Saturday 14th April

Up early, had breakfast (no idea what it was), starting to get REALLY scared by now, and today was the day we had to finalise the kit we wanted, as we had to hand in our suitcases.  We got changed into our running kit which was to be our clothing for the next week (thankfully I didn’t have to check in until 11:30), and packed everything else in suitcases.  A few of us in the tent had to go to check in at 10am,  so there was a load of waiting around for the rest of us, before the time came to drag our suitcases through the sand to the check in.  Being stood out in the bright sunshine for around an hour, while waiting to get into the check-in tent, was to be the start of our induction to the desert.  By the time I got in to the tent, I couldn’t remember my race number. I’d been teaching the other guys how to say their race numbers in French, and, mixed with the time spent in the sun, my head was a bit fuddled.  The staffer at the tent entrance asked my number ‘cinq cent vingt quatre’ i said, ‘sure?’ he said, ‘no, no i’m not’, then, ‘cing cent vingt cinq’, ‘are you sure, it’s very important you get this right’, then i remembered i had my race number written on some of my docs in my pocket and produced them. ‘Ah, cinq cent vingt HUIT’ said staff, and then ‘over there’ as my suitcase was taken away.  The rest is a bit of a blur, but was all very serious, as we were issued with 120 salt tablets in a small bag, our race numbers, emergency flare, along with being given instructions on what to do – take 2 salt tablets with every litre of water you take (more if you move slowly in my experience, but that story will come later), then speak to Doc Trotter – 3-4 medics around a table, who talk about hydration, review your ECG and ask you a load of questions, i was to see some of these guys and girls later – we all would.  Then a quick nod, a thanks, and you were directed to a VERY bright rectangle, which led from the tent, back into the afternoon sun blinking, confused, and a touch scared by the experience.  I waited outside for a few minutes for the other guys and then off we went to lunch, before meeting the remainder of our crew at the Sultan tent for a cup of the local tea, along with an amazing picture opportunity of us all gleaming in our nice white kit (or if not white, at least gleaming and clean!).  The rest of the day involved some lounging around, chat about how much our packs weighed (i refused to weigh mine, knowing it was too heavy anyway) and all sorts of other banter.  Then dinner, then back to the tent, more tent, and sleep.  Tomorrow was the first day that we would be fully self-supported, starting the day by making our own breakfasts.  Due to the amount of water we were being issued, we were already pissing like race horses, and there was a steady procession of guys off to stand for a couple of minutes at the edges of the camp.  The locals had started gathering and were all looking bemused at us, particularly the kids.  Earlier in the day, there’d been a shout, and one of the security guards chased about a dozen kids off into the desert.  Next thing, a jeep flew off after them, and shortly after brought back a kid who was interrogated, clipped round the ear, kicked on the backside, and dismissed.  This stopped the kids from getting close for about half hour, before they returned in force, looking inquisitive.  This was to be the first of regular interactions between this massive number of strange foreigners intruding in their desert, while they asked for gateaux and bonbons to no avail on the whole (or as far as I know anyway)

