some strange reason, so was surprised when I came upon CP6 with just five miles left.

I was tired and hungry and had promised myself one of my snack bars only when I reached CP6. I wolfed it down as I got my ration card stamped for my next bottle of water and that made it about 15L of water in total since the morning, but much of it I’d left at checkpoints. For those taking two days to do the stage, this amount of water is necessary, but it meant I’d be a little short for the rest day with just 4.5L for the entire day.

So there was just five miles left of the long day and exhaustion still hadn’t set in yet. I was emotionally drained from being out for almost eight hours with the last hour in the dark. I couldn’t remember what the road book had described the last section to be like so wasn’t amused when the sand kept going right to the end. I virtually gave up since I was close to the end but didn’t have the will to even attempt to run through the sandy tire tracks of the Landrovers. I walked for around three miles until I could see the faint lights of camp in the distance.

Then I realised just how much energy I still had left. The body can always do more than you expect and the weakest link is usually the brain. With the incentive of the finish line I started running faster than I had at any point during any of the stages so far. All I could see was a line of lights for a couple of vehicles and the well-lit finish area. Yet after a few minutes it was still just a vague blur on the horizon. In the darkness it seemed so close, but my eyes were able to pick up only the lights and there was no scenery to measure it against.

Gradually I could make out more detail and started to see the inflatables around the finish area. This spurred me on and I accelerated, running very freely over the, thankfully, harder ground. I flew past some of the main field, most of whom had started jogging as they got closer to the end. Then I was there and having my number ticked off while being directed to the water tent to get my rations. The final rush of adrenaline had overwhelmed me so there was no sense of achievement or relief, just thankfulness that I could rest.

The path to the water tent was lined by fluorescent green from more glow-sticks and I collected my three bottles of water to last through the next day. There weren’t many people in camp, but a few of the early starters had made it back as well as many of the late starters. I’d managed 8h42m so was under the 9h time limit I’d set myself and found out the next day that I was 19th for the stage. After such a fast finish I wished I’d put in the extra effort earlier when I’d struggled through the sand many times.

Mike came in 15 minutes after me, we both ate then I was able to go to sleep feeling satisfied with the day’s work and relieved that this time round I was virtually guaranteed to complete the race. With the overall results more spread out I knew that it’d be difficult to alter my position much due to much larger gaps between runners’ times. Looking back, it had been tough, but I felt fresher than I could have dared to hope and my feet and back weren’t too sore. I decided to leave it ‘til the morning to deal with any self-repairs which were required and had a very deep night’s sleep.

03/04/2008 - Stage 4 cont.: Ba Hallou/Oued Ahssia: 75.5 km and rest day

Press release:

Weather conditions at 5.30 am: 6.5 °C and 38% humidity
Weather conditions at 8.00 am: 16.0 °C and 24% humidity
Weather conditions at 12.00 am: 42.5 °C and 14% humidity

All competitors have got the same thing in mind: the worst is over… At 7 am this morning, 19 runners had given up just before or during the stage. Others kept arriving all through the night, making the finish line a very moving scene. All kinds of reactions could be seen: most often joy of course, but also pride, tears or sheer disbelief to have finally got through. The long line of head lamps guided by a green laser in the middle of the desert made a deeply poetical image, definitely the most striking moment of the race, suspended in time, to remain forever in everyone’s memory, be they competitors or staff.

Needless to say, the top runners arrived before nightfall, as did Moroccan competitor Touda Didi, who left her female challengers way behind. Unless something drastic happens, she should finish this stunning week with a well deserved title. She is two hours ahead of the second woman, Simone Kayzer, who will find it extremely difficult to catch up with her, despite her great experience on the MDS.

On the men’s side, Al Aqra is only sixteen minutes behind Mohamad Ahansal, not an impossible gap to fill. But the Jordanian will have to run a phenomenal stage tomorrow, and bet on some sudden weakness from the Moroccan favourite - something unlikely to happen from an athlete on top shape, well on his way to succeed his brother.

This “resting” day – only truly restful for the lead of the race – allows bodies to have a break, especially after huge temperature variations (35°C difference between night and day) and a course most competitors described as “really complex”. Tomorrow is the classic marathon day, a last test before the fairly easy final stage. Despite tiredness, and a blasting heat, there’s a definite sense of relief on the bivouac, nearly a holiday feel…

Ian says:

I woke at the usual time but with no danger of the tent being whipped off me since we’d be staying put for the whole day. Many runners were still to come in and most would have camped out for a few hours of kip at one of the checkpoints. This explained why there were fewer tents than usual at the bivouac and why there were two unfamiliar faces sleeping in the tent. I hadn’t noticed at first but soon saw that the six in our tent were not the usual six. The Baber brothers, Guy and Adrian, were our temporary buddies and it was interesting to meet new people and to get several perspectives on the last stage. We all agreed that there were longer stretches of sand than we’d expected and that the night section was particularly tough.

