Marathon des Sables Race Report

By Charlie Shepherd

Photo: Marathon des Sables

All I’m drawing out of the straw of my last water bottle is air. I’m running on empty in the Sahara Desert but I’m ok, as, squinting into the setting sun, I can see the nomad tent colony of Checkpoint 4 laid out on the sandy plateau to the west. I’m hot, and suffering the first pangs of physical pain, but my morale is still intact and in the dunes below I can see my friend, and MdS organizer, Joco, blazing through the sand in his 4×4, churning up a plume of dust that strikingly catches the molten late afternoon light.  Tired as I am, I’ve made up my mind to savour this experience, and indeed, as experiences go, this particular late afternoon in Morocco’s Jebel Zireg will surely remain etched in my memory till the end of time. Leaving the majestic landscape aside, this moment bears a weighty significance. I trained hard for a year to get here, I have never run more than a marathon in one day, I have already run one today and immediately ahead of me lies another, in the Sahara Desert, in the dark. And so, with 6kgs on my back and a stash of food to sustain me, I head off into the unknown, one foot in front of the other……

Wind the clock back six days, to the start of this adventure, to a spring afternoon in Marrakech and to the start of the unedited account of my experiences at the 2014 Sultan Marathon des Sables.

Thursday 03 April – Marrakech to Ouarzazate

Before leaving Marrakech, my training partner, friend and fellow adventurer Alice Morrison and I have time for a few photos, destined for the ‘before & after” file, if assuming there would be an “after”. Saaid, one of the loyal guides from my company Epic Morocco, is with us to take my car back on its return journey, and we’re all set.  We’re in a holiday sort of mood. Nothing negative, no smell of fear, just excitement as if we were going on an expensive holiday, which, I suppose we sort of were. We’d both had friends and family asking questions like : “are you dreading it?”, “are you scared?”, which understandably reflected people’s perception of what is commonly described as “the toughest footrace on earth”. But we didn’t feel that way. Au contraire. We were ready for action. The waiting was over and we were finally on the road to what we expected to be the adventure to end all others.

Ouarzazate, the exotic sounding desert frontier town, was our destination tonight to break up the long journey to the Sahara. Our contacts in Morocco led us to dinner at an historic restaurant in town with two veteran MdS runners – Nadia, 14 times competitor, and Karim, a participant 13 times. We were at the captain’s table with two old timers and we felt honoured. A very enjoyable evening was had by all, but pleasant as it was, it was also sobering. The reality had hit hard. We really were about to take on the toughest footrace on earth, and there was no turning back now.

Friday 04 April – Ouarzazate to Camp 1 – Merzouga, Moroccan Sahara.

Amine, my training mentor, who was sadly not present due to injury, had arranged that we meet another runner at the airport to spare him the joys of travelling to the first camp by bus and military truck (the transport laid on by the organisers). At 10.00am the lightweight and athletic Christophe Le Saux sprung off the Orly flight, looking every bit the sponsored ultra runner. Bundled into the car were Nadia, Saaid, Alice and Christophe, with me at the wheel, and we were on our way. This was a journey I knew well, and this VIP route confirmed our “home advantage.”  Above all our plan was to get to camp before everyone else in order to bag a premium tent position in the Moroccan section of the camp. The journey passed without hitch. It was clear that Christophe was a stand-up fella, and as the week progressed I was to gain a great admiration for his joyous attitude to life (and running, in particular) and his inclusive nature, all in spite of his status as one of the race’s elite.

Six hours into the journey we could see the 1000ft high dunes of Merzouga on the horizon. They appeared to be floating above the flat Hamada (stone) desert, and as we turned off the tarmac road and headed off-road, we knew we were close to camp. The first site of the MdS camp made me catch my breath. Another dose of full throttle reality laced with a healthy respect for the magnitude of the event and the organisation involved. And WE were involved, right up to our necks in it.

