Getting Downesy to the Desert: Enter Sandman

2015 SULTAN MARATHON DES SABLES

No Excuses
No Excuses

Day Zero: Merzouga 3rd April

Having left home on Thursday and spending the night at Gatwick, I was looking forward to getting to Morocco and out into the desert.The transfer between the airport at Ouarzazate and the first bivouac at Merzouga on Friday was spectacular –spectacularly empty. In 6 hours we passed through 4 small desert towns and it dawned on all of us just how remote the race location was going to be and how isolated we were.

Home for the week
Home for the week

Arriving at camp, just over 1300 runners passed through the final day of “scrutineering” on Saturday.  Identities were all verified and it took a few hours for the distribution of the salt tablets, water distribution cards, ECG checks, allocation of the transponders and trackers and the race number packs. Suitcases were left behind and we were left with only our backpacks and the supplies we had chosen to get us through the week and given our tent space.

I was in Tent 167, sharing with various other Irish runners:  Fran Caffrey, David O’ Keefe, David Caffrey, James Winters, Paul Deasy, Ian Hickson O’Mahony and Gormla Hughes. Having 3 Davids was clearly going to be a problem so we quickly switched to Dave Titch, Dave Beag and me, Dave Speedo.  As a group we settled into a routine pretty quickly and it was a great team to be in over the week.

MDS 30th Anniversary
MDS 30th Anniversary

Race Director Patrick Bauer gave a briefing and there was a concert by local talent, Aziz Sahamoui before the camp settled down for the night.

Stage 1:  Jebel Irhs to Oued Tijekht (36.2km with maximum authorised time of 10H30)

I had slept badly for a few nights and Day 1 was absolutely brutal and a shock to the system as I acclimatised to the conditions. The pack was at its heaviest that day with all my rations and the temperature was hovering at around 450.

Trail running on Day 1
Trail running on Day 1

It was a wake-up call for everyone that day.  The first 24km it was all soft sand underfoot and, having managed to get through that, the last 8km was all uphill in rough terrain.  It was definitely as tough as I had expected and it was a relief to see the inflatable finish line.  I was absolutely knackered but I was pleased that I had paced myself well and avoided any blisters.

Day 1 the pack
The pack heading out on Day 1

I completed the stage in 6h:14m which allowed me to rest up for the day and prepare for Stage 2. Back at the tent I drank some water, checked my feet and had dinner.  From 1330 starters there were 8 retirements on Day 1 but everyone in my tent made it through, and, after a day that was short on jokes, we all had a laugh as David Titch somehow managed to superglue himself to his jumper that evening.  That night, although I just had a sleeping bag on the rough ground, I fell asleep at 8pm and I slept like a baby.

STAGE 2:  Oued Tijekht to Jebel El Otfal (31.1 KM in a maximum authorised time of 10H00)

Temperatures at 14:00GMT hit 33.7° and there were some big climbs across the entire route (in Irish terms we climbed multiple Croagh Patricks) and which also took us past the Rhéris wadi, which brimming over in places after unusual rainfall and gave us a welcome bit of greenery to look at.

Rope climbing during Stage 2
Rope climbing during Stage 2

A lot of the terrain on this route was rocky underfoot and the biggest climb was the El Otfal Jebel, which, in the MDS, this is the equivalent of the Alpe d’Huez section of the Tour de France – a legendary, obligatory part of the race.

I could see it looming in the distance for miles and as I got closer to Checkpoint 2, I could see the other runners swarming up it like a line of ants.  It was massive and it was tough. For most of the ascent I was climbing on challenging soft sand and the top was so steep that there were ropes to pull ourselves up on. The 360° views from top were amazing but I knew I had developed some blisters and I wanted to get finished and get them sorted out.

I completed the stage in a time of 5h:16m and felt good as I headed back to camp. In the tent, I took on some water and inspected my feet.   I had two big blisters on my small toes which needed to be dealt with.  All my pre-race advice had been to avoid Doc Trotters (the service provided by the race organisers) so I took my knife to them and drained them myself, put a bit of antiseptic on them and taped them up – real Rambo stuff!

Retirements (since the start) were up to 37 including, unfortunately, one of my tent-mates.  We were sorry to lose her and after seeing her off we just ate and slept.