Guy and Adrian headed off soon after waking to their newly-assembled tent and we wondered when Little Paul and Sam would make it in. There wasn’t a long wait and they were soon back and cooking breakfast, looking remarkably rested. This was due to a brief sleep and rest at one of the checkpoints and a generally gentler pace which had allowed their energy reserves to stretch for the full distance. However, everyone’s feet were looking worse and Sam could barely fit his feet in his shoes. He told us that he saw a girl walking bare foot over the sand, which must have been through desperation and can’t have helped with infections.

Big Paul was in a bad mood as he awoke thanks to ants all around his sleeping bag. He kept slamming his flip flops on the ground to squash them, but we thought he was just in a bad mood because he was trying to sleep and there was a lot of noise in the bivouac, including our chat in the tent. Luckily we were able to get the Berbers to move our tent a few feet to avoid the ant’s nest, so that mini drama passed quickly.

We all chilled out during the day, visiting the docs to sort out various ailments, although I just got some extra bandages from them and didn’t take off my strappings over my back. I sent another email to Amy and was able to update her for the first time in two days. The time was going by so quickly and I’d get to see her very soon. I’d got through 110 miles and had just 43 to go, but it really felt like I’d done the hard bit – the marathon stage seemed short in comparison, then just a 17-miler on the last day to round it off. My 19th position from the long day had actually made my overall position improve thanks to some of the top guys dropping out or dropping hours down the rankings. I was now in 14th overall and just 7 minutes off 13th and 18 minutes ahead of 15th. This meant it was still possible to gain another position if I put a big effort in over the marathon stage. The guy ahead was the Frenchman, number 143, who had overtaken me in the rankings by running 20 minutes faster through the long stage, so I wanted to make up for this slip.

There wasn’t much to do in the bivouac so many people watched the competitors coming in. In 2006 there had been so many ‘abandons’ that the long day had been shortened from 45 miles to under 36 miles. This meant that a lot more people finished in the daylight of the day they left than in a typical year, so I’d not seen many people coming in on the rest day before. This time there were still a couple of hundred people out on the course at sunrise and they trickled in during the morning. 16 people had dropped out during the stage and the remaining 751 felt confident that they could complete the event.

After 31 hours from the start, at after 4pm on the second day of the stage, an announcement was made on the loudspeaker which I didn’t catch. What I noticed was the entire camp moving as one towards the finish line, so I joined them. I hope someone videoed it because it was like a scene from ‘Night of the Living Dead’ with several hundred zombies limping slowly in the same direction. The reason for the exodus was that the last runner was in sight, a Moroccan. He came in to great fanfare with all the film crews running with him at the end as well as a horde of staff acting as bouncers to keep the crowd out the way of his (and the cameras’) routes. Everyone cheered and it must have been a rewarding experience for him to be treated as a hero as he finished that hardest part of the race.

The rest of the day went by fast, with one notable event for me – a photo shoot for the Darbaroud website, the official race site. The organisers were doing portraits of various people and selected me because of my story of dropping out last time then coming back to settle the score with a promising run. They did a quick interview and took me over to the outside of the camp for a shoot. This was slightly painful because they firstly took photos of me in a sprinting block pose, with bent toes. After that they took several pictures of me jumping in the air in a running pose, which is just what my body didn’t want to do. But it was cool to have the profile go on the website and I got some comments about it via email while still in the desert. The thing which got the most attention from friends was that they described me as a ‘high-flying accountant’, which made it sound like I’d described myself that way. I’d said I was an economist (not a high-flying one, ha), but they were French and didn’t seem to understand what I meant.

During the afternoon we were told that we could collect a ‘surprise’ from the centre of the bivouac. This wasn’t a surprise to most because there were plenty of MdS veterans who had told everyone about the cold can of Coke offered to everyone on the rest day. I’d mentioned it to my tent buddies so was hoping I hadn’t got their hopes up for nothing. I was almost right – we were given a can of Pepsi, which went down very well and reminded us that a cold beer at the end of the race would be worth waiting for.

The evening arrived after a slightly cooler day, at ‘only’ 42 degrees. A large TV screen was set up in the centre of camp to show us the footage taken so far and the daily quick reports which were going out on Eurosport. It was great to see the race from the helicopter’s viewpoint and to see the top runners going over the dunes at pace. They even sneaked in one of the interviews I’d done with a camera crew after day 2 and it made me look forward to the official DVD which would arrive months after the end of the event. The scenery was captured for me in the video so it was fascinating to see where we’d run when not having to push my body to extremes.

After this most people went to bed, with the knowledge that the marathon stage, which had seemed so short, was still ahead and was still the second longest race we’d do during the week. Emails were distributed at this point and I was so happy to get tens of messages from various people who’d seen that the race was going well for me and wanted to wish me good luck. I also had about 10 emails from Amy since she’d seen my message from a few days ago telling her that her emails weren’t getting through. She’d realised what had been going wrong and had over-compensated by sending extra emails. Typical of her and very sweet so I was a happy boy as I lay down in the sleeping bag for the night.