Photo: Alice Morrison

The participant sleeping section of the tent camp is set out in three giant concentric rings with a diameter of a good 60 yards, and compromises 150-odd A-Frame camel-haired nomad tents, each destined to provide shelter for up to eight people, sardine style, on a thinly-matted floor with sides open to the elements. A simple and functional home for the next week, and for the sake of simplicity in the face of fatigue, disorientation and general desert malaise, the same camp format and plan was to be stuck to like glue for the next week. In the coming days, it was as if a giant hand had picked up the entire camp every morning and gently re-deposited it in a different place every afternoon, such was its architectural consistency.  The rest of the camp was made up of medical facilities, one or two multi-purpose administrative tents, a whole press section, and sleeping quarters for the huge team of people who worked to ensure the smooth-running of the event. But for each of us the focal point was to be a patch of carpet around 6ft by 3ft where we’d sling our sleeping bags on thin mats (for those who had accepted the 100g or so of extra weight) with a small space at one’s head and foot for our gear.

For those who had registered in Morocco, as I had done, there were three tents set aside, and we had a few tent-mates already worked out with our new friend Karim. However, our plan hadn’t worked, as the Moroccan and other North African competitors (who were in the same allocation) had already arrived, meaning our choice was limited to tent no.3, and therein lay a problem. Tent no.3 had already become home to the race’s elite. Mohamed Ahansal, legendary multiple winner of the event was comfortably installed next to the Jordanian former champion Salameh Al-Aqra, and so on, and so forth.  Polite conversation ensued (I knew Mohamed vaguely already) but, and very much in spite of the highly-inclusive nature of the MdS, we felt uncomfortable and unwelcome.  The famed hospitality we experience in Morocco on a daily basis just wasn’t there. This felt wrong and like a bad start. These boys clearly had the weight of expectation and pressure on their shoulders and Alice and I weren’t quite who they had in mind as roommates. What’s more, in the few minutes that followed, I witnessed Mohamed opening for the first time his MdS “roadbook”, (the full info booklet regarding the route, with mapping information which is kept under wraps until arrival at camp). The quintuple champion’s eyes widened and he made an utterance something akin to “gaud blimey guvnor, that looks f***ing hard,” which was another minor set-back in a ten minute period that threatened to blow the MdS dream right out of the dunes and over the desert horizon.  Then, as if by magic, one of the organisers appeared (by coincidence or otherwise), and told us that as we were British, that we’d have to go into the British section.  It was from this moment that the legend of Tent 101 was born. Well-situated at the entrance to the camp, with neighbours on only one side, it was a well-placed semi-detached dwelling at the end of a line of simple terraces. It was a dream come true. Alice grabbed one end, I bagged the other, and, in true MdS fashion, we waited for the tent to fill up and prayed for good friends…..

Saturday 5th April – registration day at tent camp 1

The desert night had been punctuated by the arrival of buses, with some of the British competitors having been held up in Er Rachidia airport, meaning a late arrival for many. This meant that the morning was our first bleary-eyed meeting with our new tent mates. A few handshakes later it was as if we’d known each other for years, just like that. There was a clear and immediate unspoken consensus that we were in this together. We’d imagined this for months, and I think it’s fair to say that we all very happy with our new reality; that of tent 101, a reference to the TV show where room 101 is the room into which you consign all of the things that most aggravate you in this world.  For us it had a nice ring to it and the irony wasn’t wasted on any of us.

All of the crew warrant a mention and we all played our part, so, from left to right we had Alice, Bruce – a commercial pilot, Ali – a Navy helicopter pilot, Bob – a fireman, Neil – a businessman, Bill – an ex-army logistics man, and me, Mr. Morocco.  A team of like-minded, down-to-earth characters out for a good time in a ferocious desert environment, that was the general picture. We’d all put in the hours and made the sacrifices required to get to this point and we were mighty happy to be here. The laughter flowed from the off, and, as we’d later find, even in times of adversity, the silliness and the banter rarely stopped….

From Left to Right: Charlie Shepherd (15), Ali, Neil,Bob, Alice, Bill, Bruce

This Saturday morning felt special to me. I had spent weeks tinkering with equipment, what-to-take, what-not-to-take, weighing things, packing, packaging and repackaging infinitum, and this morning we would shed all but items we needed for the race. Handing in my bag, my phone, and unnecessary miscellaneous bits and pieces, signified the start of the race for me, and, more symbolically, the start of a week of simplicity, where all I had to worry about was myself, my feet, eating, sleeping, running. No emails, no news, no contact. Easy peezy, lemon squeezy. That expensive holiday (you know the one where you only get given water and a rocky place to sleep) had begun and I felt like the king of the world, the naïve and crazy fool that I am.