Sunday 15th April – Stage 1, 33.8km or 21 miles

Truly crap nights sleep.  Awoke at 05:30 as Ashley started on his breakfast, then Paul started on his.  This was to become a familiar sequence of events for the week.  Think I gave it until 06:00 before starting on my water for the lush porridge with sultanas that I was to have for breakfast.  06:15, the Berbers started dismantling the tents, 06:30 we got issued with another 1.5-litres of water to add to the 1.5 I had from yesterday.  I started chugging water and filled my Raidlight water bottles and popped an electrolyte tab in one of them.  First salt tabs got thrown down the throat, and within ten minutes, my bladder was full and ready for the first of many trips to urinate that morning.  It was at this time that I realised that stage fright kicked in whenever I needed to pee in the middle of the desert, unless there was a bush to go on – it didn’t matter how big or small the bush was, it just had to be there!  At around 8, we made our way over to the start line, to prepare for the ‘27’ picture (as this was the 27th Marathon des Sables), which each year is one of the iconic images of the event.  I think it was about 08:00 that we got there, and mooched around for a while, while drinking more water and electrolyte.  Standing around for a while, we got into the taped area that made out the ‘27’ in the desert, and after a while, the blue helicopter (‘Blue’ and ‘Red’ were very regular companions and our guardians thudding across the sky, making me feel incredibly safe) went up and started circling, taking snaps as well as film for the international news, and for uploading to YouTube.  Photographers and camera crews were everywhere throughout, and it was pretty overwhelming at a number of times, most particularly after receiving our first e-mails when we realised how many people at home were watching and following us.  After the ‘27’ pic, we stood around the barriers by the start waiting.  I looked down, and said ‘bloody hell, look at the size of that ant on my foot’, and bent to flick it off.  I think it was Tony that then shouted ‘Wayne, you’re crawling in them, you’ve stood on an ant’s nest’, and off I ran into the desert a little way, squealing like a schoolgirl and flicking ants off every time I stopped.  Thankfully the ants were only interested in trying to chew through my trainer and I think I managed to get almost all of them off before the start (note the almost).  I’d had some good advice from Ian about tucking my gaiters into themselves when i wasn’t wearing them, so i could get some air to my feet.  Looking around, everyone had their gaiters attached to their shoes, so i pulled  mine down too.  The terrain around the start looked pretty sandy, so i thought this was a wise move.

As more and more people assembled in the start pen, the tension and excitement increased, and then ‘The Pope’, otherwise known as Patrick Bauer, the race director, appeared on top of one of the 4×4’s to do his pre-race speech.  Telling us all we looked ‘magnifique’, for the first but not the last time.  Blue was thudding around overhead throughout, taking snaps and film of us.  And Drone made a couple of appearances – this was a pretty weird experience, a bizarre camera hanging underneath a number of tiny rotors, which you can see in some of the MdS pics on darbaroud.com.  It was always accompanied somewhere close by with the operator, who was sometimes shrouded in a blanket, presumably so he could see the screen while Drone filmed us.  It always made a strange noise as it appeared out of the dunes, reminding me a bit of an Apache helicopter come to search us out.

After Patrick spoke, the music kicked in, and Blue lined up on the other side of the start.  Highway to Hell came on over the loudspeakers, which turned out to be incredibly apt throughout and seemed to amuse Patrick greatly.  Then there was a countdown which we all participated in, then we were off and running….

The rucksack was SO heavy, it was SO hot, the footing was SO slippery underfoot, the experience was SO incredible.  Blue came thudding overhead, flying side on towards us, with the photographers scanning us all with their cameras.  Drone was off somewhere making a noise and no doubt filming as well.  Runners were carrying small HD cameras on Perspex sticks to record their day.  Those of us carrying poles raised them and crossed them in an ‘X’ overhead – we’d been told to hold our arms open in a ‘V’ if we were in trouble and needed assistance!  10 miles later, i’d run my first half mile, and decided that i was going to struggle to run this event, due to everything mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph.  I decided i’d maintain a run/walk strategy, which then changed into a walk strategy about three minutes later.  I was struggling to come to terms with how far i had to travel in the week, and my head was getting blown by the enormity of it all.  I was about ten minutes in, and had gone nowhere, and was worrying about the rest of the week already.  This was to be the start of a bad day ahead.  I started up a dried out river bed, and the wind stopped, and the heat increased.  I could feel my feet swelling in my shoes already, as i had my gaiters on.  I decided to take them off and get some air to my feet, which had an immediate effect as my feet got automatically smaller.  I trogged on up the dried up river bed, getting loads of sand in my shoes, as they weren’t covered by gaiters.  Stopping a while before CP1 to empty my shoes of the sand, a voice with a French accent behind said ‘Ah, five, two, eight’.  I turned to see a fellow runner with my tag in his hand – it had fallen off my ankle when i stopped to remove my gaiters.  This was to be an early indication of the camaraderie of the marathon des sables, people looking out for each other in all sorts of small, and sometimes large, ways, all while we endured and faced the adversity presented by the desert!  I don’t recall a great deal more until CP1, other than the incredible heat.