04/04/2008 - Stage 5: Oued Ahssia/Isk N’Brahim: 42.2 km

Press release:

Weather conditions at 8.00am: 16.0 °C; 24% humidity
Weather conditions at 12.00pm: 46.7 C; 12% humidity

Stage 5 Men rankings
1. Aziz El Akad (28) 3h10m18s
2. Salameh Al Aqra (71) 3h10m36s
3. Mohamad Ahansal (1) 3h11m48s
4. Mustapha Ait Amar (4) 3h13m12s
5. Jorge Aubeso (622) 3h27m58s
6. Lorenzo Trincheri (458) 3h28m52s
7. Samir Akhdar (2) 3h32m55s
8. Lhoucine Akhdar (3) 3h32m55s
9. Hamid Larhalmi (319) 3h38m41s
10. Marco Olmo (460) 3h40m01s

12. Ian Sharman (821) 3h48m07s
(13th position overall)

Stage 5 Women rankings
1. Touda Didi (6) 4h14m29s

After the mythical 75.5 km stage, completed over two days and causing 19 competitors to give up comes the classic 42.2km marathon stage. This year’s edition of the MDS may have been lucky enough to be spared violent gusts of wind, but it got its full share of heat: temperatures went wild today, turning the race track into a proper furnace and giving each runner the feeling to be “sous le soleil, exactement” (“under the sun, precisely” as the Serge Gainsbourg song goes).

Today’s stage winner, Moroccan runner Aziz El Akad, is a true “classic marathon” expert; he was extremely motivated from the start. Together with Jordanian competitor Salameh Al Aqra’ he gave on-lookers the surreal spectacle of a final sprint. Mohamad Ahansal, happy to follow the fight from close behind, was escorted by many children all through the stage: “that’s what I did too, many years ago. I hope that one day they can run the MDS as official competitors”. Fellow Moroccan runners El Akad and Ait Amar consolidated their 3rd and 4th position in the general ranking, right before Spanish runner Jorge Aubeso.

As to amazing Touda Didi, the fireworks go on with no true challenger: no one can doubt she is simply the best.

Ian says:

Waking up on the marathon stage day I felt fine, knowing so much of the race was already completed. However, it didn’t take long to get nervous and excited about another long stage. I felt that I’d got a good MdS performance in the bag and as long as I could run a half decent performance today, I should have no pressure on the final day because my overall ranking should be safe.

I’m not sure that the rest day had allowed me to rest much so my legs felt slightly stiffer, rather than recovered. There was a feeling of certainty in the bivouac that the hard part of the event was over and that we’d all finish now. As we went over to the start, the large Theolia hot air balloon was positioned to provide shade and we had our daily round-up of Patrick’s information. He also told us about the concert planned for the evening, with the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra being helicoptered in to perform on a stage in the centre of camp. This is a standard part of the MdS and one of the things that makes it stand out as unique, even if it’s slightly odd. More on this at the end of the day.

We had started off the event with enthusiasm and confidence and this was fully on show as we went through the start line of Stage 5. The pace was noticeably faster than other days and some people, including myself, aimed to clock as decent a time as possible for the classic marathon distance. I set myself four hours as a target, knowing that this would leave me high in the rankings. My backpack felt a little lighter, but it hadn’t really been a problem the whole way through anyway. And my body was fatigued but capable of a decent effort for this stage, feeling much better than I usually do even the day after a normal marathon.

The first section was over mainly decent ground including a few mini dunes. At the start of a day sand and dunes are a lot more welcome, or at least less despised, so we motored through the miles, hitting CP1 (7.2 miles) in just over 50 minutes. I was around 10th and the American, Ted, was with me and the legendary old guy, Marco Olmo, was just behind. I suspected this wouldn’t last long – he’d beaten me on every single stage so far and never seemed to tire.

At CP1 was an ITV crew filming for a UK documentary who I’d chatted to a couple of times on camera. They tried to get me to say a few words but I was in racing mode and flew through the checkpoint only able to tell them, while running, that I had to keep pushing it hard. The checkpoint was at the foot of a small Jebel so we walked part of the way up that, then I flew down the other side of a stony, steep descent and put a few strides between the others and myself. I could still see the leaders in the distance so wanted to see how high I could finish.

A couple of miles of stony plateau kept the pace up, and then we hit the tough section of the course. It was sandy wadi from 10 miles in and some of it was like quicksand. I couldn’t keep up with some of the runners around me and was overtaken by a handful of them, even though I kept running and resolved not to walk if I could help it. The course meandered through a shallow valley but there was no let-up in the difficulty of the terrain. It continued for a few miles until I saw the flags of CP2 at 14 miles. By now the temperature had risen significantly and it was another hot day. It was after 10am and the official temperature at camp at midday was 46.7 °C, but it already felt close to that.