After a day of lying around in the tent and chatting about the race, the evening brought with it our last catered meal. The organization was superb and the meal felt like a luxury banquet. We knew what was to come and we savoured every morsel of the spaghetti bolognaise, and every crumb of our water biscuits and mini Roquefort cheese. We thanked the lord that the event was organized by the French, and then it was early bed. Tomorrow was set to be a big day like none I  had ever quite experienced before, and a fitful sleep filled with desert mirages, saline drips, and blisters the size of golf balls passed the time between lights-out and daylight.

Sunday 6th April – Stage 1,  34 km

There had been much talk about today’s stage. It was considered unusual to start in such proximity to the mighty dunes of Merzouga, and, moreover, to start the race with such a sustained traverse of the dunes, which are the highest in Morocco. Yesterday a few of us went on a short reconnaissance run to the sand, to test the legs and the gaiters, but today was for real.  It was a day of new experiences. Our first bash at the dehydrated food we were carrying, our first experience of standing on the start line with MdS founder and race director Patrick’s legendary morning address delivered from the roof of a truck, our first taste of the daily rendition of ACDC’s “Highway to Hell”, and most importantly of all, our first taste of what it is actually like to run in the fabled Marathon des Sables. We had all read accounts, watched videos and poured over photos in a hope of gaining insight and some kind of perspective, but as I was to find out, none of this could hold a candle to the reality. Today was the start of a journey over the course of which I discovered something much more profound, more immense and infinitely more special than one’s wildest dreams.

So, with the race signature song blaring over the Tannoy & 1004 “athletes” counting down from 10 to 1 (one could imagine in 30-odd languages),  we were ready, and then, we were away!  A lot of people blazed off at a sizzling pace, but I had been warned to be prudent so I started at a slow and steady cadence. There was, after all, an awful long way to go and the stark truth was that I wasn’t, strictly speaking, even capable of moving up from the low gear that had become all too familiar to me over the last few months.

The day was infused with excitement. I knew the dunes at Erg Chebbi, but I didn’t know them in this way, surrounded by over a thousand runners with helicopters sweeping low level overhead in a jaw-dropping, and highly precarious, sideways motion to get the best film footage of the masses. The dunes were extraordinary, stretching as far as the eye could see, and I established a good rhythm. The landscape helped me to forget that there were 12km of dunes from the off, and I could feel the mercury rising with every minute of toil in the shifting sands.  When the sand drew temporarily to a close at Checkpoint 1 (CP1), we were met by friendly MdS folk distributing water, together with medical staff on a high level of vigilance. Here I spied 13-times MdS veteran Karim. I went to say hello but I realized that he was doubled over, and instead of fetching something from his bag as I had thought, he was throwing up into the sand, and, looking around, he wasn’t alone. Doc Trotters (the medical crew) were already working hard and drips were being administered in some of the tents. A tough, hot, and for some, bad, start to the race. Most will have trained and prepared hard and to be hit by such conditions on day one will have dealt them a crushing blow. I was lucky, I felt fine and I continued to CP2 across a flat terrain of sand and rock, a combo that was to become all too familiar over the next five days.

MDS Merzouga

The rest of the day passed without drama. A patient slow jog / shuffle shared with some interesting fellow runners, and although I felt in relatively good health, I was still delighted to experience that magical feeling on seeing the finish line. I’d finished the first stage of the Marathon des Sables, and, as far as I could work out, I was still alive. Yes. Alive.

Monday 7th April – stage 2,  41km    

Surprisingly for me, I wasn’t one to pour over the road book. I have too much of this kind of thing in my professional life, so my “holiday” involved going with the flow, come what may, and not being involved one iota with the organization of the said “holiday”. And for me, that meant that my road book stayed firmly in my bag, for posterity and for review at a later date. Everyday I’d get a short briefing from one of my tent mates and I’d retain only the info that really mattered. How many KMs between the CPs and how much water at each? Simple as that.  Sand, rock, canyon, plateau, salt lake, I didn’t care. It would be what it would be.