Passed CP1 and shortly after, met Dani, who also appeared to be struggling a bit and was to be my companion for a good while on this day.  We looked up to see the first of the big climbs up a jebel.  According to the route book, it was 200m up a 15% gradient.  All i knew when looking at it, was i could see a group of specks up a bloody steep face of sand and rock.  Step by step, we all plodded our way up to the top, to find about 10 locals sat cheering and clapping us on.  The rest of the route until CP2 is a bit of a haze.  Dani and i chatted and explained our life history, while bemoaning the flatness and straightness of some of the terrain ahead of us (once we were off the jebel).  Seeing a couple of 4×4’s together in the desert ahead, i chugged all my fluid, expecting a checkpoint, only to find it was Doc Trotter attending to a poorly runner.  Bit of a disaster then, being in the desert with no water!  Thankfully it wasn’t too far to the next checkpoint.  At CP2, we met up with Mia and Keith and had a bit of banter.  I got my second wind so decided to trog on alone and said goodbye to Mia and Dani (Keith had left us immediately after CP2).  I think i managed to make pretty good time until the bottom of Tibert jebel – which turned out to be a mountain covered in sand, with some bits of rock poking out here and then. It took some time, effort and motivation to keep trekking up, and i was starting to get really upset (diplomatic language) with life.  Eventually, I reached the top, saw the finish, and started the descent.  What i didn’t realise at that time was that the descent alone was 1.2km, and that the finish was 4.1km away.  Felt relatively good on the descent, and then ran out of energy as soon as i realised that it was still 3km to the finish. And it was in a straight line, across the desert.  I got a bit further, and a 4×4 drove past, dropping a medic with the bloke behind me who seemed to be struggling a bit.  The 4×4 then pulled up alongside me and a face that i would come to appreciate poked out of the window, as he drove along.  He was a very gallic looking “Comissaire du Cours”, now i’m not sure what this means or what they were for – but they were the most incredible motivational speakers and coaches in the world.  As evidenced by the following exchange:

 

Him – Hey guy, how is it going?

Me – Mate it’s so hard (in my head, this is the whiniest, self-pitying voice i’ve ever heard, and not one i’m proud to have heard coming out of my mouth)

Him – Why are you here guy, are you here because this is easy? No, you are here because it is hard. If this was easy, everyone would do it.  Now it is hard. You have 2k to do, this is why you are here, so go on guy, DO IT

And i smiled, and realised he was right, and not for the first or the last time in this particular week, i gritted my teeth, put my head down, and got my arse into gear.  He drove off to pick up the medic shortly afterwards, while i trogged on, feeling appreciative of his words.  Eventually i got to the finish line, had some Sultan tea (which was rank today), got my water, and dragged my sorry behind back to the tent

All of my tent buddies had been in some time, and someone said that they’d been a bit worried as i’d been out so long, but this was to be a familiar story in the week!  Tony announced that he was going home, as he’d had enough, his heart wasn’t in it, he wasn’t motivated, and he knew what was coming (he’d run in 2011 and had signed up for 2012 ‘by accident’).  This set me back a bit more than i already was – we could quit?!  And not only that, i had a quitting accomplice!  I voiced some of my concerns with everyone in the tent – so hot, pack so heavy, couldn’t come to terms with another day of that hell, let alone the rest of the week.  I felt unbelievably down, and despite numerous words with myself, i couldn’t drag myself out of it.  The other faces in the tent didn’t seem to know what to say, and we didn’t know each other well enough yet to have blunt conversations.  I recall Tony trying to motivate me, saying it would get better (rich after what he’d just said), but then Ash said ‘stick with it, it’ll click, you’ll start enjoying it’.  I boiled water, added to freeze dried food, drank water, forced food down, arranged bedding, slept fitfully and tried not to think of the next day….

 

The start of the first stage!Stage 1 SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503

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