Since I’d put more effort into actually racing I was tiring faster than usual, yet I had miles of sandy river bed ahead of me and even some dunes. There were some ruins on the right, but I had to focus on keeping the running motion going as I gradually slipped back a few places. A couple of the French guys overtook but I couldn’t remember which numbers I had to watch out for, being the positions just ahead and behind me overall. Ted had gone off into the distance when we’d first hit the wadi, but I could see him on the horizon in his distinctive red cap. Most days we seemed to do the same with him going ahead for a few miles then me catching him later in the day. Only on the long day did he stay ahead and take a big chunk out of my time – 20 minutes.

The miles were going faster because I’d refused to walk through the tougher section so far. When we reached a small village and some scenic dunes, I had to take a breather and have some of the mint cake to re-energise me. The kids in the village were out cheering and ran alongside the competitors asking for ‘cadeaux’ (presents), ‘bonbons’ (sweets) and ‘stylos’ (pens). I found out later that one runner behind me had given one of his hiking sticks away so the competitors behind him with sticks had kids swarming around them and trying to take their sticks out their hands. I waved at the first kids and even slapped some hands as I ran by, but many of the kids would grab on to my hand rather than high-fiving and I’d have to shake free of them.

The dunes had picture-postcard palms trees and since the sand was even softer, I tactically walked through them. A couple of kids stayed with me for about a mile, walking by my side. They seemed in awe of these weird foreigners who come to their desert home to run. The Moroccan front runners are local celebrities and distance running is a bigger sport in Morocco than in the west, similar to many other African countries.

I started jogging again after the dunes and entered a palm grove unable to see more than a few trees ahead, therefore losing sight of the other runners. I managed to go slightly off course, and came out the side of the grove instead of the end. Luckily the route bent right making my route equally as direct. Since CP2 there had been a lot more vegetation than I’d seen in the whole race to date and this softened the landscape, making it less harsh. The last mile to CP3 meandered through a sandy wadi and palm-covered scenery, then into a tiny crop field where we had to follow markings to avoid crushing their farming produce. I’m not sure what they were growing, but it was in small squared-off sections with mainly sand inside the fencing.

Just after the fields was CP3 at 19.4 miles amongst more palms. I’d sped up after taking on food so had been staying within touching distance of the stream of runners ahead. I saw that some of them stayed at the checkpoint for a few seconds longer than usual to take on water, which was sensible in the increasing temperatures. My resting had already taken place during the small dunes so I went straight through, picked my next bottle of water up and started chasing down the runners ahead.

I could see plenty of familiar runners, not faces, since I was used to seeing them from the back and recognising their outfits and backpacks, not their front views. Gradually I started catching them over the solid, but stony, ground. With only six miles to go I wanted to finish as strongly I could and leave an easy day ahead of me. I went past the Frenchmen as well as a couple of others, and then Ted was the next one ahead of me.

On the flat plain it was possible to see miles ahead but there was no hint of the finish line. All I could see was Ted’s red cap then an unfamiliar runner way ahead of him in blue. I closed in on Ted gradually and was running well, then chatted to him briefly as I drew level. He said that we were in 12th and 13th, higher than we’d managed on any other day. Then I went ahead because I was clocking about a minute a mile faster than him. I wanted to see if I could catch the man in blue, given there was still about 4 miles to go and he was only a quarter of a mile ahead.

I had to dig in to keep the pace up, but kept telling myself that it was just like a normal marathon and I could do it in those, so could find that extra effort for these last miles too. I thought of the comments people had emailed to me and wanted to live up to the expectations which had built through the week. I knew Amy hadn’t wanted me to go and to not be directly contactable for so long. That meant I wanted the time to be well-spent with the best performance I could manage. I wanted to make her proud and show that when I sacrifice time with her I take the race seriously and give it my best.

These thoughts kept me going until a half-mile wadi crossing slowed me down, as it did the guy ahead, and then we were back on the flat. A small hill came up on the left which the runner ahead veered to the left of, moving away from the line of stones sprayed pink to show the route. I followed him, assuming he could see further ahead and over a ridge. Once I got past the hill and down the ridge, I saw that he didn’t know anything extra because he was heading too far to the left compared to the direct route to the bivouac. It was only 1.5 miles to the end and the sight of the camp boosted me. I wanted to get one more position and this competitiveness reminded me of standard racing instead of the usual multi-day tactics I’d been using to conserve energy.

There was nobody else apart from this one runner on the course ahead and I couldn’t see anyone behind. He was still heading too far to the left while I was pin-pointing the most direct route to the finish. It was difficult to judge how far ahead he was due to the angle, but it was only about 100m and I was closing. At this point he noticed that his course was wrong and corrected himself, speeding up as he did it. So when I got to about a quarter of a mile from the finish I could see I wasn’t going to catch him. Twelve seconds separated us at the end and we shook hands after the tough race we’d given each other over the last few miles. He was Spanish and spoke no English, but we were still able to communicate the camaraderie of what we’d been though. The official race TV crew stuck the camera in my face, not even asking a question, so I said a few words about how there had been more of a race feel today due to people not having to reserve energy for any more long stages. That was certainly the case with me and I was shattered.