The routine at camp started to take form. Early start, fiddle with bag, boil water for porridge, fiddle some more with bag, force down porridge (which was a heavy load of food for first thing), followed by a sustained period of reordering and bag fiddling, whilst a crack squad of no-nonsense Berbers took down tent around our ears. This was to be our start to the day, every day. After all, everyone needs a routine, even at the Marathon des Sables.

Today’s distance had raised some eyebrows, as for some of us, it was pretty much as far as we had ever run, and, as yesterday had shown, running in the MdS didn’t really bear much relation to training – even for me who had trained in Morocco. Goodness only knows how oblique the correlation must have been for those coming from Scotland, and must have gone some distance to explain the numerous abandons on day one. Too hot? Too sandy?  Too hot and too sandy I suspect.

Each day of the race brought with it a story, an event of some description. Today, I can remember a down-and-out feeling in the middle of the stage, a sort of lugubrious lack of motivation and energy after another tough section of sand dunes. It was at this point that I met Andy, a friend of a friend of mine who was also in the race. I had learnt in a previous race that at times like this you are better off striking up a chat with someone to pass the time than to tackle the situation alone. Andy was a good guy, and as it transpired, he was fighting through a bad period of the stage too. We chatted for an hour or so, decided that a good course of action was a double drop of anti-inflammatories and then half an hour later we found ourselves flying through the last 7km to the finish, leaving numerous runners in our wake. I had heard about pushing through the pain and suffering to find some kind of shining light on the other side, and, for once, this had happened to me. I finished elated and felt thoroughly refreshed as I slurped down my free cup of mint tea at the finish (the only concession above the provision of water as the key sponsor is a tea company).  As on the previous day, Bob and Bruce were already home and dry, so, as was customary now, we chewed the fat for a while over a nutritious protein shake, and welcomed our tent mates home as they arrived, one by one, and in a variety of states of mental and physical health.

Tuesday 8th April – stage 3,  37km 

The camp was an extraordinary place to be. It was as if some crazy experiment was underway at the US secret “Area 51” facility, lost in the desert and testing mind-bending drugs. People shuffled around in forensics overalls (because they are superlight to carry), their movement hampered by bruised toes, painful blisters and excessive fatigue, giving them a zombie-like air. Add a military flavour, in the style of the 70s TV show M*A*S*H, a man walking around dressed as a cow, and numerous others merely in speedos or underpants (again weight-saving) and overlay this with Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and you have a truly heady, and some might say, psychedelic, mix. It was unique, a place where the thoroughly un-ordinary rapidly became ordinary to us. We’d spend hours in the tent, too tired to walk, simply watching this strange world go by.

Today was a day without any great incident, but all of the usual ingredients were there; periods of strong running, extreme heat, never-ending dunes, long straight lines of nothingness, ups and downs in both senses of the words. Today was my strongest finish (230th) of the race and I felt that all was shaping up nicely for the following day, the infamous stage 4 – le longue etape – a double marathon with a time limit of 34 hours. You could smell the fear around camp, and the long day was THE topic of conversation. Needless to say, getting an early night was what the doctor ordered, and the sardines in tent 101 did so accordingly.

Photo: Marathon des Sables

Wednesday 9th April – stage 4 ,  82km

A lot of people have asked how I (we) managed to get through 82km without really stopping, through one of the harshest landscapes on earth whilst carrying a backpack. It’s a difficult question to answer, partly because I have in some ways forgotten how, but partly because you really needed to be there to know. I suppose the best way is to pick up the story where this account begins, as I descended to CP4 at 42km, with one marathon in the bag, and one to go.

MDS water stop

So, here I am at CP4. I’m again with Andy, and thank god. The day had gone well and, crucially, Andy had saved my bacon at CP2 by suggesting that we both get our feet seen to by Doc Trotters. For me the pressure in my left big toe had become unbearable, and I later found out from a podiatrist that had I not had a needle put through the toenail to release the fluid, the pain would have left me unable to continue that day. The lancing provided instant relief and here we were. Half. Way. There.