STAGE 3:  Jebel el Otfal to Jebel Zireg (36.7 KM in a maximum authorised time of 10H30)

Day 3 and I was in a real routine.  Breakfast was porridge at 6am and, once I started running, I was taking on a couple of Accel gels every 5-6miles which I supplemented with a continuous intake of Elivar Endure (Watermelon).  If I got hungry I had some Stript Snacks dried meat or some Airwave chewing gum depending on how far I was from the next checkpoint.  When I got back I had water and an Elivar Recovery drink (Strawberry) and then had an Expedition Foods meal (chilli or curry).

Stage 3 Course MapOn Day 3 we headed due south between El Otfal and Zireg Jebel and ran between two valleys with unpredictable rocky terrain as well as a 2.2km dune to deal with late in the course.  At one point one of the race team was alongside me in his truck and told me that the temperature was hitting 510   and some runners began to suffer after three days exertion in very high temperatures.  Mental strength began to take over from physical strength and though I was generally happy to run alone the support of fellow runners and the encouragement of the controllers was invaluable.

I was finding the heat bearable probably due to the acclimatisation work I had done in the sauna at The Sligo Park Hotel and Leisure Centre.  My bigger problem was that my running shoes were starting to break down. In hindsight I should have used trail shoes but that was my decision and I didn’t have any choice but to keep going.

I finished the course in 6h:10m and my feet were absolutely killing me from the terrain and the problems I was having with my shoes.  It wasn’t what I really wanted facing into the long day but I popped a few Nurofen Plus and got some sleep.  The running total of retirements at the end of this stage was 72 but we all knew Stage 4 was the ultimate test.

STAGE 4:  Jebel Zireg to Jdaid (91.7 KM in a maximum authorised time of 36H00)
The long day and the one that dominated all conversations in camp.  At 91.7KM, this year’s long stage was the longest distance in the history of the MDS. There were 1,258 starters and we went out in 2 groups, I was in the first at 08H00 and the second at 11H00 (local time).  My running plan was clear in my mind and I wanted to get through this stage in 20hrs if I could but when I woke up my feet were killing me.  I downed some more Nurofen Plus and got through the first 50kms without too much trouble.  The second half of the stage was a killer.  To put in local terms, it was the equivalent of running from Sligo to Ballyshannon in 4 inches of soft sand whilst climbing 5000m in 45degree heat.  It was mile after mile after mile of soft sand in inescapable heat and only made worse by the fact that the headwind picked up in the night to complicate things.

Day 4 climbing
Vertical climb on Day 4

It seemed absolutely endless and I started to see the difficulty of the race getting to people. There were runners who were literally just laying down by sand dunes, broken, mentally and physically.   Many just slept there, or at the check-points, and finished the next day but at that stage I just wanted to get it done.

The band
The band

As I headed towards Checkpoint 6 I started hearing music and seeing lights and I genuinely believed I had completely lost it too and that I was hallucinating. Unbelievably though, out there in the middle of the Sahara, there was a band playing. It was like a mirage –they were jamming away with speakers blaring and lights blazing and groups of runners resting up in deck-chairs. I rested for a few minutes but I wanted to finish so I got back out on the course.

I was running with a Spanish lad and at about 8 miles from the finish we were running along and following the glow sticks that lit the course when I fell over.  He was shouting to ask if I was OK and I was thinking “what just happened” and when we looked we realised that I had fallen over a fence – out in the middle of the desert and I had tripped on it.  I still don’t know what it was and why it was there but I can lay claim to being the one runner in the race that fell over it.

Having already tackled the El Otfal Jebel earlier in the week, I had to go back over it in the opposite direction, which was a difficult sandy descent.  I eventually finished in 17.5hrs and afterwards someone told me that it was estimated that the equivalent effort in road-running would be 90-100miles.  I was physically exhausted and my feet were painful but they held up and apart from a couple of painful blisters I was in great form because I knew I’d get through the last stage no matter what.

Day 5 Sand
Never-ending soft sand

Rachid El Morabity, the reigning champion and the race leader throughout was the fastest through this stage in an unbelievable 8h39m and there were also those who walked for over 30 hours.  I managed to get some rest and then headed back up to the finish line where there was a constant stream of arrivals throughout the day on Thursday. Serge Dubord and Patrick Mahu, two French firemen, were the last runners back and virtually all the runners made for the finish line to form a guard of honour them, almost 36 hours after they started.