As well as the tiredness, I was buzzing from the feeling of really racing and from achieving my highest position so far. I’d comfortably beaten my target by twelve minutes and watched the guys behind come in over the next few minutes. Ted had been overtaken by a couple more people but was only four minutes behind me in 15th. He said a few words to the camera then we went over to the reception tent to have our bags checked and weighed. Mine was now down to just 4.5kgs and would be even lighter for the next day as non-essentials would be binned and no food would remain.

With just an 11-miler to go, the race was as good as over. Many people go for an all-out sprint on the last day, but I wasn’t sure if I’d have the energy. There was a really noticeable difference between the freshness I’d felt after previous stages and the fatigue after this one. The only thing to do was to recover with some food. Unfortunately I only had my chilli con carne meal left and wasn’t looking forward to it. After I eventually got round to cooking it, I only managed a quarter of it before throwing the rest away. I only had a tiny amount of mint cake left to fill the gap and this didn’t quite fill me up. I was tempted to eat my oat breakfast for the next day but left it and decided to do the other bivouac activities – email and going to the docs.

In the email tent was the Spaniard who’d finished 11th. Using a friend of his as a translator, he wanted to know what my marathon PB was since he’d been surprised that I’d been catching him. I told him it was 2h51m and he was surprised because he could do 2h28m. He said I had an efficient running style and that I should be able to go much quicker, which sounds right to me if I just ran marathons less frequently than every week…maybe one day.

I let Amy know how well the day had gone and that I was still uninjured (by MdS standards). The results soon went up to show I’d gained a position into 13th because the Frenchman I’d leap-frogged had run 19 minutes slower in stage 5. That was a surprise because I though he was one of the people I’d overtaken after the last checkpoint. It meant I was 12 minutes clear of number 143 in 14th, which was almost insurmountable over the last stage. Unfortunately I was also 26 minutes behind 12th and was almost certain not to catch him. Ted had also risen in the rankings to 15th overall, but only 30 seconds ahead of 16th. That left him needing a good last day to keep his position and meant he couldn’t take it easy.

As usual I relaxed during the afternoon and waited for the others to arrive back at tent 109. Mike was next back again and had his best performance to date by breaking into the top 200, in 198th. I got some extra strappings for my feet and tried to leave as much of the existing bandages in place for just one more day. My feet weren’t any bigger but the bulk of the dressings made them a tighter squeeze into my shoes, which were only half a size larger than I’d normally wear. Some people had gone for up to two sizes larger, which makes sense once you have the injuries (like Sam’s feet had expanded), but is asking for blisters until the bandages are in place. I have my second toes longer than my big toe and the furthest toe forward took the most battering on downhill sections and on the rocks. Therefore my second toes were the most blistered and swollen with the nails looking dangerously loose. Only one more day to get through and they would easily hold up for that long. Then I’d have a whole week to recover before the London marathon, but that wasn’t worth worrying about yet.

The others in my tent came in throughout the afternoon with Little Paul last, just as the sun was setting and the concert was starting. We wandered over to the centre of camp and watched as the immaculately dressed performers played and sang. I’m sure we all found it surreal to see the preened musicians dressed so smartly and the women in make-up while we all stank of week-old sweat. It was certainly memorable, yet I only stayed for a few pieces of music before going back to the tent to listen while lying down. By about 8pm it was over and we went to bed, knowing it was our last night in the desert and five-star hotel food awaited us the next evening.

05/04/2008 - Stage 6: Isk N’Brahim/Tazzarine: 17.5 km

Press release:

Stage 6 Men rankings
1. Mohamad Ahansal (1) 1h08m34s
2. Mustapha Ait Amar (4) 1h09m29s
3. Salameh Al Aqra (71) 1h12m21s
4. Aziz El Akad (28) 1h12m43s
5. Samir Akhdar (2) 1h14m27s
6. Lhoucine Akhdar (3) 1h14m27s

22. Ian Sharman (821) 1h26m05s

Stage 6 Women rankings
1. Touda Didi (6) 1h31m50s

Men general ranking
1. Mohamad Ahansal (1) - Morocco
2. Salameh Al Aqra (71) - Jordan
3. Aziz El Akad (28) - Morocco

13. Ian Sharman (821) - UK

Women general ranking
1. Touda Didi (6) - Morocco

Moroccan competitor Mohamad Ahansal won his second Marathon des Sables, treating himself to a stage victory, and the crowd to a splendidly acrobatic cartwheel on the finish line in Tazzarine. After a long series of coming second in the MDS after his brother Lahcen, this child of Zagora demonstrated this year a great strategic sense. He took a clear lead on the first stage, gaining 17 minutes over his challengers, and then simply kept control over them. Despite his best efforts, Jordanian runner Salameh Al Aqra’ could never make up for his stage one defeat, although we owe him much of this week’s excitement. Just like last year, Aziz El Akad won a well deserves third rank.

