Getting Downesy to the Desert: Approaching Zero Hour

Counting down with 2 weeks to go and the devil is all in the detail now.

Countdown 2 weeksThe event preparation is well underway in Morocco and on March 5th the 30th Sultan Marathon Des Sables press conference offered a tiny taste of the adventure that myself and the other almost 1,500 runners will experience from 3 -13 April. Without giving away too many secrets of the exact route, it was announced that the runners will face the longest stage in the event’s history.  The current record stands at 92Kms in 2009 so I am guessing that we are looking at around 100kms on the long day.  To quote 3-times champion, Laurence Klein, “You can’t fight the desert, you need to adapt to it, you need to love it.”

I’m leaving Ireland West Airport on the 2nd of April and meeting the other UK and Ireland runners at Gatwick on the 3rd to travel to Morocco.  Once we arrive at the camp on the Saturday 4th we are then fully self-sufficient until the end of the race.  Sunday, Monday and Tuesday will be a marathon a day with Tuesday, in particular, looking hilly and rough. For Wednesday’s long run, my plan is to take it very easy in the heat of the day and then start to speed up as the temperature drops overnight.  If I can finish this stage in 20hrs I will be very happy and I can rest up a bit on Thursday.  Friday is another marathon and then there is an optional short charity run (11 miles) on the Saturday.  I’ll be back in the city by Sunday with some free time before travelling home.

MDS 2015 Route
MDS 2015 Route

The map gives an indication of what is in store for me and for anyone who doesn’t speak French; this can be loosely translated as #MTFU.

It is hard to imagine the scale of this event but the following list, published by the organisers, gives a flavour of what is involved.

MDS Event Requirements

I’ve trained hard for 6 months so I am tapering my mileage right down now to about 30 miles a week and in the last week I will just drop to 8-10 gentle miles.  I finished my strength training and I see Declan Byrne twice a week for conditioning.  For the final few weeks the focus has switched to heat acclimatisation, using the sauna at the Sligo Park Hotel Leisure Centre for an hour a day, every day.   It is the hardest part of my entire preparation – hot and more boring than I had expected. At least in the desert I’ll have people to talk to and things to look at to take my mind off the heat.

The joy of joys in all of this final preparation is that I can finally eat again.  I am now concentrating on fuelling up properly so it’s all about getting the right mix of carbs and protein. My plan is to continue to eat clean to maintain my 20% body fat and start carbo-loading in the last week – adding complex carbs to every meal. My nutritionist has advised that I will use another 4-5% to fuel me in the race and get me through.  For the record, once I am back from the desert I never, ever, want to see a piece of chicken or an omelette again.

Thanks to the sponsorship and support of the team behind The Sionnach Relay I was able to buy all my food for the MDS from Expedition Foods and I have settled on porridge (in various flavours at 800cals) for breakfast and spicy filling foods like chillies and curries (another 800cals) for dinner.

MRE Rations from Expedition Foods
MRE Rations from Expedition Foods

Chain Driven Cycles have kindly provided all my Accelerade energy gels and I will supplement my meals with those, my Elivar drinks and Stript Snacks dried meats during the day to keep my protein intake up and to give a total of 2500 calories per day.  I have already tested all the food during training and I’m very comfortable that I have made the right choices with quality products.

Having put so much effort into finding sponsors and suppliers and getting my kit together, seeing it all come together has been a bit of a reality check.  Packing is still a work in progress and I am aiming at a total pack weight of 7kgs before I go which is then supplemented by another 3Kgs of fuel, water, road book, timing chip and transponder when I get to Morocco. I am currently at 8kgs but I have been training with a 10kg pack so it is important that I get this right.

Daily Supplies - packed and ready to go
Daily Supplies – packed and ready to go
Asics Kayano 20s and Raidlight Desert Gaiters
Asics Kayano 20 & Raidlight Desert Gaiters

Avoiding blisters is a priority for me as they can be debilitating in the intense heat and uncertain terrain. My Asics Kayano Gels are back from The Shoe Healer in Doncaster and fully desert-ready with their Raidlight desert gaiters attached. I am going up half a shoe-size to help my feet adapt and cope and I am also using Injinji Ex-Celerator Compression 2.0 socks. They look a bit strange and the Toe Fit System™ took a bit of getting used to but they have a lower leg graduated compression design which helps with circulation and recovery and the 5-toe design offers fantastic blister protection and toe mobility.Many thanks to Patrick McCarrick for sourcing and funding them for me.

I’ve had my full medical check-up (heart of a horse, apparently) and got some advice on how to first-aid my own blisters if I have to.  I’m taking a pair of slippers to change into at night (Thanks John!) because I decided the benefit of having a change of footwear and the ability to air my feet at night was too important.  I’ve also collected my essential medical kit from The Dromahair Pharmacy (many thanks to the team there).

Thanks John Elliot!
Thanks John Elliot!
Thanks Dromahair Pharmacy !
Thanks Dromahair Pharmacy !

Eventually, I had to make the ultimate ultra-runner’s decision too – to wax or not to wax – and believe me, it caused some cold sweats and sleepless nights. There is a lot of debate as to the pros (hygiene) and cons (increased risk of infection) and in the end I decided against it – purely as an act of self-preservation.

Another unexpected thing that I have had to consider is communication.  The event organisers do provide phone and email facilities but the satellite phone is €3 a minute and entrants can have only one free outgoing email per day up to a limit of 100 words. Having canvassed the opinions of previous MDS runners I have now decided that I am going to bring my phone and a solar charger with me. Signal can be intermittent but it will be good to know I can have a bit more contact with home, even if it might be limited.  It is possible for friends and family to send messages to me during the race, via a dedicated page on the MDS website, and I will post details once I hit camp and know my runner number and tent number.

My fundraising for The North West Hospice is going well and I would like to thank everyone for their support and generosity.  If you have been thinking of sponsoring me and haven’t got round to it you can click through to my fundraising page here.