Sir Ranulf Fiennes, the renowned global explorer, ran this year’s event and called this stage “‘more hellish than hell’ and I would endorse that. The total retirements since the start stood at 90 at the end of the stage, which given the difficulty of the course was a testament to the pure determination of everyone that took part.

STAGE 5: Jdaid to Kourci Dial Zaid (42.2 KM in a maximum authorised time of 12H00)
Stage 5 was the final marathon and at that point nobody gives in no matter what the conditions.  I had rested for a day and caught up on my messages. Apparently there were 67,057 messages printed out and distributed during the event this year and it is impossible to explain how important it was to us to know that people were following our progress and taking time to write – even if it was pure abuse.

I was feeling ok over breakfast but I started running I realised how tired I was. The route crossed the Ziz wadi, one of the biggest wadis in the region and a short string of dunettes, and then we tackled nearly 3km of dunes before making our way towards the Merzouga dunes and the finish line.  My legs were heavy and dead for the first two thirds of the race but improved as I went on.  The last 6-7miles were perfect and we practically sprinted down to the finish line which was in a big dip in the valley.  It took about 6hrs to complete and coming across that finish line waving to the camera was the most amazing feeling.

MDS Finisher 2
MDS Finisher
Medal and ranking
The Medal

We were all cheering like children and the camaraderie was absolutely brilliant.  I had some tea, which was like nectar after a week of deprivation, got my MDS medal and went to get the official finishers photo taken.  Having wanted to run this event for so many years and having tried to get in so many times, it was a fantastic moment in my life.

Stage 6:  The Charity Stage (11kms)

MDS Race Organisers are emotionless and uncaring when it comes to planning the routes and the charity stage for UNICEF was almost entirely soft sand, all the way back to the buses that would take us back to the city. 6 more competitors had retired so the total number by the end of the race was only 96, out of a starting pack of 1330.

me on the charity stage
Running the charity stage

It was very relaxed on the route but everyone just wanted to get home and it might have been better if we got the medals at the end of this stage.  After all the exhilaration, after 11 months training, sourcing kit and food, packing, weighing and repacking kit, planning and checking things over and over, it was just the biggest anti-climax.  We all sat looking at each other – it was all over and none of us really had a plan for what was next.

The Homecoming
The Homecoming

What was great was getting to the hotel.  After 10 days of deprivation and washing with a daily ration of just 2 wet wipes, taking a shower again was a real treat (so I took 3) and then I hit the reception laid on for us at the Berber Palace Hotel.  The buffet was over-run with starving runners and I think I ate for 2 hours without stopping.

What was even better was getting on that flight home and seeing the family waiting at the airport, complete with welcome sign.  I really have to say a huge thanks to my wife Anna and our kids Ryan, Conor and Cillian. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them and their support. They were brilliant throughout and Anna kept everyone updated online on how I was getting on. Their support means everything to me.

The Aftermath

The big difference between the MDS and my previous events was that because of the terrain and the heat, you cannot switch off mentally at all so it isn’t just the physical challenge it’s the need to stay constantly focused and alert to avoid injury.  I lost a stone in weight over the week but I generally felt good and had no major problems with injuries, strength and stamina.  All the advice I had been given by people like Rory Coleman and J2P Training really paid off.  I stuck to my run plan each day and the pacing plan was right, My nutrition strategy worked well and thanks to the Dermologica sun protection and my Bufflife buff I had with me I had no problem with the sun.

What didn’t work so well was my personal choice of running shoes as I had underestimated the rough terrain and in hindsight I should have done more dune-climbing in my preparation.

Since I have come home I have been eating and sleeping a lot and working on recovering. I am pleased that I’ve raised almost €3000 for the North West Hospice so far and I am acutely aware that nothing I went through in the desert compares to what their patients go through so if anyone wants to go to the fundraising page (http://www.mycharity.ie/event/getdownesytothedesert) to donate I’d really appreciate it.  It costs €2 million to run the services each year with €1million from the HSE and the rest having to be found through voluntary donations and fundraising.  All help is very welcome.

I’ve been asked many times if I will do it again and it is true that lots of people go back to do the MDS year after year but I don’t think I will.  I prefer to find new things and I feel like I have done that one now.  Next up for me is the Sionnach Relay in Sligo (July 25/26).  It is a great local event and they were brilliant in supporting me with my race costs and sourcing kit so I’ve got my team together for the Ultra category.  After that I am planning to do the Lough Gill 10km Swim in August and the Kerry Way Ultra in September.

After that? Watch this space…