On the women’s side, no surprise: Touda Didi from Morocco won all the stages way ahead of her competitors. It’s her first MDS victory, but most probably not her last, considering her utter domination of the race. After her came Simone Kayser and Lis Kayser, ex aequo – mother and daughter ran together all week long.

On the finish line, competitors expressed their joy, their pride or their relief in various fashion. Many broke into tears in the MDS director Patrick Bauer’s arms. Many also chose to pay homage to their country, holding out brand new flags, from Morocco of course, but also from the UK, Jordan, Colombia, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg etc. Families were there to share the runners’ joy and many competitors held their children’s hand to run the last few yards taking them to the finish line.

Some kissed the ground while others, despite their exhaustion, insisted on a final sprint.

Thus this 23rd Marathon des Sables came to a close: once again, the human and sporting adventure was completely out of this world. Our 1,200 runners and organisers went home with stunning images and extremely moving memories. No doubt they’re already thinking about the 34th edition. In Cha Allah.

Ian says:

The last day almost feels like an anti-climax. It’s too short (11 miles) to be considered difficult after all that’s passed, yet long enough to be tiring. I felt safe with my position in 13th and am not superstitious, but the thought of starting in 13th and aiming to finish in the same didn’t fill me with confidence. I knew I’d have to have a particularly bad day to drop 12 minutes – over a minute per mile – to number 143. There was also the desire to go all out and try to break into the top 10. Unfortunately I wasn’t alone in wanting to peak at the end of the race so I knew I’d have plenty of competition.

Hardly anyone had dropped out on the previous day, and those who had were the ones who’d scraped through the long day with injuries and couldn’t really walk. Any less serious injury was overlooked because it’s such a small distance that even a slow and painful walk wouldn’t have to last too long. 747 runners were left and only a direct meteor hit would stop every one of them from crossing the finish line.

I don’t really remember Patrick’s morning speech as we lined up, since everyone was impatient to get going and finish the race. After training so hard for months or years, the moment of success was so close we could taste the chilled beer at the end. Everyone wished each other good luck and plans were made to either meet people at the finish line or back at the hotel. I did the latter because I knew the first buses would have left before most of my tent could get to the end. Sam was limping so badly that he could take a long time and was likely to come in almost last (he did, in just over four hours).

Then we were off, knowing that just one more checkpoint lay between us and victory. The terrain ahead was flat and reasonably hard, making the initial speed almost dizzying compared to other days. The usual suspects of the top 10 went off ahead but there were a lot of us hot on their heals and several unfamiliar faces. I quickly found that the extra effort from the previous day had left me much less sprightly than during the first few miles of other days. I also suspected that I’d pushed my body to its limits and that my bowels were struggling to cope. With only around 90 minutes to get through I hoped I’d make it to the finish line without any ‘accidents’.

Ted went past me, a man on a mission to stay ahead of Frenchman number 146, who he was only just behind overall. He looked comfortable and I thought he’d have a good chance of moving up one place and fending off number 143 too. I kept my place in about 15th, seemingly zooming through a rockier mini climb at the end of the plain. The course meandered, sticking to dust and sandy roads after the escarpment. We were closer to civilisation since the finish line was in a town called Tazzarine with the last mile on tarmac. Strange as it may sound, given I’d entered a desert race, I was really looking forward to the tarmac so that I could have a good sprint to the finish and get the adrenaline rushing through as I hit the crowds. That was the initial plan, anyway, but my stomach was feeling gradually worse.

The checkpoint at 5.6 miles was just over half way and we could see the town in the far distance. Settlements are so isolated in the desert that I knew the houses on the horizon could only be Tazzarine and this thought kept me going. Also, I’d just overtaken the second best Jordanian, number 71, who I’d also overtaken the previous day without realising. I’m not sure if he was taking it easy because his top 10 place was guaranteed, but he didn’t look like he was going for an easy jog and was clearly struggling.

The sand was deeper and had slowed me down, but no more than others around me. However, my stomach was really distracting me and I knew I wouldn’t make it to the end without a stop behind a bush. I still had at least four miles to go and could lose a lot of time, say 12 minutes, if I wasn’t able to run it in to the end. The more immediate concern of finding a bush took priority and I nipped off the marked track and did what had to be done. Several people overtook me but I was helpless to do anything about it.

Once I got going again, I got into step behind some new faces, but gradually fell back because I could really feel the tiredness in my legs. With so little distance left, it didn’t take much mental effort to push myself to keep up a reasonable speed. Eeking out every last bit of speed wasn’t worthwhile and would probably only affect my time by a couple of minutes, not enough to have any effect. Tazzarine was getting closer and I could see the outskirts ahead, with fields and mud walls to navigate through. Ted’s red cap was also visible in the distance so I focused on catching him to cross the line together. I thought of the countless hours and races I’d used for training and how I didn’t want to let down myself or those who were supporting me. Amy would have been impressed no matter how I did since her worry was that I’d injure myself. I still wanted to do my best for her and this inspired me to keep up the effort levels.

