Wednesday 19 April 2017

Le Marathon des Sables - Running about in the sand for a week


This article is split into the following four parts:
1. Why MdS / Pour quoi faire ?
2. The race concept / Le déroulé de la course
3. My race / Ma course
4. Kit / Matos

Désolé, les lecteurs français vont devoir se contenter de mes mini-synthèses à la fin de chaque section. Malheureusement je n'ai pas pris le temps de tout traduire - préférant passer mon temps dehors, ou à manger du chocolat.

1. Why MdS / Pourquoi faire ?

“And now for something completely different” ― Monty Python

I generally consider that routines exist to be broken. The comfortable timetable of daily life, what we might consider normality; eat, sleep, work, play,… are all very well - but every now and again there's nothing better than giving it all a good shake up! Not much will give you a better perspective on your everyday choices, your priorities, your pleasures, your reasoning,.. than doing something totally and utterly different. I expect that my rationality for wanting to experience the marathon of the sands aligns itself with that of the majority of the entrants to this increasingly popular event. Break away from the every day lifestyle, disconnect the brain and run through a different world for a week. (And also I wanted to see if I could keep up with the Moroccans!).

By definition running is the self-propelled forward motion of the body, with repeated phases of temporary zero ground contact. That's a pretty broad definition, and as a runner myself I personally endeavour to keep the defined boundaries of this hobby of mine pretty damn large. For the record, I don’t consider myself specifically to be a “trail runner”, a “road runner”, a “track athlete”, a “sky runner”, an “ultra runner”, a “fell runner”, an “ultra sky runner”, a “desert runner” or any other sort of runner one might like to categorise (certainly not a "runner bean" either). No, I’m just a person who likes running around and about, on different surfaces, in different places, when it takes my fancy! So I’m a “runner”, and no more. And I’m a runner who likes to mix it up and try some different stuff. So I entered MdS this year to experience something completely different, a different form of running, a different routine for a week, a different environment, climate and lifestyle. And only having lived that experience can I now make choices and personal judgement on whether spending seven days running semi self-sufficiently through the desert is an enjoyable and/or useful thing to do! Don't tell me don't like cabbage if you ain't tried it! Don’t tell me you don't like desert running if you ain’t tried it! Time to try some sand running then, right!

Résumé : Ce qui est bien avec la course à pied c’est qu’il y a plein de pratiques différentes de ce sport. J'adhère à certaines d’entre elles plus qu'à d’autres (sky, trail, fell,.. par exemple), mais avant de juger il faut toujours tester, comme les choux ou d’autres légumes, n’est-ce pas ?! Donc il était temps de tester les pieds dans le sable, de vivre l’expérience MdS, et de voir ce que ça vaut vraiment !

2. The race concept / Le déroulé de la course

"If you come to think of it, you never see deer, dogs and rabbits worrying about their menus and yet they run much faster than humans." 
 Emil Zatopek

What a vast mix of people it is that makes its way to the start line of the Marathon des Sables! Day 1 bivouac; I found myself sharing a stretch of Moroccan rug with Claire, Sylvain, Fred, Mélanie, and Luca. Six very different people with very different previous backgrounds and experiences, and each with their own personal reasons for coming here and their own individual objectives for the “race” ahead. It was going to be fun!

And so it is, 1200 people find themselves under 200 side-less tents, pitched in a large three-deep circle. Over the course of a week this desert-circus-camp migrates its way across the sand. The daily ritual is the same for everyone; at 5:30am the sky starts lightening, sleeping bags rustle, water is poured onto mixes of oats and muesli housed in transparent ziploc bags or cut-in-half water bottles, and left to soak, expanding into something vaguely resembling food - a routine which become less and less appetising as the week goes by! Sometime between 6am and 6:30am the feet of three or four Moroccan tent technicians will appear in the the part of the tent where a wall might have been and very shortly afterwards your roof will be swept away to reveal a clean and fresh sky and a circle other denuded tents. And so, one by one the roofs are swept away, magically revealing their inner contents - half a dozen not-so-clean and not-so-fresh sand bagging runners. Food rehydrated and gobbled up, bags packed, gaiters on,.. and by 8 o'clock its time to leave for three, four, five, six, seven, eight,… hours of desert running. Late morning, the desert circus pitched up in a new spot, runners start to trickle into back into camp, and they continue to do so throughout the afternoon and into the evening, usually stopping by the medical tent to have a few blisters popped, and not forgetting to collect four and a half litres of bottled water to see you through the evening. Want another bottle? No problem, but you can take 60 minute penalty for it! Yes, water is rationed and the earlier you arrive, i.e. the case for the faster runners, means that it's quite a close call to get through until the next day without getting thirsty.