I’d decided to dive into my rest day rations and the sundowner protein shake I had mixed up went down like that famous beer in “Ice Cold in Alex”. It felt like rocket fuel, just the sort of stuff I needed to catapult me into the Saharan night. The only problem was that in the time it had taken to mix and drink it, I’d seized up, and I struggled, like a man of twice my age, to get back on my feet. The pain had started and I was heading for a long night of toil.

People have often said that the MdS (or any extreme endurance event) is “90 per cent mental”, and, although this is a completely arbitrary figure, I now at least understand the reference. I had prepared physically to a point, but, several days into the race and now having finished a marathon today, I had long since passed that point.  Now I was heading to a new place, one I had never previously visited, and, for the record, my body was broken, even at this halfway point in the stage. They say that when the body is broken, the mind takes over, and, fortunately for me, my morale was good. This is what I had come here for and I was, in a strange way, curious to discover what the next seven hours would bring, despite the soaring physical pain in my body, from shoulders to toes.

But the job was strangely simple. One foot in front of the other, that was the mantra. I chatted to Andy, we spoke of how far we’d come and not of how far we had left. You needed to think positive, otherwise the task would have been impossibly difficult. It was already hard enough, and the hurdles presented by the distance and terrain would have been insurmountable had the brain chosen to create its own mental hurdles.

The night was starry and we’d reduced our pace to a power walk. The legs had little more to offer and we were constantly fighting the sandy terrain, which, although now flat to facilitate straightforward navigation at night, never seemed to let up, kilometer after kilometer. Between CP4 and CP5 we had a green laser beam to follow, which was at least novel and surreal. A shaft of bright light pointing at the sky, a completely indeterminable distance away. My GPS low-battery warning had been beeping for hours, but, like me, it was on its last legs but still just about finding the power to function, however weakly.

CP5 passed at 58km, then, after a long section passing the time with multiple MdS finisher Rory Coleman, we finally arrived at the last CP at 71km. The last CP before the finish of the longest stage of this great race had a nice ring to it. The rub was that there was still, under these conditions, over two hours left, and, for this reason, this was the toughest section of the whole week. Although we could make out little of our surroundings, we appeared to be on a gradual incline up an open and sandy dry river-bed. We were following faint green beacons placed every 500m and I struggled each time to see the next – undoubtedly a combination of fatigue and poor night sight. But where was the camp?  No lights ahead, not a sausage.  It was getting late and I was thinking that I really should head home, but home never seemed to appear.  UNTIL, finally at around 1.00am GMT + 1 we could see lights ahead, and, half an hour later and with never any scent of the second wind I had hoped for, we arrived victorious, but battered, at 1.30, after 15hrs30.

When I got to my tent, Bob was snoring (he had taken a mega-dose of sleeping pills), but Bruce was awake. I stumbled around and my physical condition prompted the ever-considerate Bruce to ask if I needed him to get medical help for me. I was in a bad way and had pushed myself way beyond what would normally be deemed reasonable. My body had locked up and simple organizational tasks in the tent were almost impossible. My feet were distorted and my big toe was unrecognizable not just as a toe of mine, but as a toe at all. I fidgeted and must have settled and passed out eventually, and I vaguely remember being joined through a fitful night by our tent mates, with Alice arriving at first light after a memorable performance from the “Hayfield Express”.

Photo: Marathon des Sables

Thursday 10th April – rest day

Sleep was hard to come by, despite my having got through a decent supply of pain-killers. Moving was tough, and as the (rest) day progressed I realized that I was unwell. I don’t wish to state the obvious here, as few of us were well in the true sense of the word, but I was withdrawn and unusually quiet. My tent mates commented repeatedly that I was not my normal self. The day before had really taken it out of me, to say the very least.

Irrespective, the day did what it said on the tin and it provided essential rest, and although we were pleased that the end was close, I, for one, was not complacent about the last day, which was still of marathon distance, and I was well aware that this particular sleeping giant had still great potential to be a party pooper of the most monumental proportions.