Soon I was on a hard, dust road which wound through the buildings on the edge of town. This was the moment which brought home to me that I’d done it, I’d succeeded where I’d failed in 2006. Before this point I’d accepted that I was over the peak of the race and would definitely finish, but I’d improved my target during the race to being in the top 15 and didn’t want to let any positions slip. Problems on the marathon stage could have knocked me down many places and even a sprained ankle or diarrhoea could have cost me 13th. I knew that number 143 was in front of me but I’d seen him less than a minute ahead at the checkpoint. Since I’d run to the town and was able to keep going, I was totally certain that he’d only dented my lead over him.

It was strange that my personal victory happened before the crowds and when I was feeling the strain of the pace I was trying to keep up. But before I could dwell on it too much a German guy came up behind and started chatting to me. He was talking about how hard he was finding it, which was surprising because he was comfortably going quicker than me and wasn’t even out of breath. We exchanged a few words and he asked how far there was to go. I knew that it wasn’t much because the tarmac couldn’t be far and the crowds of locals were getting larger. Kids and adults lined the way, just clapping rather than asking for presents or trying to take my hand. It made me think of the contrast between Londoners lining the streets to cheer on marathoners in April and these smiley locals, effectively doing the same. Except there were no funny costumes to entertain the spectators, just tired, sweaty and smelly foreigners. I suppose that our desert running gear, with gaiters and backpacks, was a sort of fancy dress and certainly different to the people they’d see every day.

Then I spied the main road ahead and kicked in for the last of 153 miles of extreme effort. I left the German guy and wanted to see what was left in my legs – I wouldn’t need the energy again for a while. The crowds were still locals and they cheered us into the final stretches. I kept accelerating, knowing it’d all be over soon. Around one corner I could see the inflatables used for the start/finish area and Ted was also there. One last kick and I caught up to him as we went into the finishing straight. I was about a metre ahead when I felt him grab me. I turned in surprise because all my energy was being spent on sprinting for the line just ahead.

Ted and I crossed together and were congratulated by Patrick Bauer, as every finisher is. There was a throng of people just over the line making it overwhelming and a little confusing. I was given my medal then bundled down a funnel where they gave me lunch in a plastic bag, which I hungrily accepted.

It was over, yet the finish line itself didn’t feel as special as I’d hoped. As is often the case with momentous times in one’s life, it’s only when we reflect that the magnitude of a decision or achievement come home to us. And I hardly had any time to think anyway because the ITV camera was immediately thrust in front of my face and the standard questions (“how was it?,” “how do you feel?” etc) were asked. The smile on my face said it all, but I was temporarily under-whelmed and had to play up the words I spoke so that this wouldn’t come across.

All I cared about was food, so I immediately dug into the bag to see what was on offer. Various types of sweets, fruits and energy bars were inside, as well as a round loaf of Moroccan bread and Laughing Cow cheese spread. This last treat was what I went for first, just to get something more substantial into my stomach. I felt fine now the race was over and the upset I’d had earlier seemed to have passed. Instead I just wanted food to make up for the calories I’d burnt off. Over the week I’d eaten around 14,000 calories, less than the recommended amount for a sedentary adult, yet used up an estimated 30,000 calories. That makes for one hungry boy.

I ate lined up against the wall and watched others come in while I spoke to an Aussie, Jim Villiers, who’d come to the MdS after injury and little training, yet still managed to finish 28th overall and 13th on the last day. Many other names in the top 20 were new to me, but Ted had been particularly unlucky because both the Frenchmen around his position had beaten both of us by a considerable margin and he’d dropped a place to 16th. In the lunch bag was a bus ticket with a time, the idea being that you get a bus soon after finishing so that nobody has to wait too long to get back to the hotels. It also allows competitors to check-in throughout the afternoon instead of having to join yet another queue on arrival in Ouarzazate.

Ted and I had finished 22nd= and were on the first bus. This worked out as 13th overall for me, so I’d managed to keep my overnight position, even with the difficulties I suffered during the day. Positions 20-30 were spread over less than two minutes, showing how the field had spread out less than usual. Ted and I had a good chat along the way and picked the race apart, remembering the highs and lows. The journey out had taken about seven hours but we’d run much of the way back westwards. It was only about three hours until we were driving up to the Berbere Palace Hotel, but only a few people on the bus were Brits staying there. I chatted to a few of the ‘abandons’ and learnt of the problems they’d faced. It felt odd to be on the other side of that conversation after explaining to so many people why I’d dropped out last time round. As we got off the bus, the rain started chucking down and it was almost chilly, especially compared to the mid-afternoons of recent days.

Mike and I had agreed to share a room again, so I checked in and was half looking forward to and half dreading showering. Obviously I wanted to clean myself up, but the cut and rubbing on my back and feet would string like crazy under the water. As I started to take off the bandages, I could appreciate just how much I’d had to wrap myself up because I had strappings all over my feet and right around about a foot of my torso.