Arriving in the relocated camp relatively early, normally around lunchtime, I’d have a recovery drink and a protein bar, before pouring some of the rationed water into a Ziploc bag, this time containing a dehydrated couscous based meal. Afternoons are passed how you like, but let’s face it you haven't got a million choices, you certainly ain’t going to the cinema! Most people simply lie in their tents, discussing their day, the magic of the scenery, how little they have left to eat, how great that beer will taste next week. Much more than just a race, the Marathon des Sables is is a massive de-connect. I can't recommend highly enough turning your iPhone off for a week! My personal choice, to pass the time, was to have two small iPods via which I’d take my mind to India through the audio version of the highly absorbing novel Shantaram. I haven't yet reached the end of this 42 hour narration, but from the hours passed listening so far I can highly recommend it. Many of the wise philosophical Indian statements contained within seemed quite appropriate to the world I was experiencing in the Moroccan desert, particularly on day four when I was somewhat struggling in my personal battle against sun and sand.

By sunset, at around 7pm, everyone’s into camp and another dehydrated meal is savoured out of your favourite crockery. By 8pm decibels decrease, earplugs mute any remaining stray sounds, the wind, generators, snoring or the internationally acclaimed Italian chitter chatter, and the desert runners fall into a deep sleep, or at least they try to. How successful you are at this will depend on your appreciation of hard rocky floors, flapping wall-less shelters and notably how many grams you'd accepted to bear on your back in favour of a more or less comfortable mattress.

Résumé : Le Marathon des Sables est évidemment beaucoup plus qu’une simple course à étapes. C’est une nouvelle façon de vivre, pour toute une semaine ! Pour donner les très grandes lignes de ma simple routine quotidienne : 6h tente démontée, 6h30 un sachet d’avoine savouré dans un sac ziploc, 8h30-12h course sur sable sous soleil intense, 12-13h réparation pieds (!), 13h semoule + compote, 14h-18h échanges avec les coureurs qui arrivent + livre audio sur mon iPod, 19h pâtes + dessert lyophilisé, 20h good night. La vie aura rarement été aussi simple !

3. My race / Ma course

“Suffering, let me see. I think that suffering is a matter of choice. I think that we do not have to suffer anything in this life, if we are strong enough to deny it. The strong man can master his feelings so completely that it is almost impossible to make him suffer. When we do suffer things, like pain and so, it means that we have lost control. So I will say that suffering is a human weakness.” ― Madjid, Shantaram

Yes, I was at MdS to “live the experience”, but I was also there to compete. I had hoped to at least try to give the Moroccans a run for their money and as such I had invested quite a lot of time end energy into choosing and sorting my kit out. What a gigantic faff that part turned out to be! Into the race, the first couple of stages went okay, but I was already loosing precious minutes to the leaders. Judging how hard I should go, particularly given the unfamiliar conditions, was no easy task and to put it frankly - I was simply finding the pace at bit too fast. The sand dune traverses were extremely energy sapping and the final kilometres under the burning 45°C sun were a bit too much to handle.

Interpreting what limited information I could from the road book, day three, at least on paper, appeared to suit my strengths. I was a bit disappointed with having already lost 10 to 15 minutes and wondered if I'd not been pushing myself hard enough on days 1 and 2? Retrospectively this was a major tactical error, but at least I’d have no regrets for not having tried to give it my all. I took on and attacked stage three from the gun, leading or sitting in the front group for the large part of the stage. I put myself into the red-zone, and was enjoying myself,.. and then,.. once again,.. I blew up in the last few miles of long, straight, flat, hot running! I’d overcooked the engine and had lost another 10 minutes. The plan had failed, but at least I knew that I’d given it a good go. So when we had 86km to run on the following day I wouldn't say I was exactly fresh on the start line. I went out steady, but by 25km the sand and sun were already starting to give me a long, hard lesson that overdoing it in the desert is a very unwise strategy and one that can cost dearly. Oh how I found that day hard! Questions along the lines of “what the heck did I do this for?” sounded loud in my mind and even adopting the wise, philosophical assertions I’d heard in Shantaram didn’t do much to release me from my struggle. I was simply totally cooked. And I had a long way to go! It was just going to be one of those days!

By the end of the forth stage I’d lost a further two hours and slipped from fifth to ninth position in the overall race ranking. I couldn't help but wonder whether if I’d been three or four minutes slower on the former stages whether I’d have gained two hours of bonking on the long day? Quite possibly, but it was too late now! The other element that had started to figure increasingly prominently in the equation was food. I don’t know about you, but I don’t normally prepare for ultras with a three day restricted diet of 3000 kcal of rehydrated oats, couscous and pasta. It's not a justifiable excuse, everybody is in the same boat of course, but it was certainly paying its toll on me. I was getting seriously hungry! The friendly donation of jelly beans and some cashew nuts by a fellow Brit I caught up with boosted my strength and made it possible to run out the last 20km of the ultra stage, but the relief was short lived. That evening I was hungry and on the menu was another ziploc meal, the concept of which I was getting less and less enthusiastic about!

After the ultra stage we had a “rest day”, before the final counting stage - a fairly flat and not too sandy marathon, 42km. All I could do was cruise it out, I was running on empty, and over the last 20km I started to feel an acute pain in my abdomen such was my level of hunger. My stomach was simply imploding! I quite enjoyed the marathon stage though, as I was off race mode and took the opportunity to practice some Spanish running alongside my Majorcan friend Miguel. The 42km are followed by another afternoon and evening of starvation and then day seven, a 7km charity sand dune traverse. And then find some food, quick!

