Morocco, or more specifically ‘Ourrzazate’, the gateway to the Sahara, was to be our final moment of civilisation, before the MDS crew corralled our 1200 souls into plush air conditioned coaches and shipped us into the heart of the Desert. And with the air con blasting and our sizeable complementary pack lunch in hand it is fair to say, in hindsight, that the level of comfort and luxury was no more than a cunning fisherman’s lure drawing us hopelessly towards are impending doom…
[DAY 1 – High Spirits/Acclimatisation]
Despite a 6 hour flight and a 3 hour transfer to the start line the hubbub of anticipation was palpable as we all made ourselves familiar with the bivouac aka campsite, met our fellow tent mates and got our equipment checked. And with ECG’s signed off, equipment ratified and introductions completed, it was time for one last complimentary meal, before switching to race rations and fending for ourselves…
Day 2 – Highway To Hell [Stage 1: Distance 34km]
Where to start…6.30am wake up call, 8.30 start – temperature all ready a sweltering 30°c. Breakfast rehydrated Granola (800 kCal) – disgusting, washed down with warm water, back sore and legs heavy from a terrible nights sleep, sand in every crack imaginable and not a pot of tea in sight, let alone a bowl of cornflakes. Yet despite all this, confidence was high, and like any other sport I’ve ever participated in I, somewhat naively, believed I could win. The only thing between me and certain victory was 34km of Saharan Sand Dunes…
Each day started the same with us being herded to the start line, where we were given a security briefing, a course description, whilst also celebrating birthday’s and honouring casualties, before AC/DC’s ‘Highway To Hell’ is blasted from the sound system and the race begins in earnest. On that first day crossing the start line was an enthralling and memorable experience, almost carnival esque with music blasting, arms waving and helicopter flyby’s filming our every step. What lay ahead held no fear…well at least for 30 minutes it didn’t and then we hit the sandunes, and like a watery desert mirage all that goodwill swiftly evaporated as legs seized, dehydration took hold and unscheduled sand storms smeared us into submission. For me in particular my race collapsed between checkpoints 2 & 3 where I was physically sick from dehydration and had to receive urgent medical assistance. After an hour of recuperation I was just about well enough to get going again, eventually stumbling across the finishing line 7hrs after I started, position 465th…
Day 3 – Medical Tent [Stage 2: Distance 41.3km]
Despite Stage 1’s dehydration episode I had made it to Stage 2, all be it with a 30 minute time penalty due to the medical assistance I had required. However my despondency regarding the time penalty was soon put into perspective when we learnt in that mornings briefing that Stage 1 had claimed 30 unfortunate souls, all of whom had been forced to drop out of the race on medical grounds! But as they say, with every cloud…. at least I couldn’t come last now!
Unfortunately, as Stage 2 progressed it quickly became apparent that I hadn’t fully recovered from yesterdays ordeal and although I managed to complete the stage without the need of medical assistance, I found myself once again in the hands of the outstanding medical team as I was promptly whisked from the finish line to the medical tent for another bought of rehydration therapy. Yet despite my obvious plight and discomfort I could once again consider myself fortunate as the three further competitors who joined me in the tent did not enter of their own volition, but had to be stretchered in on emergency drips. As it turns out Stage 2 was the most attritional of all the stages as it eliminated a record 65 competitors.
Day 4 – Salt, Salt, Salt [Stage 3: Distance 37.5km]
My second visit to the medical team had beneficially revealed that the primary reason for my dehydration was not due to a lack of water but rather a lack of salt, with me conclusively taking a drastically insufficient number of the salt tabs provided – 7 per stage as apposed to the recommended 20. Well Im not one for popping pills, as you probably know, but on stage 3 I was double/triple dropping those salt tabs like there was no tomorrow, and it seemed to do the trick as for the first time since being in the Sahara I managed to avoid needing medical help, a small victory in what was no longer a race to win but a race to survive. Sadly, despite my progress, we did lose one of our crew on Day 4. Mitch like me had been struggling with dehydration and somewhere during stage three he had to be urgently plucked from his sandy prison and placed on a drip. A drip that subsequently turned into 3 drips and inevitably immediate disqualification. What were once 8 was now just 7 and Paul, our Scottish compatriot was not looking good either, with feet that more closely resembled an Egyptian burial site than anything else.
Day 5 – Deck Chairs, Tea & LCD Soundsystem [Stage 4: Distance 84.3km]
This stage was without doubt equally the most painful and exhilarating experience of the whole adventure. Summed up perfectly in my immediate post stage Facebook update…
“What a day that was, it was like trying to run to London in 40 degree heat, with a load of sand dunes and small mountains in the way. However checkpoint 5 was amazing – middle of the desert, deck chairs, hot tea and the cosmos lighting up the whole scene, whilst LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Daft Punk Is Playing In My House’ sound-tracked the whole spectacle . The rest of the stage was at night with glowsticks and head torches leading us home. It is epic out here, but most definitely a one time visit”
Day 6/7 – Just A Marathon [Stage 5: 42.2km + Stage 6: 17km]
Officially the final stage of the race with just a paltry 26 miles to the finish line! Our team of 8, minus Mitch, had all made it to the final day, even Paul with his horrendously shredded feet. Thankfully despite my numerous bouts of dehydration and one if its least pleasant side affects, diarrhoea – which would have me dashing off the prescribed route at least 3 times per stage, I had only acquired two small blisters. As a result with the dehydration loosening its merciless hold, my backpack virtually empty, and the temp dropping from a ballistic 38°c to a moderately acceptable 30°c I was able to put my foot down for the first time since being in the desert, finishing with a highly satisfying 163rd out of what was now just 950 competitors.
And that was that, race finished, 150 miles in 6 days completed, all that was left was the Unicef Charity stage and a couple of nights in a plush Moroccan hotel. Our tent lost just the one man, Mitch – who deserves a special mention for generously helping me survive those first two days, Jamie our resident former Marine gave our team respectability with his final position of 120th, whilst Justin also deserves a special mention for doggedly holding onto his middle class sensibilities regardless of what the desert threw at him, typified by his determination to make filter coffee every morning. Greg was our resident comedian and experienced Ultra-Runner/Crazy Person – who as it turns out was running the London Marathon 10 days after our return, madness. Paul and his shredded feet demonstrated that anything is possible if you’re willing to put your mind to it, whilst Jamie’s running buddy David, who finished 201st was the glue that knitted the tent together and last but not least was the diminutive but not to be underestimated Alasdair who kept us all entertained and ultimately fed with his maverick if at times questionable weight shedding techniques.
Day 8 – Hotel [Stage Hotel: Distance 0km]
For the final two days we drank, ate, slept, showered, sat in chairs, swam in the pool and reflected on what had been a remarkable once in a lifetime adventure, an adventure that we all collectively agreed to NEVER do again…
An Unexpected Journey – Part 4/5 ‘Run Forrest Run’
An Unexpected Journey – Part 3/5 ‘A New Hope’
An Unexpected Journey – Part 2/5 ‘Virus’
An Unexpected Journey – Part 1/5 ‘Random Events’