My feet looked nasty, but I knew they were a lot better than most. The red antiseptic liquid used by the medics had dyed my feet and made them look much more damaged than they actually were. When I ripped off the Elastoplast material over my back, I couldn’t help shouting out since it hurt like buggery. It wasn’t a pretty sight and I cringe now to think about how sore that experience was.

After I showered, I felt much better. It hadn’t stung at all, or maybe I was still feeling the pain from ripping off the bandages and I hadn’t noticed. I wanted more food and drink, so limped over to the nearby shops to get chocolate and cold beverages. I bumped into Mike on the way so got some stuff for him too. Then I had a look through the sign-in sheet to work out which rooms my other tent mates would be in. Luckily for me, Rob, the representative from the UK travel company Best of Morocco was also going through the sheets and he spotted a couple of rooms which would be empty. Chancing my luck I asked if I could get a single room instead and was told I could. This made it easier for Mike and me since we’d have more space. It was also very useful for what happened to me the next day…

But at this point I was happy to relax and wait around for other people to arrive so we could eat and go to the bar. In the meantime I got out my laptop to speak to my girlfriend on Skype using wi-fi in the hotel lobby. My phone had had no reception in the desert, unlike some people’s, so this was the first direct contact in a week. I was exhausted physically and mentally so she did much of the chatting, not that that was unusual. I told her about the whole thing and about how the best part was that I hadn’t screwed it up. The time went by so quickly that when I checked my watch it was dinner time. Therefore we arranged another time to speak before I trundled off to eat and celebrate with my tent buddies and others I’d met throughout the week.

Everyone I spoke to had a big grin on their face and was enjoying a well-deserved beer. I expected the night to go on late, but after eating so much that I could barely move, I wasn’t alone in calling it an early night. Besides, we’d got used to a 9pm bedtime and the meal didn’t even begin until 8pm. I slept well and thoroughly enjoyed the soft sheets after a week of hard ground with tiny rocks poking into me.

The next morning I awoke with virtually nothing to do all day. Everyone had to hand back their flare and timing chip in order to get the official finisher T-shirt. There was also a prize-giving ceremony mid-afternoon which I wanted to go to, not least to see if I’d won anything. The queues were unnecessarily long to give back our survival kit and most waited at least 90 minutes. It was a chance to speak to others in the queue and find out about other experiences and opinions of the race. Unfortunately it was also cold, windy and raining while we queued outside, but there wasn’t much we could do to avoid the unusual conditions. We killed time comparing injuries and I had a lot of questions about my training, kit and tactics from Brits who wanted to know what tricks I’d used to have a good race.

I ate in a restaurant that afternoon with my tent mates, excluding Mike. He’d gone to get his feet seen to by the Doc Trotter team and was told they were infected. He’d avoided cutting blisters off and it showed that the medics knew what they were doing when they burst and cleaned all blisters during the race. The food was appalling, took over an hour to come and I felt queasy almost immediately.

I left straight afterwards and went to the ceremony, holding my stomach the whole time. The wind and rain continued, but I watched the top 10 men get their trophies, realising that 13th wasn’t quite high enough. I got back to the hotel as soon as I could and didn’t stay for the whole presentation. Although I’d arranged to meet the others for drinks and dinner, my stomach was really sore and all I could do was lie down.

Trying to sleep it off, I got into bed but had a fitful rest, curled up and cursing the stupid restaurant. I’d managed a week with low hygiene in the desert then my first restaurant meal outside the hotel gave me food poisoning. Possibly some irony in there, but it was certainly lost on me. I was thankful that this hadn’t happened during the race, like it had for some people. I’d heard of one Brit who’d got food poisoning then not managed to stomach anything for several days. Yet he’d persevered through and dragged his gaunt figure through using pure determination. I felt like I’d had it easy, but was annoyed that I couldn’t enjoy the last day and recover.

The evening and night were spent throwing up and with diarrhoea, not stopping ‘til morning. I was weak and exhausted, but I knew we had an early start to get to the airport, so I checked out and waited in the lobby for the bus. I won’t bore you with extra details but the rest of the morning was spent in delay after delay. The weather at Gatwick had included snow, meaning the charter flight was delayed. We left for the airport a couple of hours late, queued for over two hours (not ideal for injured desert runners with sore feet), then waited even more time in the small departure area. Overall the plane left seven hours late, making for even more tired and mainly hung-over Brits landing in Gatwick.

I’d made some friends, met a lot of cool and inspiring people, plus had a real adventure. Most importantly, I’d made up for my failure in 2006 and had never given up on what I wanted to achieve during the race. The memories will stay with me forever, but now I feel more pressure to try even more extreme events. After all, the only way is up.

Will I do the MdS again? It’s an expensive and mainly excruciating experience, but nobody can doubt that it’s a real test of body and mind. There are imitation races, but none of them have the same scale or depth of field. I think I’ll have to return, if only to try to break into the top 10…or maybe even top 5 if I can get in really good shape. But hats off to those at the front for being exceptional athletes, and to those at the back for gutsy, determined performances. That finisher’s medal means a lot to every one of us.