All stages complete I finished ninth in around 22 hours.

Résumé : J’ai voulu suivre Rachid et les autres spécialistes de la discipline à la tête de la course. Sur les premières étapes je n’étais pas trop loin, mais au fur et à mesure que la semaine avançait j’ai été de plus en plus af
faibli ; épuisé par le sable, le soleil et mon incapacité à me ressourcer en repas lyophilisés.

4. Kit / Matos

“There are of course many problems connected with life, of which some of the most popular are Why are people born? Why do they die? Why do they want to spend so much of the intervening time wearing digital watches?” ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Since I put quite a lot of time and thought into this, I thought that share it in case it can be of benefit for others in the future. So here's what I took with me for seven days in the Moroccan desert:

TOTAL pack at weigh-in pre stage 1: 7,15 kg
(including food, excluding run kit)

Matériel obligatoire : 1163 g
- Ultimate Direction 25l Fastpack 575 g
- PHD Desert One sleeping bag 310 g
- Petzl e-lite + 2x 2032 batteries 30 g
- 10 safety pins
- Silva compass
- Small Bic lighter
- Whistle (in the e-lite headtorch strap)
- Valmalenco SkyRace Swiss Army knife (useful to have scissors)
- Small bottle antiseptic
- Venin pump (a friend did run into a Cobra on day 4)
- Distress signal mirror
- Survival blanket
- Small tube suncream (I didn't burn at all - it worked a treat!)
- 200 euros
- Her Majesty's Great Brexit Passport
- MdS medical certificat
- Electrocardiogram
TOTAL other small bits of compulary kit = 248 g

Kit course / orga : approx 200 g
Provided by the organisation :
- Road-book (I ripped the pages out day by day)
- Salt caps
- GPS & timing tag
- Pooh bags

Other general kit : 764 g
- PHD Wafer down jacket 210 g
- Neoair X-lite small Thermarest 205 g
- Exped inflatable pillow 45 g
- Ear plugs
- Half roll hypafix tape
- 3g tube superglue
- Spoon
- Loo roll (3x packs Kleenex)
- 1,5m elastic (useful for fixing stuff to bag etc)
- 1x drawing pen + 2x small pencils
- iPod nano 5th gen
- iPod nano 6th gen
- Apple earphones
TOTAL other small stuff 190 g
- Scott supersandalsRC (home made!) 50 g
- 2x 500ml Scott softflasks 64 g


Running kit : 1110 g
- Scott RC shorts 86 g
- Scott proto T-shirt 44 g (I subsequently cut the sleeves off and made it into a vest)
- Scott socks 32 g
- Scott SupertracRC trainers 550 g
- Myracekit gaiters 200 g
- Oakley sunglasses 22 g
- Scott sun cap + neck protector 62 g
- RunLagnes buff with eyes cut out 30 g
- Ambit Peak 3 (watch) 86 g


Food : approx 5 kg
Click on the image to see how I fueled for the week. Essentially: Breakfast = oat mixes, Running = energy + protein bars, Recovery = drinks + bars, Lunch = couscous + compotes, Dinner = Pasta + various desserts.

Here's a few things that I’d change:
- Gaiters: probably better cutting them down and sewing or glueing them directly to the shoe, just above the sole or where the shoe becomes aerated. In this case you’d need zipped or velcro opening gaiters, to be able to get at the laces.
- I took normal sized shoes, and my feet swelled. One size up would have saved a few toenails and some foot pain towards the end of the race.
- Food: I needed more, but more food equals more weight equals slower running. Maybe one can adjust the body to surviving on and racing on a low-calorie diet, but that strikes me as dangerous and not a very fun thing to do! Part of the problem here is that I am naturally greedy and probably generally eat too much. I suspect that a week of couscous and oats is less of an issue for most of the Moroccan runners. I also suspect that my body was working harder than usual and generally under more stress dealing with the uncustomary intense heat. Perhaps some acclimatisation would help here.
- Head torch: I should have taken an ActikCore as the e-lite was a bit limited for desert night running. It was fine for the tent but not strong enough to run confidently with after sunset. That said, I had chosen the e-lite as I had initially hoped to do less night running! (two additional hours due to my spectacular bonk on the long stage!)
- Rucksack: the Ultimate Direction 25l FastPack was great; comfortable and ergonomic, but perhaps I could have got away with something a little smaller and lighter.
- Mattress: I got a small hole in my mattress early on in the race, which was too small to find and repair (I did try pouring water all over it) and so I had to reinflate it every couple of hours. It wasn't the end of the world, but a bit annoying all the same.

It's a totally personal choice, but if I was going back to MdS (highly unlikely!) I would definitely take an inflatable mattress again, as well as the pillow and another audiobook! So I wouldn’t change that much on the above list really.

Résumé : Je partage cette liste car je l’ai quand même bossé (!) et peut-être que cela peut servir à quelqu'un dans le futur. Si je retournais (et non je ne pense pas) je ne changerais pas grand chose sauf : la façon d’attacher les guêtres, +1 pointure en chaussures, et une frontale avec au moins 200-300 lumens (ou courir plus vite pour éviter la nuit :-).