Friday 11th April – stage 6, 42km (marathon distance)

Alice and I hobbled to the start line of the final stage of the Marathon des Sables. Having spent so much time training and planning together, we hadn’t actually spent much time together at the race and it was nice and fitting that we walked together to the final start. That said, Alice was worried about completing the race due to crippling blisters. I was ok, but only just. We walked together to the inflatable arch for the last time, the last leg of an unimaginably long journey. I’d got her into this mess to start with, and I was delighted and proud that my friend had done so well. I also knew, despite her apprehension, that she would make it to the end, but she needed reassurance.

Fists pumped in the air for a last “Highway to Hell” and we were off.  What can I say about today?  I remember it as being a war of attrition. There was no gliding through the desert with feet hardly touching the ground, it was a heavy-footed, stop-start, plod-and-hobble affair, a picture of pure agony on two legs. And I wasn’t of course the only one. It was a march and shuffle of the walking wounded, all through the day. At the last CP we came across a patch of civilization in the form of a village and a congregation of various family members of competitors – a true spirit lifter for everyone, even if they weren’t your family members, and then I knew the job was nearly done.

At the finish I felt nothing of the elation I expected. I felt numb, empty, drained, and, above all, delighted that my family hadn’t come to the finish as I had nothing to offer, anyone. I managed a smile for the souvenir picture of receipt of the finisher’s medal with Patrick Bauer, and then it was back to tent 101. I was exhausted and today had been a battle that I had ground out, but it was over, and all of our tent had successfully completed the toughest footrace on earth.  Given that we had nothing but the last of our meagre rations of food (that we had all long since struggled to stomach), the party was on hold. We needed time for this to sink in, and we needed another stage for the party, and preferably one that involved quantities of cold beers, the item that had become the Holy Grail for many of us.

Photo: Amine Kabbaj

Saturday 12th April – UNICEF Solidarity Walk 8km

After all that we had done, it’s odd that 8km could seem such a long distance, but it did, and that’s precisely why the mind is so key to endurance events. Just as 8km today seemed long, 40km a few days before seemed manageable. The distances are in the mind and this is what I had found out as I broke down distance barriers in my mind in the year of preparation for the event.  To take nothing away from today’s worthy cause, most of us were less than motivated for the charity fun run – or walk as it was for everyone – but it was a chance to chat with others and reflect on the race.  At the end we were met by my friend Amine and taken to Ouarzazate where we were put up in hotels for the night.  Tent 101 decided on a night out, a sort of personal celebration away from the other 900- odd other survivors, back where Alice and I started a week ago, and spirits were high. Our bodies were absorbing all that we put into them, and I managed to drink seven bottles of beer without troubling the facilities. My body was soaking up everything, and, as we ALL found out, was storing it in our legs. We hadn’t sat down on chairs for a week, and we all had legs like balloons. This was water-retention in the extreme and my legs were unrecognizable. We all assumed this was par for the course and we continued in to the night, undeterred.

Sunday 13th April – The Road Home

It was on the Sunday morning that it hit me. Like a sledgehammer really, as I sat alone at early breakfast, unable to execute the lie-in that I had planned. What hit me was the realization of what I had just been through, physically, and above all, mentally. Today was an emotional overload and I spent much of the day close to tears.

People say that you come back from the Marathon des Sables a different person, and although the degrees of which will no doubt vary from character to character, my observation is that there is a certain truth in this. I can’t and won’t attempt to describe in detail how, suffice to say that the kinship, the challenge, the magnificent landscapes, the simplicity of life for that week, and the sheer magnitude of the preparation and the event itself combine to affect a feeling that one has lived a lifetime in just a week, and the fact of pushing beyond normal limits opens your mind to your capabilities as a human being.  It is now a month after the event and there hasn’t yet been a day that has passed when I haven’t reminisced and reflected. It’s an incredible event that, in the depths of stage 2, I vowed I would never repeat, but things have changed since then, and I hope that one day I’ll be back to experience again this totally unique, eccentric, and slightly warped, race through the Moroccan desert.